Friday, October 21, 2011

BCS Projections Coming Too Early

As a persistent critic of the BCS — as well as constant advocate of an NCAA football playoff system — I can't argue with Tommy Hicks of the Mobile (Ala.) Press–Register.

If one can assume that the top four in the initial BCS rankings is a reliable projection for the rest of the season, then, as Hicks observes, the BCS will, indeed, provide the equivalent of a playoff — with the help of the existing regular–season schedule.

LSU and Alabama are currently ranked #1 and #2, respectively. They will meet in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 5. The winner will then be expected to run the table and win the SEC championship game.

Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are ranked #3 and #4, respectively. They will meet in Stillwater on Dec. 3. For the winner of that game, there will be nothing else until its postseason game — no championship game in the Big 12 this year — but the obvious assumption will be that, if the winner of the game in Stillwater is unblemished, that team will be playing for the national title.

Thus, those two games are shaping up to be the playoff games that will give us the national finalists — but all that discounts the possibility of another team tripping them up along the way.

Or someone else catching fire and moving up in the rankings — Wisconsin, perhaps, or Stanford — or maybe even Boise State. Who knows?

It's still October. As those two games suggest — and, remember, they are only two games with many, many others still to be played — a lot can happen.

I worked with sports writers for years, and I know that they love to speculate. It's sort of an occupational hazard during football season.

Sports journalists don't have as much time for speculation between games in other sports, but football season, with its once–a–week games, has a lot of time to kill — and a lot of space to fill — for sports writers.

I guess the temptation to idly speculate — i.e., Don Banks of Sports Illustrated, while admitting it was "way premature and patently ridiculous," nevertheless proceeded recently to assess the 6–0 Green Bay Packers' chances of running the table — is irresistible for most writers.

And football season is the very definition of temptation.

But October really is too early to be anticipating who will be playing for the national title in January.

Idle: #14 South Carolina, #18 Michigan, #24 Arizona State, #24 Georgia

  • #11 West Virginia at Syracuse, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Syracuse snapped an eight–game losing streak to West Virginia last year.

    That was the first time Syracuse had won at West Virginia since 2000. Now the challenge facing the Orange is to beat West Virginia at Syracuse for the first time since 1993.

    Syracuse might make a good run for it, but, in the end, I expect West Virginia to win by a touchdown.
  • #19 Auburn at #1 LSU, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: Unless something really unexpected happens, defending national champion Auburn will not be playing for another national title in January.

    But the twice–beaten Tigers still have a shot at playing in the SEC championship game — or at least snaring a share of the SEC West crown.

    In order to do that, Auburn must beat LSU in Baton Rouge on Saturday and then beat Alabama on Nov. 26. That's a tall order for anyone, but, historically speaking, Auburn might be up to the task — at least when it comes to competing with LSU.

    Since 1991, Auburn is 10–9 against LSU, but Auburn has lost its last five in Baton Rouge.

    Auburn has been a different team on LSU's turf. And, without Cam Newton, Auburn has been a different team than it was last year. I predict that LSU will prevail by two touchdowns.

  • Tennessee at #2 Alabama, 6:15 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: Everyone knows about Alabama's in–state rivalry with Auburn, but I have heard that the legendary Bear Bryant cared more about beating Tennessee.

    The Alabama–Tennessee game has long been known as "the third Saturday in October" in recognition of the date when the game was traditionally played, but it has only been played on the third Saturday in October a handful of times in recent years.

    Nor will it be played on the third Saturday in October this year.

    Anyway, Alabama has won the last four games between the school and holds a 48–38–7 overall series advantage. The Vols haven't won in Tuscaloosa since 2003.

    Since 2008, Alabama is 26–1 at home — and that lone loss was Auburn's fabled comeback in last year's Iron Bowl.

    There is simply no way Tennessee will be competitive in this game. I expect Alabama to win by about 30 points.

  • Texas Tech at #3 Oklahoma, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: For the last seven years, the host team has won this game.

    And Oklahoma has won its last seven home games against Texas Tech.

    I guess that dovetails nicely with those who contend the Sooners will remain unbeaten until they meet their in–state rivals from Oklahoma State on the first Saturday in December.

    And the recent history of the series does say that the home team's victories tend to be lopsided. Last year, OU beat Tech in Norman, 45–7. In 2008, it was even more lopsided — 65–21.

    So should the Red Raiders even bother to show up to play the game? Well, they might make it competitive for the first half, but, in the end, I expect Oklahoma to win by three touchdowns.

  • #4 Wisconsin at #15 Michigan State, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Some people are predicting that Wisconsin will be one of the two teams playing for the national title in January, and that's a tough one to counter.

    We know, for example, that either Alabama or LSU (possibly both) will have at least one loss by the time the bowl season begins. It is inevitable. The teams will face each other on the first Saturday in November, and college football did away with ties more than a decade ago. Even if they have to play a dozen overtime periods, someone will win that game.

    Oklahoma, too, could lose a game. The Sooners play Texas Tech this weekend and still must face Kansas State, Baylor, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State before the season ends. There's no championship game in the Big 12 this year, but, if the Sooners can negotiate that obstacle course, they might deserve a spot in the national championship game.

    College football always has those hidden time bombs, ticking away, waiting for an encounter with an overconfident team. On any given Saturday ...

    Wisconsin won't be out of the woods if the Badgers beat the Spartans, but they will be getting closer to the clearing. They still have to play Ohio State, Illinois and Penn State — and then there will be the inaugural Big Ten title game, which might be a rematch with these Spartans.

    If defense truly does win championships, this game will be a good test for that premise. Both teams are in the Top 10 nationally in defense — MSU is #1, Wisconsin is #7. Wisconsin's defense may not be tested too much (the Spartans rank 66th in total offense), but Michigan State's might have its hands full with Wisconsin's eighth–ranked offense, led by the nation's #1 passer, Russell Wilson, and runner Montee Ball (19th in rushing, 34th in all–purpose yards).

    I think it will be close ... and low scoring. The Badgers have more power on offense so I'll take Wisconsin by four points.

  • Air Force at #5 Boise State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on Versus: This might be the most exciting game of the weekend — at least, if you're a Boise State fan.

    Both teams have potent offenses so the game seems likely to hinge on the defenses. If that is, indeed, how it turns out, the odds favor Boise's 12th–ranked defense over Air Force's dismal 106th–ranked unit.

    Give me Boise State.

  • #6 Oklahoma State at Missouri: Since 1979, OSU has beaten Missouri about three–fifths of the time. And the Cowboys have won their last two encounters with the Tigers.

    But what about 2011?

    Well, while Oklahoma State currently has the nation's second–ranked offense, Missouri's offense is a respectable 13th in the nation. And Missouri's defense (currently 30th in the country) has outshone the Cowboys' defense (ranked 103rd).

    In what will certainly be considered an upset, I'll take Missouri to defeat previously unbeaten Oklahoma State — and mess up that tidy BCS playoff arrangement of which Hicks wrote.

  • #22 Washington at #7 Stanford, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Not too long ago, Washington could compete with Stanford. The Huskies even managed to win their games on a regular basis.

    But that was then — before Andrew Luck came along.

    Frankly, I just don't see how Washington can hope to stop Luck. The Huskies are 106th in total defense, and Luck is third in the nation in passing. Give me Stanford by two touchdowns.

  • North Carolina at #8 Clemson, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: It's been 10 years since North Carolina won at Clemson — and winning there wasn't a familiar experience before that, either.

    The teams are about even on defense, but Clemson, with Sammy Watkins (10th in all–purpose yardage) and Tajh Boyd (13th in passing), are light years ahead of the Tar Heels in offense. I'll take Clemson.

  • #9 Oregon at Colorado, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on FSN: It's really hard to have much regard for Colorado's football program these days.

    The 1–6 Buffs are 64th in total defense. How can they expect to stop Oregon's fifth–rated total offense?

    Colorado's defense is better than its offense, though. The Buffs are 92nd in the nation in that category. How can they possibly expect to score with an offensive unit like that?

    I don't think they can. I'll take Oregon by 20.

  • #10 Arkansas at Ole Miss, 11:21 a.m. (Central) on SEC Network: In 1981, more than 10 years before they became conference rivals, Arkansas and Ole Miss revived a series that had been dormant since the 1969 Sugar Bowl — and hadn't been part of the regular–season schedule in a couple of decades.

    At one time, though, it was one of the most heated rivalries in the South, if not in college football, and success in the series tended to come in waves.

    Since 1981, Arkansas has the edge, 18–11–1. From 1952–1961, Ole Miss was 7–3 against Arkansas, and Arkansas won about two–thirds of the games played in the first half of the century.

    The Ole Miss football program has been something of a train wreck lately. Its offense is one of the worst in the country (117th); its defense is better but not by much (86th). I'll take Arkansas by three touchdowns.

  • #12 Kansas State at Kansas, 11 a.m. (Central) on FSN: Most people don't know it — mostly, I suppose, because neither of these schools is known for its football program — but this rivalry is the fourth–longest uninterrupted series in college football history.

    The winner of the football game — which, for the last two years, has been KSU — is awarded the Governor's Cup, and the outcome of the football game is factored in with the results of the other athletic contests between the two schools to decide the annual winner of the "Sunflower Showdown."

    So, while this game usually means next to nothing to people outside Kansas, it appears to have a great deal of meaning to people within that state.

    Emotion aside, Kansas gave Oklahoma a real run for it last weekend, but I don't see the Jayhawks being able to sustain that against the Wildcats. I pick Kansas State to win by 12 points.

  • #13 Nebraska at Minnesota, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: In the first half of the 20th century, these teams used to play just about every year. In recent years, not so much.

    Now that they compete in the same conference, I expect them to play a bit more regularly.

    This will be the first time they have met on the gridiron since 1990, when a mediocre Minnesota team traveled to Nebraska — and lost, 56–0.

    The Gophers hosted the Cornhuskers in 1989 — and got shut out that time, too, 48–0.

    Minnesota has scored against Nebraska — in 1984, when Minnesota went to Lincoln and lost, 38–7. The year before that, Gophers hosted Nebraska and scored 13 points. But the Cornhuskers, who were en route to their Orange Bowl game with Miami, scored 84 points.

    Minnesota lost 10 more games to the Cornhuskers in the 1960s and early 1970s. In fact, unless I have overlooked something, Minnesota hasn't beaten Nebraska since Sept. 24, 1960.

    Still, they hold the series lead, 29–20–2, thanks primarily to having won eight of the first 10 games in the early part of the 20th century.

    And, as Ben Welter of the Minneapolis Star Tribune observes, Saturday will be the 100th anniversary of Minnesota's 21–3 triumph over Nebraska — which was played in Minnesota, by the way.

    Is that a good omen? Probably not. Nebraska (5–1) is much better than Minnesota (1–5) and should win by 25.

  • Boston College at #16 Virginia Tech, 2 p.m. (Central) on RSN: Since 1996, Boston College has won only four of 15 games with Virginia Tech (including a loss in the 2007 ACC title game).

    But BC has won two of the last four times it has played at Virginia Tech.

    Does that mean Boston College can win this time? Well, it could — but I wouldn't bet on it. Virginia Tech (6–1) is much better on both sides of the ball than Boston College (1–5) and should prove it handily.

  • #17 Texas A&M at Iowa State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: With the Aggies headed for the Southeastern Conference next year, this will be the ninth and final meeting of these teams as Big 12 rivals.

    A&M has only lost one of those encounters, but that was in College Station. The Aggies are 4–0 in Ames.

    With games against Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas State coming up — and a spotless record at Iowa State — the Aggies could be forgiven for overlooking the 3–3 Cyclones. But that would be a mistake.

    Don't get me wrong. I think Texas A&M will remain focused and take care of business.

  • #20 Georgia Tech at Miami (Fla.), 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: As conference rivals, Georgia Tech holds a 4–3 lead in its series with Miami.

    When you count the Y2K New Year's Day Gator Bowl between the schools, the series is deadlocked, 4–4.

    Before that, you have to go back to the Eisenhower administration to find the last time the teams played.

    This is very much a 21st century series. Georgia Tech has been tested several times and, while coming off a loss, seems to have enough in its arsenal to handle Miami. I'll take Georgia Tech by a field goal.

  • Marshall at #21 Houston. 3:30 p.m. (Central) on CSS: It almost seems like old times, like when Andre Ware was running the Run 'N' Shoot. The Houston Cougars have the nation's top–ranked offense.

    When people speak of college quarterbacks these days, the conversation inevitably winds up being about Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III. But Houston's Case Keenum is sixth in the nation, has a higher completion percentage than Luck and has accounted for more passing yardage than either.

    But Keenum is overlooked — primarily, I suppose, because he doesn't play in a major conference, and, therefore, has racked up his stats against less impressive competition.

    In recent years, these teams have met twice as conference rivals.

    Each team has held serve at home, and I think Houston will keep that streak alive by a two–touchdown margin.

  • #23 Illinois at Purdue, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN2: Now, I suppose, we will find out if Illinois is as good as its record.

    The Illini, of course, are coming off their first defeat of the season. I know it was disappointing, but, hey, they lost to Ohio State. They've only beaten the Buckeyes once since 2002.

    Since 1985, Illinois and Purdue have played 20 times, and each has won 10. Illinois was more successful against Purdue in the late 20th century — at least when the teams have played in Indiana. Purdue has beaten Illinois the last three times the Boilermakers have hosted the Illini.

    This looks like a "gotcha!" game to me. Purdue may be 3–3, but the Boilermakers aren't too far behind 5–1 Illinois in total offense and total defense.

    If the Illini aren't careful, this could be their fourth straight loss at Purdue. But I'm betting that Illinois will hang in there long enough to win by a field goal.
Last week: 12–5

Season: 120–22

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