Friday, November 27, 2015

There's a Lot Riding on College Football's Rivalries This Year

Last week was, by far, my worst week predicting the winners of Top 25 football games this season.

But that is what makes college football so exciting — its unpredictability. And that is especially true when you come to this point of the season, when so many rivalry games are being played. And this year those rivalry games all seem to have some bearing on the national championship picture.

There may be no better time of the year, not even New Year's Day, for a college football fan than the Thanksgiving holiday. There are going to be plenty of exciting games between bitter rivals with lots of implications for the winners. Take the Alabama–Auburn game, known informally as the "Iron Bowl." Auburn clearly is not on Alabama's level this year, but Auburn fans would love to deprive Alabama a spot in the national Final Four.

If you're a college football fan, settle in and buckle your seatbelt. It's apt to be a bumpy ride.

  • #3 Iowa at Nebraska, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: In recent years, this game has been a Big Ten conference game, but Iowa and Nebraska have been playing each other since 1899. They haven't faced each other every year; this will be their 35th meeting, and Nebraska wins at a 70% clip.

    Nebraska has been particularly difficult for Iowa when the game has been played in Lincoln, as it is this year.

    But neither team lacks motivation. The Hawkeyes want to be in the national playoff, and the Cornhuskers need the win to become bowl eligible.

    I think 11–0 Iowa is focused. I take Iowa.
  • #7 Baylor at #15 TCU, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: I know for a fact that the expectations for this game were pretty high when the season began.

    And, for most of the season, it appeared this would be the game that would eliminate one from the national playoff conversation — and propel the other into the heart of it. Baylor (9–1) could still end up in the national title discussion, but it's kind of a long shot now.

    What seems more likely is that, when the smoke clears from this football season, the Bears will log their third straight 11–2 record. Perhaps they will achieve a new high–water mark of 12 wins in a season. But I don't think Baylor will end up in college football's Final Four.

    For many years, these teams were rivals in the old Southwest Conference. When I was growing up, their games typically were to avoid finishing last in the SWC. They have played each other more than 100 times since 1903, and TCU has had the edge on both campuses, but Baylor has won three of their last four meetings. You have to go back to their SWC days to find the last time Baylor won four out of five against TCU.

    But that is what I think will happen. I pick Baylor to win.
  • #16 Navy at #21 Houston, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: These teams have met only once before — in the Garden State Bowl in December 1980.

    Clearly, there isn't much to be learned from a game that was played nearly 35 years ago.

    But here's a little trivia. Whenever Navy scores — and the Midshipmen will score, having put at least 40 points on the board five times this year — it will be the first points Navy has ever scored against Houston. The Cougars shut out the Midshipmen in that Garden State Bowl.

    There could be a lot of scoring in this game. Houston, too, has scored at least 40 points five times this year.

    Something has to give. I will take the home team, Houston, in an upset special.
  • Oregon State at #18 Oregon, 3 p.m. (Central) on Fox Sports 1: Oregon enters this rivalry game with a seven–game winning streak against the Beavers — and appears likely to make it eight in a row. The 2–9 Beavers probably can't wait for the season to be over. The 8–3 Ducks probably have a New Year's Day bowl bid in mind — or at least one on New Year's Eve.

    They'll get that opportunity. I pick Oregon.
  • #1 Clemson at South Carolina, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: The Clemson–South Carolina game is known as the Palmetto Bowl. As rivalries go, this one has to be one of the easiest on the students since the campuses are only about 130 miles apart.

    This will be a better test for Clemson than a lot of people think. Sure, South Carolina is 3–8, and Clemson has won about 60% of their meetings, but the Tigers have lost in their last three trips to the South Carolina campus.

    And, as I have often said, rivalry games are different from ordinary games. The teams involved would get pumped up even if they were winless on the season,

    The Tigers should be wary of this game — and the ACC title game with North Carolina next week. My advice would be to stay focused. I think Clemson will win as long as the Tigers stay focused.
  • #2 Alabama at Auburn, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: As I just observed, the Iron Bowl, in some past incarnations, has had more on the line for both teams than it has this year.

