Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Spotlight Shines on 'Bama, Florida State

USA Today apparently was ready to punch Alabama's ticket to a third straight BCS championship game after the Crimson Tide rolled over LSU last Saturday, 38–17, but LSU was only the first of three groups of Tigers that Alabama must overcome to go to Pasadena.

A trip to Auburn is scheduled for Nov. 30, then the SEC championship game, most likely against Missouri, follows on Dec. 7. Those will be significant challenges. Auburn is one of only two teams (Alabama is the other) to defeat Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M so far this season.

In spite of those hurdles that Alabama still must clear on the road to Pasadena, though, Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports still wonders, in effect, "What do you think of me now?"

Ask me that question in about three weeks.

The same could be said of Florida State, I suppose. The Sporting News asserts that "[a]ll Alabama and Florida State have to do is win out, and both are in Pasadena playing for it all," and, at this point, that is hard to dispute.

That sounds like an easier assignment for the Seminoles, no matter which team from the ACC's Atlantic Division awaits them in the conference championship game.

But why bother with formalities? Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated is ready to proclaim Florida State the best team in the country.

Idle: #9 Missouri, #10 Texas A&M, #16 Fresno State, #18 LSU

  • Ball State at #20 Northern Illinois, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: Fans of offensive football should enjoy this midweek primetime battle. Northern Illinois' offense is ranked fifth in the nation, and Ball State's is 24th.

    Ball State leads the all–time series, but Northern Illinois has won four in a row and 11 of the last 14. Neither defense has been very impressive so it stands to reason that offense will decide the outcome.

    Ball State's Keith Wenning and Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch are completing more than 62% of their passes, and Lynch is rushing for more than 100 yards a game.

    I expect this to be a close and relatively high–scoring game. I pick Northern Illinois.
  • Georgia Tech at #8 Clemson, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: This will be the 77th meeting of these two schools, and Georgia Tech leads the all–time series by better than 2–to–1.

    But Georgia Tech has been far more successful at home than on the road — and that is just one more thing to worry about for the Yellow Jackets, who also must contend with the 11th–best offense and the 32nd–best defense in the nation.

    I think Clemson will win by a touchdown.
  • Washington at #13 UCLA, 8 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: This game might be more difficult than UCLA thinks.

    Washington started the season 4–0 but proceeded to lose three straight before righting the ship in the Huskies' last two games. A win over the Bruins would make a nine–win season (their third in the last 20 years) a realistic possibility.

    UCLA has won 11 of the last 14 games with Washington and hasn't lost to the Huskies at home since 1995.

    But this could be quite a challenge for the Bruins.

    The Huskies' offense is 10th in the nation (UCLA's is 31st). Washington's Keith Price has completed more than 65% of his passes, and Bishop Sankey is averaging 145 yards on the ground.

    And although the defenses are mediocre at best, Washington's is ranked higher than UCLA's.

    I'll take UCLA at home — but I think it will be close.
  • #1 Alabama at Mississippi State, 6:45 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: There aren't many series that have been as lopsided as this one. Alabama and Mississippi State have played 95 times, and Alabama has won 75.

    In all those years, Mississippi State has rarely won consecutive games against Alabama. The Crimson Tide, on the other hand, enjoys winning streaks against the Bulldogs. Alabama's current streak of five in a row pales when compared to the period 1958–1995, when Alabama lost to Mississippi State only once.

    The teams haven't played in Starkville nearly as often as they have played in Tuscaloosa, but Alabama has won four of the last five meetings there.

    In spite of how the season has gone for the Bulldogs, there was at least reason to hope they might win. But with QB Dak Prescott's gameday status uncertain, it looks like the Bulldogs' chances are slim and none.

    Of course, I am writing this several days before Mississippi State and Alabama face off so it is possible that Prescott will be in the lineup by kickoff on Saturday night. But, even if he is, I pick Alabama.

  • Syracuse at #2 Florida State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC or ESPN2: If, somehow, you have missed seeing Florida State play this season, do yourself a favor and watch this game. If you wait until the Seminoles take on the Crimson Tide in the national championship game, you might miss out on seeing the possible Heisman winner in action before he receives the Heisman.

    I'm speaking of Florida State QB Jameis Winston, the front runner for the Heisman, according to NBC Sports. He's second in the nation in passing with a 69% completion percentage and nearly four times as many TD passes as interceptions.

    Syracuse won the first time these teams met (in 1966) but hasn't beaten Florida State since. I'm not inclined to think Syracuse will win this time, either. Florida State's offense is ninth in the country, and the defense (ranked fourth) is even better.

    They have only played in Tallahassee twice, but the Seminoles won both. I pick Florida State to win again.
  • #3 Ohio State at Illinois, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: The Buckeyes have the sixth–best offense and the 10th–best defense in the nation. It is hard to see how Illinois (56th in offense, 114th in defense) will be able to keep up.

    This is an old rivalry that will stop being an annual event when the Big Ten re–divides into two divisions next year to accommodate the additions of Rutgers and Maryland, and Ohio State and Illinois are placed in different divisions. But this year, as usual, the winner will receive a wooden turtle — named Illibuck — symbolic of victory in the series.

    (Originally, the winner received a live turtle but, ever since the original turtle died, wooden turtles, with the scores of previous games painted on their backs, have been awarded instead. A total of 10 wooden turtles have been carved; I suppose a new one is carved when there is no more room for scores on the current one's back. It is the second–oldest rival trophy in the Big Ten.)

    Ohio State has won eight of the last nine meetings with Illinois, and the Buckeyes haven't lost at Illinois since 1991.

    I expect Ohio State to win again.
  • Texas Tech vs. #4 Baylor at Arlington, Texas, 6 p.m. (Central) on FOX: The last four games in this series have been played in Dallas or Arlington. The teams are returning to Arlington this year.

    The Red Raiders might want to go back to the home–and–home arrangement they had with the Bears before. Until Baylor beat Tech in 2011, Tech had won the last 15. But Baylor now has won two in a row against Tech.

    And Baylor's top–ranked offense is going to be hard for Tech's 62nd–ranked defense to stop this time around. My guess is the Red Raiders won't be able to stop it.

    Of course, Texas Tech poses its own challenge for Baylor. Tech's offense is ranked seventh in the land, but Baylor's ninth–ranked defense looks like it will be up to the challenge.

    I pick Baylor to win a high–scoring contest.
  • #5 Stanford at Southern Cal, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Stanford has won four in a row against Southern Cal, but the numbers kind of seem to favor the Trojans this time, even though Stanford is ranked fifth in the nation.

    Southern Cal's offense and defense are ranked higher than Stanford's — although not by much in both categories. The teams appear to be evenly matched; in fact, it isn't inconceivable that they could meet in a rematch in the Pac–12 championship game, but the reality is that the loser is going to face nearly impossible odds.

    This is a game that is more noteworthy for the defenses, but there are some offensive stars to keep your eyes on — like Stanford QB Kevin Hogan, who has completed more than 60% of his passes, and Tyler Gaffney, who is averaging 115 yards on the ground. Southern Cal QB Cody Kessler has completed nearly 65% of his passes.

    I think Stanford will win by a touchdown.
  • Utah at #6 Oregon, 3 p.m. (Central) on FS1: After last week's loss to Stanford, it is hard to imagine Oregon losing a second straight time.

    The Ducks have the second–best offense in the land, and their quarterback, Marcus Mariota, has completed more than 63% of his passes while throwing zero interceptions. Utah's pass defense has been dismal.

    Defense usually takes a back seat in the Pac–12, but Oregon's (29th) isn't bad; in fact, it should be more than good enough to handle Utah's 75th–ranked offense.

    These teams have met sporadically over the years. That is likely to change now that they are conference rivals.

    Oregon has won four of the last five meetings and hasn't lost at home to Utah since 1994.

    I expect Oregon to extend its home winning streak.
  • #25 Georgia at #7 Auburn, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: This is the oldest rivalry in the Deep South, and it is all knotted up at 54–54–8.

    This is bound to be the game of the week in the SEC, but I doubt if anyone would have predicted that before the season began.

    Nevertheless, there will be a lot on the line. The loser will no longer be in the hunt for a berth in the SEC championship game.

    Both teams have Top 25 offenses. Georgia's offense is led by QB Aaron Murray, and Tre Mason routinely gains 100–plus yards on the ground for Auburn.

    Georgia has beaten Auburn in six of the last seven meetings. The exception was 2010, when Auburn won the national championship. Clearly, the once–beaten Tigers hope history repeats itself this year, but we already know that Auburn can't duplicate the undefeated 2010 campaign (thanks to LSU's Sept. 21 win over Auburn).

    However, it remains to be seen whether Auburn (9–1) can qualify for the national championship game by sweeping Georgia and Alabama.

    I think Auburn will take care of the first part of that equation by narrowly beating Georgia.
  • Florida at #11 South Carolina, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: South Carolina has a decisive edge on offense. Florida has a narrow advantage on defense.

    Florida has won 19 of the last 22 games between these schools, but the Gamecocks won the last time they met in Columbia.

    I expect South Carolina to win.

  • #12 Oklahoma State at #23 Texas, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on FOX: Sometimes I almost feel sorry for Mack Brown. Sitting in that Texas hot seat, it is almost inevitable that, because of all the historic expectations, the Longhorns have to struggle just to get into the Top 25, only to get bounced at the first opportunity.

    But that is the sort of burden that comes with almost every high–profile college football coaching job.

    Texas has spent more time out of the Top 25 than in it this season, and the numbers for the OSU game are mixed. In this game, Texas has a narrow edge in offense while Oklahoma State has a more substantial advantage on defense.

    Texas has won 18 of the last 21 meetings in this series, but Oklahoma State won the last two times they played in Austin.

    If you accept the premise that the offenses virtually cancel each other out, then it comes down to defense, which I think it will. And, on that basis, I pick Oklahoma State.
  • #14 Michigan State at Nebraska, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC or ESPN2: Nebraska has won all of the previous games between these schools. But I think history may be about to change, as Michael J. Fox said in "Back to the Future."

    There's plenty of motivation. "Beat Nebraska," writes the Associated Press, "and a spot in the Big Ten championship game is all but assured."

    Michigan State has the top–ranked defense in the nation, which offsets its mediocre offense. Nebraska's 42nd–ranked offense may have some success but not much.

    Michigan State's offense may not fare too well against Nebraska's defense, either.

    I expect a low–scoring game, and that gives the edge to Michigan State.
  • #15 UCF at Temple, 11 a.m. (Central) on 6ABC, ESPN Regional: Temple has one of the absolute worst defenses in the country, and the offense isn't much better.

    UCF, on the other hand, has the 10th–best QB in the country (Blake Bortles).

    This is the first meeting between these schools. I think it will be an easy win for UCF.
  • Indiana at #17 Wisconsin, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN2: This series belongs to Wisconsin.

    The Badgers have won eight in a row against the Hoosiers, and they haven't lost to Indiana at home since 2001.

    But don't be so quick to award the victory to Wisconsin. Indiana has the eighth–ranked offense in the nation. The Hoosiers are led by QB Nate Sudfeld, who has completed nearly 62% of his passes, and Tevin Coleman, who chips in more than 106 yards on the ground per game.

    Offensive standouts for Wisconsin include QB Joel Stave, who has completed more than 64% of his passes, and Melvin Gordon, who runs for an average of nearly 130 yards per game.

    I pick Wisconsin by a touchdown.
  • Houston at #19 Louisville, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPNU: Louisville is second only to Michigan State in defense, and I've been hearing the adage "Defense wins championship" all my life.

    Of course, Louisville has a pretty good offense, too — #21 in the country, led by Teddy Bridgewater (who has completed more than 70% of his passes). Houston's defense is ranked 88th overall, and it is even worse against the pass. Ouch.

    The all–time series is tied, 7–7, and each team is 4–3 at home.

    But this is the first time they have met in nearly a decade.

    My guess is Louisville will win.
  • Oregon State at #21 Arizona State, 8:30 p.m. (Central) on Pac–12: Offense rules in the Pac–12, and Oregon and Washington are the class of the league, but Oregon State (#25) and Arizona State (#17) are not far behind.

    Defense is the redheaded stepchild in the Pac–12, but ASU has the 14th–best defense in the country, and I expect that to be the difference.

    This will be the 40th meeting between these schools, and (historically, at least) Arizona State holds the edge.

    But recent history favors Oregon State with a 5–2 record against the Sun Devils since 2006 (between 1972 and 2005, the Beavers only beat the Sun Devils twice).

    As I say, though, ASU has one of the best defenses in the country, and I anticipate an Arizona State victory.
  • Iowa State at #22 Oklahoma, 11 a.m. (Central) on FS1: Oklahoma hasn't lost to Iowa State since 1990. That also happens to be the last time Iowa State won in Norman.

    Neither streak appears to be in jeopardy. At least 100 other football programs are better than Iowa State in both offense and defense. The Oklahoma offense hasn't been very strong this year, but its defense is ranked 13th in the nation and seems more than up to the task of stopping Iowa State.

    I pick Oklahoma by 10 points.
  • #24 Miami (Fla.) at Duke, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPNU: Duke, of course, has a huge reputation in basketball, but it has long been considered a lightweight in football. That might be about to change. The Blue Devils are 7–2, and a win over Miami would go a long way toward landing Duke in a Top 25 in football. Imagine that.

    Miami's loss to Virginia Tech put Duke squarely in the race for the Coastal Division title and the accompanying berth in the ACC championship game, most likely against Florida State.

    If Duke beats Miami, the Blue Devils will have eight wins in a season for the first time since 1994. If Duke could win two of its last three, the Blue Devils would have a nine–win season for the first time since 1941. And if the Blue Devils could win out, they would have 10 wins in a season for the first time ever — and they might be in the ACC title game.

    But, once the flight of fancy is over, let's get back to earth.

    These teams have played each other 10 times. Their first meeting was in 1976, and Duke won it. Miami has won the last nine.

    I think Miami will win again — by a field goal.
Last week: 14–3

Season: 171–32

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