Forde-Yard Dash: Previewing an Awkward Conference Championship Weekend

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where Virginia literally poured cold water on Virginia Tech’s postgame celebration in the Cavaliers’ stadium:

First Quarter: CFP Committee Stress Test | Second Quarter: Why Texas A&M Vetoed Stoops Hire

Third Quarter: It’s Championship Week, Embrace the Awkward Tension

There are 10 conference championship games being contested this week, the last big hurrah before the annual trickle of bowl games fills the latter half of December. There have never been this many high-stakes conference title games—every single Power Five matchup could impact the playoff. But beyond that, the great realignment wave plus Connor Stalions have combined to create a maximum level of potential awkwardness for postgame trophy presentations. The Dash breaks it all down, from most awkward and contentious to least:

All times Eastern.

Big Ten (21)

The matchup: Iowa (10–2) vs. Michigan (12–0), Saturday at 8 p.m.

The tension: It’s highly likely that league commissioner Tony Petitti will have to share a stage with the coach he controversially suspended for the final three games of the regular season, Jim Harbaugh. Petitti also would have to exchange pleasantries with Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, who fired off a strident protest statement when the punishment was handed down. I don’t think any single human being in the sport has been booed as hard in 2023 as Petitti will be Saturday night if the Wolverines win. (And they will win.)

forde-yard dash: previewing an awkward conference championship weekend

After serving his three-game suspension, Jim Harbaugh will be back on the sideline in Indianapolis. Patrick Breen/USA TODAY NETWORK

And just in case Iowa wins, don’t expect any podium hugs exchanged between athletic director Beth Goetz and the Ferentz family. Goetz forced out Kirk Ferentz’s son and ineffective offensive coordinator, Brian, in late October but allowed him to finish coaching the season. In response to a well-deserved pink slip and a kinder-than-warranted long goodbye, pouty nepo baby Brian has stopped wearing Iowa gear on the sidelines during games—as if he were somehow an aggrieved party here while overseeing literally the worst offense in the country. Goetz would be well within her rights to tell Brian Ferentz that if he’s no longer proud to represent Iowa, he no longer has to and dismiss him immediately.

The line: Michigan by 23.

How they got here: For Iowa, one punt at a time. For Michigan, one survived suspension at a time.

Dash prediction: Michigan 28, Iowa 0. Other than the potential for Harbaugh Theater, this will be a terrible game to watch. The Hawkeyes will only possess the ball on Michigan’s side of midfield if the Wolverines turn it over to them there or have a special teams failure.

Pac-12 (22)

The matchup: Oregon (11–1) vs. Washington (12–0), Friday at 8 p.m.

The tension: Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff is believed to still exist, though it’s fairly certain that he has not attended a single conference football game this fall—and for good reason. His league will no longer exist in any viable capacity next season, crashing into a realignment iceberg while on his inactive watch. And the two schools that dealt the coup de grace to the Pac-12 in August will battle it out for the final conference title. Then Kliavkoff can hand over the trophy to the future Big Ten members and return to exile.

The line: Oregon by 9.5.

How they got here: The hard way, through the deepest conference in the country. But also the entertaining way, with two of the best offenses in the country. The Huskies beat the Ducks by three points in October in one of the Games of the Year.

Dash prediction: Oregon 38, Washington 31. If the Big Ten game is the worst competitive matchup, this one might be the best. The Dash does not believe the undefeated Huskies can be blown out, but there is no doubt that the Ducks have played better over the latter half of the season. If Dan Lanning can resist committing fourth-down malpractice, Oregon should be headed to the playoff … maybe Washington, too. (Though the Huskies would need some stuff to break right.)

Atlantic Coast (23)

The matchup: Louisville (10–2) vs. Florida State (12–0), Saturday at 8 p.m.

The tension: You might recall that the Seminoles did everything but secede from the conference during the summer, ginning up all kinds of outrage over the media grant-of-rights contract that extends to 2036—and which Florida State willingly signed at the time it came into existence. They threatened to up and leave, despite apparently having nowhere to go. The Seminoles rattled sabers for a “success initiative” that gives high-performing schools in football and men’s basketball a shot at greater revenue, which was voted into existence. For commissioner Jim Phillips, the trophy presentation would be more pleasant to the Cardinals—but more lucrative to the Seminoles, who likely will be in the playoff with a win in Charlotte.

