Thursday, October 21, 2010

So Who's Really Number One?

Traditional college football powers Alabama and Ohio State have gone down in flames in recent weeks, and the latest polls have Oregon sitting in the top spot.

But then, when the first BCS rankings — which will determine, eventually, the two schools that will play for the national title in January — came out, as they always do in midseason, Oklahoma was sitting in the top spot.

So, according to the BCS, if the season ended today, Oklahoma would be in the title game. Oregon would still be in it — but as the #2 team.

And Boise State, currently ranked second in the old–fashioned polls conducted by and with humans, is left out of the title game by the computer.

No wonder Steve Wieberg and Jack Carey write in USA Today that the BCS could be headed for a big mess at the end of the season.

Darren Everson observes in the Wall Street Journal that Oregon's ascendance is a clear sign that college football's "middle class" is on the rise.

And that may be so. But, with Boise State and TCU angling to get into the Big Game, the NCAA's bottom–feeding conferences are making their bids for "Hoosiers"–like immortality. That may seem very democratic to some people, but there really is nothing democratic about sports contests, is there?

Both teams are given an equal opportunity to compete, of course, But, if you asked for a show of hands at tonight's UCLA–Oregon game on the question of whether Oregon or Oklahoma should be #1, I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that the vast majority would vote for Oregon.

But if you asked that same question at the next Oklahoma home game, you'd get a much different response.

Sports contests are not about persuasion, and that is what is going to be needed for college football to get a legitimate national championship game. To persuade the powers that be that the current system is a sham and an injustice, it is going to take some situations where at least one truly deserving team was clearly left out in the cold — perhaps two.

It remains to be seen if that will happen this year.

Of course, nothing is going to be settled this week. In fact, it is possible that the team that is currently atop the human polls could lose — for the third consecutive week.

Fasten your seatbelts. The second half of the season could be a bumpy ride.

Two teams are idle this week: Second–ranked Boise State and #16 Florida State. All times are Central.

  • UCLA at #1 Oregon, 8 p.m. on ESPN: Oregon is 7–2 in its last nine games with UCLA, but before 2000, Oregon rarely beat UCLA.

    For that matter, I believe this will be the first time that Oregon's football team takes the field as the top–ranked team in the country. And John Canzano of The Oregonian hopes the Ducks make it to the title game so Oregon's coach, who is earning a reputation for bluntness, will be in a position to tell off the BCS.

    But, at this point, it is anyone's guess who will be in the national championship game. If the current rankings are to be believed, it will be Oregon and Boise State. But Oklahoma will have something to say about that, as will the winner of this week's LSU–Auburn game.

    Will one of those schools — or someone else, a once–beaten Alabama, say, or Michigan State or the winner of the Wisconsin–Iowa game — leap past the top two? Time will tell.

    Or will Oregon run the table? That's a dicey proposition in the Pac–10. I guess it all starts with this game.

    Offense always seems to be decisive in the Pac–10, and not only does Oregon have the top–rated offense in the conference, but the Ducks also have the top–rated offense in the nation. UCLA is 99th.

    Chris Dufresne writes in the Los Angeles Times that Oregon's quickness is killing its foes. It's hard to argue that point.

    Defense is the redheaded stepchild in the Pac–10. Oregon is ranked higher than UCLA in defense, but that really means little. Oregon's defense is 38th in the nation; UCLA's is 65th.

    I'll take Oregon and its offense.
  • #3 Oklahoma at #18 Missouri, 7 p.m. on ABC: The last time these schools met was in the Big 12 championship game in December 2008. OU cruised to a 62–21 victory.

    The year before that, OU beat Mizzou twice — during the regular season (41–31) and in the Big 12 title game (38–17). In 2006, OU beat Missouri in Columbia.

    The teams play in different divisions so they don't face each other every year, like they did in the days of the old Big Eight Conference, but Missouri's last win over Oklahoma came in 1998. And that is Missouri's only win over OU in more than 25 years.

    I don't think the numbers particularly work in Missouri's favor, either. OU has the higher–rated offense (17th to 43rd), but Missouri has the higher–rated defense (29th to 71st).

    While we're on the subject of defense ...

    It's worth remembering that Missouri hasn't faced a Top 25 foe yet, while OU has played (and beaten) two teams that are currently ranked and a third team that was ranked earlier this season. There's a big difference between giving up 20 points to Texas and giving up 24 points to San Diego State.

    I'll take Oklahoma.

  • Air Force at #4 TCU, 7 p.m. on CBSCSN: As conference rivals, TCU has won four of five encounters with Air Force.

    Both teams have Top 15 offenses (Air Force is 13th, TCU is 15th). But TCU has a clear edge on defense. The Frogs are second in the nation while Air Force is 42nd.

    I'll pick TCU to bottle up Air Force's best–in–the–nation ground attack and win the game.

  • #6 LSU at #5 Auburn, 2:30 p.m. on CBS: This is the game of the week — hands down.

