College Football Championship Saturday: Six Crowns On The Line

It’s time for the best day of the year on the college football calendar, and one of the best days to be a sports fan. College Football Championship Saturday, the first Saturday of December has taken the place of New Year’s Day in the culture of college football.

While January 1 still has its run of bowl games, there are no longer championships settled. What we have in store for Saturday is different–six conference championship games will be played, another will be settled and by Sunday we’ll know who’s playing for the national title and who’s going to BCS bowls.

The only conferences that don’t have championship games are the Big 12, American Athletic and the Sun Belt. The Big 12 has the next best thing—back-to-back games between good teams that will settle its bid. TheSportsNotebook previewed the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State (Noon ET, ABC) and Texas-Baylor (3:30 PM ET, Fox) as part of our Big 12 bowl projections earlier this week.

Central Florida secured the American Athletic bid when Cincinnati lost to Louisville last night. In the Sun Belt, UL-Lafayette will go for an outright title on Saturday night in South Alabama. If ULL loses, they share the crown with Arkansas State.

With that out of the way, let’s get on to business and look at some championship football games. You can watch for thirteen hours straight, and this is how the day breaks down, in sequential order…

Conference USA: Marshall at Rice (Noon ET, ESPN2): Marshall is coming off an impressive 59-28 waxing of East Carolina to claim a division title, and that explains why the Thundering Herd are a 6.5 point favorite on the road. Rice has very quietly matched Marshall’s 7-1 league record, and the Owls’ only losses outside the league were a close defeat to Houston and a 52-31 defeat at Texas A&M that was competitive into the second half.

Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato is one of the most dynamic in the country, while Rice counters with a pretty good signal-caller in Taylor McHargue, and a solid conventional runner in Charles Ross. At the start of the season I picked the Owls to win the C-USA title. Even though they might be the underdog on Saturday, I’ve got them at home and getting points. No reason to change course now.

Missouri-Auburn (4 PM ET, CBS): The biggest game of Championship Saturday goes from the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. We know about Auburn’s magic ride–the turnaround from the 2-10 season, the upset of Texas A&M, the miracle pass to beat Georgia and finally the stunning 108-yard return of a missed field goal by Chris Davis to beat Alabama last week.

We also know about how well-coached Auburn is with Gus Malzahn, how tough a running back Tre Mason is, and how there’s a very good chance that a win here would create enough voter momentum to vault them past Ohio State and into #2, regardless of what the Buckeyes do later on Saturday night.

But do we know enough about Missouri? This is a team whose only loss came in double overtime to South Carolina when the backup quarterback was in the game. Missouri also won at Georgia–decisively no less–without starting QB James Franklin. With Franklin in the lineup, the Tigers won some tough money games the last two weeks against Ole Miss and Texas A&M to hold on to the SEC East.

Missouri likely can’t pass Ohio State in the polls without a Buckeye defeat, but Gary Pinkel’s team deserves the same consideration as Auburn. They’ve got a solid runner of their own in Henry Josey. That’s why I’m picking Mizzou to win this game–the letdown factor for Auburn is part of it, but another part is that I think Missouri is simply underappreciated.

Stanford at Arizona State (7:45 PM ET, ESPN): These teams met earlier in the year in Palo Alto and Stanford put the smackdown on ASU, a 42-28 win that wasn’t nearly that close. Arizona State hasn’t lost a conference game since, although they did drop a neutral site game in Dallas to Notre Dame. Stanford slipped up against Utah and USC–both teams that the Sun Devils beat–and that allowed Arizona State to claim homefield advantage for this game.

Arizona State will be without its best running back, Marion Grice, who is expected to miss the game with a leg injury. That’s going to put a lot more pressure on Taylor Kelly, the quarterback who will have to now carry a bigger load in the running game, as well as throwing the ball.

Stanford has no such balance problems. Tyler Gaffney is one of the best runners in the nation, a 1,400-yard back. Kevin Hogan’s been inconsistent at quarterback and the biggest fear for the Cardinal is that he makes some mistakes, especially if Arizona State gets gut pressure with nose tackle Will Sutton.

If Hogan can avoid the kind of mistakes that cost his team the USC game, Stanford is going to win. I think they’re the better team and only the fact the game is in Tempe gives me any pause at all. Oddsmakers see the teams as even, and give ASU the (-3) edge for homefield, but I’m going with the home dog.

Duke-Florida State (8 PM ET, ABC): This been a great ride for Duke, with narrow wins over Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and North Carolina keying their ride to the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte. But it’s been a dominant ride for Florida State, whose undefeated season and #1 ranking was highlighted by a 51-14 thrashing of Clemson on the road, a team who will likely end up in a major bowl game.

Florida State’s top two rushers have more yardage than Duke’s best runner. While Blue Devil coach David Cutliffe has a deserved reputation for his offensive innovation, quarterback Anthony Boone has been a little mistake-prone this year, and now faces the fastest defense he’s seen all season. Now that Jameis Winston has been cleared of sexual assault charges, there’s going to be a big burden lifted from the Seminole program.

The ‘Noles are a (-29.5) favorite and the only way they don’t cover that number is if they don’t want to.

Ohio State-Michigan State (8:15 PM ET, Fox): By the time the Buckeyes take the field in Indianapolis they’ll know if they need to win with style (if Auburn wins the SEC) or if just winning will suffice (if Missouri wins). What Urban Meyer’s team can’t do is allow themselves to think about this, because Ohio State is about to face the toughest defense they, or most anyone else, has seen all year.

Michigan State has allowed fewer than 10 points in five of the last six games, and have five players that made first-team All-Conference. The matchup of Sparty’s defense against the tremendous speed the Buckeyes have on offense–from quarterback Braxton Miller to Devin Smith at receiver, is going to be a great battle for control of the edge. How successful Ohio State can be running Carlos Hyde between the tackles will likely decide if they can eventually break something on the perimeter.

Then there’s the Ohio State defense against the Michigan State offense, which is less than a titanic showdown. Ohio State just gave up 41 points to a Michigan offense that was previously noted for its incompetence, the low point for a unit whose mediocrity has been apparent all year.

Michigan State’s offense won’t exactly remind anyone of the Denver Broncos though. Sparty only put up 14 points against Purdue, and anything their offense does accomplish is often a fruit of the field position the defense sets them up with.

Ohio State is a (-5.5) favorite and I’m picking the Buckeyes. I like and respect Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. When it comes to Meyer, let’s just say that I’m less than admiring. But Meyer in a big game is not to be trifled with and if Ohio State’s offense can just find a few big plays with their speed, they’ll win.

Utah State at Fresno State (10 PM ET, CBS): How’s this for a contrast in styles–Fresno State lost its shot at a BCS bowl game because they gave up 62 points to San Jose State last week, while still scoring 52 themselves. Meanwhile, Utah State has given up 51 points in the last five games combined.

That five-game stretch covers the point in the season when Utah State’s all-everything quarterback Chuckie Keeton was lost for the year. While the schedule cooperated, the Aggies beat two bowl-eligible teams in UNLV and Colorado State, and Wyoming would have been bowl-eligible if not for Utah State knocking them off.

Fresno State is just a (-3.5) favorite, showing how much respect the Bulldogs lost last week–the number indicates Las Vegas sees them as barely better than Utah State on a neutral field, even without Keeton. I admire what Utah State has done all year, but in the first game without Keeton that lost decisively to Boise State and this game is a little higher in caliber. I’ll take Fresno.