Thursday, October 14, 2010

Will Another #1 Go Down This Week?

Football dynasties sure ain't what they used to be.

Ivan Maisel of observes that "[t]he shelf life of a dynasty used to be about the same as a good cabernet — somewhere between 10 and 15 years." Now, though, it "may be closer to a presidential term."

And he makes some good points about how everything has accelerated. Clearly, today's faster pace has changed every life — some for the better, some not — and it has brought changes to college football that were unexpected even a few years ago.

Recently, Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated wrote of the SEC's "new reality."

And, indeed, positioned within Mandel's parameters, he seems to raise a good point.

In the aftermath of Alabama's first defeat since January 2009, Mandel says it is entirely possible that a one–loss SEC team might play for the national title — but should it?

As an Arkansas graduate, I find it gratifying that Mandel now calls 'Bama's win against Arkansas a few weeks ago the Crimson Tide's "signature victory" — until I realize that it is largely by default. Alabama's early win over Penn State, Mandel observes, meant a lot at the time but means very little now, since subsequent games have shown that Penn State's offense is the Big Ten's worst.

And, likewise, Alabama's win over Florida only two weeks ago doesn't mean much since the Gators' last–minute loss to LSU last weekend.

But, it seems to me, that is how it always is in the SEC. The conference is so deep that, truly, on any given Saturday, any SEC school can beat any other SEC school, regardless of reputations, rankings or records. Teams that looked weak in their last game may look invincible in their next. It's the toughest conference in college football.

In the larger context, I think Maisel is on to the more significant development — the reduced shelf lives of dynasties in general.

When Mandel talks about the toppling of Alabama as the "new reality," he conveniently overlooks the SEC's competitive history since the end of the Bear Bryant era nearly 30 years ago. Since that time, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Florida and Tennessee have all enjoyed periods in the spotlight; even Ole Miss and SEC newcomer Arkansas have risen to greater prominence.

Now it is South Carolina's turn.

Yet the SEC was competitive even in the Bear's day. For all the national titles the Bear won, there were more seasons when one team would rise up and knock off Goliath. Frequently, it was seen as lightning in a bottle — a case of one extremely gifted player (i.e., Archie Manning) leading his team to an improbable upset of the great Bear Bryant or capturing the public's attention in years when his school had the good fortune not to have to face Alabama (i.e., Herschel Walker).

Recent discussions in the blogosphere suggest that the SEC will be out of the national title picture now that Alabama has been beaten, and that may be so.

But it's worth remembering that South Carolina was ranked 19th when it beat Alabama. The Gamecocks did not come from nowhere. This is the SEC being the SEC.

And Alabama, as it so often had to do in the Bear's day, must rebound from a single defeat and accept that its fate is no longer in its hands.

We're only about halfway through college football's regular season. A lot can happen — and, by December, a one–loss SEC team might look pretty darn good to the BCS.

If the caliber of the competition can no longer do it, I guess that will have to motivate the Crimson Tide now.

Two ranked teams are idle this week: #2 Oregon and #14 Stanford. All times are Central.

  • South Florida at #25 West Virginia, 6:30 p.m. on ESPN: These two schools have been in the same conference since 2005.

    And I'll bet you didn't know that South Florida is 3–2 against West Virginia since that time.

    South Florida has built its advantage with a 2–1 record at home. But the teams are tied, 1–1, at West Virginia — and the Mountaineers won the last time they hosted the Bulls.

    At 3–2, the Bulls aren't bad. One of their losses was a rather sound thrashing at the hands of #22 Florida. But West Virginia's only loss so far was a somewhat narrow to defeat to #9 LSU — and LSU just beat Florida last weekend.

    It is seldom useful, actually, to compare scores in that way. But, at this stage of the season, it can provide a helpful context in which to assess this game. And my assesment is that West Virginia will win.
  • #1 Ohio State at #18 Wisconsin, 6 p.m. on ESPN: I don't know when Ohio State was last ranked #1. The Buckeyes won a national title more than seven years ago in an overtime battle with Miami (Florida).

    Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports makes a legitimate observation. When the top–ranked team falls, the polls elevate the next in line.

    Even when the next in line hasn't been as impressive as, say, #3 or #4 or #5. And Dodd insists that the Buckeyes haven't been that impressive.

    "Boise State has beaten more ranked teams," Dodd writes. "Oregon has been more impressive. TCU has posted consecutive shutouts. Utah just laid 68 on Iowa State.

    "Free thinking has never been the polls' strong point."

    Quite true, but the Buckeyes still have a few hurdles to clear before they can play for another national title. And one of them is this Saturday in Madison, Wisc.

    The 5–1 Badgers won't play at home again for a month so they would surely like to leave Wisconsin with a win over the top–ranked team in the land. But that will be much easier said than done.

    Ohio State holds a tenuous 5–4 edge over Wisconsin in their sporadic series since 1999. And nearly half of those games were decided by a touchdown or less.

    It is, to be sure, a far cry from the days of the legendary Woody Hayes, who tied Wisconsin more frequently than he lost to the Badgers in nearly three decades of roaming the sidelines at Ohio State.

    But the Buckeyes have won their last three games with Wisconsin so recent history is on their side. And, in a game in which both teams have Top 25 offenses and defenses, you have to look for whatever edge you can find.

    In this case, Ohio State enjoys a statistical edge in both categories, but it seems to me that Wisconsin's schedule has been a little tougher. The Buckeyes' most significant opponent to date is the now–unranked Miami Hurricanes. Wisconsin's only loss came two weeks ago against #13 Michigan State.

    It's probably an upset special — a clear case of lightning striking twice in just about the same place in consecutive weeks — but I'm going to predict a Wisconsin victory.

  • #3 Boise State at San Jose State, 7 p.m. on Boise State is 9–0 against San Jose State since the teams became conference rivals in 2001.

    Sometimes the scores have been close, sometimes they haven't. The point is, though, that Boise State has San Jose State's number.

    I have no problem picking Boise State to win this one.

  • Brigham Young at #4 TCU, 3 p.m. on Versus: TCU leads this series, 3–2, since the teams became Mountain West rivals in 2005. In those five years, the fans have just about seen it all from these two teams.

    Do you like offense? TCU has plenty (11th in the nation), BYU not so much (91st).

    Maybe you're a devotee of defense? TCU has the nation's top–ranked defense while BYU's is 90th.

    And, if that isn't enough, BYU brings a 2–4 record into the game while 6–0 TCU still entertains thoughts of playing for a national title.

    The dream continues. TCU will win.

  • Texas at #5 Nebraska, 2:30 p.m. on ABC/ESPN: This is a rematch of the riveting Big 12 championship game from a year ago — and, barring totally unexpected developments that might pair the teams in another conference title matchup, it may be the teams' last meeting for awhile.

    And John Tamanaha of NBC Sports says it will be one of the most crucial games in resolving the "BCS mess" left by Alabama's loss last week to South Carolina.

    "Just when you think the Longhorns are short of what it takes to be a factor in the national picture," he writes, "they could jump up and let everyone know that they're still around."

    The teams seem to be headed in opposite directions, and I guess some 'Husker fans have been a little cocky, but Cindy Lange–Kubick of the Lincoln Journal Star has already served notice: " I hope I don't have to hear one more person say anything close to this: Texas isn't such a big game anymore ..."

    Perhaps she is right when she says such talk merely invites the gods of sports "to stab you in the back with a Texas–sized victory."

    Brian Christopherson writes that the Nebraska offensive line will face its greatest test yet when it lines up against Texas, which may be an understatement. Texas' defense is sixth in the nation (Nebraska's is 12th).

    But that O–line has helped Nebraska climb to seventh in the nation in total offense so I'm inclined to agree with Christopherson when he suggests it will be the key to the game. If the Nebraska offense can handle the Texas defense — and I think it will — Nebraska's defense should have little difficulty containing Texas' offense, which is ranked 71st in the nation.

    As long as they don't get overconfident, I pick the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

  • Iowa State at #6 Oklahoma, 6 p.m. on FSN: In the days of the old Big Eight conference, these schools met every season in football. Since the members merged with half of the old Southwest Conference, they have belonged to different divisions — and, thus, now meet occasionally.

    Otherwise, though, not much has changed, really.

    Since the Big 12 opened for business in 1996, Oklahoma is 6–0 against Iowa State. Between 1980 and 1995, when the teams played every year in the Big Eight, OU won every encounter but two — a loss in 1990 and a tie in 1981.

    Both of those exceptions, ironically, occurred in Norman.

    Well, I don't think this game will be an exception. I expect Oklahoma to win.

  • #12 Arkansas at #7 Auburn, 2:30 p.m. on CBS: The first time these schools faced each other as conference opponents, in 1992, it ended in a tie, 24–24.

    The next 17 games were practically a split decision, with Auburn winning nine and Arkansas winning eight. And the numbers from the current season suggest a close contest — in keeping with tight nature of the series.

    Arkansas' only blemish was to defending national champion Alabama last month. But Auburn is undefeated — and that includes a victory over South Carolina, the team that just beat Alabama.

    Both teams, in fact, are in the Top 20 in total offense. In spite of Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett (seventh in the nation in passing efficiency), who is often mentioned as a Heisman prospect, Auburn actually is ranked ahead of Arkansas in total offense (led by quarterback Cam Newton).

    But the Razorbacks have a sizable edge over the Tigers in total defense — and that may be the Razorbacks' best hope for a victory on the road. The defense, after all, has been facing some productive offenses in its recent outings. It kept the Alabama offense (currently 25th in the nation) under control until the fourth quarter and managed to bottle up Texas A&M's offense (15th in the country) last week.

    Arkansas has won the last two meetings and, obviously, would like to make it three straight. Similarly, the Hogs have won the last two times they have visited Auburn. Auburn's last home victory against Arkansas was in 2004.

    Based on the improved play of Arkansas' defense, I'll take Arkansas to win the game.

  • Ole Miss at #8 Alabama, 8 p.m. on ESPN2: Auburn, LSU and Tennessee get more ink as Alabama's rivals, but, in the SEC, nearly every game has the intensity of a rivalry.

    Especially when the schools are in bordering states, and the campuses are roughly 140 miles apart.

    I'm sure Ole Miss would love to win this game. But I don't think the Rebels will.

    Ole Miss has beaten Alabama twice since 2001 — and the Rebels won only three times in the preceding three decades.

    Plus — as the Rebels are, no doubt, tired of hearing by now — Ole Miss lost to Jacksonville State last month. I just can't see them winning this game on the road.

    I fully expect Alabama to win.

  • McNeese State at #9 LSU, 6 p.m. on What, are you kidding me?

    LSU plays SEC teams on a weekly basis. The Tigers have won national titles in recent years.

    Not trying to take anything away from McNeese State. But I'll take LSU to win this one.

    A McNeese victory just seems too improbable in a season in which Jacksonville State and James Madison have already beaten teams from the power conferences.

  • #10 South Carolina at Kentucky, 5 p.m. on ESPN2: The Gamecocks' win over Alabama last Saturday was, indeed, an "afternoon to remember," wrote The State.

    In fact, it wasn't overstating the case to say that it was the "most significant victory" in South Carolina football history.

    But, it seems to me that, unless South Carolina is eager to be a victim of a possibly more significant upset this week, the Gamecocks need to come down from their emotional high. This week's foe is Kentucky — the Wildcats aren't in the Top 25, but they gave seventh–ranked Auburn all it could handle last week. The Gamecocks should take note of that.

    The Wildcats might be hungry for a win at home, especially since Kentucky has lost its last 10 games against South Carolina. It's worth pointing out, though, that, in seven of those games, South Carolina's margin of victory was a touchdown or less.

    And last year, South Carolina only won by two points.

    I expect South Carolina to win, but this one shouldn't be taken lightly.

  • #11 Utah at Wyoming, 5 p.m. on The Mtn.: Utah has dominated this series since 1991, 13–4.

