2023 College Football: Conference Championship Takeaways

Welcome to the conference championships! For most of these teams, this is the big goal. A select few have CFP dreams. I’ll be covering each of the 10 FBS title games, so expect a long article. Therefore, I’m not going to do specific CFP and draft sections this time. I will write a separate article with my final CFP picks before the official announcement on 12/3 at noon EST, and the draft will be the main focus of the months ahead. The games below are sorted in order of occurrence (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: (24) Liberty 49, New Mexico State 35

Two conference newcomers played in this year’s championship, but you might not have expected that coming into the season. Both New Mexico State and Liberty were independents that appeared to be on the rise, which is what made them attractive to C-USA (as they weren’t coming from the FCS, they were eligible for the title; sorry James Madison). NMSU hadn’t been good for a while though, and Liberty had lost its final 4 games in 2022. Relatively new coaches made their marks and formed their squads into conference juggernauts immediately upon arrival.

Jerry kill took an awful NSMU team from 2-10 to a bowl win in his first year, and for an encore, he posted 10 wins in year 2. Much of the turnaround was sparked by QB Diego Pavia, who showed promise last year but blossomed in 2023. Jamey Chadwell came over to Liberty from Coastal Carolina and paid immediate dividends. His team went 12-0 and earned the #24 ranking during the regular season. Liberty won the first head-to-head matchup against NMSU in September by battling for a half and then pulling away. This time, the teams played a close game yet again, but one thing was missing: defense.

The first 3 combined drives all went for TDs. Liberty seemed poised to take a halftime lead, but a bad squib kick hit an NMSU player. The Aggies were alert and got good field position, which they parlayed into perfectly executed TD drive to tie the game with 3 seconds left in the half. Just when Liberty started to pull away in the 3rd quarter, Pavia hit WR Jonathan Brady for a 1-play, 75-yard TD. Unfortunately, Pavia left the game after that play with an elbow injury. I didn’t see how he got hurt, but he would not return, finishing 11/16 for 188 yards and 3 TDs. He added 45 yards rushing and a score on the ground.

More Liberty kicking issues (an FG miss from 31 yards and a kickoff out of bounds) let NMSU hang around, and freshman backup QB Blaze Berlowitz led a TD drive to tie the game. WR Trent Hudson (7/112/2) caught the TD, and he was a friend to both QBs in this game. A big swing came in the 4th quarter, where NMSU was called for OPI, but a clear DPI on Liberty subsequently went uncalled. Berlowitz converted 3rd and 22 anyway, but the drive ended with an end-zone INT by Brandon Bishop, where he and the WR had near-simultaneous possession. That iced the game, and Liberty celebrated a 13-0 season.

Flames QB Kaidon Salter was spectacular. A career 58% passer, he completed 20 of 25 passes for 319 yards and 2 TDs, finding WR CJ Daniels (7/157/1) often. He led Liberty in rushing with 12 carries for 165 yards and another score, surpassing 1000 rushing yards on the season. RB Quinton Cooley ran for 3 TDs of his own, as he “embraces his inner bowling ball” according to the coaching staff. If you’re noticing that I haven’t said much about the defenses, that’s completely intentional. Liberty tightened up late against a backup QB, but otherwise this was an unfettered shootout. That’s what made the game so much fun!

Pac-12: (3) Washington 34, (5) Oregon 31

This game might have been the one that had the CFP committee sweating the most. Washington’s win makes their lives easy, as an Oregon victory would’ve yielded two Pac-12 teams whose only losses were to each other. In either case, the winner was likely to be in the final top 4, and a 13-0 Washington team is a lock. It’s ironic but fitting that the two teams who announced together that they’d be leaving for the Big 10 played in this title game. Everyone was also craving this rematch since the first battle between these two was so exciting. Like that matchup, this game ended in a 3-point Washington victory.

Washington came out of the gate swinging, and the Huskies built a 20-3 lead. Oregon finally started competing at the end of the half, earning a TD in a 2-minute drill. As we’ve seen in other games this year, Washington had trouble putting another opponent away in the second half. After a 4th-down TD to end the first half, the Ducks scored a 4th-down TD to open the 3rd quarter. In one bizarre sequence, Huskies QB Michael Penix Jr threw an INT. Then, two players later, Oregon QB Bo Nix threw a pick right back! Undeterred, the Ducks took a 24-20 lead on a TD the very next drive.

