Which conference title games matter most? Picks for college football's crowning weekend

[More Dash: Who gets fourth playoff spot? | Retread Monday | Texas A&M-LSU]

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (fumble-recovery instructional video sold separately in Charlottesville):

FOURTH QUARTER

CHAMPIONSHIP WEEK — THE SEVEN TO WATCH

The last round of games before bowl season is upon us, and it’s fair to wonder where the fall went. But as much as we can lament the rapid passing of September, October and November, it’s always exciting to reach the stage of the season where champions are crowned and playoff berths are locked up. This will be a good week. The Dash’s quick breakdown of the championship games that matter most:

SEC championship (31): Georgia vs. Alabama. Where: Atlanta. When: 4 p.m. ET Saturday. Line: Alabama by 13½. Stakes: West Division champion and reigning national champion Crimson Tide (12-0) is almost assuredly in the College Football Playoff, win or lose. East Division champion Georgia (11-1) almost certainly needs to win to make the playoff, though you can concoct a scenario where they also make it with a competitive loss. Key stat: Since trailing for 40 minutes and 25 seconds of regulation against Georgia in last season’s CFP title game, Alabama has trailed for a total of 1 minute and 10 seconds this entire season. Key matchup: Bulldogs star defensive back Deandre Baker against the Tide’s Jerry Jeudy and his fellow playmaking wideouts. X-factor: Will Alabama’s notoriously shaky place kicking falter in a rare pressure setting? Dash pick: Alabama 31, Georgia 21. This is the first time the Alabama machine is legitimately challenged.

Nick Saban’s top-ranked Alabama team takes on Georgia on Saturday with a playoff spot on the line. (AP file)
Nick Saban’s top-ranked Alabama team takes on Georgia on Saturday with a playoff spot on the line. (AP file)

Big 12 championship (32): Texas vs. Oklahoma. Where: Arlington, Texas. When: Noon ET Saturday. Line: Oklahoma by 7½. Stakes: Sooners (11-1) need a win and a Georgia loss — and maybe an Ohio State loss — to have a playoff shot. Longhorns (9-3) can’t realistically make the playoff but can win their first Big 12 title in eight years and earn a delicious two-game sweep of their biggest rival. Key stat: Oklahoma’s porous defense has just five interceptions on the season, and only one in the last eight games. Texas has thrown just five interceptions this season, but two of them were last week against Kansas. Key matchup: Oklahoma’s explosive three-man rushing attack — running backs Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon, and quarterback Kyler Murray — against the No. 2 rushing defense in the Big 12. The Sooners’ three primary backs all average 9.4 yards per carry or better, and the Longhorns were gouged for more than 7 yards per rush by Oklahoma in Red River I and by West Virginia. X-factor: How is Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger’s throwing arm? He played through injury against Kansas, and coach Tom Herman said he won’t be 100 percent for this game, either. Dash pick: Oklahoma 49, Texas 44. Another grim defensive struggle in the Big 12.

Big Ten championship (33): Northwestern vs. Ohio State. Where: Indianapolis. When: 8 p.m. ET Saturday. Line: Ohio State by 14½. Stakes: East Division champion Buckeyes (11-1) need a win and a Georgia loss — and quite likely an Oklahoma loss — to have a playoff shot. West champion Northwestern (8-4) is shooting for its first Rose Bowl bid in 23 years. Key stat: The Wildcats’ 4.65 yards per play ranks 126th out of 130 teams nationally, and they’ve been outgained in half of their eight victories. Key matchup: Northwestern freshman running back Isaiah Bowser against the Ohio State run defense. Bowser has been a godsend for the Wildcats’ punchless offense, cranking out 734 yards in the last six games. The Buckeyes were gouged by Maryland, Purdue, Penn State and TCU on the ground. If Bowser can allow Northwestern to control the ball and keep Dwayne Haskins off the field, it might have a slim chance. X-factor: Northwestern is the least-penalized team in the nation, flagged just 2.8 times for 26.7 yards per game. Ohio State is fourth-most penalized teams in the nation, averaging 8.2 flags for 76 yards per game — and the Buckeyes were flagged a season-high 12 times for a season-high 150 yards last week against Michigan. This is a talent mismatch; an Ohio State team that hurts itself with penalties might be the only thing that keeps Northwestern in the game. Dash pick: Ohio State 42, Northwestern 31.

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American Athletic championship (34): Memphis at Central Florida. Where: Orlando. When: 3:30 ET Saturday. Line: UCF by 3½. Stakes: Undefeated East Division champion Knights (11-0) are shooting for consecutive undefeated seasons, trying to keep long-shot playoff hopes alive and, at the least, secure a second straight New Year’s Six bowl bid. The West Division champion Tigers (8-4) are trying to win their first outright conference title of any kind since 1969. Key stat: When the two teams met in Memphis last month, UCF led for only the final 12:14 of the game. And that was with McKenzie Milton. Key matchup: UCF quarterback Darriel Mack, making his second career start, against a Memphis defense that has piled up 15 sacks in the last three games. X-factor: How do the Knights react to the loss of heart-and-soul leader Milton? Deflated or determined? Dash pick: Memphis 35, UCF 34.

