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College Football Week 14 Preview — Will Championship Weekend Shake Up the Playoffs?

Penn State v Michigan State
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The final college football weekend of the year will determine a number of conference titles, award winners and, most importantly, the four teams headed to the college football playoff. Here are the big questions for Championship Weekend:

Who Will Punch the Big Ten’s Ticket?

With Iowa and Michigan State sitting at Nos. 4 and 5, respectively, in the latest college playoff poll, the selection committee made the scenario for the Big Ten title game combatants pretty simple: win and you’re in.

Both teams come into the game riding huge waves of momentum. The unbeaten Hawkeyes wrapped up their first ever 12-win season with a Thanksgiving-weekend victory over Nebraska. But through a Big Ten scheduling quirk, Iowa avoided playing Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State in the regular season. This will be the Hawkeyes’ last chance to silence the critics who argue that Iowa is a paper tiger who hasn’t faced quality opposition.

Michigan State, meanwhile, followed up its upset of Ohio State with a 55-16 drubbing of Penn State. While it looked like the Spartans’ playoff hopes were doomed after their emotional loss at Nebraska, coach Mark Dantonio righted the ship and Michigan State closed the regular season with three straight wins by a combined score of 96-37.

If you like classic Big Ten football, with stout defenses and smash-mouth running attacks, this should be the game for you. These are blue-collar teams who don’t have any household-name superstars but are loaded with hard-hitting talent. Many around the country haven’t watched much Big Ten football this year, but those who tune in this weekend should be impressed by what they see.

Can the Tar Heels Play Themselves Into the Title Mix?

Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The one team that has been noticeably absent from the playoff discussion is North Carolina. Since a season-opening loss at South Carolina, the Tar Heels have been one of the hottest teams in the country, rolling off 11 straight wins by an average of almost 23 points per game. Yet the playoff committee has North Carolina ranked No. 10, behind three teams with two losses. So it’s not surprising that the Tar Heels have made disrespect a motivating factor this week and are coming into the ACC title game with a chip on their shoulder.

The knock on North Carolina has been a weak schedule — they played two FCS teams and avoided Clemson and Florida State in conference play. But if the Tar Heels manage to knock off No. 1 Clemson this week, the Committee will be forced to revisit their rankings and take another look at North Carolina as a legitimate playoff contender.

Really Great Uniforms? Or Best Uniforms Ever?

NavySports.com
NavySports.com

Alternate uniforms are usually hideous monstrosities, but the threads Navy is breaking out for this week’s Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy game against archrival Army are outstanding. Not only do the gloves and pants carry the do-or-die “Damn the torpedoes” Navy slogan, but each position group is represented by a different ship from the Navy’s arsenal on their helmets: the quarterbacks are wearing aircraft carriers, the receivers submarines, the defensive backs destroyers, etc.

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Your move, Oregon. Anchors aweigh.

Can the Gators Slow Down Derrick Henry?

at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 21, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Not many people are giving Florida much of a chance to be more than a speed bump on Alabama’s road to the playoff. So if the Gators want to shock the nation, first they’ll have to figure out how to slow down Derrick Henry.

Henry is the Heisman front-runner for good reason. He is on pace for a 2,000-yard season and has rushed for 200-plus yards in four of his last five conference games. He currently needs just two touchdowns to pass Florida’s Tim Tebow and Tre Mason of Auburn for the SEC single-season rushing-touchdown record. He already holds most Alabama rushing records, including yards, touchdowns and consecutive games with a rushing touchdown.

Alabama is going to give Henry the ball early and often. In his last seven contests against carried the ball a school-record 46 times in last week’s win over Auburn, including 14 consecutive plays in the fourth quarter to seal the victory. Florida’s offense has been atrocious down the stretch, averaging just 12 points in regulation in games against Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Florida Atlantic and Florida State. With Alabama boasting the SEC’s best defense, points will be hard to come by and the Gators will have to slow Henry down to keep the game close and have any chance of pulling the upset.

If Things Go Haywire, Then Who?

Right now, the committee looks to have a relatively easy job next week. If Clemson and Alabama win their respective conference-title games this weekend, it’s pretty simple to plug them into the Final Four with Oklahoma (idle) and the Big Ten champ. But what if the train goes off the tracks and North Carolina upsets the Tigers or the Tide somehow trips up against Florida? Who gets to be the last one in? And who is the first one out?

Ohio State would seem to be the first choice, as the Buckeyes moved back up to No. 6 after demolishing Michigan. This would be straightforward except for two things: 1) The committee has repeatedly said it would give heavy weight to conference championships, and 2) Would they put a second Big Ten team in the playoff field ahead of another deserving team?

Given the committee’s weighty consideration of strength of schedule and conference titles, North Carolina could make a strong case with an upset of No. 1 Clemson in the ACC title game. But would that victory and a conference crown be enough to help the Tar Heels overcome their overall weak schedule and jump up six spots? It’s not inconceivable but North Carolina will need to not just win, but probably win big this weekend.

That leaves a trio of two-loss teams rounding out the Top Ten. With at least one and probably two ACC schools ahead of them, it’s unlikely No. 9 Florida State will be able to make up any ground. No. 8 Notre Dame probably lost their chance with last week’s loss to Stanford.

And that leaves the Cardinal. Aside from that ugly “2” in the loss column, Stanford can probably make the strongest case for consideration. In hindsight, the season-opening loss to Northwestern looks like what the committee calls a “quality loss” and the close loss to a resurgent Oregon isn’t terrible. Yes, it would take some upsets at the top, but a win over No. 24 USC (who Stanford already beat in the regular season) in the Pac-12 title game would give the committee a lot to think about.

If Clemson and Alabama win, the committee can wrap up their work early and head home for the year. But if we have an upset or two, buckle up. Things could get interesting.

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