Saturday, January 13, 2018

Whoa, Nellie!



Here in Texas there is widespread reverence (except in College Station, I suppose) for the 2006 national championship game between the Texas Longhorns and the Southern Cal Trojans.

Even now more than a decade later.

If you ask people around here what they remember about that game, they are almost sure to mention Vince Young's scamper into the end zone in the final seconds to win it.

It was a classic, all right, and I remember that moment, too, but what I remember most about that game was how familiar it all felt — with Keith Jackson calling it.

It was the last game in a remarkable career, a career that included coverage of pro football, the Olympics, boxing, racing. All sports, really, but especially college football.

Jackson died Friday night at the age of 89.

His career spanned more than half a century so the odds are pretty good that you or someone you know — perhaps both — grew up listening to Jackson's play–by–plays.

Lots of people forget that Jackson was on the original Monday Night Football broadcasting crew doing the play–by–play. Frank Gifford was the original choice, but he had other commitments in that first season so Jackson handled the play–by–play. Gifford took over the next season.

People have been sharing their memories of Jackson on social media today, and they are all great memories.

I grew up listening to Jackson, and I can't say I have a special memory. But all those other moments sound familiar, whether I actually witnessed them or not.

One thing I can say is that Jackson and I were once at the same game — at least once.

My family attended the Sugar Bowl a couple of times when I was growing up, and I know that Jackson was on the broadcast team at one of them. Maybe both.

I didn't hear the broadcast, of course, because I was at the game, and it was long before people could watch TV from handheld devices. But I knew he was there.

Among other things, Jackson is remembered for his colorful descriptions of people and things. He was the one who called the Rose Bowl "the granddaddy of them all." He dubbed Michigan's football stadium "The Big House."

His signature line was "Whoa, Nellie!" when something big happened. If I happened to be in the kitchen getting something to eat and I heard Jackson exclaim, "Whoa, Nellie!" I knew I needed to get back into the living room pronto because there was sure to be a replay of whatever it was.

And it was not to be missed.

It's been awhile since Jackson participated in a broadcast, but he still will be missed. And whenever I hear anyone say "Whoa, Nellie!" I know I will think of him.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Who's Gonna Win, Alabama or Georgia?



So now it comes down to the matchup everyone expected in the SEC Championship — until Auburn upended Georgia and rival Alabama in the regular season. But Auburn couldn't beat Georgia in the SEC Championship and missed a chance to play for the national title.

Now the fourth–ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (12–1) will face the third–ranked Georgia Bulldogs (13–1) for the national championship tonight starting at 7 (Central) on ESPN. I expect a classic defensive struggle in true Southeastern Conference fashion.

It is a battle that will be waged on many levels.

It is a battle between mentor and protege. Georgia coach Kirby Smart served on Alabama coach Nick Saban's staff until accepting his current position. This will be the 12th time Saban has faced one of his former assistants. So far he has won them all.

Most people probably expected to see the Heisman winner, Oklahoma senior QB Baker Mayfield, in the title game, but the Sooners lost a double–overtime classic to Georgia in last Monday's semifinal in the Rose Bowl.

That seems to make it less likely that the championship game will be an aerial show, which is probably for the best since both teams are in the Top 10 in pass defense. A good quarterback can still cause some problems for a good pass defense, as Mayfield demonstrated in completing 23 of 35 passes for two touchdowns and 287 yards against Georgia, but the quarterbacks for Alabama and Georgia, as talented as they are, are not close to his level yet.

While Mayfield was second in the nation in passing yardage, Georgia's freshman quarterback Jake Fromm was 60th and Alabama sophomore Jalen Hurts was 73rd. Both have potential, but both are still young and developing.

Hurts, however, does have the advantage over Fromm in the sense that he has been here before. Alabama came up just short in last year's national championship game against Clemson. It wasn't his fault. Hurts threw for one touchdown and ran for another, and the Crimson Tide played turnover–free football, but Alabama yielded three touchdowns in the final quarter to blow a 10–point lead.

Alabama junior wide receiver Calvin Ridley was No. 41 nationally in receiving yardage with 935 yards this season, making him the most prolific receiver on the field tonight. No other receiver in tonight's game finished in the Top 100.

That also seems to make it more likely that the game will be a battle on the ground, but neither team has a Top 10 runner. The closest is Georgia senior Nick Chubb, who ranked No. 26 with more than 1,300 yards and a per–carry average gain of more than 6 yards, but he has the No. 38 back, senior Sony Michel, to share the load.

Chubb and Michel — regarded by some as the best rushing twosome in college football history — will be challenged by Alabama's second–in–the–nation run defense.

Georgia is pretty good against the run, too. The Bulldogs' run defense ranks No. 18, which should be adequate against the nation's 61st–best rusher, junior Damien Harris. Hurts is dangerous when he runs the ball, too, averaging 5.5 yards per carry, but he only runs the ball about 11 or 12 times per game. If Hurts isn't able to throw against Georgia, he may have to do more running than usual.

Although the teams have faced each other 67 times, this will be the first time they have met since Oct. 3, 2015. Georgia has won less than 40% of the time and hasn't beaten Alabama since 2007. That, incidentally, was Georgia's third consecutive win against the Tide, continuing a pattern that has been characteristic of this series since the early '90s.

Since that time, one team wins three in a row, then the other team wins three in a row, then the first team wins three in a row and so on. Alabama's victory in 2015 was its third straight against the Bulldogs. According to the pattern of the series, that means Georgia will prevail tonight.

But Alabama was established as a 4½–point favorite once the matchup was certain. Is that significant? Well, I read that, since 2010, Alabama has been favored in all but one game — the exception being that game against Georgia in 2015.

Of course, the Tide has lost a dozen times since the start of the 2010 season — all games in which they were favored — so point spreads are not infallible. But Alabama's record is impressive.

The teams have met six times in Atlanta, with each winning three times. The last time they played there was in the SEC Championship in December 2012. Alabama was the winner. Georgia hasn't beaten Alabama in Atlanta since 1942.

So now it is time for me to make my final college football pick of the 2017 season. I've done pretty well in the postseason — but not so much in the national playoffs. I predicted Oklahoma and Clemson would be playing tonight, and you can see how well that worked out!

I hope I'm wrong again, but I really believe that Alabama will prevail.

National semifinals: 0–2

Bowls: 10–3

Overall: 222–52

Postponed by Hurricane Irma: 4

Last week's upset specials: 4–1

Overall upset specials: 17–24

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Half a Century Since the Ice Bowl



"I'm going to take a bite of my coffee."

Frank Gifford, CBS color commentator

I have written here before of the legendary Ice Bowl of 1967. I am a lifelong student of history so I often write in my blogs about historic events — but my policy has been not to write about events I have written about before.

As my grandfather would say, I don't like to chew my cabbage twice.

But today is the 50th anniversary of that NFL championship game played between the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisc., and on this milestone occasion, it deserves more than a cursory examination.

The game got its moniker from the extreme conditions in which it was played. The game-time temperature was about –15°. Under standards in use at the time, the wind chill was –48°. (National Weather Service standards have since been revised; under those standards, the wind chill would be a comparatively balmy –36°.)

Lambeau Field had a heating system installed beneath the playing surface, which was supposed to keep it in good condition in inclement weather, but the system failed. When the tarp was removed before game time, moisture was left on the field that froze instantly.

That gave rise to the rumor that Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi had manipulated the system in some way so that the brunt of the conditions would be more difficult on the visitors from Texas than the hometown Packers. That rumor was fueled by the perception that Dallas' players were more athletic than the aging Packers.

But it wasn't just the weather that contributed to the game's almost mythical status. In the few short years of the Cowboys' existence, the teams had developed a rivalry that persists to this day, which included a down–to–the–wire battle in Dallas for the NFL championship the year before. That added to the drama going into the game; it was punctuated by a thrilling conclusion.

Once, when I was working on the sports desk of the Denton, Texas newspaper, the sports editor and I had lunch with a friend of his — sportscaster Bill Mercer, a local icon who covered the Ice Bowl for Dallas radio station KLIF. My memory of that lunch conversation is that Mercer was a virtual walking encyclopedia of North Texas sports history. Much of it he had witnessed personally — and much of it focused on the Ice Bowl.

