Thursday, October 16, 2014

The State of Mississippi Takes the Lead in College Football

Midway through the college football season, and the state of Mississippi is at the center of the college football universe. Did anyone see that coming? I sure didn't.

Well, not entirely. I mean, I knew Ole Miss would be good, maybe even a Top 10 team, but I did not anticipate Mississippi State. Few, if any people, did. Besides, the SEC West was already packed with powerhouses — Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Texas A&M. I figured that, even if Ole Miss was in the Top 10, two or maybe three other SEC West teams would be ranked ahead of them. After all, it hasn't been unusual for the SEC to have four or five teams in the Top 10

The most remarkable game played so far this season — and perhaps in my lifetime — was Baylor's "mind–numbing" come–from–behind victory over TCU in Waco last weekend. It truly was an epic game, exceeding by 21 points the highest single–game point total in a TCU–Baylor game (which was established three years ago, also in Waco). And they've been playing each other since 1903.

The Mississippi schools are both 6–0. Ole Miss has beaten Alabama and Texas A&M. Mississippi State has beaten LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn in a row. Anything can still happen, of course, but, right now, it is looking like the Nov. 29 Egg Bowl — the annual grudge match between Ole Miss and Mississippi State, slated for Oxford this year — will determine who represents the SEC West in the SEC championship game this year.

The now–top–ranked Bulldogs have this weekend off to savor their new status. Unless something really unexpected happens, the Bulldogs shouldn't be seriously challenged until Nov. 15, when they travel to Alabama.

Idle: #1 Mississippi State, #6 Auburn, #16 Arizona, #18 East Carolina

  • #20 Utah at Oregon State, 9 p.m. (Central) on FS1: Both defenses are ranked higher than the offenses, which makes this something of an anomaly in the Pac–12, where the emphasis is on offense.

    The Utes may be the ranked team, but the Beavers hold the head–to–head series advantage, an edge that has been built on Oregon State's dominance in Oregon, 7–2–1. In fact, Utah hasn't beaten Oregon State in the state of Oregon since 1991.

    I think Utah will end the drought.
  • #5 Notre Dame at #2 Florida State, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Florida State leads the series, but Notre Dame won the last time the game was played in Tallahassee.

    Since the new #1 team, Mississippi State, is idle this week, I suppose this is the marquee game — although I am sure you would get an argument from fans of Texas A&M and Alabama or Kansas State and Oklahoma or Oklahoma State and TCU or Stanford and Arizona State.

    Daniel Uthman of USA Today wonders if this game will bring the first college football playoff field into focus. I kind of think it will.

    There have been a lot of questions about whether defending Heisman winner Jameis Winston, now accused of sexual assault, will play, but the Irish expect him to be in the lineup. Speaking of Winston, apparently he hails from the same town as former Heisman winner Bo Jackson, and Bo apparently has been trying to counsel Winston, but Jackson seems to be fed up with Winston, claiming that his advice has been ignored. "You're on your own," he said.

    Statistically, I think it's a draw at quarterback if Winston plays. He has played one less game than Notre Dame's Everett Golson so that needs to be considered, but consider this also: Winston has a better completion percentage but he has thrown more interceptions and Golson has half again as many TD tosses.

    Even if Winston does not play, it is likely to be an aerial affair since neither team has what could be called a major running attack.

    With all the distractions for FSU lately, I'll pick Notre Dame to win.
  • Tennessee at #3 Ole Miss, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Tennessee has only lost one of its last 14 games with Ole Miss — but that loss came the last time they met in Jackson.

    Tennessee boasts the nation's 16th–best defense and is sure to challenge Ole Miss (#45 in offense). It will have to. The Vols have one of the worst offenses in the land, and Ole Miss is #13 in defense. The Jackson (Miss.) Clarion Ledger says Ole Miss has a "landshark" defense that will overwhelm Tennessee.

    The numbers and the home field favor Ole Miss.
  • #4 Baylor at West Virginia, 11 a.m. (Central) on FS1: After last week's game with TCU, it should be no surprise that Baylor is now the top–ranked offense in the nation.

