Previewing Group of Five title games: Can Florida Atlantic complete a perfect C-USA season?

Dr. Saturday
Lane Kiffin has Florida Atlantic in the Conference USA title game in his first season with the program. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)
Lane Kiffin has Florida Atlantic in the Conference USA title game in his first season with the program. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)

MAC Championship
Akron (7-5, 6-2) vs. Toledo (10-2, 7-1)
Saturday, Noon (Detroit)

HOW THESE TEAMS GOT HERE:
Akron: Ohio was the leader in the pack in the MAC East, but Akron knocked off the Bobcats 37-34 on Nov. 14, giving the Zips in the inside track on the division. A win over Kent State, the team’s third in its final four games, sealed the division title, the Zips’ first since 2005, last weekend.

Toledo: Toledo has consistently been one of the better teams in the MAC West in recent years, but this is the program’s first title game appearance since 2004. The Rockets started the year 8-1 (including a 48-21 win over Akron), with their only loss coming at Miami (Florida), before losing at Ohio on Nov. 8. However, Toledo rebounded to beat Bowling Green and Western Michigan to wrap up the division.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Ulysees Gilbert, LB, Akron: Gilbert, a junior linebacker, has been a beast on the Zips’ defense, accumulating 118 total tackles on the year. That figure, 15th-most in the country, goes along with his 8.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and two interceptions.

Logan Woodside, QB, Toledo: Woodside, a senior, was recently named the MAC Offensive Player of the Year. He threw for 3,451 yards and 24 touchdowns with just three interceptions while completing 65.2 percent of his passes. He’s thrown for more than 10,000 yards in his career.

Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside runs in the bench area during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Western Michigan, Friday, Nov. 24, 2017, in Toledo, Ohio. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside runs in the bench area during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Western Michigan, Friday, Nov. 24, 2017, in Toledo, Ohio. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Woodside is one of the best quarterbacks in the country you may not know much about. You’ll hear much more about him (read Pete Thamel’s piece on him here) after the year once the NFL Draft coverage starts ramping up. He could definitely move up some draft boards, but wants to wrap up his Toledo career on a high note first. Oh, and it’s the last #MACtion of the year. What else do you need?

WHAT’S ON THE LINE: There are two fairly lengthy conference title droughts at stake. Toledo hasn’t won the MAC since 2004, while Akron hasn’t won the league since 2005. Akron can also reach the eight-win mark for the second time since becoming an FBS program in 1987.

PREDICTIONS
Sam:
Toledo 31, Akron 21
Nick: Toledo 37, Akron 23

Conference USA Championship
North Texas (9-3, 7-1) at Florida Atlantic (9-3, 8-0)
Saturday, Noon (Boca Raton, Fla.)

HOW THESE TEAMS GOT HERE:
North Texas: Seth Littrell has executed one of the more under the radar coaching turnarounds in the country. In the season before he arrived, UNT went 1-11. Two years later, the Mean Green are on the verge of a 10th win and a conference title. UNT went 7-1 in conference play, with its only loss coming at the hands of FAU (a 69-31 drubbing on Oct. 21). Of its seven C-USA wins, four were by seven points or less.

Florida Atlantic: FAU took its lumps in the non-conference, but were ready to roll once C-USA play began. In Lane Kiffin’s first season as head coach, the Owls went undefeated in conference play, winning by an average of 21 points per game. Kiffin’s offense has been explosive, averaging 480.2 yards (No. 16 FBS) and 39.8 points (No. 10 FBS) per game.

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Devin Singletary, RB, Florida Atlantic: The sophomore has had a monster year in Kiffin’s offense, putting up 1,632 yards (No. 4 FBS) and 26 touchdowns, five more than anybody else in the country. He has rushed for at least 100 yards in 10 straight games and has at least two scores in eight of FAU’s last nine games.

