Friday, November 14, 2014

Crunch Time for College Football

It's coming down to crunch time in college football. Who will survive to play for the national title in January?

Tomorrow's Mississippi State–Alabama game will go a long way toward deciding that. So could the Florida State–Miami game, even though Miami isn't in the Top 25 (although that could change if the Hurricanes beat the Seminoles).

Auburn was dealt what many thought was a fatal blow to the Tigers' national title aspirations when Texas A&M upended them last week.

Idle: #3 Oregon, #6 Baylor, #10 Ole Miss, #13 Kansas State, #14 UCLA, #23 Colorado State

  • #1 Mississippi State at #4 Alabama, 2:30 p.m. (CST) on CBS: Alabama has won 12 of the last 15 games with Mississippi State — and that winning percentage is actually below Alabama's all–time winning percentage in this series.

    Historically, the scores haven't been high. 'Bama usually wins by a couple of touchdowns. That suggests a setting that is favorable for defense.

    Alabama's defense is ranked fourth in the country, which should make it interesting when Mississippi State (#6 in offense) has the ball. Alabama's offense (#19) should have an easier time against Mississippi State's defense (#89 in the nation).

    The Crimson Tide is far more acclimated to the spotlight than the Bulldogs. I'll take Alabama at home.
  • #2 Florida State at Miami (Fla.), 7 p.m. (CST) on ABC: There have been some great games between these two programs over the years. Miami has fallen on rather hard times, but back in the day ...

    Florida State comes in riding a four–game winning streak that has brought the Seminoles within two wins of tying the all–time series.

    This is one of those series in which the visiting team has tended to be the winner, and the Seminoles have won nearly 55% of the time in Miami. Can they do it this time?

    Well, Florida State has a narrow advantage in the offensive rankings, but Miami has the 11th–best defense in the nation while Florida State's is ranked 50th.

    Some folks will think this is an upset, given that Florida State has the defending Heisman winner on its roster, but I'm going to pick Miami to win the game.
  • #5 TCU at Kansas, 2 p.m. (Central) on FS1: TCU has won both of its games with Kansas since joining the Big 12, but that is nothing new. The series with Kansas is one series the TCU football program has dominated from the start (a 41–6 win in 1942).

    This season, TCU has been far better on both sides of the ball than Kansas. In fact, TCU will bring the #3 offense in the nation to Lawrence. Lest you think that is almost entirely due to the game in which TCU scored 58 points in a losing cause against Baylor, let me remind you that the Frogs scored 82 points against Texas Tech and scored at least 41 points in four other games. They haven't scored fewer than 30 points in a game all season.

    For that matter, the Horned Frogs are entertaining thoughts of being in the national championship playoff. All that remains on TCU's schedule after the Kansas game are a trip to Texas (5–5) and a season finale at home against Iowa State (2–7).

    Unless the Frogs get distracted, TCU should win this one.
  • #7 Arizona State at Oregon State, 9:45 p.m. (CST) on ESPN: Historically, Arizona State has dominated Oregon State, but not so much in recent years. Oregon State has won four of the last six meetings and has won four straight at home. This won't be a gimme for the Sun Devils.

    Still Arizona State has the superior offense. Oregon State has a higher–ranked defense, but not by much, and its offense has struggled. I pick Arizona State to end its skid in Corvallis.
  • #8 Ohio State at Minnesota, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: How dominant has Ohio State been against Minnesota?

    The Buckeyes have won 24 of their last 25 meetings.

    The Buckeyes haven't lost at Minnesota since 1981. That's 12 straight road wins for Ohio State.

    Statistically, Ohio State is in the Top 20 in both offense (#10) and defense (#17). Minnesota's defense isn't bad (#21), but its offense is atrocious (#96).

    I expect the defense to set up enough scoring opportunities to help a Buckeye offense that might just find Minnesota to be more of a challenge than it has faced so far this season. I pick Ohio State.
  • #9 Auburn at #16 Georgia, 6:15 p.m. (CST) on ESPN: The Southeastern Conference is an interesting thing, full of apparent contradictions. Defense has always been what mattered most in the SEC, but there has been enough offense to produce several Heisman Trophy winners over the years.

    And, although the SEC has been dodging the bullet, it has long been said that there was so much talent in the SEC that almost no one can go through a season undefeated. It would even be difficult, most observers said, to get through a season with only one loss.

    Well, the SEC's luck may have run out. It is still possible for an SEC champion to emerge undefeated or with only one loss this season, but it will have to be unbeaten Mississippi State or once–beaten Alabama, who face each other tomorrow, or once–beaten Missouri.

    Auburn became the latest SEC team to lose its second game last week when the Tigers lost to Texas A&M.

    Now that the Tigers are probably out of the running for the national championship playoff, they face the challenge of Georgia tomorrow and Alabama in two weeks. Can they bounce back?

    This is the 110th meeting between these schools in a series that dates back to 1902. Georgia leads the series, 52–51–6, and has won two–thirds of the last 12 meetings, but Auburn actually leads in games played in Athens — although the Tigers haven't won there since 2005.

    Georgia has the higher–ranked defense by a slim margin, and Auburn has the higher–ranked offense by a wider margin.

    I will take Auburn to shake off last week's loss and get back on the winning track in Athens.
  • #11 Nebraska at #22 Wisconsin, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: The all–time series between these two is all knotted up, 4–4. But, for a long time, most people — certainly all Cornhusker fans — will remember the 2012 Big Ten championship game between the two. Wisconsin handed Nebraska its greatest margin of defeat, at least in recent memory, 70–31.

    That was the only game played on a neutral site. Otherwise, the home team almost always wins this game — the sole exception to that rule was a Nebraska victory at Wisconsin in 1966.

    Nebraska has a narrow edge on offense. The Cornhuskers are ranked #17, the Badgers are ranked #24. Wisconsin has the top–ranked defense in the land. Nebraska hasn't been too shabby (#25), either.

    I think it will be a really good game, and I'll pick Wisconsin by a field goal.
  • #12 Michigan State at Maryland, 7 p.m. (CST) on Big Ten Network: The only time Michigan State visited Maryland, Michigan State won 8–0.

    Of course, you can't take much from the history of this series. It covers only five games, and Michigan State's last trip to Maryland was 70 years ago. In fact, the schools haven't faced each other at all since 1950.

    Michigan State has decisive advantages on both sides of the ball. It shouldn't be much of a contest. I'll take Michigan State.
  • Northwestern at #15 Notre Dame, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on NBC: The schools haven't faced each other since 1995, the year Northwestern won its first Big Ten title since 1936. Northwestern's season–opening 17–15 victory over Notre Dame established the tone for that season.

    That win also broke a 14–game losing streak to the Irish, who have only lost to Northwestern four times in 27 previous meetings in South Bend.

    Statistically, the teams are pretty close on defense. It is on offense where the Irish enjoy a huge advantage.

    And that, I believe, will lift Notre Dame to victory in this one.
  • Washington at #17 Arizona, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on Fox: The pattern in eight of the last 10 meetings between these schools is for the home team to win. That favors the Wildcats because they're the ones eating home cookin' this year.

    Then there is the statistical aspect. Offense is the coin of the realm in the Pac–12, and Arizona's offense is ranked 14th in the land; meanwhile, Washington's offense has been weak by national standards, which are considerably lower than the Pac–12's.

    Neither defense has been impressive. I'll take Arizona.
  • #18 Clemson at #24 Georgia Tech, 11 a.m. (CST) on ESPN: Clemson has won three of its last four games with Georgia Tech, but that has been a rare stretch of success for Clemson in this series. Georgia Tech has won twice as many times as Clemson has; in a series in which 77 games have been played, that can be summed up in one word — domination.

    Clemson brings the nation's #2 defense into the contest; Georgia Tech has been mediocre on defense. Georgia Tech has been better than Clemson on offense — but not that much better. I'll pick Clemson.
  • Virginia Tech at #19 Duke, 11 a.m. (CST) on ESPNU: Duke snapped a 12–game losing streak to Virginia Tech last season. The last Duke victory predated the time when these two became conference rivals; in fact, it was Duke's first win over Virginia Tech in the state of Virginia in more than half a century.

    It hasn't been quite that long since Duke last beat Virginia Tech in Durham, N.C., where this week's game is being played, but it's still been awhile. Virginia Tech has won the last five times it has traveled to Duke. The Blue Devils' last home victory over Virginia Tech was in 1981.

    Statistically, Duke has the advantage on offense, although neither team has been overly impressive. On defense, the advantage clearly belongs with Virginia Tech (#31 nationally).

    I'm taking Virginia Tech in an upset special.
  • #20 LSU at Arkansas, 7 p.m. (CST) on ESPN2: This has become known as the Battle for the Golden Boot — so named because the trophy that goes to the winner, shaped like a geographical representation of the border states, resembles a boot.

    LSU has won the last three battles, but, if Arkansas has an historical advantage against LSU anywhere, it is in the state of Arkansas. The Hogs trail the series at home, 9–8, but that's better than their record in Baton Rouge, where the Hogs have only won twice in 15 visits.

    But that is what has happened in the past. This year, Arkansas has the higher–ranked offense, and LSU has the higher–ranked defense. In spite of all the Heisman winners in the SEC in recent years, defense is still the name of the game. Consequently, I'll pick LSU.
  • Rice at #21 Marshall, 1:30 p.m. (Central) on FSN: This is a rematch of last year's Conference USA championship game, which Rice won, 41–24.

    They have played five times since 2007, and they've built a reputation for putting points on the board when they meet. No 9–6 scores in this series. Two years ago, Marshall beat Rice, 54–51.

    Marshall looks capable of putting up those kind of numbers again with the second–best offense in the land. Rice's offense, on the other hand, has struggled this year.

    If it becomes a matter of which defense is able to stop the opposing offense, my money is on Marshall with the #22 defense in the country. (Rice's is good, ranked #38, just not good enough.)
  • #25 Utah at Stanford, 5 p.m. (Central) on Pac–12: Historically, Utah is 2–1 as Stanford's guest. That's the good news.

    The bad news is that it's been nearly 20 years since Stanford has hosted Utah.

    Statistically, Stanford is better on both sides of the ball. In fact, Stanford has the fifth–best defense in the country. Utah's offense, meanwhile, is ranked #82. Hardly seems like a match.

    The magic number for Stanford this season appears to be 20. Stanford wins if it scores 20 or more, which it has done five times. When Stanford scores less than 20, which it has done four times this season, it loses.

    This will probably be regarded as an upset, but I'll pick Stanford to win.

Last week: 15–3

Season: 160–33

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