Championship Week is here, which means it’s time for college football’s top teams to make their final playoff push and for a bunch of kids to chest-pass footballs into comically oversize cans of Dr Pepper at halftime. To make sense of all that’s at stake, let’s run through the five most compelling story lines heading into this season’s slate of conference title games.
1. The Game That Could Change the Playoff
I guess we’re supposed to get excited about Alabama-Georgia? It’s the rematch of last season’s national championship game, an all-time classic in which a true freshman quarterback came off the bench and rallied Bama from a 13-0 halftime deficit to triumph on a walkoff 41-yard touchdown in overtime. Now the teams are playing again, in the same building. Hooray!
Except that title game was the start of a heat death of college football. That true freshman quarterback was Tua Tagovailoa, who has since become a sophomore and turned an already great Alabama team into one of the best the sport has ever seen. He’s had to throw only three passes in the fourth quarters of games all season, because the Crimson Tide have won every one by at least 22 points. That’s true even of Bama’s matchups against supposedly formidable competition; it crushed LSU 29-0 in November. That same LSU team beat Georgia by 20 points a few weeks earlier. Vegas has Alabama as a 13.5-point favorite Saturday. This should be the game of the year, and oddsmakers believe it will be a two-touchdown blowout.
But let’s say Georgia does win. S&P+, a statistic that consistently performs better than the Vegas spread, suggests that the game will be close, listing the Crimson Tide as a 3.2-point favorite and giving the Bulldogs a 43 percent chance to win. Even a 13.5-point underdog can win occasionally, and the stats seem to indicate that Georgia should be less than a 13.5-point underdog.
One loss probably wouldn’t knock an Alabama team that dominated 12 straight opponents out of the College Football Playoff field. Georgia and Alabama would both likely make the four-team bracket, alongside Clemson (assuming it beats Pittsburgh) and Notre Dame. This would be the second straight season in which two SEC teams made the playoff. With Notre Dame also in the mix, it’d mark the first-ever season in which three of the five power conferences were excluded.
The loudest criticism of the playoff to date has stemmed from the committee’s two-year ignorance of UCF, a program that hasn’t lost a game since 2016. The fact that the Knights have gone undefeated for two years running and haven’t come close to the fringe of the playoff picture has led to calls for expansion to an eight-team bracket.
But UCF missing the playoff wouldn’t lead to expansion. You know what might? More than half of the power conferences getting left out of the field at once. The power conferences organize and operate the playoff, and have designed the entire system to maximize how much money they can earn. If even the people who designed this money-printing machine aren’t getting a slice of the playoff pie, then we might actually see reform. After all, we’ve seen one game prompt changes to the college football championship system before: The 2012 BCS title contest between Alabama and LSU, which also excluded other power conferences in favor of the vaunted SEC, is widely credited as birthing the playoff.
It seems odd, but college football’s underclass should root for Georgia. Their best hope is for the sport’s most profitable conference to once again eat up half of the available playoff spots.
2. The Oklahoma–Ohio State Debate and the Big 12’s Championship-Week Demons
Let’s say that Georgia loses. Then the fourth and final playoff spot should go to either fifth-ranked Oklahoma or sixth-ranked Ohio State. Both teams enter this Saturday 11-1, but they’ll play drastically different qualities of opponent.
Ohio State will play Big Ten West champion Northwestern. The Wildcats should be no match for the Buckeyes, having been gifted an egregiously easy Big Ten West schedule made possible by a disparate divisional setup. Northwestern is the first team ever to appear in a league title game after losing every nonconference game it played: The Wildcats lost to Akron, which finished 4-7, and Duke, which later lost by 52 to Wake Forest. S&P+ ranks the Wildcats 78th of the 130 teams in the FBS. I’m a Northwestern fan who placed a +4,000 bet on the Wildcats to win the Big Ten championship as a joke this summer. They’re miraculously a game away from having that bet pay out … and let’s just say I’m not planning my return trip to Vegas.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma will play Texas, its biggest rival and the only team to which it has lost this season. This is the first time the Red River Rivalry has ever been a conference championship game. Back when the Big 12 actually had 12 teams (long story), the Sooners and Longhorns were both part of the league’s South division and therefore spent the fall battling for the right to play the North division winner in the title game. They essentially had no competition: The Sooners and Longhorns represented the South in 13 of 15 Big 12 title games under that setup. But then the Big 12 lost two schools, and the championship game disappeared from 2010 until last year. In the new Big 12 landscape, there are no divisions: The teams with the best and second-best records in the league play each other in the title game, regardless of geographical location.
The Big 12’s decision to bring back its championship game was primarily a response to what happened during this week of the 2014 season—the first of the playoff era. With the Big 12 lacking a title game, TCU and Baylor were named the league’s cochampions, at 11-1 apiece. Ohio State, which also closed the regular season at 11-1, got to play in a 13th game, and thrashed Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship. Because of this, Ohio State vaulted over both Baylor and TCU in the committee’s rankings to make the playoff. The Big 12 decided shortly thereafter that it needed a title game. To ensure this matchup would be an especially strong résumé booster, it called for the two best teams in the conference to face off.
This, frankly, was pretty dumb. The Big 12 presumed that it’d be common for a league to have two teams on the brink of the playoff, each needing a final win to bolster its case. A much more common scenario is that a league enters championship week with one playoff-worthy team and one spoiler. The Big 12 exacerbated its choice by becoming the only Power Five league to forgo divisions in favor of a no. 1–vs.–no. 2 showdown in the championship game. Not only does its best team have to play an additional game at the end of the season, but the Big 12’s best team is guaranteed a difficult matchup.
That’s exactly the scenario the conference finds itself in now. Oklahoma has a superior playoff profile to Ohio State’s: The Sooners’ lone loss was a three-point defeat against Texas, while the Buckeyes were boat-raced by 29 points at Purdue. However, if Oklahoma loses to its biggest rival again, the Big 12’s championship hopes are done.
The Red River matchup deciding the league title is awesome. It’s also a risk the Big 12 didn’t have to take—and one it could pay for dearly.
3. The “Horns Down” Hubbub
Beyond the playoff debate, the Big 12 is also caught up in an officiating controversy—what else is new? The difference is that this year’s issue isn’t so much the incompetence of its officials, but rather the league’s attempts to legislate protection for the feelings of Texas fans.
See, Longhorns fans like to flash the “Hook ’Em Horns” symbol—where you make your hand into the shape of a tiny cow’s head by putting two of your fingers up in the air—at each other all the time. And for about as long as Texas fans have been doing this, fans of Texas’s rivals have thrown the horns down in an attempt to mock Texas. This gets Texas fans really, really worked up. Some evidence: this story about a 2010 fight at a Dallas strip club in which the manager flashed “a derogatory sign referencing the University of Texas” at Longhorns legend Vince Young, who proceeded to punch that manager in the face. Opponents have been throwing the Horns Down symbol to celebrate on-field accomplishments against Texas for a while: Then–Arkansas coach Houston Nutt made it in the 2000 Cotton Bowl, and even players from far-flung programs like Cal have taken pride in elaborate Horns Down performances. As far back as 2012, Mack Brown called the Horns Downs “disrespectful” and suggested the Big 12 do something about it.
Well, this year the Big 12 did something about it. On November 3, West Virginia was penalized twice for making Horns Down gestures, including once after scoring a go-ahead two-point conversion, a penalty that nearly allowed Texas to answer with a game-winning field goal. West Virginia was 6-1 at the time of this game; the Horns Down drama almost disrupted the entire playoff picture.
Saturday, it has a chance to do so again. There have been conflicting reports about how the Horns Down will be officiated during the Big 12 championship game. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley seems to believe that his team will be flagged for making any Horns Down gesture; the Big 12 says its officials will evaluate each Horns Down signal on a case-by-case basis depending on factors such as whether it was directed at an opposing player.
I begrudgingly accept that officials have a legitimate interest in discouraging taunting. It’s bad when football games include fights, and fights are much more likely to start when one player taunts another. But it’s hilarious when a sport that struggles to define concepts like “a catch” attempts to legislate something fluid like taunting. For example, the NFL used to ban players doing an “Incredible Hulk” gesture (among many other gestures) at opponents. What even is an Incredible Hulk gesture? Is that the thing Cam Newton does where he pretends to rip open his shirt? Because that’s Superman. The NFL still bans acts that are “violent” or “sexual,” but of course, sexuality is a spectrum and the NFL can’t determine what each official considers sexual. Odell Beckham Jr. was penalized last fall for pretending to pee like a dog after a touchdown. Sure, his celebration was vulgar, but the rule book doesn’t ban vulgar; it bans “violent” or “sexual.” Is the implication that dog pee is a sex thing?
And there’s one other factor in the Horns Down debacle: Texas is by far the Big 12’s most popular and profitable school. For decades now, fans have noticed a trend of questionable rulings that tend to favor the Longhorns. I don’t normally buy into officiating controversies, but making it legal for Texas to throw up its hand signal and illegal for everybody else to make fun of it sure seems as if the Big 12 is particularly protective of the Longhorns’ feelings.
If Texas players are so provoked by a joke about their hand symbol that they get in fights … they should be penalized for getting in fights. Instead, the Big 12 is penalizing the joke.
