It’s championship week and it’s starting to get cold in most parts of the country, so you should want to watch football all weekend anyway. Because it is championship week, we’re eschewing the usual categories in favor of a chronological list in its usual capsule format. Let’s have some fun and watch the last weekend of college football before the bowls come along.
No. 17 Western Michigan vs. Ohio (Friday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2): Western Michigan continued its quest for an undefeated season with an easy 55–35 win over Toledo last weekend. Now it needs one more win—just one!—to clinch the undefeated campaign and a spot in a New Years Six game. The Broncos dominated the MAC football honors announced this week—winning Offensive Player of the Year (Corey Davis), Special Teams Player of the Year (Darius Phillips), Coach of the Year (P.J. Fleck) and the Leadership Award (Zach Terrell)—and is heavily favored to knock off Ohio in the MAC championship game at Ford Field in Detroit.
But don’t count out the Bobcats! One fun fact: Frank Solich has been the head coach of Ohio (12 seasons) for twice as long as he was at Nebraska (six seasons). Secondly, the Bobcats have a good defense, one that could slow up the Broncos’ offensive attack. Outside of a wild 56–54 triple-overtime loss to Texas State to start the season, Ohio hasn’t surrendered more than 27 points in a game all season. The problem is that the offense doesn’t produce much either. For the Bobcats to win, they’ll need to draw the game out with long possessions and prevent Western Michigan from scoring quickly. If the Broncos ever stretch it to a two-touchdown lead, then they probably secure the MAC title. But if the Bobcats can keep it close … then the Group of Five bid gets more interesting.
No. 8 Colorado vs. No. 4 Washington (Friday, 9 p.m. ET, FOX): Washington is the prohibitive favorite, Jake Browning is a Heisman contender, and the Huskies boast about five players (Browning, Sidney Jones, Budda Baker, John Ross, Azeem Victor) that will likely be drafted within the first three rounds once they declare for the NFL draft (Browning can’t go until 2018). They also boast the best coach on the West Coast in Chris Petersen. It may sound easy, but Colorado—with newly-minted National Coach of the Year Mike MacIntyre at the helm—should give Washington a stiff test. With arguably the nation’s best secondary (three players earned second-team conference honors—defensive back Chidobe Awuzie should have been first-team) and a methodical offense, the Buffs are equipped to turn the Pac-12 title game into a defensive showdown. Senior quarterback Sefo Liufau and junior running back Phillip Lindsay anchor a disciplined unit that can be methodical, but remains effective. Look out for wide receiver Shay Fields for a big play if the Buffs need to open up their offense.
An offhand statement: Move this game out of Levi’s Stadium and return it to the home team with the better credentials. The crowd for this game—on a Friday night no less—is bound to be small beyond those traveling to watch the team. College games in pro stadiums are always bad (excluding JerryWorld), and Levi’s has produced some of the dreariest atmospheres between last year’s conference title game and the Foster Farms Bowl. People don’t even go to watch the 49ers play in Santa Clara, so it’s unclear why neutral observers will want to drive an hour south of San Francisco to watch a college game.
Temple at No. 19 Navy (Saturday, Noon ET, ABC): This game features two hot coaching candidates (Matt Rhule and Ken Niumatalolo), one piping hot offense (Navy only punted the ball twice in the month of December) and a decent chance to represent the Group of Five in a New Year’s Six bowl game (if Ohio beats Western Michigan). Navy eked out a 31–24 win the last time these two teams met in 2014, but the Midshipmen ran for 487 yards and only attempted eight passes. Temple is on a six-game winning streak (and is the only other team beside Florida State to beat South Florida this season), but will struggle if it only forces Navy to throw the ball eight times. Remember the Midshipmen have used their ground game (and the occasional defensive touchdown) to score 141 points over their last two games.
No. 10 Oklahoma State at No. 9 Oklahoma (Saturday, 12:30 ET, FOX): If the Sooners win this year’s edition of Bedlam, then they’ll likely be the hottest team in the nation not to make the playoff. Lincoln Riley’s offense has been unstoppable in the second half of the season (it has scored at least 34 points per game during an eight-game winning streak) and has two down-ballot Heisman contenders in quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Dede Westbrook. Oklahoma State would be in the thick of playoff contention if not for its controversial loss to Central Michigan (head coach Mike Gundy routinely goes on the record saying he “considers it a win”). In short, this is one of the better Bedlam games of years past, and the forecast is predicting a rainstorm!
For draftniks, this is the best chance to get a close look at Cowboys quarterback Mason Rudolph, who stands a good chance at being the first QB (non-Deshaun Watson division) being selected in the 2017 draft. The Cowboys have (again) coasted to another successful season, which means it’s time to reiterate that in 12 seasons in charge of Oklahoma State, Gundy has never had a losing season.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 15 Florida (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, CBS): This one is being written off as a blowout in the making, but there are a few ways the Gators can stay close. For one, get Antonio Callaway—the man who returned a punt for an 85-yard touchdown last year against the Tide last year—involved as much as possible. Florida was able to run the ball effectively in its 16–10 win over LSU, but couldn’t convert a third down or score a touchdown last weekend against Florida State. It’s clear that quarterback Austin Appleby is limited in his ability to open up the offense, so it’ll be up to head coach Jim McElwain to figure out how to get Callaway involved. The best hope is probably for a long offensive touchdown, a defensive or special teams touchdown, and a stalwart defensive performance from a team capable of limiting Alabama. The chances of Florida winning are low, but not impossible. If the Gators go down early, however… then it could be ugly.
San Diego State at Wyoming (Saturday, 7:45 p.m. ET, ESPN): There are couple reasons to watch this game. One is you get to watch San Diego State running back DonnelPumphrey, who is 100 yards shy of passing Ricky Williams for second place all-time on the FBS rushing list. Wyoming is a good team led by a great coach in Craig Bohl, but the Cowboys aren’t great at stopping the run (they rank 87th in the nation at right around 200 yards per game). The Cowboys have, however, already defeated the Aztecs this season (a 34–33 thriller that ended on a questionable two-point gamble by SDSU head coach Rocky Long) and it is going to be extremely cold in Laramie. No snow is currently in the forecast (bummer), but it’s a high of 29 and a low of 15. It’s hard to think that many—if any—of San Diego State’s players are used to spending three-plus hours in such weather.
No. 3 Clemson vs. No. 23 Virginia Tech (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC): If Clemson plays the way it played against South Carolina, it will beat Virginia Tech by a sizable margin. If it plays the way it did against Pitt or Wake Forest, then we’ll be in for a game. You never know with these Tigers—they can look like the best team in college football, or one of its most overhyped. All we know is that Dabo Swinney is done trusting the media.
No. 6 Wisconsin vs. No. 7 Penn State (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, FOX): Once everybody gets over the unfortunate reality that neither Michigan nor Ohio State are playing in this game, perhaps they can find solace in what should be a promising defensive battle. Wisconsin still hasn’t revealed whether it will start freshman Alex Hornibrook, who missed the second half of the Badgers’ win over Minnesota with an injury, or senior Bart Houston, who navigated the offense effectively in Hornibrook’s absence.
Both units present two of the better front sevens in the conference, and both offenses need to establish their running games in order to open up two good, but inconsistent QBs in Penn State’s Trace McSorley and whomever starts for Wisconsin. Hopefully the running backs—Saquon Barkley and Corey Clement—will open up for big runs, but the effectiveness of both defensive lines could keep them in check. This one promises to be occasionally sloppy, run-heavy and loud. Very Big Ten, you see.