College football conference championships prediction
Aidan Thomas | Friday, August 27, 2021
After giving you some boiling, fresh-from-the-oven hot takes yesterday, I’ve decided to run it back with another college football authority, but this time, I’ll just be picking conference championships and runner-ups. We’ll start with the Group of 5, and then make our way through the Power 5 schools.
American: Cincinnati over UCF
While I don’t think Cincinnati has the chops to take down either of their major Power 5 opponents — Indiana and Notre Dame — I do still believe they’re the cream of the crop in the American Conference. It’s a strong conference at the top, and I believe that Cincinnati will go 8-0 in the regular season, while UCF and Memphis match each other with 7-1 records. Should that happen, I’ll go with the head-to-head tiebreaker, as UCF gets the Tigers at the Bounce House.
Desmond Ridder vs. Dillon Gabriel is an enticing conference title game matchup that could have significant New Year’s 6 implications. But I don’t think Gus Malzahn can bring home any hardware in his first season in Central Florida. Give me the Bearcats to take down the American for a second straight year.
Conference USA: North Texas over Western Kentucky
North Texas is a team I expect to surprise a lot of people this year. Admittedly, the Mean Green were a disappointing 4-6 last season, and a putrid 4-8 the year before. But Seth Littrell has coached some very solid North Texas teams before, accumulating back-to-back nine-win seasons. With a lot of returning production on both sides of the ball, I like North Texas to emerge in a competitive conference with no clear standout.
Western Kentucky is a solid team, with winning records in conference play the past two seasons. I think Florida Atlantic is the biggest challenge in their division, and the Hilltoppers get them at home, so 6-2 should do the trick for clinching a title game berth. However, I think the Mean Green are the superior team in the matchup, and I’ll have them complete my mini-Cinderella prediction with an unbeaten C-USA run.
MAC: Western Michigan over Buffalo
This conference comes down to Western Michigan or Ball State. Buffalo is a solid team that benefits from being in a separate division. Whenever the Broncos and Cardinals do meet to decide their division, it should be an entertaining battle between arguably the two best offenses in the conference. Western Michigan has home field advantage in that game, and I believe they’re the more talented roster.
Meanwhile, Buffalo has been one of the best teams in the MAC over the past few years, and the East division doesn’t look intimidating. Maybe Kent State’s dynamic offense can give them a run, but I anticipate the Bulls notching around six conference victories, which should be enough for a title game berth. As aforementioned though, the best two (maybe three if you count Toledo) teams are in the West, and the winner of that division should be a clear favorite in the championship. Western Michigan will finish 7-1 in regular season conference play, and they’ll take down Buffalo in the championship to take home the MAC crown in 2021.
Mountain West: Boise State over Nevada
Boise State didn’t quite reign supreme last year, surprisingly falling short to San Jose State in the Mountain West title game. I don’t believe they’ll have any such issue, as I believe the Broncos will run roughshod over the conference in 2021. To go 12-0 will require tough wins over Oklahoma State and UCF, but in conference play, the Broncos have no equal. San Jose State, Hawaii and Nevada form the clear second tier of the conference, all residing in the West Division. While Boise State cruises in the Mountain Division, Nevada will grind their way out of a very tough division to get to the title game. However, Boise State won’t drop two championship games in a row, and they’ll get back to their perch atop the Mountain West in 2021.
Sun Belt: Appalachian State over Arkansas State
In no way do I believe Arkansas State is the second best team in their conference, but they have the best chance of winning a very weak division. Meanwhile, Georgia Southern and Coastal Carolina have the misfortune of being in a division with the Mountaineers, who are just head and shoulders above everyone else in the Sun Belt. The highly-hyped Chanticleers have probably the only decent chance to beat Appalachian State, but I don’t see it in the cards. This team is too good, and I think they’ll be in contention for a New Year’s 6 bowl at the end. Meanwhile, Arkansas State may be a 5-3 (in conference play) type of team, but that could be enough. Louisiana may have something to say about how weak that division is, but the Ragin’ Cajuns lost a lot of offensive production and could struggle to put up points. South Alabama and Louisiana-Monroe are among the worst teams in the country, which opens the door for the Red Wolves.
ACC: Clemson over Miami
Not the boldest of predictions here. Clemson is obviously the favorite out of the Atlantic, and the only team in that division capable of giving them a run is NC State. In the Coastal, there’s two really bad teams (Duke and Georgia Tech) and five teams that are pretty solid. Many believe this one comes down to Miami or UNC, but I mentioned in my last Sports Authority that I don’t believe the Tar Heels will finish the year ranked. Meanwhile, after an opening loss to Alabama, I think Miami runs the table on their ACC slate to emerge victorious out of the Coastal.