    And there's no real reason to think that will change. I expect Utah to win — and improve its record at Wyoming to 7–3 since 1991.

  • Illinois at #13 Michigan State, 11 a.m. on Big Ten Network: Michigan State's win over Michigan last week meant more than a year's worth of bragging rights. Michael Rosenberg writes in the Detroit Free Press that MSU beating Michigan has become the new normal.

    Maybe he's right. It was, after all, the Spartans' third straight win over their nemesis, and it was their second straight in the Big House after losing in their eight previous trips to Ann Arbor.

    This week's opponent shouldn't pose much of a challenge to the Spartans. Michigan State has beaten Illinois in 10 of their last 11 meetings.

    And, while there are some potential bumps in the road, like a date with Iowa in a couple of weeks and a regular–season finale against currently unranked Penn State (both road games, by the way), Michigan State could well be in the national championship picture when the season comes to its conclusion.

    That assumes, I guess, that the Illini won't win this game. And I don't think they will. I'll take Michigan State.

  • #15 Iowa at Michigan, 2:30 p.m. on ABC: This game could have had a lot of appeal if Michigan had beaten Michigan State last week.

    The Wolverines have won 22 of their last 30 games with the Hawkeyes so winning this game still has a lot of meaning for Iowa. And last year's two–point triumph was meaningful, even though Iowa won 11 games last year and Michigan didn't even break .500.

    But it ended a three–game Michigan winning streak over Iowa — and Hawkeye fans had had plenty of those over the years.

    Still, beating a ranked and unbeaten Michigan team would have had more value for Iowa — and that is precisely what was possible until the Spartans beat the Wolverines. Then Michigan dropped from the rankings.

    The marquee matchup in this game will be between the Michigan offense (ranked third in the nation) against Iowa's defense (ranked fourth in the nation), but the two may offset each other, leaving the game to be decided when Iowa has the ball. And therein lies the problem for Michigan — its defense, which is ranked 112th in the nation. How can it keep pace with Iowa's offense, which is a respectable 33rd in the nation? I don't think it can.

    Give me Iowa.

  • Boston College at #16 Florida State, 11 a.m. on ESPN: Did you know that Boston College has won its last two games with Florida State — and is 3–2 against the Seminoles in the last five years?

    When the defenses are compared, the numbers are quite similar. Florida State's defense is 28th in the nation, Boston College's is 39th.

    But a huge gap exists between the offenses. Florida State's offense, like its defense, is 28th in the nation, but Boston College's offense, at #105, is almost the nation's worst.

    That sounds, to me, as if Boston College will have problems scoring — and scoring points in bunches seems the only way to silence a raucous Florida State crowd.

    I pick Florida State.

  • #17 Arizona at Washington State, 6:30 p.m. on Versus: Arizona has won nearly two–thirds of its games with Washington State in the last 20 years.

    But recent history has shown that the series swings regularly, every three or four years. And I suppose that means it is time for it to swing in WSU's direction.

    Arizona has won the last four meetings, often by wide margins. Before that, Washington State won four straight — usually by closer margins. Arizona won the three games before that.

    Based on that alone, it seems that Washington State is due. But the numbers don't support that. Arizona holds decisive edges in both offense (Arizona is 26th in the nation, Washington State is 85th) and defense (Arizona is 13th, Washington State is 120th).

    I'll take Arizona.

  • #19 Nevada at Hawaii, 10:30 p,m. on They've been members of the same conference for the last 10 years, and Hawaii has certainly been a thorn in the Wolf Pack's side, winning six of their 10 confrontations.

    And 4–2 Hawaii definitely poses a threat to 6–0 Nevada — perhaps the only real test until the Boise State game next month. Hawaii, after all, pretty much dominated Fresno State last weekend, and Fresno State was thought to be maybe the only team in the WAC, other than Boise State, that might be good enough to compete on the national stage.

    The numbers so far this season look as close as they can be. Both teams are outstanding on offense — Nevada is ranked second, Hawaii is ranked sixth. Both are mediocre on defense — Nevada is 69th, Hawaii is 72nd.

    So I think the game may be decided by the tone it takes early on. If the score is close, the running game may be favored by both teams — and that would help Nevada, which is fifth in the nation in rushing while Hawaii is 85th in the nation defending the run.

    Hawaii's running game, on the other hand, is one of the nation's worst (ranked 117th) while Nevada is 45th against the run. And my guess is that Hawaii, which runs the ball about 19 times a game and attempts 46 passes per game, is likely to throw the ball regardless of the score.

    And Hawaii, ranked #1 in passing, should be able to pick Nevada apart. The Wolf Pack, who may be battling a case of jet lag, are 82nd in the nation against the pass.

    This may be another upset, but I'll pick Hawaii.

  • #20 Oklahoma State at Texas Tech: As division rivals, these schools have faced each other every year since 1996.

    And, for the last eight years, the home team has been the winner. In fact, only twice has the visiting team won — and, in both cases, Tech was the visiting team.

    Lubbock has been a safe haven for Tech against OSU. As a member of the Big 12, Tech has gone 6–0 at Lubbock against Oklahoma State; as nonconference foes before that, Tech's last home loss to OSU came in 1966.

    But times have changed — and I think Oklahoma State's luck will change. Tech is on the decline. These are not the same Red Raiders who defeated OSU by 36 points in Lubbock two years ago.

  • #21 Missouri at Texas A&M, 11 a.m. on FSN: The schools have split six games since becoming conference foes in 1996 so series history really isn't much of a guide.

    What do the numbers from the current season say? Well, Texas A&M is 15th in the nation in offense whereas Missouri is 43rd. For those of us who grew up in the Southwest Conference, it is remarkable to realize that the Aggies have achieved this with their 11th–ranked passing game — which has been much more productive than the traditional running game.

    What's more, A&M boasts a higher–ranked defense (24th) than Missouri (30th). And the Tigers' pass defense (40th in the nation) appears to be vulnerable.

    The Aggies got off to a strong start against some relatively weak opponents, but the schedule has been increasingly challenging for this A&M team, and it doesn't look much easier with three currently ranked teams slated to play the Aggies between now and Nov. 20.

    The Tigers play in a weaker division, and their schedule isn't quite as demanding, but they still have dates with Nebraska and Oklahoma to worry about in the next few weeks. I'm inclined to think they haven't really been tested yet.

    That should change this weekend. And I'm going to give a slight edge — in another upset — to Texas A&M.

  • Mississippi State at #22 Florida, 6 p.m. on ESPNU: Florida has every reason to be cocky heading into this game.

    The Gators are 14–5 in this irregular series since 1980. And they haven't lost to Mississippi State at home since 1965.

    I'll take Florida.

  • #23 Air Force at San Diego State, 7 p.m. on CBSCSN: This series has ebbed and flowed over the years.

    Lately, the advantage has been with Air Force, winner of four of the last five. But prior to that, San Diego State won three in a row.

    Before that, Air Force won four straight.

    I guess that would suggest that it's San Diego State's turn, that the pendulum is now swinging in the Aztecs' direction. And maybe it is. San Diego State played decently in its only game against a currently ranked team (Missouri) and lost by a field goal. But I suppose I am more impressed by Air Force's three–point loss at Oklahoma a few weeks ago.

    Give me Air Force.

  • #24 Oregon State at Washington, 9:15 p.m. on ESPN: Oregon State has won six straight against Washington.

    It's been a nice change for Beavers fans, who were flogged by the Huskies on a regular basis in the 1980s and 1990s.

    Will either team flog the other this week? I don't know. Both offenses are mediocre — Washington's is 52nd in the nation, Oregon State's is 82nd. But the defenses are worse — Washington is 104th, Oregon State is 113th.

    So why is Oregon State in the Top 25? The Beavers lost to TCU and Boise State earlier this season, but they have beaten both of the Arizona schools in the last couple of weeks.

    Washington State, meanwhile, has only a one–point win against Montana State so far this year.

    The Cougars will have to wait at least another week for win #2. I pick Oregon State.
Last week: 16–3

Season: 105–15

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