Thursday, November 24, 2011

College Football's Feast of Rivalries

I've been following college football for a long time now, and I can't think of a time when there was as much uncertainty — spoken and unspoken — on as many fronts as there is today.

On perhaps the most minimal level, college football fans are quite familiar with not really knowing which teams will play for the national title — and that certainly appears to be the case this year. It is generally assumed that top–ranked LSU will be one of the teams invited to play for the BCS' mythical crown, but the Tigers still have to get past my alma mater, the University of Arkansas, on Friday afternoon — and then the Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC Championship Game the next weekend.

Neither assignment will be easy.

As the Arkansas–LSU game is on this week's Top 25 schedule, I will discuss it — and why I think it is more than possible that LSU will lose — a bit later. But, if LSU wins and goes on to play Georgia, it's worth remembering that those teams have faced each other in the SEC Championship twice — and each team won one (by almost identical scores, too).

It won't be easy for LSU to beat Georgia.

The currently 9–2 Bulldogs have their traditional season–ending game with Georgia Tech this week, and there is a severe price to be paid if one overlooks that rivalry, but I'm sure the Bulldogs will endeavor to ration their emotion, knowing that one of three teams — LSU, Alabama or Arkansas — will be waiting for them in Atlanta next week.

What a story it would be if Georgia coach Mark Richt — virtually given up for dead after an 0–2 start — could win the SEC title and end the national title hopes of one of those three schools — because the winner of the SEC West is sure to be entertaining those thoughts next week.

The Bulldogs will be grateful just to be there and are sure to be the underdog, no matter which SEC West team they face (and, as Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated observed, rarely has a single conference — let alone a division within a conference — been so well represented at the top of the national polls).

Consequently, all eyes this week will be on the two big games in the SEC West, Arkansas–LSU and Alabama–Auburn. Ironically, the only team of the four who cannot fantasize about winning a national title is Auburn — last year's national champion.

Without Cam Newton, the Tigers have been reduced to mere mortal status — but that doesn't mean they aren't capable of pulling off an upset.

So Auburn gets its chance to upset the apple cart this week, then it will be Georgia's turn.

Well, that's what could happen on the SEC's side. It is likely that one of the teams in the national title game will be from the SEC — but probably not if Georgia wins in Atlanta next week.

There still would be the matter of which team would face LSU, Alabama or Arkansas. Will it be Stanford? Oklahoma State? Virginia Tech? How about Boise State? Or undefeated Houston? There are several potential upsets out there, too — Notre Dame might well knock off Stanford; Virginia could surprise Virginia Tech; who knows what else might happen?

It's the point in the schedule that is loaded with traditional rivalries, and those are a different breed. Records don't matter too much.

Being as anti–BCS as I am, of course, I am openly pulling for any chaos that will erupt — except where my alma mater is concerned! If the system works in the Razorbacks' favor, I will tolerate it. But, in general — and on principle — I think that, the sooner college football goes to a real playoff system, the better.

Let it be decided on the field — like the games in Waco, Los Angeles and Ames last week.

Idle: #5 Oklahoma State, #16 Kansas State, #19 TCU

  • #3 Arkansas at #1 LSU, 1:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: Most teams would probably be intimidated by LSU but not Arkansas.

    The Razorbacks have beaten LSU in three of the last four years — including a triple–overtime thriller in Baton Rouge in 2007, the last time LSU won a national championship.

    I can certainly see why the casual viewer would be inclined to think that LSU will win. The Tigers are ranked second in the nation in defense — and I've been hearing the adage "Defense wins championships" all my life.

    I guess this will be a good test. The Razorbacks have a far better offense than LSU's. In fact, Arkansas' offense (ranked #21 in the nation) has been consistently better than any other offense in the Southeastern Conference.

    Arkansas also has been dealing with a team tragedy this week. Freshman tight end Garrett Uekman died Sunday, the victim of an undiagnosed heart condition. On the day after Thanksgiving, I'm betting that his teammates will dedicate their game with LSU to him — and Arkansas will win in an upset.

  • #8 Houston at Tulsa, 11 a.m. (Central) on FSN: There have been some outrageous scores in this series, almost always on Houston's side.

    Probably the single most outrageous score was the day in 1968 when the Cougars ran up 100 points at home against a hapless Tulsa squad, but a couple of years earlier Houston tallied 73 points on Tulsa. In 1988, Houston registered 82 points and then scored 70 points in their 2008 meeting.

    Sometimes the scores are just wild on both sides. The last time these teams played in Tulsa, Houston won, 46–45. (The time before that, Tulsa won, 56–7.)

    I don't know if football fans are in for another wild score this time, but I do know, as do most college football fans, that Houston has one of the most potent offenses in America. What a lot of people don't know is that Tulsa has a pretty good offense, too (currently ranked 19th in the nation).

    I expect Houston to win — but it will be a lot closer than many people expect.

  • Iowa at #22 Nebraska, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: This has been Nebraska's first season as a member of the Big Ten and many of the Cornhuskers' conference games have been their first — or nearly their first — with various teams.

    But Iowa is a familiar foe — historically. This will be the 31st time the teams have met, but it will be their first game in more than 10 years and only the seventh time they have played since 1979.

    Half of the games were played in the 1930s and 1940s — so the outcomes of those games don't really mean much in the 21st century.

    But, no matter which decade or era is being discussed, Nebraska has generally dominated Iowa. Overall, the Cornhuskers have won 70% of their games with the Hawkeyes — and 83% of the games played since 1979.

    The fact that the game is being played in Lincoln probably works in Nebraska's favor, too, but I don't think the weather will be a factor. Current forecasts for Friday are calling for midday temperatures in the upper 40s or lower 50s in Nebraska — roughly the same as the forecast for Iowa.

    I expect Nebraska, with a slight advantage on offense and a more decisive one on defense, to beat the Hawkeyes by about 10 points.

  • #2 Alabama at Auburn, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: As it has so often before, the "Iron Bowl" appears destined to play a key role in the national championship race.

    Until 1998, this game was almost always played in the neutral city of Birmingham, but every game since then has been played at Auburn or Tuscaloosa. I guess that's been good news for Auburn. The Tigers have winning records on both campuses; the Crimson Tide won nearly two–thirds of the games played in Birmingham so they lead the overall series.

    As an Arkansas graduate, I would love nothing more than to see the Razorbacks win on Friday and the Crimson Tide lose on Saturday — because that combination would put Arkansas in the SEC Championship Game next week.

    And I do believe, as I wrote earlier, that Arkansas will beat LSU — but Alabama has such a ferocious defense. It's the best in the country, and it was pretty good last year, too — and, without Cam Newton to engineer a comeback (dubbed "The Camback") this year, I don't see how the Crimson Tide can be denied.

    I pick Alabama — reluctantly.

  • #22 Notre Dame at #4 Stanford, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: This series began in the mid–1920s, when Notre Dame's famed "Four Horsemen," coached by Knute Rockne, defeated Stanford and Pop Warner in the Rose Bowl.

    The teams played a few times after that, but the series really didn't become an annual event (not even annual, really) until 1988.

    Overall, Notre Dame has won 68% of the games it has played with Stanford, and the Irish won seven in a row against weak–to–mediocre Stanford teams between 2001 and 2008, but the Cardinal has won the last two.

    These days, when people think of Stanford's football team, they probably think of quarterback Andrew Luck, and it is true that he is a major reason why Stanford's offense is 10th in the country. But the Irish have been quietly compiling some pretty impressive offensive numbers of their own; they're currently ranked 33rd in the country.

    Neither team has been too shabby on the defensive side of the ball, either, and there is virtually no difference between them. Stanford is ranked 24th in the nation, Notre Dame is ranked 28th.

    Unless Luck is injured in what seems increasingly likely to be his final home game, I think Stanford will win the game and extend its streak against Notre Dame to three in a row.

  • #6 Virginia Tech at #24 Virginia, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: I'm sure it is no exaggeration to say that probably few people expected the Cavaliers to be playing for the division crown.

    But there was really no reason to think that Virginia would get its improbable win over the Seminoles — without which the Coastal Division race would be over and the Cavaliers would enter this game with nothing other than in–state pride going for them.

    However, that one–point win over Florida State has put the Cavaliers a victory over Tech away from the ACC Championship Game with Clemson. Virginia didn't play Clemson, but Virginia Tech did. It was the only game the Hokies lost (so far, anyway), and you have to figure that Virginia Tech would like a second shot against the Tigers.

    But the Hokies have to take care of business first, and that could be pretty challenging. Tech's numbers have been better than Virginia's on both offense and defense — but not by much — and having an excited home crowd pulling for them could lift the Cavaliers to victory.

    But I don't think that will happen. I'll take Virginia Tech by a pair of field goals.

  • Wyoming at #7 Boise State, 1 p.m. (Central) on The Mtn.: Wyoming is 0–5 against Boise State.

    But the Broncos should be concerned. Wyoming is 7–3 and its only conference blemish is its loss to TCU, who also beat Boise State. Whoever wins will be the runnerup in the conference — and perhaps the recipient of a respectable bowl bid.

    There's a lot at stake, but I see no reason to think that Wyoming can do something it has never done before. There can be room for only one of those in a given football season, and Baylor already claimed it last week.

    I pick Boise State to beat Wyoming by a wide margin.

  • Oregon State at #9 Oregon, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Known as the "Civil War," this is the seventh–oldest rivalry in America.

    It was first played in 1894, and the schools have been playing as Division I rivals since 1916. In 94 meetings since that time, the teams are nearly even (Oregon leads, 45–43–6), and, strangely enough, the visiting team has a slight edge. In games played at Oregon State, Oregon leads 23–18–3. In games played at Oregon, Oregon State leads, 21–20–3. (Six games were played in the "neutral" city of Portland prior to 1952, and Oregon State won four of those).

    In recent years, the advantage has belonged to Oregon, winner of three straight and 11 of the 17 games played since 1994. I think that will continue. I pick Oregon by four touchdowns.

  • UCLA at #10 Southern Cal, 9 p.m. (Central) on FSN: The rivalry between UCLA and Southern Cal is extremely unusual in American sports because they are not just in–state rivals. They are in–city rivals, with campuses that are, perhaps, 15 miles apart.

    Consequently, with more than 65,000 undergraduate students between them, many of whom remain in Los Angeles or southern California after graduation, there is a high likelihood that current students and alumni of both schools will interact on a daily basis, even if no sport is in season.

    And that tends to intensify the competition.

    It is also intensified on those occasions when the winner is likely, as it has been many times, to win or share the conference championship and represent the conference in the Rose Bowl.

    Based on the overall records, USC (9–2) would appear to have the advantage over UCLA (6–5), but that overlooks the fact that nonconference schedules are not created equal. UCLA lost to Houston and Texas in September; USC defeated Minnesota and Syracuse during the same period.

    In conference play, both lost to Stanford — UCLA by a far more decisive margin. USC lost to Arizona State; UCLA did not. But UCLA lost to Utah and Arizona — and USC did not.

    The recent history of this series strongly favors USC. The Trojans have won all but one of the 12 games played between the schools since 1999.

    I'll pick USC by a couple of touchdowns.

  • #11 Michigan State at Northwestern, 11 a.m. (Central) on Big Ten Network: There is a certain symmetry that exists in this series.

    Michigan State is 18–6 at home against Northwestern — and 18–6 on the road against Northwestern.

    That's a three–fourths victory rate in either place — and that's the Spartans' ratio against Northwestern in the last four games between the schools.

    It isn't always that neat, of course. From 1991 to 2006, the series was pretty competitive. MSU won seven times, Northwestern won five.

    But the Spartans seem to have been particularly successful on the road against Northwestern, winning eight of their last 10 games in Evanston.

    I've seen no compelling reason to pick against the Spartans. I expect Michigan State to win the game.

  • Iowa State at #12 Oklahoma, 11 a.m. (Central) on FX: Beware, Sooners. Iowa State just beat your in–state rivals in double overtime and now comes to Norman looking for more Okie blood.

    As much of an upset as Iowa State's victory over Oklahoma State was, though, a triumph over OU would have to be even more shocking.

    Oklahoma has won 12 straight against Iowa State and has lost only once to the Cyclones in the last 50 years.

    In a series that goes back to the 1920s, Iowa State has won less than 10% of the time, so there aren't too many bright spots for the Cyclones. But if you really want something to hang your hat on, the two most recent Iowa State victories over Oklahoma came in Norman — in 1961 and 1990. So, too, did their 7–7 tie in 1981.

    And those are all the games with Iowa State that Oklahoma did not win in the last half century. The Sooners are unblemished in the 21st century, and I expect it to stay that way. Oklahoma should win.

  • #13 Georgia at #25 Georgia Tech, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: Ever notice how the nicknames that are given to many rivalries tend to be sort of politically correct in their tone? I mean, they reflect the general nature of a rivalry, but not the true spirit.

    In that context, the Georgia–Georgia Tech rivalry is almost a breath of fresh air in its honesty — it is known as "Clean, Old–Fashioned Hate."

    Each side has something to hate about the other, and, based on the numbers, the very best that each team has to offer will be on the field at the same time. The numbers say that Georgia Tech has the better offense and that Georgia has the better defense.

    All else being equal, I tend to lean to the stronger defense. And that is what I'm doing in this one. I'll go with Georgia.

  • #18 Clemson at #14 South Carolina, 6:45 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Roughly 130 miles separate the two campuses. It was only natural that they would become rivals.

    The rivalry between the schools goes back to the 19th century. The rivalry between the football teams goes back to the turn of the century.

    Most of the football games have been played at South Carolina, but Clemson has won more than 60% of the time in spite of having to be the visiting team on most occasions. In recent years, however, the Gamecocks have held the upper hand, winning three of the last five contests.

    South Carolina's defense is fifth in the country (compared to Clemson's rather ordinary defensive unit) — and should be tested by Clemson's 18th–ranked offense (South Carolina's offense has really struggled).

    Once again, I will go with the stronger defense and pick South Carolina to win by a touchdown.

  • #20 Penn State at #15 Wisconsin, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Since these teams became Big Ten rivals in the 1990s, they have played in Wisconsin six times, and each team has won three.

    Thus, the winner of Saturday's game will take the lead in their conference series in Madison. More than that, the winner will advance to the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game.

    In those previous six games, though, Joe Paterno was on the sidelines. This will be the 15th time the schools have played each other in football but only the second time that Paterno hasn't been part of it.

    We're still in the early stages of the post–JoePa era, and I'm sure there will be lots of stories like that in the next year or two.

    By next fall, the returning Nittany Lions will have had nearly a year to adjust to the new reality. But it's all still new to them, and I don't think they're able, at this point, to compartmentalize the way they need to do to rise to the occasion against the Badgers.

    I think Wisconsin will win.

  • Ohio State at #17 Michigan, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: Nearly 12 years ago, ESPN said this was the greatest of all sports rivalries.

    There are others I would have included on ESPN's list, but, when I was a child, the Ohio State–Michigan game was more than a football game. It was an event.

    It isn't that way anymore. Oh, usually one team, maybe both, will be ranked, which makes it interesting, but when I was growing up, both teams were usually in the Top 10 — and the winner of their game almost always went to Pasadena to play in the Rose Bowl.

    Michigan can grab a share of the Leaders Division championship but, because the Wolverines lost to Michigan State earlier this season, cannot play for the Big Ten crown.

    They can, however, play for pride and bragging rights — and to snap a seven–game losing streak in the series. I think Michigan will win the game — by a touchdown.

  • #21 Baylor vs. Texas Tech at Arlington, Texas, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on FSN: When you've just beaten the Oklahoma Sooners for the first time in school history, what do you do for an encore?

    For Baylor, I suppose, a fitting finale would be to defeat the other team that beat Oklahoma this year (except the Bears still have a game to play against Texas on Dec. 3).

    The Red Raiders have played the Bears more often than any other team. Theirs is a series that began long before the teams became Southwest Conference rivals.

    Tech has won 15 straight, including the last two, which have been played in Dallas and Arlington. History suggests the Bears would have been better off keeping the home–and–away arrangement. Even though they have lost every game played since 1996, they do have a winning record against Tech in Waco.

    Tech needs to have history on its side, though, because the Red Raiders haven't had much else this season. They've lost six of their last season (with the exception being their win in Norman — go figure) while Baylor is riding a three–game winning streak.

    I can see in which directions these teams are headed, and I pick Baylor by four points.
Last week: 15–7

Season: 189–50

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