Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Peek at a Possible Final Four

If the college football season ended today, the playoff field would be: Mississippi State, Florida State, Auburn and Ole Miss. So says the College Football Playoff selection committee.

Of course, the college football season does not end today — or this weekend. There are still many games to be played. And my guess is that, when the dust settles, at least two of the teams in the preliminary Final Four won't be in the playoff.

That doesn't mean they won't deserve to be — which is why I think a four–team playoff is inadequate for a sport in which more than 120 teams compete.

There are several teams who were left out of the preliminary Final Four but deserve to be there — and perhaps some will be included when the season is over. The playoff will be a good start, a tentative first step in the right direction — toward a real playoff.

And that is what this will be. Make no mistake about it. The first step.

A college football playoff needs to include conference champions, and there are at least five that should be represented — the ACC, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac–12 and the SEC. Others could be included but, obviously, some at–large teams would need to be there.

What every playoff, every tournament needs is the presence of a team that has the potential to be the classic underdog who seemingly comes from nowhere to win it all — or at least come close to winning it all. You can't have such an unexpected champion when the four best teams in the land are competing because it would be no surprise to see any of them win it. But if you have a 16–team field — and especially if the #16 seed beats the #1 seed in the first round — you have the potential for some first–rate sports drama.

Let's use this week's AP rankings to form a hypothetical 16–team field.

The top seed (Mississippi State) would host the #16 seed (LSU). The second seed (Florida State) would host the #15 seed (Arizona State). The third seed (Alabama) would host the #14 seed (Arizona). The fourth seed (Auburn) would host the #13 seed (Ohio State). The fifth seed (Oregon) would face the #12 seed (Baylor). The sixth seed (Notre Dame) would play the #11 seed (Kansas State). The seventh seed (Ole Miss) would host the #10 seed (TCU). And the eighth seed (Michigan State) would host the ninth seed (Georgia).

I don't know a college football fan who wouldn't want to see all those games — and the second–round matchups they produced.

Chances are that this field would include the champions of all five conferences — but there is a chance that the winner of a conference's championship game might have lost two or three games during the regular season but put it all together at the end — and still wasn't ranked in the Top 16. In that case, I suppose the selection committee would have to replace that conference's lowest–seeded team with its champion. How that would affect the seedings would depend on which approach the selection committee chose to take.

Idle: #3 Alabama, #8 Michigan State, #16 LSU, #22 Clemson, #23 Marshall

  • #2 Florida State at Louisville, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Louisville has only beaten Florida State once — the last time they met, in 2002.

    That game, like this one, was played in Louisville.

    Louisville was ranked earlier in the season, but the Cardinals fell from the rankings after losses to Virginia and Clemson. Nevertheless, they have the nation's top–ranked defense, which should be able to frustrate the Seminoles' #44 offense. Meanwhile, FSU's 53rd–ranked defense should be able to handle Louisville's 91st–ranked offense.

    I think this could be a low–scoring, defensive game. I'll pick Florida State.
  • Arkansas at #1 Mississippi State, 6:15 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: The Razorbacks lead the all–time series on the strength of their performance at home. In Starkville, they lead, 6–5, and they lost their last trip there two years ago.

    The Razorbacks are clearly better this year than they were last. Their offense is ranked 34th, and their defense is ranked 40th. Their problem is that every SEC team they have faced so far has been ranked — and each one they play for the rest of the season likely will be, too — until, possibly, the season–ending game with Missouri.

    As an Arkansas grad, I would love to see Arkansas beat the top–ranked team, but, once again, I just don't think they have the horses. Yet. Next year, maybe. Next year, most of the guys who are playing this year will have another year of college experience under their belts, and the game will be in Fayetteville — and Mississippi State probably won't be ranked #1. But this year, I have to pick Mississippi State.
  • #4 Auburn at #7 Ole Miss, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: There is a pattern in this series. Whenever Ole Miss beats Auburn, Auburn wins at least three in a row, often more, before Ole Miss wins again. It's been that way since the '70s.

    Anyway, Ole Miss beat Auburn two years ago, and Auburn beat Ole Miss last year. According to the decades–old pattern, Auburn should win this year and next year at least before Ole Miss beats the Tigers again.

    I'm sure Ole Miss is reeling from its loss to LSU last Saturday. But this is the nature of the SEC. No sooner do you get past one hurdle than there is another one in your way. This week's hurdle is fourth–ranked Auburn.

    Auburn has the 19th–best offense, which should be challenged by Ole Miss' ninth–ranked defense. That is the marquee matchup. When Ole Miss has the ball, the Rebels will be fielding the #61 offense. Auburn's defense is ranked #46.

    I think everything points to an Auburn victory.
  • Stanford at #5 Oregon, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on Fox: Oregon lost three games in the last two years. Two of those losses were to Stanford, which has enjoyed more than its share of success in Eugene (16 wins in 34 visits).

    The task is daunting this year. Oregon has the eighth–ranked offense, led by the leader in passing efficiency, Marcus Mariota. Should be a challenge for Stanford's second–ranked defense.

    In true Pac–12 fashion, Oregon's defense is ranked 106th in the nation, but even that unit might be able to make some plays against Stanford's 80th–ranked offense.

    This will probably be regarded as an upset special, but I'm going to pick Stanford.
  • #6 Notre Dame at Navy, 7 p.m. (Central) on CBS: This series dates back to the days of Knute Rockne, and Rockne never lost to Navy.

    This will be the schools' 84th meeting since Rockne's death in an airplane crash in 1931, and you'd swear Rockne was still coaching, based on the series record. The Irish are 74–12–1 against Navy.

    The series has actually been fairly competitive in recent years, though. In the last seven meetings, Notre Dame is 4–3.

    Statistically, there really isn't much difference between these teams on offense, but Notre Dame appears to have a solid advantage on defense.

    I know this will be a huge surprise, given the record of the series, but I'm going to take Notre Dame.
  • Florida at #9 Georgia, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: Georgia leads the all–time series and has won the last three meetings.

    Georgia's offense has been good but not necessarily great so far — but that is far ahead of Florida. Both defenses are ranked in the Top 10, which makes me think this could an old–fashioned SEC game with a final score like 9–6.

    But I have to take Georgia to win it, no matter the score.
  • #10 TCU at #20 West Virginia, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC or ESPN: Since West Virginia joined the Big 12 two years ago, its games with TCU have been competitive — margins of a field goal or less both times — and the home team has yet to win.

    Statistically, these teams have been average on defense, and there isn't much that separates them. But they have been exceptional on offense. TCU is ranked second and West Virginia is ranked 10th. TCU scored 82 points against Texas Tech last week and nearly won at Waco two weeks before. Alabama held West Virginia to 23 points in the season opener, and the Mountaineers have scored at least 33 points in every game since.

    Should be a good game. I'm going to pick TCU.
  • Oklahoma State at #11 Kansas State, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Oklahoma State has dominated this series.

    K–State had the upper hand in the '90s, but, otherwise, it has been almost entirely OSU. This will be their eighth meeting since 2003, and Oklahoma State is 5–2 against Kansas State in that time.

    Historically, the Cowboys have a winning record in Manhattan, but it isn't as impressive as their record in Stillwater. Lately, though, the Wildcats have won seven of the last eight games played in Manhattan including the last one.

    Kansas State's defense (ranked 20th in the nation) is the marquee unit and should have little difficulty with Oklahoma State's offense (#72). It ought to be more competitive when K–State has the ball (#56 in the nation). Oklahoma State's defense is ranked 79th.

    I pick Kansas State.
  • Kansas at #12 Baylor, 3 p.m. (Central) on FS1: Baylor has beaten Kansas in six of their last eight meetings — and currently owns a four–game winning streak over the Jayhawks.

    There was a time when these teams were the doormats of their respective conferences — and even, for awhile, as members of the same conference. But times have changed for Baylor, which brings the nation's top–ranked offense (led by QB Bryce Petty and running back Shock Linwood) to this game. Kansas' offense is one of the worst (ranked #110).

    Baylor also has a pretty good defense (#18 in the nation). Kansas' defense is ranked 74th.

    It seems obvious. I pick Baylor.
  • Illinois at #13 Ohio State, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC and These teams have met nearly every season since 1914. The winner takes possession of the Illibuck, a carved wooden turtle, the second–oldest trophy in the Big Ten (behind the storied Little Brown Jug). Ohio State has dominated the series and has taken home the trophy 14 of the last 17 times.

    Both Ohio State's offense and defense are Top 20 units. Illinois' defense isn't even in the Top 100; I find it hard to believe the Illini will stop the nation's third–most efficient passer, J.T. Barrett. Illinois' offense isn't much better (#76).

    I have to pick Ohio State.
  • #14 Arizona at #25 UCLA, 9:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: UCLA leads the series, but Arizona had won six of the last seven meetings when UCLA beat the Wildcats in 2012 and followed that with another win in 2013. Arizona has a slight edge when the game is played in Tucson; unfortunately for the Wildcats, though, the game is in Los Angeles this year, where UCLA wins nearly three–quarters of the time.

    This game has a couple of Top 20 offenses — Arizona is #6, UCLA is #20 — and a couple of mediocre defenses (UCLA is 86th nationally, Arizona is 97th). My guess is that many points will be scored.

    In spite of a couple of winning seasons in 2012 and 2013, Arizona is relatively new to the world of competitive football. In fact, both schools are probably best known for their accomplishments in basketball. The Bruins are more accustomed to the glare of the football spotlight than the Wildcats.

    I'll take UCLA.
  • #18 Utah at #15 Arizona State, 10 p.m. (Central) on FS1: Arizona State has a 10–game winning streak against Utah. Since Utah has been in the Pac–12 for only a few years, most of those games were nonconference matches that weren't necessarily played annually. You have to go back to the bicentennial year of 1976 to find Utah's last win over Arizona State.

    Statistically, Arizona State has a much better offense than Utah. And, while Utah has a higher–rated defense, it is statistically average. I think the Utes will be outmanned, and I believe Arizona State will win what should be an entertaining game.
  • Purdue at #17 Nebraska, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC or ESPN: Purdue won its first meeting with Nebraska in 1958, then the teams didn't meet again until Nebraska joined the Big Ten. The Cornhuskers crushed the Boilermakers on their home turf, 44–7, last year.

    Running back Ameer Abdullah is averaging 156 yards rushing per game for a Nebraska offense that is ranked 13th. Sounds like Cornhusker football to me. I'll take Nebraska.
  • #19 Oklahoma at Iowa State, 11 a.m. (Central) on FS1: When I taught at OU, the Sooners had probably their worst football teams, but they always managed to beat Iowa State.

    In fact, Iowa State was probably the only team OU beat all four years I was there.

    The Sooners have now beaten Iowa State 15 straight times. OU's offense, which has had its rough moments yet is still ranked 33rd in the nation, might have some fun against Iowa State's #101 defense.

    I have to take Oklahoma.
  • #21 East Carolina at Temple, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPNews: It's been 19 years since these teams faced each other — so it is practically like a new series. Certainly, it will be for the participants.

    East Carolina has the fourth–best offense in the nation. Temple's offense is 108th. Temple has the edge in defense, but I don't think it will be enough to overcome QB Shane Carden and receivers Justin Hardy and Isaiah Jones.

    I'll go with East Carolina.
  • #24 Duke at Pittsburgh, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPNU: Duke has beaten Pittsburgh four straight times. Don't get carried away, though. Until the game they played last year, they hadn't faced each other since 1976.

    The marquee unit in this game, believe it or not, is Pitt's defense, ranked 17th in the nation.

    This is an important game for Pittsburgh. Duke, too, for that matter. The Panthers could be in a position to determine their own destiny with a win — and the Blue Devils could put some distance between themselves and the other teams in the ACC's Coastal Division by beating the Panthers.

    I don't think they will. I think Pittsburgh will win this game.

Last week: 16–2

Season: 132–27

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