Thursday, November 7, 2013

Looking Ahead to the National Championship Game

Robert Griffin III and Baylor fans celebrate the Bears' win over Oklahoma on Nov. 19, 2011.

Based on the BCS standings, it is looking like Alabama would meet Florida State in the national championship game in January.

Oregon is still a contender, but either Alabama or Florida State would have to stumble for that to happen — and, of course, Oregon would have to win out.

I've been following college football most of my life, and I know that anything truly is possible. It just isn't always probable.

Alabama has won three of the last four national titles; because of that, I guess most people (myself included) take it for granted that the Crimson Tide will be playing in the next national championship game — which will take place in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 6, 2014. That is a reasonable assumption to make, but those plans could be derailed on Saturday when #10 LSU travels to Tuscaloosa. The last time LSU visited Alabama (in 2011), the Tigers won a battle of field goals, 9–6.

So it is possible that Alabama won't be playing in the national championship game. If the Crimson Tide survives, it will have a couple of easy matches with Mississippi State and Chattanooga but then must face the rejuvenated Auburn Tigers in the season–ending Iron Bowl.

And then, if Alabama is still unbeaten, the Tide must face the winner of the SEC East — probably Missouri but South Carolina, Georgia and even Florida still have a mathematical shot at it.

With lopsided wins over Clemson and Miami in recent weeks, Florida State looks almost unbeatable. The Seminoles would have to lose to both Syracuse and Wake Forest and Clemson would have to beat Georgia Tech for Florida State to be denied a spot in the ACC championship game since Florida State holds the tiebreaker over Clemson.

Once there, Florida State, in all likelihood, will face a rematch with Miami. Common sense tells you that won't be an easy game — until you remember how easily Florida State handled Miami last weekend.

So it is probable that Alabama and Florida State will wind up meeting each other in Pasadena. It would be their first encounter since Sept. 29, 2007 and only their fifth ever.

Of course, if one should stumble, the Oregon Ducks will be waiting in the wings.

Oregon faces what is probably its last regular–season challenge tonight when it travels to #6 Stanford. The Ducks do have to face in–state rival Oregon State at the end of the season and then the winner of the Pac–12's South Division — most likely #23 Arizona State — in the conference championship game.

Hang on to your hats. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Idle: #4 Ohio State, #8 Clemson, #13 South Carolina, #18 Michigan State, #22 Northern Illinois

  • #2 Oregon at #6 Stanford, 8 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: The best game of the weekend just might be played tonight at Stanford.

    Oregon has the second–best offense in the nation (Stanford is 79th), but Stanford has the 23rd–best defense in the nation while Oregon is ranked 27th.You might not think so, given Oregon's recent success, but Stanford leads this series, 42–30–1.

    Stanford won the encounter last year, prompting George Schroeder of USA Today to ask if Stanford has figured out how to stop the Ducks, but Oregon has won 10 of the last 13 meetings. Historically, Stanford has been quite successful at home, but Oregon has won five of the last six games played there.

    This will be the first of what I expect to be a series of cliffhangers in the Pac–12 this week. In the end, I expect Oregon to claim a narrow victory.
  • #12 Oklahoma at #5 Baylor, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on FS1: I know it's been kind of chilly lately, but it hasn't been anywhere near cold enough for hell to have frozen over.

    Yet that was precisely what I wondered when I read this week that Baylor was a two–touchdown favorite over Oklahoma tonight.

    This will be the 22nd time these schools have faced each other, and Baylor has lost all but one — the game that was played in Waco two years ago. Eventual Heisman winner Robert Griffin III engineered that 45–38 triumph.

    RGIII isn't around anymore, but, so far, Baylor has the top–rated offense in the nation. With Bryce Petty at quarterback and Lache Seastrunk at running back, the Bears are averaging more than 700 yards in total offense per game. The quality of the opposition has been questionable, but there's nothing questionable about the five–game stretch on which Baylor embarks tonight. Texas Tech is next, then Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas (which might be about to name a new coach).

    What happens in those five games will tell us whether Baylor really is the juggernaut it is thought to be.

    Oklahoma isn't bad on offense. The Sooners never are, but right now they are tied for 50th (a mediocre ranking) with San Diego State. Defense has really been the Sooners' strong point (OU is 10th in the land), but Baylor's 11th–ranked defense is pretty good, too, and seems better equipped to handle OU than OU appears to be to tackle Baylor.

    Until only a few years ago, I never would have thought I would predict this, but I pick Baylor to squeak by in this one. I don't think it will be by two touchdowns ... but you never know.
  • #20 Louisville at Connecticut, 7:30 p.m. (Central), 7:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: Connecticut can even the all–time series with a victory. Think that's going to happen?

    Louisville's 16th–ranked offense gets most of the attention, but Louisville's defense is ranked second in the nation. Meanwhile, Connecticut's offense is one of the worst in the nation, and its defense is only marginally better.

    I expect Louisville to prevail by a couple of touchdowns.

  • #10 LSU at #1 Alabama, 7 p.m. (Central) on CBS: For several years now, this has been the game that decided the winner of the SEC West. There are some other contenders for the title now, but this is still the marquee matchup.

