Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Championship Picture Comes Into Focus

Most college football teams will be wrapping up with their regular seasons this week. There are some conference championship games next week, and, in some conferences that are not large enough to have championship games, some teams will be playing their final regular–season games on Dec. 7.

But several things are in sharper focus now.

Alabama and Auburn will meet this weekend to decide which team will advance to next week's SEC championship tilt. The winner is likely to face Missouri.

Florida State is already in the ACC's championship game. Duke will be playing for the right to take on the Seminoles next week. A Duke loss opens the door to a number of possibilities involving four other teams.

The Big Ten and the Pac–12 already know who will square off in their title clashes.

In the Big Ten, Ohio State and Michigan State are set, and, in the Pac–12, Stanford will face Arizona State in a rematch of Stanford's victory in September.

Idle: #7 Oklahoma State, #20 Oklahoma, #21 Louisville

  • Western Michigan at #18 Northern Illinois, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: This game features two teams going in opposite directions.

    Western Michigan is a bottom feeder at 1–10. Northern Illinois is headed for some bowl somewhere and wants to finish the regular season unbeaten. The Huskies are 11–0 going into the game.

    Obviously, Northern Illinois comes in as the favorite, but Western Michigan is the historical favorite.

    Western Michigan has won 22 of 37 meetings between the schools, but Northern Illinois has been making gains with four straight victories. Make it five. I pick Northern Illinois.
  • Oregon State at #12 Oregon, 6 p.m. (Central) on FOX Sports 1: The in–state rivals have been playing each other almost every year since 1916.

    The Ducks enter the game with a five–game winning streak and only one home loss to the Beavers since 1993.

    I presume you know of Oregon's offense. Even in a conference that emphasizes offense the way the Pac–12 does, Oregon stands out — but it has dropped to third in the national rankings. Oregon State is good but not that good (#32).

    If Oregon State had a respectable defense, that might be a saving grace for the Beavers, but they're 81st in the country (Oregon is 36th).

    The Ducks are at home, and they have an offense that should run circles around Oregon State. I pick Oregon.

  • Arkansas at #15 LSU, 1:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: Arkansas almost never wins at LSU. The Hogs have only won there once in the last 20 years, and they needed three overtimes to accomplish that.

    With their loss to Mississippi State last weekend, the Razorbacks have lost eight in a row for the first time in school history. In fact, they have only lost eight games in a season two other times, and they have never lost nine games in a season. I suspect that will change this year.

    I've seen nearly every Arkansas game this year, and I've seen some things I like. But it is an ongoing process, and the team that has lost eight in a row is not going to change that in Baton Rouge this week. I expect to see an improvement next year and more improvement the year after that.

    But LSU will win this game.
  • #16 Fresno State at San Jose State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBSSN: San Jose State beat Fresno State last year, but history says it won't happen again.

    San Jose State hasn't beaten Fresno State in two consecutive seasons since the 1980s. In fact, San Jose has seldom beaten Fresno at all in the last 25 years.

    And Fresno State has the #2 offense in the land. Granted, it hasn't faced a Top 25 team, but it has been very successful against teams like San Jose State. Actually, San Jose State has been pretty successful on offense as well (#24 in the country).

    There ought to be a lot of scoring in this game. Fresno's defense is 70th in the nation and San Jose's is even worse (#101).

    I pick Fresno State.
  • South Florida at #17 UCF, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: These schools have only played four times, but South Florida has won them all.

    A glance at the records will tell you that 2–8 South Florida is not likely to make it five in a row. Other numbers will tell you the same thing.

    Like #120, which is South Florida's national ranking on offense, and #34, which is UCF's offensive ranking.

    On defense, UCF has an edge, but it isn't nearly as pronounced. UCF is 28th and South Florida is 30th.

    UCF should win.

  • #1 Alabama at #4 Auburn, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: In all of football, is there any better name for a rivalry game than this one? The Iron Bowl.

    It doesn't always live up to its billing, but this year it just might.

    This is the game of the holiday weekend. Hands down.

    It is always the game of the holiday weekend for folks in Alabama. It is sure to stir up memories of Bear Bryant for any football fan in Alabama who is old enough to remember when the Bear prowled the sidelines, but this year the whole country is likely to get swept up in it. The winner will advance to the SEC championship game next week, probably against #5 Missouri (although #10 South Carolina still can get in if Missouri loses to #19 Texas A&M, which is coming off a decisive loss to #15 LSU).

    No one is likely to replace the Bear in the hearts of Crimson Tide fans, whether they are old enough to remember him or not, but Nick Saban surely comes in a strong second, and on Saturday he faces arguably the greatest challenge of his tenure, outside of his grudge matches with LSU.

    Alabama has won four of the last five games with Auburn. The Crimson Tide are patient football players whose third–ranked defense should be up to the challenge posed by Auburn's 12th–rated offense. Alabama, at 40th, isn't bad on offense, either, and should be able to exploit Auburn's 69th–ranked defense.

    I pick Alabama by a touchdown.
  • #2 Florida State at Florida, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: This figures to be a showcase for Florida State's Heisman front runner, QB Jameis Winston, who has completed nearly 70% of his passes — assuming sexual assault charges don't keep him off the field.

    The season numbers favor the Seminoles.

    Florida State has the nation's sixth–ranked offense with Winston. Without him, the Seminoles likely would face numerous problems with Florida's seventh–ranked defense.

    The Gators have really struggled on offense (ranked 111th) and should pose little difficulty for Florida State's fifth–ranked defense.

    Recent history favors the Gators.

    Since 2001, Florida has beaten Florida State two–thirds of the time, and the Gators have been nothing short of dominant at home, winning three of the last four in Gainesville.

    But the exception came two years ago, and one suspects that the Seminoles may win this time, too, if for no other reason than the Gators are struggling after losing to lowly Georgia Southern last week. After some speculation during the weekend, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Florida coach Will Muschamp will keep his job, but a staff shakeup is expected after the FSU game.

    Distractions and a disparity in talent will lead to a Florida State victory by a couple of touchdowns.
  • #3 Ohio State at Michigan, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: When I was growing up, the Ohio State–Michigan game was always a showdown with national implications.

    Not so much in recent years. Oh, sure, every once in awhile it comes close to what it once was but not often anymore.

    Based on recent results, you would hardly guess that this series is virtually even after 96 meetings — or that, historically speaking, the home team usually wins in this series.

    Ohio State is 10–2 against Michigan since 2001, but the Buckeyes did lose the last time they visited Ann Arbor (after winning four of the previous five they played there). Will recent history repeat itself?

    The numbers for the season don't suggest that, but they do suggest something of a defensive struggle. Ohio State is seventh in offense and might struggle at times against Michigan's 26th–ranked defense. Meanwhile, Michigan's 95th–ranked offense is likely to have a hard time with Ohio State's 12th–ranked defense.

    I pick Ohio State by a touchdown.
  • #19 Texas A&M at #5 Missouri, 6:45 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: The Aggies have the fourth–best offense in the country — but their defense (#107) is one of the worst.

    Most of their games have resembled video games with wild offensive shootouts. The Aggies have won most of their games by outscoring the other team, not by stopping the other team.

    Missouri has an offense (16th) that is capable of keeping up with A&M and a defense (#51) that is better equipped for Johnny Manziel than half of the teams the Aggies have faced.

    Historically, Missouri has won five of the last seven games against the Aggies and hasn't lost to them at home since 1999. The Tigers also have more to play for. A victory puts them in next week's SEC championship game.

    I pick Missouri.

  • #6 Clemson at #10 South Carolina, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: This will be the 106th meeting in a series that dates back to 1902.

    Until the 1960 season, all the games were played in Columbia, S.C., where Saturday's game will be played.

    The marquee matchup in this game has to be when Clemson has the ball. The Tigers are 10th in the nation in offense, but they will face the country's 19th–best defense.

    The matchup isn't quite as appealing when South Carolina has the ball — although it has potential. South Carolina is 25th in offense; Clemson is 27th in defense.

    In fact, this game will feature two of the country's best quarterbacks — Clemson's Tajh Boyd and South Carolina's Connor Shaw.

    I think Boyd and Clemson will come out on top.
  • Notre Dame at #8 Stanford, 6 p.m. (Central) on FOX: The Irish have an 18–9 advantage in the series, and they are 9–4 against Stanford since 2000.

