We’ve got four weeks of college football under our belts, and conference play is going to increase dramatically starting on Saturday, so right now is as good a time as any to revisit and revise the preseason expectations for each conference and make another—likely futile—shot at projecting out the major bowl matchups and the teams who will play for the national title.
The first thing TheSportsNotebook has to do is fundamentally revise its view of the college football landscape. I started the season approaching this as though they were five major conferences, a middle class representing the Big East, Mountain West and major independents. Then the lower class seemed to fit into two tiers, with Conference USA & the WAC being the upper tier and the MAC and Sun Belt being the lower. But the failure of the Big Ten is the most important of developments that require some tweaks.
Any model of college football predictions might as well take the SEC, Big 12 & Pac-12 and separate them as the elite of the sport. I know teams like Florida State and Notre Dame are in the hunt, but realistically, these three leagues are most likely to produce the championship-game participants. The second level of conferences would then be the Big Ten, ACC & Big East, along with Notre Dame. You can fill in the rest of the major bowl lineup from this group.
The one possible exception to this is Boise State, who beat BYU last Thursday night and is the Mountain West frontrunner. But the league top-to-bottom has not sustained the loss of TCU, and is no longer on a par with the Big East. The MWC is back to being the lead conference among a group of midmajors, but we can no longer put them on an entirely different level from the WAC, MAC & Sun Belt. We might also add the Sun Belt—led by UL-Monroe and Western Kentucky—is playing some pretty good football and can’t be relegated to the dregs of the FBS world.
All of that is the long explanation for saying we’ll break college football into three tiers: The Big 12/SEC/Pac-12 as the frontrunners, the Big Ten/ACC/Big East/Notre Dame as the rest of the BCS, and the quartet of Mountain West/Sun Belt/MAC/WAC being the lower tier. Here’s the rundown on how TheSportsNotebook sees these conference races shaking out over the next two-plus months…
SEC: At the start of the season I wasn’t sold on Alabama & LSU as title contenders again, and saw the SEC East race as a tight South Carolina/Georgia/Tennessee battle. I’m still not sold on LSU, and we can substitute Florida for Tennessee in that East race. But at day’s end I see little reason to change my earlier prediction of a South Carolina-Alabama battle for the SEC championship. And I’m sticking with the Gamecocks to win it.
While I’d rank Alabama higher right now based on performance to date, I still think we have to consider that their wins over Michigan, and certainly Arkansas, have to be held with a little more skepticism than we might have thought in August. I’m not trying to stubborn, but I don’t want to jump on the bandwagon that’s already gift-wrapped the Tide the national title. They will win the SEC West, make a major bowl and have a legitimate shot at something more. Can we just stay restrained a little longer?
Pac-12: To show I’m not stubborn, I’ll admit to being completely wrong about Oregon and Stanford. I thought each program would slip and open the door of the North to a darkhorse, which I pegged as Cal. Wrong across the board. Oregon and Stanford are for real as league title contenders and national championship possibilities, and Oregon State is the best of the challengers. I was on the USC national title bandwagon at the start of the year, and while the loss to Stanford obviously forces re-thinking, I think we should consider the Trojans have played their toughest road game, haven’t gotten Matt Barkley really into gear and are still certainly in control of their destiny in the Pac-12 South and could get a national title shot if everything fell right. Pencil them into the league title game at 11-1 and then it’s about matchups. USC matches up well with Oregon, where it’s a speed game, less so against Stanford where it’s about punching someone in the mouth. With Oregon hosting Stanford, the Ducks deserve the favorite’s role, so I’m sticking with the Trojans to win this conference.
Big 12: Oklahoma was a heavy favorite to win the Big 12, including here, and a stumble is not unexpected, the fact it came at home is disconcerting, certainly to their national title hopes. Kansas State’s win makes it clear that everything is up for grabs—not just the championship, but the second-place spot, which may produce an at-large bid to the BCS. I’ll stay with Oklahoma to win it—albeit not enthusiastically—because I think Kansas State will lose a couple times—and I like what I’m seeing out of Texas right now. Oklahoma State, West Virginia and TCU all need to be in any conversation that includes second place.
Conference Champs: South Carolina, USC, Oklahoma
BCS At-Large Bids: Alabama, Stanford, Texas (Note: I am taking Stanford, because bowls have shown a tendency to like division runner-ups who aren’t coming off a conference championship game loss, hence moving the Cardinal ahead of Oregon).
Big Ten: The preseason pick here was Michigan State coming out of a strong Legends Division that included Michigan and Nebraska, along with a decent Northwestern team. Then Wisconsin would come out of a terrible Leaders Division, watered down by the probations in Columbus and Happy Valley, and only Purdue, Illinois and Indiana to beat out. No league games have been played yet, but neither projected division winner inspires confidence. As a Badger fan, I’m frustrated, but would still lean Wisconsin’s way to win this worst division in any organized sports entity.
with the way Michigan State’s offense has struggled, with the problems Michigan has had with teams like Air Force and Notre Dame (throw out Alabama since it has no relevance to how the Wolverines will play against Big Ten fare), and with Nebraska at least not having a moment where they’ve embarrassed themselves, I’ll take the Huskers. They lost close at UCLA and won three cupcake blowouts. It’s not dazzling, but the best the Big Ten has to offer in this watered down year.
ACC: Florida State has command of the Atlantic Division after their win over Clemson and with that being the stronger side of the conference, we should consider the Seminoles the clear favorite to win their first ACC crown since 2005. I liked Georgia Tech at the start of the year, but they’ve lost in overtime to rivals Virginia Tech and Miami. So we may as well project the traditional favorite Hokies to be in Charlotte.
Big East: Rutgers has easily been the most impressive team in this balanced league. They had the running game and the defense and now highly touted sophomore quarterback Gary Nova looks like he’s coming into his own. While Louisville deserves respect, and teams like South Florida, Syracuse and Pitt have shown enough to think they can recover from some September disappointments, we may as well vault the Scarlet Knights to clear front-runner status.
Independents: Notre Dame has a clear path to a major bowl game. They can lose at USC and at Oklahoma and still make it at 10-2, and given their reputation and weakness of the at-large competition, they might make it at 9-3. Let’s stay cool on the national title rhetoric—in theory the Irish have a loss to give because of their schedule. But in practice, if that loss is at USC or at Oklahoma, and ND ends up in a joust with either team, than they still lose out. And either way, this scenario presumes that an Irish team that has only proven it’s probably better than anyone in the Big Ten (a small achievement, at least when considered in national title terms)is going to split those two big road games, and not stumble in an interesting home schedule highlighted by Stanford.
Conference Champs: Florida State, Nebraska, Rutgers
BCS At-Large: Notre Dame
The Best Of The Rest: My preseason prediction for league championships were Marshall (Conference USA), Wyoming (Mountain West), Western Kentucky (Sun Belt), Louisiana Tech (WAC) and Kent State (MAC). I’m running away screaming in terror from the Wyoming pick, easily the worst I made—and that’s saying something. Boise State looks good enough to again hold serve in the Mountain Wet and honestly they’ve got a shot at a BCS at-large at 11-1 if they get a slippage from Notre Dame and the Big Ten runner-up choices look as bad in December as they do now (or the Big 12 runner-ups beat each other up enough to disqualify themselves).
I’d certainly stick with Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt, and I’m really looking forward to their game with UL-Monroe. Did I actually just write that sentence? I desperately need to get a life. I’m going to stay with Kent State in the MAC, although you can’t not be impressed by Ohio right now. That’s another good midmajor game ahead of us.
No one in C-USA has really thrilled me, so why not stick with the preseason call of Marshall and the explosive quarterback Rakeem Cato. The WAC race is looking like a lot of fun, with both Louisiana Tech and Utah State ready to hold their roles as favorites, but San Jose State is a legit spoiler, and if nothing else the comebacks of Dennis Franchione (UT-San Antonio) and Larry Coker (Texas State) will make them a possibility for a race-altering upset.
Okay, so what does all this mean for January. It’s time to do a revised set of major bowl predictions. I’ve already identified the eligible teams, which would be the conference champs of the top six conferences, plus the four at-large teams picked. When it comes to filling in the major bowl slots, the first two picks go to the bowls who lost their league champion to the BCS National Championship Game. Then this year’s selection order goes Fiesta-Sugar-Orange. Here’s how TheSportsNotebook sees the lineup…
BCS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: South Carolina-USC
*The preseason pick was Oklahoma-USC, as I think the Gamecocks will have two losses. I also think there will be a push for a South Carolina-Alabama rematch in the national title game with the Tide also having two losses. But I think the fear of backlash from the non-SEC world if that happens again is too great, and as long as the SEC champ is within one game of everyone else, I think the voters would prefer the league get the benefit of the doubt for their champ. So South Carolina gets in, and USC edges out Oklahoma by virtue of the Trojans’ playing a conference championship game, while the Sooners no longer have that chance.
Rose Bowl: Notre Dame-Nebraska (the Irish take USC’s place)
Sugar Bowl: Alabama-Texas(‘Bama takes South Carolina’s place)
Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma-Stanford
Orange Bowl: Florida State-Rutgers
That’s my story and I’m sticking it it..today, anyway.