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4-Down Territory: Big Playoff Drama as One Era of College Football Gives Way to The Future

If you're a fan of the history and tradition of College Football, the past few years have made it feel like this house of college football has its foundations built on shifting sand and not rock.

But let’s take a moment to savor some history. The modern conference championship game era began 34 years ago sparked by events in the Keystone State of Pennsylvania. The first shots fired of that revolution were the stunning 1989 announcement that Penn State would be joining the conference after a long history as an independent.


Not to be outdone the ten-team SEC jumped on an NCAA rule proposed by two Division II conferences (one of them PSAC--the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference) that allowed 12-team leagues to play a conference championship game. The SEC added Arkansas from the Southwest Conference and previously independent South Carolina to get to 12 teams. At the end of that season Alabama beat Florida at Legion Field in Birmingham in the first SEC Championship game. The SWC and the Big 8 formed the Big 12 and their first conference Championship game was played in 1996 when Texas QB James Brown hit a gutsy 4th down pass to beat #3 Nebraska. Now 27 years later Texas closes their Big 12 era in that title game.


The Big Ten finally joined the conference championship fun in 2011 after adding Nebraska and splitting into two divisions that were arrogantly enough named the Leaders and Legends Divisions. These names were only slightly less confusing than the old NHL Division names (Adams, Patrick, Smythe and Norris) and Conference Names (Wales and Campbell Conferences).


But the first Big Ten Championship game was played over a century earlier. The old Western Conference (which became the Big Ten) consisted of Wisconsin, Michigan, Northwestern, Chicago, Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois. (Now you know why the line “Hail, Hail to Michigan—The Champions of The West” is part of their fight song). Because The University of Chicago played in the conference’s major metropolis they insisted on home games. in 1899 Michigan and Wisconsin boycotted games with Chicago over this. At season’s end Chicago had played all of their games at Marshall Field (the land was donated by the very same Marshall Field of Chicago retailer fame). Wisconsin and Chicago both finished undefeated in the conference. With the champion unresolved an argument among wealthy alums and a pressure campaign by Chicago Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg resulted in an agreement to play a game to settle the Western Conference Championship on December 9, 1899 in Madison, Wisconsin.  Chicago won that game over the Badgers 17-0 concluding the season having outscored Western Conference Opponents by a score of 166-0.


And all that brings us to this weekend. Along the way you’ll see various pictures of conference standings from the 1948 season --seventy-five years ago.


1st Down: The Undercards:

These conference Championship games have no NY6 implications, but for the players, coaches and fans they mean a chance to win a title…..Mountain West: Boise State (7-5) at UNLV (9-3) 3:00 FOX: Pay attention Big Ten fans who want divisions eliminated. Three teams tied for first place in this conference with 6-2 records. The tie was settled by a computer and so San Jose State was left out and UNLV got to host. Boise State is in the awkward position of having fired their coach and could end up winning a title with an interim head coach at the helm.  Boise State finished the season on a 4-1 run. What changed for the Broncos? They played much better defense down the stretch. They will need that to continue. UNLV is a top 20 scoring offense and averages almost 425 yards per game on offense……Sun Belt: Appalachian St (8-4) at Troy (10-2) 4:00 ESPN: App State is on a tear having won 5 straight. While four of those wins came against the lower half of the conference, they handed JMU their only loss with an OT win in week 11. Both teams have QBs that throw it around the yard. The difference in this one might be Troy RB Kimani Vidal who has toted the rock 254 times for 1349 yards. Those 254 carries rank third in the country. Having this game at home also gives Troy a boost.

2nd Down: The NY6 Contenders: 

Keep an eye on these games because one of the winners of these non-Power 5 conference championship games will find themselves in a New Year’s Six bowl game. Next year one of these teams will get an automatic playoff berth in the round of 12.... AAC: SMU (10-2) at #22 Tulane (11-1) 4:00 ABC: If Tulane wins this, they are most likely going to get the NY6 bid. After all, Tulane did get the NY6 bid last year and beat USC in the Cotton Bowl. Tulane QB Michael Pratt has seen improvement this year in efficiency and has been sacked just 13 times—down from 27 last year. He did not play in the Green Wave’s only loss (Ole Miss). On the other side SMU QB Preston Stone led a potent SMU offense but broke his leg last week against Navy. Now the burden falls to redshirt freshman Kevin Jennings who has hit 18 of his 24 pass attempts this season……Conference USA: New Mexico State (10-3) at #24 Liberty (12-0) FRIDAY 7:00 CBS Sports Network: If Tulane loses the winner of this game may be in play for the NY6 bid. Why? A win by Liberty means they’re 13-0. However, they did not play any power-5 teams. As for NMSU two weeks ago they went to Auburn and won 31-10. And we all know how close Auburn came to knocking off Alabama last week. Having the game at home helps Liberty, but winning at Auburn has the Aggies playing with a ton of confidence regardless of where they play…..MAC: Miami (10-2) vs Toledo (11-1) Detroit 12:00 ESPN: And the third contender for the NY6 bid would be Toledo if they win this one. The Rockets’ only loss was a 2-point loss at Illinois in week 1 and they have rolled off 11 straight since then. Much like their geographic neighbor the Big Ten, the MAC is heavy on defense.  Half of the league ranks in the top 33 in total defense, including both of these teams. That played out earlier this year in Toledo’s 21-17 win over Miami. Two second half turnovers by Miami thwarted a second-half comeback when they outscored the Rockets 14-0 and outgained them 190 to 60.

3rd Down: Main Event Part 1:


For these teams, three of them are contenders for the College Football Playoff that are playing teams just looking to get a conference title and a NY6 bowl. That puts the pressure more on the favorites than the underdogs…….Big 12: #18 Oklahoma State (9-3) vs #7 Texas (11-1) Arlington, TX 12:00 ABC: Oklahoma State is reliant on the run with RB Ollie Gordon being one of the top rushers in the nation. But the UT defense has proven to be stout against the run (3rd nationally). In the past few weeks the teams that have given the Longhorns real trouble have been those that attacked them through the air. Watch the OSU pass game and the turnover margin. In OSU’s 3 biggest wins (Oklahoma, Kansas State and Kansas) they averaged 303 yards passing and had a +7 turnover margin. In their three losses they averaged just 237 yards passing and were -7 in turnover margin. The Texas RB depth has been tested by injuries and last week Jaydon Blue stepped in admirably and gained 120 yards on just 10 carries.  If the Texas run game gets bogged down, WRs Xavier Worthy, Adonia Mitchell and TE Ja’Tavion Sanders are very good downfield threats. Sanders has just 31 catches this year but he averages over 16 yards per catch and he has a knack for timely big plays. UT won the first Big 12 title game in 1996 by upsetting #3 Nebraska who was on their way to potentially playing for a national title. Texas hopes to avoid that fate………HISTORICAL PENN STATE NOTE: Oklahoma State QB Alan Bowman is the son of former Penn State Tight End Kirk Bowman. Kirk had two career receptions, both in 1982 and both against #3 Nebraska and both for TDs. The second TD catch was the game-winner with 4 seconds to go in the 27-24 thriller which still ranks as maybe the greatest game played in Beaver Stadium.

The Big Ten: #2 Michigan (12-0) vs #16 Iowa (10-2) Indianapolis 8:00 FOX: Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz has dealt with intense criticism this year. But to paraphrase the Foo Fighters new album "But Here We Are" Iowa is 10-2 and playing for a Big 10 title. Jim Harbaugh returns to the sideline after a three-game suspension. Expect the emotions to be high. The name of this game is defense. Iowa and Michigan are both in the Top 10 in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense, rushing yards per carry and red zone defense. One big difference, Michigan is +14 in turnover margin while Iowa is -1. Iowa’s defense gets turnovers, the problem has been the 16 they given up. The play of Michigan QB JJ McCarthy is the big separator here. His accuracy throwing and his running ability help set up the Michigan run game which prospered against top-10 run defenses Penn State (227 yards) and Ohio State (156 yards). Of note in the previously mentioned 1899 season, before Iowa joined the Big Ten, the Hawkeyes went 8-0-1 allowing just 11 points all year, 5 of them in a 5-5 tie game against Chicago. The more things change the more they stay the same—and for the record Kirk Ferentz was not coaching that team……The ACC: #14 Louisville (10-2) vs #4 Florida State (12-0) in Charlotte 8:00 FOX: For Florida State the stakes are pretty clear, a loss knocks them out of the playoffs. In his first start, FSU QB Tate Rodemaker played well enough to beat Florida on the road. But the Seminoles  run game takes a big hit without the running threat of injured QB Jordan Travis to open up that attack. Bolstered by a 17-3 second half surge fueled by their defense’s 6-sack performance the Seminoles overcame Florida. But the Gators were playing with their back-up QB and put up no pass threat. That changes this week with Louisville. QB Jack Plummer has shown the ability to spread the ball around the field. The Cardinals’ ability to protect him and establish the pass game will be the key to this one. This is a dangerous spot for FSU.    

4th Down: The Main Event Part 2 Winner Takes All:


SEC: #1 Georgia (12-0) vs #8 Alabama (11-1) in Atlanta 4:00 CBS: This game is the end of the CBS/SEC era for the foreseeable future. Georgia sat some key players last week, including their two best pass receivers. So they kept the ball on the ground. Georgia Tech was able to run the ball as well and proved to be a pesky opponent for the first half. Alabama had problems of their own, to the point where they had to convert a 4th and goal from the 31 yard line (yes, the 31 yard line). But here they are with a playoff spot on the line. Alabama QB Jalen Milroe is a run threat, the type of QB that proved problematic for Georgia in close calls against Auburn and Missouri. Milroe has been prone to make mistakes at times, including two illegal forward pass penalties at key times against Auburn. But for 10 straight weeks he’s done enough to get the wins. During that ten-week run, Alabama has stressed being able to adjust as the game goes on. In five of those ten wins the Tide was tied or trailed at halftime and outscored those teams 96-13. Four of those wins were against ranked SEC teams. So watch how Alabama adjusts after halftime. As for Georgia much has been said about their 29-game win streak, but this dominant era goes even deeper. On November 7, 2020 they lost to #8 Florida for their 2nd loss of the Covid season. Since that time they’ve gone 43-1 the lone loss being to Alabama in the 2021 SEC title game on December 4th—the last game they lost. In that 43-1 stretch only 7 of those wins were one-score games and during the 29-game win streak they had just 4 one score games including last year's 1-point win against Ohio State when they missed the game-winning field goal. Both Alabama and Georgia have benefitted from an SEC that seems weaker than in years past. The league was 4-6 against the ACC this year and 5-7 against other Power-5 teams. This weekend Georgia and Alabama bring athletic physical defenses to the game. Georgia QB Carson Beck has been perhaps the surprise of the SEC. And Nick Saban probably should be the SEC Coach of the Year for the job he’s done developing this team and weathering some close calls. For Georgia, win and they’re in. For Alabama should they win it is more complicated. If FSU, Michigan, Washington and Texas win it’s a tough case to make that Alabama deserves to be in over three undefeated teams and a 1-loss Texas that beat the Tide by 10 in Tuscaloosa. If ever there was a year when the playoff-quality depth of the field was 8-teams deep, this is the year……..

Pac 12: #5 Oregon (11-1) vs #4 Washington (12-0) in Las Vegas FRIDAY 8:00 ABC: In Las Vegas, a city known for heavyweight title fights this is the biggest, baddest Pac 12 Title game yet. Two Heisman-caliber QBs face off again in a highly-anticipated rematch. In the first meeting Oregon’s Bo Nix threw for 337 yards and 2 TDs while UW’s Michael Penix threw for 316 yards and 4 TDs. After that tough loss Oregon Coach Dan Lanning immediately took the blame for the loss, a move that was sure to resonate in the Ducks’ locker room with a coach that steps up in a tough moment. How did that team respond? By going on a 6 -game tear beating their opponents by a combined 161 points including routs of two top-15 teams. If there has been one criticism of the Huskies it has been the repeated close wins. Four their six wins since the Oregon game were one-score games. This game is the opposite of the Big Ten Title game (a conference they both join next year) in that both of these teams are in the national Top 10 in a number of offensive categories. Washington is far more reliant on the pass. They’re 2nd in the country gaining 345 passing yards per game to a dangerous group of big-play WRs. They’ve run the ball just 27 times a game (126th nationally) but they average 4.55 yards per carry (47th nationally). So they have been effective with the run game at key times in big games. The biggest divide is on defense. Oregon goes 2-deep across the board and plays lots of guys to stay fresh. For all the attention paid to the Ducks’ offense they are 7th in scoring defense and 15th in total defense. That is why so many people think they may be the most dangerous team in the country right now. What is undeniable is that these are the two best teams in what has been the best and deepest conference in the country this year. Want proof? The Pac 12 racked up a 7-3 non-conference record against teams from the other Power-5 conferences. How did the other conferences do? The ACC was 10-9, The Big 12 was 5-6, The SEC was 5-7 and the Big Ten was 5-8. Maybe the argument shouldn’t be whether or not Georgia and Alabama both get in if Alabama wins, maybe the argument should be if both Oregon and UW get in if the Ducks win.

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