Tailgate Pick ‘Em College Football Conference Championship Week Predictions Including Iowa-Michigan State

The regular season has given way to conference championship week this week in College Football as the ACC, Big 10, PAC-12, AAC, C-USA, MAC, MWC, and SEC championships will be on the line in the final week before the bowl season. Our experts John Bava, Steen Kirby, Yesh Ginsburg, and Mike Loveall are on hand to preview the biggest title games this week, and predict all of them.

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Credit to John for proving himself as our guru this season, the rest of us will be gunning to take the crown away from him next season.

AAC Championship Game: #22 Temple at #19 Houston (Saturday 12/5/15 12:00 P.M. EST in Houston, TX)
Line: Houston by 6

John:
This winner of this game will likely get the New Year’s Six bowl berth given to the highest ranked Group of Five team. It will also pit two schools who probably will be looking for new coaches since Temple’s Matt Rhule and Houston’s Tom Herman are expected to be hot commodities for the numerous job openings around the country.

Prediction: Houston 31, Temple 21

Steen:
Greg Ward’s return at QB for the Houston Cougars was the difference factor when they dominated a quality Navy team. Now at home against a Temple team with heart and chemistry, but somewhat lacking in talent, Houston should be able to throw and run wild and come out with a win. Credit to Temple for their remarkable season,but Houston, when healthy, is the best non-power 5 team this season. They will win the American and deservedly get a top bowl slot.

Prediction: Houston 41, Temple 28

Yesh:
The Houston team that pounded Navy last week could probably play with almost anybody. The receivers are fast and Greg Ward Jr.’s escapability gives them time to get open. Temple is a tempo-controlling team that uses its base defense to overcome a distinct lack of speed in the secondary. Houston will be throwing over their heads all day.

Prediction: Houston 45, Temple 21

Mike:
This is almost assuredly a play-in game for the Group-of-Six New Year’s Six Bowl invite. Houston seems to have stablized following a disastrous loss to Connecticut and the many rumors regarding head coach Tom Herman. Herman seems set to stay in Houston – at least for another year – and the Cougars responded to that UCONN loss with an impressive victory over Navy. Temple has existed in relative obscurity since a loss to Notre Dame took them out of the national narrative. But don’t forget, the Owls only lost to Notre Dame by four points. This should be a competitive game, but Houston’s high-powered offense will pull away in the fourth.

Prediction: Houston 37, Temple 24

SEC Championship Game: #18 Florida vs. #2 Alabama (Saturday 12/5/15 4:00 P.M. EST in Atlanta, GA)
Line: Alabama by 18

John:
Both SEC divisional champions boast top ten rushing defenses. The Gators are hoping theirs comes to play Saturday against Bama running back Derrick Henry who appears to the be the Heisman frontrunner at this point. Don’t expect either quarterback to overly impress but I give the edge to Jacob Coker over Treon Harris at this point, especially after his performance in Florida’s 27-2 loss to rival Florida State last week.

Jim McElwain has revived the UF program faster than many expected. He should certainly be commended for winning them an SEC divisional title his first year in charge. However, I don’t expect the Gators to be very competitive in this one.

Prediction: Alabama 38, Florida 17

Steen:
Alabama is the most overrated team in the country with a one dimensional offense behind top running back Derrick Henry. With that said, this Tide defense is far too stout and physical to give up anything against a Gator offense that plodded against FSU last week. QB Treon Harris struggles with awareness in the pocket, their line isn’t great, and the lack of playmakers is evident. UF has a great defense too and will keep the points scored by Bama in this one at a minimum, but it won’t matter in the end unless someone steps up on the Gator offense.

Prediction: Alabama 21, Florida 7

Yesh:
Florida has no offense. Against this Alabama defense, it seems very difficult to believe that they will score. But Florida also has a stout defense that will be able to slow down Henry and the offensive line. Florida won’t score enough to make this debatable, but Alabama probably won’t score enough to cover.