Penix (27/39, 319 yards, TD, INT) settled down from there, leading two long TD drives to take a commanding 34-24 lead with under 3 minutes remaining. Those two drives ate more than 10 minutes of game clock. He targeted WR Rome Odunze (8/102) often as usual, but fellow WR Jalen McMillan (9/131) had an even bigger game. The true workhorse was RB Dillon Johnson (28/152/2). He salted away the clock and broke chunk gains all game long. His counterpart, Bucky Irving (9/20), had a pedestrian outing. After Oregon got a shocking 63-yard TD bomb to Traeshon Holden, the Huskies hoarded the ball and finished.

Nix didn’t have a poor game (21/34, 239 yards, 3 TDs, INT, 69 yards rushing). He tossed 3 TD passes and even led his team in rushing. Had the Ducks won, Nix would have sealed his Heisman case. As it stands, it’s a tossup between him and LSU’s Jayden Daniels. Oregon’s season will be defined by their inability to get past Washington, who handed them both their losses. A nice New Year’s Six Bowl likely awaits one of 2023’s best teams. The Huskies become the first Pac-12 team to reach the playoff since the 2017…Huskies. They’re better than that Washington team, but they’ll have to play their best to have a chance to win the CFP.

Big XII: (7) Texas 49, (18) Oklahoma State 21

Texas probably felt like it had to make a big statement to the CFP committee. They certainly accomplished that. QB Quinn Ewers, who sources suggest is strongly considering a return next season, had his best game of the year. He threw for 452 yards and 4 TDs on 35/46 passing, with only one blemish: a telegraphed INT that set the Cowboys up at the Texas 3. Everything was working for the Longhorns offense. WR Adonai Mitchell and TE Ja’Tavion Sanders each cleared 100 yards and scored a TD. Even DT T’Vondre Sweat (who I discussed a couple of weeks ago) scored a receiving touchdown.

The 28-point margin of victory actually seems kind to Oklahoma State. After the first quarter, OSU never got within 14 points of Texas. The Cowboys put up some good offensive numbers, but most of the production came with the game out of reach. The game was such a blowout that both of Texas’ backup QBs, Maalik Murphy and Arch Manning, saw snaps. You could see the talent disparity between these two teams. One of them definitely looked like it belongs more in the SEC than the Big XII. It just so happens that the Longhorns have played their final game in the Big XII, making them very ironic champions.

If Ewers indeed returns, Texas is set up very well for next year. They have a budding star in RB CJ Baxter, who looks great even as a true freshman. Coach Steve Sarkisian is doing a great job and knows the SEC from his time in Alabama. Texas will be competitive in their new conference, but first things first. The Longhorns are hoping to snag a playoff berth as a 1-loss Power 5 conference championship. Alabama’s upset of Georgia complicates things, as does Florida State’s win possibly clogging a spot. Still, Texas has done all it can to prove that it is one of the four best teams in the country. You can’t ask for more.

MAC: Miami OH 23, Toledo 14

Toledo was attempting to become a rare repeat MAC champion after stifling an Ohio team without their starting QB last year. History seemed ready to repeat itself, as Miami QB Brett Gabbert was lost for the season with a leg injury…in a loss to Toledo earlier this season. All the Rockets, whose only loss was a 2-point heartbreaker at Illinois, had to do to claim the title was beat a limited Redhawks offense. They played pretty well defensively, but it became clear early on that their offense was not going to have a good day. Most of the struggles were due to missed opportunities.

The Rockets moved well on their first drive but lost a fumble. They would later have 2 separate FGs blocked, but perhaps that’s more about Miami. Those were the Redhawks’ 5th and 6th blocked kicks of the season, so they’re clearly well-coached on special teams. Toledo nearly botched a PAT via a dropped snap, but an offsides penalty bailed them out and enabled them to go (and make) a 2-point conversion. QB Dequan Finn threw for 273 yards, but he completed only 50% of his passes and threw an INT. Defensively, Toledo couldn’t get off the field when Miami ran the ball.

Backup QB Aveon Smith (6/16, 109 yards) did little in the passing game, but he led the Redhawks with 21 carries for 99 yards on the ground. RB Rashad Amos (15/74) wouldn’t be outdone though, scoring both of Miami’s TDs. His change of direction and cutting abilities were eye-opening. However, the defense was the story of this game. While the unit allowed Toledo to take a brief 14-13 lead, it pitched a 4th-quarter shutout and let the offense pull away. MAC DPOY Matt Salopek lived up to his award, making a team-high 9 tackles. Yahsyn McKee earned a game-sealing INT, and the defense broke up 5 passes in total.

Both of these teams should earn good bowl games at 11-2. Had Toledo won, I would’ve suggested ranking them. I obviously can’t do that now, but I certainly believe the MAC deserves more credit. The conference consistently produces fun, competitive games, and it hasn’t (yet) gotten swept up in the conference realignment wars. I wish more people would watch their midweek MACtion games during the regular season because they’d really enjoy them! This conference title game was actually less entertaining than the typical MAC game, but it was hard-fought and well-earned nonetheless.

Mountain West: Boise State 44, UNLV 20

Let me begin by saying that the way in which the teams were chosen to play in this game was ridiculous. UNLV, Boise State, and San Jose State all finished at 6-2 in conference play, but they had no mutual tiebreakers since UNLV and BSU did not play each other during the regular season. Thus, the decision came down to an average of 4 computer ranking systems. Arcane formulae decided that SJSU would be the odd team out. They’re upset about it, and I can’t blame them. Nobody can tell the Spartans “you weren’t invited because *insert reason here*”. There’s simply no reason that a human can define.

The other oddity is that one of the teams that did get picked fired their HC several weeks ago. Boise State’s Andy Avalos was canned after a 42-14 win over New Mexico. Clearly, he was doing fine if his team could both make it to the conference championship game and dominate it. BSU also lost starting QB Maddux Madsen to injury against the Lobos, returning the benched Taylen Green to that role. At 9-3, UNLV was the clear favorite, but BSU didn’t let that sentiment linger for long. The Broncos immediately scored a touchdown. UNLV scored one of their own, and then BSU added another.

Green made one big mistake, throwing a pick six to Fred Thompkins on a poor decision. Other than that, he was fantastic. The very next drive, he hit WR Austin Bolt for a 47-yard TD as part of a 12/15 passing day for 226 yards and 2 scores. UNLV followed that up with a fumble, and 1 play later, Green broke the Rebels’ backs with a ridiculous 70-yard TD run. He evaded tackles and accelerated faster than a 6’6″, 221-lb man should. Green had 90 yards and 2 TDs total on the ground. RB Ashton Jeanty joined the rushing fun with 21 carries for 153 yards and a TD, while fellow RB George Holani added 76 hard-earned yards.

The biggest mistake UNLV made was not stopping the run (clearly). Offensively, too many drives stalled and ended in FGs or turnovers. QB Jordan Maiava committed 3 turnovers on his own (2 INTs, 1 FUM). The same flaws they showed last week against San Jose State haunted them against Boise State. However, this was still a wildly successful season for the Rebels. First-year HC Barry Odom took them from 5-7 to 9-4 immediately, portending good things to come. Speaking of coaching, can we just give interim HC Spencer Danielson the Boise State job now? He has definitely earned it.

Sun Belt: Troy 49, Appalachian State 23

You know how I’m starting this one: by complaining that James Madison didn’t get to play for the Sun Belt title. I’ve railed against the NCAA’s dumb rule prohibiting a team transitioning from the FCS to the FBS from being ranked by the CFP or competing for conference titles. This was an 11-1 team that would have been the lone ranked team in the conference, and they were robbed of this opportunity. Now that we got that out of the way, welcome to the Kimani Vidal game! Did anyone else play? I kid of course, but the Troy RB was an unstoppable force. He took 26 carries for 241 yards and FIVE touchdowns.

Continuing beyond the fact that Vidal’s TD production exceeded the entire scoring output of App State, the Trojans did what they usually do: play good defense. They earned 2 strip sacks, one of which was returned by CB Don Callis for a TD that made Troy’s lead insurmountable. It was a 3-fumble day for Mountaineers QB Joey Aguilar, whose other faux pas was recovered by his own team in the end zone for a touchdown. Trojans LB Javon Solomon wrecked App State, making 8 tackles (2.5 TFLs), earning 2 sacks, and recovering a fumble. Only S Dell Pettus had more tackles (11), and he too notched a sack.

For App State, this 8-5 season is a good bounce back from last year’s disappointing 6-6 finish. The team is once again on the upswing. Troy gets to truly celebrate though. They are now back-to-back Sun Belt champions under HC Jon Sumrall. A second consecutive 11-2 season feels worthy of a top-25 ranking, especially if JMU isn’t allowed to be included (*grumble*). Troy is definitely headed to a nice bowl. Even under next year’s adjusted format, they wouldn’t make the CFP, but the Group of 5 will have more to play for given that the top-ranked of their champions will likely earn a berth.

SEC: (8) Alabama 27, (1) Georgia 24

Oh boy. The committee has a quandary on their hands now. In another thwarted conference championship repeat bid, Alabama wrecked Georgia’s 29-game winning streak and claimed the SEC crown. I wondered if maybe the Crimson Tide would lose a bit of motivation once they saw Texas win big, potentially blocking their path to the CFP. Hand it to Nick Saban: the man can coach. Even though no team has ever jumped from #8 in the penultimate week to the final top 4, he had his players giving it their all. He seemed determined to make things difficult for the committee, and he did just that.

Alabama went through a large stretch of the season with a poor passing attack, and it’s still limited. However, QB Jalen Milroe did enough (13/23, 192 yards, 2 TDs) did enough, and Saban operated through his ground game. That’s where Milroe is best, and his 29 yards don’t tell the story. That total includes sack yardage and fails to account for instances when Milroe escaped the pocket to make plays or used his threat to run to force soft coverage by Georgia. Alabama’s 2.8 yards per carry isn’t impressive, and only one player (WR Isaiah Bond) exceeded 30 receiving yards (he had 79, and 22 came on a controversial play).

The defense that carried the Crimson Tide all season won the day again. Georgia never looked comfortable on offense, and QB Carson Beck lost a critical second-half fumble. A late 28-yard punt return by Anthony Evans led to a TD and seemed to give the Bulldogs a spark. However, they didn’t have enough possessions to make a comeback, as Alabama burned the clock with their strong rushing attack. I can’t help but notice that the margin in this game was a field goal. In the first half, Georgia had a 45-yard FG attempt but false started. K Peyton Woodring doinked the subsequent 50-yard attempt off the right upright.

Without question, this was the biggest upset of championship week. It also gives Alabama the best win of any team this season. Can you now jump them over Texas despite the Longhorns’ head-to-head win? Do you excuse the Tide needing a crazy finish to escape Auburn a week ago? And what do you do with Georgia, who was the clear-cut #1 team in the nation until this very game? I’ll save my personal takes on these questions for my upcoming CFP picks article, but the committee has shown itself to have a major recency bias, with early-season results mattering far less than equivalent events that occur late in the season.

AAC: Southern Methodist 26, (22) Tulane 14

I didn’t have the highest of expectations for SMU. QB Preston Stone broke his leg against Navy last week, forcing freshman backup Kevin Jennings to start this game. My fears were realized when Tulane DE Devean Deal stripped sacked Jennings on the first play from scrimmage. He recovered the ball himself and took it to the 1, setting up an easy TD. Jennings stayed composed and led a nice second drive, but SMU missed a 40-yard field goal. It would’ve been a great confidence booster to earn some points after the opening play catastrophe. Despite all of that, the Mustangs didn’t flinch.

They rebounded to take a 14-7 lead, and they never trailed again. Jennings committed 3 turnovers (2 INTs in addition to the fumble), but he was effective as a runner and threw for 203 yards and a score. The defense devastated Tulane. Green Wave QB Michael Pratt was sacked 7 times, with DE Isaiah Smith taking him down 2.5 times by himself. With all the sack yardage, Tulane ran for just 31 yards. Though SMU generated just 1 turnover, they allowed only 1 TD in each half, giving their offense a much larger margin for error. That was crucial with a freshman backup QB, and it enabled SMU to win their first ACC title.

This was SMU’s first title of any kind since 1984. It’s also a farewell, as the Mustangs are leaving the AAC for the ACC next season. For those counting, that’s the third conference championship repeat attempt wrecked today and the third 2023 conference title won by a team leaving its conference next season. Tulane’s loss probably puts Liberty in New Year’s Six bowl as the highest-ranked Group of 5 team, breaking a 6-year streak of appearances in such bowls by AAC teams. Liberty is 133rd, i.e., dead last, in strength of schedule, so I can make a strong argument for jumping SMU ahead of them (*cough* or James Madison *cough*).

