Friday, October 10, 2014

An Earthquake in College Football

Even before the first kickoff of last weekend, everyone knew there would be some losses in the Top 25. After all, there were more head–to–head matches between ranked teams than there have been in any other week so far — and, since the NCAA introduced overtime to Division I college football games and eliminated the possibility of a game ending in a tie, college football fans have known that someone would win and someone would lose in every game. No more "kissing your sister."

We knew there would be some movement in the rankings; no one was expecting a seismic shift. But it wasn't just ranked teams beating up on each other last week.

In fact, last weekend started with unranked Arizona's stunning win over #2 Oregon on Thursday night, followed by unranked Utah State's equally perplexing win over #18 Brigham Young on Friday night.

The trend continued into Saturday — unranked Utah shocked #8 UCLA, unranked Arizona State upset #16 Southern Cal and unranked Northwestern turned back #17 Wisconsin.

And, of course, there were the ranked teams that lost to other ranked teams — #9 Notre Dame edged #14 Stanford, #5 Auburn took down #15 LSU and #10 Michigan State got by #19 Nebraska, in outcomes that probably ended as most expected, at least based on the rankings.

Fourth–ranked Oklahoma's loss to #25 TCU really surprised me.

But then there were the victories of two teams from the same state whose traditional end–of–season clash could have unexpectedly high stakes this year. Ole Miss, ranked 11th, beat third–ranked Alabama, and #12 Mississippi State shocked everyone with a 17–point win over #6 Texas A&M.

Many games will be played before Ole Miss and Mississippi State square off, and anything could happen between now and then, but right now they both look like teams that could go the distance — and meet on Nov. 29 with the SEC West crown on the line.

By my count, nine ranked teams tumbled last week. To add to the somewhat surreal atmosphere, things happened that I would never have thought possible when I was a boy — like Baylor beating Texas.

I know that Baylor is ranked and Texas is not. But I still have trouble thinking of Baylor as a powerhouse. Why, beating Baylor was virtually routine when I was growing up. I grew up in Southwest Conference territory, and I am amazed that teams like Baylor and TCU are ranked and beating teams like Oklahoma and Texas.

It's "Through the Looking Glass" stuff, for sure.

More drama may be in store this weekend. In addition to the traditional OU–Texas rivalry, which retains its magic even though Texas is unranked, we have #2 Auburn vs. #3 Mississippi State, #4 Ole Miss vs. #14 Texas A&M, #12 Oregon vs. #18 UCLA and #13 Georgia vs. #23 Missouri.

Plus a whole bunch of games between ranked and unranked teams. Anything could happen. Brace yourself.

Idle: #15 Ohio State, #17 Kansas State, #20 Arizona State, #21 Nebraska, #24 Utah

  • Washington State at #25 Stanford, 8 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Stanford owns a six–game winning streak against Washington State.

    Even though offense, not defense, is king in the Pac–12, Stanford has the nation's second–best defense — which is sure to be tested by Washington State's sixth–ranked offense. Stanford's offense (#93 in the nation) has been unimpressive — but it might have a chance against Washington State's 90th–ranked defense.

    I take Stanford.
  • #1 Florida State at Syracuse, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: Syracuse won the first game these teams played against each other — back in 1966. Florida State has won the six that have been played since.

    Well, Syracuse is 2–3 and has lost three straight. I'll take Florida State.
  • #2 Auburn at #3 Mississippi State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: This is bound to be the biggest football game ever played in Starkville.

    Based on the rankings, this should be the game of the week. The winner may be in a position to play in the first–ever Division I playoffs in January — although Ole Miss might have something to say about that.

    Historically, Auburn leads Mississippi State whether the game has been at home or on the road. In both places, Auburn's winning percentage is around 67%. But Mississippi State won the last time the game was played in Starkville, and the Bulldogs were only 8–5 that year (Auburn was only 3–9).

    Both are in the Top 25 in offense. In fact, Mississippi State is ranked higher than Auburn. But defense is king in the SEC, and that is where Auburn has a clear advantage. The Tigers are #14 in the nation. The Bulldogs are #84.

    Even though the Bulldogs are ranked third in the nation, they still have some things to prove. They can prove they are for real with a win over #2 Auburn, then the only real hurdle before the traditional season–ender against in–state rival Ole Miss will be the game with Alabama in mid–November.

    But I expect Auburn to prevail in this one.
  • #4 Ole Miss at #14 Texas A&M, 8 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: If Ole Miss is going to improve on its 5–0 start, it will have to do something it has never done before: Beat Texas A&M.

    The way the Aggies have been playing lately, that isn't entirely inconceivable.

    Ole Miss has the fifth–best defense in the nation whereas the Aggies, ranked 75th, have struggled — but that ought to make for a first–rate battle when the Aggies' third–ranked offense has the ball.

    I think the Rebels' 37th–ranked offense will be the difference. I pick Ole Miss.
  • #9 TCU at #5 Baylor, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC, ESPN2 or ESPNU: When I was growing up, these two programs were doormats in the Southwest Conference. Today, they are both in the Top 10 nationally in defense.

    Only Marshall's offense is ranked higher than Baylor's, but TCU's offense isn't exactly chopped liver (#16 nationally). Baylor's pretty good on defense, too (#4 in the nation); unfortunately for the Bears, so is TCU (#7).

    This really ought to be a good game. It is also the 102nd meeting between the schools. TCU holds the advantage, 50–46–5, and has been more successful in Waco than at home, although the Frogs lead the series in both places.