    What may come as a surprise to you is that West Virginia's offense — led by the nation's best receiver, Kevin White, his QB, Clint Trickett, and running back Rushel Shell — is ranked eighth.

    How do they stack up on defense? Well, in spite of last week's high–scoring battle with TCU, Baylor is ranked 10th in the nation in defense. West Virginia, meanwhile, is 67th.

    The first two conference meetings between these schools were wild. West Virginia won in 2012, 70–63, and Baylor won last year, 73–42. If a trend was established, it was that the winner scores 70 points. I think the Bears are more likely to cross that threshold. I'll take Baylor.
  • #21 Texas A&M at #7 Alabama, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: Despite their struggles lately, the Aggies have the fourth–best offense in the nation. Alabama's offense is pretty good, too (#18).

    But the eye–popping match will be when the Aggies have the ball — and must face the third–ranked defense in the country. One gets the sense that the game will be decided by that matchup since the beleaguered A&M defense (#71 in the land) figures to have plenty of problems.

    This series had been dormant for a quarter of a century until the Aggies joined the SEC a few years ago. It was never very active before — the teams met in a couple of Cotton Bowls, then met in a couple of nonconference games in the 1980s.

    Alabama lost its first meeting with A&M in Tuscaloosa a couple of years ago and needs to win this game to remain in the conversation for the SEC West title. I'll go with Alabama at home.
  • #8 Michigan State at Indiana, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: These schools have been meeting since 1927 (as conference rivals since 1953), and the Spartans enjoy a lopsided lead, winning about 76% of the time. But it's been more difficult for them in Indiana, where their winning percentage is around 70%.

    Going into this year's edition of the Old Brass Spittoon, both teams boast Top 20 offenses — Michigan State is #17, Indiana is #19 — so I think the issue will be decided by the best defensive performance. That suggests that the Spartans, currently #12 nationally in defense, are better positioned than Indiana's 79th–ranked defense.

    Indiana's will be led by the Hoosiers' third–string quarterback, a thoroughly untested freshman.

    I'll take Michigan State.
  • Washington at #9 Oregon, 7 p.m. (Central) on FS1: This game was first played during World War I, and Washington leads the all–time series, but Oregon enters the game with a 10–game winning streak against the Huskies.

    The Pac–12 is known for offense, not defense, and I think it is safe to say that this will not be a defensive struggle. Washington's defense is ranked 66th, and Oregon's isn't even in the Top 100.

    Offense, though, is another matter, at least for the Ducks. Oregon's offense is always good; so far, it ranks 13th in the land. With the nation's top–rated passer (Marcus Mariota), Oregon can be very entertaining to watch.

    Defense is the best part of this Washington team. The offense is ranked #95.

    I'll take Oregon.
  • #10 Georgia at Arkansas, 3 p.m. (Central) on SEC Network: Georgia has won nine of its last 11 encounters with Arkansas, but the Bulldogs are unbeaten in Arkansas.

    However, I don't think Georgia has ever played Arkansas in Little Rock, which is where this game is being played. Will that matter? Probably not, although I have been pleased with the effort the Razorbacks have given. They could easily be 2–1 in the SEC instead of 0–3. The SEC West is just so much deeper than it ever has been since the conference split into divisions.

    I wish Arkansas would win, but I have to pick Georgia.
  • #14 Kansas State at #11 Oklahoma, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: One of the things that excited me when I was hired to teach journalism at OU was the idea of being at a football school. I love football, and, after all, who has a greater reputation for football? Unfortunately, OU's football team was one of its worst during the four years I was there.

    A good example of that is the series with Kansas State, a Big Eight conference rival (and, therefore, an annual opponent until the Big 12 put them in different divisions). OU has dominated its series with the Wildcats and hadn't lost three in a row to KSU since the 1920s — until Kansas State beat OU three straight times while I was on the Oklahoma faculty.

