Friday, November 4, 2011

At Last, LSU and Alabama Face Off

I guess it was to be expected that, with the two top–ranked teams facing each other this Saturday, attention quickly would focus on the occasions when such a confrontation has occurred during the regular season.

As Richard Rothschild observes for Sports Illustrated, games pitting #1 and #2 against each other were "as rare as full solar eclipses in the pre–BCS era — even in the bowls."

Some people have even suggested that these teams should meet again in January for the national title. Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times opposes the idea. Dufresne says it wouldn't be fair to the other conferences.

Of course, the whole BCS concept was devised to simultaneously appease people like me (who have favored an actual playoff system for a long time) and people who wanted to preserve the bowl system with the two top–ranked teams playing each other at the end of the season for the national title.

One of the beautiful things about a playoff system is that conference rivals could meet in such a rematch if they both take care of business. It's happened in the NCAA Tournament, and no one complained that a certain conference got special breaks, as Dufresne suggests might well be alleged if LSU and Alabama are paired off in New Orleans. The talk at the Final Four was how the conference had proven on the court that it was superior to the others.

If the NFL followed a similar approach in determining who played in the Super Bowl, last February's game would have been played between New England and Atlanta (both of whom went down in the second round) — not Green Bay and Pittsburgh.

That is the advantage I have found in a playoff. Teams that make it to the championship game (or series) have really earned the right to participate in it – on a big stage before a very big audience.

Not to mention that all the postseason games or series that precede it have meaning as well. One of my biggest gripes with the BCS arrangement is that it has rendered all other bowl games virtually meaningless — except to the participating teams and their fans.

All of which is not to say that the winner of the LSU–Alabama game won't deserve to play for a national title in January. I am of the opinion that, if a team wins the Southeastern Conference, that team must be regarded as one of the best in college football.

And they certainly appear to be evenly matched.

Most football fans agree that LSU and Alabama are remarkably similar on the field, and some — Steve Eubanks of Fox Sports South, for one — are saying the difference could come down to the coaches. David Climer of The Tennessean says LSU's Les Miles is the wild card.

"He might fake a field goal," Climer writes. "He might fake a punt. Heck, he might fake a heart attack if he thought it would give his Tigers an edge."

The winner of Saturday's game has to be seen as being in the SEC West driver's seat — but it won't be over for either one when the final whistle blows. LSU must still play Arkansas, and Alabama must still face Auburn — two truly intense rivalry games. And neither can afford to overlook the Mississippi schools each must face this month.

Clearly, there will be hurdles yet to be leaped by both teams. To prematurely crown either SEC champ when neither has clinched even the SEC West title would be eerily reminiscent of the December day in 1969 when #1 Texas edged #2 Arkansas, and President Nixon proclaimed Texas the national champion — even though Penn State was also undefeated, and none of the bowl games had been played yet.

LSU and Alabama are playing a full month before one of the two — presumably — will be playing in the SEC title game — against either 10th–ranked South Carolina or 18th–ranked Georgia.

And whoever represents the West will, in all likelihood, be the favorite to prevail.

But that's why they play the games, isn't it? And, in the SEC, anything can happen.

Idle: #11 Clemson, #12 Virginia Tech, #16 Penn State, #22 Georgia Tech, #25 Auburn

  • #21 USC at Colorado, 8 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: These teams have played each other five times before, and Colorado has won every encounter.

    In fact, USC has seldom scored against Colorado, even the last time they met, in 2002.

    They will be playing more often, now that they are in the same conference, and I expect the Trojans to end their drought against Colorado soon — this weekend, in fact.

    But it appears that USC coach Lane Kiffin's propensity for blaming the officials when things go sour is running out of steam.

    Southern California should win this game, but, win or lose, Kiffin needs to accept what happens on the field with grace.
  • #1 LSU at #2 Alabama, 7 p.m. (Central) on CBS: By college football standards, this is an ancient rivalry.

    It dates back to 1902, and this will be the 73rd time these teams have faced each other.

    Alabama holds the historical edge, 44–23–5, and the Tigers have struggled in Tuscaloosa, as just about everyone does. But, although the Tigers lost the last time they visited Alabama, they won their four previous trips there.

    I wouldn't advise offense enthusiasts to watch this game. Defense figures to be dominant. Alabama's defense is first in the nation; LSU's is fourth.

    In fact, as this showdown has approached, the talk in Louisiana has been of the opportunity it offers to LSU's linebackers, according to Les East of the Baton Rouge (La.) Advocate.

    The game is a sellout — officially, but there are tickets available for those who are prepared to part with "from several hundred dollars up to $2,500 per ticket," reports Amy Wold of the Advocate.

    My living room isn't fancy, but I'll take it. I can watch the game in reasonable comfort. I can get something to eat or go to the bathroom without having to stand in line. I don't have to mess with traffic after the game.

    And I will predict that LSU will win a close one.

  • #17 Kansas State at #3 Oklahoma State, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: This is another old series, although it is rarely recognized as such because most people probably think of KSU as a basketball school.

    The first game in the series was played when Woodrow Wilson was president, and OSU has been winning regularly, wherever the game has been played. But the Cowboys have been particularly successful in Stillwater, where they have won the last two.

    Nevertheless, both victories were by narrow margins, and the Wildcats won the previous four times they played there so home field may not be that much of an advantage, even for this high–octane OSU team.

    But because the Cowboys are such a high–octane team, I will pick Oklahoma State to win by 20 points.

  • #4 Stanford at Oregon State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Stanford has dominated this series, and its domination has been pretty consistent no matter where the two have played.

    In Corvallis, Oregon State has been marginally more likely to beat Stanford than if the game is played in California, but Stanford has won more than 60% of the time in both places.

    In the last four years, though, the home team has won — which would appear to favor Oregon State. Even though Stanford is the one that has been in the mix for the national title of late.

    As Michael J. Fox asserted in "Back to the Future," history — well, recent history, anyway — is going to change. I pick Stanford to win by three touchdowns.

  • #5 Boise State at UNLV, 9:30 p.m. (Central) on CBSSN: This is the first meeting between these two schools, which means a new chapter in collegiate athletics is being written in Las Vegas this weekend.

    And UNLV has had its moments in athletics — mostly in basketball but occasionally in football, too — so one might think this could be an intriguing game. More intriguing than the numbers would suggest.

    But those numbers are compelling. In total offense, Boise State ranks 12th. UNLV is 116th. In total defense, Boise State is 16th. UNLV is 110th. Any questions?

    I'll take Boise State by five touchdowns.

  • #6 Oregon at Washington, 9:30 p.m. (Central) on FSN: Oregon has won seven straight against Washington, and the Ducks haven't lost in Seattle since 2003.

    I can't say that the winning streak is misleading. The closest score in all that time was 34–14; the widest was last year, when Oregon won, 53–16.

    And things don't necessarily look like they will be any better for UW fans this time, even though Washington is the host team. Oregon has the nation's sixth–rated total offense (Washington is #41). Defense is hardly the strength of either squad — Oregon is 72nd in the country, Washington is 95th.

    The Eugene (Ore.) Register–Guard reports that LaMichael James is "100 percent" and ready to return to the lineup after missing two games with an elbow injury — which would suggest that Oregon's offense could be on the brink of its most productive game of the season.

    Perhaps it is. But I'm going to wager that it will be much closer than that — closer than it's been in more than 10 years. I pick Oregon to win by 10 points.

  • Texas A&M at #7 Oklahoma, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: John Shinn of the Norman (Okla.) Transcript writes that Texas A&M, which fell from the rankings recently, poses an unusual challenge for Oklahoma, which is back in the top 10 after a one–week hiatus.

    "Texas A&M cannot be described as a passing or running team," Shinn writes. "It does both very well."

    My guess is that the Sooners will be able to solve the mystery. Being at home will help.

    The Aggies and Sooners had been playing each other off and on since 1903 when they became conference rivals in 1996 — but they had not played recently. They had only played twice in nearly 50 years.

    Texas A&M won the first three games it played with Oklahoma in the Big 12 Conference, but then a pattern emerged — Oklahoma won 10 of its next 11 encounters with the Aggies.

    I remember that exception. It came in 2002, and it was the source of many conversations with a friend and co–worker who had graduated from A&M and had been dreading that game.

    The game was played in College Station that year, as was the one that was played last year. Those are the only Aggie victories in the series since 1998 — and A&M hasn't won in Norman since 1997.

    Wins in Norman have been exceedingly rare for the Aggies. Historically, they've handled OU at home (9–5) but they have been practically incapable of winning in Norman (2–13). Prior to 1997, A&M's only win in Norman came in 1945.

    I just can't see the Aggies reversing that trend this year — and, since A&M is bound for the SEC next year, this may be Texas A&M's last chance. Oklahoma's offense is ranked second in the nation; A&M's defense is ranked 90th. When the Aggies have the ball, it will be in the hands of the nation's seventh–ranked offense, but Oklahoma's 34th–ranked defense seems better equipped to handle it.

    Give me Oklahoma by a couple of touchdowns.

  • #10 South Carolina at #8 Arkansas, 6:15 p.m. (Central) on ESPN There's going to be a lot on the line in Fayetteville.

    For one thing, the host team will be trying to keep up with the winner of the LSU–Alabama game in the SEC West.

    It seems so strange to me that these teams should be playing in such an important SEC matchup — because, until these schools joined the Southeastern Conference in 1992, they had never faced each other in football.

    As the conference newcomers, they were assigned to face each other in annual non&ndsh;divisional contests — while their games with all their other non–divisional rivals have been played on a rotating basis.

    With no history prior to 1992, this series has been establishing its trends in the last couple of decades — and one clear trend is that where the game is being played does matter.

    If it is being played in South Carolina, the Gamecocks are more likely to win than they are if the game is being played in Arkansas — which probably isn't saying much. The teams have played in South Carolina 10 times, and each team has won five games.

    Nevertheless, that's better than the Gamecocks' record in Arkansas, which is 2–7. And South Carolina has only won once in Arkansas since winning there in 1997.

    That doesn't mean Arkansas can depend on a victory, though. Arkansas' offense is 25th in the nation, but it will be facing the best defense it has faced since it played Alabama in September. South Carolina is sixth in the country in defense, but its 64th–ranked offense might be evenly matched with Arkansas' #71 defense.

    South Carolina still has a realistic hope of playing in its second straight SEC championship game. It holds the head–to–head tiebreaker with Georgia, the team with which it currently shares the SEC East lead, but a loss to Arkansas could ruin that. Georgia still has SEC games with Auburn and Kentucky, but the Bulldogs have enjoyed success against both in recent years and could slip past the Gamecocks if they stumble in Fayetteville.

    I expect a close game, but home field advantage will provide just enough of an edge for the Razorbacks. I pick Arkansas by a field goal.

  • Northwestern at #9 Nebraska, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on Big Ten Network: These teams haven't played since the Alamo Bowl in December 2000 — and they only played three times prior to that, but the Cornhuskers have won three of the four games.

    This will be the third time the teams have played in Lincoln — the first two were in 1902 and 1974 — and Nebraska is 2–0 at home against Northwestern.

    Lincoln is one of those places where it really is tough for the visiting team to win. In the future, Northwestern may be more competitive there. But not this year. I expect Nebraska to win by a couple of touchdowns.

  • #13 Michigan at Iowa, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: The first game in this series was played in Detroit in 1900.

    Since that day, Michigan has dominated the series with Iowa, winning more than 70% of the time. But the Hawkeyes have won the last two meetings, and both teams have won two of the last four played in Iowa.

    Six of their last 10 meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less. I'll pick Michigan to win by a margin that is consistent with that trend — a field goal.

  • #14 Houston at UAB, 6 p.m. (Central) on CBSSN: Houston trails this series by one game, mostly because the Cougars have struggled to beat Alabama–Birmingham on the road.

    I think that is likely to change, though. Behind the receiving of Patrick Edwards and Tyron Carrier and the passing of Case Keenum, Houston has the nation's top–ranked offense (UAB's is 95th).

    Since defense is not a priority at either school, I am inclined to think that Houston should win this game with its potent offense.

  • Minnesota at #15 Michigan State, 11 a.m. (Central) on Big Ten Network: It's too bad, from the Gophers' point of view, that this game isn't being played in Minnesota.

    The teams are dead even there with 11 wins apiece, and Minnesota has won four of the last five, whereas MSU holds a 15–6 edge in Lansing (and Minnesota has only won twice there since 1976).

    Aside from the record of past seasons, though, the record from this season benefits the Spartans, too. Minnesota is 2–6. For awhile there, things were looking up for the Gophers. They were going to bowl games every year, but it looks like this will be their third bowl–less season in the last five.

    Michigan State, meanwhile, is 6–2 — and was unbeaten in the Big Ten until being strangled at Nebraska last week. Now it is anyone's guess who will win the Legends Division — but Michigan State has no games to give away since the Cornhuskers hold the head–to–head tiebreaker.

    Everything favors Michigan State in this one.

  • New Mexico State at #18 Georgia, 11:30 a.m. (Central) on CSS: These teams have played three previous times. All three games were played at Georgia, and the Bulldogs won all three games.

    The only reason to think that this game will be any different is if one expects Georgia to have some sort of letdown after its win over Florida last week. True, the two are rivals, but I think a letdown might be more likely if Florida had been undefeated and the defending national champion going into last Saturday's game.

    As it is, though, I expect Georgia to win easily.

  • Purdue at #19 Wisconsin, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: How quickly things change in college football.

    Only a few weeks ago, there was talk of Wisconsin sneaking into a national championship game against LSU, Alabama or Oklahoma. But in recent weeks, not only has OU gone down to defeat, but Wisconsin now finds itself mired in a two–game conference losing streak, and all such national title talk has evaporated.

    Heck, even a berth in the Rose Bowl seems like a longshot now.

    The Badgers haven't lost three consecutive Big Ten games since 2008 (when they actually lost four in a row), and I don't think they will match that dubious achievement this time, either.

    It doesn't seem fair, does it? Wisconsin lost two road games by a total of 10 points against two traditional conference powers and nearly lost its spot in the rankings yet the Badgers have the 10th–best offense and the 11th–best defense in the land. Purdue (4–4) isn't in the top 50 in either category.

    Wisconsin leads this series, almost entirely on the strength of the Badgers' dominance at home. Actually, Wisconsin has been successful against Purdue both at home and on the road, but the Badgers' record at home (23–13–5) has been much more impressive than their record at Purdue (18–16–3).

    But Wisconsin has won its last five against Purdue so the location hasn't really mattered, I guess — except for the fact both of Purdue's wins over the Badgers since 1997 have come in Wisconsin.

    I don't think that will happen this time. Give me Wisconsin by three touchdowns.

  • #20 Arizona State at UCLA, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on Versus: Stanford's Andrew Luck gets all the reviews, but Arizona State's Brock Osweiler is every bit as important to his team.

    He has completed nearly two–thirds of his passes (he's thrown more passes than Luck has) and has a rating of 146.41. In fact, he seems so focused on football it's hard to believe that not too long ago he approached his collegiate career with considerable ambiguity, "shuttling between Arizona State's football and basketball programs," writes Chris Foster in the Los Angeles Times.

    But it was last year's Arizona State–UCLA game that tilted things in football's favor for the 6–foot–8 Osweiler, Foster reports.

    And Bruins fans may be kicking themselves for that this weekend.

    This series leaned to UCLA from the first time the schools played in 1976 until the early 1990s, then ASU dominated things in that decade.

    Then it appeared that UCLA was taking control of the series again — but Arizona State has enjoyed a slight edge since 2004, including a 3–1 advantage in the last four years.

    About the only thing in the overall historical record that favors UCLA is the fact that the game is being played in Los Angeles. The Bruins are 9–5–1 against the Sun Devils there, but I don't think that will help. I'll take Arizona State.

  • #23 Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPNU: Cincinnati lost its first four games at Pitt but won the last time the teams played there in 2009.

    Cincy returns as the #23 team in the nation, thanks mostly to its 34th–ranked offense. The teams are about even on defense so the difference may well be Pitt's rather lackluster offense.

    I'll go with Cincinnati.

  • Louisville at #24 West Virginia, 11 a.m. (Central) on Big East Network: Louisville hasn't beaten West Virginia on the road since 1990.

    And the odds don't favor the Cardinals this time, either.

    Louisville does have the 12th–best defense in the nation, but West Virginia't too shabby (#25). Louisville's defense should be an even match for West Virginia's 13th–ranked offense, but Louisville's offense (103rd in the nation) ought to be overwhelmed.

    So I'll go with West Virginia by 10 points.
Last week: 13–5

Season: 147–33

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