Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Unique Week

You may not realize this. It may have snuck in under your personal radar. But this is truly a remarkable week in college football.

For the first time in nearly half a century — since November 1960 — the Associated Press' college football poll does not include Texas, Notre Dame, USC or Penn State.

Those schools were always fixtures in the rankings when I was growing up. And, even though Notre Dame has never been ranked this year, the other three have been — which fed the illusion that perhaps not so much about college football had actually changed.

In some ways, I guess, things aren't so radically different. Alabama is ranked #1 — which was a frequent occurrence when I was growing up. And teams like Ohio State, Nebraska and Oklahoma are in the Top 10.

But there have been changes. Just look at today's rankings — where teams like Boise State, TCU, Utah, Nevada and Air Force occupy spots in the Top 25 (which was the Top 20 when I was growing up). When I was a child, those schools were lucky if they won more games than they lost. Today, some are mentioned as contenders for a national title.

If anything, though, expectations at the big traditional powers are the same as they have always been — and the price to be paid if one fails to meet those expectations can be steep indeed.

I suppose, as Berry Tramel writes in The Oklahoman, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops solved his "Texas Problem" with OU's 28–20 victory over the now–unranked Longhorns.

"Stoops had lost four of five to the Longhorns," Tramel says, "but he won't join the club of Snorter Luster, Bud Wilkinson and Gary Gibbs, OU coaches who went 1–5 in a six–year span of this series and never coached the Sooners again."

They do take football seriously in Oklahoma, even in what Okies consider "off years" — and it is definitely hard to think of a season in which the Sooners are 5–0, ranked sixth in the nation and appear likely to cruise to an unblemished regular–season record as an "off year."

It's probably a good thing, though, for both Stoops and his players, that the schedule gives them a break this week. They'll be back in action a week from Saturday, when Iowa State visits Norman. That gives them time to release a little of the pressure.

Anyway, now that the annual OU–vs.–UT debate has been settled, the focus seems to be shifting to the question of who is #2 to Alabama in the nation? Pete Thamel tries to shed some light on that particular discussion in the New York Times.

In addition to #6 Oklahoma, #15 Iowa also is idle this week. All times are Central.

  • #7 Nebraska at Kansas State, 6:30 p.m. on ESPN: In all but six of their last 50 meetings, Nebraska has beaten Kansas State. I guess it goes without saying that Nebraska has been dominating the series in the last five decades.

    It's an odd kind of rivalry, as the Omaha World–Herald says. And, barring some unexpected developments in the future, it may be the last game in the series, with Nebraska bolting for the Big Ten next year.

    There was a time, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Kansas State had the upper hand. In fact, half of KSU's wins over the Cornhuskers in the last half century came between 2002 and 2004. But those were at the end of what passed for Kansas State's golden era in football.

    That era is over — but the Cornhuskers, after wandering in the football wilderness for awhile, seem to be enjoying a revival. And I expect Nebraska to get its sixth straight win against Kansas State.

    Speculation — now that Texas has dropped two games in a row and seems likely to lose to Nebraska next week — is that Oklahoma and Nebraska may meet in the Big 12 title game in December. Considering the history of that series, OU–NU would make that a memorable event indeed — especially if a national championship date with Alabama (or Ohio State) was riding on the outcome.
  • #22 Oklahoma State at Louisiana–Lafayette, 8 p.m. on ESPN2: I don't remember the first time that someone pointed out to me that Louisiana–Lafayette's abbreviation was U–La–La. I just remember thinking it was one of the funniest things I had ever heard (up to that time, anyway).

    I guess I should point out that was a long, long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away ... but I digress).

    Well, these schools have played each other before — OSU won by 56–3 in 2003, by 24–7 in 1999, by 44–20 in 1998, by 31–7 in 1997, by 36–0 in 1987 and by 21–20 in 1986 — so the current crop of Cowboys shouldn't burst into giggles if someone tells them that (even though none of OSU's current players was on the roster the last time U–La–La came to Stillwater).

    Oklahoma State still has some improvements to make, but I think OSU should handle Louisiana–Lafayette with little difficulty.
  • #1 Alabama at #19 South Carolina, 2:30 p.m. on CBS: In the last two weeks, Alabama turned back Arkansas on the road and manhandled Florida at home.

    Ray Glier of the New York Times says the Crimson Tide has met every challenge and still looks like a champ. But he admits that the schedule is the "[o]ne thing that may derail Alabama." And this week's opponent, #19 South Carolina, is 'Bama's third straight ranked foe.

