Monday, November 17, 2008

Time to Separate Contenders from Pretenders

If you're a college football fan, you know that the next couple of weeks will be crucial in deciding the teams that play for the BCS national championship in Miami on Jan. 8, 2009.

Conference championships will be played on December 6, and, for some of the conferences, one or both of the teams that will play for the leagues' titles will be decided in the next couple of weeks.

Notably, the Southeastern Conference championship game pairing is already known. The SEC will match top-ranked Alabama against Florida, which is third in every poll except the BCS standings, where Texas (fourth in all the other polls) is ranked third and Florida is ranked fourth.

Alabama (11-0) is idle this weekend but will face in-state rival Auburn (5-6) on Nov. 29. Florida, meanwhile, is 9-1 overall and still has to play its in-state rival, Florida State, on Nov. 29.

Florida also has to play host to The Citadel this weekend. I don't think anyone is seriously entertaining the notion that The Citadel (4-7) has a chance of upsetting the Gators — although college football fans probably don't regard the notion as quite as outlandish today as they almost certainly did last week, before 18th-ranked LSU had to overcome a 31-10 deficit in the fourth quarter to beat Troy in Baton Rouge, La.

The assumption is that both the Tide and the Gators will win the rest of their regular-season games, and the winner of their showdown for the SEC title will go on to play in the national championship game.

Clearly, if both Alabama and Florida run the table, that makes the SEC championship game the most playoff-like game in the NCAA's postseason — with the winner advancing to the "big one."

For that not to be the case, something extraordinary has to happen to one or both teams in the next couple of weeks.

It probably isn't likely that Auburn will upset Alabama — but Florida State (7-3) has a decent team this year (in spite of Saturday's loss to Boston College) and is probably capable of giving Florida a competitive game.

But I think Florida State needs to beat 22nd-ranked Maryland this weekend to get some traction for the game against Florida.

Which leads me to the most compelling games that are scheduled to be nationally televised this Saturday:
  1. #2 Texas Tech (10-0) at #5 Oklahoma (9-1) — Is there any doubt that this is the weekend's marquee match-up?

    The experts agree that, if Tech wins, the Red Raiders will play for a spot in the national championship game when they play for the Big 12 title on Dec. 6.

    The assumption is that, after beating Texas, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, the Red Raiders will cruise past 4-7 Baylor the following week — although, frankly, the Baylor game will mean nothing in the race for the Big 12 South title if Tech comes into the game 11-0.

    It's hard to refute that logic.

    The Bears' only role would be to spoil the Raiders' run for the national title, but they don't appear to have the horses for the task.

    On the other hand, if Oklahoma beats Tech and then beats Oklahoma State on Nov. 29, creating a three-way tie with Texas and Texas Tech for the Big 12 South title, the tie will be broken by which team has the highest ranking in the BCS standings.

    A two-way tie would be broken based on the outcome of the head-to-head matchup. But a three-way tie complicates things considerably. With everything that will be riding on the resolution of that matter, things clearly could get messy.

    The game should be high scoring. Tech is ranked second in total offense, OU is ranked fourth. The nation's #1 and #5 passers — Tech's Graham Harrell and OU's Sam Bradford — will be playing. And neither team has a defensive unit that ranks in the Top 50 in total defense.

    However, if OU struggles with its passing game, the Sooners have the nation's 47th-ranked rusher, DeMarco Murray, to provide a change of pace as well as the very vocal support of the home crowd.

    The Red Raiders are mostly dependent on their passing game, with players like Michael Crabtree (the hero of the Texas game), Detron Lewis and Eric Morris catching Harrell's passes. But the Sooners are rated 93rd in pass defense.

    There should be a lot of drama in Norman, Okla., Saturday night. You can see it on ABC at 7 p.m. (Central).

  2. Florida State (7-3) at #22 Maryland (7-3) — If this game wasn't being played at the same time as Tech and OU, I would find it very compelling. And if the OU-Tech game gets out of hand, it's a good backup option.

    If Florida State doesn't win this game, I fail to see how they'll be able to snap a two-game losing skid against the third-ranked team in the country the following week.

    Florida State has zero chance of playing for the national title. But the Seminoles can clinch at least a share of the ACC Atlantic title by beating the Terps — and they can get some valuable momentum for the game against Florida.

    So the Seminoles have plenty of motivation. But recent history isn't on their side. In the last four meetings, the team that lost the previous year was the winner — and Florida State beat Maryland last year, 24-16, so the pattern suggests it's Maryland's turn to win in 2008.

