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College Football Picks for Conference Championship Weekend

Newsweek 12/2/2022 Sascha Paruk | Sports Betting Dime
USC quarterback Caleb Williams runs for a touchdown against Notre Dame in a 2022 NCAA football game. © Ronald Martinez/Getty Images USC quarterback Caleb Williams runs for a touchdown against Notre Dame in a 2022 NCAA football game.

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Over the next 36 hours, a quintet of conference championship games will cement the field for the 2022-23 College Football Playoff (CFP).

With all due respect to the Group of Five conferences, this article focuses exclusively on the Power Five conference championships, the games that will shape the CFP bracket. Before delving into the best bets for the week, let's review the schedule and current balance of power.

NCAAF Conference Championship Schedule

In chronological order, the Power Five conference-championship schedule is as follows:

  • Pac-12: No. 4 USC (-2.5) vs. No. 11 Utah (Friday, 8 p.m. EST, Las Vegas, NV)
  • Big 12: No.3 TCU (-2) vs. No. 10 Kansas State (Saturday, 12 p.m. EST, Arlington, TX)
  • SEC: No. 1 Georgia (-17.5) vs. No. 14 LSU (Saturday, 4 p.m. EST, Atlanta, GA)
  • ACC: No. 9 Clemson (-7.5) vs. No. 23 North Carolina (Saturday, 8 p.m. EST, Charlotte, NC)
  • Big Ten: No.2 Michigan (-16.5) vs. Purdue (Saturday, 8 p.m. EST, Indianapolis, IN)

What's at Stake?

If the season ended today, the four-team playoff would consist of No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 4 USC and No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 TCU.

De facto, Georgia (12-0) and Michigan (12-0) are locked into the CFP regardless of what happens this weekend. But with Ohio State (11-1) waiting in the wings, USC needs to win. The status of TCU (12-0) is a question mark, and the CFP Selection Committee will have a difficult task if it's forced to choose between a one-loss Horned Frogs team and a one-loss Buckeyes.

It's highly unlikely that any two-loss team (e.g. LSU, Alabama, Tennessee, Clemson, Kansas State) qualifies for the four-team playoff.

Pick No. 1: Trojans (-145) Over Utah

My favorite bet for the conference championships is USC to beat Utah. USC is a 2.5-point favorite and -145 on the money line.

This is a rematch of a game from mid-October which the Utes won 43-42 in Salt Lake City. The post-game stats looked even—Utah slightly outgained USC (562-556) and held the ball for a few more minutes (31:50 to 28:10)—but, in reality, it was a case of USC letting one get away. The Trojans led 28-14 late in the first half and maintained their lead until the final minute of the game. When the Utes took the lead on a two-point conversion in the final minute of play, it was the first time they had been in front all game.

Utah quarterback Cam Rising was nothing short of sensational, passing for 415 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for another 60 yards and three majors. Utah needed every inch of Rising's athleticism to mount its comeback. It also needed USC to be undisciplined (the Trojans committed 12 penalties while the Utes only had five) and to fade down the stretch while playing in Salt Lake's rarified air.

Utah has been a different team on the road compared to at home, going 3-3 away with losses to Florida (29-26), UCLA (42-32), and Oregon (20-17). The Utes also survived a close call at Washington State (20-17) with Rising sidelined. While Friday's game in Las Vegas won't be in a truly hostile road environment, Utah is a team that benefits greatly from its home-field advantage. A neutral-site game plays in USC's favor.

The Trojans enter the Pac-12 title game on the heels of their best win of the season. USC dominated a surging Notre Dame squad (38-27) in its regular-season finale. It raced to an early 17-7 lead and never let the Irish get within one score thereafter.

Quarterback Caleb Williams played one of his best games of the season, going an efficient 18-22 for 232 yards and one TD through the air and adding 35 yards and three TDs on the ground. The performance rocketed the Oklahoma transfer to the top of the Heisman odds.

USC's defense leaves a lot to be desired, surrendering 26.3 points per game. But its first-half performance against Notre Dame last week was encouraging; USC gave up just seven points to a Notre Dame offense that had been humming.

Add in the fact that Rising is clearly laboring after a long, grueling season (his rushing yards and attempts are all down considerably in the past month), and I will back USC to win this rematch and keep its top-four spot.

Pick: USC money line (-145)

Pick No. 2: Purdue Team Total Under 17.5 (-135)

Purdue has little right being in its first-ever Big Ten Championship. The 8-4 Boilermakers took advantage of a seriously-depleted Big Ten West and still needed Iowa to lose to Nebraska as sizable home favorites last week. Purdue's 6-3 conference record would have put it fourth in the Big Ten East.

The Boilers' reward is a date with Michigan and the Wolverines' top-three defense. Michigan's offense is getting most of the plaudits after its stirring 45-23 road win over Ohio State as 7.5-point underdogs last Saturday, but don't overlook the second-half performance from the D, which gave up just a field goal to C.J. Stroud and company in the final 30 minutes.

Purdue starting QB Aidan O'Connell has been dealing with a family tragedy the past week-plus and has spent time away from campus. While the human in me is pulling for O'Connell, the robot is concerned about how a less-prepared Purdue offense is going to function. Michigan's rush defense has limited opponents to just 84.3 yards per game and 3 yards per carry, both top-five marks in the nation.

If O'Connell is dropping back on a regular basis, the Wolverines' pass rush is going to make his life miserable. Michigan is averaging nearly three sacks per game and rates fourth in defensive efficiency per Football Outsiders.

While Purdue has only been held under 18 points twice all season, those both came in the past month. And the only time Purdue faced a defense close to Michigan's level (Iowa), it was limited to just a field goal in a demoralizing 24-3 loss at home. Purdue only mustered 255 total yards, averaging a paltry 3.9 yards per pass and 2.8 yards per carry.

I was hoping to play the under on a first-half team total for Purdue, but no sportsbooks have that line listed. It's possible Purdue reaches the over late in the game when the outcome has long been decided. I will still back the outstanding Michigan defense to dominate an overmatched opponent, though.

Pick: Purdue team total under 17.5 (-135)

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