Now retired and living on the East Coast, Mercer reflected on the game for a new documentary about it.

"I can still see that game in my mind," Mercer said. "I'm 91 years old now and it's like it was yesterday. ... I can imagine it's going to go on and on. That game will live forever."

In such brutal weather, many myths gained traction. If they weren't entirely true, they had at least a nugget of truth in them — unlike the allegations about Lombardi.

Most of those allegations were made in jest, though. Even Lombardi's players joked about Vince's influence on the weather and the field conditions.

"I figure Lombardi got on his knees to pray for cold weather," said Green Bay defensive tackle Henry Jordan, "and stayed down too long."

The Packers and Cowboys brought decidedly different histories into the game.

The Packers had been fixtures in the National Football League for nearly half a century. They were two–time defending NFL champions and winners of more NFL championships than any other franchise.

The Cowboys began as an expansion team in 1960, but Dallas coach Tom Landry built them into Super Bowl contenders in less than a decade.

And they had plenty of motivation to win this time. They lost the NFL championship game the previous year in Dallas to those same Packers.

Adding to the intrigue was the fact that Lombardi and Landry had served together on Jim Lee Howell's New York Giants coaching staff in the 1950s.

Dallas had not played in Green Bay since its first year of existence. When the Cowboys arrived in Green Bay a couple of days before the game, the temperature was in the 50s, and quarterback Don Meredith mugged for the cameras, cupping his hands and saying the championship game was going to be "easy money."

The Cowboys knew a cold front was coming, but it was not expected until after the game was over.

It wasn't the first time meteorologists got it wrong.

The Packers scored first, capping a nine–minute drive with an eight–yard touchdown pass from Bart Starr to Boyd Dowler in the first quarter.

The conditions seemed to have put the Dallas offense in the deep freeze as it continued sputtering, but the Packers kept rolling.

In the second quarter, Green Bay took a 14–0 lead when Starr hit Dowler for another touchdown, this time from 46 yards.

It looked like the Cowboys were in trouble. In fact, it looked like the Cowboys would rather be anywhere else than Green Bay. As cold as it was, who could blame them?

And, indeed, the offense continued to struggle against the Packers' defense.

But now the Packers' offense began to struggle, too.

Later in the second quarter, as Starr went back to pass, the Cowboys' pass rush trapped him behind the line and stripped him of the ball. George Andrie picked it up and ran seven yards for a touchdown, cutting the deficit in half with about four minutes remaining before intermission.

After recovering a fumbled punt on Green Bay's end of the field with less than two minutes to play, the Cowboys added a field goal.

In keeping with the freakish nature of the game, Dallas did not get a single first down in the second quarter yet scored 10 points and trailed by only four at halftime.

The Cowboys' offense performed much better in the third quarter but still failed to generate a touchdown. The Packers were the ones who were sputtering, and the third period was scoreless. Going into the final quarter, Green Bay still led 14–10.

That would soon change.

On a halfback option, Dan Reeves hit Lance Rentzel for a 50–yard touchdown strike, and Dallas had its first lead of the game 17–14 with only eight seconds gone from the final period.

Finally staked to a lead, the Dallas defense appeared to have new life while the Green Bay offense seemed to have none.

The score remained 17–14 until the game was nearly over.

With just under five minutes to go, the Packers fielded a punt and started their final offensive possession of the game at their own 32. Field conditions were deteriorating by the minute.

All things considered, the Packers' effort in that final drive may never be matched in terms of execution or heroism.

The drive seemed to stall in the final minute with the Packers in the shadow of the Cowboys' goal post. Green Bay called its last timeout with 16 seconds remaining and the Packers a yard away from the end zone on fourth down.

Green Bay could have kicked a field goal and hoped to win the game in overtime. That would have been in character for Lombardi, who was not known as a gambler — in fact, he was noted for saying that "everybody loves a gambler until he loses" — and the field goal certainly would have been the conservative option. But apparently, it was never seriously considered.

"I didn't figure all those people up there in the stands could take the cold for an overtime game," Lombardi said. There was probably more to it than that, but he told Starr to take it in for the touchdown. And he did.

Fullback Chuck Mercein, a late–season acquisition for the Packers, played a key role in the winning drive — and is the person you can see with his hands raised in the photos of Starr after he scored the winning touchdown (he is number 30 in the photo at the top of this post).

Many people assume Mercein was signaling that Starr had scored, but he said he was trying to show the referees that he hadn't pushed Starr into the end zone. That would have resulted in a penalty, and the Packers almost surely would have had to settle for a field goal.

"I realized that was a singular moment in my career," Mercein, who made some important gains to set up Starr's game–winning play, said. "It means more to me because I was able to pay it forward, the faith that Vince Lombardi had in me. There were plenty of other backs he could have picked up. Seldom does it happen where you can repay someone for their faith in you."

For half a century the Ice Bowl has remained vivid in memories and no doubt would continue to do so with little help, but Meredith's son Michael, who was only a few months old when his father played in the game, has made a film about it that premiered recently on the NFL Network.

Sadly there is no known complete copy of the Ice Bowl telecast in existence. Radio broadcasts do still exist, including the one of Mercer calling the game for KLIF. Meredith used video clips that do exist and interviews with participants to tell the story.

That should heat up those memories of an already memorable day.

Friday, December 8, 2017

A Look at the Postseason in the Top 25



Well, like it or not, the national college football playoff field has been set.

The bowl games get underway next week. Not counting the national semifinal games on New Year's Day, eight bowl games will match two ranked teams. If you add in the three playoff games, there will be 11 postseason games in which ranked teams will go head to head. Lots of quality clashes.

What follows are my predictions in all the bowls featuring ranked teams — except for the national championship. I'll have to wait until after the semifinals have been played before I can write about that.

Look for my prediction in early January.

Saturday, Dec. 16
  • Las Vegas Bowl: #25 Boise State vs. Oregon, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: These schools have met twice before, and Boise State won both.

    But they haven't met since 2009, and they have never faced each other in a bowl.

    Oregon (7–5) is favored over 10–3 Boise State by 7½ points. I pick Boise State as an upset special.
Saturday, Dec. 23
  • Birmingham Bowl: #23 South Florida vs. Texas Tech, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: This will be the first meeting between these two schools.

    South Florida (9–2) is a 2½–point pick over Tech (6–6). South Florida should be able to cover the spread.
Thursday, Dec. 28
  • Valero Alamo Bowl: #15 Stanford vs. #13 TCU, 8 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: TCU leads the series 2–0, but it has been nearly 10 years since the schools faced each other on the gridiron.

    The Frogs are favored by 2½ points to notch their third win over Stanford. I choose TCU.
  • Camping World Bowl: #17 Oklahoma State vs. #22 Virginia Tech, 4:15 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: This will be the third time these schools have met.

    Each team won an encounter at home, but they have never faced off in a bowl.

    The Cowboys are favored to win this game by 6½ points. I expect Oklahoma State to prevail.
  • SDCCU Holiday Bowl: #18 Michigan State vs. #21 Washington State, 8 p.m (Central) on FS1: This will be the eighth time these schools have faced each other — but the last time was more than 40 years ago.

    The 9–3 Spartans lead the series 5–2, but Washington State, also 9–3, won the last time they met. Washington State is favored by a field goal, but I'm taking Michigan State in an upset special.
Friday, Dec. 29
  • Goodyear Cotton Bowl: #5 Ohio State vs. #8 Southern Cal, 7:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: This will be the eighth time these teams have faced each other in a bowl. The first seven times were in the Rose Bowl; Southern Cal won four of those clashes.

    They have played four times since their last bowl encounter, and Southern Cal won all four. In all, Southern Cal has won seven in a row against the Buckeyes and leads the series 13–9–1. Ohio State hasn't beaten the Trojans since the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1974.

    But the 11–2 Buckeyes are favored to win this time by 6½ points. My only question is whether the Buckeyes can put the disappointment of being left out of the college football playoffs behind them. I say they can. Ohio State is my pick.
  • Franklin Amer. Mort. Music City Bowl: #20 Northwestern vs. Kentucky, 3:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: These schools have met only once before — on Oct. 20, 1928, about a year before the Stock Market Crash.

    Needless to say, it was a different game — and world — nearly 90 years ago. There was only one score on that occasion. Northwestern scored a touchdown and won 7–0. Common sense says there will be more scoring than that when the teams meet in Nashville.

    Coincidentally, 9–3 Northwestern is favored by a touchdown in this contest with 7–5 Kentucky.

    The schools are clearly going in different directions. Kentucky has lost four of its last six games while Northwestern is riding a seven–game winning streak.

    The pick is Northwestern.
Saturday, Dec. 30
  • Capital One Orange Bowl: #6 Wisconsin vs. #11 Miami (Florida), 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: The Badgers were one win away from capping an undefeated season with a trip to the college football playoffs. Miami was also one win away from being in the playoffs.

    Both came up short.

    This will be the fifth meeting for these schools. They split the first four so the winner will take the lead in the series.

    The Badgers are favored by 6½ points. I think they can cover. My pick is Wisconsin.
  • PlayStation Fiesta Bowl: #9 Penn State vs. #12 Washington, 3 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Penn State has beaten Washington twice, but the teams haven't met in 34 years.

    The teams are both 10–2, but Penn State was more impressive in its losses than Washington. The Nittany Lions are favored by 2½ points, and I think Penn State will prevail.
  • AutoZone Liberty Bowl: #19 Memphis vs. Iowa State, 11:30 a.m. (Central) on ABC: These schools have never faced each other before, and few, if any, observers expected to see them square off at the end of the season.

    Nevertheless here they are.

    Iowa State had a great year, beating both of the Big 12 finalists, but the Cyclones staggered to the finish line, losing three of their last four games (their only victory during that stretch came against hapless Baylor).

    Memphis, on the other hand, won its last seven regular–season games before losing the American Athletic Conference championship in double overtime.

    Memphis is favored by a field goal. I choose Memphis.
  • TaxSlayer Bowl: #24 Mississippi State vs. Louisville, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: Mississippi State is 4–0 against Louisville — but all four games were played in the '70s. It is safe to say things have changed in 40 years.

    Louisville is favored by 6 points. I can go along with that. The pick is Louisville.
Monday, Jan. 1, 2018
  • National Semifinal: Allstate Sugar Bowl: #1 Clemson vs. #4 Alabama, 7:45 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Oddsmakers established Alabama as a 2‐point pick, and perhaps that makes sense, given that Clemson beat Alabama for the national title last January. Vengeance is sure to be a theme in Alabama's preparations for the game.

    Of course, that was Clemson's revenge for losing the national title to Alabama the year before.

    So they meet for the third straight time in the national playoffs. The rubber match — but the national crown won't be on the line this time.

    Historically Alabama has dominated the series, but it had been dormant since 1975 when the teams faced off in 2008. They met again in the last two national championship games. Now they will play to see which team will be in the championship game for a third straight year.

    I pick Clemson in an upset special.
  • National Semifinal: Rose Bowl: #2 Oklahoma vs. #3 Georgia, 4 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: This is an intriguing match and, based on the point spread, potentially the best of the bowls.

    These schools have never faced each other before, and the Sooners are 1½–point favorites.

    I agree with the oddsmakers. I expect this to be a close contest.

    Georgia's competition in the SEC East did not turn out to be as strong as expected, and I don't think the Bulldogs are prepared for the Sooners, whose defense has been just good enough with Baker Mayfield running the offense. Unless Mayfield gets hurt, that should continue. He makes the defense look good even when it isn't. My pick is Oklahoma.
  • Chick–fil–A Peach Bowl: #7 Auburn vs. #10 Central Florida, 11:30 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: Auburn faced Central Florida three times in the '90s and won all three.

    The Tigers are favored to win this time by 9½ points.

    I don't think there is any doubt that Auburn has the superior talent. But I have to wonder if Auburn will be in this game mentally after losing the SEC title game and missing a trip to the college football playoffs.

    The Tigers have a lot of youth in starting roles, including at quarterback. I wonder if they have the maturity to handle a disappointing loss like that. I doubt it. My choice is Central Florida in an upset special.
  • Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl: #14 Notre Dame vs. #16 LSU, noon (Central) on ABC: Notre Dame leads the all–time series 6–5, but LSU is favored by a field goal to even the series.

    Notre Dame's last two games against ranked teams didn't turn out too well. The Irish lost to Miami and Stanford at the end of the season. LSU went 2–1 against ranked teams and won six of its last seven games.

    I favor LSU.
Championship week: 7–0

Overall: 213–48

Postponed by Hurricane Irma: 4

Last week's upset specials: 1–0

Overall upset specials: 14–23

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Drop the Pretense



"The selection committee ranks the teams based on the members' evaluation of the teams' performance on the field, using conference championships won, strength of schedule, head–to–head results and comparison of results against common opponents to decide among teams that are comparable."

College Football Playoff website

Let's just stop pretending that conference championships really matter now when deciding who will play for the national championship.

Conference championships used to matter back in the days of the BCS.

But in the days of a four–team playoff field, what matters is rankings and records, not conference titles.

Just ask Ohio State. The Buckeyes beat previously undefeated Wisconsin to claim the Big Ten crown, but they lost two games this season.

I've been wondering for weeks if the committee would permit a two–loss team to participate in the college football playoffs, and now we have our answer. In the brief history of the college football playoffs, no two–loss team had been included. It will remain that way this year.

As today dawned, it was common knowledge that Clemson, Oklahoma and Georgia had secured spots in college football's playoff. The drama centered on whether Ohio State, the Big Ten champ with two losses, or Alabama, a one–loss team that did not play for its conference crown, would round out the field.

That was the choice — Ohio State or Alabama. No other options.

I have also been wondering whether the committee would allow two teams from the same conference to be in the playoff field. With a field that is restricted to only four teams, I have believed that more balance was required to build national support for the playoff concept.

Again, the choice came down to Ohio State or Alabama. No other options.

Ohio State could have provided the diversity that was needed, and the Buckeyes won their conference, but they lost twice during the regular season.

With Alabama, the field leans heavily toward the South. The Crimson Tide did not win the Southeastern Conference, but Alabama did lose only once — to Auburn in the Iron Bowl.

So the integrity of the record was upheld, but the integrity of conference championships and geographical balance was not.

I have been an advocate of a larger playoff field for a long time. I believe that would provide the committee with plenty of opportunities to generate geographical balance and allow other deserving teams to have a shot at winning it all.

If you take today's rankings as an example, a playoff field involving the top eight teams would produce plenty of balance this season, driving up fan interest from coast to coast. As it is, I have to wonder how high the ratings will be in the Upper Midwest or on the West Coast.

Today's selection of Alabama and exclusion of Ohio State hastens the day when the playoff field will be expanded to eight teams. I don't know when that will happen. It could be as soon as next season, or it might be a few years beyond that, but it is coming.

Of that I am sure.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Making a Case for Inclusion in the Playoff



Rivalries operate outside the norm.

I guess that is true for games that are merely scheduled during rivalry week — even if the games themselves do not qualify as rivalries.

Take Miami (Florida), for example. The Hurricanes have longstanding rivalries with Florida and Florida State and had a pretty intense rivalry with Notre Dame in the late '80s. They also have a rivalry with Virginia Tech.

The 'Canes played Pittsburgh last week. The schools had met three dozen times since 1950, but it wasn't really a rivalry game — at least not from Miami's point of view. Maybe the folks at Pitt see it differently.

It's likely the folks at Miami will see Pitt differently when the schools face off again. Pittsburgh knocked off previously unbeaten and second–ranked Miami last week, potentially knocking Miami out of the national championship playoff.

But you never really know about these things. A few weeks ago most people thought Alabama and Georgia would grab two of the four slots in the college football playoff. I was skeptical that two teams from the same conference could be included in a four–team field. Then Georgia lost to Auburn, and all such talk ended — until people started zeroing in on Miami and Clemson, who will meet for the ACC title this weekend.

Miami, of course, is coming off the loss to Pitt, which immediately ended the talk of Miami and Clemson holding half of the spots in the playoff field.

Speaking of Alabama, the top–ranked Crimson Tide took it on the chin last week, too, dropping the Iron Bowl to sixth–ranked Auburn 26–14.