    And, while you probably don't need any additional hype piled onto this one, MSNBC says this is one of the 12 biggest games left in the regular season.

    Ya think?

    For several years (between 2000 and 2007), the home team won this game.

    Lately, the advantage has belonged to LSU, winner of the last three. But this year, LSU has been enjoying an increasingly unlikely streak of improbable victories. It's a house of cards, and it's been apt to come tumbling down for several weeks now.

    Auburn, meanwhile, has just been downright convincing in its triumphs.

    Whether LSU can make it four in a row remains to be seen. But five of the last six meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less. And the current rankings would suggest another down–to–the–wire finish.

    The battle may well be decided when Auburn has the ball. That should be the marquee matchup. Auburn's offense is ninth in the nation while LSU's defense is third.

    You might want to go to the bathroom and visit the kitchen for something to eat or drink when LSU has the ball. LSU's offense shouldn't be too fearful. It is ranked 92nd in the nation, one spot ahead of Louisiana–Monroe. Auburn's defense is in the middle of the pack, ranked 63rd.

    I think I'll pick Auburn in what may be considered a mild upset.

  • #7 Alabama at Tennessee, 6 p.m. on ESPN: Both schools have known success against the other. Tennessee is 10–5 against Alabama since 1995. Alabama had a similar advantage from 1980 to 1994 (10–4–1).

    Neither is intimidated by the other. Last year, when Alabama went unbeaten and won the national title, Tennessee came closer to knocking off the Crimson Tide than any other school.

    But Alabama enters this game with decisive advantages in both offense and defense. I pick Alabama.

  • #8 Michigan State at Northwestern, 11 a.m. on ESPN: Since 1997, Michigan State holds a narrow 6–5 advantage over the Wildcats, and the Spartans are 3–2 at Northwestern.

    Northwestern is better than you might have thought, but Michigan State is ranked higher in both categories (23rd to 33rd in each). I pick Michigan State to win its third straight against Northwestern.

  • Colorado State at #9 Utah, 5 p.m. on The Mtn.: Utah has won four in a row over Colorado State.

    As long as Utah's defense (seventh in the nation) can control Colorado State's 83rd–ranked offense, I have every reason to believe the Utes' 27th–ranked offense can get by CSU's 94th–ranked defense.

    There's no reason to think this one will be close. Utah should win its fifth straight against Colorado State.

  • #10 Wisconsin at #13 Iowa, 2:30 p.m. on ABC: This series ebbs and flows, and right now it looks pretty even.

    Adam Rittenberg of says they are reflections of each other.

    That frequently seems to be the case. And often, as George Wallace (the Southern segregationist politician, that is) used to say, there isn't a dime's worth of difference between the two.

    Since 1995, Iowa holds a slim 8–7 advantage. Often, one team will win four or five games in a row, then the other will start a comparable streak. Lately, teams have been winning in twos. If that trend continues, that would mean it is Wisconsin's turn.

    Defense may hold the key this time; both schools are in the nation's Top 25 on defense (Iowa is 13th, Wisconsin is 23rd).

    I don't mean to suggest that the offensive rankings are terrible. They just aren't as gaudy. Wisconsin is 28th in the nation, Iowa is 39th.

    I'll go with the home team, Iowa. and its defense against a Wisconsin team that may be a little too prone to be overconfident after beating Ohio State.

  • Purdue at #11 Ohio State, 11 a.m. on the Big Ten Network: Ohio State has dominated Purdue, 18–5, since 1981. But last year, a struggling Purdue team handed Ohio State its second loss — and its last, until the Buckeyes went to Wisconsin last weekend.

    The 2009 Purdue team had lost five in a row prior to its date with Ohio State. This edition is 4–2 and currently unbeaten in Big Ten play.

    Ohio State enjoys the advantage on both sides of the ball. The Buckeyes's offense (25th in the nation) might struggle against the Boilermakers' #41 defense, but it seems to me that Purdue's offense (72nd in the nation) is likely to have much more difficulty moving the ball against Ohio State's sixth–ranked defense.

    I'll take Ohio State.

  • Washington State at #12 Stanford, 4 p.m. on FCS: Stanford has a 9–6 advantage over Washington State since 1995.

    Offense rules in the Pac–10, and Stanford's offense is ranked 12th in the nation (WSU's is 86th). Defense is often an afterthought in the Pac–10, but Stanford has the edge there, too, holding a #56 ranking while Washington State is 120th.

    Stanford is an easy pick.

  • #14 Nebraska at #17 Oklahoma State, 2:30 p.m. on ABC: Oklahoma State has quietly compiled a 6–0 record while Nebraska was 5–0 before losing to Texas last week.

    As non–divisional rivals, these schools haven't faced each other every year since the demise of the Big Eight. In fact, this will be their first meeting since 2007. And now, with Nebraska leaving for the Big Ten after this season, who knows when they will face each other again?

    OSU fans might not be too eager to resume the series. Although the Cowboys have had the upper hand in recent years, between 1962 and 2002, the schools met nearly every year and Nebraska won every time (except 1973, when the schools played to a tie). And Nebraska has been returning to national prominence since the last time these schools faced each other.

    Both teams are in the Top 25 in total offense — Oklahoma State is second and Nebraska is 24th. But Nebraska has the edge on defense, and it is more decisive (the Cornhuskers are ninth in the nation, the Cowboys are 92nd).

    Defense favors Nebraska.

  • Washington at #15 Arizona, 9:15 p.m. on ESPN: This has been a pretty competitive series. In the last 20 meetings, Washington has won 12 times.

    But the numbers really seem to favor Arizona this time, especially if the game turns into a defensive struggle. Arizona is 10th in the nation in defense while Washington is 98th.

    Arizona also has the guns to win a shootout, with an offense that is 30th (Washington is 46th).

    I pick Arizona.

  • #19 South Carolina at Vanderbilt, 6 p.m. on FSS: Since 2000, South Carolina is 8–2 against Vanderbilt.

    The bad news for South Carolina is that Vandy's wins came in 2007 and 2008.

    South Carolina outranks Vanderbilt in both offense and defense. The rankings aren't gaudy in either category, but I'm inclined to think that South Carolina's offense, which is far superior to Vanderbilt's, will make the difference.

    I pick South Carolina.

  • Syracuse at #20 West Virginia, 11 a.m. on ESPN2: West Virginia has beaten Syracuse eight straight times. Syracuse's last win at West Virginia was in 2000.

    This game has the makings of a defensive struggle. Both teams are in the Top 20 in defense — West Virginia is fifth in the nation, Syracuse is 18th. The offenses, on the other hand, are atrocious. West Virginia is 64th, Syracuse is 73rd.

    I look for a low–scoring struggle, with West Virginia eventually claiming the victory.

  • Ole Miss at #21 Arkansas, 11:21 a.m. on SEC Network: Former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt will be making his second trip to Fayetteville since leaving to become coach at Ole Miss. He's 2–0 against his old team.

    They always seem to have a lot of fun at Nutt's expense in my home state, but in the recent history of this series, Nutt seems to be the difference between winning and losing. During his tenure at Arkansas, he was 7–3 against Ole Miss.

    But I think the numbers are against him this time. Arkansas is 10th in the nation on offense, while Ole Miss is 54th.

    Defense doesn't appear to be either team's strongest point. Arkansas is 32nd in the nation, and Ole Miss is 52nd.

    I think Arkansas will win this time.

  • Iowa State at #22 Texas, 11 a.m. on FSN: Until they became members of the same conference in the mid–1990s, Texas and Iowa State hadn't faced each other since 1979.

    As members of different divisions, they don't play each other every year. But, otherwise, not a whole lot has changed. Texas won that game in '79 — and has won all six meetings with the Cyclones since become a member of the Big 12.

    I expect Texas to win again.

  • Duke at #23 Virginia Tech, 11 a.m. on ACC Network: Virginia Tech is 6–0 against Duke since joining the ACC in 2004.

    And I know that Virginia Tech dropped a stunner to James Madison earlier this season.

    But, come on, this is Duke. I know Tech has a minimal edge on offense (Tech is 42nd, Duke is 51st). But the Seminoles have a much greater edge on offense (Tech is 51st, Duke is 101st).

    And, as nearly as I can tell, Duke hasn't won a football game at Virginia Tech in more than half a century.

    Don't hold your breath waiting for Duke to win this Saturday. I pick Virginia Tech.

  • UAB at #24 Mississippi State, 6 p.m. on ESPNU: Well, as I said earlier in the season, I expected Mississippi State to rise up and upset someone — I just never thought it would be against Florida.

    So is Mississippi State actually a good team? Or is Florida — now skidding along on a three–game losing streak — something that hasn't happened to the Gators since losing to Florida State, Alabama and Michigan State between November 1999 and January 2000 — just a really bad football team?

    To give you an idea of how rare something like this is in Gatorland, two of those losses were in the postseason. The last time the Gators lost three in a row during the regular season, Ronald Reagan was still president.

    Well, anyway, now Mississippi State has compiled a respectable 5–2 record — and those two losses were against LSU and Auburn, who are headed for a major showdown this weekend. It kinda looks like MSU might be for real.

    This will be the fourth time these teams have met since 2004. UAB caught MSU in a down year in 2004 and won the game, but MSU has won the last two contests. I'm inclined to think that Mississippi State, which has won four in a row, will make it five.

  • North Carolina at #25 Miami (Florida), 6:30 p.m. on ESPN2: Believe it or not, North Carolina is 4–2 against Miami since they became conference rivals in 2004.

    And North Carolina has won the last three in a row.

    If the game is decided on defense — and I think it might be — I give the edge to Miami, which is 21st in the nation in defense (North Carolina is 33rd). Neither team has been anything special on offense — Miami is 56th, North Carolina is 63rd.

    Give me Miami.
Last week: 13–8

Season: 118–23

No comments: