So the gods threw us a bone and gave us at least one playoff spot to debate. They waited until the last minute, but in a season sorely lacking in high-profile upsets, we’ll settle for late over never. With apologies to Michigan, whom we plugged all season, we’re mercenaries here. We’re all-in for anything that’s interesting.
Are we just delaying the inevitable? Are the semifinals a formality, a mere greeting line before we sit down for the inevitable Clemson-Alabama feast? Quite possibly. And if so, the conference championships are almost as rote. The closest matchup, according to Vegas, is the only one with zero bearing on the playoffs. And two of the remaining sport 20-point lines! It is a conference championship weekend entirely fitting of the season. But with not much college football left before the long, cold offseason, we recommend gnawing the bones (we’re looking at you ACC).
Before we get to the sraps of the 2018 schedule, here’s our projection of how the playoff field stands ahead of the final weekend.
Now, here’s how each championship game looks according to our numbers, sorted by game time.
Pac 12: No. 11 Washington (58 percent likely to win) vs. No. 17 Utah
The most competitive conference championship game is, unfortunately, the least relevant. Washington finally showed some of the form many (us included!) expected this season, but it’s too little, too late as far as the playoff is concerned. In some counter-programming for the Pac-12, this matchup pairs two of the country’s best defenses -- we make U-Dub No. 9 and Utah No. 15. The winner punches a ticket to an even better slot in the Rose Bowl, so plenty still at stake.
Big 12: No. 6 Oklahoma (77 percent) vs. No. 20 Texas
The Big 12 title game intrigues for novelty alone. These Red River rivals have played 113 times before, but it’s been 115 years since they’ve done so twice in a season. The game-day atmosphere will be less interesting than usual, with nary a cow or a fair ride to be found on the Jerry World premises, but it will be compelling to see the Sooners try to avenge their narrow loss in October. The Texas defense has looked porous at times this season, especially against “air raid” teams. They will have their hands full against the (head-and-shoulders) No. 1 offense in the country led by soon-to-be Heisman finalist Kyler Murray. Unfortunately for OU their defense is 73rd. There won’t be much punting in this game.
SEC: No. 1 Alabama (72 percent) vs. No. 3 Georgia
People are sleeping on the SEC title game. This is one of the marquee matchups of the year and deserves all the attention it can get in its solo mid-afternoon slot Saturday. It is a rematch of last year’s title game, which itself was an all-timer. The Bulldogs have been sitting with that bitter overtime loss for almost a year now. Kirby Smart, who knows his former squad and staff as well as anybody, has been scheming for almost as long. And we’ve all seen this matchup coming, with near certainty, for the same amount of time. It is here, and if there is justice in the world, it will be spectacular.
Alabama’s dominance this season leaves many feeling their march to the national title game, and likely championship, is inevitable. This game should not feel that way. Georgia is strong on both sides of the ball and has been a top 3-4 team all season. They played worse than Alabama against LSU, clearly. But those betting on transitivity in sports went broke a long time ago.
In playoff terms this game only matters to Ohio State and Oklahoma, as we believe Alabama is in regardless. But it would affect seeding, an interesting twist. We’re going to set that aside for a few hours Saturday and enjoy the game for its own sake.
ACC: No. 2 Clemson (94 percent) vs. No. 31 Pittsburgh
We think Clemson has done enough to get in, but a loss to Pittsburgh isn’t exactly a “good loss”. What if the Tigers lose and quarterback Trevor Lawrence gets hurt? Overall, we make Clemson 70 percent to get in if they lose. If Ohio State and Oklahoma both win, while Alabama and Clemson both lose on Saturday, things could get a little more interesting. In that scenario, we still think Clemson gets the nod for the fourth spot, but it’s a tight three-horse race. That’s as much intrigue as we can muster, as Clemson should win easily and claim the No. 2 spot.
Big Ten: No. 5 Ohio State (92 percent) vs. No. 55 Northwestern
The other night game is, on paper, just as non-competitive. The numbers told us to never lose faith in Ohio State - they have been top 6 for us all year. Northwestern, on the other hand, peaked at No. 39 in Week 2 before drifting down to the 50s. The Wildcats have a respectable No. 24 defense but will need to play well above their season standard to hang with the Buckeyes’ No. 3 offense. With Ohio State aiming to impress the committee - and they will have watched Oklahoma set the bar earlier in the day - this should get ugly.
Here’s the full projected results picture for this weekend:
If all goes to plan the committee will have a serious challenge on its hands Sunday. We show victorious Oklahoma and Ohio State squads in a virtual dead heat with the committee. It’s hard to imagine style points on Saturday won’t carry the day. How would, say, a Buckeye blowout win over an overmatched Northwestern weigh versus a Sooner squeaker against a salty Texas team? We’d like to think the committee would keep those cosmetics in perspective but, then again, they are human.
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