Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Reality Makes Its Case for a Playoff System

I was exchanging e–mails with a friend of mine on Saturday afternoon, and, at one point, I said, "Iowa State is beating Texas. And the Rangers are going to the World Series. Did I wake up in an alternate reality this morning?"

My friend replied, "It does feel like it."

Mind you, that was before 18th–ranked Missouri beat third–ranked (in the human polls) Oklahoma, a development that was guaranteed to throw the BCS into considerable disarray.

Which, I should point out, would not bother me. I believe college football must have a legitimate playoff system in place to determine its champion. The BCS is simply inadequate.

And it seems to me that events in this college football season are making my point for me.

Oregon and Boise State scratched and clawed their way into the top two spots in the human polls last week, but the computer rankings gave traditional powerhouse Oklahoma the top spot. Then, of course, OU got flattened by Missouri.

Well, Oregon may be a newcomer to the top spot in the college football polls, a mostly unknown quantity, but one thing you can say about the Ducks that you couldn't say about their two immediate predecessors is that they know how to defend their ranking. They held up their end of the deal.

Granted, they didn't have to go on the road, the way Alabama and Ohio State did, but they did have kind of a short week after being named the #1 team in the land.

Nevertheless, they won convincingly against a conference opponent. And that used to count for something, even in the Pac–10.

But, in spite of that, the BCS Guru blog was proclaiming a day before the human polls were released that Auburn would be the BCS' top team. And, given the logic of modern college football, it made sense. The Guru is probably right, I thought. And, as it turned out, the Guru was right.

In an odd kind of way, it seems appropriate that it should be this way. There has been a kind of surreal quality to sports in America this year — the Saints won the Super Bowl, Butler played in the NCAA Tournament final, James Madison and Jackson State shocked college football, now the Rangers are going to the World Series.

Sometimes, I must admit, I do feel like "Doc" Brown in the first "Back to the Future" movie, when Marty McFly tells him that Ronald Reagan is the president in 1985.

"Ronald Reagan? The actor?" he asks incredulously. "Then who's vice president? Jerry Lewis? I suppose Jane Wyman is the first lady! And Jack Benny is secretary of the Treasury!"

There are definitely times in life that simply defy belief. At the very least, they defy understanding.

It's not that I don't think Auburn is deserving. But two teams are ranked ahead of the Tigers in the human polls. Doesn't logic dictate that they should be ahead of Auburn in the race for the national championship berths?

But if that happened, Auburn could be undefeated when the regular season is over — and still be shut out of the national championship game. How can anyone justify that?

Same thing could happen to teams like TCU, Michigan State, Missouri, Utah.

Chances are that most, if not all, of those schools will be beaten at least once before the bowls begin. In fact, we know that at least one of those teams will lose once — Utah and TCU will be playing each other on Nov. 6.

Even so, college football could have as many as half a dozen undefeated teams when the regular season is over.

College football needs a playoff system. Isn't that clear to all by now?

Four teams are idle this week: #6 Alabama, #9 Wisconsin, #12 LSU and #21 Virginia Tech. All times are Central.

  • Louisiana Tech at #2 Boise State, 7 p.m. on ESPN2: Boise State has won eight in a row against Louisiana Tech, and Tech hasn't beaten Boise State on the road since 1997, when the schools were not yet in the same conference.

    When it comes to offense, the teams still aren't in the same league. Boise State is fourth in the nation; Louisiana Tech is 51st.

    But the glaring difference between them is on the defensive side of the ball. Boise State's defense is ranked #1 in the nation; Louisiana Tech's is 113th. That's about as far apart as two teams can be.

    Boise State should win easily.
  • #16 Florida State at North Carolina State, 6:30 p.m. on ESPN: Florida State has won 13 of 18 contests with North Carolina State since they became conference rivals in 1992, and the Seminoles have won the last three.

    The most intriguing matchup, I suppose, will come when North Carolina State has the ball. The Wolfpack are ranked 20th in total offense while Florida State is 21st in defense.

    Florida State is pretty good on offense, too, with a #37 ranking, but North Carolina State's 47th–ranked defense may be capable of handling the Seminoles.

    I'll give a slight edge to Florida State.
  • #1 Oregon at #24 USC, 7 p.m. on ABC: OK, USC isn't what it used to be. But the Trojans are in the Top 25.

