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    CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREVIEWS

    Defending champion Clemson hasn’t skipped a beat

    COLUMBIA, SC - NOVEMBER 25: Kelly Bryant #2 of the Clemson Tigers reacts after his team scores a touchdown against the South Carolina Gamecocks during their game at Williams-Brice Stadium on November 25, 2017 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
    Unheralded Kelly Bryant led Clemson to an 11-1 regular-season record.

    Clemson has this crazy idea that nobody expected it to be back here.

    The Tigers seem to think that everyone had cast them aside once the Gainesville Gasher, quarterback Deshaun Watson, left for the NFL.

    But here Clemson (11-1, 7-1 ACC) is again, No. 1 in the playoff rankings, playing the Miami Hurricanes (10-1, 7-1, CFP No. 7) for its third straight ACC Championship on Saturday night and a spot in the bigger tournament.

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    Now, it’s Kelly Bryant at the controls, fully demonstrating that the Tigers are larger than any dependence upon a single player.

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    Bryant, a 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound junior emerged from nowhere to be an efficient-enough thrower and a superior runner.

    Dabo Swinney likes the underdog theme, and he’s sticking to it.

    “Last year’s team was picked to win it and they won it. And there’s a lot of joy that comes doing something like that,” Clemson’s coach said. “Then you have a team like this that’s not picked to win the league or the division, to see them come together and still find a way to do it, and it is very gratifying. It’s a credit to the leadership on the team, their buy-in and belief, their belief in themselves and belief in the program. I’m incredibly proud of them.’’

    The Hurricanes are making their first appearance in the ACC title game since joining the conference in 2004.

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    They are led by QB Malik Rosier, who has thrown for 2,807 yards and 25 touchdowns after taking over from three-year starter Brad Kaaya.

    Big 12: Baker Mayfield has come a long way since being the first true freshman walk-on quarterback to start a season opener for an FBS team when he started for Texas Tech in 2013.

    ‘‘This final stretch of my college career is coming down to the wire. I try to enjoy every moment,’’ he said. ‘‘But winning makes it a lot more fun.”

    The Sooners (11-1, 8-1 Big 12, No. 3 CFP) go into Saturday’s game in position to make the four-team College Football Playoff for the second time in Mayfield’s three seasons if they beat TCU (9-2, 7-2, No. 11 CFP) for the second time in four weeks.

    Mayfield has played his college career entirely in the Big 12 from his unprecedented debut and only season at Texas Tech to his standout tenure at Oklahoma. But had league officials not made a rule change in 2016, restoring a year of lost eligibility after his in-league transfer with no written scholarship offer from the Red Raiders, he would have been done after last year.

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    After finishing top four in Heisman voting each of the past two years, Mayfield has thrown for 4,097 yards and accounted for 42 touchdowns this season, including a Big 12-best 37 TD passes with only five interceptions.

    Mayfield was arrested in February for public intoxication, disorderly conduct, fleeing and resisting arrest after an incident outside an Arkansas bar. Oklahoma ordered him to complete 35 hours of community service and an alcohol education program.

    He didn’t start on Oklahoma’s senior day last week following his lewd crotch-grabbing gesture and constant words toward the Kansas sideline the previous week.

    Mayfield also nailed TCU safety Niko Small with a pass during pregame before the teams played three weeks ago in Norman. And Mayfield also planted an Oklahoma flag at midfield after winning at Ohio State in September, and there was the smack talk directed at Baylor players on the field before that game.

    Big Ten: Ohio State backup quarterback Dwayne Haskins will be ready if starter J.T. Barrett can’t go in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin (12-0, 9-0 Big Ten, CFP No. 4).

    Barrett says he is healthy enough to play after missing the end of last week’s game with a knee problem. The Buckeyes (10-2, 8-1, CFP No. 8) could use his mobility against one of the nation’s stingiest defenses but Haskins is coming off a strong showing against Michigan, when he rallied Ohio State past its biggest rival.

    Even without the injury, it’s easy to argue for Barrett or Haskins to start, and it’s conceivable both could play depending on whether Barrett is fully healthy. Wisconsin is prepping for both.

    The Badgers, who are looking for their 36th conference title, are led by running back Jonathan Taylor. The Big Ten rushing champion has been sensational all season and put himself into Heisman Trophy contention by giving the Badgers a different look. Taylor is a breakaway threat, averaging 150.5 yards per game and 7.0 yards per carry.

    Barrett has much more experience as a fifth-year senior who has broken nearly every school passing and scoring record. On Thursday he was named Big Ten quarterback of the year by the conference for the third time. He said he initially was injured when a photographer bumped into him on the sideline before the game.

    But his inconsistency led to losses this season to Oklahoma and Iowa, and Ohio State’s sliver of hope for the College Football Playoff rests on a big win by the Buckeyes and chaotic losses in other conference championships this weekend.

    Wisconsin players said they will prepare for Barrett — who often carries the ball on designed quarterback runs and keeps it on run-pass option plays — but also be ready for Haskins, a pure pocket passer with a stronger arm.

    ‘‘They’re still going to be doing some of the same things scheme-wise and have two capable guys who can play that position,’’ Badgers linebacker T.J. Edwards said. ‘‘We just have to make sure we’re locked in like any other week.’’

    Pac-12: The Stanford team that walked out of the Los Angeles Coliseum nearly three months ago after being overpowered by Southern Cal seemed an unlikely pick to get a rematch with the Trojans.

    Yet here Stanford is in the Pac-12 title game ready to get revenge against USC for that 42-24 loss in the second game of the season after having won eight of nine games with a familiar formula.

    ‘‘You’re talking about a very hot football team right now,’’ USC coach Clay Helton said. ‘‘A lot of it can be attributed to how the defense is playing. I’ve always thought a David Shaw team is extremely strong down the middle of the defense.’’

    An improved defense and the switch at quarterback to K.J. Costello are the biggest differences for the 14th-ranked Cardinal (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12, No. 12 CFP) heading into Friday night’s title game at Levi’s Stadium against No. 11 USC (10-2, 8-1, No. 10).

    Stanford gave up 623 yards of offense to Sam Darnold and the Trojans in the first meeting, the highest total allowed in coach David Shaw’s seven seasons. USC gained more than 300 yards through the air and on the ground and dominated the line of scrimmage.

    ‘‘I think we hit them and they were hitting on all cylinders, especially offensively,’’ Shaw said. ‘‘You go back and watch again and it was just like, ‘Wow!’ Running it, throwing it, the pass protection was outstanding. The quarterback was as good as you can play the position.’’

    Stanford hasn’t allowed more than 430 yards or 24 points in a game over the past eight contests.

    The other big difference has been the switch to Costello, who has provided more of a passing threat to complement big-play running back Bryce Love since taking over for Keller Chryst at the beginning of November.

    Costello threw four TD passes last week against Notre Dame and is improving each week, the same way the rest of his team is improving.

    American Athletic: Wide receiver Anthony Miller walked on at Memphis without a single college scholarship offer out of high school. Riley Ferguson was a quarterback question mark after an unsuccessful stint at Tennessee, out of college football and working odd jobs before a one-year stop at a Kansas community college ultimately led him to the Tigers.

    They have become one of the top QB-wideout tandems in Memphis history.

    ‘‘Those two are dynamic players, there’s no question about it,’’ Central Florida coach Scott Frost said. ‘‘Two of the best players in our league and in the country.’’

    Ferguson and Miller are a major reason why the No. 16 Tigers (10-1, 7-1, No. 20 CFP) face Frost’s undefeated 12th-ranked Knights (11-0, 8-0, No. 14 CFP) in Orlando on Saturday for the American Athletic Conference championship. The winner is expected to earn a New Year’s Day bowl berth, most likely the Peach Bowl in Atlanta.

    The connection between the unlikely duo developed quickly after they met two years ago. New Memphis coach Mike Norvell brought Ferguson to campus to replace 2016 Denver Broncos first-round draft pick Paxton Lynch , and the quarterback arrived knowing the fast and shifty Miller was one of the Tigers’ best receivers.

    ‘‘I just wanted to start building our chemistry,’’ Ferguson said. ‘‘We used to stay after practice and throw routes and just talk to each other. Over time, we’ve just practiced together, and I think our chemistry has just gotten better every single day.’’

    That kinship resulted in a pair that set a load of Memphis passing and receiving records. Miller’s share of those standards came after arriving as a walk-on from Christian Brothers High in Memphis. That and being left off finalist lists as the top receiver in the country have provided extra motivation for Miller.

    Miller has 78 receptions this year and is averaging 110 yards receiving per game. Ferguson has completed 62 percent of his passes, 32 for touchdowns, including 14 to Miller.

    Three of Ferguson’s eight picks came against Central Florida in a 40-13 loss Sept. 30. It was the Tigers’ lone loss of the season, and by far their worst performance.

    Toledo drubbed Akron, 48-21, back on Oct. 21 but the Rockets (10-2, 7-1 MAC) can’t count on duplicating that result.

    Akron’s redshirt freshman quarterback Kato Nelson may make his fourth straight start filling in for suspended senior Thomas Woodson. Nelson is a dual threat and will challenge Toledo’s linebackers and secondary to remain disciplined when he gets outside the pocket. Nelson has completed 53 of 107 passes for 732 yards and six touchdowns.

    The Zips (7-5, 6-2) haven’t been in the title game since 2005.

    Toledo is led by quarterback Logan Woodside, who has passed for 3,451 yards with 24 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He’s the school record holder in yards passing (10,083), TDs (89), and 300-yard games (16).