We’re providing a data-driven rundown of this weekend’s title games and giving our model’s college football predictions.
Championship Week is upon us, and it’s a whopper.
2023 is the last season of a four-team College Football Playoff, which means it’s the last time that power-conference championship games will effectively serve as CFP elimination games for a lot of teams. In the future, teams might lose championship games and still make the postseason tournament.
But not now.
It’s a great slate of college football games. Each power-conference game has at least one (and often two) team with legitimate playoff aspirations heading into the weekend. The American Athletic Conference matchup between SMU and Tulane will likely decide who gets the Group of 5 conferences’ berth in the New Year’s 6 bowl games.
Here’s a brief rundown of the weekend’s title games, featuring win probabilities and playoff potential ratings. Teams with a 90 rating or above (max 100) should be the main teams considered for the playoff and teams below that will need sort level of chaos to take place in order to get in.
We’re ordering them by SmartRatings, which measures each game’s excitement level based on several factors. The scale translates to the following sub-ranges: 0-39 (Dull Game), 40-64 (OK Game), 65-84 (Good Game), 85-100 (Great Game).
Power 5 Championship Games
Pac-12 Championship: TRACR No. 9 Washington vs. No. 1 Oregon on Friday
- SmartRating: 85 (Great Game)
- Playoff Potential Ratings: Oregon 99.5, Washington 71.9
- Projected Winner: Oregon (75.3%)
In a twist of irony, the Pac-12 has its best CFP shot since 2016 in the final game before the conference essentially disintegrates. The Huskies (win-and-in) and Ducks (win-and-probably in) will play a rematch of their Week 7 classic in Seattle, where Washington mounted a last-minute touchdown drive to win 36-33 after Oregon coach Dan Lanning’s fourth-down gamble near midfield resulted in a turnover on downs. Since then, the teams have been on somewhat parallel paths: Both have won every game, setting up their sequel on Friday night in Las Vegas. But in another way, they’ve diverged: Oregon has utterly dominated the competition in its six games since losing to Washington, winning by two scores every game and often by much more than that. The Huskies have gotten significant scares against the likes of Arizona State, Stanford, USC, Utah, Oregon State, and Washington – playing six fairly close games in a row.
That’s why Oregon, despite a loss to this same opponent earlier in the year, is a 9.5-point favorite. The Ducks have a terrifying offense behind Heisman Trophy hopeful Bo Nix, tailback Bucky Irving, and receivers Troy Franklin and Tez Johnson. They’ve also rounded into form defensively, most notably when they held rival Oregon State to seven points on Black Friday to clinch their spot in Vegas. The Ducks would’ve beaten the Huskies last time around if they could’ve converted that fateful fourth down late in the fourth quarter. If both UO and underdog UW play like they’ve played since then, they won’t leave the result up to one play this time. Washington QB Michael Penix Jr., like Nix, can make a Heisman case by winning the Pac-12 Championship game.
SEC Championship: No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 12 Alabama
- SmartRating: 78 (Good Game)
- Playoff Potential Ratings: Georgia 99.4, Alabama 56.2
- Projected Winner: Georgia (72.7%)
Georgia has won 39 regular-season games in a row, and the program’s last loss in any games was two calendar years ago – on this same stage, against this same opponent. The Bulldogs avenged that defeat in a national title rematch with the Crimson Tide just over a month later, and they’ve been unstoppable ever since, winning two national titles in a row. Alabama has faced the world’s most relative form of adversity since then, “declining” to merely elite status while UGA takes over the world. After losing in Week 2 to Texas and slogging through a close win over South Florida the following week, Nick Saban’s program looked more cooked than at any time since he’d taken over in 2007.
Things have changed. Bama hasn’t lost since the second week of September, and quarterback Jalen Milroe has evolved from almost unplayable to one of the most productive QBs in the country. How well Milroe can throw deep and over the middle might decide this game, and that’s a tall task against UGA’s best-in-class safety duo of Malaki Starks and Javon Bullard. The Tide almost lost to a 6-6 Auburn team a week ago, while the Bulldogs have mostly rolled over teams all year. TUGA QB Carson Beck has quietly developed quite a bit himself, giving the Dawgs a different dropback passing dimension than the one they had under two-time title winner Stetson Bennett. Beck has averaged 9.4 yards per throw, and starting with future top-10 pick Brock Bowers at tight end, he has an impressive set of outlets. A win for UGA guarantees the Dawgs a CFP berth. A win for Alabama doesn’t quite do that, but would leave Saban’s team in a good position to play for a national championship pending other results.