    And Oregon is a lot better than it used to be. If you saw the Ducks' game with UCLA last week, you saw ample reasons why Oregon is #1 in total offense — namely LaMichael James (who is rushing for more than 160 yards per game), Darron Thomas (who is completing nearly 61% of his passes) and Jeffrey Maehl (who makes nearly six receptions a game).

    But USC's offense is pretty good, too. It is ranked seventh in the nation, thanks to Matt Barkley and his 65% completion rate. Many of Barkley's passes have been caught by Ronald Johnson, who is averaging nearly six receptions a game.

    With two potent offenses, the key to success may be found with the defenses. Advantage, Oregon. The Ducks are 30th in the nation on defense while USC is 87th.

    I'll take Oregon.

  • #3 Auburn at Ole Miss, 5 p.m. on ESPN2: Auburn has won all but four of its last 20 meetings with Ole Miss, but two of the Tigers' losses have come in the last seven years.

    Auburn also lost the last time the Tigers played in Oxford (in 2008), but that ended a seven–game Auburn winning streak on Ole Miss' turf.

    The key to the game seems to be the performance of Auburn's Cam Newton and the Tigers' 10th–ranked offense. And I'm thinking they'll do pretty well against Ole Miss' 66th–ranked defense.

    Give me Auburn.

  • #4 TCU at UNLV, 10 p.m. on CBSCSN: TCU is 6–0 against UNLV since 1998.

    But, as nearly as I can tell, UNLV's only victory over TCU in football came in Las Vegas (in 1997).

    In those days, neither team was very good. UNLV still isn't terribly good, but TCU, of course, is in the national championship discussion. If they want to remain in that conversation, they can't look ahead to their date with #8 Utah. They've got to take care of business this weekend.

    TCU has decisive advantages on both sides of the ball — which could lull the Frogs into a false sense of security. When the Frogs' 11th–ranked offense is on the field, it should be too much for UNLV's 92nd–ranked defense. Likewise, when UNLV has the ball, its 114th–ranked offense should be no match for TCU's second–ranked defense.

    As long as the Frogs stay focused, I have no problem with picking TCU.

  • #5 Michigan State at #18 Iowa, 2:30 p.m. on ABC: Looking for a game where home field really means something?

    In 13 games between these schools since 1993, the home team has won 11. One of the two exceptions occurred last year, when Iowa went into East Lansing and won the game, 15–13. The other exception came in 1995 — when Iowa also went to East Lansing and won, 21–7.

    Michael Rosenberg writes, in the Detroit Free Press, that Michigan State just might be good enough — or lucky enough — to play for a national title in January.

    But, if Michigan State is going to remain unbeaten (and remain in the national title conversation), the Spartans will have to do something they haven't done since 1989 — win at Iowa.

    And that is not something I am convinced the Spartans can — or will — do.

    The Spartans' offense might be up to the challenge. Ranked 22nd in the nation, Michigan State's offense is fueled by Kirk Cousins' 66% completion rate and nearly 100 yards on the ground per game from Edwin Baker. But Iowa's 13th–ranked defense might be able to stop them.

    Meanwhile, Iowa's 43rd–ranked offense, while not dazzling, features Adam Robinson's 105 rushing yards per game, which opens things up for quarterback Richard Stanzi (who completes more than 68% of his passes). The Hawkeyes seem certain to test Michigan State's 32nd–ranked defense.

    It will probably be considered a mild upset, but I pick Iowa to win this one.

  • #7 Missouri at #14 Nebraska, 2:30 p.m. on ABC: Perhaps a dose of reality is required here.

    If the Missouri Tigers are to make a legitimate run at a national title, they need to avoid reading press clippings like the one in the New York Times that fantasizes about Mizzou making it to the big stage.

    We're about halfway through the college football regular season. There are a number of hurdles to leap yet — including, possibly, a rematch with Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game — and one of them is this weekend in Lincoln, Neb.

    Since 1979, Nebraska is 27–4 against Missouri, and the Tigers have beaten the Cornhuskers in Lincoln only once in all those years.

    But that win came in 2008, the last time Missouri visited Nebraska. It was Missouri's first win in Lincoln in 30 years.

    If last week's Oklahoma–Missouri game told the Cornhuskers anything, it is that they will need a solid performance from their defense to beat the Tigers. Until Nebraska's game with Oklahoma State, that seemed like nearly a foregone conclusion (with the exception of that performance against Texas).

    But now there may be some doubt creeping into the Cornhuskers' brains after they hung on to win a wild one against Oklahoma State last week.

    Meanwhile, even Missouri fans have to be wondering how the Tigers have managed to remain unbeaten. Sure, the Tigers have a good quarterback (Blaine Gabbert). He completes a higher percentage of his passes than Nebraska's quarterback (Taylor Martinez), but he doesn't get as many yards. And he isn't close to being the same kind of running threat.

    And Nebraska's defense is rated higher than Missouri's, which leads me to believe Nebraska will end Missouri's fairy tale run and reclaim control of the Big 12 North.

  • #8 Utah at Air Force, 6 p.m. on CBSCSN: Since 2001, Utah is 6–3 against Air Force.

    Both teams have great offenses — Utah is 14th in the nation, Air Force is 27th. Utah's attack is more balanced; Air Force depends heavily on the run.

    With the offenses being so close, defenses should play a prominent role. And Utah, with its fifth–in–the–nation defense (sixth against the run), should be better equipped to handle Air Force's offense than Air Force's #68 defense will be to stop Utah.

    So I'm picking Utah.

  • #10 Ohio State at Minnesota: Ohio State has won seven in a row against Minnesota.

    The Gophers rarely experience victory in this series. They beat the Buckeyes in Columbus in 2000. It was their first win over Ohio State since 1981.

    Ohio State has the clear edge on offense and defense. When the Buckeyes have the ball, their 20th–ranked offense (led by Terrelle Pryor) should have little trouble with Minnesota's 90th–ranked defense. When the Gophers have the ball, their 59th–ranked offense should struggle against Ohio State's third–ranked defense.

    I have no trouble picking Ohio State to win.

  • Colorado at #11 Oklahoma, 8:15 p.m. on ESPN2: Since 2002, OU is 5–1 against Colorado — and that includes two victories in Big 12 championship games.

    I guess Oklahoma is still the favorite to represent the South in this year's Big 12 title game. But I don't think anyone believes 3–4 Colorado will be waiting for the Sooners at the end of the season.

    So this should be their only meeting in 2010.

    Can the Sooners bounce back after their loss to Missouri? Well, let's see.

    OU has the 18th–best offense in the nation, thanks to quarterback Landry Jones, receiver Ryan Broyles and halfback DeMarco Murray. Colorado's 74th–ranked offense is not without its stars (Rodney Stewart, for example, runs for nearly 100 yards per game), but it just isn't in the same class.

    And Oklahoma's defense, while exposed as a shell of its former self, should be good enough to stop Colorado.

    I pick Oklahoma.

  • #13 Stanford at Washington, 6 p.m. on Versus: There was a time, not too long ago, when Washington routinely beat Stanford.

    But lately — well, in four of the last five meetings — Stanford has been the winner.

    Stanford brings a relentless offense (15th in the nation) into Saturday's game, and Washington (98th in the nation on defense) appears woefully unprepared for QB Andrew Luck and running back Stepfan Taylor.

    Washington's 53rd–ranked offense doesn't seem capable of generating enough firepower against Stanford's defense to keep up.

    I pick Stanford.

  • #15 Arizona at UCLA, 2:30 p.m. on FSN: These teams have split their last 10 games, but the most important point to remember about their recent series is that Arizona has beaten UCLA in their last three meetings and four of their last five.

    To make things more challenging for the Bruins, their starting quarterback is out for the season. That's a blow, considering that UCLA's offense is already one of the worst in the land.

    In a conference where offense is valued as highly as it is in the Pac–10, that's definitely not a good thing. But it is even worse when the assignment is to face Arizona's defense. The Wildcats are 10th in the nation in total defense.

    Arizona's offense isn't too shabby — 28th in the nation. At least, it ought to be able to handle UCLA's #85 defense.

    I have no problem picking Arizona to extend its winning streak against UCLA.

  • Tennessee at #17 South Carolina, 11:21 a.m. on the SEC Network: South Carolina has been more competitive with Tennessee in recent years, winning two of five meetings since 2005.

    But, before that season, Tennessee ruled the series, winning 12 straight.

    South Carolina actually beat Tennessee the last time they played in Columbia. That snapped a nine–game Tennessee winning streak on South Carolina's field. But I think a new streak has begun — and will continue.

    South Carolina is ranked well ahead of Tennessee in both offense and defense. The Gamecocks have the fifth–rated passer (Stephen Garcia) and a runner who gets nearly 90 yards a game (Marcus Lattimore).