SMU deserved this win after a perfect 9-0 conference record. Their only two losses came against Power 5 opponents, with one of them (Oklahoma) a very good Big XII team. Tulane also had a great season, equaling SMU at 11-2. They lost a close game in week 2 to Ole Miss but then won 10 straight before falling in the title game. This loss is going to hurt double though, as head coach Willie Fritz is likely moving on. Houston knows he’s a good coach and is reportedly close to poaching him. Despite a great 2-year run, much uncertainty lies ahead for the Green Wave.

Big Ten: (2) Michigan 26, (16) Iowa 0

As in 2022, this year’s Big 10 title game was known in advance to be a mismatch. Iowa possesses a strong defense, but they’d have to score SOME points to beat a top-5 opponent. Alas, the Hawkeyes couldn’t even muster a single point. This was a sad way for Brian Ferentz‘s OC career to end. QB Deacon Hill threw for just 120 yards, and even that low total was mostly garbage-time production. He lost 2 fumbles, and RB Jaziun Patterson coughed up a third. The running game did nothing, with a mere 35 yards. Michigan wasn’t much better on the ground (66 yards), but that was mostly because QB JJ McCarthy took 4 sacks.

The Wolverines did not have an inspired offensive performance even with HC Jim Harbaugh‘s return from suspension. They settled for 4 field goals and failed to reach 215 total yards. You can excuse that in this game since even one of those field goals would have been sufficient to defeat Iowa. This level of production won’t cut it in the CFP though. Michigan was one of only two teams to repeat as conference champions (along with Troy), and doing so sealed their playoff berth. After Georgia’s loss, Michigan probably moves up to #1 with the expectation of a deep run.

I can’t give you many positives for Iowa. The defense was good again, but they weren’t legendary. That’s a ridiculous standard, but there is no other benchmark when your offense gives you ZERO points. HC Kirk Ferentz needs to do something, literally anything, to improve this offense. Changing coordinators won’t fix this. Iowa needs a QB, some WRs, and restocked talent on the offensive line. They don’t even have a star TE right now, and they’re famous for those. The reality for this program is that they can regularly hang around the top 25, but they are stagnant. Advancing to the upper echelons of college football is unlikely.

ACC: (4) Florida State 16, (14) Louisville 6

We didn’t know if Seminoles backup QB Tate Rodemaker was going to play in this game after he suffered a head injury last week against Florida. The decision came down to the wire, but Rodemaker wasn’t cleared to play, and the ball was handed to freshman Brock Glenn. I think he competed admirably, but he was in way over his head. Playing very much like a freshman, he went 8/21 for just 55 yards, but to his credit, he didn’t turn the ball over (there were a couple of close calls though). Unsurprisingly, the Seminoles only scored 16 points. Mike Norvell‘s defense had to play the game of its life to beat a top-15 opponent.

Even with that lofty threshold for success, the FSU defense exceeded it by a mile. This was one of the most impressive defensive performances I’ve seen from any team all season. I say that even knowing that I just wrote about a #16 team being shut out. They sacked Louisville QB Jack Plummer 7 times, forced an INT, and recorded 14.5 TFLs. DL Braden Fiske, a transfer from Western Michigan, dominated with 9 tackles, 3 sacks, and a ridiculous 4.5 TFLs. First-round DE prospect Jared Verse had 2 sacks and 3 TFLs of his own, but his disruptiveness opened up opportunities for everyone else on the defensive line.

This game was a punt-fest at the start. The first-half scoring contained a single FSU FG. FSU finally found the end zone in the 3rd quarter after the Cardinals tied the game. RB Lawrance Toafili broke a 73-yard run before dashing 2 yards for the score. Louisville tacked on another FG, and then they got their chance. Bad punt protection on the ensuing rive forced P Alex Mastromanno to keep the ball, and he lost 11 yards before being tackled at his own 12. The Cardinals nearly scored on the next play, but the ball came loose on the throw to Nate Kurisky. Two plays later, Plummer was picked off in the end zone by LB Tatum Bethune.

A really great first season for Louisville HC Jeff Brohm ended in poor fashion. Last week’s loss to Kentucky really hurt, and this week’s game was simply putrid. Still, this team was projected to finish 8th in the ACC, and instead they’re a top-25 program. The future remains bright. FSU is in a curious spot now. They capped off a 13-0 season, which is a tremendous accomplishment. Normally, that feat in the Power 5 is accompanied by a CFP slot. We just don’t know how the committee will view the Seminoles without starting QB Jordan Travis. I guess we’ll all just have to wait and see what they think on selection Sunday.

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