College Football Conference Championship Games 2021: What to Watch This Weekend

College football conference championship games Mandatory Credit: Photo by Karl B DeBlaker/AP/Shutterstock (12620565s) Cincinnati's Leonard Taylor (11) stiff arms East Carolina's Aaron Ramseur (51).
Cincinnati's Leonard Taylor (11) stiff arms East Carolina's Aaron Ramseur (51).Karl B DeBlaker/AP / Shutterstock

Conference championship games are one of college football’s best old-school traditions, but they haven’t been around long at all. Conferences didn’t use title games to sort out their champions until the SEC started doing it in 1992, and one FBS league (the Sun Belt) didn’t even have a title game until 2018. In that span, the Big 12 played a title game for more than a decade, discontinued it in favor of a round-robin format, and then brought back the title bout in 2017.

 

 

Conference championship games are still relatively new. But obsessing about winning your conference is a little quaint in modern college football, which has become totally focused on the College Football Playoff and how teams stack up nationally, rather than regionally. This weekend is a good reminder that there’s real value in simply winning your league, and 20 FBS teams across 10 games have a chance to achieve that between Friday and Saturday.

Here are a few questions whose answers will shape much of the action this weekend.

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College Football Conference Championship Preview 2021

Will Cincinnati finish the job––and get rewarded for it?

The Bearcats enter the weekend firmly inside the Playoff selection committee’s field of four teams. Only two teams currently outside the top four, Notre Dame and Oklahoma State, could improve their resumes enough to have a reasonable shot. Cincinnati already beat Notre Dame, and it’s highly unlikely the committee would leapfrog the Irish over the Bearcats if Cincinnati takes care of business in the AAC Championship against Houston (Saturday at 4 p.m. EST on ABC).

A Group of Five conference team has not made the Playoff since its introduction in 2014, and several unbeatens in Cincy’s shoes have not even sniffed the field. But the committee has respected the 2021 Bearcats to date, and as naive as it might sound, I expect that Luke Fickell’s team will claim a Playoff spot on Sunday as long as it beats Houston on Saturday. That should happen; Houston has a tenacious defensive front, but Cincinnati has an even better defense and should be able to scratch out some points behind Desmond Ridder and its offense. In a weird bit of irony, Fickell will coach this game while rumors swirl about him filling the vacant head coaching job at fellow contender Notre Dame, which Brian Kelly just left for LSU.

Was Michigan’s destruction of Ohio State’s defense a repeatable trick?

The Wolverines tossed college football’s biggest boulder off their backs by beating Ohio State last weekend, and it earned them a spot in the Big Ten Championship (Saturday at 8 p.m. EST on FOX). A win against Iowa (their opponent on Saturday) will put Michigan in the Playoff for the first time. On paper, Michigan should do well against Hawkeyes—the Wolverines’ offensive line put on an outright exhibition against the talented Ohio State defense. But that OSU defense has been flawed all year in ways the Iowa defense, even with only a fraction of the four- and five-star talent, hasn’t been. Bottom line: Iowa might actually be harder for Michigan to shove around.

My guess is Michigan doesn’t look quite as dominant because Kirk Ferentz’s team won’t be as out of sorts defensively as the Buckeyes were. But I expect the Wolverines to do alright; they avoid turnovers and are unlikely to beat themselves like so many other Iowa opponents have en route to the Hawkeyes’ 10–2 record. As long as Cade McNamara stays the course and doesn’t throw multiple picks, Michigan should play in the Playoff.

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Can Appalachian State get back at Louisiana?

In the inaugural Sun Belt Championship in 2018, the Mountaineers hosted the Ragin’ Cajuns and beat them, 30–19. In the next edition in 2019, App hosted Louisiana again and won in a 45–38 shootout. 2020’s game would’ve pitted Louisiana against Coastal Carolina, but it was canceled due to COVID-19. This year, App and Louisiana have separated themselves again, so the third version of this championship game (Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EST on ESPN) will look a lot like the first two. This time, it’s in Louisiana, where the Cajuns thumped the ’Neers 41–13 in October. The Cajuns also beat App in Boone in 2020, snapping an eight-game App win streak in the series that started in the teams’ first-ever meeting back in 2014.

App State is a 2.5-point favorite. That might have something to do with Louisiana coach Billy Napier having accepted the same job at Florida and preparing to leave for Gainesville immediately after this game. Napier’s impending departure, announced last weekend, has probably made for a chaotic week for him and for his staff and players. “Distractions” are overused cliches in sports, but this seems like a legitimate one.

Has judgment day arrived for Alabama?

Pardon the overdramatic question. The Crimson Tide will be fine in the long run, because they have the best coach ever and enough money and talent to fix whatever ails them if given enough time. But this year’s 11–1 Bama is noticeably less scary than most of Nick Saban’s recent teams, especially the 2020 murder machine that walked unbeaten to a national title. Earlier this season, the Tide lost to Texas A&M’s backup quarterback and had to slog through near-losses to mediocre squads like Florida (which fired its coach), LSU (ditto), and Auburn.

If Bama isn’t up to snuff this year, No. 1 Georgia will be a truth serum to bring that out in the SEC Championship (Saturday at 4 p.m. EST on CBS). The Dawgs have what could be the best defense in history, and their offense, behind former walk-on quarterback Stetson Bennett IV, has quietly grown into one of the most efficient attacks in the country. Saban is a 6.5-point underdog and seems in danger of losing to one of his former assistants for the second time this year (first Jimbo Fisher at A&M, and now Kirby Smart at Georgia). An Alabama victory doesn’t feel inevitable—a rare change heading into this game.

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