    One day, Tennessee will be atop the SEC East. But not this year. This year, it looks like it might be South Carolina.

    I certainly think South Carolina will be the winner on Saturday.

  • Vanderbilt at #19 Arkansas, 6 p.m. on FSN: The Razorbacks have won three of four games with the Commodores since the two became members of the same conference.

    Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett isn't mentioned in the Heisman conversations these days, but he's ninth in the nation in passing with a 67% completion rate. And he's a big part of the reason why Arkansas' offense is 12th in the nation.

    Not too long ago, Vanderbilt had one of the better offenses in America. But today, the Commodores have one of the worst.

    It is probably safe to say that neither defense is likely to dominate the game. Arkansas' defense — 55th in the nation — might be able to control Vanderbilt's pathetic offense, but it might not. It is all but certain, however, that Vandy's 82nd–ranked defense won't be able to stop Mallett.

    I pick Arkansas.

  • #20 Oklahoma State at Kansas State, 11 a.m. on FSN: These teams have split their 22 meetings since 1980, but that statement is deceptive.

    In fact, OSU dominated KSU in the 1980s, but Kansas State seized the series in the early 1990s. Now, Oklahoma State — winner of two of its last three games with Kansas State — seems to be taking it back.

    The Cowboys are third in the nation in offense (thanks to Brandon Weeden, Kendall Hunter and Justin Blackmon). Kansas State is 60th. As for the defenses, well, the less said, the better.

    I pick Oklahoma State to win at Kansas State for the first time since 1988.

  • #22 Miami (Florida) at Virginia, 11 a.m. on ESPN: Since they became conference rivals six years ago, Miami has won four of their six meetings and is 2–1 at Virginia.

    I think the difference in the game will be the defenses. The offenses are similarly productive (Miami's is ranked 49th, Virginia's is ranked 54th). But Miami's defense is in the Top 20 (at #17) while Virginia's defense is languishing at #74.

    And Miami is particularly good at defending against the pass, which is the best part of Virginia's offense.

    I'll take Miami.

  • Kentucky at #23 Mississippi State, 6 p.m. on ESPNU: In recent years, this has been kind of an odd series. The home team has lost the last four contests.

    Actually, it's been a spirited, competitive series. Kentucky has won nine of the last 20 games.

    If Kentucky's Mike Hartline (completion rate exceeds 67%) and Derrick Locke (nearly 100 rushing yards per game) are free to do their thing, the Wildcats' 31st–ranked offense can top Mississippi State's 35th–ranked defense.

    But if Kentucky's offense doesn't win that battle, the game may be decided by Mississippi State's 55th–ranked offense against Kentucky's 50th–ranked defense.

    The Bulldogs surged into the Top 25 following their stunning victory over Florida, but they struggled to beat lowly UAB last week. And, frankly, that win over Florida seems less impressive as the season plays out. The Bulldogs are better than they were thought to be before the season began, but they aren't Top 25 material.

    They're primed for plucking and Kentucky, which narrowly lost to the team currently in the #1 slot in the BCS rankings, Auburn, is ready to deliver.

    I'm going to pick Kentucky to continue the home team's woes in this series.

  • #25 Baylor at Texas, 6 p.m. on FSN: My, how times have changed.

    When I was growing up, the Baylor–Texas football game often matched a team that was ranked and a team that wasn't. But in those days, Texas was the team that was ranked.

    We all knew, however, that, when the Longhorns lost to Iowa State last week, they wouldn't be in the Top 25 this week.

    It must have been a daunting assignment for the Cyclones to come to Texas after the Longhorns returned from their victorious trip to Nebraska. But, in spite of the history of their series, Iowa State went into Austin last week and prevailed, anyway.

    And, this week, Baylor has the opportunity to do the same thing.

    The Bears have a couple of monkeys on their backs, though. Texas has beaten Baylor for 12 straight years, and Baylor hasn't won in Austin in nearly two decades.

    But maybe, just maybe, the time is right. Baylor's offense is fifth in the nation, thanks to Robert Griffin III, who has completed about two–thirds of his passes. Texas' offense is dismal, ranked 71st in the nation.

    Texas' defense is sixth in the nation, though, whereas Baylor's is 79th.

    Such a thing would have been almost incomprehensible when I was growing up — in the years that I was in public school, Texas was 10–2 against Baylor — but I'll pick Baylor to win Saturday.
Last week: 16–3

Season: 134–26

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