Conference championships critical for College Football Playoff in last 4-team bracket

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There's been a love-hate relationship with conference championship games historically.

Since the SEC introduced college football to conference championship games in 1992, they've been knocked for being a money grab, putting unbeaten teams at risk if they slip up against a lesser opponent and being a tough sell for traveling fans who would rather spend their money on a bowl.

This year, as much as ever and maybe more, the games are critical for the College Football Playoff committee to separate the top-heavy group of elite teams.

That makes it a year to love conference championships.

Four unbeatens and four one-loss teams still have playoff hopes. Of those eight, only Ohio State will be idle.

The fun starts Friday with No. 3 Washington (12-0, No. 3 CFP) trying to beat No. 5 Oregon (11-1, No. 5 CFP) for a second time. The Huskies' 36-33 victory on Oct. 14 is a candidate for game of the year and was the second of eight straight games they won by 10 points or less. If Oregon wins, it has an argument for a bid.

On Saturday, No. 7 Texas (11-1, No. 7 CFP) must beat No. 19 Oklahoma State (9-3, No. 18 CFP) in the Big 12 title game and then root hard for eighth-ranked Alabama (11-1, No. 8 CFP) — a team it beat on the road in September — to take down two-time defending national champion and top-ranked Georgia (12-0, No. 1 CFP) in the SEC. A loss wouldn't necessarily knock the Bulldogs out of the top four, though.

No. 2 Michigan (12-0, No. 2 CFP) has made two straight playoffs after walloping overmatched West Division opponents. Now it faces No. 18 Iowa (10-2, No. 16 CFP) — which it beat 42-3 in 2021 — in Jim Harbaugh's return following his three-game suspension.

BEST GAME

No. 4 Florida State (12-0, No. 4 CFP) vs. No. 15 Louisville (10-2, No. 14 CFP), ACC title game in Charlotte, North Carolina, at 8 p.m. ET Saturday (ABC)

Never mind it's the closest point spread among the Power Five games. FanDuel Sportsbook lists FSU as a 2 1/2-point favorite. The hook is that it's the ultimate eye test for the Seminoles.

With Tate Rodemaker making his second start of the season in place of injured star QB Jordan Travis, the Seminoles better be sharper than they were against Florida last week or risk giving the CFP committee a reason to leave them out of the final four.

Jeff Brohm has gotten the Cardinals to 10 wins and their first ACC title game in his first season. They would love to play the spoiler here and go to the Orange Bowl.

HEISMAN WATCH

Heisman voters who do their jobs right will wait until after Saturday's games to submit their ballots. This could be close.

LSU QB Jayden Daniels stacked monster games and was considered the front-runner as recently as last week, according to wagering trends. Then Oregon QB Bo Nix went out and threw for 367 yards and accounted for three touchdowns in a blowout of Oregon State. Now he's the favorite.

Daniels' team is done until the bowl. Nix and the Ducks have the big stage to themselves against Washington. If Nix plays like he has the last month — 16 TDs, one interception — he very well could bring Oregon a second Heisman in 10 years.

NUMBERS TO KNOW

1 — Jeff Brohm is the only coach to lead two different schools to conference championship games in back-to-back years, doing it with Louisville this year and Purdue in 2022.

12 — Consecutive weeks Texas has been in the top 10 of the AP Top 25, its longest streak since 2009-10.

27 — Consecutive years Georgia will go to a bowl, the NCAA's longest active streak.

216 — Iowa's season points, fewest by a 10-win team since at least 2000, according to Sportradar.

1976 — Last year UNLV beat Boise State, its opponent in the Mountain West title game. The Rebels are 0-6 against the Broncos since then.

UNDER THE RADAR

New Mexico State (10-3) at No. 20 Liberty (12-0, No. 24 CFP), Conference USA title game, 7 p.m. ET Friday (CBS Sports Network)

Jerry Kill's head coaching revival has brought a quick turnaround for NMSU, which has two straight winning seasons for the first time since it strung together four in a row from 1964-67.

Jamey Chadwell led Liberty to a perfect regular season in his first year on the strength of the nation's top rushing offense and a defense with an FBS-high 20 interceptions.

The Flames won the regular-season meeting 33-17.

HOT COACH

It's time for hiring instead of firing, so we'll drop the “Hot Seat” category and throw out the name of a coach poised to move on to a better job.

No. 17 Tulane (11-1, No. 22 CFP) has won 23 of its last 26 games under Willie Fritz, including a 2022 American Athletic Conference title and Cotton Bowl win over Southern California. The Green Wave are on a 10-game win streak entering Saturday's AAC championship game against No. 25 SMU (10-2).

If the 63-year-old Fritz wants to see what he can do in a Power Five job, and get a big pay bump, Houston would be a natural spot for a program builder like him. The Cougars went 2-7 in Big 12 play in their first year in the conference and just fired Dana Holgorsen. Their next coach will be their fifth in 12 years.

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AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football