It’s championship week, whatever that means in this wild year. Did Oregon win its division? No, but the ducks are playing for a Pac-12 championship. Has the state of Ohio played enough games to qualify for the title game? No, but hey, rules are meant to be broken. Clemson and Notre Dame? The ACC gave them an extra week to prepare, why not?
It’s been a season full of unexpected events, so we may as well look forward to another week of surprises. To dig through it all, we’ll browse the under-the-radar storylines for the Top Champ Week games and find what we’re most excited about in each game.
Big Ten: Northwestern versus Ohio State
The Disgruntled Potential for Northwestern’s Fighting Rece Davises
The Wildcats adopted a new nickname after ESPN analyst Joey Galloway shared his thoughts on Northwestern for Pat Fitzgerald’s team back in November, ahead of the Wisconsin game. Galloway’s comparison could be even more blatant against an Ohio State team that is arguably one of the most talented in the nation. If any of the conference title games causes a stir, this is the biggest.
ACC: Clemson versus Notre Dame
Kyren Williams’ Blitz pickup
OK, seeing which characters are the best game of the day isn’t the sexiest thing, but there is something really elegant in the way Williams handles his role in passing Downs. The Notre Dame running back has been spectacular this season with the ball in his hands (1,011 yards total, 13 TDs), but it’s what he does when he doesn’t hit the rock that separates him from the pack. In the first game between these two teams, Williams was 11-11 at the Blitz pickup, and the key blocks he provided helped Ian Book move the bag, extend games, and collect critical yards on scrambles. There are a ton of unsung heroes in this year’s Irish roster, but the work Williams has done could top them all.
Big 12: Iowa State versus Oklahoma
Coronation of the best two-loss team in America (non-SEC version)
Both teams were all but eliminated from the playoffs by the second week of October, but after the national crowd lost sight of the Big 12, Oklahoma and Iowa State continued to win. After a 1-2 start, the Sooners have won six straight wins, including three 50 points, and they want revenge on a Cyclones team that defeated them on October 3rd. After an embarrassing opening week defeat to Louisiana Iowa State, the Big 12 game ended 8-1, a three-point loss to Oklahoma State, the only flaw on the record. Neither team is close to the playoffs, but both can credibly claim to be among the hottest programs in the country right now.
SEC: Alabama v Florida
For the Heisman
There’s more than one championship on the line – this game will likely decide who wins the Heisman (sorry, Trevor Lawrence). Quarterbacks Mac Jones and Kyle Trask have been on the Heisman race for a few weeks now, but DeVonta Smith has been championing the Crimson Tide lately and was # 1 on ESPN’s newest Heisman Watch. In the past, broad receivers also had to play on special teams to win the Heisman (Desmond Howard, Tim Brown). Smith did this last week with a punt return TD, and if he could have another big game on Saturday he could take the hardware home on January 5th.
Desmond Howard explains why Alabama WR DeVonta Smith deserves to compete in the Heisman Trophy.
Pac-12: Oregon versus USC
Olaijah Griffin plays lockdown corner for the Trojans
Here’s an absolutely amazing but true statistic: Griffin has been one of the top corners of the Pac-12 since arriving at USC in 2018, but it wasn’t until a week ago that he corrected his first interception. How is that possible? He had nine pass breakups last season and led the league in defensive completion rate, but not a single one of the 43 goals he faced ended in a pick. He was just as good in 2020 (he’s runner-up in terms of degree of completion and allowed yards per target) and finally managed to prevent that first interception against Washington State. He’ll look to increase that amount against Oregon’s strong passing game and QB Tyler Shough, who leads the Pac-12 in the passerby standings. Oh, and did we mention Griffin is the son of rapper Warren G? Unless the television show “Regulate” uses it as commercial bumper music at least twice, it will be a disappointment.
Sun Belt: Louisiana vs. Coastal Carolina
Just crown a champion for the Sun Belt’s best season yet
Both Louisiana and Coastal Carolina were two of the best stories in college football this season. The Ragin ‘Cajuns were one of the favorites of the season, having had a tough time between the coronavirus pandemic and the death of offensive line coach D.J. Looney during off-season practice. Coastal Carolina was predicted to end by the end of the conference. But the 11-0 Chanticleers have the best record of any Sun Belt team in history. The game should be tough competition, just like in mid-October. Except this time the stakes are only slightly higher.