    Matt Hayes of The Sporting News suggests this game has the makings of a classic ambush. It could be, he speculates, like when Texas encountered that "trap door" against Texas Tech.

    Actually, South Carolina may feel it always was a more likely winner than Arkansas or Florida. The Razorbacks are a much–improved team, but they ran out of gas against Alabama, and the Gators just aren't the same without Tim Tebow.

    Last year, South Carolina was one of nine SEC teams to lose to Alabama — but only Tennessee came closer to beating the Crimson Tide. And, in four previous encounters since 2000, each team won twice.

    So the Gamecocks may well be ready to give the Crimson Tide their best shot. That's becoming a way of life in Alabama. Safety Mark Barron said, "Every game is like that for us." For Alabama, it must be sort of like that scene in "Airplane!" where the other passengers are lining up to punch the hysterical passenger. Next week it's Ole Miss. The week after that, it's Tennessee. Then the Crimson Tide gets the week off before traveling to Baton Rouge to take on LSU.

    You get the idea.

    At least the Gamecocks have home field in their favor, you might say, but the home field hasn't necessarily been an advantage for either team. They both went 1–1 at home in the four games prior to last year's meeting.

    I'm tempted to pick South Carolina, because I feel 'Bama is overdue — and maybe a little overconfident. South Carolina might keep it close for awhile, might even lead for awhile, but I'll pick Alabama to wear 'em down and win this one.

    For those who are hoping for 'Bama's comeuppance, that will have to wait for another day.

  • Indiana at #2 Ohio State, 11 a.m. on ESPN: Ohio State has won 15 straight against Indiana.

    In 1990, the teams battled to a 27–27 tie. That is as close as Indiana has come to beating Ohio State in two decades.

    Before that, Indiana did manage to beat the Buckeyes twice in the late 1980s, but, even so, between 1971 and 1989, Ohio State was 17–2 against the Hoosiers.

    What's more, Ohio State almost always uses the occasion to run up a big margin of victory. Historically, a date with the Indiana football team has been the cure for whatever has been ailing the Buckeyes (although there have been some exceptions). And, as Ken Gordon reports in the Columbus Dispatch, there is considerable concern about the Buckeyes' Heisman hopeful, quarterback Terrelle Pryor, and his injured thigh.

    Hoosier buddy? Hoosier pal?

    A game with Indiana may be just the medicine Ohio State needs right now.

  • #3 Oregon at Washington State: Last week, I picked Stanford to defeat Oregon in their Pac–10 showdown. I admitted it was an upset special, but that was my pick, however it was labeled.

    Oregon impressed me, though, and, apparently, also impressed the voters in the Associated Press poll, leaping past Boise State in the rankings.

    I still think Stanford is a legitimate team (and the Cardinal will get the chance to prove it against USC on Saturday), but Oregon proved something to me in that victory.

    There will not, however, be much for the Ducks to prove this week. The opponent is 1–4 Washington State, which has been outscored by a 2–to–1 margin thus far.

    Oregon, meanwhile, has been outscoring its foes by a nearly 4–to–1 margin while compiling a 5–0 mark.

    The Ducks also have won more than two–thirds of their meetings with the Cougars since 1991. It's no stretch to say that I expect Oregon to win this game.

  • Toledo at #4 Boise State, 7 p.m. on Toledo did beat Purdue a couple of weeks ago, but, honestly, does anyone think this 3–2 team that lost to Wyoming at home last Saturday can possibly win at Boise State?

    I didn't think so.

    Boise State should cruise.

  • Wyoming at #5 TCU, 2:30 p.m. on CBSCSN: The history of this brief series favors TCU, with four wins in the last five years.

    As nearly as I can tell, they met only once before they became members of the same conference, but Wyoming beat TCU in Fort Worth in 1998 — so it can happen.

    Not that it is likely to.

    Wyoming snapped a three–game losing streak with its win over Toledo last weekend, but all three of the Cowboys' losses came to teams that were ranked at the time (Texas and Boise State) or were on their way to being ranked (Air Force). I think the Cowboys could keep it close, but I am certain TCU will win.

  • #8 Auburn at Kentucky, 6:30 p.m. on ESPN2: When Kentucky beat Auburn last season, it snapped a 15–game losing streak for the Wildcats.