    Nevertheless, statistics offer some hope for the Seminoles. Florida State is fifth in total defense while Maryland is tied for 71st in total offense. Florida State is 43rd in total offense; Maryland is 64th in total defense.

    The game will be televised on ESPN at 6:45 p.m. (Central).

  3. #15 Michigan State (9-2) at #8 Penn State (10-1) — After their one-point loss to Iowa, the Nittany Lions were said to be out of the national title picture.

    The truth was, before the Iowa game, most observers were saying the Nittany Lions wouldn't be in the national championship game even if they ran the table.

    But Penn State is alive and well in the race for the Rose Bowl.

    However, so is Michigan State.

    But Michigan State's hopes will depend upon an unlikely upset of Ohio State by woeful Michigan (3-8) earlier in the day (ABC will carry the Ohio State-Michigan game at 11 a.m. Central time),

    By the time Michigan State and Penn State kick off at 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC, the outcome of the Ohio State-Michigan game will be known.

    Michigan State lost to Ohio State in October, but Penn State did not. The outcome of the Ohio State-Michigan game won't have any meaning for Penn State, but the Nittany Lions will get more competition from the Spartans if the Wolverines win their game.

    If nothing else, Penn State, which is ranked fourth in total defense, will have its hands full with Javon Ringer, who is second in the nation in rushing yardage. But Penn State is ranked 18th in total offense, while Michigan State is ranked 66th.

  4. #14 Brigham Young (10-1) at #7 Utah (11-0) — Utah beat San Diego State like the proverbial red-headed stepchild, 63-14, on Saturday, but SDSU is the bottom of the barrel in the Mountain West Conference. The level of competition will be decidedly higher this weekend.

    And the odds seem to be against Utah playing for the national championship even if the Utes cap an undefeated season with a win over Brigham Young.

    BYU lost to TCU in mid-October, and both teams could share the conference championship with Utah if BYU beats Utah and 16th-ranked TCU beats Air Force this weekend. Air Force is out of the race for the conference title, but it was competitive against both BYU and Utah earlier in the year. And the Falcons could keep the Horned Frogs from possibly sharing the conference title with a win in Fort Worth, Texas.

    The TCU-Air Force game is scheduled to be televised by Versus at 2:30 p.m. (Central).

    If Utah beats BYU, what happens in Fort Worth won't matter — and Utah will retain a chance — albeit a slim one — of sneaking into the national championship game.

    But BYU won't be an easy mark. Seven of the last eight games between the schools have been decided by a single score, and recent history suggests that teams win in this series in streaks.

    Brigham Young has won the last two meetings. The Cougars beat the Utes last year, 17-10. In 2006, the Cougars won an even closer game, 33-31.

    The Utes won in 2005, 41-34. In the most lopsided outcome in recent years, Utah beat BYU in 2004, 52-21. In 2003, Utah won, 3-0. In 2002, Utah took a 13-6 decision.

    In 2001, BYU won, 24-21. The Cougars won in 2000, 34-27.

    Brigham Young also has the nation's #4 quarterback, Max Hall, and the nation's leading receiver, Austin Collie, which has propelled the Cougars to #17 in total offense. But Utah ranks 11th in total defense.

    Utah isn't too shabby in total offense, either — the Utes are 35th in the country. And BYU ranks 54th in total defense.

    The game will be televised on The Mtn. at 5 p.m. (Central).

  5. Yale (6-3) at Harvard (8-1) — Ordinarily, I wouldn't even consider this game, since it's being played at the same time as Ohio State and Michigan. But Michigan has had a terrible season and isn't likely to give OSU much of a struggle.

    But the Yale-Harvard game is a worthwhile option for traditionalists. It's a rivalry of long-standing, and it has some meaning this year. Harvard can win at least a share of the Ivy League championship with a win over Yale, but it needs Brown to lose to Columbia in order to win the championship outright.

    Brown is likely to beat Columbia — and, because Brown beat Harvard by two points earlier in the season, the Bears hold the tiebreaker. But Brown will be playing Columbia at the same time as Harvard is playing Yale, so nothing will be decided at that point.

    Known as "The Game," the Harvard-Yale series dates to 1875. It's the oldest football rivalry, although the earliest games of the series came at a time when American football was evolving from rugby and the scores were decidedly un-football-like — on Nov. 13, 1875, Harvard won the first game between the two schools, 4-0.

    Saturday's game will be the 125th meeting. Yale leads the historical series, 65-51-8, but Harvard has won six of the last seven games.

    You can see the game on Versus at 11 a.m. (Central).

No comments: