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Who Makes the College Football Playoff? Conference Championship Game Picks

It's conference championship game weekend, with the College Football Playoff and bowl season just ahead. Check out our picks.

November 30, 2023

The Saturday Slant gives you deep insights on some of the best games — and bets — of the week in college football.

The college football regular season is officially over. It stinks, but the good news is that bowl/College Football Playoff season is right around the corner, and while that signifies the end of the season, there are few things better than getting to kick your feet up and watch a bunch of games between teams that we never see play.

But before we get to that point, it’s conference championship game weekend. We have 10 games spread across two days this weekend, and we’re here to get you ready for all of them. All picks are based off current odds on Tipico Sportsbook as of this writing.

Friday

CUSA: New Mexico State vs. No. 24 Liberty

This one is a rematch of a game that the Flames won back in September, 33-17. Since then they’ve managed to go through the regular season unbeaten, and are holding out hope that they can get a little help in the AAC title game and earn the distinction of being the highest-ranked G5 team as bowl selection comes around, thereby earning them a NY6 berth. New Mexico State has one of the most fun players in America under center in Diego Pavia, who didn’t have his best game the last time he played Liberty. If he goes off, the Aggies have a shot, but they’re going to need to score to keep up with a Flames offense that ranks 11th in SP+.

The pick: Over 57

Pac-12: No. 5 Oregon vs. No. 3 Washington

Not every game is as easy to figure out as this one. The winner is going to the College Football Playoff. It’s a rematch of an absolutely fantastic game that we got earlier this year in Seattle, which saw Washington pick up a 36-33 win. The game basically came down to the most narrow of margins: If Oregon converted a 4th-and-goal from Washington’s 3 on the last play of the first half or a 4th-and-3 with 2:11 left in the game, they probably would have won. Instead, the Huskies made stands on both, and in the case of the second failed fourth down conversion, went right down the field in two plays and scored a game-winning touchdown … and even then, the Ducks got into field goal range with a chance to send the game to overtime but missed.

Normally saying “the game will come down to which team gets the big break” can be lazy analysis, but the last time these two teams played, Washington managed to get those breaks and made the most of them. There’s no reason to think that won’t be the case again on Friday.

The pick: Washington +9.5

Saturday

Big 12: No. 18 Oklahoma State vs. No. 7 Texas

Our first non-rematch of championship weekend pits a Texas team that desperately needs to win and pick up style points against an Oklahoma State team that has, quite simply, been extremely weird this season — they have good wins over Kansas, West Virginia, and Oklahoma, but have also gotten hammered by South Alabama and UCF (which both went 6-6 this year) by an aggregate score of 78-10. The Texas run defense has been excellent this year, and if they can bottle up Ollie Gordon II (which is very, very hard), the Pokes are gonna have a difficult time moving the ball.

Can the Oklahoma State defense bear down and get some stops against Quinn Ewers and the Longhorn offense? They might have to focus on forcing turnovers and live with whatever happens…

Can the Oklahoma State defense bear down and get some stops against Quinn Ewers and the Longhorn offense? They might have to focus on forcing turnovers and live with whatever happens if they can’t, as this is a pretty difficult matchup, particularly when it pits Texas’ passing attack (8.5 YPA, t-22nd nationally) against Oklahoma State’s passing defense (8.5 YPA allowed, t-123rd nationally). 

The pick: Under 55

MAC: Miami (OH) vs. Toledo

Another rematch! Back in October, the Rockets traveled to Oxford and picked up a 21-17 win despite not scoring a single point in the second half of the game — Miami actually had the ball near midfield with about 1:20 left, but a fumble by Aveon Smith let Toledo put the game on ice. This game will pit two of the top G5 defenses against one another (Miami is 15th in defensive SP+, Toledo is 35th), and these sorts of games usually come down to which offense can create their own luck against a good defense.

Toledo has an excellent QB/RB duo in Dequan Finn and Peny Boone, but keep an eye on Miami WR Gage Larvadain, who is second in the MAC in both yards (625) and touchdowns (6) despite only catching 36 balls on the season.

The pick: Under 44

Mountain West: Boise State vs. UNLV

Another matchup between teams that haven’t stepped on the field this year — in fact, despite both of these schools being in the same conference, they haven’t played one another since 2019. Boise’s actually here after firing head coach Andy Avalos during the year (they are 2-0 since letting him go), while UNLV is in the midst of its first winning season since 2013 under first-year coach Barry Odom.

In a game that was, quite literally, decided by computers, the intrigue comes from the similarities both teams share. Both teams are capable of picking up a ton of yards through the air, both have questions on the defensive side of the ball, and both feature a dynamic skill position player (WR Ricky White for UNLV, RB Ashton Jeanty for Boise) capable of taking over a game.

The pick: UNLV +2.5

SEC: No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 8 Alabama

It’s really hard for me to fathom that a one-loss SEC champion would be left out of the Playoff, so I think we can pretty safely say this is a win-and-you’re-in situation between Georgia, which enters this game undefeated, and Alabama, which lost to Texas in September and has not been beaten since.

It’s not an easy game to get a read on, as both teams are excellent on both sides of the football, and the last time we saw them play was two years ago when a national title was on the line. When the Crimson Tide are on offense, look for them to lean heavily on Jalen Milroe’s legs and their running game as a whole against a Bulldog defense that is excellent, but has let opposing teams run the ball a little more than they have in years past. The plan for Bama will be to use that, then hope they can hit a few big plays in the passing game, as Milroe throws an excellent deep ball.

On the other side of the ball, Carson Beck’s going to have to put a ton of faith in his offensive line against a ferocious Alabama pass rush. The team that wins in the trenches when the Bulldog offense is on the field — a legitimate strength-on-strength battle — will win the game, because if the Tide can’t get home, Beck has turned into one of the nation’s most efficient passers, and he’ll get the ball to guys like Brock Bowers and Ladd McConkey, assuming they can both go after missing last week’s game against Georgia Tech.

The pick: Georgia -5.5

AAC: SMU vs. No. 22 Tulane

Both of these teams managed to finish the AAC season with unblemished records — Tulane’s only loss came to Ole Miss, while SMU dropped games to Oklahoma and TCU. The Green Wave, especially, have a lot riding on this game, as a win almost certainly means they’re going to the NY6 as the highest-ranked G5 team. Unfortunately for the Mustangs, they lost starting QB Preston Stone for the season with a broken leg he suffered last week.

The SMU offense, which does an outstanding job spreading the ball around, is the best unit in this game, but will that be the case with Kevin Jennings under center against a Tulane defense that has been impressive in the last month? And when the Green Wave have the ball, look for them to put their faith in veteran signal caller Michael Pratt, who struggled in the team’s regular season finale against UTSA last week but is one of the top G5 quarterbacks in the game.

The pick: Tulane -3.5

Sun Belt: Appalachian State vs. Troy

Troy hasn’t lost since September, while Appalachian State is riding a five-game winning streak that includes a stunning overtime win over James Madison, who would be in this game if they were eligible for the postseason. Both of these teams will look to ride a prolific quarterback (Joey Aguilar for the Mountaineers, Gunnar Watson for the Trojans) and a good running game (App State uses a collection of running backs, Troy rides Kimani Vidal).

The big problem for the Mountaineers might come on the other side of the ball, where the Trojans are one of the top units in the country — 20th in defensive SP+ and tied for 10th in yards per play allowed. Appalachian State, meanwhile, struggles defensively, as the team is 96th and tied for 68th in those respective statistics. But if they can create some havoc plays — they’re tied for 17th in sacks per game and 31st in takeaways per game — they’ll give themselves a shot.

The pick: Troy -6

Big Ten: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 16 Iowa

This one’s pretty simple: Michigan, which is coming off of an emotional win over Ohio State and gets Jim Harbaugh back from his three-game suspension on Saturday, is in the Playoff with a win. Iowa is in straight up spoiler mode (although there’s no guarantee that a loss would keep the Wolverines out entirely). The last time these teams met up in Indianapolis, the Wolverines picked up a 42-3 win. While the matchup between Michigan’s offense and Iowa’s defense should be very good, it’s really, really hard to see a way for the Hawkeyes to score all that many points unless their defense and/or special teams are able to either get them into the end zone or put them on the doorstep.

The Hawkeyes offense has struggled all year, and unfortunately for them, the Wolverine defense might be the best in America. Can Iowa’s defense really drag Michigan down into the mud and make this a gross game? If not, the Wolverines should cruise. But they haven’t quite been as dominant running the ball as you might expect, while J.J. McCarthy hasn’t really had to go out and win them a game this season. It won’t be easy, but the Hawkeyes just might be able to change that.

The pick: Under 35

ACC: No. 14 Louisville vs. No. 4 Florida State

Much like the Big Ten and Big 12 championship games, this one pits a team with Playoff aspirations against a team that wants to play spoiler. With Ohio State’s loss to Michigan last week, the undefeated Seminoles finally moved into a Playoff spot in the eyes of the committee, and they now find themselves in a spot where they are almost certainly going to make the Playoff with a win. One question hangs over this game: How will Tate Rodemaker do under center in place of Jordan Travis, who is out for the rest of the season with an injury?

Rodemaker didn’t do much in his first start against Florida in Gainesville last week, and now has to go up against an aggressive Louisville defense that is stingy against the pass (18th nationally in opponent completion percentage) but allows a ton of yards when you do complete a pass against them (tied for 111th nationally in yards per completion allowed). Will they let Rodemaker throw? Will they hope they can ride Trey Benson and Lawrance Toafili out of the backfield? And when the Cardinals offense is on the field, who wins between a ferocious Seminole pass rush and Louisville’s collection of playmakers at RB and WR?

The pick: Under 47.5

Bill DiFilippo
Bill DiFilippo is a writer and editor based out of Columbus, Ohio. You should not, however, assume that he is an Ohio State fan. Feel free to tell him why he's wrong about stuff on Twitter, @billdifilippo. Just be nice.
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