    And, as is true of most of its all–time series, Alabama has been dominant — but the Tigers have been almost defiant in resisting the perception that, like everyone else in the SEC, they exist for the virtual amusement of the Crimson Tide. LSU has won five of the last six games the two have played in Tuscaloosa.

    I guess the spotlight will shine brightest when LSU has the ball. The Tigers are 22nd in offense; Alabama's defense is ranked fifth. Alabama's offense (#35) has been good but a little inconsistent at times. It will be up against the #21 defense.

    Mostly what those numbers tell you is that, in true SEC fashion, the defenses are better than the offenses. But how can that be? Both quarterbacks — LSU's Zach Mettenberger and Alabama's A.J. McCarron — are in the top nine. LSU running back Jeremy Hill averages 115 yards a game. Surely they will put some points on the board.

    Maybe. But it is just as likely that we could see another field goal duel.

    There are some offensive stars in this game, and they should make things interesting. I expect this one to go down to the wire, as the LSU–Alabama game often does.

    I do think that Alabama will win, perhaps by as much as a touchdown, and, in this series, that would qualify as a rout (occasionally, one team will beat the other by more than a touchdown, but that doesn't happen often).
  • #3 Florida State at Wake Forest, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: This is the 32nd time these teams have met, and Wake Forest can't be looking forward to it. The Seminoles have dominated the previous 31 games, 24–6–1.

    But most of those games were played at Florida State — and Wake Forest has been more competitive in recent years, going 4–3 against Florida State since 2006.

    It will be quite a challenge this year.

    Quarterback Jameis Winston leads the Seminoles' fourth–ranked offense. Winston has completed more than 70% of his passes, and his touchdowns–to–interceptions ratio is 4 to 1. Wake Forest's 35th–ranked defense may hang in there for awhile, but Winston will wear that unit down by the second half.

    Meanwhile, Wake Forest's 114th–ranked offense should be no match for Florida State's defense, ranked seventh.

    It should be an easy victory for Florida State.
  • #7 Auburn at Tennessee, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: This will be the first encounter between these teams since 2009 so none of the players on either side has any memory of this series — or of the times (in 2004 and 1997) when they played for the SEC championship.

    Both teams have been down in recent years, but things seems to be turning in their favor — moreso for Auburn than for Tennessee this season, but the Volunteers have shown signs of life. They're 4–5 and need to win two of their last six games to be bowl eligible. With their last two games against 2–6 Kentucky and 4–4 Vanderbilt, it seems bowl eligibility is an attainable goal for the Vols, but a win over Auburn would look good on their resume next to their win over South Carolina — and might lock up a more prestigious bowl bid.

    I expect Auburn to win by a field goal.
  • #9 Missouri at Kentucky, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPNU: This is the first time Missouri has played at Kentucky since 1968.

    Of course, the series isn't extensive. Until the Tigers joined the SEC last year, that 1968 encounter was the last time the teams had met.

    And, until the teams kick off Saturday morning, it will be the only game played between these teams in Lexington. Kentucky won that '68 game, by the way.

    Missouri's 15th–ranked offense, especially its passing game, should have little trouble with Kentucky's 82nd–ranked defense. Missouri's defense, ranked 56th, isn't a whole lot better, but it should be able to stop Kentucky's offense (ranked 98th).

    I'll take Missouri.
  • Mississippi State at #11 Texas A&M, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: The winner of this game will take the lead in the all–time series — which goes back to 1912, but the teams have only met twice since the Great Depression.

    Johnny Manziel (already the subject of pre–draft speculation) is the heart and soul of the Aggies' third–ranked offense, and I expect A&M to score a lot of points, as usual, even though the Aggies are facing the 22nd–ranked defense.

    Mississippi State actually has a fairly good offense, too. It is ranked 41st — and should be able to score some points against the Aggie defense, which is 97th. But the Bulldogs won't be able to score enough to win.

    I think Texas A&M will outlast Mississippi State.
  • Virginia Tech at #14 Miami (Fla.), 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: If this turns into a defensive struggle, my money is on Virginia Tech, which has the third–best defense in the nation. Miami's defense isn't bad (#31), but it just isn't in Tech's league.

    If it turns out that offenses dominate, though, my money is on Miami. The Hurricane offense is ranked 38th, which isn't great, but it is much better than Tech (#101).

    Miami leads the series, thanks in large part to a seven–game winning streak during the Hurricanes' glory years in the 1980s and early '90s.

    Lately, though, the series has favored Tech (7–3 against Miami since 2003).

    But I think Miami will claim a very narrow win.
  • Kansas at #15 Oklahoma State, 3 p.m. (Central) on FS1: Oklahoma State leads this all–time series by two victories, 31–29–3, has won eight of the last nine meetings with the Jayhawks and scored 70 points against Kansas the last time the teams played in Stillwater.

    I don't think the Cowboys will score 10 touchdowns on Kansas this time. This year's offense hasn't been that potent — but Kansas' defense has been horrid. It has given up more than 50 points twice this season so it is conceivable that OSU's 44th–ranked offense could come close.

    As long as the Cowboys don't get caught looking ahead to the three teams they have to play next — unranked Texas, #5 Baylor and #12 Oklahoma, they should improve to 8–1. I pick Oklahoma State by 10.

  • #16 UCLA at Arizona, 9 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: It's probably a longshot, but the Bruins could be playing in the Pac–12 championship game.

    They have four games left, and three are against their rivals for the Pac–12 South title — Arizona, #23 Arizona State and Southern Cal. If UCLA sweeps those games (as well as a home game with still–dangerous Washington next week), the Bruins will be playing for the Pac–12 crown.

    UCLA leads the all–time series but needed a win last year to snap a five–year losing streak against the Wildcats.

    The numbers from this season appear to favor Arizona. The offenses seem evenly matched. Arizona's is 33rd in the nation; UCLA's is 37th. Arizona's defense is ranked 37th; UCLA's is 55th.

    But I'm going to go with the team with the big–game experience. I pick UCLA.
  • #17 Fresno State at Wyoming, 9:15 p.m. (Central) on ESPN Networks: The winner of this game will take the lead in the series.

    Neither team has much of a defense so I have to conclude that the better offense will win — and that is clearly Fresno State. Record–setting quarterback Derek Carr directs the sixth–best offense in the nation.

    But Wyoming has the ninth–best offense in the land, thanks to quarterback Brett Smith and running back Shaun Wick.

    Interesting point — the home team has always won (one game was played at a neutral site and Wyoming won that one). But I predict that trend will end.

    I pick Fresno State.
  • Houston at #19 UCF, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: This is a young series — only four games have been played, all since 2005. UCF has never lost to Houston at home.

    Folks who watch this game, either at home or in person, will see two of the best quarterbacks in the nation — UCF's Blake Bortles and Houston's John O'Korn. Each has thrown only four interceptions.

    Overall, Houston has the more successful offense, but UCF has a much better defense. I think it will be close, but I'll take UCF by a field goal.
  • Brigham Young at #21 Wisconsin, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: It's been a long time since these two teams faced each other — 1980, to be exact.

    They met at Wisconsin that year in their first and only encounter, and BYU won.

    I'm inclined to think defense will be the decisive factor in this game. Wisconsin's defense is ranked sixth in the nation (BYU's is 51st) and held #4 Ohio State to its lowest score so far this season. It is safe to say the Badgers have been tested.

    That's good because BYU's offense (ranked 12th in the land) has bounced back from two early setbacks and led the Cougars to five straight wins, paced by Taysom Hill's 105 rushing yards per game.

    As always, Wisconsin has a good running back, too — two of them, in fact: Melvin Gordon (averaging more than 134 yards per game) and James White (who is contributing 100 yards per game).

    Clearly, it is reasonable to expect a lot of rushing in this game. Wisconsin's ground game is ranked 10th, and BYU's is ranked 14th.

    I think this will be a close game, and BYU could win it, but I'll take Wisconsin by a field goal.

  • #23 Arizona State at Utah, 3 p.m. (Central) on Pac–12 Network: The Sun Devils are in a race in the Pac–12 South and need to beat the Utes, who upset Stanford last month and could still be bowl eligible if they get two more victories.

    Arizona State has to focus on the task at hand and not get caught looking ahead to its season–ending games with UCLA and in–state rival Arizona.

    Statistically, Arizona State has been far better on both sides of the ball than Utah and should win easily. But, of course, Stanford almost certainly thought the same thing before the Cardinal came to Salt Lake City.

    Historically, Arizona State leads this series, 18–6, and has won 14 of the last 16 meetings.

    My guess is that Arizona State will pad its lead, but the Sun Devils need to be on their toes. This is an upset waiting to happen.
  • #24 Notre Dame at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: It's hard to see what the attraction is in this game. Both offenses have been mediocre, and Notre Dame's defense is currently ranked 36th (Pittsburgh's is 33rd).

    With the exception of a few gaps, these schools have met nearly every year since 1930, and the Irish have won 15 of the last 19.

    I think Notre Dame will win again. It's just hard to imagine how the Irish will do it.
  • Kansas State at #25 Texas Tech, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: Kansas State got off to a bad start this season — with a loss to North Dakota State — and has staggered to a 4–4 record.

    Texas Tech, meanwhile, surged to 7–0 start on the strength of its seventh–rated offense, then lost its last two games to the Oklahoma schools. Obviously, the Red Raiders are hoping to get back on the winning track this weekend, but they can't get caught looking ahead to next week's clash with #5 Baylor.

    If the Wildcats are going to be bowl eligible, this would be a good signature win and would leave them needing only one more win with three left to play. With a defense that is ranked 30th, that would be an attainable goal. Otherwise, it could be an uphill climb.

    Kansas State won the last time the Wildcats played in Lubbock, but the Red Raiders usually beat KSU at home.

    I'll pick Texas Tech to win by a field goal.
Last week: 14–0

Season: 157–29

No comments: