Thursday, November 27, 2014

The College Season Shifts to the Postseason

Thanksgiving is rivalry weekend in college football.

It once was even better than it is today — when Oklahoma played Nebraska and Texas played Texas A&M, but those rivalries appear to be history now.

Still, it ain't bad these days, with Alabama–Auburn, Mississippi State–Ole Miss and Clemson–South Carolina as well as traditional rivalries that are fun to watch, regardless of the records — Florida–Florida State, Michigan–Ohio State, Georgia–Georgia Tech.

The conference championship games and a few final regular–season clashes are on the agenda next week, then it's bowl season.

Idle: #20 Oklahoma

  • #6 TCU at Texas, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on FS1: Not so long ago, Texas played Texas A&M on Thanksgiving, but that tradition ended when the Aggies bolted for the SEC a few years ago.

    TCU–Texas doesn't seem like the long–term answer. Few teams have been dominated by another the way TCU has been dominated by Texas. Between 1968 and 1991, the Longhorns played the Frogs every year and never lost to TCU. Actually, most of the Frogs' wins in the series came in the 1930s and 1940s.

    But it's a new day for Frog fans. TCU has a legitimate shot at being in the first–ever NCAA Division I football tournament, and it needs to beat Texas on Thanksgiving night to remain in the running.

    I'm thinking TCU will do what it hasn't done since the '60s — win in back–to–back trips to Austin.
  • Stanford at #9 UCLA, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Stanford has won the last six games between the schools.

    And Stanford has the sixth–best defense in the nation. Now, I guess it goes without saying that Stanford has the highest–ranked defense in the Pac–12. If there was another Pac–12 school with a Top 10 defense — let alone Top Five even though that is what would be necessary to overtake Stanford — that would indicate a seismic shift in that conference's priorities.

    It is eye–popping offense that matters in the Pac–12, and UCLA has a huge advantage over Stanford in that department with QB Brett Hundley (sixth in passing efficiency) and RB Paul Perkins (averaging 115 yards per game).

    I pick UCLA to end Stanford's streak.
  • #13 Arizona State at #12 Arizona, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on Fox: This will be the 78th meeting in this series, and it is all tied up.

    That's right, they've played 77 times and the series is tied. How is that possible? Well, back in 1987, before college football changed the rules to include a provision for overtime, thus eliminating ties, they fought to a 24–24 tie.

    If that rule had been in effect in 1987, someone would be leading the series today but only by a single game. It's remarkable that the series is as close as it is. After all, the teams have faced off every year since the end of World War II.

    To be fair, the series has gone through its lopsided periods, when one school or the other would dominate for years at a time, but since that tie 27 years ago, neither school has won more than three in a row against the other.

    Arizona State has won the last two games so a Sun Devils win would not alter that trend in the series.

    Does home field make a difference in this series? Maybe a modest one, but it's almost dead even in games played on each campus.

    Statistically, both offenses are much better than the defenses — and, of the two, Arizona's has been better this season.

    Should be good. I'll take Arizona.
  • Arkansas at #17 Missouri, 1:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: This series isn't very extensive — only five games so far — but the pattern is that the teams take turns winning. Missouri won the last meeting — in the 2008 Cotton Bowl — so logic suggests Arkansas should win this one, the teams' first meeting in Columbia, Mo., in 108 years.

    The Razorbacks became bowl eligible with last week's 30–0 win over Ole Miss.

    The teams are just about even on defense — Missouri is ranked #23, Arkansas is #24. On offense, though, Arkansas has a clear edge, even though neither offense has really distinguished itself. Arkansas is ranked #52 and Missouri is #101.

    I'll pick Arkansas to win.
  • Western Kentucky at #19 Marshall, 11 a.m. (Central) on FS1: Folks who tune in to this game will get to see the nation's second–ranked offense.

    I am speaking of Marshall, of course, but Western Kentucky's offense is pretty good, too — #11 in the country.

    Marshall also has one of the best defenses in the country (ranked #14) while Western Kentucky has often struggled on defense.

    With its defense shutting down Western Kentucky, I'll pick Marshall to finish the season unbeaten.
  • #21 Colorado State at Air Force, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBSSN: Historically, Air Force leads the series and had won seven straight before losing to the Rams last season.

    The 8–3 Falcons dropped to 2–10 last year, but they're going bowling this year and a win over Colorado State would be a great launch. Being at home probably will help. The Falcons have won their last five against the Rams there.

    Both defenses have played poorly so I have to give a huge edge to the better offense — and that belongs to Colorado State although Air Force's offense is good if not great.

