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College Football Preview, Week 14: Conference Championship Edition

It's conference championship weekend, and Dave Shook prepares you for all of the exciting action, including UCLA-Oregon, Virginia Tech-Clemson, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, Wisconsin-Michigan State and LSU-Georgia.

With the regular season in the rearview mirror for everyone except the Big 12 and the Big East (we'll get to them), it's time for the champions of each conference to be decided. In some cases, the games are largely irrelevant, at least from the standpoint of BCS bowls or national rankings, but these games still provide an opportunity for fans and players to declare themselves as the best from their respective conferences.

There are some really strong match-ups on tap this week that will have an impact on at-large berths in the BCS games and undefeated seasons. What follows is a nuts and bolts preview and prediction of each of the conference championship games to come this week as well as a look at the crucial showdown in Stillwater that could have an impact on the race for the National Championship.

All game times are EST.

Mid-American Conference Championship Game -- Friday, December 2nd in Detroit, MI.

Northern Illinois Huskies (9-3) vs. Ohio Bobcats (9-3) -- 7:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

If you're a college football junkie like me and you've been watching the annual weekday MAC games across the ESPN networks over the last month, you know that this should be a tremendous game. The Huskies, despite a new coach in Dave Doern, are back in the title game for the second consecutive year after a tough loss to Miami last year.  Led by quarterback Chandler Harnish and running back Jasmin Hopkins, Northern Illinois possesses one of the most explosive offenses you'll see at this level, averaging nearly 500 yards per game. Harnish in particular has had an incredible year, accounting for nearly 4,000 yards on the season as well as 34 total touchdowns. The trouble for the Huskies this season has been on the defensive side of the ball. They've shown flashes of potential on defense, including in a gritty 18-12 win over Eastern Michigan last week to punch their ticket to this game, but more often then not, it's forced the offense to try and outscore opponents. Speaking of the Bobcats, they too are led by an all-league candidate at quarterback in Tyler Tettleton. Tettleton has thrown for just under 3,000 yards this season and has been wildly efficient in the process, completing almost 65 percent of his passes and throwing just seven interceptions on the year. His favorite target this year has been receiver LaVon Brazill. The senior wideout has been one of the best in the conference all season, racking up 918 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. Defensively, the Bobcats, like a number of their East division rivals, are a little bit more balanced than the Huskies have been this year in that they have demonstrated the ability to slow down the high powered offenses that populate the West division. The Bobcats were fortunate to have avoided the Huskies and Toledo during the regular season, so they've not yet seen a team quite like this yet. Whether they win this game or not will depend on their ability to slow the two headed rushing attack of the Huskies and make Harnish strictly a passer.

Prediction: Northern Illinois 34 Ohio 27

Pac-12 Conference Championship Game -- Friday, December 2nd in Eugene, OR.

UCLA Bruins (6-6) @ No. 9 Oregon Ducks (10-2) -- 8:00 p.m. (FOX)

The inaugural Pac-12 title game was expected to be a great event, but the unexpected awfulness of the South division, coupled with USC being banned from post-season play this year has taken some of the luster off the event. With the Trojans unable to represent the division in the game, it came down to a group of exceptionally mediocre teams, ultimately resulting in UCLA winning the division at 5-4 to gain the right to get annihilated in this game. The Bruins have absolutely no business anywhere near a post-season game, having been beaten by at least 25 points on four separate occasions, capped off by an ugly 50-0 beating at the hands of USC last week. Kevin Prince has been the Bruins quarterback the latter half of the year and has played reasonably well, but the offense is mostly centered around the ground game with running back Johnathan Franklin. Franklin, who rushed for under 1,000 yards this season, will need to be at his best, as the goal will be to limit Oregon's offensive possessions and shorten the game. Don't underestimate the "win one for the gipper" mentality here either as coach Rick Neuheisel has already been informed he won't be back, but will coach this game. On the other side, the Ducks offense is just as potent as ever thanks to running back LaMichael James. One of the leading rushers in the country (1,400+ yards on the ground) and a Heisman candidate, James has been the driving force behind the Ducks high powered attack.  It hasn't been quite as dominant as it was last year, and much of that falls on quarterback Darron Thomas. Thomas hasn't been bad by any stretch this year, but he has been taking a beating behind a less than stellar offensive line and has been hurt throughout the year, thus his numbers have been down a shade. Still, they should have more than enough to take care of business in this one and get themselves to the Rose Bowl for the second time in three years.

Prediction: Oregon 48 UCLA 20

Conference USA Championship Game -- Saturday, December 3rd in Houston, TX.

No. 24 Southern Miss. Golden Eagles (10-2) @ No. 6 Houston Cougars (12-0) -- 12:00 p.m. (ABC)

A fascinating match-up to kick-off Championship Saturday in the C-USA title game.  Southern Miss hasn't been talked about much this season, often because they've been overshadowed by the offensive behemoth that is their opponent in this game.  The Eagles have put together some strong performances this season, including a road win over Virginia and a dominating performance against SMU.  The loss to UAB was inexcusable, but this is a good football team that is capable of challenging Houston.  Led by quarterback Austin Davis, Southern Miss. has one of the Top 15 scoring offenses in the country and averages over 460 yards of total offense per game.  Defensively they're no slouch either, surrendering just 20 points per game and has big play potential, led by defensive back Kendrick Presley.  That defense will obviously be tested in this game against the nations best offense.  Led by quarterback Case Keenum, the Cougars offense can be best be described as video game caliber.  Houston has averaged over 600 total yards per game and an obscene 52.7 points per game.  Keenum, the Heisman Trophy candidate, has thrown for over 4,700 yards and 43 touchdown passes.  Not to be outdone, receiver Patrick Edwards has been one of the best in the country this year, hauling in 74 passes for just under 1,500 yards and 18 touchdowns.  The knock against the Cougars in years past has been their defense.  But under defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, they've improved tremendously.  They aren't great, but they aren't a pushover anymore either, surrendering just 21 points per game.  The Cougars have a great deal on the line in this game and may feel some of the pressure of playing for the school's and the conference's first BCS bowl berth, but playing at home, you'd expect the offense to make just enough plays to win this game, but it will be tight.

Prediction: Houston 41 Southern Miss 38

Southeastern Conference Championship Game -- Saturday, December 3rd in Atlanta, GA.

No. 14 Georgia Bulldogs (10-2) vs. No. 1 LSU Tigers (12-0) -- 4:00 p.m. (CBS)

Just about everyone has already penciled in the Tigers for the National Championship Game, but I'm in the minority who thinks that they still need to win this game to guarantee themselves a spot in New Orleans for the title game.  The team standing in their way, the Georgia Bulldogs, have quietly put together a really strong season under their formerly hot-seated coach, Mark Richt.  Behind quarterback Aaron Murray, running back Isaiah Crowell and a stable of above average wide receivers, the Bulldogs offense has been efficient if not spectacular. But the heart of the team is on the defensive side of the ball where they rank 10th nationally in points allowed (17.8 per game).  They're a fast and physical group, particularly in the secondary where players like Bacarri Rambo (seven interceptions) have created a ton of turnovers. The knock on the Bulldogs (rightfully so) is that they've played a relatively weak schedule by SEC standards. They avoided LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas this year, and have lost to the two best teams they played (Boise St., and South Carolina to open the season).  Whether they belong on the same field with the juggernaut that is LSU is a very real question. The Tigers come into the game with the most impressive resume in the sport thanks to seven wins over teams ranked in the Top 25 (at the time), three of them in the top five.  Quarterback Jordan Jefferson has taken over the reins from Jarrett Lee after Lee melted down in the Alabama game and has given the Tigers bland offense an extra element via his scrambling ability.  But, as you know by now, the Tigers live and die by their breathtaking defense.  Cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, better known as "The Honey Badger" has been electric in creating turnovers, locking down receivers, and returning kicks for the Tigers, but he may not even be the best corner on the field.  Morris Claiborne has emerged as one of the best corners in the country, accounting for five interceptions, and getting the assignment on the top receiver from the other team.  LSU is not prone to letdowns under Les Miles, and with an incredible amount of talent on the field, it's hard to imagine them losing this game with so much on the line.

Prediction: LSU 31 Georgia 13

Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game -- Saturday, December 3rd in Charlotte, NC.

No. 5 Virginia Tech Hokies (11-1) vs. No. 20 Clemson Tigers (9-3) -- 8:00 p.m. (ESPN)

One of the more interesting games on the slate this weekend is this one from the ACC.  It seems like ages ago that Clemson marched into Lane Stadium and dominated the Hokies like so few teams have done in that venue.  That game saw the Tigers vault themselves into the National Championship picture, reaching as high as No. 5 in the rankings before they vanished in the later half of the year.  The Hokies meanwhile have yet to lose a game since that afternoon in early October, and have been utterly dominant in most of those games.  Led by Heisman candidate and leading rusher David Wilson, the Hokies offense has grown more and more efficient as the year has moved along.  Wilson sometimes lacks the ability to run between the tackles, which has at times stunted the offense in the redzone, but when he's in open space, he's electrifying.  When they aren't running the ball with Wilson, Logan Thomas has progressed nicely as a passer.  Expected to be more of a Tim Tebow type (at 6'6 and 250 pounds, you can see why), a lot of people were surprised that Thomas has been more comfortable throwing the football.  As he developed the chemistry with receivers Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale, Thomas gave the Hokies offense a much more diversified attack then they had at the beginning of the year when they were far more reliant on the run.  That improvement is what makes people believe the Tigers could be in for a long night in Charlotte.  For the Tigers, their offense that was so tremendous the first half of the year behind Tajh Boyd and freshman receiver Sammy Watkins, has been slowed in recent weeks as teams have gotten a better handle on how to defend them.  With Boyd not as willing to run with the ball, teams have dropped deeper into pass coverage and forced him into some bad throws. Coupled with the injury to Watkins late in the year, and the mystifying regression of the defense, the Tigers have lost three of their last four games and will need a major momentum swing to win this game. 

Prediction: Virginia Tech 27 Clemson 17

Big-12 Conference Championship Game -- Saturday, December 3rd in Stillwater, OK.

No. 10 Oklahoma Sooners (9-2) @ No. 3 Oklahoma St. Cowboys (10-1) -- 8:00 p.m. (ABC)

Okay, so this isn't an "official" conference championship game, but it will crown a champion, and it's my column, so I'll call it whatever I want. As I mentioned earlier, I'm one of the few who thinks that the title game is not set in stone as of yet.  If the 2007 season taught us anything, it's that the voters will move a team radically in the final polls in order to affect the match-up in the National Championship Game.  In this case, I believe that the voters are looking for a reason to prevent a rematch of the Alabama/LSU clash from earlier this year.  In order to do it though, they need the Cowboys to knock off the Sooners this weekend in the annual "Bedlam" game between the in-state rivals.  The Cowboys were in prime position to make that trip to New Orleans, but unforgivably lost to Iowa St. last weekend in double overtime.  Luckily, the Sooners also lost the next night in similarly stunning fashion to help keep the Cowboys slim hopes of a title game berth alive.  Powered by quarterback Landry Jones and receiver Kenny Stills, the Sooners offense has been a monster throughout the season.  The loss of Ryan Broyles to a torn ACL made for a difficult adjustment in the loss to Baylor last week, and made them much more ordinary.  They'll need to adjust quickly this week, because as powerful as Baylor is behind Robert Griffin III, the Cowboys are at the very least as potent, if not more so.  Quarterback Brandon Weeden had begun to wiggle his way into the conversation as a potential Heisman candidate before his stinker against the Cyclones last week, but has still been, at worst, one of the three or four best quarterbacks in the country this season (over 4,000 yards passing, 34 touchdowns). Weeden's favorite target has been All-American wideout Justin Blackmon.  Also at one point a darkhorse Heisman candidate, Blackmon crossed the 100 catch mark last week and has pulled in over 1,200 yards in the air.  As a result, this game has all the makings of a big time shootout.  Historically, the Sooners have dominated this series, but the teams are on a fairly level playing field for the first time in ages. Whichever defense gets a crucial stop will win this game.

Prediction: Oklahoma 47 Oklahoma St. 35

Big-10 Conference Championship Game -- Saturday, December 3rd in Indianapolis, IN.

No. 15 Wisconsin Badgers (10-2) vs. No. 13 Michigan St. Spartans (10-2) -- 8:15 p.m. (FOX)

It's unfair to expect a repeat of the same kind of game we saw in East Lansing back in late October, but this should still be a fun game with a great deal on the line.  The last time these two teams met, the game ended with that incredible Hail Mary pass by Kirk Cousins, and the lengthy and still oft-debated review of whether the receiver crossed the goal line.  Wisconsin would love a little bit of payback after that disputed ending, particularly after the Badgers essentially saw their national title hopes dashed that night.  Quarterback Russell Wilson has much to prove in this one as he has a long documented history of struggling in big games, and the first meeting was no exception.  He threw two costly interceptions, and was minimized in the offense over the course of the game as a result.  Expect coach Bret Beilema to do the same in this one, and instead rely on running back Montee Ball to power the offense behind that massive offensive line.  Ball finished the season with over 1,600 yards on the year, including a ridiculous 29 touchdowns and has been the focal point of the offense throughout the year.  The real problem in the first meeting and the subsequent loss to Ohio St. the following week was the defense.  The Badgers surrendered 60 points in those two games, the only two games in which they surrendered more than 20 in a game.  Since righting the ship, the Badgers have been back to their dominant selves on that side of the ball, not allowing more than 17 points in any game since.  They'll need to slow the run game of the Spartans to come away with the Big 10 Championship.  Led by Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker, the Spartans running game has been exceptionally effective as both are physical downhill runners that are tough to bring down behind the line.  The defense is what powers the Spartans success though, and it has been one of the best in the country this year, allowing just 15.4 points per game (5th in the country).  The best aspect of the defense has been the front seven, which has successfully stymied some of the best running attacks it has seen, including the Badgers and Michigan.  If they're able to slow the run game down again and Kirk Cousins can make a few plays through the air, they should be able to hang around in this game. The Badgers desire for to atone for their mistakes in a game they probably should have won will be difficult to overcome though.

Prediction: Wisconsin 27 Michigan St. 20


FCS Playoffs, Round 1 -- Saturday, December 3rd

Maine Black Bears (8-3) @ Appalachian St. Mountaineers (8-3) -- 2:00 p.m. (ESPN3)

FCS Playoffs, Round 1 -- Saturday, December 3rd

New Hampshire Wildcats (8-3) @ Montana St. Bobcats (9-2) -- 3:00 p.m. (ESPN3)