Atlantic Coast championship (35): Pittsburgh vs. Clemson. Where: Charlotte. When: 8 p.m. ET Saturday. Line: Clemson by 26½. Stakes: Atlantic Division champion Tigers (12-0) are trying to lock up a playoff bid, which they may well already have win or lose. Coastal Division champion Panthers (7-5) are trying to pull an epic upset that would deliver their first outright conference title in school history (after spending most of that history as an independent). Key stat: Nobody has come within 20 points of Clemson since September. Key matchup: Clemson run defense that leads the nation in fewest yards allowed per carry (2.23) against a Pitt running game that is ninth nationally in yards per carry (5.8) — but was stuffed last week by Miami. X-factor: Is there anything the Panthers can channel from their 2016 shocking of No. 2 Clemson that applies to this game? Dash pick: Clemson 47, Pittsburgh 17.

Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson Tigers shouldn’t have any trouble against Pittsburgh this weekend. (AP)
Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson Tigers shouldn’t have any trouble against Pittsburgh this weekend. (AP)

Pac-12 championship (36): Utah vs. Washington. Where: Santa Clara, California. When: 8 p.m. ET Friday. Line: Washington by five. Stakes: North Division champion Huskies (9-3) are shooting for their second Pac-12 title in three years, and hoping to keep the slimmest of playoff hopes alive (see the Dash First Quarter for the ultimate chaos scenario that could elevate them into contention). South Division champion Utes (9-3) are trying to win the Pac-12 for the first time. Key stat: Utah is averaging 32.3 points per game since season-ending injuries to starting QB Tyler Huntley and RB Zack Moss. In their previous nine games, the Utes were averaging 30.3 points. Key matchup: Washington running back Myles Gaskin vs. the Utah run defense. Gaskin has feasted on the Utes for four years, piling up more than 550 yards rushing and receiving in four games. Can they slow him down at last? X-factor: Does Utah coach Kyle Whittingham’s ridiculous 11-1 bowl record carry over to this postseason game? Dash pick: Washington 24, Utah 17.

Mountain West championship (37): Fresno State at Boise State. Where: Boise, Idaho. When: 7:45 p.m ET Saturday. Line: Boise State by three. Stakes: The Mountain Division champion Broncos (10-2) are hoping for a big win and a UCF collapse without injured quarterback McKenzie Milton that delivers a CFP rankings makeover and a New Year’s Six bowl bid. The West Division champion Bulldogs (10-2) are hoping for the same, but with less chance of it happening. Key stat: Fresno State has never won on the blue turf, last defeating the Broncos in Boise in 1984, before the school’s signature carpet was installed. That includes a loss there last year in the MWC title game. Key matchup: Boise RB Alexander Mattison cranked up his production against Fresno on Nov. 9, rushing for a season-high 144 yards. Then he topped it with 145 against New Mexico and 200 last week against Utah State. Can Fresno slow him down? X-factor: In three games against each other over the last 12 months, these two teams have combined to commit just two turnovers (one by each team). Does either team make a critical mistake this time around? Dash pick: Fresno State 22, Boise State 21.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Chris Petersen (38), Washington. He took Mike Leach’s lunch money yet again this year, beating the Pirate for the sixth straight time. This time he did it on the road, as an underdog, in a blizzard, with the Pac-12 North title on the line and Washington State hoping for a playoff bid. Combined score of the last six Apple Cups: Washington 217, Washington State 79. That is domination of your rival.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Jim Harbaugh (39), Michigan. This is NOT domination of your rival. Harbaugh is now 0-4 against Ohio State, after being blown out of the Horseshoe as a favorite. The Buckeyes blasted Harbaugh’s No. 1-rated defense for a record 62 points — the most ever allowed by the Wolverines in a regulation game. This was a massive pratfall in a must-win game, making Harbaugh the Michigan version of John Cooper in this rivalry.

POINT AFTER

When hungry in Los Angeles, The Dash recommends breakfast at the historic Original Pantry Cafe (40) — but show up early, because the line to get in will start stretching down the block by 8 a.m. It’s a classic, old-school diner in downtown LA, and the 24-hour joint alleges to have served at least one customer continuously, around the clock, all year, since 1924. The breakfasts are huge and coma-inducing and you have to pay cash to a cashier who sits at the register behind bars. (Did The Dash mention that this is downtown LA?) Check it out and thank The Dash later.

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