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Staff picks for conference championship week

Caleb Williams

Caleb Williams

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The final spots in the College Football Playoff come down to this weekend.

With teams like Georgia and Michigan likely still in even with a loss in the conference championship game, TCU and USC are on more tenuous footing heading into their 13th games.

All season long our College Football staffers have shared their picks on Chalk (favorites of -10 or more) and Live Dogs (underdogs of +7 or more). This week is no exception, although with the shorter card we have lifted the point spread parameters and asked each writer to simply share their top favorite and underdog plays from the final weekend before bowl season.

Here’s who they’re targeting, starting with the likely Heisman Trophy winner looking to cement his team’s spot in the postseason Friday night:

Zach Krueger

USC (-2.5) over Utah

Everything has been coming up Trojans lately. USC’s first and only loss of the season came in Week 7 against Utah, and since then, the Trojans have reeled off five-straight wins while going 3-2 ATS. Quarterback Caleb Williams (3712-34-3) has all but secured the Heisman Trophy, and would further solidify himself as college football’s best player with a Pac-12 championship and CFB playoff berth.

In their loss to Utah earlier this year, USC fell 43-42 while on the road. A 381-5 effort by Williams was topped by a 415-2 effort by Utah quarterback Cameron Rising, who also ripped off 11 carries for 60 yards and three touchdowns. Rising is averaging 32.6 rushing yards per game and has rushed for 50 or more yards in five of 12 games this year, but the three rushing scores are likely to regress for a player who has just six rushing touchdowns on the year. Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid also caught an absurd 16-of-16 targets for 234 yards and one touchdown, accounting for more than half of Rising’s passing yards.

Certainly, Rising and company could find a way to replicate the insane performance we saw earlier in the year, but I’ll happily fade that outcome in a neutral setting. USC was also hamstrung by a high number of penalties last time, as the Trojans took on 12 penalties for 93 yards. Far from the most disciplined team in the nation, the Trojans are averaging just 6.6 penalties per game — their 12 penalties in that loss to Utah marked the only time they had double-digit penalties in a game. Per Lincoln Riley tradition, USC’s defense is far from perfect. They rank 61st in the nation in points allowed per game (26.3) and are allowing the 41st most yards per game at 405.3. Still, beating a team twice in the same season is hard to do and USC has that “team of destiny” feel — at least for one more week. After having this game stolen from them earlier in the year, I like the Trojans to not just win, but cover the number they’re laying here.

North Carolina (+7.5) over Clemson

Fresh off being named the ACC Player of the Year, ACC Offensive Player of the Year, ACC Rookie of the year and ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year (I think I got them all), UNC’s Drake Maye now has a chance to call himself an ACC champion. Maye already looks like a quarterback who will be playing on Sundays. He exploded for 3,847 yards, 35 touchdowns and five interceptions through the air, and is boasting a rushing line of 161-629-6. He’s struggled of late, as the Tar Heels are losers of two straight while Maye has managed just 435 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in those losses, but Clemson is no longer a team that walks all over the competition.

The Tigers fell 31-30 to South Carolina in last week’s rivalry game matchup and has a 35-14 road loss to Notre Dame on their resumé after their defense imploded to allow 21 points in the fourth quarter to the Irish. Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (2511-22-7) is not a quarterback built for shootouts, but the Tigers could have one on their hands this weekend. Maye and wide receiver Josh Downs (93-929-11) have combined to form a dynamic duo this season, with downs going for 10/100+ in three games this season.

The Tar Heels are 5-6-1 ATS on the season, with Clemson performing similarly ATS at 6-6. While I’d love to see a UNC upset, that hill could be too steep for Maye to climb on Saturday. But I think their explosive offense has enough to keep this one close in what should be an exciting matchup.

2022 season: 7-6 ATS Chalk, 7-6 ATS Dog (3 outright wins)

Eric Froton

Georgia (-10 first half) over LSU

Georgia rolls into the SEC Championship undefeated and the current favorite to win the CFP Playoff. HC Kirby Smart‘s defense has once again been devastating, ranking third overall and top-5 in points per drive (1.0), success rate (33%) and suppressing explosive plays. Their sixth overall offense plays slow behind running back Kenny McIntosh and their 10th ranked rush offense, while playing at the 105th slowest pace in the nation. The Dawgs have run through their SEC East schedule without much trouble, as only Auburn (20%) managed to post a win expectancy above 2% against them, and should get preseason WR1 Adonai Mitchell back. UGA also managed to snuff out Tennessee’s vaunted offense 27-13, a team that eviscerated LSU 40-13.

LSU heavily relies on QB Jayden Daniels’ ability to create outside of structure in order to power their 18th rushing attack (66th Passing). So it’s a real problem that Daniels is in a walking boot with potentially limited mobility against a Georgia D that feasts on one-dimensional offenses. Starting RB Josh Williams is injured, leaving old friend John Emery Jr. to lead the way with disappointing Penn State transfer RB Noah Cain in tow. Defensively their star Edge Harold Perkins is the catalyst for their 23rd ranked pass rush that will need to be dialed in if the Tigers expect to disrupt the rhythm of QB Stetson Bennett. They’ve also had trouble with strong SEC West rivals in wins over Auburn ( 37% win exp.) and Alabama (45%), and losses to Tennessee and Texas A&M where they posted just a 1% win expectancy in each.

