What we’re watching in championship week

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It’s championship week, and there is much to look forward to beyond the action on the field — though that should be great, too.

In the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas on Friday night, the conference would be decided between Oregon or Washington, neither of which will even be in the league next season — and the league might not even continue to exist at all. [Get live updates on that game here].

In the Big 12 championship on Saturday, commissioner Brett Yormark could end up handing a trophy to a Texas team that will be in the SEC next season, and Yormark has been openly rooting against that Texas team all season

And in the ACC, commissioner Jim Phillip could very well end up congratulating a Florida State program whose leaders have openly discussed leaving that conference.

Even the Big Ten could have its share of drama, as Jim Harbaugh returns to the sideline after serving a three-game suspension levied by commissioner Tony Petitti for Michigan’s alleged sign-stealing operation. That could certainly make for an interesting postgame ceremony should the Wolverines defeat Iowa.

These are odd times indeed.

Still, the actual action on the field should be thrilling this weekend, with plenty still to play for, both at the team level (College Football Playoffs, bowl positioning) and the individual level (Heisman Trophy). 

FOX Sports college football experts Bryan Fischer, Michael Cohen, Laken Litman and RJ Young are here to break down exactly what they expect to see in major conference championship games this weekend. 

Big 12: Oklahoma State vs. Texas (Saturday, noon ET)

Laken: Texas fans would love to see Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark hand the championship trophy to Steve Sarkisian, the head coach of a program that is leaving the league for the SEC next year.

Earlier this season, Yormark told Texas Tech head coach Joey McGuire that his team had “better take care of business” when it plays Texas on Thanksgiving weekend. During the second half of that matchup, though, Texas played Yormark’s comments on the jumbotron, and the 100,000 fans in the stadium cheered wildly as the Longhorns went on to crush the Red Raiders, 57-7. 

Texas has a huge opportunity to leave its former conference as champs. When Texas won the league title in 2009, it then played for a national championship, which is exactly what Sarkisian hopes happens this time, too. But even if Texas beats Oklahoma State, a trip to the program’s first-ever CFP is not a sure thing.

For Texas to be in the discussion at all, it has to beat OSU. And Mike Gundy and the Cowboys would love nothing more than to spoil the Longhorns’ postseason plans.

Is Alabama or Texas more deserving of a CFP spot?

Is Alabama or Texas more deserving of a CFP spot?

RJ: Oklahoma State is looking to annex Texas, having beaten the Longhorns six of the last eight times. 

OSU fans will be insufferable at Sunday morning service if OSU pulls off the Bedlam double this weekend. Texas fans will be two steps past pepper spray pissed if they lose to OSU. Texas hasn’t won a Big 12 title since Arch Manning was 4. 

OSU’s Ollie Gordon II looks to sew up the FBS rushing championship. He already leads FBS in rushing with 1,580 yards after getting just 19 touches in the first three games of the season. 

Bryan: How will Texas handle the pressure? Sure, the Longhorns have had it placed on them before — going into Tuscaloosa, for example — but this is a different beast. There’s a conference title on the line, a Playoff berth in the balance and an Oklahoma State team on the other side that would like nothing more than to spoil the party and win the league again.  

It’s a fascinating drama and it’ll be interesting to see how Sarkisian and the team handle it. It will also be notable if that need to get some style points to impress the selection committee — sequestered just a few miles up the road in Grapevine — impacts Sark’s playcalling.

Michael: The debate surrounding whether Texas is back, and to what degree, will be key, as the Longhorns chase their first national title since 1970. The Longhorns don’t quite control their own destiny as it relates to the College Football Playoff with four undefeated teams still remaining — Georgia, Michigan, Washington and Florida State — but a win over the Cowboys puts them in a strong position to reach the national semifinals for the first time in school history. They’ve already won 11 games for the first time since 2009, and their early season road win over red-hot Alabama gives them a signature non-conference victory for the selection committee to consider. 

That pressure, those stakes and the weight of a massively expectant fan base are what head coach Steve Sarkisian and his players will battle this weekend, in addition to Oklahoma State, which is the only three-loss team to reach a Power 5 conference championship game this season.