4. UCF’s Continued Battle Against the Committee
ESPN’s Paul Finebaum, a man who is paid very handsomely to say that the SEC is good at football, made a bet this summer that he never thought he’d have to cash. After spending several months ridiculing UCF’s claim that the 2017 Knights were national champions after going 13-0 with a Peach Bowl win over Auburn—a team that beat both of last season’s national championship game participants—Finebaum said that he’d support a UCF claim if it went undefeated for a second straight season and was once again left out of the playoff.
Well, UCF is 11-0, and I haven’t heard Finebaum pulling for the Knights to make the field. Even as UCF has won week after week, the playoff selection committee has ranked the team low enough that it’s clear virtually nothing it could do would gain it entry into the bracket. Entering last weekend, UCF was ranked ninth—the highest-ever slot for a team from outside the power conferences, but not so high that it was a threat to break into the top four. Remember, the playoff is a creation of the power conferences and has a vested interest in ensuring the system pays those conferences well. Over the years, the committee has drastically underrated non-Power Five teams.
And now the committee has an excuse for not considering UCF. In the Knights’ 11th win this season, a 38-10 rout of rival USF, something terrible happened to QB McKenzie Milton’s right knee. It remains unclear exactly what transpired, but he lost blood flow to parts of his leg, suffered significant nerve damage, and required emergency surgery. These are words we hear after car crashes, not football plays. Milton certainly won’t return to the field this season—I just hope he makes a full recovery.
In years past, the playoff committee has taken injuries into account when assessing teams. For example, 2017 committee chair Kirby Hocutt explained that Clemson was slotted at no. 1 last season despite losing to Syracuse because an injury to Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant was factored into the rankings. It seems possible that the committee will do the reverse this year: Instead of ignoring an on-field loss because it didn’t represent how good a team was when healthy, the committee could ignore UCF’s wins because they don’t represent how vulnerable the Knights could be without Milton.
UCF has a chance to negate this argument. It has to destroy Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game. That could be difficult: Milton has been the face of the Knights’ 24-game winning streak, throwing for more than 4,000 yards with 37 touchdowns last season and averaging more than 9 yards per attempt this fall. Backup Darriel Mack hasn’t looked capable of matching that production. The freshman is completing under 50 percent of his passes and averaging 4.1 yards per attempt. But the Knights have produced with him under center, beating East Carolina 37-10 in a game Milton missed in October and outscoring USF 21-7 after Milton’s exit last Saturday.
UCF has to show there’s no drop-off from Milton to Mack. The committee will almost certainly argue against the Knights regardless, but if UCF whups Memphis, at least that group’s priorities will be made plain.
5. Virginia Tech’s Expensive Prayer
One odd thing about this championship weekend is that nearly half of Saturday’s games are not conference championship games. Instead, they’re makeup games between teams not playing for titles who had prior matchups canceled because of weather. Stanford and Cal will play The Big Game after the initial date was postponed by the California wildfires; a slew of teams from the Mid-Atlantic and Carolinas will play games pushed back by Hurricane Florence. Considering the increasing impacts of climate change, I suspect we’ll never see another year without a swath of in-season postponements. I know I’m supposed to stick to sports, but I fear that climate change will soon make playing sports impossible.
Anyway, back to the fun college football article! Most of these non-title games have minimal ramifications, but one stands apart: Virginia Tech, which had a September game against East Carolina canceled, will take on Marshall. The Hokies are 5-6 and need six wins to become bowl eligible. Virginia Tech has played in a bowl game every year since 1993, the nation’s longest active streak.
At first, the Hokies were content to drop the ECU game: After crushing Florida State in Week 1, they seemed like one of the best teams in college football. But it turned out that Florida State was mediocre, and so was Virginia Tech. The Hokies lost six of eight games, including one against an Old Dominion team that finished 4-8.
Most schools that had games canceled quickly rescheduled: NC State added a matchup with East Carolina a few weeks after the Virginia Tech game was canceled; South Carolina nabbed a date with Akron in early November. But Tech apparently assumed that it wouldn’t need a 12th game; then suddenly it was mid-November, and the Hokies were 4-6. Desperate, Virginia Tech reached out to Marshall and struck a unique agreement. If the Hokies beat Virginia last weekend to get to five wins, they would play Marshall in a 12th game in hopes of getting to six. If Virginia Tech lost to Virginia and was stuck on four wins, the game would be called off, and Marshall would get $100,000 for expressing willingness to play another game.
Virginia Tech beat Virginia 34-31 in overtime. Now it’s one win from keeping its coveted bowl streak alive. There’s only one potential problem: Marshall is good. The Thundering Herd are 8-3 this season and feature one of the best defenses in college football. Vegas says Virginia Tech is favored, but S&P+ has Marshall as a six-point favorite.
No matter what happens, this game will not be the most important thing in college football this weekend. Still, Virginia Tech shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in a last-ditch attempt to become bowl eligible only to get wrecked by Marshall would rank extremely high on the hilarity index.