    I'll take the home team — Baylor.
  • North Carolina at #6 Notre Dame, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on NBC: North Carolina has only beaten Notre Dame twice in 18 meetings — but one of those wins came last year in Chapel Hill — where the Tar Heels' other triumph over the Irish occurred (in 1960). North Carolina is 0–11 in South Bend.

    Statistically, Notre Dame has the better offense — which isn't really saying a lot. Both teams have been mediocre on offense. Notre Dame has the #21 defense in the nation — and the Irish offense might look pretty good against North Carolina's defense, which is one of the worst in the country. I pick Notre Dame.
  • #7 Alabama at Arkansas, 5 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Alabama has won its last seven meetings with Arkansas. The Crimson Tide tends to win, no matter where the game is played, but Arkansas tends to fare a little better at home — which is hardly a surprise. I mean, isn't it that way for everyone against Alabama?

    Alabama suffered a crushing loss to Ole Miss last week but still comes to Fayetteville with the third–ranked defense. The Tide has beaten the Hogs by identical 52–0 scores in the last two seasons. I expect Arkansas to score this time, but I also expect Alabama to win.
  • #8 Michigan State at Purdue, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: This series has been more competitive than you might think — and, as a matter of fact, Purdue holds the historical edge when the game is played in Indiana.

    Michigan State, though, has won the last five meetings, which have included two games in West Lafayette. Purdue limps into the game at 3–3. I pick Michigan State.
  • Southern Cal at #10 Arizona, 9:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: Southern Cal has dominated this series — and has won 10 of the 13 games played between the schools since the dawn of this century.

    QB Anu Solomon, with running back Nick Wilson and wideout Nelson Agholor, leads Arizona's seventh–ranked offense; QB Cody Kessler, along with runner Javorius Allen and receiver Cayleb Jones, leads Southern Cal's 40th–ranked offense.

    This has the potential to be close. I will take Arizona.
  • Texas vs. #11 Oklahoma in Dallas, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: When I was growing up, this game positively dwarfed anything else that was being played that day.

    Today, it is easily fifth or sixth on a college football fan's priority list. In fact, many fans may be flipping between this one and the Georgia–Missouri game.

    Texas' new coach, Charlie Strong, is on the hot seat. He is 2–3 and must face an Oklahoma team that lost to TCU last week and dropped in the rankings. It's safe to say the Sooners will be surly. If Texas wins, Strong will feel less pressure. If he loses, it may be the last straw for disgruntled UT boosters.

    I pick Oklahoma.
  • #12 Oregon at #18 UCLA, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on Fox: Oregon has beaten UCLA in 10 of their last 12 games, including the 2011 Pac–12 championship game.

    Oregon still has a great offense (#11), but it doesn't seem to inspire as much fear as it once did. UCLA's offense is pretty good (#36), although I suspect the Bruins owe most of their ranking to their 62–point game against Arizona State a couple of weeks ago.

    Both teams are coming off shocking losses. Historically, UCLA hasn't lost consecutive home games since 2009 — but one of those losses was to Oregon.

    I pick Oregon.
  • #13 Georgia at #23 Missouri, 11 a.m. (Central) on CBS: These schools have only met twice in the modern era, and the home team has lost both.

    That would suggest that Georgia will win the game, and that is something I would have predicted, too — except the Bulldogs will be without running back Todd Gurley, who has been indefinitely suspended. With him in the lineup, the Bulldogs' offense is #38 in the nation. Without him, Georgia's offense should be easier for Missouri's 60th–ranked defense to contain.

    That will be important because the Georgia defense appears fully capable of shutting down the Missouri offense.

    I'm going to take Missouri — but I think it will be close.
  • #16 Oklahoma State at Kansas, 3 p.m. (Central) on FS1: Oklahoma State has won nine of its last 10 meetings with Kansas and hasn't lost in Manhattan since October 1994.

    Oklahoma State doesn't seem to be as explosive as last year, when they scored at least 42 points in six games (in four of those games, they broke 50 points), but the Cowboys don't have to be too explosive to win against the Jayhawks.

    Oklahoma State buried Kansas last year, 42–6. It probably won't be that lopsided this time, but I pick Oklahoma State to win again.
  • #19 East Carolina at South Florida, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPNU: These teams have met four times, and South Florida has won them all — but I think that streak is coming to an end.

    East Carolina comes to town with the fourth–ranked offense, which should be quite a challenge for South Florida's 67th–ranked defense. East Carolina has an average defense, but it should have no trouble with South Florida, which has one of the worst offenses in college football.

    I pick East Carolina to break into the win column in this series.
  • Duke at #22 Georgia Tech, 11:30 a.m. (Central) on ACC Network: Duke–Georgia Tech probably sounds like it ought to be a primetime basketball clash — and, at times, it has been.

    This year, though, it earns attention on the gridiron. Even though Duke had an unexpectedly good football season last year, Tech has beaten Duke in 18 of their last 19 meetings. Duke hasn't won at Georgia Tech in 20 years.

    If you judged by the record, you would think it was a meeting of powerhouses — Duke is 4–1 and Georgia Tech is unbeaten — but they have built those records on teams like Wofford and Elon. Both have played (and beaten) Tulane, and both have played Miami of Florida. In fact, that is the difference in their records. The Yellow Jackets beat the 'Canes, the Blue Devils did not.

    Statistically, Duke is ranked ahead of Georgia Tech in both offense and defense, but from what I have read, Duke simply is not the same team that went 10–4 last year and narrowly lost to Texas A&M in the Chick–Fil–A Bowl. The Yellow Jackets, meanwhile, seem to be on an upward trajectory after wandering in the wilderness the last few years.

    I'll take Georgia Tech.

Last week: 10–6

Season: 93–17

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