    I'll take Colorado State.
  • Florida at #1 Florida State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Florida State has won three of the last four games with Florida. The exception was Florida's win at Tallahassee in 2012.

    Fact is, Florida has fared pretty well on Florida State's turf. As is so often the case in these rivalry games, there is no home field advantage.

    Florida has a decisive advantage on defense. The Gators are ranked #11; the Seminoles are ranked #54.

    Florida State has the better offense (#37); Florida's offense (#82) has been its weakness this season.

    I will pick Florida State to win this game. I still think the Seminoles will lose in the postseason — whether it will be to Georgia Tech in next week's ACC championship game or the college football playoff, I can't say. I just don't think the Seminoles will repeat.
  • #15 Auburn at #2 Alabama, 6:45 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Alabama comes into this game with the fifth–best defense in the country. Seems like old times.

    It's an old grudge match, the "Iron Bowl," and it would mean a lot even if a spot in the national championship tournament in January wasn't (apparently) hanging in the balance. It's a classic.

    For many years, it was played in neutral Birmingham — but, really, is any place in Alabama neutral? Nearly 70% of the games played in the series have been played in Birmingham, but every game played since 1999 has been played on one of the campuses. This year, it is Alabama's turn to host the game, and the teams are even, 5–5, in games played in Tuscaloosa.

    If that is good news for Auburn, it is tempered by the fact that Alabama is rated higher in both offense and defense. That disparity is particularly pronounced on defense, where Alabama is ranked #5 and Auburn is ranked #52. Alabama leads in offense, too, but the margin is closer — Alabama is #20 and Auburn is #22.

    Alabama has been playing better, and the Crimson Tide almost never loses at home. The last time was more than two years ago — to Texas A&M during Johnny Manziel's Heisman season. Usually you have to be an LSU or an Auburn to pull it off.

    Well, Auburn is the foe this weekend. Any chance the Tigers will win? I don't think so. I'll pick Alabama.
  • #3 Oregon at Oregon State, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: As if Oregon didn't have enough advantages in this game, the Ducks have won their last six games with the Beavers — and, historically, the Ducks have a winning record on the Beavers' turf.

    Both defenses have more holes than Swiss cheese, but Oregon has the fifth–best offense in the country with Heisman prospect Marcus Mariota at the controls.

    I think Oregon will overwhelm Oregon State.
  • #4 Mississippi State at #18 Ole Miss, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: Like the Auburn–Alabama rivalry, fans of Ole Miss and Mississippi State don't need any special reason to want to beat the other. It probably helps Ole Miss' motivation, though, to know the Rebels could deprive the Bulldogs of that coveted fourth slot.

    The best moments should come when Mississippi State's ninth–ranked offense takes the field against Ole Miss' 10th–ranked defense.

    Ole Miss should have the edge when the Rebels have the ball, but both units have been prone to make careless mistakes this year. Ole Miss' offense is ranked 44th, and Mississippi State's defense is ranked 68th.

    Ole Miss leads the all–time series, but Mississippi State has won six of the last nine games. However, the Bulldogs have only won once in the last seven games played at Ole Miss. Can they buck the trend?

    In an upset special, I'm going to take Ole Miss.
  • #5 Baylor at Texas Tech, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC or ESPN: I guess everyone knows that Baylor is trying to win a spot in college football's Final Four in January. A victory over Texas Tech would also even the all–time series between these two schools.

    Both schools would still retain their sizable leads at home, but the series, which goes back to 1929, would be all tied up.

    Baylor's top–ranked offense is likely to give Tech's defense — one of the worst in the country — fits.

    Texas Tech's offense, ranked 18th in the nation, is pretty good, too, but it won't catch a break against Baylor's defense, also ranked 18th.

    In a game that might be a little more defensive than most people probably expect, I pick Baylor to win its fourth in a row against Tech.
  • Michigan at #7 Ohio State, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC or ESPN: It's been a rough season for Michigan. Every program goes through it at some time, even the ones that have enjoyed a lot of success.

    Even so, Michigan (5–6) has a mathematical chance of becoming bowl eligible if the Wolverines can somehow beat Ohio State in Columbus. Is it possible?

    Well, in a series that dates to the 19th century, Michigan has winning records against Ohio State at home and on the road. To be sure, the Wolverines' edge in Columbus is narrow — a single game, in fact — but Ohio State has won the last six games played there.

    Michigan has the ninth–ranked defense, and it will have the challenge of facing the 10th–ranked offense. Should be interesting.

    Michigan's great weakness has been its offense (ranked #114th) and looks like it will be spinning its wheels against Ohio State's defense (#19 in the land). I have to take Ohio State.
  • #16 Georgia Tech at #8 Georgia, 11 a.m. (Central) on SEC Network: Georgia Tech has only beaten Georgia once in the last 13 encounters. Is there any reason to expect a different outcome this time?

    Well, Georgia's defense is ranked 13th, and Georgia Tech's is ranked 61st. Georgia Tech has a slight edge on offense (#24 to #26). Along with the home field advantage (where Georgia beats Georgia Tech nearly two–thirds of the time), I expect Georgia to win.
  • #10 Michigan State at Penn State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC or ESPN: Did you know Penn State's defense is ranked third in the country?

    I didn't. The Nittany Lions were once known as "Linebacker U," but they haven't had that reputation in recent years.

    This season, though, they have been quietly assembling a defensive resume. Only one team has managed to score 30 points or more against Penn State, and that team needed overtime to do it. The Nittany Lions have held seven of their remaining nine opponents to less than 20 points.

    Should be interesting when Michigan State's seventh–ranked offense takes the field.

    Speaking of offense, it is a wretched one (ranked #113th) that has been Penn State's Achilles' heel — and it figures to struggle against Michigan State's defense, which is also in the national Top 10 (#8).

    Recent history has been against Michigan State. The Spartans have lost eight of their last 11 games with the Nittany Lions, but this time I see Michigan State winning.
  • Kansas at #11 Kansas State, 3 p.m. (Central) on FS1: Kansas leads the all–time series, but the recent advantage belongs to Kansas State, winner of the last five straight.

    Kansas State also has huge advantages on both sides of the ball. I see no way the Jayhawks can win. I pick Kansas State.
  • #22 Minnesota at #14 Wisconsin, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on Big Ten Network: Minnesota has been getting a lot of ink lately, but Wisconsin is the one that brings the second–ranked defense into this game. Common sense says the Badgers' D will have lots of fun with Minnesota's 98th–ranked offense.

    For that matter, Wisconsin's offense is ranked 18th but should find it problematic to function against Minnesota's #34 defense. Still, the edge on both sides of the ball belongs to Wisconsin.

    Recent history also favors Wisconsin. The Badgers have beaten Minnesota 10 straight times, and Minnesota hasn't won in Minnesota in 20 years.

    However ...

    The winner of this game will win the Big Ten's West Division and face #7 Ohio State in next week's conference championship game.

    That seems to be plenty of motivation. Will it be enough to lift Minnesota? I don't think so. I pick Wisconsin.
  • South Carolina at #23 Clemson, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: If you tune in to this game, you'll get to see the top–ranked defense in the land — Clemson's.

    South Carolina's defense hasn't played up to its usual standards this season and is currently ranked 93rd.

    Carolina has the edge on offense (#26 to #61).

    Historically, Clemson has beaten South Carolina 60% of the time. South Carolina has been a thorn in Clemson's side in recent years, though. The Tigers only lost four games in 2012 and 2013, but half of them were to South Carolina. In fact, the Gamecocks have beaten the Tigers five straight times.

    Today may be Clemson's payback — or, at least, the first installment.

    Defense really is king in the South, and I think Clemson's will be the difference in this game.
  • Kentucky at #24 Louisville, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN2: It has only been in the last couple of years that the football games between these two schools have been of interest to anyone outside the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

    And, as far as University of Kentucky alumni are concerned, a win on the gridiron still probably doesn't mean as much as a basketball victory would, but it's different when you're ranked and the prestige of the bowl to which you are assigned could be riding on every game you play.

    I'm inclined to think defense will be the decisive factor in this game. Offensively, Kentucky is ranked #72, and Louisville is ranked #73 so it's pretty much a draw there.

    But Louisville actually has a Top 10 defense (#7). Kentucky's defense is ranked 70th.

    I'll take Louisville.
  • Utah State at #25 Boise State, 9:15 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: Most of the numbers favor Boise State.

    Historically, Boise State beats Utah State nearly 80% of the time. Boise State has won the last 11 in a row and hasn't lost at home to Utah State in nearly 20 years.

    Boise State's offense is ranked eighth in the nation. Utah State's defense is ranked 32nd and should have its moments, but my guess is that Boise State will eventually wear Utah State down.

    Boise State's defense is average (48th) but should have the advantage against Utah State's offense (#71).

    I should be all set to pick Boise State, right? Well, Utah State hasn't lost since mid–October. A win could secure a share of the Mountain West's Mountain Division title. Of course, the same could be said for Boise State. Whether the winner earns a share of the title or wins it outright will depend on what #21 Colorado State does against Air Force.

    So, shall I take Utah State to pull off the upset? Nah, I'll go with Boise State.

Last week: 18–3

Season: 186–43

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