Rivalry Week in college football was as passionate and exciting as anticipated. Big names coached their final games, Oklahoma left no doubt about the Big 12 Championship, the ACC stuck it to the SEC for the second year in a row and the playoff picture came into tighter focus as the Cardinal obliterated Notre Dame's chances and wins by Michigan State and Iowa created a virtual play-in game in Indianapolis next weekend.
It was an amazing scene in Virginia as legendary Hokies Head Coach Frank Beamer was carried off the field after closing out his final regular season with a comeback victory against Virginia Tech's rivals and extending his bowl streak to a near quarter century at a record 23 seasons. Elsewhere in the ACC, wins by Clemson, Florida State and Louisville over their SEC rivals pushed the so-called greatest conference in the history of the universe's non-conference record to an extremely not dominant 6-5 record against the other power conferences, not to mention four losses to the Group of Five schools and one to FCS Citadel.
With the SEC continuing to get smacked around, Alabama's strength of schedule took another major hit this week and dropped the Tide all the way to number four in my rankings. A big win by Oklahoma on the road against rival Oklahoma State vaulted the Sooners all the way to the top spot, as no other team in the country can boast a top three resume quite as good as @Baylor, TCU and @Oklahoma State. The Spartans are close, with @Ohio State, Oregon and @Michigan, but the "loss" to Nebraska has them trailing previous number one Clemson. Stanford's big win over Notre Dame this weekend was extremely impressive, and they are the only two loss team in the country still in the mix for a spot in the college football playoff, while undefeated Iowa scored another road victory and was able to jump into my rankings for the first time this season with an undefeated record, albeit a relatively weak schedule.
1 - Oklahoma 11-1 (@Tennessee, West Virginia, @K State, Texas Tech, @Kansas, Iowa St, @Baylor, TCU, @Oklahoma St)
2 - Clemson 12-0 (@Louisville, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, BC, @Miami, @NC State, FSU, @Syracuse, Wake Forest, @South Carolina)
3 - Michigan State 11-1 (Oregon, Air Force, Purdue, @Rutgers, @Michigan, Indiana, Maryland, @Ohio State, PSU)
4 -Alabama 11-1 (vsWisconsin, @Georgia, Arkansas, @Texas A&M, Tennessee, LSU, @Miss St, @Auburn)
5 - Stanford 10-2 (@USC, @Oregon St, Arizona, UCLA, Washington, @Washington St, @CU, California, Notre Dame)
6 - Iowa 12-0 (@Iowa St, Pitt, @Wisconsin, Illinois, @Northwestern, Maryland, @Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue, @Nebraska)
Rivalry Week provided a great deal of clarity to the playoff picture heading into the final week of the college football regular season. Clemson, Alabama, Iowa and Michigan State have a straightforward task: win and you're in. But upsets during Championship Week could easily open the doors for those lurking on the outside, in particular the Stanford Cardinal. Here are the top Conference Championships in the final week of the college football season.
Stanford vs USC
The Cardinal have played one of the most difficult schedules in the country, facing eleven of twelve power five opponents this season, and in the Pac-12 Championship Game they close out with number twelve. Stanford defeated USC at the Coliseum in their first Pac-12 conference game this season and will attempt to bookend their conference slate with another victory over the surging Trojans to ensure they are the first team up should a playoff slot become available. USC however, has righted the ship after a turbulent season and has just given interim Head Coach Clay Helton the position permanently. He would love to make his first official game as USC's head coach a win in the Pac-12 Championship.
Florida vs Alabama
The SEC Championship Game has been a defacto play-in game for the National Championship for quite some time, but this season it may hold a little more intrigue. While Florida began the season strong, they have struggled in the past few games of the season and finally were handed their second loss by in-state rival Florida State during Rivalry Week. Should the Gators find a way to upset the Tide, the playoff committee would need to revaluate whether the SEC deserves a chance to play for a National Championship. For Alabama, this is a final hurdle in a regular season that had some questioning if the Tide's dynasty was finally at an end.
Temple at Houston
While not a Power Conference and despite not holding any playoff implications, the AAC Champion will almost certainly earn a slot in a New Year's Bowl Game, which itself is a great deal to play for. Houston's sound defeat of highly ranked Navy during Rivalry Week was the final step to clinching a berth in the AAC Championship Game and the opportunity to take on Temple. Each of these teams has found a great deal of success this season, marred only by unexpected losses to South Florida and Uconn. While these losses took each team out of playoff contention, the winner of this game will get to prove they can play against the big boys in a marquee New Year's Bowl, not to mention the right to hoist the first ever AAC Championship Trophy.
Clemson vs North Carolina
The undefeated Tigers have been impressive all year, but the early dominance has given way to a consistent cruise speed. While it's possible Clemson is simply breezing by their opponents and playing down a bit to inferior competition, close contests with South Carolina, Syracuse and NC State have the Tarheels believing they can end Clemson's title run and claim an ACC Championship of their own. While two games against FCS opponents limit North Carolina's ability to reach the playoff even with a potential upset victory, they would still earn a New Year's Bowl Game while opening the door for a team like Stanford to slip into the playoff over either ACC Championship contender.
Michigan State vs Iowa
With victories by both teams in their final regular season games, the Big Ten Championship Game has become a play-in for the College Football Playoff. An undefeated Big Ten Champion from Iowa would be just as difficult to block from playing for a National Championship as a one loss Michigan State Champion with wins over Ohio State and Michigan on the road and Oregon in non-conference play. Iowa has been consistent all season, but the Spartan's defense hasn't allowed more than two touchdowns in the past three games, and is nothing like the Hawkeyes have seen this year. With Connor Cook returning under center, Iowa will have the chance to prove they haven't just cruised by on an easy schedule, but rather played their way into playoff contention.
In addition to these Conference Championships, the final week(s) of the season features a traditional final Game of the Week and a pillow fight of the week that also has championship implications.
Game of the Week
The Game of the Week does not actually take place until next Saturday and is the traditional final game of the college football regular season as Army takes on Navy for the Commander-in-Chief trophy. The game is one of immense historical importance and has been played on the second Saturday of December since 2008 to allow full attention without the distraction of other conference championship games.
This year the game will be played at Eagles stadium in Philadelphia, due to both the historic nature of the city as well as the higher capacity of the stadium, which is necessary to satisfy the vast audience this matchup attracts annually. The game is often held in Philadelphia, but has a history of neutral site matchups every five or so years, generally in the greater New York area, though it has once traveled to historic Wrigley Field and even once to the Rose Bowl.
While the game itself will determine the winner of the Commander-in-Chief Trophy, which goes to the military academy that claims the best record in the three team group, an Army victory would actually allow Air Force to retain the trophy, as a three way split leaves the trophy in the hands of the team that won the previous year. Navy's exceptional success this season has them highly favored in this final game, but the history, pageantry and pride of the contest makes it nonetheless a meaningful experience for all those fortunate enough to participate, and as such, is our final Game of the Week.
Pillow Fight of the Week
The final Pillow Fight of the Week pits Texas State against Arkansas State in a Sun Belt contest which the Red Wolves must win to clinch the Conference Championship. Because the Sun Belt does not have a conference championship game, the title is simply awarded to the team with the highest conference standing at the end of the season. A loss to the Bobcats would put Arkansas State in a possible tie with Georgia Southern, who they did not play this season due to the eleven member conference, much like the old Big Ten after Penn State's arrival but prior to Nebraska's. While Arkansas State will be a definite favorite in this game, watch out for Texas State, who has nothing to lose in their final game of the season and our final pillow fight of the week.