Outside the Region Special Recap: Georgia, Michigan both roll en route to conference titles and playoff berths

Mandatory Credit: Photo by John Bazemore/AP/Shutterstock (13648158bb) Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) gestures to the crowd during the trophy presentation the Southeastern Conference Championship football game in Atlanta SEC Championship Football, Atlanta, United States – 03 Dec 2022

Outside the Region Special Recap: Georgia, Michigan both roll en route to conference titles and playoff berths

SEC Championship Game – Atlanta, GA

No. 1 Georgia 50, No. 14 LSU 30 

The Georgia Bulldogs’ quest for an SEC Championship against the LSU Tigers Saturday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium was the second of what they hoped would be three games there this season in the home of the Atlanta Falcons. Both teams were greeted by a crowd of mostly Georgia fans, eager to watch their Bulldogs take home the conference title after being tripped up by Alabama in the same game last season.

As is usually the case for the talented Bulldogs, their defense led the way early. Georgia blocked a field-goal attempt by the Tigers in the first quarter, returning it 95 yards for a touchdown as the LSU kicking unit assumed the play was over. LSU added a touchdown of their own on a 53-yard catch and run by Keyshon Boutte, tying the game with 2:21 to go in the first quarter. After the Tigers’ score, the Georgia avalanche arrived. Bulldogs’ quarterback Stetson Bennett connected with four different pass catchers for touchdowns before halftime, including wide receivers Ladd McConkey and Dillon Bell, as well as tight ends Darnell Washington and Brock Bowers. Trailing 35-7, hobbled LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels led a drive into Georgia territory before the break, but Damian Ramos’ field goal at the buzzer to pull within 25 felt like an exercise in futility.

Despite being left for dead at halftime, the Tigers made a dent in the Bulldogs’ advantage in the third quarter behind highly-touted backup quarterback Garrett Nussmeier. Nussmeier took over after starter Jayden Daniels departed with an injury and immediately connected on a 34-yard touchdown strike to Malik Nabers. Trailing 35-17, LSU’s defense picked up a second consecutive defensive stop to begin the second half – but after Nussmeier led the Tigers deep into Georgia Territory on a second consecutive possession, the Bulldogs’ defense stuffed LSU on a fourth down to halt their momentum. Georgia all but put the game away on the ensuing possession, powering their way 94 yards downfield with seven runs and one pass to push ahead 42-17. LSU running back Noah Cain plunged in for another score late in the third quarter, but the Tigers’ failed two-point conversion left them down 42-23. Georgia, evidently taking exception to the Tigers’ attempt, went for two themselves after Kenny McIntosh’s touchdown run with a successful double-pass making it 50-23 in the fourth quarter. Garrett Nussmeier kept firing balls downfield regardless of the massive deficit, first throwing an interception in the end zone but following that with a 33-yard touchdown to Jaray Jenkins to make it 50-30 Bulldogs. Georgia forced an LSU fumble with just over three minutes to go to take the football back for good, winning the SEC Championship and all but ensuring they’d be the top seed in the upcoming College Football Playoff. Georgia will, in all likelihood, return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for the national semifinal on New Year’s Eve against an opponent to be named Sunday.

AAC Championship Game – New Orleans, LA

No. 18 Tulane 45, No. 22 UCF 28

In the biggest game of their season, Tulane put together one of their best offensive performances. They had control of the game from the first quarter on and secured an AAC title, their first conference championship since 1998. After taking a 10-point lead in the first quarter, Tulane never gave up the momentum. Quarterback Michael Pratt was outstanding in this game, completing 20-of-33 passes for 394 yards and four touchdowns with only one interception. He put up his third-highest passer rating of the season in the most crucial game of the season. The offensive line did a great job keeping UCF off his back, as he barely faced any pressure, especially in the first half. Pratt was sacked only once in the game and had a clean pocket virtually all afternoon. As a result of Pratt’s big day, the Green Wave had two receivers over 100 yards in Duece Watts and Shae Wyatt. Watts had three catches and a team-leading 134 yards to go along with a score, while Wyatt pulled in five balls for 110 yards and two touchdowns. Even with the big numbers through the air, Tulane held true to what has catapulted their offense all season. They ran the ball very well with star running back Tyjae Spears, who had his biggest yardage game of the season. Spears finished the game with 199 yards, and a touchdown on 22 carries, including a 60-yard home run early in the third quarter. Tulane has been favored in the AAC for most of the season, and it is primarily due to how effectively they can run and defend against the pass. They got after UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee and forced him into situations where he could not win. They sacked him four times and held him to a slightly above 50 percent completion percentage on the day. An argument could be made that this was the best game Tulane has played all year, and they earned a long-awaited title because of it.

From the start, Central Florida struggled to get the ball moving. The Knight’s offense has been electric for most of the year, and it is because of John Rhys Plumlee. Plumlee was never comfortable in this one and seemed out of rhythm for most of the game. He finished 21-of-39 for 209 yards and a touchdown, which is subpar for him. He was really neutralized on the ground, logging -7 yards rushing on the day on nine carries. UCF was just 6-of-23 on third down and struggled to contain Tulane’s front. Running back Isaiah Bowser was the only source of offense they could find consistently, as he put up 85 yards and a score on 20 carries. Both touchdown passes by Plumlee and running back RJ Harvey on the night were caught by Kobe Hudson, who finished with four catches for 98 yards. This was a shocking result for the Knights, as their offense did not find much momentum after being so productive over the course of the year. They also came in with a win on the road at Tulane, so one would expect them to make the appropriate adjustments. Instead, Tulane walks away with a title, and Central Florida will look forward to finishing the season strong in its bowl game.

ACC Championship Game – Charlotte, NC

No. 9 Clemson 39, No. 23 North Carolina 10

The Clemson Tigers are once again champions of the ACC. Their seventh ACC crown in eight years. They may not have earned a spot in the College Football Playoff, but they can take pride in continuing their dominance in the conference. At times throughout the season, Clemson had some instability at the quarterback position. D.J. Uiagalelei was the leading man under center, but backup Cade Klubnik found some time when D.J. struggled. After the first two possessions without a first down, Dabo Swinney decided to make the switch as Clemson went to Klubnik early in the game. The move would pay off, as they would outscore North Carolina 39-3 after the substitution. Klubnik was incredibly efficient with the football completing 20-of-24 pass attempts for 279 yards and a touchdown. Though not much, Klubnik also led the team in rushing with 30 yards and a touchdown on the ground. However, for Clemson, this game was about the defense. Clemson’s defense locked up one of the most dynamic players in college football and made his life hard for four quarters. Clemson forced three turnovers and made plenty of explosive plays on both sides of the ball to complete the victory. Wide receiver Cole Turner put up a solid day, pulling three balls for 101 yards. This game moved at Clemson’s pace. They had a suffocating defense and got stops when they needed them. Despite only possessing the ball for 25 minutes and not getting much from star running back Will Shipley, Clemson took control of the line of scrimmage and dominated at the point of attack. This game was all about Clemson and how good they can be even with a backup quarterback, and now they have a trophy to show for it.

This was a tough one for North Carolina on both sides of the ball. Outside of their first scoring drive in the first quarter, the Tar Heels simply could not move the football. Quarterback Drake Maye faced pressure most of the night and forced a couple of throws that turned into turnovers that ultimately tacked on to what was already a lopsided game. Maye went 26-of-42 for 268 yards passing with two interceptions. Maye ran for a touchdown early in the game, but that was the only offensive production he would see. Star wide receiver Josh Downs gave them a spark with 11 catches and 100 yards as he continues to be their best offensive weapon. Outside of Downs, North Carolina could not get any consistent offensive production from anyone, including those in the running game. Running back Elijah Green put up just 65 yards on 21 carries averaging just over three yards per carry. Clemson’s defense clamped down on everything that UNC threw at them. That is what this game’s bottom line was — just pure domination by Clemson and not much response by the Tar Heels.

2022 Big Ten Football Championship Game – Indianapolis, IN

No. 2 Michigan 43, Purdue 22

The No. 2-ranked Michigan Wolverines entered Saturday night’s 2022 Big Ten Football Championship game fresh off the biggest win of their season, a 45-23 trouncing of the Ohio State Buckeyes on the road in the Big Ten’s most prominent rivalry. Awaiting them at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis was the eight-win Purdue Boilermakers, hoping to play spoiler in their first-ever Big Ten Championship Game appearance.

Michigan, hoping to defend their Big Ten title from a year ago, jumped out to an early lead with a 25-yard strike from J.J. McCarthy to Colston Loveland to cap off their opening drive with a 7-0 lead. The Boilermakers responded quickly after their first drive stalled out, tying the game on Devin Mockobee’s one-yard plunge with four minutes to play in the first quarter. Purdue took their first lead in the second quarter, faking a punt successfully en route to an eventual field goal by Mitchell Fineran from 33 yards out. Michigan quickly took the lead back on the following possession, plodding their way downfield over 13 plays en route to J.J. McCarthy’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Luke Schoonmaker with 7:05 to play before halftime. Purdue’s next drive resulted in another field goal to pull them within a point at 14-13, where the score would stay heading into the halftime break.

Running back Donovan Edwards got the Wolverines off on the right foot immediately in the second half, scampering 60 yards into Purdue territory on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter. Kalel Mullings completed the touchdown drive moments later with a 1-yard push, extending the Michigan lead to 21-13. The second-ranked team in the country would extend their lead again less than two minutes later on another long run by Donovan Edwards, this one a 27-yard bruising score. Purdue’s next opportunity to possess the ball looked promising, but an interception by Will Johnson on the 1-yard line ended the threat and put Michigan back in the driver’s seat. Purdue’s defense stepped up when it needed to on Michigan’s next two drives, forcing a punt and a turnover to give the Boilermakers’ offense chances to close the gap. Purdue turned both opportunities into field goals, narrowing the deficit to 28-19 with 12:37 to go in the final period.

The Boilermakers earned themselves another possession after forcing Michigan to punt near midfield, but Aidan O’Connell’s second interception of the night – once again picked off by Will Johnson – set up the Wolverines in the red zone. This time, J.J. McCarthy made the Boilermakers pay with a 17-yard strike to Ronnie Bell in the end zone – and after a successful two-point conversion, Michigan led 36-19 with nine minutes remaining. Purdue continued its second-half habit of moving the football without being able to finish drives, settling for a field goal with five minutes to play to pull within two touchdowns. Kalel Mullings’ second touchdown of the night added one more Michigan touchdown for good measure, and the Wolverines walked away with a 43-22 win and a Big Ten title.

Michigan’s second straight Big Ten Championship will undoubtedly lead to another College Football Playoff bid, moving them to 13-0 on the season alongside only Georgia. The Wolverines will find out Sunday who they’ll play at State Farm Stadium in Arizona on New Year’s Eve in the national semifinal.

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