North Texas quarterback Mason Fine (6) has 27 TD passes. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
North Texas quarterback Mason Fine (6) has 27 TD passes. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Mason Fine, QB, North Texas: As a true freshman in 2016, Fine supplanted Alabama transfer Alec Morris as UNT’s starting quarterback by Week 2. This year, he has built off a strong freshman year with 3,393 yards and 27 touchdowns while completing 64.4 percent of his passes for a Mean Green offense that has set a bevy of program records.

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: You’ve seen plenty of Lane Kiffin on Twitter this year, but this is your chance to see his Florida Atlantic team in action. The Owls have been really, really fun to watch and have one of the best rushing attacks in the country. They blew out UNT in their first meeting. Let’s see what the rematch has in store.

WHAT’S ON THE LINE: Neither team has won the Conference USA championship since joining the league in 2013. FAU can win its second league crown in program history (Sun Belt, 2007) while North Texas can win its first since 2004, also the Sun Belt. Additionally, North Texas can win 10 games for the first time, while FAU can do it for the first time as an FBS program.

PREDICTIONS
Sam: Florida Atlantic 44, North Texas 31
Nick: Florida Atlantic 42, North Texas 30

Mountain West Championship
No. 25 Fresno State (9-3, 7-1) at Boise State (9-3, 7-1)
Saturday, 7:45 p.m.

HOW THESE TEAMS GOT HERE
Fresno State: Former Cal coach Jeff Tedford came in and executed a tremendous turnaround at Fresno State, turning the Bulldogs from a 1-11 disaster in 2016 to a 9-3 MWC Mountain Division champion in 2017. The Bulldogs took their lumps from Alabama and Washington in the non-conference, only to cruise through the MWC with just one loss, a surprising clunker to UNLV. Fresno capped off the regular season by beating Boise at home, but computer rankings gave Boise home field advantage for the more important rematch.

Boise State: Even after non-conference losses to Washington State and Virginia, Boise State looked like it could sneak into New Year’s Six consideration when it started 7-0 in conference play, including an improbable comeback 2OT victory over Colorado State. But the AAC’s success and the loss to Fresno put those hopes to rest.

Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford gets congratulated after the game against Boise State during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Fresno, Calif., Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017. Fresno State won 28-17. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)
Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford gets congratulated after the game against Boise State during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Fresno, Calif., Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017. Fresno State won 28-17. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Marcus McMaryion, QB, Fresno State: After leaving Oregon State, McMaryion landed at Fresno in August as a graduate transfer and has been a great addition to the Bulldogs. He has thrown for 2,212 yards, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions while completing 63 percent of his passes. He had his best game of the year last week against Boise, throwing for 332 yards and two touchdowns.

Cedrick Wilson, WR, Boise State: Boise uses a two-QB system with Brett Rypien and Kansas transfer Montell Cozart. No matter who is in the game at QB, Wilson, a senior, has been the top target with 65 catches for 1,142 yards and six touchdowns.

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: You don’t often see teams play on back-to-back weekends. It’s a fascinating circumstance for coaches, who may not have wanted to show everything in their playbook last week without the conference title on the line.

WHAT’S ON THE LINE: Fresno State went from winning the Mountain West title in 2013 to winning a combined four games in 2015 and 2016. It’d be quite an accomplishment in Tedford’s first year to win the conference crown. Boise State won the league in Bryan Harsin’s first season (2014) but were on the outside looking in the past two years.

PREDICTIONS
Sam: Fresno State 27, Boise State 24
Nick: Boise State 31, Fresno State 27

Sun Belt Conference

The Sun Belt does not play a conference title game, but there is plenty to pay attention to on Saturday. Three teams, Troy, Arkansas State and Appalachian State, are tied atop the league standings with 6-1 conference records. Arkansas hosts Troy at 7:30 while Appalachian State hosts Louisiana at 5:30. If Appalachian State loses to Louisiana, which needs a win to reach bowl eligibility, the winner of the ASU-Troy game would be the outright Sun Belt champion. If App State wins, it will share the Sun Belt crown with the ASU-Troy winner.

Other conference title game previews: AAC, Big 12, Pac-12

Coming Friday: ACC, Big Ten, SEC

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Sam Cooper is a writer for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!

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