Friday, October 14, 2011

The Debate Over Top Ranking Intensifies

The Great Debate has begun in earnest in college football. Who deserves to be ranked #1 right now? And will that team be ranked #1 when the season is over?

That second question simply cannot be answered in mid–October. But there are always those who will argue over the merits of ranking one team ahead of another. It was that way before the BCS rankings were thrown into the mix, and it simply intensifies when the first BCS calculations are announced.

Those first BCS rankings of 2011 won't be released until after this weekend's games, but a vigorous debate has already begun over whether Oklahoma, LSU or Alabama — or even someone else — should be ranked at the top of the list.

Last weekend's games really didn't help clarify things much:
  • Bill Reiter of Fox Sports observed, in the aftermath of LSU's victory over Florida, that Les Miles "might be the most underappreciated top–tier football coach in the country."

  • In the latest edition of the "Red River Rivalry," Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman writes that Oklahoma "reminded Texas who really owns this conference" in the Sooners' convincing 55–17 triumph in the Cotton Bowl.

  • As for Alabama, well, the Crimson Tide demolished Vanderbilt, as expected. But 'Bama was entitled to a breather, having beaten Arkansas and Florida on consecutive Saturdays.
I don't think one of the big three is likely to be the victim of an upset this week, and the debate should continue when the first BCS standings are released.

Only two things seem truly clear midway through the college football season:
  1. A good case can be made for all three schools, but the Alabama–LSU part of the equation should be settled in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 5.

    Normally, Tuscaloosa would intimidate a visiting team, but LSU had won four in a row there until the Crimson Tide beat the Tigers en route to the national title in 2009.

    In fact, LSU has defeated Alabama in eight of their last 11 meetings so beating the Tide, whatever the venue, is feasible for the Tigers, and, according to Glenn Guilbeau of the Shreveport Times, they became so bored in their ho–hum win over Florida last week that the Tigers were fantasizing that they were actually beating up on Alabama.

    They will have to wait a few more weeks for their real chance.

    But speaking of Florida ...

  2. For the first time in nearly 30 years, no team from Florida is in AP's rankings.

    Considering that Florida, Florida State and Miami have all played for — and won — national titles at one time or another in the last 12 years, that is a pretty amazing development.
Idle: #10 Arkansas, #13 West Virginia, #14 Nebraska, #25 Houston

  • #1 LSU at Tennessee, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: LSU has beaten Tennessee three straight times, including the 2007 SEC Championship game.

    But this has always been a competitive series. Last year, for example, the Volunteers came to Baton Rouge and lost by only two points in a really wild finish. In that 2007 title game, LSU won by a touchdown, and the year before, the Tigers left Knoxville with a four–point win.

    Neither side has much regard for the other's home field. "I like beating people in their own house," a Tiger player told the Baton Rouge Advocate recently. He probably does feel that way and so do most of his teammates — as would the Vols, I suspect, if they were the road team — but the fact is, I think, that LSU simply has more firepower than Tennessee, and that knowledge is bound to help with your confidence.

    They don't play each other every year, but they square off frequently enough, and the last time either beat the other by more than a single score was in 1993, when the Vols doubled up the Tigers, 42–20.

    I think the Tigers might finally return the favor. I'm less inclined to think LSU is overrated than I was when the season began, but I still have my doubts about them over the long haul. This weekend, though, I expect LSU to win by a double–digit margin.

  • #2 Alabama at Ole Miss, 5 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: In the last two decades, Alabama has lost to Ole Miss only twice — but both losses came in Jackson.

    I've seen Alabama play a few times this year. The Crimson Tide has a defense that is worthy of the best that Bear Bryant ever put on the field.

    I haven't seen Ole Miss play, but I've seen the scores of the Rebels' games. They're 2–3 with a lopsided loss to the same Vanderbilt team that 'Bama blanked last weekend.

    This was once a competitive rivalry. I guess it could be worse for the Rebels. They could be playing in Tuscaloosa, where they haven't won since 1988.

    As it is, though, I expect them to lose to Alabama by four touchdowns.

  • #3 Oklahoma at Kansas, 8:15 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: John Shinn of the Norman (Okla.) Transcript reports that the Sooners are only concerned about improving. They aren't worried about the polls.

    It may be hard for them to judge just how much better they are becoming, though, with Kansas on this week's schedule. Kansas doesn't figure to be much of a test.

    Back in the days of the old Big Eight Conference, OU used to dominate Kansas routinely.

    Things haven't changed too much, I suppose. The Sooners have won six in a row against the Jayhawks and haven't lost to KU since 1997. In fact, that '97 loss was OU's third straight to Kansas.

    But that was an aberration. It was the first time Kansas beat Oklahoma in football in two or more consecutive seasons since the Herbert Hoover administration. That's how lopsided the series has been.

    And things don't figure to get any better for the 2–3 Jayhawks, who were blown out by Oklahoma State, 70–28, last week. I'll take Oklahoma by five touchdowns.

  • Indiana at #4 Wisconsin, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN2: The Badgers have beaten the Hoosiers six straight times.

    And this edition of the Hoosiers — 1–5 so far — simply doesn't seem even remotely capable of claiming only its fourth win in Madison since 1989.

    I predict that Wisconsin — which beat Indiana by 63 points last year — will win this one by at least 30.

  • #5 Boise State at Colorado State, 5 p.m. (Central) on The Mtn.: Colorado State is new to the Mountain West Conference, and these schools will be facing each other for the first time.

    The absence of a history doesn't keep me from reaching a conclusion on this game, though. Boise is undefeated. CSU is 3–2 — not bad but no signature wins.

    Boise is 30th in the nation in total offense; CSU is 95th. Boise is 12th in the nation in total defense; CSU is 33rd.

    By virtue of its 14–10 win over New Mexico, CSU currently leads the conference with a 1–0 record. This will be Boise's first conference game of the season. And I predict Boise State will win by at least 31 points.

  • #6 Oklahoma State at #22 Texas, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Last year's win in Stillwater was OSU's first victory over Texas since 1997.

    Since the schools became conference rivals, OSU has only won at Texas once — last season. Until that happened, Texas had beaten OSU 10 straight times at home.

    (A good barometer for how well the Longhorn defense is holding up, writes Kirk Bohls in the Austin American–Statesman, could be whether OSU's punter is forced to punt more often. The Cowboys have performed so well on offense this season that the punter has only had to punt a couple of times per game.)

    Anyway, I pick Oklahoma State to win by 10 points.

  • #7 Stanford at Washington State: Stanford usually enjoys success when it visits Washington State, winning seven of its last 10 games there.

    But this can be kind of a streaky and unpredictable series.

    Last year, for example, when Stanford's only loss all season came on the road at Oregon, lowly WSU (only two wins all season) came closer to beating Stanford than any visitor except for Southern California.

    At 3–2, Washington State has already matched its win total for 2009 and 2010 combined. Two more victories will match the total for those seasons and 2008 — and maybe the Cougars will manage to win two more games this season.

    But I don't expect them to get one of them against Stanford. I expect Stanford to win by a couple of touchdowns.

  • #8 Clemson at Maryland, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPNU: There was a time, primarily in the latter half of the 1980s and 1990s, when Clemson routinely defeated Maryland, sometimes by wide margins.

    In the last decade or so, though, the Terps have been something of a thorn in the Tigers' side. They've split their last dozen games, and home field has proven to be neither an advantage nor a disadvantage.

    I certainly don't think home field will help Maryland much in this game. The Terps have lost three of their last four games, with only a win over Towson to show for their trouble. Clemson, meanwhile, has beaten Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech en route to a 6–0 start.

    I pick Clemson by a touchdown.

  • #18 Arizona State at #9 Oregon: In the last couple of decades, Oregon has beaten Arizona State about two–thirds of the time.

    The Ducks' success rate at home has been slightly better than that.

    But they have seldom faced a Sun Devil team that was playing as well as this one has this far into the season — and sometimes, like when the Ducks hosted the Sun Devils in 2004, they do not win.

    Adam Jude of the Eugene (Ore.) Register–Guard says Oregon is moving forward in spite of injuries to key players like rusher LaMichael James. "Injuries happen," the Ducks' coach says. It's part of football.

    And Oregon victories are usually predictable in this series — so I choose Oregon by 10 points.

  • #11 Michigan at #23 Michigan State, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: Michigan State has beaten its cross–state rivals three straight times.

    That really astonishes me because, through most of my life and especially when I was a child, Michigan beat Michigan State just about every year. Michigan State victories over Michigan were rare; victories in consecutive seasons were rarer still.

    This year, the rankings suggest that Michigan will end its losing streak. But the Spartans can be stubborn in Lansing, and Denny Schwarze of the Lansing State Journal observes the Spartans have the opportunity to hand the Wolverines their first loss of the year for the third consecutive season.

    In this series, that is more than enough motivation. And I'm going to predict that Michigan State will win what may be the most exciting game of the weekend — by a single point.

  • #12 Georgia Tech at Virginia, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPNU: Georgia Tech has played in a bowl game for 14 straight years, and, judging from the Yellow Jackets' ranking thus far into the 2011 campaign, it is likely that Tech will make that 15 in a row.

    Virginia has appeared in bowls about half as often — and the Cavaliers have been to only one bowl in the last five years — but they are 12–9 against Tech since 1990, and they are 8–2 against Tech at home in that time.

    Jerry Ratcliffe of the Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress says stopping Tech's triple–threat offense poses a strategic challenge. I think so, too.

    I also think Georgia Tech will win, but Virginia will keep it close.

  • #15 South Carolina at Mississippi State, 11:21 a.m. (Central) on SEC Network: South Carolina holds a narrow edge in its series with Mississippi State since the two became conference rivals in the early 1990s.

    That's a little misleading, though. Carolina hasn't lost to MSU since 1999, but the teams play in different divisions so they play each other irregularly — or, at least, they have since the dawn of the 21st century. In the '90s, they met every year, and MSU won most of those encounters, but their roles have reversed in the last 10 years.

    Mississippi State is clearly struggling this year, having lost three of its last five games. South Carolina, meanwhile, is 5–1. The one thing the teams have in common is a loss to the defending national champion, Auburn. MSU lost on the road by a touchdown. South Carolina lost at home by a field goal.

    In what will probably be regarded a mild upset, I will pick Mississippi State to win at home by a single point.

  • Ohio State at #16 Illinois, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: It isn't so outrageous to imagine Illinois facing Ohio State in a regionally televised football game.

    What does seem strange is that it is Illinois, not Ohio State, that enters the game undefeated and ranked — in fact, the Illini are 6–0 for the first time since 1951 — while Ohio State comes into the game with two straight defeats (three losses in the Buckeyes' last four games) and nothing remotely resembling a ranking (not even so much as a single vote in the latest AP poll).

    Anyway, Illinois is now bowl eligible, and who knows if Ohio State will win enough games to play in a bowl this year? For someone who grew up watching Woody Hayes prowl the sidelines, this is through–the–looking–glass territory.

    That Illinois team went on to play in — and win — the Rose Bowl against Stanford, and it eventually improved to 7–0 before suffering its only blemish of the year, a tie with — wait for it — Ohio State.

    If this game was in Columbus, I would be tempted to take Ohio State. I'm still tempted to take Ohio State, but I'll resist that temptation and take Illinois to win by a field goal.

  • #17 Kansas State at Texas Tech, 6 p.m. (Central) on FSN: In recent years, Tech has had the upper hand in its games with non–divisional rival KSU, but, in the 1990s, the edge belonged to the Wildcats, who made three appearances in the Big 12 title game in five years.

    Kansas State is back in the rankings and Tech, a top 10 team not so long ago, is not ranked, but the Red Raiders might be on their way back. I have a lot of respect for KSU's coach, and I believe what the Wildcats have accomplished this year is quite remarkable, but I'm still going to take Texas Tech at home — where the Wildcats are 1–3 against the Raiders since 1997.

  • #19 Virginia Tech at Wake Forest, 5:30 p.m. (Central) on Wake Forest hasn't beaten Virginia Tech since 1983.

    I'm tempted to take Wake Forest, simply because the Demon Deacons are 3–1 (and 2–0 in ACC play) while Tech is 4–1 (0–1 in the ACC) — but Tech's lone setback came against eighth–ranked Clemson.

    Wake Forest probably will have to beat Clemson if the Deacons hope to play in the ACC title game, but Wake Forest won't play Clemson for another month. The game with Tech figures to be the Deacons' greatest conference test between now and then.

    And I don't think they will pass it. I predict Virginia Tech will win by a touchdown.

  • #20 Baylor at #21 Texas A&M, 11 a.m. (Central) on FX: This will be the 27th time Baylor and Texas A&M have played since Baylor left College Station with a victory.

    Oh, the Bears have beaten the Aggies since 1984 — three times — but those wins came in Waco, and the teams did play to a tie in College Station once — back in 1990 — but that, as they used to say before overtime put an end to that tying foolishness, is like kissing your sister. Or at least your cousin (unless you happen to be Jerry Lee Lewis).

    Baylor backers crave an outcome with more meaning.

    The Aggies struggled through two second–half implosions recently — their losses to Oklahoma State and Arkansas — but they seem to have gotten back on track with their win at Texas Tech last week. I think they will keep that momentum going this week, and I pick Texas A&M to win by 15 points.

  • Florida at #24 Auburn, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Since 1990, Florida is 10–5 against Auburn, but most of those wins have come at home.

    This will be a crucial game for both teams. Defending national champion Auburn is 2–1 in SEC play and needs to win this game to stay in the hunt for the conference championship game. The Tigers still have dates with LSU and Alabama on their schedule so they can be said to control their own destiny — as long as they don't lose any other conference games.

    Florida is 2–2 in conference play and needs to keep winning to keep pace with once–beaten South Carolina and Georgia, both of whom the Gators have yet to play. What's more, a win over Auburn could catapult the Gators back into the rankings.

    I expect this to be a pretty entertaining game, and I pick Florida to win it by a point or two.
Last week: 19–3

Season: 108–17

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