Conference Championship Analysis- Inaugural 2018 Edition

For the tenth-straight season, I will be publishing weekly columns late in the season which analyze all of  the FBS conference championship races. Like my bowl bubble watch (which should be published on here in the next day or so), there is not really a column like this on any other mainstream college football site.  Bolded teams have already clinched their division or conference. Italicized teams are my predicted champions of their respective conferences/divisions at this point in time.  This list is updated through all games played on October 28, 2017.

ACC AtlanticClemson (The Tigers have all but clinched this division by virtue of their back-to-back beat downs of NC State and Florida State.  Clemson still hasn’t played Boston College though, who sits only a game behind them in the currently conference standings.  If Dabo’s group wins that game in two weeks and beats Louisville next week, the division crown will once again be theirs.)\

ACC CoastalVirginia Tech  (This division, along with the Big Ten West and Pac-12 South, serve as most wide open races in major college football.  Virginia currently has a half game lead on both Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh but Miami is also in the mix just a game back.  I picked the Hokies to win this division in the preseason and I am going to stick with it, but VT does have a formidable late season schedule that includes games again all three of the aforementioned division challengers as well as Boston College.)

Big Ten EastOhio State (Even though everyone is hating on the Buckeyes right now and rightfully so, Ohio State still controls its own destiny in the division title race and has a very manageable late season schedule.  I think the Bucks will get by Michigan State in two weeks thanks to their superior athleticism, and then take care of Michigan at home in the season finale to clinch another Big Ten East championship.

Big Ten WestNorthwestern (Seemingly out of nowhere, Northwestern has emerged to take a game a half lead over Wisconsin, Purdue, and Iowa in this wide open division title race.  With that being said, the Wildcats still have to make the tough trip to Iowa City in two weeks to take on the Hawkeyes. If they win that one, they will all but clinch their first-ever Big Ten division title.  Even with a loss though, I think Iowa will stumble to Purdue which will enable the Wildcats to win the division by virtue of their head-to-head tiebreakers over both Wisconsin and Purdue. Can you believe a team that lost non-conference home games to both Duke and Akron could be playing for the Big Ten Championship?)

Big 12Oklahoma/Texas (Iowa State, Texas Tech, Baylor, and Oklahoma State are technically still in contention, but the race to the Big 12 title game is essentially a battle between Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia.  All are tied at 4-1 and all still have to play each other, except Texas has already knocked off Oklahoma. I am predicting Texas gets upset in Lubbock by the Red Raiders and the Mountaineers lose to both the Horns and Sooners, which will set up a Red River rematch for the Big 12 title.)

Pac-12 NorthWashington (This division title race is shaping up to be a battle between all the usual suspects: Washington, Washington State, and Stanford.  The Cougars currently lead the field by half of a game, but the Huskies have absolutely owned Wazzu in the Apple Cup over the past few seasons, so I am going to predict that game to once again be the Cougars undoing.  Washington also gets to host Stanford next Saturday, so I think the Huskies will win out, despite their recent struggles, and take home a third consecutive Pac-12 North title.)

Pac-12 SouthUtah (Shockingly, every team in this entire division is within a game and a half of first place in the Pac-12 South.  That’s what you call a wide open division title race. I am going to pick Utah to come out on top here though, for several reasons.  First, the Utes are currently a game up on the rest of their competitors. Second, they already have the head-to-head tiebreaker over USC, UCLA, and Arizona.  And third, and most importantly, they are playing really good football right now. As a result, watch out for the Utes to win out and claim their first-ever Pac-12 South championship, which would make this the first division in all of FBS to have all its members claim at least one division crown.)

SEC EastGeorgia (Interestingly and somewhat shockingly, both divisions in the SEC will essentially be having de facto division championship games next Saturday.  The Georgia vs. Kentucky game is a true de facto division title game as the winner will clinch a berth in the SEC Championship. The Cats are one of the great feel good stories of the year this season in college football but the magic will run out next Saturday, as Kentucky will fail to generate the offense to keep up with the Dawgs.)     

SEC WestAlabama (The more predictable division championship game will take place in Baton Rouge next weekend as the Tide and Tigers look to engage in another classic slobber knocker.  I am interested to see how Tua plays against an elite defense, but it may not matter, as I don’t foresee LSU able to score at all on Bama. Like Georgia, Bama will clinch a berth in the SEC Championship game with a road victory on Saturday.)

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Side Note: Interestingly, only two of my predicted Power 5 division champs have changed since the preseason, as I now have Northwestern instead of Wisconsin winning the Big Ten West and Utah instead of Arizona in the Pac-12 North.  The same cannot be said about the Group of Five conference races, which are full of surprise contenders.

AAC EastUCF (The defending national champion Knights have once again bowled everyone en route to a 7-0 start.  They, however, have a tough remaining schedule featuring games against all three of the other division title contenders: USF, Temple, and Cincinnati, as well as a matchup against the always tricky Midshipmen of Navy.  Fortunately, the Knights get all but one of those contests at home, so I am going to predict for UCF to win out and once again play in the American Athletic championship game.)

AAC West Houston (The Cougars look like the top threat to another UCF run to a New Year’s Six Bowl, as they find themselves in prime position to play the Knights in what could be a de facto New Years Six play-in game in the AAC title game.  Houston does have a tough remaining schedule as well, but their current two game cushion in the division standings will prove important if they do somehow stumble.)

C-USA EastMarshall (In the preseason, most everyone though the defending league champs FAU were a shoe-in to repeat as division champs.  That has turned out not to the case as we head into the final month of conference play with the Owls possessing a disappointing 1-3 conference record.  Instead, their arch rival, FIU stands alone in first place in the Conference USA East division (4-0), a game ahead of Middle Tennessee and my preseason pick Marshall.  Despite the Golden Panthers surprise success, I am sticking with my own surprise pick, Marshall, to clinch a spot in the conference title game by winning out and knocking off FIU in their regular season finale.)

C-USA WestUAB (The Blazers surprised the country last season with their literal rise from the ashes, as they contended for a division title and played in a bowl game in their first year back as a football program.  Now, they look to be taking things one step further as they shockingly sit atop the C-USA West standings at 5-0 in conference play and 7-1 overall. Most importantly, the Blazers have already beaten their two closest challengers: Louisiana Tech and North Texas, so even if UAB were to stumble in their tricky season finale against Middle Tennessee they would still clinch the division by virtue of their head-to-head tiebreakers.  Thus, all the Blazers need to do is beat lowly Southern Miss and UTSA at home to clinch a most shocking berth into the Conference USA Championship game.)

MAC EastBuffalo (In the preseason, I predicted we would see a battle between Miami of Ohio, Ohio, and Buffalo to become the champs of this division, and with a month to go in the regular season, that is exactly what has emerged.  The Bulls have a one game lead over the Bobcats and Redhawks in the conference standings and also have the most favorable remaining schedule of the three, so I am predicting Buffalo to clinch a berth into their first MAC championship game since they won the conference crown under Turner Gill ten years ago.)

MAC WestNorthern Illinois (The past three MAC West champions have been Western Michigan, Toledo, and Northern Illinois and those are the same three teams contending for the division crown this season.  The Huskies of NIU currently sit alone atop the conference standings at 4-0, and I think they will hold on to take this division title despite having to make the trip Kalamazoo to play Western Michigan in their regular season finale.)

MWC MountainBoise State (If the Broncos can get by Fresno in two weeks, then they will get to host division leader Utah State in a de facto division title game in their regular season finale.  Both games will be extremely difficult for Boise to win, but because both are being played at home on the Smurf Turf, I’m going to stick with my preseason prediction and call for the Broncos to win out and repeat as division champs.)

MWC WestFresno State (Just like last season, Fresno and San Diego State are the two teams battling it out for the MWC West Division Championship.  Currently, the Bulldogs definitely look to be the more complete football team of the two, so I am calling for them to knock off the Aztecs at home on November 17th and repeat as division champs.)

Sun Belt EastAppalachian State (It is the first year of division play in the Sun Belt, and we have a pair of interesting division races in this league despite each division only having five teams in it.  Thanks to the Eagles upset of App State on Thursday, Georgia Southern and Troy stand alone atop the conference standings at 4-0 with the Mountaineers sitting a game back. I think when all is said and done each of these teams will have one win and one loss to the other two, but the Mountaineers will come back to claim the division crown by virtue of a UL-Monroe upset over Georgia Southern next weekend.  This feels like a classic letdown spot for the Eagles on Saturday.)

Sun Belt WestArkansas State (Despite only being 1-3 in conference play, the Red Wolves are only a game back in their division title race.  Arkansas State also has a much easier remaining schedule than the two teams ahead of them, UL-Monroe and UL-Lafayette, so I am sticking with my preseason prediction here and picking the Red Wolves to both win out and get the help needed to earn a trip to the first-ever Sun Belt Championship Game.)

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