Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Nearing the Finish Line ...

Sunday will be the 29th anniversary of what may be
the most amazing finish in the history of the Big Game.

After major showdowns in the SEC and Pac–12 the last couple of weeks, this week seems sort of like the lull before the next storm.

Some of the more significant late–season games will be coming up next week — on Thanksgiving and the weekend that follows.

Texas–Texas A&M may not have the kind of national implications it has had in the past, but it may well be the last meeting between these two old rivals and will certainly draw a sizable TV audience on Thanksgiving night.

Then, the next day, LSU will host Arkansas, and Alabama will meet Auburn on Saturday.

Like the UT–A&M game, next weekend's rivalry clashes between the likes of Florida and Florida State and USC and UCLA won't necessarily mean much to the rankings, but they have a lot of significance for the students and fans of those schools.

Then, the following weekend, all eyes will be on Oklahoma–Oklahoma State. Whatever happens between Alabama and Auburn, football fans will still be curious to know if OSU can remain unbeaten or if the Sooners can upend the Cowboys and sneak into the national championship game (and, incidentally, Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated says OU has a better chance of being in the national title game than Alabama).

There should be several intriguing story lines in college football in the next few weeks.

I've made no secret of the fact that I'm no fan of the BCS. I'd like to see college football go to a real playoff system, perhaps incorporating the existing bowls as the sites for the championship, the semifinal rounds and, possibly, quarterfinal rounds — on a rotating basis.

But, if such a thing is going to happen, we're going to need a season or two of virtually complete chaos. That's going to require inconclusive regular seasons followed by equally inconclusive conference championship games, producing several legitimate prospects for the two national championship berths, not merely three or four.

Ideally, I suppose, we need about half a dozen one–loss teams. Really, the more the better, but it seems to me that it's going to take half a dozen at least to loosen the exclusive grip the BCS has on NCAA football. The grip won't be broken in one season, and the BCS has frequently been criticized when three or more teams could make plausible arguments for being allowed to play for a national title.

This season probably won't produce the kind of chaos that is needed to prompt a wholesale reform of the system, but football fans who want to see the NCAA go to a real playoff system can always hope, right up until the final whistle of the championship game itself, that the kind of chaos that is needed will happen.

As I say, that kind of chaos probably won't happen this year. But, if it's going to happen at all, it might as well start to happen this year. And this weekend is as good a weekend as any.

  • #22 Southern Miss at UAB, 7 p.m. (Central) on CBSSN: This series has been exclusively the product of the 21st century — but, until two years ago, it was traditionally lopsided.

    Southern Miss went 9–0 against UAB from 2000 to 2008, but UAB has won the last two meetings — all of which means precisely nothing, I suppose.

    Except in terms of momentum and confidence — not to mention the fact that Southern Miss (9–1) is ranked in the Top 25 and UAB is 2–8.

    I think Southern Miss will win by three touchdowns.

  • #9 Virginia Tech at North Carolina, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Historically, Virginia Tech has dominated this series — although the series was dormant for nearly half a century.

    In the first half of the 20th century, the schools met regularly on the gridiron. But then they fought to a tie for the only time at North Carolina — and didn't play again until the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day 1998.

    They became conference rivals in 2004 and have been playing each other ever since. Virginia Tech is 6–1 in that time — a much higher winning percentage than the Hokies have compiled against the Tar Heels since their first meeting way back in 1902.

    One of these days, North Carolina will beat Virginia Tech. But not this time. I pick Virginia Tech by 10 points.
  • #2 Oklahoma State at Iowa State, 8 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: Historically, OSU would prefer to be playing this game in Stillwater, where the Cowboys have a 14–6–2 advantage.

    Since 1991, Iowa State is 4–2–1 at home against Oklahoma State.

    But this is Oklahoma State, 2011 edition, we're talking about. The Cowboys are averaging more than 50 points a game. Iowa State, meanwhile, has been averaging less than half that.

    I pick Oklahoma State to win by three touchdowns — at least — in the Cowboys' warmup for their in–state grudge match with Oklahoma.
  • #1 LSU at Ole Miss, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: I've been saying all along that I am not sold on LSU — and, in spite of everything that has happened, I am still not sold on the Tigers. Not yet. If they beat my Razorbacks next week, I'll concede the point. But until then ...

    It is beyond dispute, though, that, in last weekend's Associated Press poll, LSU became the first unanimous #1 during the regular season since 2008.

    The Tigers didn't necessarily distinguish themselves by beating Western Kentucky last week. Nor will they distinguish themselves when they beat the hapless Ole Miss Rebels this weekend — which they will.

    To suggest otherwise would be ludicrous. Ole Miss has lost 12 consecutive SEC games. Just last week, the Rebels were blown out (27–7) at home by Louisiana Tech last week. LSU, meanwhile, is 11–2 in the SEC in the last two years. The Tigers avenged one of last season's losses — to Auburn — earlier this season, and they will have the opportunity to avenge the other one — to Arkansas — next week.

    As long as they don't take their eyes off the ball.

    I don't think they will. I expect LSU to win.

  • Georgia Southern at #3 Alabama: To the casual observer, Georgia Southern may not seem like a worthy foe for a team that was considered a potential national champion only a couple of weeks ago.

    But, as Lee Corso would say, not so fast, my friend.

    Sure, Tuscaloosa is a tough place for a visiting team to play. I've said that before. But Georgia Southern brings a 9–1 record to this game — same as the Crimson Tide.

    Well, Alabama plays a tougher schedule, you may say — and that is undoubtedly true. In just their SEC division alone, the Tide must face LSU, Arkansas and Auburn every year — as well as Mississippi State and Ole Miss and, presumably, the Texas A&M Aggies when they join the conference next year.

    I do believe Alabama will win the game — but it might not be quite as easy as some people think.

  • #18 USC at #4 Oregon, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Historically, Southern Cal has the advantage in this series, but there are a couple of points in Oregon's favor.

    The series has been much closer when the games have been played in Oregon. The Trojans have a slight edge overall (12–11–1), but the Ducks are 3–2 there in the last 10 years. That's better than the record in Los Angeles, where the Trojans have won nearly four–fifths of the time.

    What's more, Oregon has beaten USC the last two times the teams have played in Eugene.

    Oregon also has the additional motivation of possibly being back in the national championship game in January — if all the chips fall just so. That would, include, of course, some apparently improbable turns of events — but you really never know what's going to happen in a football game.

    I don't know what will happen in this game — but I think I have an idea. I'll pick Oregon to win.

  • #5 Oklahoma at #25 Baylor, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: This will be the 20th time these teams have faced each other in football, and Baylor is still looking for its first victory over the Sooners.

    It hasn't been uncommon for Oklahoma to be ranked when the Sooners and the Bears have played, especially since the dawning of the 21st century, but rarely — if ever — has Baylor been ranked. That alone makes this game special, I suppose.

    It won't make it exceptional, though. I expect Oklahoma to win handily.

  • Mississippi State at #6 Arkansas, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: Mississippi State has never beaten the Razorbacks inside the state borders of Arkansas. The closest the Bulldogs have come to a victory was in 1993, when they fought to a 13–13 tie in Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium.

    It's not possible for a college football game to end in a tie anymore, and I don't think Mississippi State will win this time, but I think it might be closer than a lot of people probably expect. I'll take Arkansas by 10 points.

  • #7 Clemson at North Carolina State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: These schools have played each other nearly 80 times (annually since 1971), and Clemson has a winning record over N.C. State wherever they have played — including games that were played at the neutral site of Charlotte, N.C.

    N.C. State is a respectable 5–5 and may well be motivated by the knowledge that all NCSU needs to get a bowl bid is one more win — but that win seems much more likely to come against 2–8 Maryland next week than against 9–1 Clemson this week.

    I pick Clemson in what could be a very close game.

  • California at #8 Stanford, 9:15 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: I think this edition of "The Big Game" could be a lot better than the rankings might suggest. After all, 6–4 Cal has the nation's 16th–best defense — far and away the best Stanford has faced.

    What's more, the Bears aren't likely to be intimidated by the Stanford crowd. They're 3–1 at Stanford since 2003.

    But, with the exception of last week's loss to Oregon, this seems to be Andrew Luck's year so I pick Stanford to win the game.

  • #10 Boise State at San Diego State, 7 p.m. (Central) on CBSSN: This is the first time these teams have met.

    Boise State, of course, is still smarting from its loss to TCU last week, and 6–3 San Diego State appears to have the tools to hand Boise its second consecutive regular–season loss — which is an experience the Broncos haven't had since September 2005.

    But the Broncos have the 15th–best offense in the country and the 20th–best defense. San Diego State is 45th and 55th, respectively. They play in the same conference so their numbers have been compiled against roughly the same opponents — the Broncos have just done better than the Aztecs.

    For example, last weekend San Diego State barely got past Colorado State, 18–15. Boise State thumped that same CSU team a month ago, 63–13.

    There have been some bright spots for the Aztecs. Their margin of victory over Air Force was slightly higher than Boise's; SDSU won by 14, Boise won by 11. And they both lost to TCU, although SDSU went down by 13 while Boise got edged by a single point.

    I'll go with Boise State by a couple of touchdowns.

  • SMU at #11 Houston, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on FSN: Houston has won five in a row against SMU and eight of nine since 1994.

    This was something of a rivalry in the last couple of decades of the old Southwest Conference when both schools were contenders — albeit in different seasons — for the national title. SMU had been a member of the SWC since 1918, but Houston didn't join until nearly 60 years later.

    As SWC competitors, the schools and their fans just about saw it all in their series — video game–like scores (Houston put 95 points on SMU in 1989), old–fashioned defensive struggles (SMU won a 10–3 decision in 1986, and Houston won a 13–11 game in 1980) — or they thought they did.

    Houston has a five–game winning streak against SMU that dates back to 2006. Neither team had ever won more than three in a row against the other before — and now undefeated Houston has a chance to double that achievement with its sixth straight victory.

    Like old times, Houston has one of the nation's most prolific offenses, and I expect it to win the day against the Mustangs.

  • Indiana at #12 Michigan State, 11 a.m. (Central) on the Big Ten Network: Michigan State has every reason to believe the Spartans will win this game. They've beaten the Hoosiers in 16 of the 20 games the teams have played since 1987.

    The teams are virtually indistinguishable on offense, but there is a huge gap between Michigan State's third–ranked defense and Indiana's defense, which is ranked 106th.

    I'll go with Michigan State.

  • Kentucky at #13 Georgia, 11:21 a.m. (Central) on SEC Network: A win over Kentucky will clinch the SEC East for Georgia, and the recent history of this series suggests that it is practically a done deal.

    The Bulldogs have won all but two of the last 14 games between the schools — and, in true SEC fashion, Georgia has a decided advantage on defense. But Georgia also has a clear edge on offense.

    The bad news for the Bulldogs, though, is that Kentucky was the winner the last time the teams played in Georgia two years ago.

    But that, as they say, was then, and this is now. I expect Georgia to win this game.

  • Citadel at #14 South Carolina: This game means nothing in the SEC East race. Citadel isn't even a member of the SEC.

    South Carolina, in fact, can have no further influence on the race. The Gamecocks' fate is entirely in the hands of others. If Georgia beats Kentucky, Georgia wins the division. If Georgia loses, South Carolina wins based on holding the head–to–head tiebreaker.

    It's been more than 20 years since these teams met on the gridiron — and they never faced each other regularly. No real emotion involved here. Just a bit of a warmup for the postseason.

    South Carolina should win with no problem.

  • #15 Wisconsin at Illinois, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN2: The home team tends to win when these teams play, which should favor Illinois.

    The home team doesn't always win, though. In fact, the home team has failed to win half of the games played since 1995 — and that should favor Wisconsin.

    The Badgers have a Top 10 offense — which figures to be tested by Illinois' ninth–ranked defense.

    Wisconsin, though, is even better on defense (ranked sixth) — and that is bad news for Illinois (65th in offense).

    If the Badgers aren't distracted, I expect Wisconsin to stay on track for its showdown next week with Penn State.

  • #16 Kansas State at Texas, 7 p.m. (Central) on FX: Texas has beaten KSU two–thirds of the time the Wildcats have traveled to Austin, and none of the numbers — except maybe the rankings — suggest that anything will be different this time.

    The Longhorns have been better — albeit marginally so — on offense and defense.

    I'll take Texas.

  • #17 Nebraska at #20 Michigan, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: This will be the first regular–season game between these two teams since John F. Kennedy was president.

    In fact, this will be the seventh time these teams have faced each other, but the first three games were played before the end of World War I.

    Their last two meetings were in bowl games — the Fiesta Bowl in January 1986 and the Alamo Bowl in December 1995.

    This season, Michigan has been more successful on both offense and defense than Nebraska, and the Wolverines have the advantage of playing before the home crowd.

    I'll pick Michigan to win.

  • Colorado State at #19 TCU, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBSSN: Colorado State was the winner when these schools met for the first time in 1998.

    But TCU won the next seven contests and appears likely to win this one as well.

    All the numbers suggest it.

    TCU (8–2) has a far better offense and defense than Colorado State (3–6). What's more, CSU hasn't won since September. TCU is coming off a huge victory over Boise State.

    Unless the Horned Frogs allow themselves to be distracted by their own success, I expect TCU to win the game.

  • #21 Penn State at Ohio State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Considering that Penn State narrowly lost to Nebraska after a week of almost incomprehensible distraction, I think the Nittany Lions showed considerable resiliency.

    And, even though this week's game is on the road (where Ohio State is 9–6 in its series with Penn State), I have a feeling the Nittany Lions might win. They have a Top 10 defense going against an offense that isn't ranked in the Top 100.

    Win or lose, Penn State's postseason fate won't be sealed this Saturday. The Leaders Division will be decided the following weekend, when Penn State and Wisconsin, both currently 8–2, meet in Madison.

    If both teams take care of business this weekend, that showdown will guarantee a 10–win season for the victor. And I think Penn State will take care of business against Ohio State.

  • Virginia at #23 Florida State, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: These teams have played 16 times since 1992, and Virginia has won only twice.

    Even more ominously for the Cavaliers, both of those wins came in Virginia. They have never beaten the Seminoles in Florida.

    Despite the lopsided nature of the outcomes, though, many of the games have been close. But almost all of those games were played in Charlottesville. The eight games that have been played in Tallahassee have been far more decisive — with the exception of a game played in 1996, Florida State has won every game there by at least 21 points.

    In fact, the margin in both of the last two games played in Tallahassee was 33 points.

    I don't think it will be quite that lopsided this time. Both teams are 7–3, and Virginia is still in the race for a berth in the ACC Championship Game. The Cavaliers have a season–ending game with Virginia Tech, the team they must overtake to win their division. Holding the head–to–head tiebreaker could do the trick.

    The Seminoles, meanwhile, lost to Clemson, the team they trail by a single game in the ACC's Atlantic Division — but, with only one conference game left for each to play, there simply isn't any way for FSU to win it.

    Both teams have been pretty good on defense, fairly average on offense. Virginia may have more to play for, but that could work against them, almost distracting them from the task at hand. I think Florida State will play a more stable game and make fewer mistakes.

  • Boston College at #24 Notre Dame, 3 p.m. (Central) on NBC: Between 1999 and 2008, Boston College won seven out of eight contests with Notre Dame.

    But the last two games have belonged to Notre Dame and I think this one will, too.
Last week: 14–6

Season: 174–43

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