Prediction: Alabama 17, Florida 3

Mike:
Since Alabama’s early season loss to Ole Miss, they’ve looked better and better every week. The Crimson Tide are getting better quarterback play from Jake Coker and have stayed relatively healthy. With their running game and dominant front-seven, that’s a potent combination. Florida has seemingly gotten worse since having early season success with suspended quarterback Will Grier. Since Treon Harris took over, the Gator offense has been largely stagnant and the Gators have had to survive against SEC East also-rans South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Missouri and were soundly defeated by in-state rival Florida State.

Alabama has been here before and no one should underestimate how important winning the SEC Championship Game is to Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide. Look for the Tide to be sharp, physical dominant and put this one away quickly.

Prediction: Alabama 38, Florida 13

PAC-12 Championship Game: #20 USC vs. #7 Stanford (Saturday 12/5/15 7:45 P.M. EST in Santa Clara, CA)
Line: Stanford by 4.5

John:
USC certainly didn’t look like Pac-12 South contenders after week six when they fired Steve Sarkisian after their 17-12 loss to Washington. Since then, they’ve gone 5-2 and suddenly find themselves in the conference title game. The Trojans are looking to put together an unlikely Rose Bowl run by ending Stanford’s playoff hopes for good.

For the Cardinal, the opportunity is there for them to take their third Pac-12 crown since 2012. Not bad for a program that had only won three conference titles between 1971 and 2011. If Kevin Hogan continues to play mistake-free football like he did against Notre Dame (268 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions) and Heisman candidate Christian McCaffery keeps gaining yardage every which way, Stanford football will continue to enjoy unprecedented success in the program’s history.

Prediction: Stanford 34, USC 23

Steen:
Keeping Clay Helton on as head coach has brought the Trojans the stability they sorely need, and this team is still stocked with enough talent to win this game, and beat just about any team in the country. This is the only major championship game to feature a regular season rematch, and Stanford is looking to finish strong after a heartbreaking loss to Oregon derailed their playoff chances. Kevin Hogan is an experienced leader, Christian McCaffrey is a great player, and after beating a top tier Notre Dame team last week, I look for the Cardinal to continue their success and beat SC for the second time this season in what should be a very close game.

Prediction: Stanford 38, USC 35

Yesh:
The first time these two played, USC pulled out to an early lead before Stanford took over. I think the USC defense will want revenge for how they got torn up. And they really want to be back at the Rose Bowl.

Prediction: USC 28, Stanford 21

Mike:
This game is probably the toughest game of the week to call. Stanford is coming off an emotional win against Notre Dame and still has an outside chance at the College Football Playoffs. USC has a ton of talent, but hasn’t been able to put together the season they had hoped for. If USC can get the passing game going and establish a decent rushing threat, they can avenge their first loss of the season, a 41-31 loss to Stanford at home. Stanford might suffer from a little bit of a let-down after losing to Oregon two weeks ago and virtually eliminating themselves from Playoff contention. USC is looking to salvage the season by earning a trip to the Rose Bowl. We’ll get an early test of how well Clay Helton can get his team ready for big games. Look for the upset here.

Prediction: USC 35, Stanford 31

Big 10 Championship Game: #5 Michigan State vs. #4 Iowa (Saturday 12/5/15 8:00 P.M. EST in Indianapolis, IN) Line: Michigan State by 3.5

John:
These two teams weren’t necessarily expected to meet in Indianapolis when the season started, although Iowa is more of a surprise than MSU. You could characterize this game as a College Football Playoff quarterfinal of sorts, with the winner all but assuring their ticket in the semifinals.

The two quarterbacks in this game, Connor Cook of the Spartans and CJ Beathard of the Hawkeyes, have thrown a combined seven interceptions on the season. With the two teams tied at fourth in the nation in turnover margin, don’t expect many mistakes in this game. That said, whichever defense can force the most takeaways will put their team in position to keep their national title hopes alive.

