Conference championship weekend in college football

Gordon P Smith Roar Guru

By Gordon P Smith, Gordon P Smith is a Roar Guru


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    This Saturday is the penultimate event on the FBS calendar in American collegiate football – the weekend when all the conference championships are determined and the bowl invitations are passed out, including the four most treasured invites to the national championship playoff games.

    We had a good predictive week last week, going 54-10 in our forecasts overall and 20-6 in the games we shared in this space.

    We use the ELO-Following Football rating system: where we simply compare the game results to the ratings’ predictions and then adjust the new ratings by zero to four points towards the team that did better than expectations.

    For example, we expected Florida State to beat Florida by four points. They ended up winning 38-22, a sixteen-point margin, which happens to equate to FSU improving by a point and Florida adding a point to their rating.

    On the other hand, the system expected Tennessee to defeat Vanderbilt by nine; instead, they were routed 42-24. It didn’t account for the change in coaches, primarily. So Vandy improved by three rating points and the Volunteers fell away three more points, being worse than we thought they were.

    The ELO element ensures that there’s a balance between what one team gains and its opponent loses; we have criteria that ‘cheats’ that element on rare occasions, but in principle, that’s what happens.

    In the FBS games we predicted for you, we went 12-5. The five we missed included the Tennessee game we just mentioned, Ole Miss’ upset of Mississippi State (and MSU then lost their coach to Florida, bad day for them), Nevada’s surprise loss to their in-state rivals at UNLV, 23-16, Miami’s let-down at Pittsburgh (the second year in a row Pitt has upset a top-2 team in the stretch drive…but last year, it was Clemson, which came back to win the title) and the huge upset in Auburn, Alabama, where the Tigers handled the Crimson Tide 28-16.

    Our winning picks included Washington (routed WSU 41-14), Ohio State and Wisconsin in the Big Ten, Clemson (over South Carolina), UCF (49-42 winners on a kick-off return for a touchdown to win the game in the fourth quarter), NC State, Georgia, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Stanford and Toledo.

    Oh, and Iowa trounced Nebraska 56-14, which caused Nebraska to fire their coach after a 4-8 season, and greedily eye the young man running the 11-0 Central Florida team, Scott Frost, who just happens to be a former Nebraska quarterback.

    Coach raiding is (unfortunately) a way of life in any sports system where you have so many different levels of the activity so interconnected: Power Five, Group of Five, FCS, Division 2, Division 3, and so on down the line. Even cross-pollination like Florida taking in-conference rival Mississippi State’s coach Dan Mullen can happen when there’s such a discrepancy in money and facilities availability.

    But most often intra-conference or other parallel moves only happen when there’s some local connection, like Nebraska’s hoping will happen with the UCF coach, Scott Frost, who led the Cornhusker team to a national championship 20 years ago.

    Let’s take a look at the nine conference championship games set for this Saturday (the Sun Belt does not play a title game):

    Clemson v Miami-Florida in Charlotte for the ACC title (we have Clemson by 8; Vegas says 9.5 points).

    Ohio State v Wisconsin in Indianapolis for the Big Ten (we see Ohio St by three; Vegas doubles that).

    Ezekiel Elliott playing college football for Ohio State.

    (Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

    TCU at Oklahoma for the Big Twelve (we say OU by six; Vegas says seven).

    Auburn v Georgia at Atlanta for the SEC (Vegas picks Georgia to gain revenge on Auburn, favouring them by 2.5; we see the game as a toss-up.)

    Stanford v USC in Santa Clara for the Pac-12 championship (we say Stanford by four; Vegas goes with Southern Cal by three, so it should be interesting).

    Memphis at Central Florida for the American conference (UCF by five but regardless of who wins, the winner here is the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six representative.)

    North Texas at Florida Atlantic for Conference-USA’s title (Vegas says FAU by ten; we say 13.)

    Toledo v. Akron in Detroit for the MAC title (Toledo is favoured by 14 on our board and 20 in Las Vegas)

    Fresno State at Boise State for the Mountain West (the rerun of last weekend’s 28-17 Fresno win is predicted to go the other way this Saturday – we say Boise by 7; Vegas says 9.)

    And in the Sun Belt, the two games that will informally determine the champion are Troy at Arkansas State (both are 6-1 in conference, and ASU is a 2-point favourite) and Appalachian State hosting Louisiana-Lafayette (where they are 16 point favourites on our board, 15 in Vegas) to stay tied with the Troy/ASU winner at one loss in conference.