Thus, the top two teams fell last week, and it's hard to say what will happen as far as the college football playoff is concerned. The possibilities appear to be endless, and with so many sure things going down in flames in the last few weeks, there are no guarantees that this weekend's conference championship games will pan out as expected.

The same people who thought Alabama and Georgia were locks for the playoff, then thought the same thing about Miami and Clemson, now believe Oklahoma will be in the final four — but the Sooners could very well lose the Big 12 championship game to TCU. The Frogs, after all, lost to the Sooners a few weeks ago and would love to even the score.

And if they do, the Frogs would be Big 12 champs with two losses. No two–loss team has been selected for the college football playoff field yet. The Sooners, who lost to Iowa State a couple of months ago, would also have two losses.

Most people think the winner of the Miami–Clemson game will be in the playoff since that winner will have only one loss. But what about the SEC? Auburn beat Georgia a few weeks ago, and the Bulldogs would love to avenge that defeat. If they do, they should be headed for the playoff with only one loss, but Auburn has two losses. If the Tigers beat the Bulldogs, will they be in the final four? Or will the committee select one–loss Alabama, even though the Tide did not play for the conference title?

Granted, these outcomes are long shots. But wasn't Pittsburgh's win over Miami a long shot, too?

The selections will be made in a few days. Stay tuned.

Idle: #5 Alabama, #9 Penn State, #13 Washington, #15 Notre Dame, #17 LSU, #18 Oklahoma State, #19 Michigan State, #20 Northwestern, #21 Washington State, #22 Virginia Tech, #23 South Florida, #24 Mississippi State

Friday
  • Pac–12 Championship: #14 Stanford vs. #11 Southern Cal, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN from Santa Clara, Calif.: When these teams met early in the season, Southern Cal won by 18 points.

    That is roughly the margin of victory the Trojans have enjoyed in three of the last four games in the series. The one exception was USC's 10–point triumph in 2015.

    That kind of margin appears to be a rather recent phenomenon in this series. Although Southern Cal enjoys a wide lead in the series, previous scores tended to be much closer.

    The Trojans are favored by a field goal this time. I'll take Southern Cal.
Saturday
  • ACC Championship: #7 Miami (Florida) vs. #1 Clemson, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC from Charlotte, N.C.: This series is not extensive. The teams played a few times in the '50s, then didn't play again until 2004 after the teams became conference rivals. They don't play each other every year, though, so Clemson holds a 3–2 edge in games played since 2004.

    The top–ranked and defending national champion Tigers are pretty solid favorites to win again. Oddsmakers favor Clemson by 9½ points. I also pick Clemson.
  • Big 12 Championship: #10 TCU vs. #2 Oklahoma, 11:30 a.m. (Central) on Fox from Arlington, Texas: TCU only lost twice this season, but both of those losses came in the Big 12, and one came against the team the Frogs face for the conference crown this weekend — Oklahoma.

    The Sooners won their earlier encounter this season by 18 points, which is higher than the norm for this series. Six of the previous seven meetings were decided by seven points or less.

    Oklahoma is the favorite by ... seven points!

    Good enough for me. I take Oklahoma.
  • Big Ten Championship: #8 Ohio State vs. #3 Wisconsin, 7 p.m. (Central) on Fox from Indianapolis: Ohio State has thoroughly dominated Wisconsin in their all–time series.

    The Buckeyes lead the series 58–18–5, whipped the Badgers (59–0) when they played for the Big Ten crown in 2014 and have only lost once to the Badgers in their last nine games. It really seems as if Ohio State has Wisconsin's number.

    Speaking of numbers, the oddsmakers have made the 10–2 Buckeyes 6½–point picks over the 12–0 Badgers.

    And while I would really like to see an undefeated team with a chance to be national champion, I just don't think the Badgers can pull this one off. My pick is Ohio State.
  • SEC Championship: #6 Georgia vs. #4 Auburn, 3 p.m. (Central) on CBS from Atlanta: Auburn slammed Georgia 40–17 when they squared off a few weeks ago.

    Before that, though, Georgia had won nine of the previous 11 encounters with Auburn. Given that kind of history, the Bulldogs can be forgiven for treating a date with Auburn as a foregone conclusion.

    But the oddsmakers don't see it that way. They made Auburn a 2½–point pick.

    If you use the game a few weeks ago as your guide, the choice is obvious. But I think it will be a hard–fought, down–to–the–wire battle. And I make Georgia an upset special.
  • American Athletic Championship: #16 Memphis at #12 Central Florida, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: Unbeaten Central Florida is the only team to beat Memphis this season.

    In fact, Memphis has only beaten Central Florida once — in the teams' first meeting in 1990. Central Florida has won all 10 of the subsequent meetings including all five played at Central Florida. What is more Central Florida is favored by a touchdown.

    Central Florida is my pick.
  • Mountain West Championship: #25 Fresno State at Boise State, 6:45 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Until last week, these schools had not faced off since 2014.

    They met twice that year, too, as they will this season. The second game was for the Mountain West title.

    Boise swept the games in 2014. Now Fresno, fresh from last week's 28–17 triumph, hopes to return the favor. But Boise comes into the game a 9½–point favorite.

    A program's history becomes important at this stage of the season. Boise State has been quite successful in recent years; Fresno was 1–11 last year and 3–9 the year before that.

    Fresno has had some success but not as much as Boise, and I expect the more experienced Boise State to prevail.
Last week: 16–4

Overall: 206–48

Postponed by Hurricane Irma: 4

Last week's upset specials: 2–1

Overall upset specials: 13–23

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Welcome to Rivalry Weekend



It wasn't so long ago that people were speculating that Georgia and Alabama both would be in college football's four–team playoff — even though one would have to defeat the other in the conference championship game.

That question was rendered moot when Auburn trounced Georgia, but everyone knew it hadn't been permanently put to rest — that one day two teams from the same conference would pose the same dilemma for the NCAA even though one team probably would have to defeat the other in the conference championship game.

Who knew that one day would come so soon?

But attention has shifted from the SEC to the ACC.

Defending national champion Clemson and the University of Miami are in the top four and will meet for their conference championship on Dec. 2. Unless one team wins by about five or six touchdowns, the odds are that both teams will be in the playoff.

Well, that's what some people say. Personally, I am skeptical.

Of course, there is still the possibility that Miami and/or Clemson could lose in their final regular–season games this week. Miami faces 4–7 Pittsburgh, and Clemson tangles with 8–3 South Carolina. That would land us right back where we were after Auburn downed Georgia.

Speaking of Auburn, the Tigers and the Crimson Tide gorged themselves on cupcakes last weekend in anticipation of the main course this weekend — the annual Iron Bowl.

Fans of both teams should remember that nothing is a done deal in the SEC. Auburn could throw a wrench into the works by beating Alabama, then Georgia could throw a wrench into the works by beating Auburn in the SEC Championship.

And where would that leave the college football playoffs? All season, everyone assumed Alabama would be one of the four teams to compete for the national title. But what if the Tide doesn't even play for its conference championship?

For a national championship playoff to be truly representative of a nation as large as this one, it has to be geographically balanced — even if that means leaving out teams that may be more deserving because their regions already have representatives in the playoff field.

Until the college football playoff field is expanded to at least eight teams — as I believe it should be — I will be skeptical that a single conference can produce two of the four finalists.

Until it happens, of course.

In the meantime, this is rivalry week. Enjoy.

Idle: #11 Southern Cal

Thursday
  • Ole Miss at #16 Mississippi State, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Ole Miss leads the Egg Bowl 61–43–5 but Mississippi State has won seven of the last 12 meetings.

    The 8–3 Bulldogs know there is a bowl in their immediate future while the 5–6 Rebels need to win this game to be bowl eligible. The oddsmakers don't think they can do it. They have made Ole Miss a 16–point underdog. I agree that Mississippi State will win.
Friday
  • #2 Miami (Florida) at Pittsburgh, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: Miami has won 18 of its last 20 games with Pittsburgh. The Hurricanes are 13½–point favorites to do it again.

    I have to take Miami.
  • Baylor at #10 TCU, 11 a.m. (Central) on FS1: These old Southwest Conference rivals are meeting for the 107th time. TCU leads the series 53–48–5 and notched a big win over Baylor two years ago that kept the Bears from playing for the national title.

    The Bears have been sinking ever since and come into their season finale with a 1–10 record. The 9–2 Frogs can secure a spot in the conference championship game with a victory. You can punch their ticket for next week's game. TCU will win.
  • #22 South Florida at #13 Central Florida, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: South Florida leads Central Florida in this series 6–2 and has only lost at Central Florida once — by three points in 2013.

    But the oddsmakers made the higher–ranked Knights 11–point favorites this time. I concur. Central Florida will win.
  • #24 Virginia Tech at Virginia, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Virginia Tech has beaten Virginia in 17 of their last 18 meetings, but the sole exception came in a game played in Charlottesville in 2003.

    Virginia Tech (8–3) is favored to win this time, but only by a touchdown. At 6–5 Virginia is already assured a bowl bid, but a win in this game certainly would improve the Cavaliers' destination.

    I choose Virginia Tech.
Saturday
  • #1 Alabama at #6 Auburn, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: Until about 20 years ago, this game was played at Birmingham. Since that time, games have been played on each school's home field.

    As a result, there really isn't much history on the home fields in this series, but Alabama has won three of the last four games that were played at Auburn and leads the all–time series 44–30–1.

    The oddsmakers think Alabama will win again, but they are tepid in their endorsement, favoring the Tide by only four points. Perhaps they know that Nick Saban is 0–6 against Auburn when the Tigers have a nine–win season. Saban was 0–3 against nine–win Auburn teams when he was at LSU, and he is 0–3 against nine–win Auburn teams at Alabama.

    It is tempting to pick Auburn, but my gut tells me Alabama will win. After all, seven is a lucky number.
  • West Virginia at #3 Oklahoma, 2:45 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: This is the 10th meeting between these schools, and OU leads the series 7–2. West Virginia last beat OU at the Fiesta Bowl in January 2008. Before that the only West Virginia victory over the Sooners came in 1982.

    Losses to Oklahoma State and Texas have knocked West Virginia out of the running for a spot in the Big 12 title game. The Mountaineers are 7–4 and know they are headed for a bowl game, but a win over Oklahoma could propel them into an upper–tier destination.

    Not likely, though. The Sooners are favored by 22½ at home. I agree. Oklahoma will win this one.
  • #4 Clemson at South Carolina, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: This will be the 110th edition of this series, which has been known as the Palmetto Bowl since 2014.

    Clemson has won the last three games and leads the series 64–41–4. The oddsmakers say the Tigers are 14–point picks to make it four in a row.

    I agree. Clemson will win.
  • #5 Wisconsin at Minnesota, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: This is the nation's most–played rivalry. It is the schools' 125th meeting.

    Wisconsin has won 13 in a row (a record for this series) and needs to win this game to cap an undefeated season. The Badgers are favored by 17.

    My pick is Wisconsin.
  • #7 Georgia at Georgia Tech, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: This is a rivalry that is more than a century old. The Bulldogs and the Yellow Jackets are meeting for the 107th time, and Georgia Tech won last year by a single point.

    The series is called Clean, Old–Fashioned Hate, and I'm sure there is a lot of intensity on both sides. But you could forgive Georgia for being a bit distracted. After all, once the Bulldogs finish this game, Alabama and Auburn will be squaring off with a slot against Georgia in next week's SEC Championship on the line. The Bulldogs are bound to be more interested in the outcome of that game.

    But they shouldn't take this one for granted even though they are favored by 11 points.

    I pick Georgia.
  • #8 Ohio State at Michigan, 11 a.m. (Central) on Fox: This is one of college football's greatest rivalries, and it is being renewed for the 101st time this weekend.

    Ohio State leads 49–47–4. Michigan had a chance to even the series last year but lost a close one in Columbus 30–27. Now the Wolverines have a chance to wreck Ohio State's slim chances of playing for a national championship as the scene for this game shifts to Ann Arbor, where the Wolverines lead all time but have only beaten the Buckeyes once since 2003.

    It would be dramatic if the Wolverines could win this game, but the Buckeyes are favored by 11½ points. I have to go with Ohio State.
  • #9 Notre Dame at #20 Stanford, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: This is a series that dates back to the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day 1925.

    The Irish lead the series 19–12, but they have lost six of their last eight games with Stanford.

    Notre Dame is only favored to win this one by two points, and I think the 8–3 Cardinal are up to the test. In an upset special my choice is Stanford.
  • #12 Penn State at Maryland, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on Big Ten Network: This will be the 41st meeting between these schools, and Maryland has won only twice.

    Granted, most of the Nittany Lions' triumphs in the series came with Joe Paterno as coach — but so did Penn State's only loss at Maryland — in 1961. The oddsmakers say Penn State will win this time by 21. I see no reason to go against that. My pick is Penn State.
  • #14 Washington State at #15 Washington, 7 p.m. (Central) on Fox: This will be the 98th time these schools have met for the Apple Cup. Washington has owned seven of the last eight meetings and leads the series 63–30–4.

    The Huskies are favored this time, too — by nine points. But Washington State beat Southern Cal and Stanford; the Trojans will be in the Pac–12 title game next week, and Washington State could face them by beating Washington and sharing the North Division title with Stanford. Washington, on the other hand, hasn't played Southern Cal and lost to Stanford so a Washington victory would mean the title game would be a rematch of USC's 42–24 triumph over Stanford early in the season.

    Washington State has more motivation and is an upset special.
  • East Carolina at #17 Memphis, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPNU: East Carolina owns a seven–game winning streak against Memphis.

    But the oddsmakers don't think it will continue. They have made the 9–1 Tigers four–touchdown picks over the 3–8 Pirates.

    I agree. Memphis will win.
  • Kansas at #18 Oklahoma State, 11 a.m. (Central) on FS1: It's been a fairly typical football season for Kansas. The Jayhawks go into their season finale with a 1–10 record; it's been nearly a decade since Kansas had a winning record.

    Oklahoma State, meanwhile, is 8–3 and probably not a contender for a spot in the Big 12 championship game, but the Cowboys could still land a decent bowl bid. They have won 12 of their last 13 confrontations with the Jayhawks, but that one loss came in Stillwater about 10 years ago.

    No one thinks lightning will strike again. The oddsmakers favor the Cowboys by 40 points. My pick is Oklahoma State.
  • Texas A&M at #19 LSU, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on SEC Network: This will be the 55th time these schools have faced each other, and the Aggies have only won 19 times.

    Obviously the Aggies' problem with LSU didn't start with A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, who is rumored to be on his way out. In fact, none of the program's problems originated with Sumlin. But they haven't improved much during his tenure. That isn't a lack of effort; it's a lack of results.

    Texas A&M hasn't beaten LSU since 1995. The Tigers are favored to win again, this time by 10½ points. My pick is LSU.
  • #21 Michigan State at Rutgers, 3 p.m. (Central) on Fox: Michigan State leads the series, but the teams are knotted at 1–1 at Rutgers.

    The 8–3 Spartans are favored to win this one over 4–7 Rutgers by 13 points. I pick Michigan State.
  • #23 Northwestern at Illinois, 3 p.m. (Central) on FS1: This will be the 110th meeting between these schools, and Illinois holds a six–game advantage.

    But Northwestern has won 10 of the last 14 games between the schools.

    The Wildcats are favored by 16½ points. I pick Northwestern.
  • #25 Boise State at Fresno State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBSSN: These teams have met 16 times and Fresno State has only won three.

    But all three wins came at Fresno — including the most recent time they played there.

    These teams have won their respective divisions so this amounts to a warmup for next week's conference championship game. If Fresno wins this game, it would hold the tiebreaker over Boise — and could be awarded the home field for the championship game.

    Boise State is favored by a touchdown, but it is important to remember that two of Fresno's three losses came against Alabama and Washington. I'm making Fresno State an upset special.
Last week: 19–4

Overall: 190–44

Postponed by Hurricane Irma: 4

Last week's upset specials: 0–2

Overall upset specials: 11–22

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Weekend That Things Changed



And just like that ... everything changed.

Well, not everything. But nearly everything.

In the aftermath of Auburn's thrashing of Georgia and Miami's whipping of Notre Dame, the entire Final Four is up for grabs, it seems.

Well, not entirely.

Unless Auburn or Georgia can beat Alabama, I'm pretty sure the Crimson Tide will be in the college football playoff. And defending national champion Clemson will probably be there, too, although the path does not seem so straight or so clear for the Tigers.

But Georgia and Notre Dame probably won't be, which opens a couple of doors for the likes of Oklahoma, Wisconsin and, perhaps, Miami and/or Auburn, although the latter two would need to knock off the two apparent locks for the playoffs in their conference championship games.

In short, nothing seems quite as certain as it did last week.

Idle: #15 Washington State

Thursday
  • Tulsa at #23 South Florida, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: This is only the second time these teams have met. The first time was three years ago at Tulsa, and South Florida prevailed by eight points.

    South Florida is favored to do it again this time by 23 points. My choice is South Florida.
Saturday
  • Mercer at #1 Alabama, 11 a.m. (Central) on SEC Network: You know, there really isn't any point in discussing this one much.

    It exists to fill the week before the Iron Bowl. That's all. If Alabama loses, the Crimson Tide will have no hope of being in college football's playoffs.

    Alabama will win.
  • Virginia at #2 Miami (Fla.), 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: Miami has built a two–game lead in this series with wins in the last two seasons.

    It is a lot more competitive than you probably ever thought.

    But the oddsmakers don't think this edition will be too competitive. They have made Miami a 19½–point pick.

    It would certainly be dramatic if Virginia could pull off the upset, but I don't think that will happen. I choose Miami.
  • #3 Oklahoma at Kansas, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Oklahoma has won 12 in a row against Kansas — last year the Sooners won 56–3 — and OU is picked by 37 points this time.

    It seems to be beyond dispute. Oklahoma should win handily.
  • The Citadel at #4 Clemson, 11:20 a.m. (Central) on ACCNE: You know, by this point in the season, you really hope that this kind of nonconference game is gone, but I guess you could see this one coming from a long way away.

    Clemson is the clear choice.
  • #19 Michigan at #5 Wisconsin, 11 a.m. (Central) on Fox: This is the only game between two ranked teams this week, and it ought to be a good one.

    Michigan leads the all–time series by a wide margin, but Wisconsin has been competitive in their most recent meetings.

    However, it is worth noting that, until last year, the teams had not met since 2010. When the series was renewed last year, Michigan won by a touchdown.

    This time Wisconsin is the favorite by 7½ points.

    I take Wisconsin.
  • Louisiana–Monroe at #6 Auburn, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN2: This is like the Mercer–Alabama game. It is there to take up schedule space.

    Auburn will win.
  • Kentucky at #7 Georgia, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: Georgia has won more than 80% of its meetings with Kentucky over the years. Currently Georgia has won nine of the last 10.

    The Bulldogs are favored by 21½ in this one. OK. I take Georgia.
  • Illinois at #8 Ohio State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: This will be the 103rd meeting of these schools, and Ohio State leads by better than 2 to 1.

    The Buckeyes hold an eight–game winning streak, and they're favored by a whopping 41 points to make that nine.

    I pick Ohio State.
  • Navy at #9 Notre Dame, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on NBC: For some reason, it still surprises people when you mention that Navy has a pretty good football team.

    I guess they get the Midshipmen confused with the other service academies, which have struggled in recent years. But Navy is 6–3 (incidentally Army is playing pretty well this year, but Air Force has to win its last two to qualify for a bowl).

    The 8–2 Irish appeared headed for college football's playoffs until they lost to Miami last week. They're apt to be a bit feisty after last week's game.

    Plus there is some decisive history working against Navy. The Midshipmen have won only twice at South Bend in the last 50 years.

    I pick Notre Dame.
  • Kansas State at #10 Oklahoma State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: Oklahoma State has won three of its last four against Kansas State, but Oklahoma State really needs to win this one to be in the conversation for the Big 12 championship.

    At 5–5 Kansas State needs a win in its last two games to qualify for a bowl, but the Wildcats have Iowa State waiting next week. Fortunately for K–State, that game will be played in Manhattan, Kansas. The Wildcats can afford to lose this one.

    I think they will, too. The choice is Oklahoma State.
  • #11 TCU at Texas Tech, 11 a.m. (Central) on FS1: Tech leads this series, but most of those wins came during Tech's 3½ decades in the old Southwest Conference.

    TCU jumped out to an early lead in the series, winning the first five encounters, but Tech, as I say, made up for a lot after the Red Raiders joined the SWC. The teams met only twice from the time the SWC folded until TCU joined Tech in the Big 12 a few years ago. Now they meet regularly.

    Tech beat TCU by a field goal last year, but TCU comes into this year's game favored by 6½. If TCU does win, it would be only the third victory at Lubbock for the Frogs in more than 40 years.

    Make Texas Tech an upset special.
  • UCLA at #12 Southern Cal, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: This was a rivalry game that I always enjoyed watching when I was a kid. There was always so much color on both sides. And the games were usually competitive, too.

    But Southern Cal usually won, and the Trojans are favored this time by 16 points. I have to take Southern Cal. But it's still worth watching.
  • Nebraska at #13 Penn State, 4 p.m. (Central) on FS1: There was a time when this would have been a marquee game, whenever it was played. It would have made a great bowl game some years, but they have never met in the postseason.

    Nebraska has fallen on hard times, but, believe it or not, the Cornhuskers have won their last four encounters with the Nittany Lions.

    It is hard to see how that streak can continue. Nebraska is 4–6 and needs to win its last two to qualify for a bowl. Penn State is 8–2, already assured of a bowl but looking to beef up its record and improve its postseason destination. The oddsmakers favor Penn State by nearly four touchdowns. I have to take Penn State.
  • #14 Central Florida at Temple, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPNU: The historical record in this series is brief and does not really provide much guidance.

    They have played four games, two on each team's home field. Both teams are 1–1 at home.

    But Central Florida is 9–0 and Temple is 5–5. The oddsmakers have made UCF a 13½–point favorite. Good enough for me. I choose Central Florida.
  • Utah at #16 Washington, 9:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Utah has only beaten Washington once, but that came on Washington's home field, where they will play this weekend.

    The series predates Utah joining the Pac–12, but all the games prior to that were played in Seattle. The one and only time that Utah hosted Washington was after Utah joined the conference.

    Didn't really matter. Washington won that game in Salt Lake City and has won nearly all the games played in Seattle. The oddsmakers think the Huskies will win this one, too, and so do I. Washington is the pick.
  • #17 Mississippi State at Arkansas, 11 a.m. (Central) on CBS: Arkansas snapped a four–game losing streak against Mississippi State last year, but the oddsmakers think the Bulldogs will get back on the winning track this weekend.

    They're favored by 11½ points.

    Naturally, I would like to see my alma mater win, but I have to be realistic. The Hogs haven't been good this year, and they're likely to lose by a wider margin than 11½ points. I must choose Mississippi State.
  • SMU at #18 Memphis, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPNews: This is the 10th game between these teams. The series has gone in threes — Memphis won the first three, SMU won the second three, and Memphis won the most recent three. The logical progression would mean that SMU will win this time, but the oddsmakers don't think so. They made Memphis an 11½–point favorite.

    I think it will be closer than that, but I agree that Memphis will win.
  • California at #20 Stanford, 7 p.m. (Central) on Fox: Stanford has beaten Cal seven straight times and leads the all–time series by 10 games.

    But as lopsided as the series record is, the games have tended to be surprisingly close. When Stanford won by two touchdowns last season, that was actually a closer margin than the teams have produced in recent years, but more typical of the series is the famous finish of the 1982 Big Game.
    OK, they aren't always so dramatic, but the final margin (in this case, five points) has a lot in common with most games.

    The oddsmakers favor Stanford to extend the streak. I agree. I pick Stanford.
  • #21 LSU at Tennessee, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Tennessee already has enough distractions with the dismissal of head coach Butch Jones last weekend.

    And now LSU comes to town.

    These teams haven't faced each other since 2011, and Tennessee leads the all–time series, but LSU has won the last four encounters and six of the last eight. On top of that, LSU is clearly on an upward trajectory while Tennessee is tumbling into the abyss.

    LSU is a 15½–point favorite. It would be hard to justify picking the Volunteers, and I don't. LSU is my choice.
  • Maryland at #22 Michigan State, 3 p.m. (Central) on Fox: This will be the ninth meeting between these teams, and Maryland won last year for only the second time.