Prediction: Michigan State 27, Iowa 20

Steen:
Kirk Ferentz has finally earned his money by overachieving and maximizing talent with an Iowa team that no one expected to be undefeated and in the position to make the playoff at the start of the season. RB Jordan Canzeri leads the Hawkeye ground game, while DB Nigel King headlines a turnover forcing and physical Hawkeye defense. This team deserves a lot of credit, and they belong in the top 10 without question, but against all but Northwestern, Iowa has had to scratch and claw when they face bowl eligible/good teams.

Michigan State survived a tough schedule with the same luck that Iowa found this season, and this is a complete team that sees the national title ahead. Sparty should move to seize it by winning this game somewhat comfortably, and securing a playoff spot thanks to better talent at the skill positions.

Prediction: Michigan State 24, Iowa 14

Yesh:
Iowa is the wild card in this entire season. They win by shortening the game and bludgeoning a defense with that O-line. They control clock and make it so that the team who makes fewer mistakes will win. Unfortunately for the Hawkeyes, Michigan State is one of those few defenses that have the front seven who can shut down the running game. Kirk Ferentz will be pushed out of his comfort zone in finding ways to make the offense work.

Prediction: Michigan State 31, Iowa 13

Mike:
Of all the teams playing this weekend, no one has more to prove than Iowa. They’re a solid team but the Hawkeyes continue to get the Rodney Dangerfield treatment because of a perceived weak schedule, playing three teams with winning records all season. But they’ll have a chance to prove themselves against one of the strongest resumes in college football, which Michigan State having strong out-of-conference wins against Oregon and Air Force and two signature wins against Michigan and Ohio State. Were it not for the last play against Nebraska, Michigan State would probably be the top-ranked team in the nation. I think Iowa is better than people think they are, but I don’t think they are a field goal away from Michigan State.

Prediction: Michigan State 35, Iowa 20

ACC Championship Game: #10 North Carolina vs. #1 Clemson (Saturday 12/5/15 8:00 P.M. EST in Charlotte, NC) Line: Clemson by 4.5

John:
The Tar Heels are likely the most under-appreciated one-loss team in the nation. It’s not much of a surprise considering their resume includes wins over two FCS schools and an opening week loss to arguably the worst team in the SEC this year in South Carolina. Perhaps the biggest question mark heading into conference championship weekend is does UNC have a shot at a Playoff berth if they shock Clemson?

The Tigers did look vulnerable at times last week against their in-state rival Gamecocks, particularly on defense. UNC running back Elijah Hood, who’s second in the conference running the football, can help his team’s cause by having a breakout performance. But it may be tough for the Heels defense to stop Clemson dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has 3,979 all-purpose yards along with 36 touchdowns that include 27 through the air.

Prediction: Clemson 45, North Carolina 24

Steen:
Both teams struggled with South Carolina, though Clemson emerged with the win to keep their undefeated record and playoff spot intact, while UNC has been digging out of the hole that opening loss created all season, having won 11 straight now including five wins back to back against some the ACC’s better teams (Pitt, Miami, NC State..). UNC has looked like a top five team at times this season and is underrated, with dual threat QB Marquise Williams, ACC punt return leader Ryan Switzer, and a revamped Gene Chizik coached defense among highlights, but I’m not sure their defense is going to be able to hang with a Clemson team that is clearly three wins from the national title. Deshaun Watson should be able to match Williams at QB, and Clemson has superior talent on defense. Expect a close Clemson victory.

Prediction: Clemson 38, North Carolina 31

Yesh:
North Carolina has been beating up on some not-great teams and did not look good enough to challenge Clemson with their performances the past two weeks. This Clemson defense can shut down the Tar Heel offense and whole Carolina’s defense has improved drastically throughout this season, they haven’t seen anything like Deshaun Watson or Clemson’s offensive line yet.