    Alabama clearly is in the running for a national playoff berth, but the Crimson Tide must get past first Auburn and then Florida before returning to the playoffs.

    So often the records don't matter in these rivalry games. And I could see Auburn rising up to beat Alabama just because bitter rivals like these only care about beating the other. The fact that it would take Alabama out of the national playoff would be a bonus.

    Having said that, though, I don't think the Tigers will be able to pull it off. I pick Alabama.
  • #4 Notre Dame at #13 Stanford, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on Fox: These teams played for the first time when Knute Rockne was coaching the Irish — in the 1925 Rose Bowl. The Irish won that game, and they've won about two–thirds of their games with Stanford in all.

    But Stanford won the last three times the game was played at Stanford — and could be in position to knock Notre Dame out of the national playoff.

    It's only been an annual event since the late '90s. The teams met from time to time in the preceding 70 years. More often than not, their games have been close, decided by a single score. The rankings suggest this one will be close, too.

    And based on those rankings, my prediction probably qualifies as an upset special. I'm not really sure that it is one, but I will list it that way. I am going to take Stanford at home.
  • #5 Oklahoma at #9 Oklahoma State, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: They call the OU–OSU game Bedlam. Seldom has it had the national significance of OU's games with Texas or Nebraska, but — and I speak from experience here — their annual clashes (and they've been playing since 1912) always stir up deep emotions within the people of that state.

    Now, the fact is that OU nearly always wins the game. Well, the Sooners have won nearly 80% of 'em. OSU actually beat OU last year, but the Cowboys face some long odds in hoping that lightning strikes twice. Only five times in the last century have the Cowboys beaten the Sooners in consecutive seasons.

    The latest weather forecast I heard indicated that Stillwater could be in for some snow and ice by gametime. That will make it fun for the folks watching at home, but could be rather unpleasant for the Okies in attendance.

    I pick Oklahoma to stay on course for the national playoff.
  • Penn State at #6 Michigan State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: After 29 meetings, in a series that dates back to 1914, the teams are even at 14–14–1.

    Michigan State beats Penn State at home more than 60% of the time. The 7–4 Nittany Lions are swooning, having dropped their last two games. Besides, they are 0–3 against ranked teams this season.

    All those factors aside, the Spartans have their eyes on being where Ohio State was last year — the last team standing after college football's playoffs.

    I don't see how Penn State can derail the 10–1 Spartans, whose only setback was a one–point loss at Nebraska.

    I pick Michigan State.
  • #8 Ohio State at #12 Michigan, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: A great rivalry. So many memories. This will be the 99th edition of this rivalry, and the teams are dead even with 47 wins apiece and four ties.

    Last week the Buckeyes lost for the first time since Sept. 6, 2014, when they lost to Virginia Tech. You have to go back to the 2013 season to find the last time Ohio State lost back–to–back games — but those were both postseason games, the Big Ten title game (against Michigan State) and the Orange Bowl (against Clemson). You have to go all the way back to 2011 to find the last time Ohio State lost back–to–back games in the regular season.

    That also happens to be the last year that Michigan beat Ohio State. This is the kind of history Michigan is fighting against in this game.

    But this is a different Michigan team, a better team than Michigan has had for awhile — which leads me to believe the game will be a good one. Historically, Michigan has a slight edge in the Big House, but I don't think Michigan is quite at Ohio State's level — yet. I think it will be close, but I pick Ohio State to win.
  • #14 Florida State at #10 Florida, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: So many great memories of so many great finishes in this series over the years. It almost got to the point where one expected something amazing to happen when these two got together.

    Florida's been in a bit of a tailspin in recent years, but the Gators are back in the rankings and set to face off with either Alabama or Ole Miss in the SEC title game.

    But first there is that little matter of a rivalry game with the Seminoles.

    Historically the Gators have won about 60% of the time, but the Seminoles have had the upper hand recently, winning four of the last five.

    And Florida State has won the last two times the game was played in Gainesville.

