Saturday, December 5, 2015

And Now, The End Is Near ...

The chances that Baylor would be able to play for a national title were always rather slim — but they are nonexistent now following the Bears' loss to the Frogs on a cold, rainy night in Fort Worth, Texas, last weekend.

There is no championship game in the Big 12 these days. There aren't enough conference members to qualify for one. Since the conference is not divided into divisions anymore, it's hard to imagine who would be playing in a Big 12 championship game if there was one. The conference was once divided into North and South divisions; if we can assume that the conference would use that same geographical determination, it is fairly easy to guess which teams, based on their performances this season, would be likely to be playing for the conference crown. We know that #3 Oklahoma would be involved, but the Sooners' opponent would be one of two (currently), probably three (after today's games are over) teams.

Of course, if the Big 12 had a championship game, it would be played today, when the other major conference championship games are being played. We would already know the outcome of the Baylor–Texas game (and the Sooners would certainly warn the Bears not to take the Longhorns lightly); consequently, we would know which of the three teams would be playing Oklahoma for the Big 12 title.

Baylor and Texas are playing today, though, and the Sooners are idle.

But we have five conference championship games featuring ranked teams on the schedule this weekend, and at least three are likely to have some bearing on who gets invited to participate in college football's Final Four.

It appears that #3 Oklahoma is already in. The Sooners, as I just observed, aren't playing this weekend, but they — and the rest of us — will learn which teams made the Final Four when the pairings are announced after today's games are in the books.

Right now logic would say that Clemson, Alabama and Iowa or Michigan State will join the Sooners in the Final Four, but if one (or more) of those teams stumbles, things could take a dramatic turn.

This will be my last prediction column of the regular season. Once the bowl pairings have been announced, I'll write a column predicting the outcomes of the bowl games involving ranked teams — and, of course, the Final Four. My guess would be that my column will run in a couple of weeks. I'll follow that column with a column about the national championship game, once we know who will be playing in that one.

Enjoy the championship games.

Idle: #3 Oklahoma, #6 Ohio State, #9 Notre Dame, #10 Florida State, #11 TCU, #13 Northwestern, #14 Oklahoma State, #15 Oregon, #16 Ole Miss, #19 Michigan, #21 Utah, #22 Navy, #23 LSU, #25 Wisconsin

  • ACC Championship: #8 North Carolina vs. #1 Clemson at Charlotte, N.C., 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: In the history of this series, Clemson has won about two–thirds of the time. The Tigers have done even better than that since 1999. The teams have played nine times in the last 16 years, and Clemson has won seven of those games.

    Clemson holds the advantage on both campuses historically — but if there is one glimmer of hope for the Tar Heels, it is that the teams have split their two previous games on neutral fields — never mind that Teddy Roosevelt was president when one of those games was played, and Woodrow Wilson was president when the other was played.

    This season's statistics suggest an entertaining game. Clemson is #14 in the nation in total offense, and North Carolina is #16. Both offenses appear to be pretty balanced in terms of their yardage production. North Carolina has been averaging 41 points per game; Clemson is averaging 38.

    It is on defense where Clemson has been most impressive this year. The Tigers are #8 in the land while North Carolina is #70. Those numbers suggest that North Carolina may struggle to move the ball. Clemson, it would seem, will have an easier time of it.

    But that's why they play the game, isn't it? It isn't played on paper but on a field 100 yards long and 50 yards wide. And one thing those numbers don't tell you is that North Carolina gave up a lot of yards this season but not a lot of points. Their opponents averaged just under 21 points per game.

    The Tigers were stingy as well but not as stingy as one might think from their gaudy national ranking in total defense. Clemson allowed an average of 18.8 points per game — which is higher than all the other Top 10 total defenses but one — Georgia Southern.

    Don't get me wrong. I expect Clemson to win. But I am saying that it is quite possible that North Carolina will pull off an upset and throw the college football playoff field into a tizzy.
  • SEC Championship: #18 Florida vs. #2 Alabama at Atlanta, 3 p.m. (Central) on CBS: This will be the eighth time these teams have played for the SEC title. The Gators are 4–3 in the title tilts.

    Overall, Alabama has won about 64% of the time. Florida hasn't beaten Alabama since Dec. 6, 2008, when the Gators beat the Tide for the SEC title. Since then Alabama has won four in a row.

    If Alabama wins and advances to the college football playoffs, as expected, the Crimson Tide will have the worst–rated offense of the bunch. Alabama is 48th in the nation. Florida is even worse at #102, but the 10–2 Gators have no hope of being in the Final Four. They can only deprive Alabama of a spot in the Final Four.

    I don't think they will. I pick Alabama.
  • Big Ten Championship: #5 Michigan State vs. #4 Iowa at Indianapolis, 7 p.m. (Central) on Fox: This will be the 46th meeting in what has been a pretty competitive series over the years — and there is every reason to believe that this year's edition will go down to the wire.

    Iowa (12–0) is 22nd in total defense, 58th in total offense. Michigan State (11–1) is 29th in total defense, 66th in total offense. Those numbers would suggest that Iowa will dominate on both sides of the ball in what would figure to be a low–scoring game, but hold on just a minute. Iowas has faced only two ranked teams all season — Wisconsin and Northwestern — and beat them both, but the highest ranking either achieved prior to playing Iowa was #19. Michigan State faced and defeated three ranked teams, two of whom were in the Top 10.

    As I say, it should be entertaining, but I will pick Michigan State in an upset special. I think the Spartans are more accustomed to the pressure of the big game spotlight this season.
  • Pac–12 Championship: #24 Southern Cal vs. #7 Stanford at Santa Clara, Calif., 6:45 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: The Trojans are solidly in the driver's seat in their all–time series with Stanford, and they had won the last two meetings, but Stanford snapped USC's streak earlier in the season 41–31 at Los Angeles. The conference championship game will be played much closer to home for the 10–2 Cardinal.

    The Pac–12 has always been an offense–oriented conference, and Southern Cal has a slight edge on Stanford in that category, #29 to #34. In total defense, Stanford has a more decisive advantage, #56 to #73. Crunch the numbers, and it comes out about even.

    I just think Stanford, playing in what amounts to a home game, will be too much for the 8–4 Trojans.
  • Texas at #12 Baylor, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: As recently as 1993–2009, Texas beat Baylor 16 out of 17 times, and it was usually pretty decisive.

    That's about how it was in the days of the Southwest Conference. Texas routinely beat up Baylor in those days. Well, everyone did, really. TCU wasn't very good in those days. Nor was Rice. And SMU was good occasionally but usually occupied the cellar with the other three. Ordinarily, Baylor was the worst team in the conference.

    But times have changed. Baylor would have to win every game for nearly half a century to pull even with the Longhorns in the all–time series, but the Bears have won four of the last five against Texas — and appear likely to make it five of the last six.

    Texas' defense is ranked 86th in the nation — and that's the good news. The Longhorns are #104 in total offense.

    Baylor's defense is adequate — certainly it should be sufficient to stifle the UT offense — but the Bears really shine on offense, where they are ranked third in the land, averaging 616 yards and about 51 points per game.

    I fully expect Baylor to win.
  • American Athletic Conference Championship: #20 Temple at #17 Houston, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: In their four previous meetings, Houston emerged victorious every time.

    And, based on their rankings, it is tempting to pick the 11–1 Cougars to beat the 10–2 Owls for a fifth time.

    Houston has a huge advantage in total offense. The Cougars are ranked 15th while the Owls are 93rd. While I would probably be inclined to give Houston the edge in total offense, that's a much bigger gap than I would have expected, given that Temple has never been held to less than 20 points in a game this season (in fact, the Owls have scored at least 30 points in half of their games).

    Temple holds the edge in total defense, but it isn't as decisive as Houston's advantage in total offense. Temple ranks 19th in total defense; Houston ranks 59th. And it is true that Houston has had some problems on defense this year. The Cougars went through a stretch in the middle of the season when it appeared they would emerge as a dominating defense, allowing a total 17 points in three consecutive games, but the rest of the time it was like a watching a video game.

    Temple averaged a respectable 368 yards per game in total offense; the Cougars gave up an average of 381 yards in total defense. When Houston has the ball, the Cougars, with an average of 499 yards in total offense per game, will be facing a stingy defense that allowed an average of only 329.

    Should be interesting. When that final whistle blows, though, I expect Houston to prevail.

Last week: 13–5

Upset specials last week: 2–1

Season: 183–51

Upset specials overall: 7–14

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