    They hadn't won at Auburn since 1961.

    The last time Kentucky beat Auburn at home was 1966. I think it is safe to say that won't change.

    Give me Auburn.

  • Oregon State at #9 Arizona: Oregon State has won nine of the last 11 games against Arizona and hasn't lost at Arizona since 1997.

    But I'm inclined to think things will be different this year. Arizona is on the way up, ranked second in the nation in total defense — and doing pretty well in total offense (ranked in the top 40). Oregon State, on the other hand, is 99th in offense and 104th in defense.

    Of course, it's hard to draw any conclusions from just four games, but, in addition to the rankings advantage, Arizona also has won its only encounter with a ranked team (Iowa). Oregon State has faced two ranked opponents so far (Boise State and TCU) and lost to both.

    I'll take Arizona.

  • #10 Utah at Iowa State, 6 p.m. on FCS: As nearly as I can tell, these schools haven't faced each other since 1976.

    On that occasion — exactly 34 years ago (and on the same field) — Utah avenged its loss to Iowa State the previous year.

    Utah is a much better team today, and Iowa State is much worse. I pick Utah.

  • #11 Arkansas vs. Texas A&M at Arlington, Texas, 2:30 p.m. on ABC: Last year, in the teams' first meeting since they were Southwest Conference rivals, Arkansas won, 47–19.

    A&M won their last two SWC meetings (in 1990 and 1991), but the Razorbacks have won some memorable games with the Aggies over the years. They won far more with the Aggies than they lost when I was growing up so A&M was one of those teams that I always assumed Arkansas would beat — even on occasions when nothing much was expected from Arkansas and everything was expected from Texas A&M.

    Two such occasions stand out in my memory — Dec. 6, 1975, and Nov. 15, 1986.

    In 1975, the teams had agreed to move their game to the first weekend in December to accommodate national television. It would be nearly 20 years before conferences began playing championship games so that weekend was always rather bland. Most of the regular–season games were done, and the only games being played were oddities, like Army–Navy, which never had much of a bearing on anything when I was growing up.

    A&M was coming off a huge win over rival Texas and came into Little Rock ranked second in the nation. But the Razorbacks, in what turned out to be the last coaching hurrah for Frank Broyles, whipped the previously unbeaten Aggies, 31–6. As I remember, it was a typically cold, gray December day in central Arkansas, and I recall watching the game on TV, occasionally nibbling on my mother's freshly baked banana bread.

    The Razorbacks went on to represent the SWC in the Cotton Bowl.

    In 1986, the teams met again in Little Rock. I was working for the Arkansas Gazette sports department in those days, and football season meant a lot of long, unpaid hours on weekends. So, as a form of compensation, each sports staffer was allowed one Saturday off with pay. If a staffer's Saturday coincided with a Razorback game in Little Rock, he could get free tickets to the game through the department. They usually weren't great, around the 5– or 10–yard lines, but they were free.

    That year, I took my Saturday off in mid–November, and I got three tickets to the A&M game. I went with a couple of buddies of mine. National TV cameras were on hand. The Aggies were ranked seventh, the Hogs were 17th, and, this time, the Aggies went on to represent the SWC in Dallas.

    They weren't undefeated, though. The Razorbacks beat them that cold, gray November afternoon.

    Clearly, I associate "cold and gray" with great moments in Razorback history! It won't be cold or gray in Arlington on Saturday, but I still think Arkansas will win the game.

  • #12 LSU at #14 Florida, 6:30 p.m. on ESPN: Given the success these teams have enjoyed in the last decade, you would think that they would have met in the SEC championship game at some point.

    But, although both schools won national titles in the first decade of the 21st century, they haven't met with the SEC crown on the line.

    For fans who love offense, that probably isn't bad news. The Gators are currently ranked 84th in the nation in total offense and LSU is ranked 91st. Defense is where both teams excel — LSU is ranked sixth, Florida is ranked 19th. And, remember, Florida's defense has faced Alabama. LSU won't have that pleasure for another month.

    I think it will be a tough defensive game, with the final score in the vicinity of 13–10 or 14–13. Unless it goes into overtime. Then all bets are off.

    But I'll pick LSU — if for no other reason than the fact that the SEC West is dominating the East this year.

  • #23 Florida State at #13 Miami (Florida), 7 p.m. on ABC: These teams have met every year since 1969, and the series could hardly be much closer (Miami holds a 22–19 edge).

    Over the years, they've treated college football fans to some of the most entertaining games that have been played.

    And this contest looks like another drama–filled affair.

    The numbers say Florida State should have a substantial edge on offense. The Seminoles are ranked 30th in the nation while the Hurricanes are 70th. Both teams have played well on defense. A slight edge goes to Miami, which is ranked 12th in the nation, but Florida State's defense is 21st.

    Both teams suffered their only setback to Top 10 teams on the same day (Sept. 11). Miami lost to Ohio State, Florida State lost to Oklahoma. Both losses came on the road.

    I think it will be close. I think it may be low scoring. And I'll give the edge — however slight — to the home team, Miami.

  • USC at #16 Stanford, 7 p.m. on ABC: Since 1991, this has been a reasonably competitive series, with Stanford winning eight of 19 games, including some improbable upsets at USC.

    But Stanford has lost the last four times it has hosted USC. The last time Stanford beat USC at home was in 2000.

    USC just dropped out of the Top 25, following its loss to unranked Washington, so this will be an interesting challenge for Stanford.

    In true Pac–10 fashion, this may be a high–scoring affair. Both teams are in the top 20 in total offense (USC 13th, Stanford 16th) so it may come down to which team allows fewer points to be scored — and that brings us to what seems to be at the heart of USC's apparent implosion. Stanford is 44th in the nation in total defense. USC is 99th.

    I think Stanford will win a slugfest.

  • #17 Michigan State at #18 Michigan, 2:30 p.m. on ABC: In the battle for Michigan (and, frankly, with the economy the way it is, who wants it?), the Spartans have won the last two meetings. But, prior to 2008, the Wolverines won six in a row — and the Spartans' triumph in Ann Arbor two years ago was their first win in the Big House since 1990.

    Many college football fans are wondering if Michigan — a perennial national power when I was growing up but somewhat meek in recent years — really is "back." And it's a legitimate issue to ponder, given that the Wolverines have gone 5–7 and 3–9 in the last two years.

    In fact, when you stack the last couple of seasons up against just about any other two–year stretch in the team's history in the last half–century, it is understandable that Michigan fans should be anxious.

    When evaluating the reasons why Michigan might be back, it's worth pointing out that the Wolverines have the top Heisman candidate in QB Denard Robinson, at least according to ESPN.

    But that might not mean much to Michigan fans. They've had Heisman winners before.

    Dan Wetzel of says all the pressure is on Michigan's coach.

    I'm not convinced, though. Michigan State's coach, who is recuperating from a recent heart attack, will be coaching from the press box. Guess the temptation to be on hand in case the Spartans beat the Wolverines for the third straight year for the first time since the mid–to–late 1960s was too great.

    Or maybe the pressure from boosters and administrators was too great?

    Anyway, the question is, will the Spartans make it three in a row? And I'm going to predict that the answer will be yes. Michigan State will win the game.

  • Minnesota at #20 Wisconsin, 11 a.m. on Big Ten Network: Wisconsin has beaten Minnesota six straight times.

    But the Badgers haven't been as dominant as that might suggest. Most of the time, they have had to win close games.

    I know Wisconsin lost a real heartbreaker to Michigan State last week, but Minnesota has lost four in a row — a skid that began when South Dakota beat the Gophers at home.

    And, yes, all four of Minnesota's losses have been close (with the possible exception of the Gophers' 11–point loss to USC), but mounting losses can take their toll.

    I just can't see Minnesota winning this game, although it might be close. Give me Wisconsin.

  • San Jose State at #21 Nevada, 9:30 p.m. on ESPNU: I really don't think Nevada will be seriously challenged until next month, when it faces Fresno State and Boise State.

    I certainly don't think that 1–4 San Jose State, loser of seven of its last eight against this foe, will be much of an obstacle for unbeaten Nevada.

  • Colorado at #24 Missouri, 6 p.m. on FSN: There was a time when Colorado had a dominant football team.

    And, in its glory days, Colorado routinely beat Missouri, occasionally by ridiculous margins.

    But those days are gone. I'll take Missouri.

  • Colorado State at #25 Air Force, 11 a.m. on The Mtn.: Let's see. Air Force has won its last four games against Colorado State.

    Air Force also has one of the nation's best rushing attacks. The Falcons are in the Top 25. And they are at home.

    The choice seems clear — Air Force.
Last week: 11–4

Season: 89–12

No comments: