Group of Five conference championship game previews, picks against the spread

Sam Cooper and Nick Bromberg
·7-min read

Welcome to conference championship week.

While a lot of the focus is going to be on big boys over in the Power Five knocking on the door of the College Football Playoff, don’t forget about the Group of Five matchups. They could prove to be some of the most fun games of the weekend.

Cincinnati has the chance to clinch a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. Coastal Carolina can keep its undefeated Cinderella season going with its first Sun Belt title. San Jose State is having one of its best seasons ever. Oh, and you get to watch Buffalo running back Jarret Patterson.

These games are going to be a lot of fun.

(Note: All times ET, point spreads/totals from BetMGM)

AAC: No. 23 Tulsa at No. 9 Cincinnati

Time: 8 p.m. | TV: ABC | Line: Cincinnati -14 | Total: 45.5

How these teams got here

Tulsa (6-1): Tulsa has been one of the surprise teams of the season. Since losing to Oklahoma State in its opener, Tulsa hasn’t lost. It won all six AAC games it played with several postponements along the way. Tulsa was twice scheduled to host Cincinnati, including last week — but UC’s COVID-19 issues changed things.

Cincinnati (8-0): Cincinnati enters Saturday’s game as one of eight undefeated FBS teams. The 8-0 Bearcats have been mostly dominant. Other than a 36-33 win at UCF, all of Cincinnati’s other wins have come by at least 14 points. Cincinnati last played on Nov. 21.

What’s on the line

Tulsa: Tulsa hasn’t won a conference title since 2012, back when it was a member of Conference USA. Tulsa’s chances for a New Year’s Six bowl are remote even with a win. Both Sun Belt finalists, No. 12 Coastal Carolina and No. 19 Louisiana, are ranked ahead of the Golden Hurricane in the CFP rankings.

Cincinnati: Cincinnati last won an outright conference title in 2009 as a member of the Big East under Brian Kelly. UC was an AAC co-champion in 2014. On top of a conference championship, the Bearcats would almost certainly represent the Group of Five conferences in a New Year’s Six bowl with a win. With the way the Bearcats have slid in the rankings, a spot in the top four is unrealistic.

Players to know

Tulsa LB Zaven Collins: 52 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 4 interceptions

Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder: 143/215 (66.5%), 1,821 yards, 16 TDs; 526 rushing yards, 11 TDs

Picks: Sam: Cincinnati -14, Nick: Tulsa +14

Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder looks for a receiver against Central Florida during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder looks for a receiver against Central Florida during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

C-USA: UAB at Marshall

Time: 7 p.m. (Friday) | TV: CBSSN | Line: Marshall -4.5 | Total: 42.5

How these teams got here

UAB (5-3): UAB started its season with a 3-1 record, only losing to Miami, before a 1-2 stretch in late October. From there, the Blazers endured significant COVID-19 issues. UAB last played on Oct. 31 before returning to the field last Saturday at Rice, a win that clinched UAB’s third straight C-USA West title.

Marshall (7-1): Marshall had a pretty dominant season until its most recent game. The Thundering Herd saw multiple games get postponed along the way, but they were able win their first 7-0 games and reach No. 21 in the CFP rankings. However, Marshall lost 20-0 to Rice on Dec. 5 in a game that nearly cost the team the East Division crown.

What’s on the line

UAB: UAB won the Conference USA title in 2018 but was embarrassed in the championship game 49-6 by Florida Atlantic last year. Bill Clark’s group does not want to see that happen again. UAB has been a C-USA member since 1999 and has just that one conference championship.

Marshall: Marshall won five MAC titles between 1997 and 2002, but has just one Conference USA title in program history. That came back in 2014, Marshall’s fifth season under Doc Holliday. This is the third C-USA title game appearance for the Marshall program.

