Picks for Saturday’s biggest conference championship games
Wes Huber selects winners for North Carolina at Clemson, Michigan State at Iowa, and the rest of Saturday's conference championship games.
Picks for Saturday’s biggest conference championship games
No. 22 Temple at No. 19 Houston
Line: Houston -7.0
Both of these schools suffered late-season disappointments, only to see impressive turnarounds with victories over key opponents. Temple displayed a significant letdown after falling to Notre Dame, allowing the floodgates to open in allowing a 1-8 Southern Methodist to score 40 points before losing 44-23 to South Florida. Houston took emotional wins over Cincinnati and Memphis, but lost QB Greg Ward Jr. at halftime against the Tigers, and backup-QB Kyle Postma stepped in to lead the team from 20 points down for a Cougars’ victory by one in the waning minutes. Despite the heroics, Postma was unable to repeat the success on the road in Storrs, as Houston took its first loss 20-17 against Connecticut in Week 12.
The key to the Huskies’ success was in controlling the clock, winning the turnover battle (four-to-zero), and out-pacing the Cougars’ running game three-to-two over 43 rushing attempts. Connecticut turned around from the season-defining victory to see Temple flip the tables and follow that same path to victory. The Owls nearly doubled their opponent’s time of possession, held the Huskies to 9 rushing yards on an 0.3 yards per attempt average, and won the turnover margin, two-to-zero. Houston subsequently defeated Navy in Week 13, a team on a dominating run of success, and featured an offensive explosion from the return of Ward.
The return to 100 percent health for Temple RB Jahad Thomas was a major key to their success in Week 13, and sets the stage for an excellent matchup. While Cougars RB Kenneth Farrow is questionable, Houston plugged safety Brandon Wilson into the backfield versus Navy, and were rewarded with impressive results. Temple has struggled when facing dynamic dual-threat QBs (DeShone Kizer, Quentin Flowers, and Matt Davis) and will have a difficult time bottling-up one of the best in Ward. The pick is Houston straight-up, to cover the spread, and for the matchup to exceed the over/under.
Prediction: Houston 35, Temple 27
Southern Mississippi at Western Kentucky
Line: Western Kentucky -7.5
A portion of the reasoning behind finding the spread so highly in favor of the Hilltoppers can no doubt be attributed to each teams’ results against Marshall. Western Kentucky squared-off with the Thundering Herd in Week 13 and dominated their opponent in every single phase of the game in the 49-28 victory. Marshall’s freshman QB Chase Litton continued his string of hot-and-cold play, only converting 25 percent of third down attempts, and half of his total passing attempts. The absence of RB Devon Johnson was never felt more-so than in this game, after Marshall was only able to muster 31 rushing yards, and a miniscule 1.2 yards per attempt.
In Week 6, Johnson was on the field for their 31-10 destruction of Southern Miss. The key to that victory was being on the receiving end of four Golden Eagles’ fumbles that completely erased a 439-to-277 yardage advantage for Southern Miss. Marshall played a mistake-free game, outside of an early interception thrown by Litton, and P Tyler Williams provided Marshall great field position throughout, with a 48.1 average over seven attempts.
Western Kentucky will face an extremely similar defense to Marshall’s in the Conference-USA championship game, and after Week 13’s results, Southern Mississippi will be forced to keep pace with the scoring of the offense generated by PFF’s fourth-highest graded QB in Brandon Doughty. Not far down on the list, Golden Eagles QB Nick Mullens checks in seventh and combines with the backfield duo of Jalen Richard and Ito Smith that has averaged nearly 200 yards per game. In a game unlikely decided by defense, look for the Hilltoppers to secure the victory, and for Southern Mississippi to keep pace enough to finish within the predicted spread.
Prediction: Western Kentucky 42, Southern Miss. 38
No. 18 Florida at No. 2 Alabama
Line: Alabama -18.0
No conference championship game in Week 14 offers a more unbalanced-and-overmatched pair of teams as will be presented within the Georgia Dome for the SEC crown. Alabama QB Jake Coker has received a good amount of criticism this season, but he actually has the top accuracy percentage in the FBS since Week 5, and his ability to “game manage” resembles an A.J. McCarron, in comparison to what the Gators have fielded over the last six weeks. Florida QB Treon Harris has started six games since the suspension of Will Grier, and has registered negative grades in all but one of those appearances. The one game he finished in the green (above +1.0), he faced the 82nd-ranked passing defense of South Carolina, and did so (barely), while also throwing two interceptions.
Over the last two weeks, Harris has completed 48.3 percent of his attempts, taken more sacks (nine) than he has led his offense to convert on third downs (seven), and only Utah’s Travis Wilson and a trio of freshman have posted a lower yards per passing attempt average than Harris’ in the nation (4.5). To compound the problem for Florida, they will be facing the top defense in the country overall, against the run, and versus the pass. While the Gators also field an elite defense, they have been prone to surrendering big games to opposing elite running backs, and their offensive line has performed at a level arguably worse than Harris. Vegas predicts a final score of 29-11 in favor of Alabama, and that is being kind. Alabama will top the spread, and their final score alone could approach the over/under.
Prediction: Alabama 38, Florida 9
Air Force at San Diego State
Line: San Diego State -4.5
Had San Diego State been judged based on their out-of-conference schedule alone, they’d have a lone win over the FCS’ South Dakota to their name. Luckily for us, we’ve been able to witness their dominant rout over the Mountain West, featuring eight-consecutive victories, and each finishing with the Aztecs at least doubling the score of their opponent. Starting QB Maxwell Smith was lost last week to an ACL injury, and his absence will be felt after furnishing 10 passing touchdowns to zero interceptions, and a 71.6 accuracy percentage in Mountain West play.
Luckily for San Diego State, their offense encircles a ground game led by RBs Donnel Pumphrey and Chase Price. They bring the sixth-best run blocking offensive line, and only allow an average of 95.0 rushing yards per game (fourth-best), and 2.82 yards per rushing attempt. A significant challenge for Air Force to say the least, especially considering that they just allowed New Mexico to accumulate 377 rushing yards and six touchdowns in Week 13. It marked the third straight game the Falcons have allowed at least 28 points—more than San Diego State has allowed in any Mountain West game this season. The play is behind the Spartans to cover the spread, and the game to finish within the over/under.
Prediction: San Diego State 23, Air Force 17
No. 20 USC at No. 7 Stanford
Line: Stanford -4.5
In addition to a conference title and possible CFP berth, Cardinal RB Christian McCaffrey has a chance to break Barry Sanders’ all-purpose yardage record that has stood for 27 years. Working in his favor, no offensive line in the nation has been better than Stanford’s blocking in the run game this season. While individual records are likely not the overriding goal of Stanford, the production of McCaffrey directly correlates with the offense’s success. McCaffrey is able to produce in several facets of the offense, but he will have his work cut out for him on the ground against the 30th-ranked run defense of USC.
Stanford ranks as the 42nd-best scoring defense in the country, but have allowed an average of 32 points per game over the last three games. At the heart of the issue is allowing an average of 488 total yards during those games, and they will face a USC offense averaging 457.3 yards per game this season (32nd). The key for Stanford will be the effectiveness of the passing offense to attack the 88th-best passing defense of the Trojans. Cardinal QB Kevin Hogan has been excellent all year and his receiving unit rates as the 10th-best in the NCAA this season.
USC will have a very difficult time limiting McCaffrey, and USC QB Cody Kessler will need to be highly efficient to counter that offense. Considering that Kessler is the 13th-highest graded PFF College QB since Week 8—and that stretch includes 10 passing TDs to a single interception—the likelihood of success is very high. In total, and outside of the early season matchup, several roads exist for either team to take advantage of their opponent, but none so much that an obvious favorite can be identified.
However, one area of exploitation exists, and that favors taking the over on 58.5 points. These teams have topped 58.5 points in 61 percent of games in Pac-12 play and, of the seven finishing under, the opposing team averaged under 19 points per game. Considering that both of these offenses average north of 36 points per game, and that the Week 3 game between these teams produced 71 points, place your bets on an excess of 58.5 points generating the result.
Prediction: Stanford 38, USC 35
No. 5 Michigan State at No. 4 Iowa
Line: Michigan State -3.5
A healthy Michigan State offense offers a formidable challenge in opposition to any defense. With the offensive line back to full strength, and QB Connor Cook nearing 100 percent health, Iowa will need to play its best game of the season to take the Big Ten title. Removing the Week 11 game against Maryland when Cook was injured and refused to leave the field, Cook comes in as the ninth-highest graded QB this season. He is the nation’s most accurate passer, targeting depths of 20+ yards, and that will be a major factor in this game.
Iowa QB C.J Beathard has had a tremendous season as a compliment to an elite rushing attack. Hawkeye ball carriers have averaged 4.83 yards per attempt, and have reached the end zone on 35 occasions. They’ve faced top-25 run defenses on three occasions, and finished with a rushing average in excess of 5.5 yards per attempt in two of the three. Although, the Spartans have faced a significantly more difficult schedule and have responded with a far better track record of generating offense, regardless of the opponent. The pick is behind Michigan State, with a likely result exceeding the spread.
Prediction: Michigan State 35, Iowa 27.
No. 10 North Carolina at No. 1 Clemson
Line: Clemson -4.5
Everyone loves an underdog, and for much of the season, the idea of North Carolina defeating Clemson in the ACC Championship would qualify as a result difficult to predict. After being bested in turnover margin, rushing yards, third-down conversions, time of possession by a factor of three-to-two, and the final score to a South Carolina team finishing 3-9 with only one other Power-5 victory, the likelihood they would ascend to defeating the nations No. 1 would seem incredulous. Allow yourself to be enlightened, as the Tar Heels strung together 11-straight victories after that loss behind the 16th-ranked total offense in the country.
In what would see to be a major hindrance for North Carolina’s chances, they have the nation’s 65th-best total defense behind allowing nearly 400 total yards per game, but have done a great job in limiting the damage (20.8 points per game allowed, 19th best). Clemson, on the other hand, compiled a dominant resume following a Week 10 defeat of Florida State. The shimmer on that championship coat has faded in recent weeks, as they only squeaked by Syracuse and South Carolina by a slim margin. In those matchups, they allowed their opponents’ 118th- and 100th-ranked total offenses, respectively, to average 29.5 points and 362 total yards.
Clemson has found some difficulty defending the run at the tail end of the season, and will be facing a Tar Heel rushing offense firing on all cylinders behind RB Elijah Hood. Hood is the seventh-highest graded RB over the last three weeks, and has accumulated the third-most rushing yards over the time. Even with all of these facts in mind, placing significant stake against the Tigers would be highly volatile. The Clemson program is one of the most successful over the last five years, with 10+ wins, and 2015 will mark only the second year UNC has finished more than a game greater than a .500 winning percentage during that same stretch. The prudence play is behind Clemson to win and cover—but for the teams to finish with a point total south of 67.5 points.
Prediction: Clemson 30, North Carolina 25.
Follow Wes on Twitter: @PFF_Wes
Wes Huber | Analyst
Wes is an analyst and fantasy correspondent at Pro Football Focus. He's been with the company since 2014, and his work has been featured on DraftKings Playbook and FantasyPros.