CFB conference championships: A guide to the biggest games

ByESPN staff ESPN logo
Thursday, December 1, 2022

The college football regular season may be over, but don't fret, the sport has saved some of the best matchups for conference championship week.

Beginning on Friday night in Las Vegas, teams will battle for not only conference bragging rights but spots in the College Football Playoff field as well.

USC is just one win away from a likely berth in the playoff but will have to get through Utah in the Pac-12 title game Friday night. The Utes handed the Trojans their only loss of the season back on Oct. 15, so revenge and a spot in the top four leave Lincoln Riley's squad with plenty to play for in Las Vegas.

Speaking of plenty to play for, the surprising TCU Horned Frogs are one win away from a spot in the CFP after closing out the regular season 12-0. If the Frogs are able to beat Kansas State in the title game, they will become the first Big 12 team to break into the playoff field since the 2019 season.

Georgia is already in the playoff, and LSU is out after last week's loss, regardless of what happens in the SEC title, but the teams will meet in Atlanta for the conference title. Georgia lost in last year's SEC championship game before going on to win the national title.

In the night window, Michigan, in pursuit of its second straight Big Ten title, faces Purdue while Clemson and North Carolina meet for the ACC crown.

The Tulane Green Wave and UCF Knights also meet in a conference championship game on Saturday for who likely gets to represent the American Athletic Conference and the Group of 5 in a New Year's Six bowl.

This is our last week of action before bowl season, so get all the top storylines from the best matchups below.

Pac-12 championship: No. 11Utah(9-3)vs. No. 4USC(11-1)

(Allegiant Stadium, Las Vegas, Friday, 8 p.m. ET, Fox)

Caleb Williams may be on the brink of winning the Heisman Trophy, but the last time these two teams met, Williams and his five touchdowns during the game somehow didn't make him the most unstoppable player on the field. For at least one night in Salt Lake City, that honor belonged to Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid.

Over the course of 60 minutes, Kincaid pulled off his best Rob Gronkowski performance and dominated the USC defense to the tune of 243 receiving yards on 16 catches and one touchdown. The Utes' offensive game plan became simple: When in trouble, target Kincaid.

"Anytime someone has their career game against you, there's a level of embarrassment about it," defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said this week. "If he makes big-time catches and we don't tackle him ... I know exactly what's gonna happen on Friday. It's gonna be the same damn thing."

A lot has happened for both teams since that game. USC's defense has continued to cover any weaknesses with its takeaways and red zone stops, while USC's offense has skyrocketed as Williams has. Utah, on the other hand, is banged up. Cam Rising is dealing with an unspecified injury, while Kincaid himself missed the game against Arizona with a shoulder injury and was banged up again in last week's win over Colorado.

Head coach Kyle Whittingham said he expects Kincaid to play on Friday night, but the Utes will likely have to rely more on the run game, just as they have in recent weeks. Until last week, the Trojans' defense had struggled to limit teams on the ground, but last week's game against Notre Dame was a different story -- the Irish had only 90 rushing yards.

"Everybody doing their job and communicating and being on the same page, when we do that, we're a hard defense to go up against," linebacker Shane Lee said.

Lee is among several players who have pointed to that loss at Utah as a pivotal point in USC's season. The way the loss landed but didn't linger appeared to give everyone in the locker room the motivation to ensure they didn't lose again.

"The vibe inside the room was completely different from times when I've lost before in college so far," Williams said. "There were a lot more smiles."

It is difficult, at this point in the season, to imagine Williams having an off game. And so, USC's chances -- to make it to the playoff and have a chance to win there -- will likely come down to how effective, how "on the same page" and how consistent their defense is in these tougher, tighter games. After all, Utah was the one team all season that did something nobody else could: outscore USC.

The optimistic approach after the Utah loss proved to be fortuitous for the Trojans. They knew what they needed to do to bounce back, and so far, they have aced every test since. As they stand just 60 minutes from a conference title and a playoff berth, the question is: Can they keep it going? -- Paolo Uggetti

Big 12 championship: No. 10Kansas State(9-3)vs. No. 3TCU(12-0)

(AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas, Saturday, noon ET, ABC/ESPN app)

Kansas State entered the season as a sleeper pick to win the Big 12. TCU was picked seventh in the conference. After one of the most unlikely seasons in recent history, this game could now be a referendum on TCU's chances to make the College Football Playoff.

The No. 3 Horned Frogs are one of three undefeated teams in the FBS and, before a blowout win over Iowa State last week, survived a streak of seven straight wins by 10 points or fewer, which tied 1975 UNLV for the longest such string in the AP Poll era dating back to 1936.

So the Horned Frogs know how to win. And none of their five second-half comebacks were bigger than against Kansas State in Week 8, a 38-28 TCU win in Fort Worth after the Wildcats jumped out to a 28-10 lead in the second quarter. The 18-point comeback was TCU's largest this season.

"We can say all we want about 'We didn't do this or didn't do that,'" K-State coach Chris Klieman said this week. "Give TCU credit. They came back from being down and stayed the course and stayed in the fight. ... The biggest thing I think that disappointed us is we couldn't get off the field on defense. Thus our offense just never had the ball much in that second half."

This is the eleventh time that the Big 12 title game features a rematch of a regular-season game. Of the 10 previous instances, the winner of the first game won six of them.

TCU coach Sonny Dykes said on Tuesday that he considers this similar to a different season, saying last year's results don't affect this season.

"There will be lot of cat and mouse stuff, probably a little more than you normally have, because of the familiarity," Dykes said.

He said the K-State offense has "taken off" in the past four or five weeks as Will Howard has become more comfortable after coming in for an injured Adrian Martinez (including in the TCU loss), and he's impressed with how offensive coordinator Collin Klein has utilized the many talents of running back Deuce Vaughn.

Vaughn currently has 1,295 rushing yards and 348 receiving yards this season after 1,404 rushing and 816 receiving yards last year. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, in the past 15 seasons, only one Power 5 running back,Christian McCaffrey, has had multiple seasons of 1,300 rushing yards and 300 receiving yards.

The Wildcats have a chance to play spoiler on Saturday. In the eight years of the CFP, there have been six times when a top-four team was going into the final week and didn't make the final field. Five of those lost in conference championship games. The other was 2014 TCU, which was notably jumped by Ohio State when the Big 12 did not have a title game.

Dykes knows he won't have home-field advantage this time, and said he's always been impressed with Klieman's team.

"They're just a good football team. And physical," he said. "That was a very physical football game. I think that's a trademark of their program, and it has been for a number of years going back to Coach [Bill] Snyder, and Coach Klieman has kind of kept that tradition alive."

They'll need to be physical against TCU running back Kendre Miller, who ranks third in the Big 12 with 650 rush yards after contact this season. He had a season-high 113 against Kansas State earlier this season.

But Klieman knows they'll have to watch for an explosive TCU team.

"Offensively, defensively, special teams ... Collectively, they're the fastest team we've played," he said. "It's going to come down to can we win some of these one-on-one matchups because we didn't win enough one-on-one matchups [in] October, especially in the second half." -- Dave Wilson

SEC championship: No. 14LSU(9-3)vs. No. 1 Georgia(12-0)

(Mercedes-Benz Dome, Atlanta, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, CBS)

Harold Perkins Jr. has been a revelation for LSU this season. His 7.5 sacks rank third in the SEC, despite rushing the passer only 105 times. For comparison, the league leader, Alabama's Will Anderson Jr., has 10 sacks on 310 pass-rush attempts.

And did we mention that Perkins is only a freshman? The former five-star linebacker from Texas was the jewel of coach Brian Kelly's first recruiting class.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart remembers evaluating Perkins as a high school prospect.

"He was probably one of the most talented linebackers coming out that season on tape," he said.

As the season's gone on, Smart said, "He's proven that."

"He's extremely explosive, athletic," Smart added. "They do a very good job of utilizing his skill set."

But, ahead of Georgia and LSU competing in the SEC championship game on Saturday, is it fair to look at Perkins' production and wonder whether he's the key to neutralizing the Tigers' defense?