    This is a tough one to pick, but I'll take Florida.
  • #11 North Carolina at North Carolina State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC or ESPN2: This series goes back to 1902, and for the most part, North Carolina tends to win, no matter where the game is played.

    N.C. State has enjoyed periods of supremacy — but not lately. The Wolfpack have lost six of the last eight games they have played against the Tar Heels — and likely will lose this one as well.

    But 10–1 North Carolina needs to remain focused and not be distracted by thoughts about the ACC title game coming up next week against top—ranked Clemson. The 7–4 Wolfpack will take advantage of mental lapses.

    I think North Carolina will win.
  • Illinois vs. #17 Northwestern at Soldier Field in Chicago, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPNU: This series goes back to 1892. Illinois is the all–time leader and has a 2–0 record in games played on neutral fields.

    The 5–6 Illini need this win to be bowl eligible. The 9–2 Wildcats are already bowl eligible; and, with the Big Ten title beyond their reach (thanks to earlier losses to Michigan and Iowa), Northwestern really doesn't seem to have a lot to play for.

    Still, I will pick Northwestern to win.
  • #19 Ole Miss at #23 Mississippi State, 6:15 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: Ole Miss has dominated the Egg Bowl rivalry, winning more than 58% of the time.

    And, in fact, Ole Miss has won two of the last three — and could conceivably share the SEC West crown if the Rebels win this game and Alabama loses to Auburn on Saturday.

    But the Rebels have lost five straight at Mississippi State. The last time Ole Miss won at Mississippi State was Nov. 27, 2003.

    Mississippi State is on a roll, winning five of its last six contests, including a one–point win over Arkansas exactly one week after Arkansas beat Ole Miss by one point.

    I'll go with Mississippi State in an upset special.
  • #20 Washington State at Washington, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on Fox: The 5–6 Huskies come into this game needing a win to be bowl eligible. The 8–3 Cougars have already qualified but can't possibly overtake Stanford in the Pac–12 North. The Cougars have a lot of momentum. They have won six of their last seven games — that one loss was to Stanford, and that makes all the difference.

    So the Cougars may or may not feel as if they have much to motivate them, other than intrastate pride. The Huskies will definitely have motivation, so — in yet another upset special — I pick Washington to beat Washington State for the sixth time in the last seven years.
  • #22 UCLA at Southern Cal, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: I always enjoyed watching this game on TV when I was growing up, especially after my family got its first color television.

    The UCLA–Southern Cal game was always so colorful, just like the Rose Bowl always seemed to be. I never really cared who won — as they used to say in my little hometown in Arkansas, I had no dog in that hunt — but I really liked watching the game because of all the color. When I think of the cliched reference to the pageantry of college sports, it is the USC–UCLA game that comes to my mind.

    And I liked watching the marching bands. Why don't they show the marching bands on TV anymore? I guess they do occasionally — but not often.

    This will be the 85th edition of this crosstown rivalry. UCLA has won the last three. Southern Cal was ranked last week and would still be ranked if the Trojans hadn't lost to Oregon.

    I predict that UCLA will win the game and secure at least a share of the Pac–12 South crown.
  • Western Michigan at #24 Toledo, 11 a.m. (Central) on CBS Sports Network: Toledo has beaten Western Michigan five straight times.

    In spite of a 1–3 and their current two–game losing streak, the Broncos won five straight in the middle of the season to become bowl eligible.

    But it is hard to imagine a scenario in which they can defeat Toledo on the road. Western Michigan has won at Toledo only twice in the last 26 years.

    I think 9–1 Toledo will win.
  • UConn vs. #25 Temple, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPNU: UConn surprised everyone with its upset victory over Houston last week. Now the 6–5 Huskies are bowl eligible.

    Can the Huskies make it two in a row against ranked teams? Well, the last time they visited Templer, two years ago, they won by a touchdown. Of course, Temple was 2–10 that year. The Owls are much better this year.

    I will go with Temple.

Last week: 11–8

Upset specials last week: 0–1

Season: 170–46

Upset specials overall: 5–13

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