With just a couple hours remaining before the conference championship games kick off, I couldn’t be more excited. So let’s get right to it.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Michigan is a top four team in the country. Their two losses came by 1 on a last second field goal at a solid Iowa, and by 3 in double overtime at the Ohio State Buckeyes, the #2 team in the country. On the other side of the coin, the team has wins against #6 Wisconsin, #7 Penn State, and #8 Colorado. Michigan’s defensive statistics have been repeated enough on broadcasts for you to know them by now, but to review a key one, they allowed only 105 points combined to their 9 conference opponents. Margin of victory, often cited as the true barometer of a team’s strength, is +228 within Big Ten games. This is the highest in-conference margin of victory for any Power Five team – including Alabama, the odds-on favorite to win the title.
But will Michigan make it to the CFP? First, let’s look at my predictions for this weekend’s conference championship games.
SEC: Alabama over Florida. As I wrote when the same matchup happened last year, Florida won’t be able to move the ball, and Alabama is a much better team anyway.
ACC: Clemson over Virginia Tech. Clemson is clearly better than Virginia Tech and they absolutely need a win here to make the CFP. They will get it.
Pac 12: Colorado over Washington. I picked against Washington last week and I was wrong, by a count of 45-17. A stout goal-line defense for the Huskies, which stopped Washington State on downs twice at the 1-yard line, had a lot to do with that. But something tells me that Colorado’s surprising surge continues tonight. They were picked to finish last in the Pac 12 by some outlets, and all they did was win the Pac 12 South. Now, they win the conference championship.
Big 10: Wisconsin over Penn State. The Nittany Lions have been unstoppable since they opened conference play with a 49-10 loss at Michigan. Meanwhile, the Badgers have the third-best scoring defense in the land, allowing only 13.7 points per game. I see an old-school, low-scoring Big Ten battle in the works, with Wisconsin narrowly prevailing.
Big 12: Oklahoma over Oklahoma State. Not a true conference championship game, but this works out perfectly for the Big 12, as it matches up their top 2 teams on the final weekend before bowl season. The Sooners have rounded into form since a 1-2 start that included lopsided losses to Houston and Ohio State. They will overwhelm the Cowboys and take this matchup.
MAC: Western Michigan over Ohio. The Broncos of Western Michigan have had an amazing season and it will continue tonight at Ford Field in Detroit.
AAC: Navy over Temple. If I am wrong about the MAC result, this will impact the New Year’s Six, as the highest-ranked Group of Five team gets a bid to the Cotton Bowl.
And on that note…
THE NEW YEAR’S SIX
With those winners in mind, here is how I see the New Year’s Six shaping up. Each team’s projected CFP ranking after this weekend’s games is in parentheses.
Peach Bowl (Semifinal): (1) Alabama vs. (4) Wisconsin
Fiesta Bowl (Semifinal): (2) Ohio State vs. (3) Clemson
Yes, Michigan will narrowly miss the CFP. The Committee has said it will not put a non-conference champion in the playoff over a conference champion unless it is “unequivocally” better. What that means is up for interpretation, but if my predictions hold true, my guess is that the Committee places Wisconsin #4. Michigan fans need to look at the positive though: when Jim Harbaugh was hired on December 30, 2014, did anyone think the Wolverines would be so close to making the playoffs in his second season, after the disastrous Rich Rod and Hoke regimes? As I opined at the time, Harbaugh’s contract makes sense for the Maize and Blue.
The rest of the New Year’s Six will look like this:
Rose Bowl: (9) Penn State vs. (6) Colorado. The highest-ranked team from each of the Big 10 and Pac 12 that fails to make the playoffs goes to the Rose Bowl. My understanding, though, is that the Committee avoids rematches, which means we won’t see Michigan vs. Colorado again.
Sugar Bowl: (7) Oklahoma vs. (14) Auburn. The Sugar Bowl matches the champs of the Big 12 and the SEC, but Alabama is in the playoff (guaranteed, no matter what happens vs. Florida). So, the next-highest ranked SEC team, which will be Auburn, goes.
Orange Bowl: (5) Michigan vs. (12) Florida State. The Orange Bowl takes the ACC champ and the next highest-ranked team among the Big Ten, SEC, or Notre Dame who is not already assigned to a New Year’s Six bowl. Clemson is in the playoff, so Florida State takes their place. Michigan, at #5, takes on the Seminoles, for the first time since the first Michigan game I ever went to, all the way back in 1991!
Cotton Bowl: (8) Washington vs. (16) Western Michigan. The Cotton Bowl will feature the best-ranked Group of Five conference winner, along with the highest-ranked team remaining who is not already in a New Year’s Six bowl. The Broncos of Western Michigan will be rewarded for their outstanding season by taking on a strong Pac 12 foe in Washington.
No matter how many of these predictions I nail, I’ll enjoy the games this weekend, and I know you will too. Join me again soon for the first of my NCAA basketball tournament projections!