It was just over a year ago that Central Michigan introduced Jim McElwain as its new football coach, and at that point, the Chippewas were about as far from a championship as possible. They'd won one game all season, and that was against an FCS opponent. Now CMU is playing for a Mid-American Conference title. “Amazing,' McElwain said. “To know where we started from a year ago ... and just to see the growth, and it is a little bit improbable.” The Chippewas take on Miami of Ohio in a rather unexpected MAC championship game Saturday. CMU was understandably picked to finish last in the MAC West in the preseason media poll. Miami was second in the East in that survey, but well behind division favorite Ohio. It's the first time either of these teams has been in this game since 2010. McElwain's early success to some degree parallels what happened when he was at Florida. He became the first person in Southeastern Conference history to reach the league title game in his first two seasons as coach, although the Gators lost those games in 2015 and 2016. CMU entered the final week of the season tied with Western Michigan for first place in the division. When WMU lost to Northern Illinois on Nov. 26, that gave the Chippewas an opportunity three days later, and they took full advantage by routing Toledo 49-7. “From where these guys have come from, and how far they've taken this season, I just can't tell you how happy I am for them,' McElwain said. 'Now we've got to hopefully go down and play well against a really good football team.' This is the first appearance in the title game for CMU (8-4, 6-2) since 2009, when the Chippewas beat Ohio 20-10. Miami's most recent appearance was in 2010 — a 26-21 win over Northern Illinois. The RedHawks (7-5, 6-2) certainly took their lumps early this season when they lost nonconference matchups with Iowa, Cincinnati and Ohio State. The last of those defeats was a 76-5 blowout against the Buckeyes. “You've got some moments that you really search and decide who you're going to be, and are you tough enough to bounce back?' Miami coach Chuck Martin said. Immediately after that Ohio State game, Miami fell behind 14-3 in its MAC opener against Buffalo. Then the RedHawks stormed back with 31 unanswered points, eventually winning 34-20. “We decided to keep moving forward, and we came out with a win,' defensive back Manny Rugamba said. 'I'm pretty sure that game right there really shaped our character as a team.” SIMILAR SCENARIO The last time Miami was in the MAC title game, it was in the same situation as CMU is this year. Miami went 1-11 in 2009 before making it to — and winning — the conference championship game the following year. QB MATCHUP CMU quarterback Quinten Dormady played at Tennessee and then spent a redshirt season with Houston before eventually ending up with the Chippewas this year. He's completed 67% of his passes this season. “This is by far the most fun that I've had playing college football in my five years,' he said. Miami's Brett Gabbert is also a newcomer. He's thrown for 1,967 yards as a freshman. SLOPPY CMU has lost 15 fumbles on the season, a stat that contributed greatly to its minus-6 turnover differential. GRINDING IT OUT Miami made it this far despite being next-to-last in the MAC in total offense. The RedHawks reached 30 points only twice in league play. HEAVY HEARTS It has been an emotional week for the CMU community because of the death of radio broadcaster Don Chiodo. He died in a car crash Wednesday. ___ More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
When Baylor jumped out to a quick 25-point lead over Oklahoma, there was a sense for the Bears that they really did belong in those conversations about being a Big 12 contender — and maybe even bigger things. That feeling didn’t go away, even after the 12-time Big 12 champion Sooners had their biggest comeback ever to ruin a big night for the Bears, who had won 11 games in a row until then. “It just changes your level of expectation,” Baylor coach Matt Rhule said. “So, that game can do nothing but help us as long as we make sure that we learn from it, which I think we have.” Three weeks later, No. 6 Oklahoma (11-1, 8-1 Big 12, No. 6 CFP) and No. 8 Baylor (11-1, 8-1, No. 7 CFP) meet again Saturday in the Big 12 championship game and on the edge of a possible playoff spot, depending on what happens with Georgia in the SEC and Utah in the Pac-12. This is a familiar spot for the Sooners, in the Big 12 title game for the 11th time, including all three since the league was able to reinstate that game in the playoff era after a six-year hiatus. The four-time defending champs are the league’s only team to make the College Football Playoff, getting to a national semifinal three of the past four seasons. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley hasn’t spent a lot of time thinking about what happened on the banks of the Brazos River, when quarterback Jalen Hurts overcame three turnovers with four touchdown passes and 114 yards rushing in a 34-31 win — after Baylor led 28-3 early in the second quarter. “That was a great night, but that was multiple weeks ago. It was two really good football teams going at it. They played better than we did in the first half, we played better than they did in the second half, tight game,” Riley said. “This one's different. Championship games are different. Playing not at home, not on the road. ... The stakes are different, the setting’s different, the teams are at different points.” Rhule, voted this week by his Big 12 peers as coach of the year, has taken a similar approach. But he believes the Bears, the only Power Five team ever to go from 11 losses to 11 wins within two seasons, are already “a way better team” than they were only three weeks ago. Baylor and quarterback Charlie Brewer rebounded from that only loss with convincing wins over Texas and at Kansas to finish the regular season. “It changed us in a way,” linebacker Jordan Williams said. “And the fact that we know what we can do, and I guess if we go out there now and that we know we can do it off the bat, then we won't feel like we're not supposed to be there, or feel like this isn't supposed to be happening. We'll