I think the most likely scenario is Georgia jumping out quickly before salting the game away in the second half and moving onto the CFP Playoff. Accordingly I’m backing Georgia’s first-half spread of -10 points in what should be a convincing victory.

Kansas State (+2.5) over TCU

In these two programs’ first meeting, starting QB Adrian Martinez threw just two passes before sustaining an injury that would ultimately thrust QB Will Howard into the starting role. Howard picked up right where he left off in 2020 when he admirably filled in for injured signal caller Skylar Thompson, leading KSU to a 28-10 second quarter advantage on the back of his three total touchdowns before TCU went on a 28-0 run for the dramatic 38-28 win. Kansas State did everything they could to give that game away, missing two field goals (40 & 44-yards) and throwing two interceptions in the second half while punting just once all game. Since then Howard has thrived in his return to the starting role, leading four straight victories, with Kansas State scoring at least 47 points in three of them.

On the other side, TCU held the ball for 38 minutes of game time during their initial matchup, running the ball 56 times for 215 yards while converting 10-of-19 3rd downs and holding Kansas State to a 3-to-9 conversion rate. The Horned Frogs out-gained Kansas State 495-to-390 while committing zero turnovers, as everything went right for TCU in the second half. Despite their strong closing stretch to secure the 38-28 victory, HC Sonny Dykes and company had just a 41% post game win expectancy. TCU also just pulled a rabbit out of a hat two weeks again, defeating Baylor despite a 23% chance at winning. There will be a few upsets before Conference Championship Week concludes. i’m taking Kansas State as a +2.5 point underdog and will also have a position on the money line.

2022 season: 6-6-1 ATS Chalk, 7-6 ATS Dog (5 outright wins)

Brad Thomas

Michigan (-17) over Purdue

Purdue has done well as an underdog in the Big 10 this season. Them getting 17 points certainly is enticing, but I won’t fall victim to a Boilermaker thrashing. Michigan has been a covering machine this season, going 7-4 ATS. They have beaten nine opponents by 17 points or more this season. They will surely miss Blake Corum, who has opted to have season-ending surgery, but Donovan Edwards is the next man up and is an excellent second option.

Purdue’s secondary also worries me against Michigan. They are 53rd EPA/Pass. They can’t load the box to stop the run because they don’t want to get exposed to big catches by the pass catchers. If they do, they could suffer the same fate as Ohio State. In The Game, OSU sold out to stop the run and ultimately paid for it. Michigan is battle tested. Give me the Wolverines to win this in a blowout and cover the 17.

UCF (+4) over Tulane

UCF might be without the services of star quarterback John Rhys Plumlee. As it stands now, head coach Gus Malzahn calls Plumlee “day-to-day” with optimism that he will play in the title game. If not, they will rely on backup quarterback Mikey Keene. Keene has been sharp in the games he’s played this season. However, I am backing the Knights because of their AAC-leading rushing attack. Tulane is 87th in EPA/Rush and 91st in defensive success rate against the run. In the earlier meeting this season, the Knights ran for 336 yards in their 38-31 win.

Even if UCF doesn’t pull off the win, these two teams are too close to separate by four points. I’d imagine UCF and Malzahn want to win their final AAC game before they head into the Big 12 next season. Give me the Knights +4.

2022 season: 7-5 ATS Chalk, 6-6 ATS Dog (2 outright wins)

Vaughn Dalzell

Boise State (-3) over Fresno State

Fresno State has won seven-straight games to clinch the MWC Championship berth, while Boise State won six of the past seven, dropping a last-second game to BYU.

These two met earlier in the season and Boise State won 40-20 at home. That was Taylen Green‘s first game as the Boise State quarterback and the start of a fantastic run that not many people expected. Green recorded 20 total touchdowns and four interceptions this season, while Fresno’s quarterback, Jake Haener has 19 total touchdowns and three interceptions.

The defenses will be the key to this game and I like the Broncos defense more, which allows 17.8 points per game, ranking 9th in the country. Boise State gave up 23 or fewer points in every conference game for the first time since 1980.

Despite Haener not playing earlier versus Boise State, the Fresno State defense still gave up 40 points and Boise’s offense is much better now than Week 6. Take Boise State -3.

North Texas (+9) over UTSA

Underdogs that have failed to cover consecutive games in a row have went 19-4 ATS (82.6%) over the last 23 contests in their conference championship. North Texas is 0-2 ATS in the past two games.

Earlier in the season, North Texas and UTSA met and the Mean Green covered but lost. UTSA won 31-27 on Oct. 22 to avenge its home loss last year to North Texas that cost the Roadrunners an undefeated season.

Teams that have met in the conference championship and earlier in the season have only gone 23-23 ATS (50%) in the past 46 games but 31 of those 46 teams (67.4%) improved their scoring margin in the conference championship, per the Action Network.

UTSA has won nine-straight games with four wins coming by single-digits, including the last outing versus UTEP. North Texas is live to win this game, so I will take them to cover.

2022 season: 3-9 ATS Chalk, 4-8 ATS Dog (4 outright wins)

Editor’s Note: Looking for a deeper dive into Week 13 in College Football from a Bettor’s Perspective. Join NBC’s team of college analysts at 11A Eastern Saturday for an NCAA College Football Betting Preview Q&A on the NBC Sports YouTube page.