College Football Conference Championship Weekend Preview: Storylines, matchups and predictions for the biggest games

Morgantown, West Virginia, USA; Kansas State Wildcats running back Deuce Vaughn (22) runs the ball for a touchdown during the first quarter against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

• Previewing the biggest conference championship games in college football: USCUtah, TCUKansas State, GeorgiaLSU, UCFTulane, ClemsonNorth Carolina and MichiganPurdue.

• Win and you’re in: Both TCU and USC need to win their respective conferences to solidify their spots in the College Football Playoff.

• Who gets a New Year’s Six bowl game?: Both the ACC and American Athletic Conference champions will play in one of college football’s six biggest bowl games, while the loser will be left out.

Estimated Reading Time: 9 mins

We finally made it to college football's Championship Weekend.

Not only will champions be crowned in all 10 FBS conferences, but it’s the final chance for playoff College Football Playoff contenders to make their cases to the committee. Here are the storylines to know, matchups to watch and predictions for the six biggest conference championship games.

No. 4 USC Trojans vs. No. 11 Utah Utes (Pac-12 Championship Game)

How to watch: 8 p.m. ET on FOX (Friday)

Storyline to know: Win and you’re in for USC

All the Trojans need to do to make their first-ever College Football Playoff appearance is win the Pac-12 championship game.

That’s easier said than done. Utah is the only team to beat USC this season, doing so in a 43-42 nailbiter in October. If the Trojans can’t avenge that loss, that opens up the door for fifth-ranked Ohio State to jump them in the final CFP ranking. 

Matchup to watch: USC’s passing game vs. Utah’s secondary

USC’s offense is far and away the most efficient in the country this season in terms of expected points added per play.

Most efficient offenses in EPA per play | 2022
School EPA per play
USC 0.305
Tennessee 0.264
Washington 0.260

The catalyst for that explosive offense is quarterback Caleb Williams, who’s currently the heavy Heisman favorite (-2500), according to BetMGM. He also has the benefit of playing behind the Power Five’s second-highest-graded offensive line and getting to throw to Jordan Addison, whose 90.6 grade since last season ranks third among active Power Five wide receivers. 

Tasked with covering Addison will be Utah’s Clark Phillips III, whose 86.8 man-coverage grade is the third-best among Power Five cornerbacks. Under his leadership, the Utes’ 88.1 team coverage grade is the second-best in the Pac-12.

Prediction: USC 34, Utah 31

Caleb Williams locks up the Heisman Trophy and the Trojans clinch a playoff spot, exacting revenge on the Utes.

USC (-2.5) vs. Utah -105
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No. 3 TCU Horned Frogs vs. No. 10 Kansas State Wildcats (Big 12 Championship Game)

How to watch: 12 p.m. ET on ABC

Storyline to know: Can Kansas State finish the job this time?

TCU enters the Big 12 championship game undefeated, but one of its closest calls came to none other than Kansas State in October.

In that game, the Horned Frogs once trailed by 18 points, their largest deficit all season. TCU then stormed back and scored 28 unanswered to claim a 38-28 victory. Even if Kansas State wins, TCU will probably remain in the College Football Playoff, save for maybe a blowout. A win for the Wildcats would bring them their first Big 12 title and New Year’s Six bowl game appearance in a decade. 

Matchup to watch: Kansas State’s run game vs. TCU’s run defense

The Wildcats run the ball on over 58% of their plays, the eighth-highest rate in the Power Five. Deuce Vaughn leads all FBS running backs since 2020 with 98 rushes of 10-plus yards.

He was able to gash TCU back in October, rushing for a touchdown and nearly seven yards per carry. However, he received only 12 attempts in that game, so his impact was limited despite his efficient day.

Kansas State will need to put the ball in Vaughn’s hands more if it wants to spoil TCU’s undefeated season on Saturday.

Prediction: Kansas State 30, TCU 28

The Wildcats learn from their past mistakes and end TCU’s undefeated season, setting up a very interesting debate for the College Football Playoff committee to settle between the Horned Frogs and Ohio State.

No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs vs. No. 14 LSU Tigers (SEC Championship Game)

How to watch: 4 p.m. ET on CBS

Storyline to know: Can this year’s Georgia squad do what last year’s couldn’t?

Georgia is trying to become the first team to win back-to-back national championships since Alabama 10 years ago. 

Georgia's only loss in 2021 came in the SEC championship game to the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide before exacting revenge on them in the national championship game. 

This year’s Bulldogs already clinched a playoff berth, but they can also bring home the school’s first SEC title in five years. 

Matchup to watch: Georgia’s offensive line vs. LSU’s pass rush

Georgia has done an excellent job of keeping quarterback Stetson Bennett’s uniform clean this season. The Bulldogs have both the lowest pressure rate allowed (11.4%) and the lowest knock-down rate allowed (1.2%) in the Power Five. The star of that unit is left tackle Broderick Jones, who owns the fourth-best pass-blocking grade among Power Five offensive tackles and is a top-25 prospect on PFF’s 2023 NFL Draft big board

LSU boasts an 83.2 pass-rushing grade this season, which ranks ninth in the Power Five and is second only to Missouri among Georgia opponents this season. That game against the Tigers was the closest that the Bulldogs have come to losing this year, as they needed a 10-point comeback in under 10 minutes to secure a 26-22 victory despite entering the contest as 31-point favorites. Georgia’s offensive line endured by far its worst performance of the season.

Georgia’s offensive line vs. Missouri compared to all other games
Weeks Pass-blocking grade Pressure % allowed Knock-down % allowed  (Sacks + QB hits)
vs. Missouri 57.3 22.2% 4.4%
Other 11 games 90.7 8.8% 0.3%

If the LSU Tigers have as much success getting to Bennett as the Missouri Tigers did, they could pull off the upset. 

Prediction: Georgia 35, LSU 17

LSU’s pass rush has some success, but not enough to make this a close game. Georgia gets the SEC championship monkey off its back and sets its sights on a second straight national title.

No. 22 UCF Knights at No. 18 Tulane Green Wave (American Athletic championship game)

How to watch: 4 p.m. ET on ABC

Storyline to know: A New Year’s Six Bowl is on the line

The highest-ranked Group of Five champion is guaranteed a spot in one of the New Year’s Six bowl games. Currently, the only two ranked such teams are UCF and Tulane, meaning the winner will both claim the AAC crown and secure a spot in one of the six biggest bowl games.

A NY6 bowl isn’t unusual for the Knights. They’ve made three in the past nine years. It would be historic for the Green Wave, though. They haven’t been to one in 83 years, back when they were a member of the SEC.

Matchup to watch: Can Tulane contain John Rhys Plumlee?

The last time these two played was only three weeks ago, when UCF went on the road and beat Tulane, 38-31. 

Against a stingy Green Wave secondary, Knights quarterback John Rhys Plumlee mustered just 132 passing yards. However, it was his legs that carried UCF to victory. The Ole Miss transfer rushed for 176 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. 

Tulane can’t let Plumlee run wild again if it wants to win the AAC title.

Prediction: Tulane 31, UCF 27

The Green Wave avenge their loss from three weeks ago and head to their first New Year’s Six bowl game since the Great Depression.

No. 9 Clemson Tigers vs. No. 23 North Carolina Tar Heels (ACC Championship Game)

How to watch: 8 p.m. ET on ABC

Storyline to know: A changing of the guard in the ACC?

Last season was the first time Clemson didn’t win the ACC championship in seven years. If the Tigers lose Saturday, it will likely be the first time since 2010 that they went back-to-back years without making a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Meanwhile, North Carolina is looking for its first conference title since 1980. The Tar Heels are set up nicely for a run next year, too, as quarterback Drake Maye still has one more year before he can head to the NFL.

Matchup to watch: North Carolina’s passing game vs. Clemson’s pass defense

Maye has a 91.9 grade this season, the highest among Power Five quarterbacks. The redshirt freshman’s 39 big-time throws are six more than anyone else in college football. Many of those have gone to Josh Downs, who has the third-best receiving grade among Power Five receivers and is a first-round prospect on PFF’s 2023 NFL Draft big board.

Clemson needs to knock Maye off his game so he doesn’t pick the Tigers apart. Fortunately for them, Clemson has the third-highest pass-rushing grade in the Power Five (90.0). Leading that defensive line are Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy, two top-10 prospects on PFF’s 2023 NFL Draft big board.

Prediction: Clemson 34, North Carolina 27

Clemson does enough to slow down Maye and the high-powered North Carolina and wins its seventh ACC championship in eight years. 

No. 2 Michigan Wolverines vs. Purdue Boilermakers (Big Ten Championship Game)

How to watch: 8 p.m. ET on FOX

Storyline to know: Is Michigan now the team to beat in the Big Ten?

Ohio State has dominated the Big Ten in the 21st century. Since 2000, the Buckeyes have 11 conference championships. The next-closest Big Ten team is Michigan with four.

The Wolverines can establish themselves as the new team to beat in the conference this weekend as they go for their second straight Big Ten championship against Purdue after the Buckeyes had a four-year run of winning the conference.

Matchup to watch: What will Michigan’s identity be without Blake Corum?

The Wolverines suffered a devastating loss Thursday when it was announced that running back Blake Corum would undergo season-ending knee surgery.

Corum had been the best player in college football this season. The junior’s 95.9 grade isn’t only the highest among all players in the country, it’s also one of the highest PFF has ever seen from a Power Five player.

Highest-graded seasons by a Power Five player in PFF College era (Since 2014)
Name Position School Year PFF Grade
Kyle Pitts Tight End Florida 2020 96.0
ChaseYoung EdgenDefender Ohio State 2019 96.0
Quinnen Williams Interior Defensive Lineman Alabama 2018 96.0
Blake Corum Running Back Michigan 2022 95.9

He’s also the most valuable non-quarterback in the nation, according to PFF’s wins above average metric.

Luckily for Michigan, it has a more than capable replacement in Donovan Edwards. The sophomore’s 89.4 grade is eighth-best among FBS running backs with at least 225 snaps. Against Ohio State, he ran for 216 yards and two touchdowns, averaging nearly 10 yards per carry. 

Edwards could run wild against a Purdue defense that’s one of the Power Five’s 15 worst in terms of run-defense grade.

Prediction: Michigan 35, Purdue 17

Michigan cruises to its second consecutive Big Ten title and third since 2004.

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