be able to finish the game out.” Some other things about the 18th Big 12 title game, which was also played in the home stadium of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys in 2009 and 2010: LAMB IS BACK Oklahoma leading receiver CeeDee Lamb missed the Baylor game last month because of what Riley called “a medical decision.” He has only six catches for 52 yards and a touchdown in the two games since. He had six catches for 167 yards and a touchdown against Texas in last year’s Big 12 title game. Right before the Baylor game, he had eight catches for 167 yards and two TDs against Iowa State, his fifth 100-yard receiving game this season. “His health’s fine. He’s been fine. He’s handled things well. He’s been through a bunch of these battles,” Riley said. “You have to account for him anytime he’s on the field,” Rhule said. STAYING THE SAME Rhule took Temple to consecutive American Athletic Conference championship games before taking the Baylor job. He didn’t have to face a rematch in the AAC, but learned something about title games. After the Owls lost at Houston in the 2015 AAC game, they won 34-10 the following year on the road against a Navy team coming off a stretch of games scoring 42, 66 and 75 points. “I messed the first championship game up by changing what we did. I worried too much about them,” Rhule said. In 2016, despite the “dazed look” he had watching Navy's impressive offense, Rhule had a message for his Temple team, one that now applies to Baylor “We said let’s go out there and be us, and be how we play,' Rhule said. “That’s my message to our guys. We’re a legitimate, legitimate football team in the country this year. Let’s not do anything different.” MORE THAN ANYBODY ELSE Oklahoma is in the Big 12 championship game for the 11th time, matching the combined total appearances by all of the other current conference members. The Sooners have nine wins in the game, with the next closest being three wins by Texas (in six appearances, matching former Big 12 team Nebraska for the second-most times in the game), FIVE IN A ROW Oklahoma has a chance to become the first Power Five team since Alabama from 1971-75 to win five outright conference titles in a row. Clemson could do that in the ACC on Saturday night. SOME OTHER STANDOUTS Big 12 defensive player of the year James Lynch has 10½ sacks this season, and the junior DE is Baylor’s career leader with 19. ... Oklahoma RB Kennedy Brooks has averaged 133.5 yards rushing in a four-game winning streak, even with Baylor limiting him to 93 yards. He averages a Big 12-best 7.2 yards per carry.
In what could best be described as a veteran move, Rui Hachimura tried to duck out of doing a postgame media session by pleading that he was worried about missing the Washington Wizards' team flight out of town. “I can't be late,” he insisted, wearing a rust-colored hoodie and a black backpack. “I'm a rookie.” Yes, that's true, of course. A rookie that's learning the ways of the NBA quite quickly, however. Hachimura, a 21-year-old from Japan, relented and took a few questions Thursday night after his latest in a series of strong performances, putting up a team-high 27 points to help Washington surprise the Philadelphia 76ers and their collection of stars such as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons by a score of 119-113. “He’s like a seven- or eight-year vet. He just chips away at the game, every time. He’s a winner. He just plays the right way. He plays hard. He plays for his team. He’s not searching for stats. He just competes,' Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. 'And he wants to get better. He knows he has a lot to learn and he’s a sponge out there. He wants to improve.” The first-round draft pick out of Gonzaga played 42 1/2 minutes against Philadelphia, making 11 of 18 field-goal attempts and adding seven rebounds. “I love when he plays with joy. I think that’s the most important thing, especially when you're young. I'm guilty of that sometimes, too — you kind of get caught up in the emotion. It’s a hard season, man, for a young guy, who isn’t used to that ... including me,” said 22-year-old teammate Moe Wagner, a second-year pro himself. “Today, you could just tell — he smiles, he has fun, even if he doesn't make shots,” Wagner said. “That’s so much fun to play with, if you know your teammate enjoys playing. I’m proud of him.” In this day and age of analytics and analysis that proclaim 2-point jumpers dead and gone — long live the 3-pointer! — Hachimura counts as a bit of a throwback. “His bread-and-butter is a 17-, 18-foot shot, and he was taking 'em,” Brooks said, “and he’s going to make most of those when he’s wide open.” Or as Wagner put it: “That little mid-range jumper is really hard to guard.” Hachimura, listed at 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds, entered the game averaging 13.4 points and 5.6 rebounds and offers versatility by playing some forward and some center on a Wizards team that's dealt with what's seemed like a new injury every day while starting the season with a 7-13 record. “This is my first year and I don’t know anything about the NBA yet,” Hachimura said. “So I’ve just got to play hard.” He thinks his greatest strides have been in learning how to adjust to the spacing in the league, so different from the college game, and finding his spots to get shots. The chemistry with teammates is coming along. Hachimura draws praise from Brooks for adjusting in various ways. One example at the defensive end: He's less susceptible to falling for opponents' shot fakes. “He’s good now, as a young player. When you're a young player, everything is coming at you so fast. And you're learning so many things on the fly,” Brooks said. “And he's going to improve. His basketball IQ is high, but it's going to get better, just through all the experience.” A reporter wanted to know whether Hachimura — who scored 30 points in a loss last weekend — considered the victory against the Sixers his best game with the Wizards so far. “I don’t know,” he said. “We won the game, so that’s all that matters.” Spoken like someone who's been around for a while. ___ More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports