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Championship Weekend: Talented teams vying for seats at the Football Playoff table

Ohio State

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Since the debut of this season’s College Football Playoff rankings, debate has raged about their validity. Just like always. Who’s in and who’s out spurs the conversation that keeps the hot stove steaming.

The time is here for the final judgement. After this weekend’s conference championship games, a clearer image of the proceedings will appear to drive the process to a conclusion that is indisputable.

Or it might just cause more confusion. That’s the fun of it, the reason we all will be watching.

As a public service, we present five storylines to guide you through some of the particulars.

The breakdown

According to the last rankings, Ohio State, LSU, Clemson and Georgia comprise the top four with Utah and Oklahoma ranked No. 5 and No. 6, respectively.

“We spent considerable time on it, more time than anywhere else on the board,” selection committee chair Rob Mullens said on ESPN Tuesday. “There was plenty of debate.”

In all, there are seven undefeated or one loss teams left in the Power 5. Seven will be playing for championships this weekend. Depending on who beats who, the configuration of the Final Four can drastically change or remain the same.

The SEC Championship is of great importance. If No. 2 LSU defeats No. 4 Georgia, its almost certain the Bulldogs will be eliminated from the equation as a two-loss team.

Of course, by that time the committee will already know whether Utah was able to beat Oregon in the Pac-12 title game on Friday night. If the Utes win and Georgia loses, it generally felt that Utah will leapfrog into the fourth spot, no matter what Oklahoma does in the Big 12 title game against Baylor.

LSU seems to be in be a secure position, even if it loses to Georgia. But it could drop to three or four if Clemson does what’s expected and defeats Virginia in the ACC title game.

For LSU to overtake Ohio State for the top spot, the Buckeyes are likely going to need to lose to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.

If Oregon beats Utah on Friday and Georgia beats LSU, then Oklahoma would likely take the No. 4 spot if it can beat Baylor. If both Georgia and Oklahoma lose, then the debate for who takes No. 4 will rage between proponents of the Bulldogs, Sooners and Utes.

“We’ll look to see the games this weekend,” Mullens said. “We spent more time on those teams than anybody else on the board. That right there tells you that there’s a lot of conversation among the committee on those teams.”

Of course, the one team no longer in the equation is Alabama, last season’s finalist. After losing to Auburn it fell to No. 12 and will miss the playoff for the first time since its inception in 2014.

The final rankings, which reveals the New Year’s Six teams and the field for the College Football Playoff, is coming on Sunday.

Tyler Huntley

(Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

The underdog

Taking everything into consideration, there may not have been a more powerful team than Utah since its loss to No. 22 Southern California in September.

The Utes easily get lost in the conversation because they have not been a traditional powerhouse. And this week, college football analyst Paul Finebaum pissed off their followers – and the program – by publicly mocking their legitimacy.

The thing to remember is, two of Utah’s best players, quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zach Moss, were saddled with injuries when the Utes lost to the Trojans. They highlight the Pac-12’s top rushing offense (214.6 yards per game).

“Their only loss is on a Friday night on the road at a No. 22-ranked team when a key player on offense (Moss) missed the majority of the game,” Mullens said.

Since losing that game, which was its conference opener, the Utes have rolled over seven other Pac-12 opponents by at least 18 points. And Utah’s defense is one of the best in the nation.

“You’re looking at Oklahoma and their win over a ranked opponent and so you check that box there,”  Mullens said when asked how the committee is juggling Utah with Oklahoma. “You look at Utah and you say boy they’ve been so consistent all season long and they’ve been dominant. Their defense is incredible.”

Joe Burrow

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The Heisman race

As you might suspect, some of the greatest players in the country will be in action this weekend. And that means there might be some ground to gain – or be lost – in the race for the Heisman Trophy.

As of now, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow is the front runner. He is coming off a big game against Texas A&M during which he threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns. Burrow’s 44 TD passes tied the SEC’s single-season record.

Right behind him are two Buckeyes, quarterback Justin Fields and defensive end Chase Young.

Fields, the Georgia transfer, was spectacular in the big win over Michigan, throwing four TD passes.

Young, who has 16 ½ sacks this season, is expected to be the first defensive player taken in the draft. He could be the first overall pick if a team that already has a quarterback – like the New York Giants – climbs to the top in the draft.

Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts, who led Alabama to a national championship as a sophomore, is likely right behind the top three. If Hurts wins, the Sooners will be able to boast about three straight quarterbacks – Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Hurts – winning the Heisman.

Lincoln Riley

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The rematch

The Oklahoma-Baylor game might be a reprise of one of the best games of the regular season. And like LSU-Georgia and Ohio State-Wisconsin, it’s also a battle of Top 10 teams.

On Nov. 16, Oklahoma overcame deficits of 28-3 and 31-10 to win 34-31 at Waco, Tex. According to ESPN, the Sooners became the first team to overcome a halftime deficit of 21 points or more to defeat a team with a 9-0 record or better since NCAA classification began in 1937.

“Watching it (the game) as a staff, and watching it with the guys, there was so much to learn from it,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said this week. “Things under our control that we did very poorly, that we did better in the second half. … There was a lot to learn from, and our team needed to learn a lot. There can still be a lot we can learn from it now.”

Hurts led the comeback by generating 305 of his 411 total yards in the final two quarters.

“As I told them, the reason why we played so bad in the second half was because we started looking at the scoreboard and hoping that the game ended,” Baylor coach Matt Rhule said earlier this season. “Our defensive coaches always say, ‘Don’t get tired of playing great defense.'”

Ironically, it’s the Oklahoma-Baylor game, combined with its loss at Kansas State and close call wins over Iowa State and TCU, that has cast doubt about Oklahoma’s candidacy – above Utah – as a potential Final Four pick.

Travis Etienne

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

The defending champion

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has been happy to tell anyone who is listening that he believes his team, the defending national champion, does not get the respect it deserves from the NCAA or the selection committee.

Swinney would like to know how his undefeated team, which has won 27 straight games, could be ranked below both Ohio State and LSU in the current College Football Playoff poll.

Here’s the answer: Clemson almost lost – should have lost – its game at North Carolina. And the committee takes close calls (see Oklahoma) into consideration.

And so it is likely the Tigers will take out their aggression on Saturday when it attempts to win its fifth straight ACC championship against Virginia. If it has the opportunity, the Tigers will try to reinforce their status by punishing the Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers (9-3), making their first appearance in the ACC title game, have labeled as much as a 29-point underdog.

“We don’t intend just to take a trip to see what it looks like,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said last week. “We’re going to try to win the game. That’s what our players want and that’s what we’re going to work to do.”

The Tigers are coming off a 38-3 win at South Carolina, their sixth straight victory by at least 35 points. That’s the longest such streak in the Associated Press poll era (since 1936).

Clemson has the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense (10.1 points per game) that has allowed only one TD in the last 13 quarters. And in quarterback Trevor Lawrence and halfback Travis Etienne, its possesses two of the nation’s top offensive players.