Last week, San Diego State became the first team to clinch a berth in the conference championship game for the 2016 season after it defeated Hawaii. Of the 10 FBS conferences, eight will stage title games this season, matching respective division champions.
Conference championship games for the four Power 5 conferences – ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC – obviously have playoff implications. That’s especially true this year since the Big 12, the only Power 5 conference not to have a title game, most likely has played itself out of a playoff spot.
In some sense, there’s probably even more at stake for three of the Group of Five conferences with title games – American, MAC and Mountain West. Each conference has at least one team contending for a New Years’ Six bowl slot – and remember, that automatic berth is only guaranteed to a conference champion, regardless of the selection committee rankings.
To break it all down, we present here the most likely and most Armageddon scenarios for each of these seven conference races:
Best case: Clemson needs just one more win to clinch the Atlantic division. Virginia Tech owns the tiebreaker over North Carolina and it can clinch the Coastal with two more wins.
Worst case: Clemson loses to either Virginia Tech or UNC (both with at least two losses), leaving the committee to decide whether to take either Clemson or Louisville (both with one loss but not conference champion) for the playoff or leaving the ACC out entirely.
Best case: Michigan-Ohio State winner takes the Big Ten East and beats Wisconsin a second time in the Big Ten conference title game to claim a playoff spot.
Worst case: Michigan loses to Iowa and Ohio State, allowing Penn State to win the Big Ten East and crowning a conference champion with at least two losses.
Best case: Washington defeats Washington State to win the Apple Cup and then beats the South winner (Colorado, Utah or USC) to claim a playoff spot.
Worst case: Washington loses the Apple Cup, giving the North division to Washington State, leaving the Pac-12 champion with at least two losses and out of a playoff spot.
Best case: Alabama runs the table and cruises into the playoff for a third consecutive year.
Worst case: Alabama loses the Iron Bowl, leaving the SEC champion with at least two losses. Worse yet, the East champion (Florida, Kentucky or Tennessee) pulls the upset in the title game, as the SEC has only a non-champion Alabama with fewer than three losses.
Best case: Navy wins its remaining games to claim the West division and then takes the conference title game (though this could force the committee to postpone its decision on the NY6 bowls an extra week because Navy plays Army a week after the scheduled final selection).
Worst case: None of the contenders in either division finishes the regular season with fewer than three losses, completely taking the AAC out of the NY6 bowl contention.
Best case: Western Michigan runs the table and finishes the season 13-0, grabbing the first-ever NY6 bowl berth for the MAC, regardless of what happens in the other conferences.
Worst case: WMU loses to Toledo in the regular-season finale, leaving no team in the MAC with fewer than two losses, and completely out of the picture for an NY6 berth.
Best case: San Diego State wins out, and, combined with a Western Michigan loss somewhere, lands the NY6 bowl berth with a 12-1 record.
Worst case: San Diego State loses to Wyoming in the MWC title game, leaving both SDSU and Boise State ineligible for the NY6 bowl berth.
Game of the Week
USC at Washington (-8.5), 7:30 p.m. ET, FOX
After losing two of their first three games, the Trojans have made a dramatic turnaround after redshirt freshman Sam Darnold was handed the starting QB job. USC has won five straight and now represents perhaps the most serious threat to Washington’s playoff aspirations. The Huskies have the nation’s second-longest winning streak at 12 games but they can ill afford to have any letdown.
Also keep an eye on
Minnesota at Nebraska (-8), 7:30 p.m. ET, BTN
While everyone has seemingly handed the Big Ten West to Wisconsin, Minnesota will have a say in the matter. In fact, if the Gophers win their last three games, they will claim the division title. Nebraska is reeling after back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State after starting the season 7-0.
West Virginia at Texas (-2), noon ET, FS1
Charlie Strong might’ve saved his job – for now – with back-to-back wins over Baylor and Texas Tech, but his Longhorns will be facing their sternest challenge yet against West Virginia, the only Big 12 team that still has a flicker of hope of making the playoff. The Mountaineers need to win just to keep pace with the Oklahoma schools for the conference title.
Player to watch
Utah (-5.5) at Arizona State, 9:30 p.m. ET Thursday, FS1
Without much fanfare, Arizona State’s Zane Gonzalez has become the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer among kickers. Gonzalez is 20-for-21 this season and made 6-of-7 field goals from 50 yards or more, including a school-record 59-yarder. His career point total of 475 broke the record set by former FSU kicker Dustin Hopkins and he’s just seven shy of becoming the first college player to make 100 career field goals.