It’s Championship Weekend! Eight college football conferences will determine their champions in a single, decisive game. The Big 12 will too, although it’s not technically allowed to say it has a “Big 12 Championship Game” until next year. This Saturday has fewer games than any other during the season, but it’s also the most meaningful.
This post is a running log of everything big and important happening this weekend, listed in chronological order. Check in throughout the day to see which teams won, who threw chest passes into oversize soda cans, and how the College Football Playoff picture is shaping up.
Big Ten Championship Game: No. 7 Penn State beats no. 6 Wisconsin, 38–31
Was it good? Incredible. Penn State fell behind 28–7 before quarterback Trace McSorley turned into an unstoppable trebuchet, hurling passes 30 yards downfield with perfect accuracy. At one point, he completed nine consecutive attempts for 241 yards with three touchdowns. Here he is lobbing a ball toward the heavens that fell into the exact spot where Saquon Barkley was running on a wheel route:
The Nittany Lions have proven themselves to be a second-half team. They turned a 24–14 deficit into a 45–31 win at Indiana on November 12, and a 12–10 deficit into a 45–12 win against Michigan State two weeks later. They flipped the switch again Saturday night, holding the Badgers to just a field goal after the break while piling up the yards and touchdowns.
They’ve also proven themselves to be a second-half team in a larger sense. They started out 2–2, and head coach James Franklin was rumored to be on the hot seat following a blowout loss to Michigan. Now they’ve won nine in a row, including a Big Ten championship, and they’re hotter than anybody in the country, non-Alabama edition.
What does it mean? The selection show will be interesting on Sunday.
Ohio State, which checked in at no. 2 in the penultimate rankings, is supposedly a playoff lock. But the committee theoretically uses conference championships and head-to-head results as tiebreakers when deciding between teams with similar résumés, and Penn State beat Ohio State on October 22 and won the conference (and division) that Ohio State is in.
Only things aren’t quite that simple. If the committee thought the Buckeyes were the second-best team in the nation last week, what changed? Does Penn State’s neutral-site win over a team that Ohio State defeated by the same margin in October make the Nittany Lions the second-best team in football now? Clemson and Washington entered the weekend ranked higher than Penn State and won their respective conference title games too, so it’s hard to make the case that either should drop below the Nittany Lions.
That’s why the committee’s easiest call would be to leave out Penn State. The explanation would be simple: It lost two games. Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, and Washington all lost none or one. It’s only when we get into the philosophy of the selection process — what a conference title means, and what a single head-to-head win signifies in the midst of a 12-game regular season — that it seems unfair that Penn State could get left out.
I wish I could tell you what the committee members will do. They have never faced this specific dilemma, and even when facing scenarios they do have precedent for, they kinda seem like they’re making it up as they go.
No matter what happens, somebody’s going to be sad tomorrow. Try to be happy, Happy Valley. Penn State will be in the Rose Bowl or the playoff. Saturday night happened. This season came from nowhere, and Penn State fans can savor it, regardless of what the committee ultimately decides.
ACC Championship Game: No. 3 Clemson beats no. 23 Virginia Tech, 42–35
Was it good? Clemson seemed primed to pull away from Virginia Tech time and again on Saturday, but the Hokies kept fighting. They even had their punter throw up a Tony Parker-esque teardrop floater to convert on an early fourth-and-10.
Virginia Tech responded to every double-digit Clemson lead by cutting the deficit to a single score. That was pretty entertaining, as it forced Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson to keep balling out. Few players in the country can create as effortlessly as Watson does, and he should get a lot of Heisman Trophy votes. (I mean, he won’t get as many as Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, but nobody will.) Watson finished with three passing touchdowns and two rushing scores, a spectacular night by a spectacular player.
What does it mean? Clemson should be in the playoff. If Penn State’s the contender banging on the door, the Tigers should be fine. Both teams lost to Pitt: Penn State happened to lose to another team, too.
Mountain West Championship Game: San Diego State beats Wyoming, 27–24
Was it good? I honestly couldn’t watch much of this one, since it was happening during the ACC and Big Ten games and I only have two screens. But I did see this 75-yard punt, and more importantly, A SAN DIEGO STATE PLAYER JUMPING ON HIS TEAMMATE’S BACK AS A GUISE TO SLAM A WYOMING PLAYER IN THE JUNK.
I want to interview the guy who jumped. Was the end goal of his leap always to slam Wyoming’s player in the nuts? Or did he just want to congratulate his teammate, and then sensed the opportunity?
What does it mean? San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey became the no. 2 rusher in FBS history, as his career total of 6,290 yards passed Ricky Williams’s mark of 6,279. Pumphrey needs 108 more to pass all-time leader Ron Dayne. Watch the Aztecs’ bowl game to see if he does it!
SEC Championship Game: No. 1 Alabama beats no. 15 Florida, a lot to a little
Was it good? What did you expect? Alabama is a juggernaut this season, while Florida starts the lesser of the two ex-Purdue quarterbacks who now play in the SEC. The Gators scored first, but the Crimson Tide responded with back-to-back touchdowns on a Minkah Fitzpatrick pick-six and a blocked punt return score, cruelly forcing Florida’s futile offense to remain on the field for its throttling. The only way you could have enjoyed this 54–16 beatdown is if you have fully given in and begun to pray at Alabama’s dark altar. (I might have.)
What does it mean? Alabama was probably going to remain in the playoff field even if it lost this game. It did not lose.
Big 12 (Quasi-)Championship Game, Kinda: No. 9 Oklahoma beats no. 10 Oklahoma State, 38–20
Was it good? Most conferences go to great lengths to keep rivalry games contained to division schedules, and most conferences have a title game between division winners, so I enjoyed this exception — Bedlam: The Title Game. There were tons of big plays, most made by Oklahoma. Samaje Perine had 239 rushing yards and didn’t break either of the top two moves of the game; those belong to Joe Mixon, who busted out a 79-yard touchdown run, and Dede Westbrook, who juked an Oklahoma State defender back to Stillwater.
What does it mean? The one thing better than a victory over your enemy clinching a conference title is a trip to the College Football Playoff, and, well, uh, Oklahoma probably isn’t getting one. The Sooners were bold to schedule strong nonconference games against Houston and Ohio State in September, but those only look good if you win them. Oklahoma spent all season hoping for chaos to have an outside shot, but Washington’s win in the Pac-12 Championship Game probably squashed its teensy chances.
The Sooners’ win is great news for the selection committee, which no longer has to justify treating Oklahoma State’s referee-aided loss to Central Michigan as a true loss.
C-USA Championship Game: Western Kentucky beats Louisiana Tech, 58–44
Was it good? Conference USA has an interesting title game format. Before the championship, the league pays each defensive starter $10,000 as a reward for his strong season, rendering the players ineligible and forcing both teams to quickly ready their backups. That’s actually not true, but you could have been convinced that it was after watching Saturday’s game.
The matchup between Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech was the highest-scoring conference championship game of all time, with 102 points, 1,163 yards of total offense, 12 touchdowns, and five punts — the punts all by Louisiana Tech. Both teams scored at least 10 points in every quarter until the fourth, when only the Hilltoppers did, and that’s why they’re champs.
What does it mean? In the grand scheme of things? Nothing. But Western Kentucky just scored 58 points to win its second straight league title. I’d bet this was pretty good for head coach Jeff Brohm and Co.
American Athletic Conference Championship Game: Temple beats no. 19 Navy, 34–10
Was it good? Temple scored touchdowns on its first three possessions while the Midshipmen turned the ball over on their first two, once on downs and once on a fumble. The Middies never got back into the game, hampered by an injury to senior quarterback Will Worth. His backup, Zach Abey, had never previously attempted a collegiate pass and threw two interceptions.
What does it mean? Western Michigan should row the boat to the Cotton Bowl, while Navy’s ships are scuttled. If Navy had won, the race for the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl bid would’ve been tight, perhaps forcing the committee to wait until after next week’s Army-Navy game to reveal which team would get the bid. That’s not a problem anymore, which is a great relief to all the people who have to plan travel for bowl games.
But hey, let’s focus on Temple for a second. This is the Owls’ first conference title since 1967, when they won something called the Middle Atlantic Conference before joining the top flight of college football in 1969. They spent decades as an independent and got kicked out of the Big East for not being good enough; now they’re champions of the toughest non-power league in the sport. Head coach Matt Rhule has done an incredible job. Finally, a Philadelphia-based football team named after a bird that plays in Lincoln Financial Field has won a championship.
Pac-12 Championship Game: No. 4 Washington beats no. 8 Colorado, 41–10
Was it good? It was a little depressing. I was hoping for a close one between Washington, which hadn’t won a Pac-12 title since 2000, back when the conference was still the Pac-10, and Colorado, which has never won a Pac-Anything title. But Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufao got hurt on the Buffaloes’ opening possession, and his second-half attempts to play through the pain were hard to watch. He finished 3-for-13 passing for 21 yards with three interceptions.
Washington didn’t look that exciting. But its defense barely budged all night, completely flattening Colorado’s attack. The Huskies’ offense was uninspiring — quarterback Jake Browning played his worst game of the year and would have finished with less than 100 yards passing if not for an amazing play by stud receiver John Ross. But minimal offense combined with an entire night’s worth of primo field position can win a game.
And the Ross catch was very, very good. Rewatch it:
What does it mean? Washington will probably be in the playoff, barring an extremely weird decision by the selection committee. It had the Huskies ranked fourth in the penultimate rankings and stressed that it considered Washington and fifth-ranked Michigan to be roughly neck and neck. The Wolverines are sitting at home during the Big Ten championship game, while the Huskies thoroughly thumped a top-10 opponent. That should benefit Washington in committee members’ eyes, and even if it doesn’t, conference titles are supposed to serve as tiebreakers between teams that are otherwise even. Now Washington has one.
A lot of teams were counting on Colorado to pull off an upset and create chaos. Washington’s win likely means one less spot for everybody else.
MAC Championship Game: No. 17 Western Michigan beats Ohio, 29–23
Was it good? Yeah! Western Michigan was the heavy favorite, and not just because the Broncos are our personal favorites. They entered this week at 12–0 thanks to an offense that avoided turnovers and scored on nearly every trip to the red zone. But the Broncos struggled with both Friday night: They were forced to kick five field goals, and quarterback Zach Terrell threw two picks after throwing just one for the rest of the 2016 season. That was enough for Ohio to keep things close and have a chance to mount a game-winning drive — one WMU snuffed out with an interception, giving the Broncos their first MAC title since 1988.
What does it mean? Western Michigan is probably headed to the Cotton Bowl. Western Michigan! The Broncos have been to only six bowl games in school history! And now they’re likely going to one of the six biggest bowls in college football!
The bigger story for many fans may be what happens to WMU head coach, P.J. Fleck, the hyperexcited apple in the eyes of almost every program with a coaching opening. Let’s worry about that about some other day. Western Michigan played 13 games and won 13 games. This season was perfect, regardless of what happens next. The Broncos rowed the damn boat.
The Dr Pepper Tuition Giveaway Game
Was it good? I don’t know why college football’s championship weekend always features the Dr Pepper Tuition Giveaway, a halftime event in which students throw footballs into enormous Dr Pepper cans for tuition money. I don’t know why so many conferences agree to have this at their championship games, and I don’t know why every major network that owns the broadcast rights to these games agrees to air the halftime competition, a thing that would typically only be shown on a stadium Jumbotron. I don’t know why the NCAA willingly puts on an event that proves it’s very possible for students to both receive money for an athletic competition (even as part of an advertisement) and also go to class. I don’t know why any of this happens.
I do know it’s great, though, and that I will happily yell at my TV and criticize the throwing form of confused college kids playing a dumb game for an extremely meaningful sum of money.
What does it mean? Kyle, a budding optometrist who won the halftime competition during the Pac-12 title game, promised to help “everybody in the inner city and in Africa” with his money. I’m not sure if he was being literal — that he thought his $100,000 could make a difference in the lives of hundreds of millions of people — or if he thinks he can use his optometry degree to help the less fortunate. Regardless, this is great news for every person living in a major urban center and the entire continent of Africa.