Is it enough to beat Clemson? Probably not. I somewhat unpopularly predicted the Tigers to lose to Georgia in their non-conference opener, but much like Miami, I don’t see Clemson taking a conference loss. As Justyn Ross gets back into the flow of things, and D.J. Uiageaelei gains more experience, this Clemson team should be one of the best in the country. The Tigers will win what feels like their 100th straight ACC Championship.
Big 10: Ohio State over Wisconsin
You know it’s just another normal year when Ohio State fends off their top challengers in the Big 10 East before decimating some overmatched opponents out of the Big 10 West. It’s one of the biggest reasons that I am an advocate of eliminating divisions — you constantly get conference championship matchups that don’t involve the two best teams. The three best teams in the Big 10 this year are Ohio State, Penn State and Indiana. If the Buckeyes survive Penn State at home, and a road trip to Bloomington, then they are all set. C.J. Stroud won a tough quarterback battle, and the Buckeyes’ offense should gel quickly with tough games against Minnesota and Oregon to start their schedule.
Wisconsin feels like the right pick over Minnesota, Northwestern and Iowa in the West. All four teams have a pretty legitimate shot of claiming a chance to get beat by Ohio State in the championship, but the Badgers are my favorite pick out of that quartet. Graham Mertz was inconsistent but occasionally brilliant in his first year as a starter and should elevate the offense in year 2. The key for Wisconsin — overcoming early adversity which could include a 1-2 start with losses to Notre Dame and Penn State if things don’t go their way. Winning on the road at Minnesota to end the regular season could decide who takes the West.
Big 12: Oklahoma over Iowa State
Another day, another unsurprising pick. The Sooners and Cyclones are the best teams in the Big 12, and they should be in line for a potential playoff win-and-in conference championship. My dark horse is West Virginia, as I mentioned in my previous sports authority that I think they’ll win ten games. If they take the seven wins I expect them to in conference play, to go with an upset of one of these two teams, then suddenly, it’s the Mountaineers in the title game. However, I think Spencer Rattler and Brock Purdy lead two fantastic offenses that won’t falter in conference play except to each other. The offenses should both be electric, but I believe the Sooners have the defensive edge and will claim a hard fought rematch of the 2020 Big 12 Championship.
Pac-12: Oregon over USC
The Pac-12 could be a very interesting conference this year. Utah, Colorado and Washington are all intriguing spoilers to watch and could contribute to another year of Pac-12 mayhem. However, until proven otherwise, this conference will belong to last year’s title game participants, USC and Oregon. I don’t see the result flipping either, with the Ducks claiming a third straight conference championship, beating Kedon Slovis again.
USC has a very realistic chance of entering this game undefeated — a road game at Notre Dame has the feel of a true 50/50 game, but the rest of the schedule is exceptionally winnable. Oregon will likely take a loss to Ohio State on the road, but beyond that, they avoid USC in the regular season and should be the better team in every game. Whether they can avoid upsets is the question, but a roster vastly more experienced than their very young 2020 roster makes be believe in the Ducks. In a highly competitive year, 12-1 and a conference championship may not be enough for a CFP bid, but it puts Oregon in the mix.
SEC: Alabama over Georgia
For all their dominance, Alabama actually rarely wins the West in consecutive years. In the last five seasons, they’ve won it three times, with LSU and Auburn each preventing a back-to-back. However, this Alabama team is too good to pick against. John Metchie was a top-tier secondary receiver last year and should play a massive role this season. Bryce Young is as exciting a first-year starter as any in college football. The defense returns a ton of production from a unit that gave up more than 24 points on just two occasions. And just a reminder — Alabama hasn’t scored less than 31 points since the 2018 National Championship. It’s going to take a lot to unseat the Tide, although they’ll certainly have to deal with the Iron Bowl against Auburn, plus tough games versus LSU and Texas A&M to take home the crown.
In the East, Georgia should return to their dominance. They were briefly unseated by Florida during Kyle Trask’s dominant campaign. However, the Gators figure to take a step back after losing Trask and two other first-round picks from their receiving corps. Meanwhile, I expect Zamir White to take a step forward as the next great Georgia running back, while J.T. Daniels lets it fly in Kirby Smart’s offense. However, it won’t be enough to get Georgia over the hump, as they’ll fall to the Tide in Atlanta once more on conference championship Saturday.