The line: Florida State by 2.5.

How they got here: The Seminoles were expected to be here, though they had to endure a late-season injury to star quarterback Jordan Travis. The Cardinals are a surprise, after being picked to finish eighth in the league.

Dash prediction: Louisville 31, Florida State 30. Jeff Brohm loves a good upset opportunity, and the ‘Noles are vulnerable. The Cardinals’ defense has softened up in recent weeks, surrendering more than six yards per play in the last three games, but it remains to be seen whether Tate Rodemaker can effectively move the FSU offense. If the Louisville offense takes care of the ball, it should be able to move and score—the Cardinals are 10–0 when turning it over two or fewer times this season, 0–2 when committing three turnovers.

Big 12 (24)

The matchup: Oklahoma State (9–3) vs. Texas (11–1), Saturday at noon.

The tension: Commissioner Brett Yormark, like everyone else in the sport, likes the money that could come the conference’s way if the Longhorns make the playoff. But there’s also this: the Cowboys are staying in the Big 12, the Horns are not. Yormark told a Texas Tech booster group earlier this year that he was hoping the Red Raiders “take care of business” in the season finale at Texas Friday. Instead, the Horns won 57–7 and then unleashed the trolls on the stadium big screen. There is simply no way Texas is passing on the petty while leaving this relationship.

forde-yard dash: previewing an awkward conference championship weekend

Steve Sarkisian and the Longhorns could win Texas its first Big 12 title since 2009. Mikala Compton/American-Statesman/USA TODAY NETWORK

The line: Texas by 14.

How they got here: The Cowboys arrive by a circuitous route that includes two blowout losses and one huge win in the final Bedlam game. The Longhorns, at last, lived up to the preseason hype.

Dash prediction: Texas 37, Oklahoma State 21. Mike Gundy brings some warlock powers to any game in which he’s an underdog, and this matchup certainly is the kind that brings out the best in The Mullet. But his defense has been among the worst in the Big 12 in league play, and Texas has the weapons to exploit that—even after the injury to running back Jonathon Brooks.

American (25)

The matchup: SMU (10–2) at Tulane (11–1), Saturday at 4 p.m.

The tension: AAC commissioner Mike Aresco has been consistently resilient and pragmatic when schools have left his league—including SMU, which is hitting the eject button next year for the ACC. But it has to hurt to see a school so desperate to get out that it is forfeiting hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue rights (and that school is the closest one to league headquarters). Just as the AAC was assuredly happy to see Tulane defeat outgoing Central Florida for the conference title last year, league honchos would prefer a repeat this year.

The line: Tulane by 5.5.

How they got here: By beating every non-Power Five opponent in their path. SMU was 10–0 against teams outside the P5; Tulane was 11–0. Neither has lost since September.

Dash prediction: Tulane 27, SMU 20. These teams have quality quarterbacks, but they’re also the top two defensive units in the conference. The Dash knows this: picking against the Green Wave late in the year the past two seasons has been an invitation to be wrong, and that’s an invitation that needs to be declined in this instance.

Southeastern (26)

The matchup: Alabama (11–1) vs. Georgia (12–0), Saturday at 4 p.m.

The tension: The SEC, which has led all of college football in soap opera drama and scandal since time immemorial, has been downright placid this year. Even boring, when it comes to off-the-field shenanigans. So there isn’t a lot of tension here, other than the jarring possibility of the SEC champion being left out of the playoff if Alabama upsets Georgia. Of course, the SEC also could end up with two in the playoff if Alabama upsets Georgia and things break right elsewhere. That result guarantees maximum Greg Sankey lobbying, but the bird-in-the-hand playoff bid comes with the Bulldogs beating the Crimson Tide.

The line: Georgia by 5.5.

How they got here: The Crimson Tide earned their way in weeks ago but had to execute their own version of the Prayer at Jordan-Hare Saturday to keep national championship hopes alive. The Bulldogs arrive in the same fashion as they have the previous two SEC title games: undefeated and ranked No. 1.