    If they lose to ULL, then the winner of Troy/ASU will be the sole champion of the Sun Belt conference (for a change).

    After those games have been played on Saturday, we expect the announcement Sunday evening about the four teams chosen for the National Championship semifinals. The consensus opinion at the moment is that the winner of the SEC title game is in, and the winner of the ACC title game is also in.

    Following that, IF the Oklahoma Sooners can win the Big Twelve title game (at home) and if Wisconsin stays undefeated by winning against Ohio State in the Big Ten (that would be a slight upset), then those two teams are in the final four as well, and we’re settled.

    If one or both of those teams lose, then what?

    Do you put a one-loss Alabama team in, losing only to a possible SEC champion on the road, over a two-loss Ohio State who may be playing the best ball in the country right now? Or do you consider TCU with two losses? Or Wisconsin with one loss to the only highly-ranked team they played?

    Or Southern Cal with two losses if they win the Pac-12? Do you consider Miami/Clemson/Georgia/Auburn if they’ve lost their conference championship games? What about a 12-0 Central Florida team in the ‘little’ American Athletic Conference?

    Personally, I’d consider TCU or Ohio State first as conference champs, even with two losses – and therefore even Stanford or USC. Alabama is unquestionably the best of the teams not playing this weekend and has the best record of the ‘losers’ to boot.

    And I know I’m a Group of Five blowhard, but I’d consider 12-0 UCF, an Adam Ashley-Cooper titlist, over a three-loss non-champ any day of the week. Maybe even a two-loss team.

    It will be interesting unless Wisconsin and Oklahoma make it easy for the committee.

    This is why, as much as I hate the idea, an eight-team tournament makes so much sense. Five Power Five conference champs, one from the Group of Five, and two wild cards. I love four teams – it just feels right – but four available slots when there are five conferences in charge is stupid.

    former Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb

    (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

    On to the FCS level, where seven of our eight predictions came up golden – but like everyone else, we underestimated the weak Pioneer League’s strong champion, the San Diego Toreros.

    San Diego was expected to be easy fodder for Northern Arizona, third in the powerful Big Sky conference – instead, USD destroyed NAU 41-10, with Northern Arizona’s only touchdown coming in garbage time in the late fourth quarter.

    Otherwise, however, we were perfect: Stony Brook wiped out Lehigh 59-29 (we’d underestimated and said 12 points); Weber State beat Western Illinois 21-19 in the best game of the weekend (we picked them by three); New Hampshire beat Central Connecticut 14-0 (we’d thought a ten-point margin was about right). Northern Iowa was supposed to win by nine – well, try 39 instead: they routed Monmouth 46-7.

    Furman was a 10-point favourite over our sentimental preference, Elon, and was it not for a failed two-point conversion, they would have taken Furman to overtime or won outright, rather than losing 28-27.

    Kennesaw State did indeed win handily over a strong Samford team, 28-17; and while Nicholls State put up a good fight, South Dakota held to their four-point advantage up, winning 38-31.

    This coming Saturday, we expect all of the rested, seeded teams to be victorious over these eight winners, with the possible exception of Furman (we see a tossup at Wofford) and South Dakota (we see Sam Houston State as a five-point favourite, but others have USD as the favourite there). Here are our ELO-FF predictions:

    Weber State at Southern Utah (-3).
    Kennesaw State at Jacksonville State (-6).
    New Hampshire at Central Arkansas (-19).
    Stony Brook at James Madison (-20).
    Northern Iowa at South Dakota State (-8).
    South Dakota at Sam Houston State (-5).
    San Diego at North Dakota State (-17).
    Furman at Wofford (even).

    Almost everyone who’s paid attention to the FCS this year is simply waiting for the first Saturday of 2018, when we all presume it will be James Madison University trying to defend its newly-won title against five-time-champion North Dakota State in Frisco, Texas.

    American Football players line up Canadian football. CFL. Image: Wikicommons generic

    Image: Wikicommons

    We’re assuming all the rest of these games are just entertaining window dressing to keep us occupied until the two powerhouses meet on January sixth for all the marbles. But the great question to ponder: what if we’re wrong?

    Plus, there’s the SWAC championship, where the winner goes to the Celebration Bowl to face North Carolina A&T for the HBC (Historically Black College) championship: Alcorn State at Grambling State (-18), after a GSU victory over their chief rival Southern University last weekend.

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