It's conference championship week for college football. On to the picks, and remember, all lines are from VegasInsider.com as of Thursday morning:
Clemson minus-9 over Miami. The Hurricanes go into the Atlantic Coast Conference title game without their three best offensive players (other than quarterback Malik Rosier) now that receiver Ahmmon Richards is out with a knee injury. Yes, you are paying a premium — Miami could not have played worse last week; Clemson was razor sharp against South Carolina — but considering the stakes and scenarios, it's hard to see Miami's offense having consistent success against that Tigers defense.
Florida Atlantic minus-11 over North Texas. OK, what do you expect from Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin considering a) his team put 69 points on North Texas in late October; b) he has a bigger platform than normal for his Owls (ESPN2 will televise this Conference USA title game); c) his offense is humming. Now know the best North Texas player, running back Jeffery Wilson (1,215 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns), is on the shelf with an ankle injury. That's doubly painful for a run-first, play-action Mean Green offense that will have a hard time keeping up with this bunch of Owls. (Side note: Did you know that, similar to a pack of lions or a murder of crows, you would actually have a parliament of owls? So there's that.) Florida Atlantic is No. 10 nationally in points per game, having averaged 39.8 this season; North Texas is 104th nationally in points allowed per game at 33.3. Hmmm.
Memphis plus-7.5 over Central Florida. This is for the American Athletic Conference title. Yes, Central Florida is unbeaten and last week's win over South Florida was one of the best games of the season. It's also worth noting these Knights walloped Memphis 40-13 in September. But since that Sept. 30 loss, the Tigers have posted 70, 30, 42, 56, 41, 66 and 70 points in their seven-game winning streak. That's salty. Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson threw three picks in the loss to the Knights, but he has thrown three total in the seven games since. And here's the kicker: How much has all the Scott Frost-to-Nebraska talk distracted his Knights? Enough to keep this within a touchdown one way or the other.
Oklahoma minus-7 over TCU. It's for the Big 12 championship, and this is the type of game in which coach Gary Patterson has always thrived. Everyone doubting his TCU bunch. A high-powered offense humming on all cylinders. Embracing the underdog role like a champ. But this Oklahoma team is different, especially on offense. All of the background noise involving Baker Mayfield, whether he meant for it to have this effect or not, has galvanized the Sooners around their controversial quarterback. And he has embraced the challenge. Dude is simply playing at a different level than almost everyone else. Try these numbers for the crotch-grabbing, F-bomb-dropping Heisman front-runner: 4,097 passing yards, .714 completion percentage, 37 touchdown passes, five interceptions, 255 rushing yards and five touchdown runs. Yes, TCU can craft a defense for almost anyone. Mayfield is far from almost anyone. (Yes, you should buy the half here, too.)facebook
Southern California minus-3 over Stanford. Tonight's Pac-12 contest is the only conference title game with no implications on the College Football Playoff. But these teams have routinely mentioned winning the conference title as a goal, and that makes for a good matchup. USC played arguably its best game when it whipped Stanford 42-24 during the regular season. Stanford looked great last week against Notre Dame, which played its finest game this season when it whipped USC. The transitive property — USC whips Stanford; Notre Dame whips USC; Stanford whips Notre Dame — is why hunting entertainment by picking college football games is crazy. Stanford has traditionally been at its best when it can run and faces a team that likes to run. That allows a physical front seven and the Cardinal safeties to suffocate the offense on early downs. The Trojans are going to spread Stanford out, and this Cardinal defense has struggled this year against teams that can spread it out. Stanford's two Pac-12 losses were against Washington State and USC, and the Cardinal allowed 316 passing yards and four touchdown passes by Trojans star Sam Darnold and 337 yards and three scores by the Cougars' Luke Falk. (And yes, you should buy the half to be safe.)
Louisiana-Monroe plus-28 over Florida State. Do we think Louisiana-Monroe wins? Of course not. But let's review what we know about this game. Florida State played its biggest game of the season last weekend, beating rival Florida, so there has to be a letdown, right? The environment — Hurricane Irma prevented this game from being played in early September, but the Seminoles have rescheduled it just to get to a sixth win and continue their 35-year streak of bowl appearances — figures to be similar to the type at a spring scrimmage. The Warhawks are 4-7 and eliminated from bowl contention, so why not roll the dice and play loose and free as your program cashes an almost seven-figure check? Again, Louisiana-Monroe is not going to win, but it's also hard to see a struggling Florida State offense win by four touchdowns.
Last week: 3-3 against the spread (50 percent)
This season: 43-29-1 against the spread (59.7 percent)
SEC ITEMS OF INTEREST
We do this each week, and with only one Southeastern Conference game this time, you have a pretty clear idea of where the focus is.
First down. How's the shoulder, Kerryon? This is easily the biggest detail of the biggest game of the SEC season. If Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson is healthy — and by that I mean completely healthy and able to take his normal 30 carries a game — then Auburn is the better team. Without Johnson and a reliable hammer for an offense that has embraced great balance in this season's second-half surge to get the team to No. 2 in the playoff rankings, well, that's a tough order against a Georgia defense that has been able to gut and crush one-dimensional teams or teams that rely completely on the quarterback. (See Tech, Georgia and State, Mississippi.) With Johnson healthy, Auburn is as good as any team in the country. Without him — Auburn lost at Clemson and barely beat Mercer 24-10 in the two games Johnson missed this season — this is not the same team.
Second down. Dome-field advantage. Georgia fans had a three-week head start to acquiring tickets for this de facto playoff quarterfinal at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Considering the number of Bulldogs backers in and around the city of Atlanta, well, here's betting close to 70 percent of the crowd will be in red. That's a stark contrast to the monster edge Auburn had playing at a rocking Jordan-Hare a few weeks ago.
Third down. Paging the Georgia offensive line. Georgia has rushed for 3,188 yards this season, a number that ranks ninth nationally with an average of 265.7 per game. Against Auburn, Georgia rushed for fewer than 50 and quarterback Jake Fromm was sacked four times. And Auburn, like it has against most teams, generated that rush without bringing a ton of pressure as the defensive front dominated the game. If Johnson's health is Auburn's biggest concern, how much better the offensive line can play is Georgia's.
Fourth down. Something to watch not involving the title game. Alabama is No. 5 in the playoff rankings, and for those Crimson Tide folks wondering how their team can get into the playoff, well, here's the best path: Alabama needs Auburn to beat Georgia again to help validate the Tide's only loss. Alabama needs Clemson to beat Miami, because if Clemson loses a close one, last season's national champ will make a strong case to be the playoff qualifier without a conference title, rather than Alabama. Miami has no such argument. Alabama would prefer Wisconsin to beat THE Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, but despite what a lot of people may think, that game has less meaning for the Tide. The way playoff committee chairman Kirby Hocutt was speaking Tuesday night, it feels like the Big Ten winner is in the playoff either way. Most importantly for Alabama this weekend, the Tide really need TCU to topple Mayfield and Oklahoma to have any chance going into Sunday's selection show.
Contact Jay Greeson at email@example.com.