Dash prediction: Georgia 28, Alabama 21. This game has so many elements of the 2021 SEC title meeting. Then and now, the Tide is wobbling in off a near-playoff-death experience against an underdog Auburn team, saved by dramatic quarterback play when all appeared lost. Then and now, Georgia is solidly favored not only in this game, but to win the national championship. Then, the Tide shocked the Bulldogs behind an all-world performance by Bryce Young, Now, history will not repeat because Jalen Milroe is not Bryce Young, nor will he win the Heisman Trophy despite demanding “that MFer” after the Auburn win. Georgia ‘23 is not as good as Georgia ‘21, but neither is Alabama ‘23 as good as Alabama ‘21. ‘Dogs win.

Sun Belt (27)

The matchup: Appalachian State (8–4) at Troy (10–2), Saturday at 4 p.m.

The tension: The controversy arises from who isn’t competing—James Madison, which “won” the Sun Belt East Division at 11–1 but is ineligible for the league title as a transitioning FCS school. But the two teams playing in the game won’t be worried about hurting the Dukes’ feelings, with one side lifting the trophy and proclaiming itself Sun Belt champion.

The line: Troy by 6.5.

How they got here: A closing five-game winning streak delivered the Mountaineers. Troy, meanwhile, is 17–0 after September the past two seasons.

Dash prediction: Troy 24, Appalachian State 17. Under Jon Sumrall, the Trojans have dropped a couple games early and then forgotten how to lose the rest of the way. He started 1–2 the past two seasons and then commenced long winning streaks. App State has a proclivity to thriller finishes, but the Mountaineers will have a hard time coming out on top in this one.

forde-yard dash: previewing an awkward conference championship weekend

UNLV’s nine wins this season are the most for the program since 1984. Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports

Mountain West (28)

The matchup: Boise State (7–5) at UNLV (9–3), Saturday at 3 p.m.

The tension: Not much, honestly. Commissioner Gloria Nevarez is navigating toward an alliance of sorts with surviving Pac-2 schools Oregon State and Washington State, and there will be politics in play between Mountain West schools and those two. Otherwise, this is a pretty cool matchup of the familiar (Boise) and the fresh (UNLV).

The line: Boise by 2.5.

How they got here: With the help of computer ratings that didn’t spit out a pairing until Sunday. The Broncos rode a late three-game winning streak under an interim coach. The Rebels were a season-long surprise under a first-year coach.

Dash prediction: Boise State 35, UNLV 31. The Broncos have become one of the top running teams in the country, and the Rebels have been gouged for 577 rushing yards in their last two games. When in doubt, go with the team that will win the ground game.

Conference USA (29)

The matchup: New Mexico State (10–3) at Liberty (12–0), Friday at 7 p.m.

The tension: This game should be all happiness. It pairs two teams that wandered through the independent wilderness for years, playing each other twice in both the 2018 and ’19 seasons to fill out schedules. Now they’re both having epic seasons: for the Aggies, probably their best since 1960; for the undefeated and ranked Flames, arguably their best ever.

The line: Liberty by 10.5.

How they got here: By hiring two great coaches, Jerry Kill at NMSU and Jamey Chadwell at Liberty.

Dash prediction: Liberty 34, New Mexico State 27. This is a rematch of a September game won by the Flames, but the Aggies have improved significantly since then. It’s also a fun matchup of dynamic, dual-threat quarterbacks, Kaiden Salter of Liberty and Diego Pavia of NMSU. Whichever one executes best might end up on the winning side.

Mid-American (30)

The matchup: Miami (Ohio) (10–2) vs. Toledo (11–1), Saturday at noon.

The tension: There is no tension in the MAC. There is only #MACtion. And Midwest consistency. And a certainty of identity. Realignment drama does not touch the MAC. It simply endures.

The line: Toledo by 7.5.

How they got here: By being bulletproof since Labor Day. Both teams started 0–1 against Power Five competition, and the only loss by either of them since then was the Rockets beating the RedHawks 21–17 in October.

Dash prediction: Toledo 27, Miami 17. The RedHawks have been on a roll, but the Rockets have the better quarterback in fifth-year standout DeQuan Finn. He will find a way. The only red flag here could be if Toledo coach Jason Candle gets down the road with another school (Syracuse, perhaps) in discussing another job. Coaches who are job shopping often don’t fare well in these circumstances.

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