ACC Championship: No. 17 Louisville vs. No. 10 Florida State
- SmartRating: 74 (Good Game)
- Playoff Potential Ratings: Florida State 92.4, Louisville 12.9
- Projected Winner: Florida State (66.3%)
The Seminoles are in uncertain waters after their most important player, Jordan Travis, suffered a season- and college career-ending injury in the penultimate game of the regular season. Travis’ exit was a psychological blow to the entire FSU universe, and it is undoubtedly a setback for the ‘Noles on the field. But backup Tate Rodemaker did enough to win a tough road game against rival Florida last week, Rodemaker’s previous career high point was leading a comeback against Louisville last season. While the CFP selection committee could, in theory, penalize FSU for not having its starting quarterback, the ‘Noles will probably make the field as long as they beat Louisville in Charlotte to move to 13-0. (Of course, all five of these championship games feature at least one team that “probably” makes the four-team field with a win. With only four spots, it’s a serious possibility that someone gets screwed.)
Louisville is a different team than the one Rodemaker beat in 2022. First-year coach Jeff Brohm has mounted a rapid turnaround on offense. Transfer quarterback Jack Plummer has been critical despite throwing 11 interceptions to an offense that ranks 22nd in offensive TRACR (O-TRACR) through the air and the running back duo of Jawhar Jordan and Isaac Guerendo has the Cardinals 15th in O-TRACR on the ground. Louisville’s receiving game relies heavily on one player, wideout Jamar Thrash, whose 87 targets were more than double anyone else on the roster. If FSU, which is eighth in overall defensive TRACR, can limit Thrash, it’s unlikely that Louisville can score enough to mount an upset. If not, who knows?
Big 12 Championship: No. 8 Texas vs. No. 59 Oklahoma State
- SmartRating: 67 (Good Game)
- Playoff Potential Ratings: Texas 67.4, Oklahoma State 0.0
- Projected Winner: Texas (90.5%)
The Longhorns are a win away from leaving the Big 12 in style and almost certainly making the CFP for the first time. Their only misstep was allowing a game-winning touchdown to Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout in October. They’ve otherwise rolled through both the Big 12 and a nonconference schedule that included Alabama. They survived a late-season injury to quarterback Quinn Ewers and punchy comeback efforts by opponents Kansas State and Iowa State in Weeks 10 and 11. The defense, led by elite tackles Byron Murphy and T’Vondre Sweat, has been a nightmare and ranks 12th in D-TRACR. Texas allows 2.93 yards per carry (fifth in the country) and generates tons of pressure up the middle against opposing QBs.
Oklahoma State has pulled off a nice high-wire act to get a crack at Texas this weekend. The Cowboys didn’t have to play the Longhorns in the regular season, as the Big 12’s addition of four new teams meant the end of a round-robin scheduling format in which everyone played everyone. After taking an embarrassing 33-7 nonconference loss to South Alabama and dropping their first league game to Iowa State, the Pokes won seven of eight games, going 4-0 in one-score games in that span. They upset rival Oklahoma in one of those games, in what might be the last “Bedlam” game of all time as the Sooners join Texas in the SEC next year. OSU’s defense is not particularly good (51st in D-TRACR), but the team has won on the strength of running back Ollie Gordon and his nation-leading 1,580 rush yards.
Big Ten Championship: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 43 Iowa
- SmartRating: 63 (OK Game)
- Playoff Potential Ratings: Michigan 99.6, Iowa 0.0
- Projected Winner: Michigan (95.0%)
The Wolverines should not have any trouble moving to 13-0 and clinching their third consecutive Big Ten title and CFP berth. Even SmartRatings won’t put this one in the “good game” category. They’re playing an Iowa team that the best D-TRACR (minus-9.3) in the country and only 14 teams have a worse O-TRACR (-1.1) in the country – a football science experiment in goodness and terribleness that resulted in a 10-2 record and the chance to get eaten by Michigan in Indianapolis.
Iowa’s defense really is all it’s chalked up to be, allowing 12.2 points per game (fourth in the country) and giving Kirk Ferentz’s team a chance in almost every game. But the Hawkeyes lost 31-0 in their only game against a team with a functional offense (Penn State), and their all-world defense will not have a serious chance to flip a result against a complete opponent like Michigan (third in O-TRACR/sixth in D-TRACR). The Wolverines have played plenty of good defenses this year and scored at a good clip against all of them – 30 points against Ohio State, 24 against Penn State, 31 against Maryland, 45 against Nebraska, 31 against Rutgers. None of those defenses is close to Iowa’s caliber, but the Hawkeyes are without injured All-American cornerback Cooper DeJean. And more importantly, they’re without a serious offense. Beset by both injuries and Ferentz’s nepotism in allowing his son, Brian, to coordinate the unit, Iowa’s offense will be fortunate to score more than 10 points against Michigan. A competitive game is unlikely without multiple defensive touchdowns, but the Iowa defense and special teams could make it more like 20-10 than 30-3.
Other College Football Predictions
Who does our TRACR projection model have winning the other title games? How do they compare to sportsbooks’ college football picks?
Here they are: