Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hoping for Turmoil at the Top

Well, conference championship weekend is upon us.

And, being as anti–BCS as I am, I'm still hoping for some upsets that can spark a real debate over who deserves to play for the national title and who doesn't.

Right now, it appears that LSU is the clear choice for one of the slots — but what if LSU loses to Georgia this weekend?

Should Alabama be allowed to play for the national title whether LSU is there or not? Alabama won't play for its conference championship, and 'Bama's coach said, several years ago, that no team that did not play for its conference championship should be allowed to play for a national title.

What if some of the other highly ranked teams should falter this weekend? What if #3 Oklahoma State loses to Oklahoma? What if #5 Virginia Tech loses to Clemson? What if the only remaining unbeaten team is Houston and the only remaining one–loss teams are Boise State, Stanford and Alabama, none of which will play for a conference title this weekend?

That's the kind of thing that can make a playoff system more likely in college football.

And that's what I want.

Idle: #2 Alabama, #4 Stanford, #6 Arkansas, #9 USC, #14 South Carolina, #17 Michigan, #20 Nebraska, #23 Penn State, #25 Florida State

  • #22 West Virginia at USF, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: The home team wins this game two–thirds of the time – literally.

    They've played each other six times, three times at each school, and the home teams have won two of the three.

    I'm inclined to think the home team will prevail again. Give me USF — by a point or two.
  • UCLA at #8 Oregon, 7 p.m. (Central) on FOX: Historically, UCLA has won nearly 61% of its games with Oregon.

    But recent history has favored the Ducks. Although the schools didn't face each other during the regular season this year, Oregon has a three–game winning streak against UCLA, and the Ducks have beaten the Bruins in eight of the 10 games they have played since 2000.

    Even more recently, Oregon beat USC, 38–35, on Nov. 19. The following week, USC blanked UCLA, 50–0.

    If USC wasn't on a suspension from postseason activity, the Trojans would be playing Oregon for the Pac–12 title in a rematch of their Nov. 19 thriller. And that would be a game worth watching.

    But UCLA finished second in that division and took the championship game berth in USC's place.

    I expect Oregon to win by at least four touchdowns. If UCLA keeps the deficit below that, that will be the upset.
  • #12 Georgia vs. #1 LSU at Atlanta, 3 p.m. (Central) on CBS: This will be the third time in the last decade that these teams have played for the SEC championship.

    That series is currently tied, 1–1.

    Historically, LSU holds a three–game edge in its series with Georgia, 15–12–1, but in the last 20 years, it is Georgia that holds a three game advantage, 6–3 (including the conference championship games).

    And I think Georgia is capable of giving LSU a pretty good run this time. After all, the Bulldogs' offense is 34th in the country, but it's hard to see how it can be too productive against the second–best defense in the land.

    When LSU has the ball, it is hard to see how its 62nd–ranked offense can be very imposing — and Georgia's fifth–ranked defense seems well prepared for the task of stopping it.

    It's just plain hard to give Georgia the benefit of the doubt on anything.

    LSU has been facing top–notch teams all year, teams that are still ranked as the season draws to a close — Oregon, West Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas — and has beaten all comers.

    Georgia, on the other hand, faced none of those teams. Its two early losses were to teams that were and remain ranked, but it didn't play any of the SEC West's Big Three — LSU, Alabama or Arkansas — during the regular season.

    You can make a convincing argument that Georgia hasn't really been challenged since mid–September. I guess I'm suceptible to that because I'm so anti–BCS and would love to see anything that hastens its demise.

    Georgia is a double–digit underdog in this game, but I'm still going to pick Georgia — albeit hopefully — in a conference championship weekend upset special.

  • #13 Oklahoma at #3 Oklahoma State, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: This will be the 100th meeting between these schools, but victories for Oklahoma State have been, to put it mildly, rare.

    Currently, OU owns an eight–game winning streak in the series — which looks impressive to people outside Oklahoma.

    Speaking as someone who lived in Oklahoma for four years, I can tell you that the current winning streak is dwarfed by others in the series. Between 1967 and 1991, Oklahoma beat Oklahoma State in every year but one (1976). From 1946 to 1964, the Sooners won every encounter — 19 in all.

    Most people seem to be picking OSU to win this game, and it isn't hard to see why. The Cowboys are ranked third in the country in offense, and they've been getting a lot of publicity for it — but OU's offense is just as good, ranked fourth in the nation.

    Since there is practically no difference between the two in total offense, the key may be in total defense — and that is really no contest, even though the defenses are not nearly as spectacular as the offenses. Oklahoma's defense is a modest #52 in the country while OSU's doesn't even crack the Top 100.

    I pick Oklahoma.

  • #5 Virginia Tech vs. #21 Clemson at Charlotte, N.C., 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: You couldn't tell it from their last five meetings, but this series once belonged to Clemson.

    It's been a sporadic series. They met two or three times a decade — at best — from the turn of the 20th century until the 1980s — and they have only played twice as conference rivals.

    On Saturday, they will play for the ACC title — and it just might be the most entertaining game of the day.

    Clemson hasn't beaten Virginia Tech since 1989 — and I'm not inclined to think that will change.

    Clemson has a narrow edge on offense. The Tigers are 29th in the country while the Hokies are 36th. Tech has a clear edge on defense, ranked 12th while Clemson is 63rd.

    They say defense wins championships so I guess this is Tech's opportunity to prove it. If my other predictions hold up, a win in this game could put Virginia Tech in the national championship game.

    Whether it does or not, though, I'm still picking Virginia Tech by nine points.

  • #24 Southern Miss at #7 Houston, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: It's probably a bit of a stretch to see Houston playing in the national championship game — even if the Cougars beat Southern Miss and remain undefeated.

    Chances are that the folks who attend the game — or watch it on TV — will be treated to quite a show. Houston has the nation's top–ranked offense, but Southern Miss' offense is pretty explosive, too. It is ranked 15th in the country.

    Once again, I am reminded of the old adage that defense wins championships because Southern Miss turns the tables on Houston on the defensive side of the ball. Southern Miss has the country's 26th–best defense while Houston's defense is rather pedestrian, ranked 60th in the land.

    The game is for the Conference USA championship — the second time these teams have played for the conference title. Houston won the first time, and I expect Houston, with its potent offense, to win this time, too.

  • New Mexico at #9 Boise State, 5 p.m. (Central) on The Mtn.: There really is no reason to expect much from New Mexico in this game.

    These teams have only played twice before, in 1999 and 2000, and Boise State won both times. This season, Boise State has been much better on both sides of the ball than New Mexico.

    I expect Boise State to absolutely hammer New Mexico.

  • #15 Wisconsin vs. #11 Michigan State at Indianapolis, 7 p.m. (Central) on FOX: Since 2003, the home team has won this game — including the time the two played earlier this season in Lansing, Mich. The Spartans won that game, 37–31.

    This will be the 50th time these teams have played. As the Big Ten title game, it is being played in the neutral site of Indianapolis so home field track records aren't terribly relevant. Wisconsin was the winner the only other time the teams played on a neutral field — in December 1993 when the teams played in the Coca–Cola Classic in Tokyo.

    That offers little insight, though. Certainly, the game played earlier in Michigan provides more — except that the score didn't reflect reality. Both teams have Top 10 defenses. Michigan State's is third in the country, Wisconsin's is seventh.

    Wisconsin's offense is pretty good, too, ranked 12th in the country while MSU's is, by comparison, rather dismal. It is ranked 64th.

    I pick Wisconsin to win the rematch.

  • Iowa State at #16 Kansas State, 11:30 a.m. (Central) on FSN: The history of this series has been that the home team usually wins it.

    But this hasn't been a typical season at Iowa State. It looked like it might be when ISU got off to a 3–4 start with three narrow non–conference wins followed by four straight conference losses. But then — inexplicably — Iowa State got hot and reeled off three straight wins, including a double–overtime thriller against Oklahoma State.

    Now 6–5, the Cyclones appear headed to their seventh bowl since 2000. That's pretty impressive when you consider that Iowa State played in no bowl games from 1979 to 1999.

    Meanwhile, Kansas State is enjoying the kind of recognition it has rarely seen since the dawn of the 21st century. But the 9–2 Wildcats were unable to defeat Oklahoma State when they had their opportunity.

    I got the feeling, as I watched parts of Iowa State's game with Oklahoma last week, that ISU is running out of gas. The numbers say ISU has the better offense and KSU has the better defense.

    Can't win if you don't score, but scoring hasn't been a problem for Iowa State in recent years. Scoring more than K–State, though, has been another matter, and I think ISU will come up just short this time, the way it has tended to do in recent years.

    Kansas State by a touchdown.

  • UNLV at #18 TCU, 1:30 p.m. (Central) on Versus: Unless you are a TCU fan, I can't think of a reason for a college football enthusiast to watch this game.

    UNLV, 1–10, simply doesn't appear capable of beating TCU, 9–2. TCU is light years ahead of UNLV on both offense and defense.

    And there isn't really any hope to be found in the series record. TCU is 8–1 all time against UNLV and enjoys a seven–game winning streak (UNLV's only win came in 1997).

    As TCU departs for the Big 12 next season, the Frogs should be leaving the Mountain West on a winning note. TCU is the clear choice in this one.

  • Texas at #19 Baylor, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: If you grew up in the old Southwest Conference (as I did) — or even if your memory only includes the Big 12 in the post–SWC era — it is not strange to see these teams play each other.

    They've been playing since 1903, when they first met in the neutral site of San Antonio. Texas won that first encounter, 48–0. In what may have been an indication of the futility of the Bears' efforts in this series, Texas shut out Baylor in their next two meetings as well.

    In fact, the Longhorns either shut out the Bears or held them to less than 10 points in all but one of their first 10 games. Meanwhile, Texas scored at least 11 points (and, often, much more than that) in all but one of those games — the exception was the only one Texas didn't win (a 6–6 tie).

    That has been the history of this series, which will be renewed for the 100th time on Saturday. Baylor usually struggles to score — and win — no matter where they play. The Longhorns have been a little more successful at home than in Waco, where they play this year, but even on the Bears' home field, Texas has won about two–thirds of the time.

    And the Longhorns have won their last six games in Waco. Baylor hasn't beaten Texas there since 1997.

    As I say, it isn't strange for these teams to play each other. Nor is it strange for one of the teams to be ranked. But the ranked team has almost always been Texas, not Baylor.

    The main attraction in this game has to be those times when Baylor has the ball. The Bears' offense, led by Robert Griffin III, and the Longhorns' defense are both in the Top 10.

    Texas has a mediocre offense, but it should be able to handle Baylor's defense, which is one of the worst in the country.

    Frankly, I'd love to see Baylor win. Combined with the Bears' win in Austin last year, that would give Baylor a rare winning streak against Texas. How rare is it? Well, Baylor has had a couple of two–game winning streaks against Texas in my lifetime, one more during my parents' lifetimes and one more during my grandparents' lifetimes.

    The Bears have never won more than two in a row against Texas.

    But I just can't shake the feeling that Baylor will be undone by its defense. I pick Texas to win.
Last week: 15–1

Season: 204–51

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