Players to know

UAB RB Spencer Brown: 156 carries, 740 yards, 10 TDs

Marshall RB Brenden Knox: 168 carries, 820 yards, 9 TDs

Picks: Sam: Marshall -4.5, Nick: Marshall -4.5

MAC: Ball State vs. Buffalo

Time: 7:30 p.m. ET (Friday) | TV: ESPN | Line: Buffalo -13.5 | Total: 67.5

How these teams got here

Ball State (5-1): The Cardinals shook off a season-opening loss to Miami (Ohio) to win five consecutive games to end the season. Unlike Buffalo, which blew out its opponents on a regular basis, four of Ball State’s five wins were within one possession. That included the wild finish to Saturday’s win over Western Michigan. The Cardinals will play this game without top RB Caleb Huntley (437 yards, 6 TDs) as he’s opted out of the season.

Buffalo (5-0): The Bulls ran their way to the MAC East title and have averaged nearly 52 points per game. Buffalo averages 344 yards per game on the ground thanks to the awesomeness of Jaret Patterson. He’s rushed for 1,025 yards and 18 scores in just five games and had 409 yards and eight scores in a 70-41 win over Kent State.

What’s on the line

Ball State: The team that Buffalo beat in that 2008 MAC title game? Yep, Ball State. While Buffalo went back to the MAC championship in 2018, this is Ball State’s first trip back to the title game since that 42-24 loss.

Buffalo: The MAC has just two bowl agreements for the season so these two teams have them locked up. Buffalo is looking for its first MAC title since 2008.

Players to know

Ball State WR Justin Hall: 44 receptions, 620 yards, 3 TDs

Buffalo RB Jaret Patterson: 123 carries, 1,025 yards, 18 TDs

Picks: Sam: Ball State +13.5, Nick: Buffalo -13.5

Buffalo running back Jaret Patterson (26)  is tackled by Akron's Charles Amankwaa (12) during the first half of an NCAA college football game at UB stadium in Amherst, N.Y., Saturday Dec. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)
Buffalo running back Jaret Patterson (26) is tackled by Akron's Charles Amankwaa (12) during the first half of an NCAA college football game at UB stadium in Amherst, N.Y., Saturday Dec. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Mountain West: Boise State vs. No. 24 San Jose State

Time: 4:15 p.m. | TV: FOX | Line: Boise State -6.5 | Total: 55

How these teams got here

Boise State (5-1): Boise State lost just one game this year, and it came when it was down to its third-string quarterback. The Broncos were trounced 51-17 by BYU on Nov. 6, but have won their five other games — all in Mountain West play. Their most recent game was a 17-9 win over Wyoming on a snowy night in Laramie.

San Jose State (6-0): SJSU has been one of the best stories of the 2020 season. The Spartans went a combined 8-29 in Brent Brennan’s first three years leading the program. Now they are 6-0 and the home team in the conference title game. But it’s not a true home game. Local COVID-19 regulations have sent SJSU on the road, and this game will be played in Las Vegas.

What’s on the line

Boise State: Boise State is no stranger to the Mountain West title game. This is BSU’s fifth trip to the conference championship game overall and the fourth straight season. The Broncos are 3-1 in MWC title games. They beat Hawaii 31-10 last year.

San Jose State: This is SJSU’s first chance at a Mountain West title. Before this season, the Spartans had only once posted a conference record above .500. That came back in 2013, SJSU’s first year in the Mountain West. The program’s last conference title came in 1990, when it played in the Big West. This is a big moment.

Players to know

Boise State WR Khalil Shakir: 46 catches, 634 yards, 6 TDs

San Jose State DE Cade Hall: 22 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 8 sacks

Picks: Sam: San Jose State +6.5, Nick: San Jose State +6.5

Sun Belt: No. 19 Louisiana at No. 12 Coastal Carolina

Saturday’s game was canceled late Thursday night due to COVID-19 exposure at Coastal Carolina. The Sun Belt said that a CCU player tested positive and an entire position group would have been unable to play the game. Both teams will be declared conference champions.

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