Previewing the battle for the Big 12 Championship

Previewing the battle for the Big 12 Championship

SEC: Georgia vs. Alabama (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET) 

RJ: This could also be called the National Champions Series, as either Alabama or Georgia has won the national title in each of the last three years.

If Jalen Milroe leads Bama past UGA, I think it’s going to be hard not to hand him the Heisman Trophy. After all, UGA has won 29 straight and Milroe would do what Heisman winner Bryce Young could not.

On the field, the matchup between UGA superstar Brock Bowers and Bama freshman phenom Caleb Downs is the 1-on-1 I can’t wait to watch, featuring the top receiving tight went against a safety I would gladly hand the Jim Thorpe Award. Downs has 95 tackles and two INTs this season. 

He’s the best freshman DB I’ve seen since LSU’s Derek Stingley, Jr., and he has an unsung teammate in the secondary in Terrion Arnold who is the Trevon Diggs of college football. 

Bryan: This is the Playoff linchpin upon which the fate of teams from the ACC to the Big 12 to the Pac-12 will depend, so all eyes are going to be locked in on Atlanta. It’s also a great matchup between two of the most improved teams in the national title chase, looking far more dangerous than they did a few months ago.

Matchup-wise, the Bulldogs have an edge with their secondary against the Tide’s receivers, so we’ll see if Milroe can create enough of an advantage with his legs to change the picture. An extra defender spying on the signal-caller could provide just enough of an opening to hit a big play or two and make this one interesting.

Either way, you’re getting a Nick Saban-coached team (he’s 8-1 in SEC title games) against Kirby Smart’s juggernaut with everything on the line. Games don’t get much bigger than that.

Could Alabama make the CFP?

Could Alabama make the CFP?

Laken: Georgia may be a two-time defending national champion, but it has never beaten Alabama in the SEC championship game.

This showdown could be one for the ages, mainly because of Milroe’s transformation this season, from being benched early in the year to making arguably the most magical play of the season in last week’s Iron Bowl. Facing fourth-and-31, Milroe completed a jaw-dropping laser touchdown pass to Isaiah Bond with 32 seconds remaining to clinch a 27-24 win over Auburn. No matter what happens the rest of his career, Milroe has achieved legendary status at Alabama. 

Michael: The duel between Beck and Milroe could have every bit the impact on the Heisman race as Penix vs. Nix out West.

On the Georgia side, first-year starter Beck has quietly developed into one of the most productive quarterbacks in the country despite injuries to Bowers and wide receiver Ladd McConkey that sidelined his top two targets for chunks of the season. Beck has completed 268 of 370 passes (72.4%) for 3,495 yards with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions. His completion percentage is second nationally among quarterbacks with at least 370 pass attempts, trailing only Nix. 

On the Alabama side, Milroe is blossoming into arguably the most improved player in college football. He’s completed 158 of 238 passes (66.4%) for 2,526 yards with 21 touchdowns and six interceptions. As a runner, he’s carried 126 times for 439 yards and 12 scores. 

Big Ten: Michigan vs. Iowa (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app)

Michael: During interviews Monday to preview the league championship game this weekend, Iowa players present were all asked some variation of the same question: How does it feel to be such significant underdogs against the Wolverines. The players responded with fairly predictable answers about insulating themselves from exterior noise and using the readily available slights from fans and media members alike as fuel. It’s both the right approach and the only option the Hawkeyes have. 

Still, everything about Saturday’s clash at Lucas Oil Stadium points toward a repeat of the 2021 Big Ten Championship game between these same schools, a 39-point drubbing that was over by halftime to ignite a prolonged celebration for a Wolverines program that hadn’t won a Big Ten title in 17 years. This Michigan team is bigger, faster, stronger, deeper and far more balanced than the one Iowa faced two years ago, and for the first time since Nov. 4, the Wolverines will be bolstered by the presence of head coach Jim Harbaugh, fresh from another three-game suspension.

All of which might be a recipe for another coronation for the 2023 Wolverines, whose accomplishments are already quite astonishing. They have the second-best point differential in the country after outscoring their first 12 opponents by 27.3 points per game. They’re the only team in FBS that has yet to trail in the second half of a game this season. Their streak of 30 consecutive regular-season victories is the longest ever by a Big Ten team. And they finished the year with the No. 1 scoring offense and the No. 1 scoring defense in the league.

Best of luck to the Hawkeyes. 

RJ: Michigan seeks its third-straight Big Ten title, which would be its longest streak since winning five in a row from 1988 to 1992. 

This could be a defensive battle, as Michigan allows 10.3 points per game, while Iowa allows just 12.2. Iowa won 10 games with the No. 124-ranked scoring offense in the country and is 9-0 when scoring at least 10 points. Iowa’s defense is so cold that the Ghostbusters call THEM. I’d be at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop writing about this defense getting stops.

If Michigan can move the ball and score on this Iowa defense, I’d like to think it could do the same against UGA.

Is J.J. McCarthy elite? His winning percentage as a starting QB with at least 25 starts says he is: 

  • J.J. McCarthy, 24-1, .958
  • Trevor Lawrence, 34-2, .944
  • Deshaun Watson, 32-3, .914
  • Stetson Bennett, 29-3, .906
  • Jalen Hurts, 38-4, .905
  • Joe Burrow, 25-3, .893

That’s an outstanding list that McCarthy leads.

Previewing Michigan vs. Iowa

Previewing Michigan vs. Iowa

Bryan: When we look back, this might be some of the best work Kirk Ferentz (and, let’s face it, defensive coordinator Phil Parker) has done in willing the Hawkeyes to Indianapolis with 10 wins.

The fact that they’re reaching defensive numbers not seen in program history since the 1960s is almost as impressive as their offense doing the same. 

But the only question worth asking with the Big Ten title game is whether the Big Ten West side can reach the end zone at all over the course of four quarters. Given the level Michigan is also playing defense, seeing if Iowa can even get into field goal range is not a sure thing. 

Laken: Jim Harbaugh is back from his three-game suspension and ready to roll. 

If last week’s game between the Wolverines and Buckeyes was a clash between equals, this one will be a mismatch in every way, as Michigan has the advantage in every phase of the game on offense, defense and special teams.

Plus, Michigan players will be even more amped up than usual because Harbaugh will be back on the sideline. While Sherrone Moore went undefeated as the interim head coach and players adore him, the team wants nothing more than for Harbaugh to accept the championship trophy from Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti at the end of the night.

ACC: Louisville vs. Florida State (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET)

RJ: Keep it simple, FSU. It won’t matter if you win by a lot or a little. If you’re undefeated and holding the ACC title belt above your head, you’re getting into the CFP.

This game is intriguing because Tate Rodemaker and not Jordan Travis will be behind center. If Rodemaker doesn’t throw the ball to the other team, FSU should show up Sunday a perfect 13-0.

Bryan: Neither team put its best foot forward last week, so we’ll see what both Jeff Brohm and Mike Norvell have in their back pocket for this prime-time showdown with massive national ramifications.

Obviously, the focus for the Noles will be on Rodemaker, whose 12-of-25 outing for 134 yards against Florida did not inspire any confidence that this is still a team capable of contending for the top four. 

As for Louisville, Jeff Brohm has done a great job turning around the Cardinals, and this is just the spot where being a great playcaller can come in handy. 

Previewing the ACC championship game

Previewing the ACC championship game

Laken: This is where things could get really interesting when it comes to the CFP. The selection committee’s job is to choose the best four teams in the country to play in the four-team playoff. If Florida State beats Louisville and therefore becomes an undefeated conference champion, will it be rewarded with a CFP spot even without Travis?  

If the Seminoles can dominate the Cardinals and Rodemaker puts on a show better than what he did against Florida last week, perhaps there won’t be a debate at all. But there’s a lot riding on this one for FSU. 

Michael: This is the game that one-loss programs across the country will be watching most intently as they hope for a slip from an undefeated team during championship weekend. If Georgia, Michigan, Washington and Florida State all win, the chance for some unexpected drama when the final College Football Playoff rankings are revealed on Sunday evening is slim to none. But if Florida State falls short against Louisville, the door cracks open for teams like Oregon, Texas, Alabama and Ohio State, depending on the rest of the weekend’s results.

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Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The Number One College Football Show.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube.

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