AAC: Tulsa versus Cincinnati
How many places will Cincinnati lose in the playoff leaderboard if it wins?
OK, we’re a bit snarky here, but the committee made it clear – it has no respect for the Bearcats who don’t have a top 25 win (but wins over four teams with 6-3 or better). For two weeks, the committee brought Cincinnati down the rankings, even though the Bearcats didn’t play a week. How will the playoff slightly affect Cincy’s approach? It is possible that the realization that a top 4 ranking is out of reach dilutes the importance of winning the American conference. It is possible that an already cruel defense could be furious. In any case, it will be a nice narrative to explain the result.
Under-the-Radar Game of the Week
Lyles: Arizona State vs. Oregon State
Both teams have shown remarkable performances in a short and unpredictable Pac-12 season. First, the state of Oregon defeated Oregon in one of the conference’s biggest rivalry games, in which Beavers RB Jermar Jefferson raced 226 meters. A week ago, Herm Edwards’ Sun Devils played a 70-piece game against Arizona, leading to the sacking of Wildcats head coach Kevin Sumlin. This game will go deep into the night when you are on the east coast. But you should have a late night coffee or drink of your choice and check it out – it will be worth it.
Hale: Texas A&M in Tennessee
When it comes to non-championship games, there are none with more at stake than this. This is one last opportunity for Texas A&M to influence the people on the College Football Playoff Committee. The Aggies are currently fifth on the poll, but they have better wins, more games, and arguably a stronger overall case for the playoffs than No. 4 Ohio State. So what if A&M stuck a large number on Tennessee and the state of Ohio only got one pedestrian victory over Northwestern? Could enough committee members be convinced they can move the Aggies up to swing the playoffs?
On the flip side, even a strong Tennessee performance would mean a lot to the current coaching staff. Many fans are frustrated with the lack of progress – at least in terms of wins and losses – under Jeremy Pruitt, and while he continues to be well-recruited, ending the season with a dramatic win – or at least an offensive one-way performance – would go a long way in making change the larger narrative.
Player to see
Lyles: Clemson RB Travis Etienne
Etienne was in the middle of the Heisman race when Clemson played against Notre Dame more than a month ago. That game gave him an opportunity to add to his hand, and he came up short with 28 yards in 18 carry and one touchdown. During media availability on Tuesday, he mentioned that he couldn’t be in much better shape at this point in the season. He had to hear that he hasn’t suffered the Tigers’ only defeat this season, and if he’s feeling as good as he says I am expecting a big game from him as Clemson is headed for another ACC title.
Clemson RB Travis Etienne takes the handover and goes into the end zone for a touchdown.
Hale: Florida QB Kyle Trask
How Much Do We Really Know About Alabama’s Defense? Mac Jones, Najee Harris and DeVonta Smith made it impossible to ignore the passing of the tide, but the other side of the ball went largely unnoticed because the D really wasn’t challenged. Of Alabama’s 10 games, only three came against teams that ranked in the top 64 in points per trip or in the top 75 in touchdowns per trip.
Enter Trask and the soaring offensive in Florida fresh from an embarrassing loss that may have left the Gators star, QB, also lost sight of the Heisman. It’s fair to wonder how motivated Florida is now that playoff hopes have almost certainly been dashed. But even if the Gators don’t get a win, it remains to be seen how Alabama deals with Trask, how Kyle Pitts returns, and what offense we have a lot about how the playoffs might unfold.
Annoyed about the week
Lyles: Louisiana via Coastal Carolina
Billy Napier’s team is 9-1 with the only loss, of course, to the Chanticleers. Coastal Carolina has had a tough game and a narrow win against Troy. Louisiana feels that these teams have left out a lot in the last two games and now it has a second chance to win. I’m taking Louisiana to a game that’s just as close, if not closer, than the first meeting.
Hale: San Jose State via Boise State
The Broncos are 5-1 and preferred by a touchdown here, but it’s the upstart who look like the real threat. Boise State has only played against two winning teams this year – a loss to BYU and a win against the mid-size Air Force, which was hardly a strong defensive feat. The State of San Jose, meanwhile, kept the Air Force down to just six points and scored an impressive win over Nevada, with QB Nick Starkel averaging over 10 yards per throw.