2018’s conference championship game matchups, ranked by surprise

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Welcome to Championship Week, at the end of a college football season that’s been orderly at the top of the national rankings but really weird in a lot of conference races.

League championship games will stay with that theme, because while some matchups are chalk, others certainly aren’t. And we’ve got some truly surprising teams 60 minutes away from conference championships.

10. SEC: Alabama vs. Georgia

If anyone tells you that they’re surprised these two teams are in the SEC title game they’re lying. These two teams played in the national championship game last season, our Bill Connelly had these two teams first and second in his offseason SEC power rankings, and the voters predicted this matchup at conference media days by a wide margin.

This is the chalkiest chalk one could ask for in the SEC. Let’s hope it’s as good as the last two postseason matchup between the two.

9. AAC: UCF vs. Memphis

Similarly chalky. The one difference is Memphis didn’t look like the best team in its division at midseason. But Houston had its wheels fall off, and Memphis exploited an Ed Oliver-less UH defense to blow the Cougars out in the second half of their Black Friday matchup. So the rematch is on. The absence of injured UCF QB McKenzie Milton will give the game a different look than recent meetings.

8. Pac-12: Washington vs. Utah

The surprise isn’t really that Washington’s in the Pac-12 title game, but it’s about how the Huskies got here and what’s at stake. Washington has been solid when you look at the season from a 30,000 foot view. But when you get closer and look between the lines, you see how they lost three times.

There was one point when not only was the Playoff not happening, but Washington’s hopes in the Pac-12 North looked bleak, too. But the Huskies rallied and eventually beat Washington State in the Apple Cup to get where they were supposed to be all along, albeit with lesser stakes.

The South did seem pretty wide open, but Utah being really solid is extremely Utah. The Utes were picked to finish second in the South, so it’s not a big shock.

7. Mountain West: Fresno State vs. Boise State

Fresno State in this game with Jeff Tedford at the helm as arguably the best Group of 5 team, with an inside track to a New Year’s Six berth if UCF stumbles. Man, what? However, that’s exactly what the conference media picked in the summer.

They were No. 9 in S&P+ entering Week 13. The Bulldogs are for real. And opposite them is Boise. The MWC Mountain is the Broncos’ division. They’ve never finished worst than second since joining in 2011. They got absolutely lambasted by Oklahoma State earlier in the season and also lost to San Diego State. Then Boise just kept on rolling right on through a surprisingly spry Utah State team. But when you come for the kings, you best not miss.

6. MAC: Northern Illinois vs. Buffalo

NIU being here is not too much of an upset. The Huskies are in the MAC’s upper tier and was picked to win the division yet again.

But Buffalo was thought to be on the outside looking in. It was unclear whether the Lance Leipold experiment would truly work out. The former Division III UW-Whitewater coach got the call to the big leagues by the Bulls in 2014. By the end of 2016, things weren’t looking good.

In two years as a Division I head coach, Lance Leipold hasn’t met expectations. It certainly is obvious that the learning curve is harder than what many thought to make the jump from Division III to Division I FBS football. Leipold already has more than two times the losses at Buffalo than he had at Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Leipold’s first bowl berth came in 2017, and more success has followed in 2018. The Bulls are 10-2, and back in the conference title game.

5. Sun Belt: Appalachian State vs. UL Lafayette

Appalachian State took care of business and is supposed to be here. The Mountaineers beat Troy in a de-facto Sun Belt semifinal in Week 13 to get here.

ULL, on the other hand, has impressed under new head coach Billy Napier. He’s a Saban Guy and a rising star within the industry. He left Arizona State when Herm Edwards took over, and it’s looking like the right decision for now.

4. Big 12: Texas vs. Oklahoma

REMATCH!

The Big 12 had qualms about whether it would have Bedlam as a rematch in the conference title game, as it would have in previous years had the game existed, so it moved that game to earlier in the year. Oklahoma State’s topsy turvy season took any chance of that happening off the table this year.

What we did get is a rematch of Red River. For the Big 12 to get its two bluest of blue-bloods in the biggest game of the season, with Playoff stakes for OU, is a big deal.

3. ACC: Clemson vs. Pitt

The Pitt Panthers have as many ACC title game appearances as the Miami Hurricanes.

Now that that’s out of the way, it’s somewhat surprising that Pitt’s here, having been picked to finish fifth in the Coastal. We thought it would have a ton or parity with good teams. Instead, we got a lot of parity with a mediocrity soup. Pitt somehow emerged from this side of the league, but with Virginia Tech and Miami way underperforming preseason expectation it’s hard to decide if Pitt’s good, or just the least bad.

On the other side: Clemson’s Clemson.

2. Big Ten: Northwestern vs. Ohio State

The Buckeyes haven’t been truly elite this season. They’ve just been really good. That changed when they blasted Michigan in Columbus. Now the Bucks have a potential Playoff berth on the line against Northwestern.

And that bodes well for the OSU, because Northwestern stacks up as a relatively bad division winner. The Wildcats are in Indy largely because of help from West opponents who are all down at the same time, a nice schedule rotation that didn’t draw Ohio State or Penn State in the regular season, great defense, and some luck.

If they can beat Ohio State, they’ll go down as one of the unlikeliest conference champions in memory. If Ohio State wins, it will have a good chance of making the Playoff again — not something we thought would be the case a month ago.

1. Conference USA: UAB vs. Middle Tennessee

There’s no FAU, even though Lane Kiffin’s Owls took the league by storm and were expected to be one of the Group of 5’s two best teams. In fact, they didn’t even make a bowl.

There’s no Marshall either, even though the Herd looked to be pretty good coming into this year. And both division champs were picked third by the media.

When I say UAB isn’t supposed to be here, it’s more than just a statement about their preseason expectation. UAB literally didn’t have a football program four years ago. They returned last year with a vengeance and have become one of the sport’s best stories anywhere.

Now they’re 60 minutes away from a conference title against Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders are ridiculously consistent against Rick Stockstill. He’s failed to coach this team to a bowl game only once since 2009.

Source : https://www.sbnation.com/college-football/2018/11/25/18109211/2018-conference-championship-games