    I don't think Maryland can pull it off again. My pick is Michigan State.
  • Texas at #24 West Virginia, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: These teams have met six times, all but the first one coming since 2012.

    And the pattern is that one team wins back–to–back encounters, then the other team wins two, then the first team wins two.

    By that pattern, it should be Texas' turn. The Mountaineers have won the last two games.

    But West Virginia is favored by 11 points. I think West Virginia will win at home.
  • #25 North Carolina State at Wake Forest, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPNU: N.C. State has won three in a row against Wake Forest and six of the last nine.

    The Wolfpack have a significant lead in the all–time series, but the Deacons won six in a row at home before the Wolfpack halted the skid with a 35–17 win at Winston–Salem in 2015. It's been more than 20 years since the Wolfpack won back–to–back games at Winston–Salem. Can they do it again?

    The oddsmakers don't think so. They have made Wake Forest a 1–point favorite. I disagree. North Carolina State is an upset special.
Last week: 13–3

Overall: 171–40

Postponed by Hurricane Irma: 4

Last week's upset specials: 3–1

Overall upset specials: 11–20

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Keep an Eye on the SEC Collision Course



Alabama and Georgia still appear to be on a collision course in the SEC Championship on Dec. 2. They occupy the top two spots in the college football playoff rankings, and they are 1–2 in the AP poll.

And if they win out, they will meet for the SEC title.

Personally, I still think a loss in that game will disqualify the loser from the four–team playoff field — but I have heard more and more people lately who think they will both be in the playoff regardless of who wins on Dec. 2.

And that may well turn out to be true. If they are both unbeaten going into that game, the loser will only have one loss. And there won't be many one–loss teams left when the dust settles so perhaps Alabama and Georgia will already have qualified before their game begins.

On the other hand, there are still three weeks left in the season, and both teams still must face Auburn. That's going to be a tough assignment.

If the season ended today, Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame and Clemson would be in the playoff.

But the season doesn't end today.

Idle: #20 Memphis, #22 South Florida

Friday
  • #9 Washington at Stanford, 9:30 p.m. (Central) on FS1: Washington beat Stanford last year, the Huskies' third win over Stanford in the last 12 meetings.

    Historically, though, Washington still holds the edge in the series, and the Huskies are favored to win this time, too — by 6½ points. But Washington has only won once at Stanford since the dawn of the 21st century and hasn't won two in a row in the series in 14 years.

    I'm taking Stanford as an upset special.
Saturday
  • #1 Alabama at #18 Mississippi State, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Alabama has won nine in a row against Mississippi State and hasn't lost in Starkville since 2007.

    Alabama is favored by 14 points, which might be about right on the road. At home, the margin would almost certainly be higher. The pick is Alabama.
  • #2 Georgia at #10 Auburn, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: This is the 113th meeting between these schools, and Georgia holds a 55–51–6 lead.

    Both teams aren't always in the Top 10. Sometimes neither team has been in the Top 10. But both are there this time — and it is even possible that they will meet again in the SEC Championship game in December.

    Judging from the point spread the oddsmakers have assigned this game, it should be a good one. Georgia is favored by 2½ points. I'll take Georgia.
  • #3 Notre Dame at #7 Miami (Fla.), 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: If you don't like Notre Dame, this may be your last chance to see the Irish get knocked out of this season's college football playoffs.

    The 8–1 Irish face Navy (currently on a three–game losing streak) and Stanford in their last two games — and most likely will be favored to win both.

    Two losses probably will keep most teams out of the playoffs, but history doesn't suggest that Notre Dame is going to lose to Miami. The Irish lead the series with Miami 18–7–1 and have won four in a row. Miami hasn't beaten Notre Dame since 1989.

    But while Notre Dame has dominated at home and at neutral sites, it has been another story in Miami. The oddsmakers think it will be another struggle as the Irish are favored by a field goal.

    I'm going to take Miami as an upset special.
  • Florida State at #4 Clemson, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Back when the season began this was expected to be one of the big games of the year, but the Seminoles haven't held up their end of the deal.

    Florida State has dominated this series by winning 80% of the time at home. The Seminoles are 8–6 at Clemson but have lost six of the last seven games played there.

    Clemson is favored to win this time, too. The point spread is 16 points.

    My pick is Clemson.
  • #8 TCU at #5 Oklahoma, 7 p.m. (Central) on Fox: This has to be the game of the week. We know Alabama and Georgia are probably on a collision course, and I think that is likely to knock the loser out of the running for the four–team playoff field.

    The Big 12 seems likely to send someone to the championship field, and the winner of this game will probably be in the driver's seat for that.

    And if that is the case, then history says OU will prevail. So do the oddsmakers. They have made the Sooners 7–point favorites.

    I expect Oklahoma to win.
  • #25 Iowa at #6 Wisconsin, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Wisconsin grabbed the lead in this longstanding series with a 17–9 victory last season. Now the scene shifts to Wisconsin, where Iowa has won four of the last five encounters.

    Iowa is a recent entry in the Top 25 whereas Wisconsin has been in the rankings all season and really needs to stay unbeaten to have a shot at the playoffs, now that both Penn State and Ohio State has been beaten for the second time — which apparently will prevent the Badgers from facing a team in the conference championship gae with a record impressive enough to propel Wisconsin into the Top Four.

    But that is farther down the road.

    Wisconsin is favored to win this game by 12. I take Wisconsin.
  • #13 Michigan State at #11 Ohio State, 11 a.m. (Central) on Fox: The clear pattern in this series in the last seven games has been that whichever team won the previous meeting has lost the next one. Ohio State won last season by a single point — even though Michigan State was struggling through a 3–9 capaign and Ohio State went on to play in the college football playoffs.

    The Buckeyes are favored to buck the recent trend as they go into this game favored by 16 points. That seems a little excessive to me, but I still think Ohio State will win.
  • #12 Oklahoma State at #24 Iowa State, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC or ESPN2: Oklahoma State has won eight of the last 10 meetings with Iowa State — but the Cowboys ought to be wary of the Cyclones. They may be coming off a loss, but they have engineered some pretty impressive upsets this season.

    The oddsmakers favor Oklahoma State by a touchdown. Both teams are coming off losses that may well prevent them from playing in the conference title game. I pick Iowa State to produce another upset.
  • Connecticut at #14 Central Florida, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPNU: This is a young series, but it has been competitive.

    The teams have split their first four meetings, with both teams going 1–1 at home, and Connecticut won the last time it played at Central Florida.

    Central Florida is favored by more than five touchdowns. The choice is clear — Central Florida.
  • #15 Southern Cal at Colorado, 3 p.m. (Central) on Fox: This will be the 12th meeting between these schools, and Southern Cal has won all 11 of the previous games.

    Southern Cal is favored by nearly two touchdowns to make its record against Colorado 12–0.

    I pick Southern Cal.
  • Rutgers at #16 Penn State, 11 a.m. (Central) on Big Ten Network: Rutgers beat Penn State the first time they met — back in 1918. Since then the teams have faced each other 26 times, and Rutgers has won only once — in 1988.

    Since this year doesn't end in an 8 — and the Nittany Lions are favored by 30 points — I choose Penn State.
  • #17 Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech, 11:20 a.m. (Central) on ACCNE: Georgia Tech beat Virginia Tech last year. It was the Yellow Jackets' fourth win over the Hokies since they became conference rivals in 2003.

    Georgia Tech has never beaten Virginia Tech in back–to–back meetings, but the Yellow Jackets might have a chance this time. The Hokies are only favored by a field goal. It's tempting to predict an upset special, but I think Virginia Tech will win.
  • #19 Washington State at Utah, 4:30 p.m. (Central) on Pac–12 Network: This series is tied at 7–7.

    Washington State has won the last two meetings, but neither team has ever beaten the other three straight times.

    Nevertheless the oddsmakers apparently think Washington State will do precisely that — but the Cougars are only favored by a single point. That's OK. I take Washington State.
  • #21 Michigan at Maryland, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on Big Ten Network: Maryland is a relative newcomer to the Big Ten so the series with Michigan isn't very old, but in the last two seasons, Michigan has outscored Maryland 87–3.

    The oddsmakers favor the Wolverines by 15½ points. If I placed a bet on this game, I would give the points because I believe Michigan will win by a lot more.
  • #23 West Virginia at Kansas State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: West Virginia beat Kansas State last year for the first time since 1930. It was a struggle, but the Mountaineers prevailed by a single point.

    The teams haven't met every year since 1930. They faced each other in 1931, then not again for more than 80 years.

    This time Kansas State is favored by a single point. I expect it to be a good one, but I am inclined to favor West Virginia as an upset special.
Last week: 14–4

Overall: 158–37

Postponed by Hurricane Irma: 4

Last week's upset specials: 2–2

Overall upset specials: 8–19

Friday, November 3, 2017

Nothing Is Written in Stone Yet



If you watched the broadcast of the first–of–the–season college football rankings, it would appear that Georgia, Alabama, Notre Dame and Clemson are headed for the national playoffs in January.

And perhaps they are.

But it isn't likely that all four will be in the playoffs because Georgia and Alabama are all but sure to have to face each other for the SEC championship in early December. Since one is certain to lose, the likelihood of both teams still being in the top four is very slim after they face off. It isn't impossible, just very unlikely.

Notre Dame and Clemson are not scheduled to face each other this season and so both teams could be in the Final Four.

But Oklahoma is #5 and has a game coming up against #8 TCU. The winner of that game almost certainly will be in the mix. So, too, could be #6 Ohio State, fresh off a victory over #7 Penn State. And don't forget undefeated Wisconsin. The Badgers are #9 in the rankings but could zoom into the Top Four by beating Ohio State for the Big Ten title.

There is still a month's worth of football to be played. Nothing is settled yet. Stay tuned.

Friday
  • #22 Memphis at Tulsa, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: Based on the rankings, you would think that Memphis leads its series with Tulsa.

    And the truth is that it does.

    But Tulsa has won five of the last seven meetings.

    Memphis is favored by 12½ points to win this one. I agree. My pick is Memphis.
Saturday
  • #19 LSU at #1 Alabama, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Since Alabama beat LSU for the national championship in January 2012, the Crimson Tide have won five of six meetings.

    But the Tigers' only victory during that stretch came where the teams will face each other on Saturday — in Tuscaloosa.

    That's a tough place for a visitor. Alabama has only lost there four times in the last 10 years, and the Crimson Tide is favored to win this one by three touchdowns.

    I have to take Alabama.
  • South Carolina at #2 Georgia, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: These teams first played each other when Teddy Roosevelt was president.

    Georgia has so dominated the series that South Carolina has claimed nearly one–third of its victories over the Bulldogs in the last decade.

    The oddsmakers have made Georgia a heavy favorite in this one. I, too, pick Georgia to win.
  • #3 Ohio State at Iowa, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Ohio State has won 15 of the last 17 meetings with Iowa and currently owns a five–game winning streak against the Hawkeyes.

    The oddsmakers favor Ohio State by 18 points. Good enough. I pick Ohio State.
  • #4 Wisconsin at Indiana, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: Wisconsin has beaten Indiana nine times in a row, but the Hoosiers' last win in the series came at Indiana.

    Will it happen again? The oddsmakers don't think so, and neither do I. Wisconsin is the choice.
  • Wake Forest at #5 Notre Dame, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on NBC: Notre Dame has won all three of the previous meetings with Wake Forest.

    The oddsmakers think Notre Dame will make it four in a row. I think so, too. I pick Notre Dame.
  • #6 Clemson at #20 North Carolina State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Outside of the ACC, I suppose this clash between ranked teams is getting little attention.

    And, even though North Carolina State is ranked this year, it is still probably regarded as a foregone conclusion that Clemson will win. After all the Tigers have beaten the Wolfpack in 12 of the last 13 meetings.

    But that sole exception was played where this year's game is being played — at N.C. State. And the 8–point spread doesn't suggest invincibility for Clemson. In fact, I am going to take North Carolina State in an upset special.
  • #7 Penn State at #24 Michigan State, 11 a.m. (Central) on Fox: Penn State knotted this series at 15–15–1 with last year's 45–12 victory.

    Penn State is favored by 9 points in this one. I think the Nittany Lions will win, but I think it might be closer than that. My pick is Penn State.
  • #8 Oklahoma at #11 Oklahoma State, 3 p.m. (Central) on FS1: In Oklahoma they call this game Bedlam, and I can assure you, from having lived in Norman and been on the OU faculty for four years, that is exactly what it is.

    Oh, sure, it isn't the Texas game. But what is?

    Oklahoma has won nearly 80% of the games that have been played, including 12 of the last 14. What's more, Oklahoma State has struggled more at home than on the road; the Cowboys have beaten the Sooners only seven times in 48 previous meetings in Stillwater.

    And yet Oklahoma State is favored by 2½ points. Oklahoma is an upset special for me.
  • #13 Virginia Tech at #9 Miami (Fla.), 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: For about the last 20 years, this series has gone back and forth, with neither team winning more than three in a row.

    Overall, Miami leads the series and has dominated at home — but not lately. Virginia Tech has won six of the last 11 games played in Miami.

    And Virginia Tech is favored to win this one, too — by 2½ points. Miami is an upset special at home.
  • Texas at #10 TCU, 6:15 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: How much has Texas dominated TCU over the years?

    Well, the Longhorns won 24 meetings in a row from 1968 to 1991 — and even if you took all those games out of the equation, Texas would still lead the series by a comfortable margin.

    But times have changed. TCU has won the last three in a row, but the Frogs have always struggled against the Longhorns at home.

    The Frogs are favored by a touchdown in this one, and I pick TCU to make it four straight wins against Texas.
  • Oregon at #12 Washington, 9 p.m. (Central) on FS1: In life the pendulum is constantly moving. What is old truly does become new again.

    The Oregon–Washington football series is a good example. This will be their 98th meeting, and Washington dominated in the early years, building up a series advantage that it has held since the 1950s.

    But in recent years Oregon was the dominant one, winning 12 in a row before losing — in a big way — to the Huskies last year.

    The Huskies are 17–point favorites this time; I have to take Washington.
  • #14 Iowa State at West Virginia, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: Iowa State has to be the surprise team of the year so far — certainly the surprise of the Big 12.

    The Cyclones have beaten long–time nemesis Oklahoma this season and just bumped off TCU last weekend. The West Virginia series is not as old as either of those other two, but the Mountaineers have been just as dominant. West Virginia is 4–1 against Iowa State.

    West Virginia is favored by 2½ points. I'm tempted to take Iowa State as an upset special, but I keep thinking the Cyclones' bubble has burst. My pick is West Virginia.
  • #15 Central Florida at SMU, 6:15 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: Central Florida leads the all–time series 6–1 — but UCF's only loss came at SMU in 2011.

    The undefeated Knights have a good team — the only team to beat Memphis thus far.

    I think Central Florida will win.
  • #16 Auburn at Texas A&M, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: The Aggies lead the all–time series 5–2, but Auburn won the only other two times that the teams met in College Station.

    And Auburn is favored by 15 points this time. Seems pretty clear. My pick is Auburn.
  • #23 Arizona at #17 Southern Cal, 9:45 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Southern Cal has won 13 of the last 15 meetings with Arizona.

    This should be a slam dunk, right? Well ... Southern Cal is only favored by 7½ points.

    There is a lot on the line — primarily, the driver's seat in the Pac–12 South.

    I'll go with the home team, Southern Cal.
  • #18 Stanford at #25 Washington State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on Fox: Washington State snapped an eight–year losing streak against Stanford last year, but Stanford hasn't lost at Washington State since 2007. Historically Stanford has won nearly 70% of the time in Pullman.

    But Washington State is a narrow favorite. Can the Cougars pull it off?

    I make Stanford an upset special.
  • UMass at #21 Mississippi State, 11 a.m. (Central) on SEC Network: These schools met for the first time ever last year, and Mississippi State prevailed 47–35.

    The Bulldogs are huge favorites — by 32 points — to win again. Mississippi State is my pick.
Last week: 13–5

Overall: 144–33

Postponed by Hurricane Irma: 4

Last week's upset specials: 1–3

Overall upset specials: 6–17