Weekend Predictions: Georgia loses close one to LSU, Falcons outlast Panthers

The Georgia Bulldogs will play LSU for the SEC championship and (almost certainly) a College Football Playoff berth Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The next day, in the same building, the Falcons will play Carolina for the chance to mess up their chances of drafting Ohio State star Chase Young. They’ll also be playing for professional pride, but that’s boring and doesn’t provide a cheap punchline for Weekend Predictions.

» RELATED: How to watch the conference championship games

Four hours after LSU-Georgia kicks off, Ohio State and Wisconsin will meet in the Big Ten title game. UGA fans might begin mourning their team’s crushed CFP hopes just as ex-UGA quarterback Justin Fields takes the field to lead the Buckeyes to the top seed. I’d rather Georgia and Ohio State end up in a playoff semifinal matchup because it would be fun to watch Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart try to offer nothing but platitudes about Fields for three weeks.

Panthers (+3) at Falcons 

The consensus Las Vegas line on this game briefly moved a half-point in favor of the Falcons after the Panthers fired coach Ron Rivera on Tuesday. Apparently, not even a midweek coaching change was enough to convince the betting market that the Falcons will fare any better. Interim Panthers coach Perry Fewell went 3-4 in the same role with the Bills in 2009, but lost 31-3 in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons win, but the Panthers cover.

Conference championship games 

SEC: No. 2 LSU (-7) vs. No. 4 Georgia (Mercedes-Benz Stadium) 

Georgia's best wide receiver (Lawrence Cager) is out with an injury and No. 2 receiver George Pickens (suspension) won't play in the first half. But while looking back at Georgia's explosive plays, I was surprised that players other than those two have produced eight of 18 big pass plays against SEC foes. I think QB Jake Fromm connects on a few of those and UGA's defense limits LSU enough for the Bulldogs to lose by less than seven points.

Big Ten: No. 1 Ohio State (-16½) vs. Wisconsin (Indianapolis) 

Since Young wrecked its offense in Columbus, Wisconsin has won four consecutive games, including an impressive victory at Minnesota last weekend. I mention that not because I think Wisconsin has a good chance to win the rematch, but because it gives me another chance to say the Falcons desperately need Young. Ohio State covers.

ACC: No. 3 Clemson (-28½) vs. No.23 Virginia (Charlotte) 

The College Football Playoff selection committee has ranked Clemson No. 3 for four consecutive weeks, but coach Dabo Swinney said it "doesn't want us in there anyways." That prompted ESPN agitator Paul Finebaum to say that somebody should "give (Swinney) a pacifier, send him to timeout." Retorted Swinney: "We should have adult timeout time. Let's just all bring a mat and take a nap." That's the decisive blow in this troll skirmish (and a good idea, actually). The Tigers have been favored by at least four touchdowns in eight conference game and covered seven times. They'll do it once more.

Pac-12: No. 5 Utah (-6½) vs. No. 13 Oregon (Santa Clara, Calif.) 

The Oregonian reports that year the stadium is expected to be about half-full for this game for the second consecutive year. Pac-12 officials hope that moving the championship game to Las Vegas next season will juice attendance. Getting people to come to a game by offering better entertainment options than the game is the sign of a healthy league. I’ll take Oregon and the points.

Big 12: No. 6 Oklahoma (-9½) vs. No. 7 Baylor (Arlington, Texas) 

The winner of this game has a shot to make the CFP. It just would need LSU to beat Georgia and Utah to lose to Oregon, or at least not win more impressively in the committee’s judgment. I’m sure glad we left behind the subjective nature of the Bowl Championship Series for a true playoff. Baylor covers.

American: No. 17 Memphis (-9½) vs. No. 20 Cincinnati (Memphis, Tenn.) 

Memphis is playing for a bid to the Cotton Bowl. That’s the bone the CFP throws Group of Five teams because it doesn’t even believe its own propaganda that every FBS team “has equal access to the CFP based on its performance during the season.” Cincinnati lost 34-24 at Memphis last weekend without starting QB Desmond Ritter (shoulder). He’s expected to play in the rematch, but I’m still taking Memphis to cover.

Mountain West: No. 19 Boise State (-14) vs. Hawaii (Boise, Idaho) 

Boise State was the original Power Five giant slayers, as Oklahoma and Georgia surely remember. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told Sports Illustrated that his league’s “(more) rigorous conference schedule” justifies keeping the little guys out of the CFP. Not mentioned: The big boys have the advantage over the little guys in every other way. Boise State can take the Cotton Bowl berth if Memphis stumbles. I’ll take Boise State and give the points.

Sun Belt: No. 21 Appalachian State (-6) vs. Louisiana-Lafayette (Boone, N.C.) 

App State ranked has league’s top-scoring offense (38.9 points per game) and Louisiana-Lafayette is No. 2 (38.8). App State won 17-7 at Louisiana-Lafayette on Oct. 9, but the Ragin’ Cajuns have won six consecutive since then, with QB Levi Lewis producing 11 touchdowns vs. one interception. I’ll take them with the points.

Other NFL games of interest 

49ers (+2½) at Saints 

The NFC East is being ridiculed because the Cowboys (6-6) are on top. But after 12 games they had a better point differential (+74) than the Saints (+50). The Saints will win the NFC South and then try to get another playoff run out of Drew Brees, who is starting to look his age (40) again. San Francisco covers.

Colts (+3) at Buccaneers 

Offered a chance to commit to QB Jameis Winston for next season, Bucs coach Bruce Arians passed. When Winston passes the ball, it gets picked off 4.3 percent of the time, which is the highest mark in the NFL by far. Arians cited Winston as a reason he came out retirement to coach the Bucs, which may not have been a wise choice in retrospect -- and at the moment he made it. I’ll take the Colts and the points.

Ravens (-5½) at Bills 

QB Lamar Jackson was effective without highlight plays while leading the Ravens to a tough victory over the 49ers on Sunday. Bobby Petrino’s reluctance to fully take advantage of Jackson’s talents at Louisville was the first sign he was losing his coaching touch. Jackson was so good he won the Heisman Trophy, anyway, and yet he was the fifth QB selected in the 2018 draft. Too many NFL front offices play it painfully safe. I like the Bills as a home underdog.

Chiefs (+3) at Patriots 

After losing at Houston on Sunday night, the Patriots (10-2) are the currently the AFC’s No. 2 seed behind the Ravens (10-2 with a head-to-head victory). If the Pats lose this game, then excitement about the demise of their Evil Empire will reach new heights before they inevitably go on another run to the Super Bowl. Pats cover.

Last week: 8-5 (102-73-5 for the season)