If you are a fan of the Group of 5, this might be the most important conference championship weekend we’ve ever had. Or it could mean absolutely nothing.
A year ago we were talking about a “win and in” scenario for Cincinnati regarding the College Football Playoff. This year, that is far from the case, as the Top 4 is basically down to 5 teams. The real suspense, however, lies in who will represent the G5 in a NY6 bowl. It is likely down to the winner of the AAC title game, but legit arguments could be made by UTSA and Troy if the CFP Committee actually cared enough to watch every conference. But I digress.
Also keep in mind, there is about to be a bit of a shake-up amongst the AAC and C-USA (thanks in large part to the Big XII). And a couple of those teams are playing this weekend, so there is a very real chance a couple conferences won’t have defending champions…which is weird.
So while the fallout of this weekend is unknown, let’s just enjoy the games as they are. Here now is a bit of a preview of the five G5 Conference Title games. The fun starts Friday…
C-USA Championship (7:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
North Texas at UTSA
Spread via Chalkboard: UTSA -8.5, o/u 69
Good news first. UTSA has been the best team in the conference without a doubt for the past two teams and one of the most entertaining teams in all of college football. And North Texas is a legit rival and played them very close in the Alamodome Oct. 22, losing 31-27 but leading well into the fourth quarter. So from an entertainment standpoint, this game should deliver.
Now the bad news. That whole thing I said before about teams moving from Conference USA to the AAC? Here are two of those teams. For the legitimacy of Conference USA moving forward, that’s a bit of a bummer.
But back to the game.
The most optimistic of North Texas fan might note that the Mean Green ruined UTSA’s undefeated season last year and played them toe-to-toe in San Antonio earlier this season. And that was with stud receiver JT Clark, who is unavailable for the rematch. They are far from intimidated. But this game being on a Friday night hits a bit different.
There is a very real chance that this is the final home game for quarterback Frank Harris, receivers Zakhari Franklin, Joshua Cephus and a senior class that really put this program on the map nationally. It seems only fitting that they go out (and out of C-USA) in style. North Texas will keep it close for a bit, but the Roadrunners are just too much offensively. MeepMeep For Life.
Justin’s Pick: UTSA -8.5
MAC Championship (Noon, ESPN)
Toledo vs. Ohio (Ford Field, Detroit)
Spread via Chalkboard: Toledo -1.5, o/u 55
This game would have looked a lot different if Ohio quarterback Kurtis Rourke were playing.
The all-conference quarterback tore his ACL and meniscus in a late-season game against Ball St. However, all is not lost for the Bobcats. Backup CJ Harris played very well in the season finale against Bowling Green, throwing for just 195 yards and a touchdown but also rushing for 65 yards and three additional scores. The use of his legs give Ohio a different dimension than they had with Rourke, who depended on his arm to move the ball. Meanwhile, Ohio also has the conference Freshman of the Year in running back Sieh Bangura, who could eclipse a 1,000 yards with a big game Saturday. But that won’t be easy, as the Rockets defense is one of the stingier units in the conference.
Toledo was the preseason favorite in the conference, but didn’t exactly set the world on fire with a 7-5 record. However, it should be noted that the division was wrapped up early, so the last two losses didn’t really mean much aside from a loss of momentum. Dequan Finn was second-team all-conference, so assuming he can get into a rhythm early, the Rocket offense should be able to take off. (See what I did there?)
I actually envision this to be a low-scoring affair. I think the Bobcats are going to emphasize ball control. While the Rockets defense is very good, I think you can run on them more successfully than you can pass on them. So behind Harris and Bangura’s legs, I think they will try to keep Finn off the field as much as they can with some success.
Justin’s Pick: Ohio ML.
Sun Belt Conference Championship (3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Coastal Carolina at Troy
Spread via Chalkboard: Troy -8.5, o/u 48
Speaking of conference championship games where one of the teams is missing their all-conference quarterback, Coastal Carolina has entered the chat.
The Chanticleers have been without Grayson McCall ever since he got injured in a Thursday night game against App St. in early November and the results have been…..not great.
Sure, CCU clinched the division (though JMU fans would argue that) after an unconvincing 26-23 win over Southern Miss, but the season finale against the Dukes proved who is the best team in the division. Quarterback Jarrett Guest just doesn’t have the skillset or the command of the offense that McCall has. As a result, they just look out of sorts. And barring a miracle, that is what is headed to Troy to take on one of the best defenses in the Group of 5.
Troy might be the best team in the Sun Belt regardless of who is the East Division champion. Along with a straight up nasty defense, the offense has been putting up numbies behind the efficiency of quarterback Gunnar Watson and explosiveness of 1,000-yard running back Kimani Vidal.
The Trojans haven’t lost since the Hail Mary against Appalachian St. It’s almost as if that play galvanized them. It’s possible that McCall plays Saturday, but even if he does, he won’t be 100%. On top of that, Jamey Chadwell may have one foot out the door for a yet-to-be-announced job elsewhere. The Trojans will eat anything other than a fully-healthy McCall for lunch and I light my Coastal Carolina Future on fire.
Justin’s Pick: Troy -8.5 (and comfortably take the Under)
American Conference Championship (4 p.m., ABC)
UCF at Tulane
Spread via Chalkboard: Tulane -4, o/u 57
The pièce de résistance among conference title games.
Round One three weeks ago went to the Knights 38-31 in New Orleans. UCF thought it was so nice, they’d try to do it twice. So there’s no reason to think it won’t happen again right?
*Lee Corso voice* Not so fast my friend.
For one, Tulane has been consistently effective on offense, while UCF has been prone to bouts of inconsistency. Case in point, the Knights followed up their win over Tulane with a dud of a performance against Navy that nearly kept them out of this game. The same applies to their defense, as they nearly choked away their rivalry game against USF last week. With the Green Wave, you kinda know better what you are going to get on a week-to-week basis. Michael Pratt is going to make plays with his arms and legs. Tyjae Spears is going to make equally big plays as the all-conference running back he is. Their consistency is probably why people aren’t talking about them as much as they should.
In what is becoming a common theme, there are questions at the quarterback position for one of the teams playing in the conference championship game. John Rhys Plumlee and Mikey Keene have both seen action the past few weeks for UCF. Gus Malzahn is prone to ride the hot hand, and while I admire that mentality, when push comes to shove, it may not be the best approach.
Willie Fritz was all but gone to Georgia Tech, until he wasn’t. UCF is definitely headed to the Big XII. Will they take the conference championship with them? Or will Tulane continue their magical season, secure a Cotton Bowl bid, and potentially establish themselves as the team to beat in the new and (maybe) improved version of the conference next year? I can’t wait to find out. Roll Wave.
Justin’s pick: Tulane -4 (and probably the Over)
Mountain West Championship (4 p.m. Fox)
Fresno St. at Boise St.
Spread via Chalkboard: Boise St. -3, o/u 54
Do not sleep on what should be one of the more entertaining games of the day.
This game is also a rematch from earlier in the season, but the Bulldog team that travelled to Boise for their conference opener does not resemble the version coming back. That game happened when Fresno St. was without Jake Haener and resembled a shell of their current version. (Not unlike what we are seeing from Coastal Carolina currently.) The Bulldogs have won out since that game and the team has looked like what many expected before the season began. If only…
However, Boise St. is also clicking on all cylinders right now. They went through their conference schedule quietly undefeated, and if it weren’t for an inability to navigate their non-conference schedule, they may be in the hunt for a NY6 bid. Ever since the Broncos committed to freshman Taylen Green fully at quarterback, the offense has really taken off, which the defense has been its traditionally stingy self.
I have no idea who is going to win this game. I do expect a fun shootout however. My gut tells me this game will go to the final possession.
Justin’s pick: Boise St. -3, but hammer the Over.