Digging into the best under-the-radar storylines for championship weekend

  • ACC reporter.
  • Joined ESPN in 2012.
  • Graduate of the University of Delaware.

It’s championship week, whatever that means in this wild year. Did Oregon win its division? No, but the Ducks are playing for a Pac-12 championship. Did Ohio State play enough games to qualify for its title game? No, but hey, rules are made to be broken. Clemson and Notre Dame? The ACC gave them an extra week to prep because, why not?

It has been a season chock full of the unexpected, so we might as well saddle up for one more week of surprises. To wade through it all, we’re digging into the under-the-radar storylines for the top champ week games and finding the one thing in each game we’re most excited to see.

Big Ten: Northwestern vs. Ohio State

The upset potential for the “Fighting Rece Davises” of Northwestern

The Wildcats took on a new moniker after ESPN analyst Joey Galloway shared his thoughts on Northwestern back in November before their game against Wisconsin, saying, “Honestly, they’ve got a bunch of Rece Davises running around out there,” insinuating an athletic disadvantage for Pat Fitzgerald’s team. Galloway’s comparison might be even more glaring against an Ohio State team that is undoubtedly one of the most talented in the nation. If any of the conference title games produce an upset, this would be the biggest one.

ACC: Clemson vs. Notre Dame

Kyren Williams’ blitz pickup

OK, it’s not the sexiest thing to watch in what figures to be the best game of the day, but there’s something genuinely elegant in the way Williams handles his role on passing downs. The Notre Dame running back has been spectacular with the ball in his hands this season (1,011 total yards, 13 TDs) but it’s what he does when he’s not toting the rock that separates him from the pack. In the first game between these two teams, Williams was 11-for-11 on blitz pickup, and the key blocks he delivered helped Ian Book move the pocket, extend plays and pick up critical yards on scrambles. There are a ton of unsung heroes on this year’s Irish squad, but the work Williams has done might top them all.

Big 12: Iowa State vs. Oklahoma

Crowning the best two-loss team in America (non-SEC version)

Both of these teams had been all but eliminated from playoff contention by the second week in October, but after the national audience lost track of the Big 12, Oklahoma and Iowa State kept on winning. After a 1-2 start, the Sooners have won six straight, including topping 50 points three times, and they’re looking for revenge against a Cyclones team that beat them on Oct. 3. After an embarrassing opening week loss to Louisiana, Iowa State finished 8-1 in Big 12 play, a three-point loss to Oklahoma State the lone blemish on the record. Neither team is headed to the playoff, but they can both credibly claim to be among the hottest programs in the country right now.

SEC: Alabama vs. Florida

For the Heisman

There’s more than just a championship on the line — this game probably will decide who wins the Heisman (sorry, Trevor Lawrence). Quarterbacks Mac Jones and Kyle Trask have been atop the Heisman race for a few weeks now, but DeVonta Smith has come on strong lately for the Crimson Tide and was No. 1 in ESPN’s latest Heisman watch. Historically, wide receivers have needed to also make plays on special teams to win the Heisman (Desmond Howard, Tim Brown). Smith did so last week with a punt return TD, and if he’s able to have another big game Saturday, he could take home the hardware on Jan. 5.

Pac-12: Oregon vs. USC

Olaijah Griffin playing lockdown corner for the Trojans

Here’s an absolutely astonishing-but-true stat: Griffin has been one of the Pac-12’s top corners since the day he arrived at USC in 2018, but it wasn’t until a week ago that he corralled his first interception. How is that possible? Last season, he had nine pass breakups and led the league in defensive completion percentage, but not a single one of the 43 targets he faced ended with a pick. He has been every bit as good in 2020 (he’s second in completion percentage and yards-per-target allowed) and he finally managed to snag that first interception, against Washington State. He’ll look to add to that total against Oregon’s strong passing game and QB Tyler Shough, who leads the Pac-12 in passer rating. Oh, and did we mention Griffin is the son of rapper Warren G? If the TV broadcast doesn’t use “Regulate” as the commercial bumper music at least twice, it’ll be a disappointment.

Sun Belt: Louisiana vs. Coastal Carolina

Simply crowning a champion for the Sun Belt’s best season to date

Both Louisiana and Coastal Carolina have been two of the best stories in college football this season. The Ragin’ Cajuns were one of the favorites coming into the season, and have faced plenty of adversity between coronavirus pandemic and the death of offensive line coach D.J. Looney during practice in the offseason. Coastal Carolina was predicted to finish toward the bottom of the conference. But the 11-0 Chanticleers have the best record of any Sun Belt team in history. The game should be a tight contest, just as it was in mid-October. Except this time, the stakes are just a bit higher.