Prediction: Clemson 28, North Carolina 14

Mike:
North Carolina is much like Iowa in that this is their chance to prove their worth to a skeptical national audience. Their offense has the chance to be potent, with dual threat quarterback Marquise Williams at the helm. And the Tarheel defense is also better than people would think. But they are going against the nation’s top ranked team that has a spectacular quarterback themselves in Deshaun Watson and a defense that’s played well enough to beat Florida State and Notre Dame. This is it for Clemson fans: win here, and you can bury the term “Clemsoning” forever, lose in the biggest game in program history in over 35 years, and you etch word in the sports vocabulary for at least another year.

Prediction: Clemson 34, North Carolina 27

Other Conference Championship Game Predictions

MAC: Bowling Green vs. Northern Illinois (Friday 12/4/15 at 8:00 P.M. EST in Detroit, MI)
Line: Bowling Green by 13

John:
This year’s MAC title game pits Bowling Green and Northern Illinois against one another for the third consecutive season. The two schools have won the last four conference championships, with the Huskies having taken three of them.

Prediction: Bowling Green 45, Northern Illinois 27

Steen:
Dino Babers’ Falcons are third in the nation in passing yards and QB Matt Johnson is a stud. Losses to non-power 5 standouts Toledo and Memphis aside this season, BGSU is a dangerous team. NIU is used to winning but I don’t see them having the speed or offense to keep up, after being hampered by injuries this season and dropping their last game to Ohio.

Prediction: Bowling Green 48, Northern Illinois 31

Yesh:
Bowling Green might be the most underrated team in the country and their passing attack is “Falcon Fast”. Shawn Lurry has the speed to keep up, but the rest of the NIU defense doesn’t.

Prediction: Bowling Green 41, Northern Illinois 34

Mike:
BGSU has a quarterback that will play and be successful in the NFL and talent at the wideout position to go with him and they’ve played a tough schedule this year.

Prediction: Bowling Green 52, Northern Illinois 31

C-USA: Southern Miss at Western Kentucky (Saturday 12/5 at 12:00 P.M. EST in Bowling Green, KY)
Line: Western Kentucky by 8

John:
Western Kentucky went undefeated in C-USA play this season and is looking to win their first-ever conference title. They face a Southern Miss team in the midst of a revival under third-year coach Todd Monken.

Prediction: Western Kentucky 44, Southern Miss 24

Steen:
WKU blew out a 9-3 Marshall team in their most recent game, and while Southern Miss six game win streak and overall turnaround is impressive, the Hilltoppers should find a way to score enough to win.

Prediction: Western Kentucky 42, Southern Miss 28

Yesh:
Southern Miss has to be the shock of the season so far. Their turnaround from bottom of FBS to top of Conference USA is impressive. It’s not enough to stop QB Brandon Doughty and co., though.

Prediction: Western Kentucky 42, Southern Miss 21

Mike:
In what could be Tyson Helton’s last game as the coordinator of WKU’s high-powered offense, look for the Hilltoppers to put away a feisty and good Southern Miss team late with a few big plays.

Prediction: Western Kentucky 35, Southern Miss 24

MWC: Air Force at San Diego State (Saturday 12/5 at 7:30 P.M. EST in San Diego, CA)
Line: San Diego State by 7

John: 
Rocky Long has the Aztecs rolling in his fifth season as head coach as the program went undefeated in Mountain West play. They face the nation’s third best rushing attack with Air Force’s potent triple option attack averaging 323.5 yards per game on the ground.

Prediction: Air Force 30, San Diego State 27

Steen:
SDSU has been rolling in the MWC since they got off to a shaky 1-3 start to open the season. Undefeated in conference play and looking to stretch their eight game winning streak to nine, RB Donnel Pumphrey, who is going for over 1,500 yards this season on the ground, will be key. Air Force has an experienced run game, with their option attack, and defense, but with a pair of conference losses, and being on the road, I’m going with the Aztecs.

Prediction: San Diego State 34, Air Force 24

Yesh:
San Diego State has been under the radar all season, but they are a solid G5 team. So is Air Force. This should be a fun game.

Prediction: Air Force 35, San Diego State 31

Mike:
Air Force, because ‘Merica.

Prediction: Air Force 28, SDSU 27

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