We are here. While the college football regular season has come to an end, we still have plenty of action with conference championships to be decided across the country. While we’re likely to have some hard-fought trench wars that lead to defensive battles in the traditionally defensive minded Big 10, along with what is likely to be a shootout in the ACC Championship, I’ll go over some spots I like the most if you’re looking for action this weekend.
While some people out there might not be particularly excited about the Conference USA Championship game, I am decidedly not one of them. As a fan of Bailey Zappe, Jerreth Sterns and offensive coordinator Zach Kittley since their collective time at Houston Baptist, suffice it to say this is a team that will put up points. The Hilltoppers haven’t scored fewer than 30 points in any of their games this season, including two games against Big 10 competition in Indiana and Michigan State. The score when these two teams met in the regular season was 52-46, a total of 98.
While many will point to a seemingly improved Hilltopper defense ever since the first UTSA game, but their opponents have mainly been trash offenses, the lone exception being Marshall, which lost its starting QB in the second quarter. Holding Rice and Florida Atlantic to three scores is a much different task than the one the WKU defense will be tasked with Friday night against 11-1 UTSA, who has topped 40 points in four of their last seven games all by themselves. All of that to say, there shouldn’t be much defense in this one against even average offenses, and these offenses happen to be stellar.
I would be more surprised at this one going under 72.5 than I would be it going over 100, which for me means a clear lean to the over.
Kent State (-3.5) over Northern Illinois
These teams are mirror images of one another to a certain degree, having faced and been summarily dispatched by Power 5 opponents in their nonconference games and more or less crushing their conference competition. The key points to review here though are the first meeting between the two teams (a 5-point win at home for Kent St) and the respective momentum for each team going into this one. Kent State goes into this week riding the joy of an emotional overtime win against Miami (OH) and wanting to showcase QB Dustin Crum for NFL scouts, whereas NIU is coming off a deflating three-score loss in which QB Rocky Lombardi didn’t play.
With both recent form and history on the side of Kent State, and without knowing how sharp Lombardi will be after missing a week, this is a pretty easy lean toward the Kent State side, where I expect them to get out to an early lead and never look back against an NIU team that isn’t built to do much besides bludgeon inferior opponents with a dominant run game.
Alabama ML (+195) over Georgia
When in the history of Nick Saban have you been able to get the Crimson Tide at plus money in a conference championship game against a former assistant of his? I would imagine it wouldn’t be too many times, and this one just feels like there’s too much recency bias and current-year data being factored into the line. While it’s true that Georgia had much more convincing wins against common opponents in Arkansas, Auburn and Florida, Georgia also have played virtually no one this season, and for a team built on stopping teams with their elite defense and piling on points with an efficient and diverse offensive attack, they may be a bit shell shocked by Alabama’s attack. With deep threat Jameson Williams expected to be back in for this one after being ejected for a targeting penalty early against Auburn, shorter routes will be opened up for slippery smooth route technician John Metchie to operate underneath. All of this should help the offense run more smoothly and keep Bryce Young from being overwhelmed by pressure the way he was against Auburn. While Brian Robinson Jr.’s injury would ordinarily be cause for concern, Alabama wasn’t going to win this one on the ground anyway, so a starting tailback missing or being limited has less of an effect than we might otherwise expect.
Meanwhile, this will be by far the toughest test Georgia has faced all season. While everyone in these parts knows about Georgia’s defense by now, their offense isn’t anything special and is mainly a beneficiary of the short fields and overmatched opponents than anything else. Yes, they have hung 40-plus on Georgia Tech, Charleston Southern and the bottom tier of the SEC, but only got to the low- to mid-30s against Kentucky, Florida and Arkansas. The bottom line is, there is some uncertainty with how well Georgia will handle what is likely to be their first adversity of the season, and when uncertainty and Nick Saban are involved, I will tend to roll with Saban, especially when getting nearly 2:1 for doing so.
This one may raise some eyebrows, but we’re talking about a Michigan team that just played the biggest game of their collective lives against Ohio State — this was their national championship. It would be impossible for this to not be a letdown spot against an Iowa team that is short on talent but plenty physical. While Michigan, similar to Georgia, has played in plenty of blowouts and not dealt with much adversity this season outside of their loss in East Lansing, Iowa has played just about every game close this season and has plenty of battle scars. What Iowa lacks in explosiveness, they make up for in ability to match up with Michigan in the trenches, which is where Michigan usually tries to win as well. They may be one of the only other teams in the country capable of doing so, which makes this game likely to proceed at a snail’s pace and lack explosive plays. There will likely be plenty of punts and field goals as both teams look to wear down their opponent and win the battle of field position.
I was also tempted to take the under on this one, but the books have the same idea and 43.5 is probably right around where I would set this total as well. Overall, this should be a battle of establishing the run and who can best avoid having to use their limited QB, and that leads me to believe it will be a competitive and low scoring affair. Further, given that Iowa hasn’t won a conference championship since 2004 and rarely has an opportunity to do so, sharing their division with Wisconsin, there should be plenty of motivation for a Kirk Ferentz-led Hawkeyes squad that has tended to show up big in the postseason when they’ve had the opportunity.