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Weekly Picks

Championship Week Predictions

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

 

 

 

 

 

MARQUEE MATCHUPS:



 

 

Bowling Green -11 Northern Illinois

(Friday; MAC Championship Game in Detroit)

 

 

 

Straight Up:  
Bowling Green Falcons
 
 

Against the Spread:


 Bowling Green Falcons

 

 



Analysis:



 

This line opened at 8.5 before quickly shooting into the double figures. As always, Northern Illinois remains a tough out, though they’re in a tough spot here because of key injuries at quarterback and receiver. In what may be HC Dino Babers’ final game at the school (he’s reportedly the favorite to get hired at Syracuse), Bowling Green figures to send him out with a bang. S&P+ ranks the Falcons No. 18 overall in the country, with the super-powered offense grading out No. 9. The Huskies give up a ton of yards (to be fair, they’re good at preventing long plays and in the red zone) and simply don’t match up well with QB Matt Johnson, WR Roger Lewis, WR Gehrig Dieter and crew. Even if the defensive unit plays as well as it did in its shining moment, a narrow loss to Ohio State earlier this year, the offense doesn’t have enough firepower left to hang.

 

 

WESTERN KENTUCKY -7.5 Southern Mississippi

(Conference USA Championship Game on WKU's campus in Bowling Green, Kentucky)

 

 

 

Straight Up:  
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
 
 

Against the Spread:


 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

 

 



Analysis:



S&P+ absolutely adores the Hilltoppers, ranking them as the No. 10 team in the nation with the No. 4 offense. WKU’s two losses this season were at Indiana (a game that could have gone either way) and at LSU. Led by QB Nick Mullens, Southern Miss (9-3, No. 48 in S&P) is a dangerous team with a highly, highly flammable offense itself (they’ve outgained eight straight opponents by 150+ yards). The Eagles’ biggest weaknesses are pass defense and allowing big plays. That’s a huge problem against QB Brandon Doughty and WR Taywan Taylor. That duo, home field advantage and a superior defense should be enough to cover this number in an entertaining shootout.


 

HOUSTON -6.5 Temple

(AAC Championship Game on UH's campus in Houston)

 

 

 

Straight Up: Temple Owls   
 

Against the Spread:


 Temple Owls

 

 



Analysis:



The stakes are high in the first American Athletic Conference Championship Game: Saturday’s winner will likely be picked for a New Year's Six game. Because of Temple’s superb defense—it ranks No. 18 in yards allowed per game and No. 8 in pass defense efficiency—I think the points are generous (especially since Houston has failed to cover three straight games as favorite). Temple will feed RB Jahad Thomas, limit (or commit zero) turnovers and try to force the Cougars to play one-handed. Houston has a tough turn-around proposition here, a quick segue from triple-option-running Navy to punch-you-in-mouth Temple. The Owls have covered six of seven. I think they make it seven of eight in winning outright.

 


Stanford -4.5 USC

(Pac-12 Championship Game in Santa Clara)

 

 

Straight Up: Southern California Trojans 

 
 

Against the Spread:


 Southern California Trojans

 

 



Analysis:



The Cardinal beat USC 41-31 earlier this season and have a de facto home game here (the Stanford campus is less than 20 miles from Santa Clara). Even so, the points are too enticing for me to pass on. Stanford’s defense has been getting lit up over the past few months (they’ve surrendered more than 435 yards in five of seven). Cody Kessler doesn’t have the arm strength to consistently test the mediocre safeties deep, but one can imagine JuJu Smith-Schuster laying waste to the green corners and Adoree Jackson chipping in a few electric offensive plays of his own. The Cardinal will likely control the line of scrimmage, as they did last time, but their grind-it-out style isn’t going to get it done again if punts aren't forced.

 


Alabama -17 Florida

(SEC Championship Game in Atlanta)

 

 

 

Straight Up:  
Alabama Crimson Tide
 
 

Against the Spread:


 Alabama Crimson Tide

 

 



Analysis:



I decided a few weeks ago to take Alabama in this matchup regardless of what the number came in at. Seventeen may seem rich now, but it could start looking like a bargain as early as the first quarter. The Gators simply never figured out how to move the ball without Will Grier. As was the case last week against Florida State, the Gators will struggle to cross mid-field.

 


Clemson -5 North Carolina

(ACC Championship Game in Charlotte)

 

 

 

Straight Up:  Clemson Tigers

 
 

Against the Spread:


 

North Carolina Tar Heels 

 



Analysis:



I spent the early part of the week preparing to call for a North Carolina outright upset, then flipped to arguing for a Clemson cover. In the end, in a matchup that has me flummoxed, I’m going to split the middle. Here’s what makes a prediction so tough: The Tigers have one of the country’s best-rated defenses but haven’t played many decent offenses and the Tar Heels have one of the country’s best-rated offenses but haven’t played any good defenses. For all the talk of UNC’s improved defense, they’ve actually allowed the weak opponents they’ve faced to gain more yards than they do on average. But the Heels do have a few things going for them that might give them a chance to stun the Tigers and reach the College Football Playoff. The special teams discrepancy in favor of UNC is massive (they have one of the best units in the FBS and Clemson has one of the worst), Elijah Hood gives UNC the running game advantage and the Heels’ corners are tremendous, giving hope to the notion that they could disrupt DeShaun Watson’s rhythm a bit, perhaps lessening one of Clemson’s big advantages (UNC is very good against the pass and awful against the run). Because the Heels faced such a bad schedule (best wins: NC State, Pitt and Miami), it’s just too hard to know who they actually are, preventing me from taking the plunge in calling for an outright upset. 



Michigan State -3.5 Iowa

(Big 10 Championship Game in Indianapolis)


 

 

Straight Up:  
Iowa Hawkeyes
 
 

Against the Spread:


 Iowa Hawkeyes

 

 



Analysis:



I’m an Iowa alum, so feel free to take this prediction with a grain of corn. The public consensus seems to be that Iowa is a paper tiger because it played a bad schedule and rarely dominated despite that. There’s obvious validity to the first point, though the Hawkeyes’s road victories over Wisconsin and Northwestern (a 40-10 beat down) were seen as more impressive at the time than they are now. It’s the second point I disagree with. Those who have watched every Iowa game know what this team is up to: The defense can’t be run on (No. 11 by S&P+), forcing opponents, almost always to this point playing with a deficit, to throw into a secondary dotted with NFL prospects (junior CBs Desmond King and Greg Mabin each may have a Day 2 floor). That leads to interceptions; Iowa ranks No. 8 in the nation with 17 (four were returned for touchdowns, No. 2 in the FBS). Iowa also runs the ball well behind one of the nation’s most underrated offensive lines, behooving a conservative but efficient passing game (No. 41 by S&P+). It isn’t surprising that Iowa is one of the nation’s best in the field position game. I think the Hawkeyes match up well with the Spartans, who excel at many of the same things but can’t run the ball (MSU passes better, of course). For all the talk of Sparty’s superior schedule, the wins over Oregon, Michigan and Ohio State each could have gone the other way and MSU lost to Nebraska, beat Purdue by three and topped Rutgers by seven. Call it a homer pick, but I’m taking the Hawkeyes outright by a field goal. As a betting proposition, the under is a better play than either side. 



WILD CARDS:




SAN DIEGO STATE -7 Air Force

(Mountain West Championship Game in San Diego)

 

 

 

Straight Up:  San Diego State Aztecs

 
 

Against the Spread:


 

Air Force Falcons 

 



Analysis:



The red-hot Aztecs come in winners of eight in a row, all in conference. Despite that, you’re going to have to hold your breath and jump to lay the points because QB Maxwell Smith is out and the defensive line has had so many injuries that only six healthy unit members remain. Air Force’s triple-option attack should move the ball effectively enough to keep the score close. If you haven’t gotten a chance to check out SDSU RB Donnel Pumphrey, do so here, because he’s a force. Pumphrey, in conjunction with a strong defense, should be enough to hold off the Falcons in a nailbiter.




West Virginia -6.5 KANSAS STATE


 

 

Straight Up:  
Kansas State Wildcats
 
 

Against the Spread:


 Kansas State Wildcats

 

 



Analysis:



Unfortunately, we don’t get the added value of the Wildcats playing for a bowl bid, as it has already been announced that they’ll qualify at 5-7 (for reasons discussed below). Regardless, I don’t bet against Bill Snyder as a home-underdog in November. It's just one of those things. West Virginia’s 7-4 record is constructed of duct tape and flypaper. The best win of the season was the opening week 44-0 ambush of Georgia Southern, ranked No. 37 by S&P+. The only other win over an FBS team with a winning record was against Texas Tech. The Mountaineers’ best road win? Well, there was only one. It came against Kansas. 

 


BAYLOR -20.5 Texas

 

 

 

Straight Up:  
Baylor Bears
 
 

Against the Spread:


Baylor Bears 

 

 



Analysis:



This could get ugly quick. The 4-7 Longhorns, who will start Tyrone Swoopes at QB and Chris Warren at RB, are decimated by injuries and playing for nothing. The offense was shut out by Iowa State earlier this year and the defense gave up 7.39 yards per play to Texas Tech last week. Baylor, meanwhile, is likely competing for a spot in the Sugar Bowl after having its Playoff dreams burned in a monsoon last week against TCU (as an aside: my brother, a Baylor alumnus and native of Minnesota, went to that game and said it’s the coldest he’s ever been in his life). Some coaches won’t run up the score. Bears HC Art Briles would presumably like nothing more than to do so against the hated Horns. As with the Alabama-Florida game, I would have taken Baylor with any spread here.




Overtime:



GEORGIA SOUTHERN -21 Georgia State

 

 

 

Straight Up:  
Georgia Southern Eagles
 
 

Against the Spread:


Georgia State Panthers 

 

 




Appalachian State -18 SOUTH ALABAMA



Straight Up: Appalachian State Mountaineers 

 
 

Against the Spread:


 South Alabama Jaguars

 

 



Analysis:


I’m out of official picks but tossed in two extras to discuss bowl scenarios. Georgia State and South Alabama, both 5-6, are the sole remaining teams playing for bowl eligibility. Seventy-five teams have already qualified for the 80 bowl slots. The remaining unfilled slots will go to 5-7 programs based on the highest APR (Academic Progress Rate) scores. Because of its standing in that metric, Kansas State, as mentioned above, will qualify no matter what goes down in Manhattan on Saturday. The same can’t be said for Georgia State and South Alabama, who have every reason in the world to throw the kitchen sinks at their heavily-favored opponents. Since Georgia Southern is already committed to the GoDaddy Bowl and Appy State accepted an invite to the Camellia Bowl, you can’t imagine they’ll want to do much more than run clock and take a win as fast as they can get it. The remaining 5-7 bowl-berth scenarios go like this: Like KSU, Nebraska is in no matter what because of its APR. So we’re down to three openings. If GSU and USA both win, the fifth slot would go to either Minnesota or San Jose State. If both GSU and USA lose, the Gophers and Spartans are in and either Illinois or Rice will be selected for the final spot. If one wins, of course, Minnesota and San Jose State go bowling, with Illinois and Rice eliminated. There will be a test later.




***



 

2015Straight-Up: 87-43 (66.9%); Against the Spread: 60-67-3 (47.2%)

  

2014Straight-Up: 118-72 (62.1%); Against the Spread: 99-90-1 (52.4%)






Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is Rotoworld’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!