Welcome to the conference championships! For most of these teams, this is the big goal. A select few have CFP dreams. I’m going to be covering every one of the 10 FBS title games, so be ready for a long article. With that in mind, I’m not going to do specific CFP and draft sections this time. I will write a separate article with my final CFP picks some time before the official announcement on 12/4 at noon EST, and the draft will be the main focus of the months ahead. The games below are sorted in the order in which they occur (soonest first). All we have left are the playoffs and the bowls, and I’ll be analyzing those too! Without further ado, here are my conference championship takeaways.
Conference USA: UTSA 48, North Texas 27
The CFP committee continued to disrespect the Roadrunners. A week ago, I complained about the fact that UTSA wasn’t ranked, and the AP and Coaches’ Poll ranked them a couple of days later. The CFP committee, on the other hand, still left them out. In response, UTSA won their second consecutive conference title. This was the first of a few championship games in which the teams played each other earlier in the year. Last time, UTSA won in dramatic fashion, taking the lead with just 15 seconds left. This one was more comfortable, with UTSA taking control late in the first half and maintaining their lead. The Roadrunners showed that they’re the class of C-USA. The AAC is getting a good team when Jeff Traylor’s squad joins the conference next season.
Eight starters were out for the Roadrunners, but their offense carried the day. QB Frank Harris was sublime, going 32/37 for 341 yards and 4 TDs while adding 49 yards and a TD on the ground. RB Kevorian Barnes (25/169/1) was a workhorse, churning out yardage and controlling the clock. TE Oscar Cardenas contributed 6 catches for 84 yards and a TD, and he had another great TD called back by penalty. WR Joshua Cephus (11/84) was good as usual, but the MVP for my money was fellow WR Zakhari Franklin. Franklin made strong catches, made defenders miss, and simply dominated to the tune of 10 catches for 144 yards and 3 TDs. UTSA’s defense stepped up when needed, keeping UNT at arm’s length.
On the UNT side, QB Austin Aune, the oldest starting QB in the FBS at 29, was a 6-year minor leaguer for the Yankees. One of his sidearm baseball throws went off target and led to a pick. That really changed the game’s momentum, with UTSA scoring 17 unanswered points after the turnover. He threw another INT on a deep shot, but he fired some nice passes as well. The Mean Green actually played a decent game. The defense had an amazing goal line stand, stopping UTSA 3 straight times from the 1 in the first half to force a turnover on downs. The best unit for UNT was the offensive line, which blew defenders off the line repeatedly, giving Aune time and allowing the Mean Green to compile 147 rushing yards and 2 TDs on the ground. Any chance UNT had to win this game came from the guys up front.
Pac-12: (11) Utah 47, (4) USC 24
Caleb Williams had a chance to make the final statement in the Heisman race, and he almost did it. Voting ends Monday, and with Ohio State and CJ Stroud sitting out of conference championship weekend, this game will be freshest on voters’ minds. Williams was spectacular the last time these two teams met, and he started off the same way this time. However, in the first half, possibly on a run, Williams hurt his leg. The game completely flipped at that point. USC had a 17-3 lead and looked unstoppable, but they allowed Utah to tie the score at 17 before the half. USC scored just 7 points in the entire second half as Williams was less mobile and couldn’t set his feet to fire as many accurate balls as before.
Williams still had a nice stat line, going 28/41 for 363 yards and 3 TDs and adding a 59-yard rush, and most of that wasn’t garbage time production. He played well, and he put forward an absolutely gutsy effort, but he didn’t have quite enough. Despite throwing some incredible passes and escaping sacks, he threw just his 4th INT of the year and lost a fumble while trying to will his team to a comeback victory. He got no help from his running game, which compiled just 35 yards from RBs. The defense was typically atrocious. It has been the Achilles heel of this team all year, and you knew it would cost them at some point. Missed tackles were the prime disaster, allowing Utah to earn more than 200 yards after contact. Williams’ injury was brutal for USC, but when they get left out of the CFP, don’t blame him; blame the unit hemorrhaging points almost every week.
Like UTSA above, Utah has won their conference for the second consecutive season. They definitely seem like they have USC’s number; they’ve now beaten the Trojans twice and have been the only team to beat them at all this season. Unlike their opponent, the Utes are powered by their defense. Holding USC to just 24 points, Williams injury or not, is actually a major feat. He was also sacked numerous times. CB Clark Phillips and the rest of the secondary mostly held Jordan Addison, Mario Williams, and the rest of USC’s receiving corps in check. On offense, QB Cameron Rising (22/34, 310 yards, 3 TDs) had his best game of the year. The running game was spectacular, totaling 223 yards and 3 TDs. Kyle Whittingham produced a masterful game plan, and Utah earned a spot in the Rose Bowl. They’ll probably return to the top 10 in the final rankings.
Big XII: (10) Kansas State 31, (3) TCU 28
When these teams met several weeks ago, KSU took a 28-10 first-half lead but got shut out in the second half. TCU came back to win that one, and the Wildcats were determined to prevent that from happening again. As a result, we got an OT contest with tons of dramatic moments. TCU’s offense was not great in the first half, scoring just 10 points and losing a fumble. Though he was the one who lost the fumble, WR Quentin Johnston was a monster in his return from an ankle sprain, catching 4 passes for 139 yards. Credit Kansas State’s defense for making life uncomfortable for TCU QB Max Duggan.
KSU rallied to the ball, pressuring Duggan on many key passes and forcing two turnovers (the aforementioned fumble and an INT). Offensively, QB Will Howard, filling in for an injured Adrian Martinez, continues to look like the better option. His stats (18/32 for 199 yards and 2 TDs) weren’t flashy, but he executed the offense effectively and threw some absolute lasers. RB Deuce Vaughn, KSU’s best player, played up to his reputation. He ran 26 times for 130 yards and a TD while adding 30 receiving yards. The Wildcats did just enough to beat the best team in the conference and earn themselves a top-10 ranking to end the season.
Duggan wouldn’t go down without a fight though. I’ve never seen a more valiant effort. He threw for 256 yards and a TD (plus a game-tying 2-point conversion), but with the game on the line, his legs nearly let the Horned Frogs escape. He ran 15 times for 110 yards and a TD. Duggan ran so much on the final drive of regulation that he could barely get off the field. His exhaustion might have contributed to TCU’s playcalling in OT. With 2nd and goal at the 1 after a Duggan run, the Horned Frogs handed the ball off to Kendre Miller twice. He was stuffed both times. On the first one, I actually think he broke the plane, but the officials deemed the evidence inconclusive due to the camera angle. After the turnover on downs, all KSU had to do was kick a field goal to steal the championship. I still think TCU belongs in the playoff (spoiler alert), but losing the conference title game stings.
MAC: Toledo 17, Ohio 7
This was the least exciting conference championship game, but Ohio had a very good excuse for their performance. QB Kourtis Rourke, the best QB in the conference, missed the game with a knee injury. That left backup CJ Harris to run the offense, and the results were predictable. The Bobcats scored just 7 points all game, turned the ball over once, and weren’t really threatening. It hurts for the team because the defense played a really good game. They allowed a bunch of rushing yards (236), but Toledo wasn’t able to pass the ball as effectively as they wanted to.
Toledo’s defense was the biggest factor in this game. LB Dallas Gant led the way with 10 total tackles, and safety Nate Bauer picked off an errant Harris pass on one of the few occasions that Ohio neared midfield. The Rockets played sound coverage, had no special teams lapses, and never trailed in the game. The most impactful play was Jacquez Stuart’s 29-yard TD run on the first drive. It set the tone of the contest and gave Toledo a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish. Ohio might have been able to earn a ranking in the 20s had they won to move to 10-3, but the MAC is likely to be left out, which is nothing new for this Group of 5 conference.
Sun Belt: Troy 45, Coastal Carolina 26
This game could have turned out very differently. I say that because if CCU’s star QB Grayson McCall had been healthy, we might have witnessed an alternate outcome. Shockingly, McCall suited up for this game after originally being declared out for the year. He wasn’t quite himself though. McCall got into a better rhythm in the second half, but it was much too late. He finished 29/41 for 319 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT, and 1 lost fumble. The Chanticleers can’t blame the loss on that injury either, because the defense was shredded by the Trojans to the tune of 412 yards and 45 points. So maybe things wouldn’t have changed after all.
Troy seemed as if they were mad about not being ranked and then took it out on CCU. The Trojans started the game on fire, scoring 17 first-quarter points. QB Gunnar Watson had the same 319 yards and 3 TDs as McCall but did so in just 17 attempts. He also played turnover-free football. RB DK Billingsley, who had just 9 carries on the day, ran for 57 yards and 3 TDs. Troy played so well that the game was essentially over at halftime. The score at that point was 31-7, and the final result would look even more lopsided if not for a 13-0 4th quarter by the Chanticleers with the game well out of reach.
You have to think that Troy will make the final rankings after an 11-2 season with a conference title. Some might even argue that the Trojans should be the Group of 5 representative at a New Year’s Six bowl. They’re certainly the hottest team, winning their last 10 straight games. Their only losses came on a Hail Mary by Appalachian State and against Ole Miss, a Power 5 ranked team. I’m not sure that you can pick them over Tulane, who beat what we now know is a fearsome Kansas State team and avenged one of their two losses (vs. UCF), so the Trojans will have to settle for being the best in the Sun Belt. Not a bad place to be!
SEC: (1) Georgia 50, (14) LSU 30
LSU has definitely come back down to earth. I jokingly wondered before the game if Georgia would dominate so badly that QB Stetson Bennett would only play one half. The score at halftime was 35-7, so it was less of a joke and more of a real question. Bennett ended up playing the whole game, and it was one of his best in a Bulldog uniform. He went 23/29 for 274 yards and 4 TDs. The Bulldogs ran for 255 yards and 2 TDs as a team, while the receivers were led by TE Brock Bowers, who caught 6 passes for 81 yards and a TD. With his size, strength, and speed, Bowers is going to be a high draft pick whenever he declares.
For LSU, you knew how this game was going to go on their second drive. The Tigers attempted a 32-yard FG, which was blocked. The LSU players seemed to think that the play was over, but Christopher Smith didn’t. He took the ball back 96 yards for a Georgia TD. That lack of awareness by LSU permeated throughout the game. QB Jayden Daniels (16/24, 208 yards, TD, INT) was not very effective again and left injured for the second straight week. Honestly, backup Garrett Nussmeier (15/27 for 294 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) played much better, though Georgia’s coverage was a bit softer at that point. The two top receivers, Malik Nabers and Kayshon Boutte, each topped 100 yards and scored a TD.
There’s not a whole lot else to say about this game. It seemed like a mismatch on paper, and that was true in reality. The second half only seemed to be played for practice. Georgia easily locked up their #1 seed in the CFP, while LSU has questions for the second straight week. If Daniels goes to the NFL (he shouldn’t), who plays QB? Brian Kelly had a good first year as coach, but it ended with a bit of a thud. He needs to improve his team to take the next step, because although the rankings thought so, the Tigers aren’t real contenders just yet. Meanwhile, Kirby Smart and Georgia will just continue to reload and reload. The rich get richer.
AAC: (18) Tulane 45, (22) UCF 28
What a season for Willie Fritz and the Green Wave. His team had an uncharacteristically poor season in 2021, going just 2-10. They completely flipped the script this year, finishing 10-2 in the regular season and earning the right to host the AAC conference championship game. Avenging their loss to UCF a few weeks ago, the Green Wave handled the Knights with ease this time, leading for the entirety of the game. QB Michael Pratt (20/33, 394 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT) and RB Tyjae Spears (22/199/1) were the stars on offense, and both have a case as the best at their position in the conference. WRs Duece Watts and and Shae Wyatt each exceeded 100 yards and combined for 3 TDs. The defense held an explosive UCF offense in check to earn a true team win.
UCF Starting QB John Rhys Plumlee came into the game with a hamstring injury, and backup Mikey Keene was out with an injury of his own. Plumlee started but wasn’t fully healthy, and coach Gus Malzahn made a mistake. He pulled Plumlee after 3 drives with UCF down 10-0. True freshman Thomas Castellanos came in, and he was not ready for this moment. He went 2/8 for 7 yards, and UCF only scored on one drive where they ran 7 times out of 8 plays. Plumlee returned to the game and mounted a comeback, but it was too little too late. The Knights scored TDs on 3 of Plumlee’s 5 second-half drives, but they allowed Tulane to score TDs on 3 of their 5 drives as well, keeping the score difference at 17.
UCF was having a great season, but they sort of stumbled at the end. First they flopped against Navy, and now they had a weak effort against Tulane. Better health will help them along, but so would some more impact defenders. Tulane is now headed to the Cotton Bowl as the top-ranked Group of 5 team. Fritz has produced good Purdue teams for years, so I’ll err on the side of calling last year’s debacle an outlier. This team is his finest yet, as it even beat a Power 5 team: Kansas State, who just won the Big XII. That’s a signature win for the Green Wave, though they probably regret that Southern Mississippi loss. UCF is off to the Big XII next year, but Tulane will try to repeat as AAC champs in 2023.
Mountain West: Fresno State 28, Boise State 16
This one can be chalked up to “the team with the best QB in the conference won the conference”. A couple of months ago, Bulldogs QB Jake Haener looked to have played his last college snap when he was carted off against USC with a leg injury. Just over a month later, he returned to lead Fresno State to wins in each of his five starts to set up this matchup against Boise State. Without Haener, the Bulldogs lost to the Broncos 40-20. This time, with their QB1, Fresno State completely controlled the matchup on Boise State’s own blue field.
Haener did not have a big statistical day, going a modest 17/27 for 184 yards and a TD. However, he managed the game against a good defense and drastically outplayed his counterpart, Boise’s Taylen Green. Green finished 17/38 for 175 yards, 1 TD, and 2 INTs. At this point in his career, the freshman is more of a running threat than a passer, but he only managed 30 yards on the ground. That’s a result of a great game plan by Jeff Tedford’s team, which kept Green in the pocket and forced him to win through the air. He couldn’t, and that allowed Fresno to grind out the game with Jordan Mims (26/83/2 TDs).
A season that started 1-4 could not have turned out better for Fresno State, who went 8-1 in the conference and won 8 straight games to finish the season. Boise State had a quality season as well, as two of their losses (BYU and Oregon State) are quite acceptable. They also got Green a ton of experience, which should put him in a much better position in 2023. Fresno State is the one who must start a new QB, as Haener is out of eligibility. These two teams are both likely to be contenders for the Mountain West title once again, so we’ll see how they fare next season.
Big Ten: (2) Michigan 43, Purdue 22
We knew ahead of time that Purdue was overmatched, and indeed they were. I admire their effort; they fought really hard. The talent gap between them and Michigan was just too much. The number one indicator of that fact was red zone efficiency. You aren’t going to beat the #2 team in the country by kicking 5 field goals. TDs are necessities in these matchups. Purdue QB Aidan O’Connell is a solid player, and he was fairly efficient (32/47 for 366 yards). Alas, two INTs (one in the redzone and one in Purdue’s own redzone) really hurt his team’s chances. The Boilermakers ran decently, but they couldn’t convert their opportunities into touchdowns, whereas Michigan certainly did.
The Wolverines were dominant on the ground, with RB Donovan Edwards once again a stellar replacement for the injured Blake Corum. Edwards totaled 185 yards and a TD on 25 carries. QB JJ McCarthy was once again not asked to carry the team, and he threw the ball just 17 times. He made the most of those attempts, completing 11 for 161 yards and 3 TDs, though he did throw 1 INT. The defense often bent, but they didn’t break, forcing numerous FG attempts. Ultimately, Michigan didn’t need their A game to beat an opponent from the weak Big Ten West, but they still rose to the occassion.
Purdue finishes a nice season at 8-5, and their only true dud was a 24-3 loss to Iowa. They didn’t lose to any objectively inferior teams. Michigan happily takes their 2nd straight Big Ten crown, but their work isn’t done. The Wolverines will be the #2 seed in the CFP, and they’re most likely going to face TCU. Whether they battle TCU or Ohio State, they’ll need their 3rd consecutive top-notch effort to avoid falling in the semifinals as they did last year. Unlike Georgia, the only other undefeated team remaining, Michigan has a lot left to prove. Their schedule hasn’t painted them as a dominant team, and they don’t have playoff wins to boost their pedigree. That said, they’re 13-0 and have the chance to prove their doubters wrong, which is all that matters.
ACC: (9) Clemson 39, (23) North Carolina 10
DJ Uiagalelei was promised the start against UNC. He wasn’t promised the finish. Uiagalelei lasted just 2 series (2/5 for 10 yards) before being pulled. The fans who had been clamoring for Cade Klubnik got their wish. Klubnik had not been much better in relief at times this year, but today was different. He immediately provided a spark, helping the Tigers build a large lead. Klubnik finished 20/24 for 279 yards and a TD before being sent to the bench for good reasons. Hunter Johnson finished out the game. Klubnik was also the team’s leading rusher with 30 yards and a TD. The difference in effectiveness between the 2 QBs was staggering, and I’d bet that this was Uiagalelei’s last game as a Tiger.
Regarding UNC, this is another team that staggered their way into a championship game. Like LSU and UCF, North Carolina didn’t come in playing their best football. Having lost two straight against inferior Georgia Tech and NC State teams, UNC should have been ready this time. They weren’t. For all of freshman QB Drake Maye’s strong play (and Heisman hype) this year, this wasn’t his finest hour. Maye finished 26/42 for 268 yards and 2 INTs, producing the team’s lowest point total of the season. The defense, known as the weakness of the Tar Heels, didn’t help at all. The unit made Klubnik look like a budding star (maybe he is), though they defended the run well. A promising season ends with them likely outside of the top 25.
Clemson is a very interesting case of “what if”. Had the Tigers not fallen on their faces against South Carolina, we could be talking about them as the 4 seed. The loss to Notre Dame was awful, but we’d be discussing a 1-loss Power 5 conference champion. I’d certainly take that over Ohio State or 2-loss Alabama. With USC’s loss, the committee would have a very interesting decision on their hands. Unfortunately for Clemson, they couldn’t afford to mess up. Their poor offense has caused them to be viewed negatively by the committee. The Tigers were ranked lower than similar teams even when they had just 1 loss. That second loss ended their playoff hopes, leaving Clemson with nothing to do but enjoy a big bowl game and wonder what could have been.