AAC: Tulsa vs. Cincinnati

How many spots will Cincinnati tumble in the playoff rankings if it wins?

OK, we’re being a bit snarky here, but the committee has made it clear — it has zero respect for the Bearcats, who don’t own a top-25 win (but do have wins over four teams 6-3 or better). For two straight weeks, the committee has moved Cincinnati down in the rankings, despite the Bearcats not playing either week. How will the playoff slight impact Cincy’s approach? It’s possible the realization that a top-four ranking is out of reach will water down the significance of winning the American Conference. It’s possible it could have an already ferocious defense angry. Either way, it’ll make for a nice narrative to explain the outcome.

Under-the-radar game of the week

Lyles: Arizona State vs. Oregon State

Both of these teams have had notable performances in what has been a short and unpredictable Pac-12 season. First, Oregon State defeated Oregon in one of the biggest rivalry games in the conference, which saw Beavers RB Jermar Jefferson rush for 226 yards. Meanwhile, a week ago, Herm Edwards’ Sun Devils put up a 70-piece against Arizona, leading to the firing of Wildcats head coach Kevin Sumlin. This game is going to go deep into the night if you’re on the East Coast. But you should have a late coffee or beverage of your choice and watch it — it’ll be worthwhile.

Hale: Texas A&M at Tennessee

As non-championship games go, there’s none with more on the line than this one. For Texas A&M, this represents one final opportunity to sway the folks on the College Football Playoff committee. The Aggies are currently fifth in the poll, but they’ve got better wins, more games and arguably a stronger overall case for the playoff than No. 4 Ohio State. So, what happens if A&M hangs a big number on Tennessee, and Ohio State lands just a pedestrian win against Northwestern? Could enough committee members be convinced to move up the Aggies to swing the playoff?

On the flip side, even a strong showing by Tennessee would mean a lot for the current coaching staff. Plenty of fans are frustrated with the lack of progress — at least in terms of wins and losses — under Jeremy Pruitt, and while he continues to recruit well, ending the season with a dramatic win — or at least an offensive performance showcasing some direction — would go a long way toward changing the larger narrative.

Player to watch

Lyles: Clemson RB Travis Etienne

Etienne was very much in the thick of the Heisman race when Clemson played Notre Dame more than a month ago. That game provided him an opportunity to boost his stock, and he came up short, with 28 yards in 18 carries and one touchdown. He mentioned Tuesday during media availability that he couldn’t be in much better shape at this point in the season. He has had to hear about how he didn’t step up in the Tigers’ lone loss this season, and if he’s feeling as good as he says he is, I expect a big game from him as Clemson goes for another ACC title.

Hale: Florida QB Kyle Trask

How much do we really know about Alabama’s defense? Mac Jones, Najee Harris and DeVonta Smith have made it impossible to ignore the Tide’s offense, but the other side of the ball has largely gone unnoticed because the D really hasn’t been challenged. Of Alabama’s 10 games, only three came against teams ranked in the top 64 in points-per-drive or the top 75 of touchdowns-per-drive.

Enter Trask and the high-flying Florida offense, fresh off an embarrassing loss in which the Gators’ star QB might have also lost his grip on the Heisman. It’s fair to wonder what the motivation level is for Florida, now that its playoff hopes have almost certainly been dashed, but even if the Gators don’t manage a win, how Alabama handles Trask, the return of Kyle Pitts and that offense will tell us a lot about how the playoff might unfurl.

Upset of the week

Lyles: Louisiana over Coastal Carolina

Billy Napier’s team is 9-1 on the season, with their lone loss coming, of course, to the Chanticleers. Coastal Carolina is coming off of a tough game and narrow win against Troy. Louisiana feels it left a lot out on the field the past two times these teams played, and now they’re getting a second chance to win. I’m taking Louisiana in a game that will be just as close, if not closer, than the first meeting.

Hale: San Jose State over Boise State

The Broncos are 5-1 and favored by about a touchdown here, but it’s the upstart Spartans who look like the real threat. Boise State has played only two winning teams this year — a blowout loss to BYU and a win over middling Air Force that hardly constituted a strong performance by the defense. San Jose State, meanwhile, held Air Force to only six points, and is coming off an impressive win over Nevada in which QB Nick Starkel averaged more than 10 yards a throw.

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