As LSU made a late-season push, Perkins was dominant. He had five tackles and a sack in a win over Ole Miss, and eight tackles and a sack in a win over Alabama. And during a slugfest at Arkansas in which the LSU offense struggled, Perkins single-handedly carried the team to victory with what might have been the game of the year, racking up eight tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles.

Then you look at LSU's losses, and there's a common thread: Perkins didn't fill up the stat sheet and didn't affect the quarterback. In losses to Texas A&M, Tennessee and Florida State, he had no sacks and averaged two tackles per game.

But it wasn't just Perkins who didn't get after the quarterback in losses. The defense as a whole, which averaged 2.8 sacks and 11.7 quarterback hurries in nine wins, had no sacks and 15 total pressures in three losses.

The loss to the Aggies last week was especially embarrassing for LSU. Giving up 38 points to a lackluster offense was surprising. It was no secret what A&M wanted to do: hand the ball to Devon Achane. Still, Achane rushed for 215 yards and two touchdowns.

Kelly reflected on the loss and felt that the team had gotten away from what led it to a berth in the conference title game: marrying traits with talent.

Perkins, Kelly said, has to do the same thing.

"He's very, very talented," Kelly said. "But, like I said, I mean, it's both: he's got to bring his traits and talent together. If he brings both of those, he is an elite and special player."

It will be an uphill battle on Saturday. Georgia, which is a heavy 17.5-point favorite, has given up the third-fewest sacks in the FBS this season (seven).

To have a chance of pulling off the upset, Perkins and LSU will have to find a way to get in the backfield and affect quarterback Stetson Bennett. -- Alex Scarborough

ACC championship: No. 23North Carolina(9-3)vs. No. 9Clemson(10-2)

(Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN app)

Clemson has made its way back to the ACC championship game, but that is not exactly the major talking point headed into its matchup against North Carolina.

For the second straight year, the Tigers will be left out of the College Football Playoff, and questions about quarterback DJ Uiagalelei have begun to mount once again after he threw for 99 yards in a shocking 31-30 loss to South Carolina last week.

Though Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has once again defended Uiagalelei, saying he was "a long way from being the reason we lost the game," it is fair to wonder which version of Uiagalelei we will see on Saturday. Especially since North Carolina has first-team All-ACC quarterback Drake Maye on the other side.

In addition, Swinney has also faced questions about whether running back Will Shipley has been given enough carries. Despite averaging 8.8 yards per rush against South Carolina, Shipley only had 15 carries -- including just two on the final four drives of the game. Afterward, he candidly said, "As a competitor, hell yeah, I want the freaking rock with five minutes to go and the game on the line against our rival. That is me as a competitor, but that is not how it shakes out all the time."

But beyond those questions, there are others about the overall program now that Clemson has missed the playoff for two straight seasons. Swinney told reporters Sunday that winning the national championship is not among its list of goals when the season begins.

"Our goals are win the opener, win the division, win the state, win the ACC and win the closer," Swinney said. "Our goals are set up to allow us to compete at the highest level, but the reason that it doesn't say win the national championship on there is because we don't control that. We could win all of our games and somebody could say no, you don't qualify. We do have an opportunity still to hit four out of five, and if we do that, we're going to have another great year here and keep moving forward."

Though there may not be national implications, the game is an intriguing one considering not only the story lines but their recent history. In 2018, North Carolina nearly upset No. 1 Clemson but opted to go for a 2-point conversion and failed with 1:17 left, losing 21-20. When the teams previously met in the ACC championship game in 2015, a disputed offside call on an onside kick allowed No. 1 Clemson to hold off the Tar Heels and win 45-37.

While playing in the ACC championship game is old hat for Clemson, North Carolina has not won an ACC football title since 1980. Only NC State has a longer conference title drought among current ACC schools.

"We're trying to take steps in our program," North Carolina coach Mack Brown said. "Four years ago, we won five games in two years, so every step that we take is a step closer to North Carolina football being relevant again. I thank (our guys) for getting us to this point. There's only 10 teams that will play in Power 5 championships this weekend, and they're one of 10 out of 131. So that's pretty cool." -- Andrea Adelson

Big Ten championship game: Purdue(8-4) vs. No. 2 Michigan(12-0)

(Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, Fox)

Purdue is 3-0 against AP top-5 teams under Jeff Brohm, which is an incredible mark.

Brohm and the Boilermakers have another opportunity to face a top-3 opponent on Saturday against No. 2-ranked Michigan in the Big Ten championship game. Purdue is the underdog in the game as the Wolverines are undefeated and coming off of a win against then-No. 2 Ohio State.

Brohm said there isn't a secret formula to the success he and his teams have had against highly ranked opponents, but he knows it's going to take a lot to take down Michigan.

"When you play those type of teams, you have a little luck on your side, you've got to play your very best," Brohm said. "A lot of things got to go your way. You know, I do think that we will prepare hard, I do think that we will give it our best shot. I do think that as coaches, we got to put in a plan that has a couple of wrinkles here and there, that gives us an edge."

Brohm has been watching the film and saw the Michigan team that came out and attacked Ohio State, outscoring the Buckeyes 28-3 in the second half of their game.

"Michigan's played lights out this week. Very well coached, tremendous defense. I think their front four plus, basically, their front seven will be the most talented team we played to date," Brohm said. "They're big, they're stout, they will rotate a lot of guys in, good in the secondary, just statistically one of the best defenses in the country. And on offense, the running game, the tight ends, the O-line, and now a really athletic, dynamic quarterback who can make plays outside the pocket."

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said it finally sunk in that his team beat Ohio State and finished the season undefeated when he was traveling back home from the game. He said he tried to answer as many text messages as he could from supporters after the win, but he is focused on this game and what it means for the program.

A second Big Ten championship in a row, a berth in the College Football Playoff for the second year in a row and it seems like the Wolverines have been playing in must-win games like this for the past three weeks.

"The week before was the biggest game in the world, past game was the biggest game in the world to us," Harbaugh said. "Now this game is the biggest game in the world to us and going about the preparation, the study of our opponent, the meetings, the practices and getting ready for this game. So, we can have the same feeling of winning and thrill of victory."

Because Michigan has been in so many high-pressured situations, and because Purdue is the underdog, Brohm is looking at this game as one that Purdue doesn't have to stress about. His team knows that no one picked them to play in this game and that there is a lot riding on it for the Wolverines.

"There's going to be more pressure on Michigan, of course," Brohm said. "They've got a chance to really do something special this year, they're in a great position to do that. So, for us, this is a one-game shot to play in a championship game and roll the dice and see what we can do." -- Tom VanHaaren

American Athletic Conference championship: No. 22UCF(9-3) vs. No. 18Tulane(10-2)

(Yulman Stadium, New Orleans, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN app)

The first time Tulane hosted UCF this season, the Knights jumped out to a 24-7 lead and never relinquished it, winning 38-31.

However, Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt saw something out of his team that game. He told ESPN the following week, "I think the one thing that we need to take from [that loss], I think that everyone fought. There was no quit in anyone." He added that they'd need to show a sense of urgency in the following week.

They had urgency... and then some. Pratt responded by going 9-of-14 passing for 141 yards and three touchdowns, as well as 70 yards on the ground and three more scores from there in a 59-24 win over SMU. The week after, they knocked off then-No. 24 Cincinnati on the road.

Now comes the rematch against a UCF team that rebounded this past week in the War on I-4, after a surprising 17-14 loss against Navy in Orlando. Quarterbacks Mikey Keene and John Rhys Plumlee have shared snaps the last couple of games, giving the Knights a variety of looks offensively, with no shortage of playmakers surrounding them.

The Knights ran for a then season-high 336 yards (176 of which came from quarterback Plumlee) in their first matchup with the Green Wave, which was the most Tulane has allowed all season. UCF's 38 points in that game was also the most Tulane's defense has allowed this year.

The Knights have won the previous five games against the Green Wave. In a season where Tulane has been one of the best and most surprising stories, the Green Waves' next chapter becomes this second chance they're being given against a UCF hurdle that they haven't been able to clear.

There won't be a better time to do it than Saturday afternoon, but as the Knights have established in the past, it's not going to be easy. -- Harry Lyles Jr.

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