    Bob Stoops has turned things back in OU's favor. He has won nine of 11 meetings with K–State, but he lost the last time the Wildcats came to Norman (the other time was in the 2003 Big 12 Championship).

    I expect Oklahoma to win this time.
  • #15 Oklahoma State at #12 TCU, 3 p.m. (Central) on FS1: It is probably safe to say this is the biggest game in this series' history. The Cowboys have enjoyed the advantage in Stillwater, but the series is tied up in Fort Worth. In fact, the closest that the Cowboys have come to winning in Fort Worth since 1947 were ties in 1949 and 1971.

    The defenses are virtually the same (Oklahoma State is ranked #55, TCU is ranked #57) so it seems likely to come down to which offense is able to execute better. That would seem to favor TCU. The Frogs' offense is ranked 15th while Oklahoma State's is 60th — but I tend to think that TCU's numbers on both sides of the ball are skewed by the 61–58 loss to Baylor last week.

    I was impressed by what TCU was able to do in Waco last week. The Frogs showed that their win over Oklahoma was no fluke, but I have to wonder if they can bounce back after two consecutive emotionally charged games like that. I'll take Oklahoma State.
  • Rutgers at #13 Ohio State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: This is the first time these schools have met, but as conference rivals it will become a regular thing.

    Ohio State has the #12 offense and should have little trouble with Rutgers' #70 defense. Likewise, Ohio State's defense (#14) should have no trouble stopping Rutgers' offense (#55).

    On top of that, the Buckeyes are at home. Give me Ohio State.
  • #23 Stanford at #17 Arizona State, 9:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Stanford has the second–best defense in the country. I know that defense isn't terribly important in the Pac–12, but I still believe it wins championships — and Stanford's defense is ranked second in the nation. It should be interesting when Arizona State's seventh–ranked offense takes the field.

    Stanford has beaten Arizona State four straight times, including last year's Pac–12 championship game, but the Sun Devils have had the upper hand at home. Stanford did win the last time the teams played there, but that snapped a four–game ASU home winning streak.

    I'm going to pick Stanford.
  • #19 Nebraska at Northwestern, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on Big Ten Network: The Cornhuskers have the 10th–ranked offense in the country. Against Northwestern's #44 defense, it might look like old times when Nebraska's total offense exceeded 400 yards.

    Nebraska leads the series, 5–2, and has only lost to Northwestern once since Herbert Hoover was president. That was also the last time Nebraska lost at Northwestern. I don't expect that to happen this time. I expect Nebraska to win.
  • Colorado at #22 Southern Cal, 5 p.m. (Central) on Pac–12 Network: The Trojans have won all eight of their previous meetings with Colorado, and I'm inclined to think USC will win again. Let's examine it a little more closely, though.

    Offense is what matters in the Pac–12, and Colorado is actually ranked ahead of Southern Cal in total offense (#29 to #36), but Southern Cal, behind running back Javorius Allen, has a superior rushing attack, and QB Cody Kessler is completing nearly 70% of his passes.

    Even though defense is not as important in the Pac–12 as it is in other conferences, Southern Cal's, while average, is much better than Colorado's.

    I pick Southern Cal.
  • #24 Clemson at Boston College, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPNU: Clemson is tied with Wisconsin for sixth in the country in defense. Pretty good, right? Boston College is just as good, though — ranked eighth.

    Clemson also has a narrow edge on offense (ranked #38 to Boston College's #44), but both advantages could be negated by Boston College's home field.

    Clemson has seized the lead in this series by winning five of the last six meetings. This game might be a lot closer than people expect, but I'll take Clemson.
  • #25 Marshall at Florida International, 5 p.m. (Central) on American Sports Network: Marshall has the nation's second–ranked offense.

    These teams have only met twice, the first time in the 2011 Beef O'Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla., followed by last year's meeting in the Miami area. Marshall won both.

    Florida International comes into the game 3–5. Marshall is unbeaten. I'll go with Marshall.

Last week: 12–3

Season: 105–20

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