    But three of those Stanford wins came at home where the Cardinal are 11–3 all time against Notre Dame.

    The numbers suggest a game that will be decided by defense, and it is Stanford's defense that will prove decisive. The Cardinal are 22nd in the country and should be able to handle Notre Dame's 65th–ranked offense.

    Notre Dame's defense isn't bad (43rd) but is likely to have more difficulty stopping Stanford's offense (which, at 69th, is mediocre but capable of causing problems for the Irish).

    I'll take Stanford by a field goal.
  • #9 Baylor at TCU, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: When I was growing up, this was the battle for last place in the Southwest Conference.

    Well, the SWC doesn't exist anymore, and neither of these schools has been a stranger to the national rankings in recent years.

    But Baylor hasn't won in Fort Worth since 1994, and TCU has won four of its last five games with Baylor.

    Things might be different this time. No matter what happened in Stillwater last weekend, Baylor has the best offense in the country — and TCU has one of the worst.

    The defenses are more or less equal — Baylor is 25th, TCU is 29th.

    I think Baylor will win by at least 10 points.
  • Minnesota at #11 Michigan State, 11 a.m. (Central) on Big Ten Network: Michigan State leads this series, largely on the strength of its success at home. The Spartans have won 12 of the last 14 games played in East Lansing.

    And the numbers suggest the Spartans will extend their dominance in a game that should be a defensive showcase.

    Michigan State has the top–ranked defense in the land; Minnesota's offense isn't in the Top 100. Minnesota's defense is good, not great, but should be able to handle Michigan State's 80th–ranked offense.

    I think it will be relatively low scoring, and Michigan State will win.
  • Arizona at #13 Arizona State, 8:30 p.m. (Central) on Pac–12 Network: Another good in–state rivalry. Arizona leads the series, 38–37–1.

    The last four games have been won by the visiting team, and seven of the last nine games have been decided by a touchdown or less.

    Arizona State has the better offense (23rd in the nation) but not by much. Arizona is ranked 33rd. Arizona State also has the better defense (ranked 19th) — and by a considerably wider margin (Arizona is ranked 61st).

    I'll take Arizona State by a single point.
  • Penn State at #14 Wisconsin, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Compared to most of the games that are played at this point in the season, this is a rather modest series. Only 16 games have been played, but it's been competitive. Nearly half of the games have been decided by 10 points or less.

    On the other hand, when a game between these schools gets out of hand, it can get ugly. Nearly half of the games have been decided by 20 points or more.

    Wisconsin's defense, ranked sixth in the country, and offense, ranked 18th, might be capable of making the game ugly. I pick Wisconsin.
  • Louisiana–Monroe at #21 Louisiana–Lafayette: This series is all knotted at 10–10, and each team is 6–4 in the other team's stadium.

    But this series is more noteworthy for winning streaks. Louisiana–Lafayette has won the last five in a row and will set a record for the longest winning streak in the series with a victory on Saturday.

    Louisiana–Lafayette is better on both sides of the ball. I pick Louisiana–Lafayette.
  • #22 UCLA at #23 Southern Cal, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: UCLA beat Southern Cal last year, but the Bruins haven't beaten the Trojans in consecutive seasons since the 1990s.

    The Bruins reeled off an impressive streak in that decade, winning every game played between 1991 and 1998, but then they went 1–12 against the Trojans after that before winning last year.

    UCLA has a higher–ranked offense (#7 to #71), but Southern Cal has the 14th–best defense in the nation (UCLA is 63rd).

    Personally, I'd like to see UCLA win, but I don't think that will happen. Southern Cal will find a way to win — narrowly.
  • #24 Duke at North Carolina, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN2: If Duke wins this game, the Blue Devils will have 10 wins in football for the first time since ... well, ever.

    It might happen. Duke beat North Carolina last year for the first time since 2003 — which also happens to be the last time Duke won at North Carolina.

    The numbers suggest a close contest. North Carolina (#52) has the edge over Duke (#63) on offense; Duke (#53) has the advantage over North Carolina (#66) on defense.

    I think Duke will take care of business.
Last week: 17–3

Season: 205–37

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