DOES EVERYTHING POINT TO LSU-ALABAMA?
With LSU moving up to #1 in the polls and SEC West rival Alabama sitting at #3, it bears asking whether the focal point of the regular season is now November 5. That’s when these two teams square off in Tuscaloosa with an inside track to the SEC title game in Atlanta, followed by the BCS Championship Game in New Orleans presumably at stake.
LSU has gotten its two big wins (including Oregon), by forcing turnovers, getting a 4-0 margin in both games. This is no fluke—when you’re faster and hit harder, you force more mistakes. That includes penalties, of which West Virginia hit double digits in. But while LSU can do this to Pac-12 and Big East foes, it’s going to be tougher to make that work against the SEC opposition that awaits them on the Road to Tuscaloosa. Games with Florida, Tennessee and Auburn are on that road. Alabama’s path to November 5 is a little easier—if they can survive a trip to Gainesville on Saturday night, its manageable the rest of the way. Both LSU and Alabama have a week off before playing each other, so if they can both keep the pace, the game will truly have a Super Bowl feel to it.
The Big 12 has its own target game to point out now and it’s the season finale on December 3 when Oklahoma visits Oklahoma State. The Cowboys delivered a stunning rally from 21-3 down to upset Texas A&M on the road, while Oklahoma beat Missouri in a letdown spot following the Sooners road win at Florida State. Okie State has the tougher road, with a three-week stretch that takes them to Texas and Missouri, followed by a home game with Baylor. Oklahoma still has to play A&M, but they get that game at home, and a visit to Baylor could be trouble. Still, even though the Big 12 no longer has an official championship game on that first Saturday of December, the Sooners and Cowboys have them set up for a de facto title game.
Other notes from the power conferences…
*Arizona State has control of the mediocre Pac-12 South after their 43-22 win over USC. The Sun Devils have played a good schedule, getting non-conference wins over Missouri and Illinois prior to this home win. I like the fact ASU was mistake-free on Saturday night, letting the Trojans beat themselves with ten penalties and four turnovers. On a related point, I like that Sun Devil quarterback Brock Osweiler didn’t force the action even as USC’s coverages kept him underneath. While Dennis Erickson’s team still has to go to Oregon in mid-October, the Ducks are a North division team and the only difficult divisional road game is at UCLA, and that’s not a road test that’s going to make anyone think of being in Tuscaloosa.
*Miami’s home loss to Kansas State was perhaps the most disappointing effort by a conference contender. The Hurricanes were pounded up front, giving up 265 yards on the ground. I understand this was a potential letdown spot after Ohio State, but this goes well beyond just looking a little flat. What does it say about Miami’s ability to compete in a balanced ACC if they can’t keep their focus? And was division rival Georgia Tech, who beat North Carolina and piles up huge rushing yardage, licking its chops at the thought of Tevin Washington running that triple option down Miami’s throat?
*The bottom of the Big Ten is a disgrace. Indiana’s loss to North Texas joins their earlier defeat to Ball State as complete humiliations. Neither game was a fluke. The Hoosiers were whipped up front both times, giving up a combined 436 rush yards. Then there’s Minnesota, who first loss to New Mexico State and on Saturday dropped a decision to North Dakota State. At least the Gophers weren’t destroyed in the running game, with two interception returns by Bison corner Marcus Williams being the difference, but the Big Ten’s pride in being strong top-to-bottom has taken a huge hit with these results.
Digging down in the realm of the mid-majors, how about Temple? After a near-miss against Penn State, the Owls dismantled Maryland 38-7 and look like the favorite in the MAC East. They take on Toledo, they of the close loss at Ohio State and hard-luck defeat at Syracuse, a game that could be a preview of the MAC Championship Game. And in the Sun Belt, the most surprising result of Saturday was Florida International’s loss to 36-31 UL-Lafayette. FIU was coming off wins over Louisville and Central Florida and had emerged as the solid favorite in their league, but they neglected to take care of business in their own backyard. The Panthers’ loss gave added importance to Troy’s wild 38-35 win over Middle Tennessee, as Cory Robinson outgunned Logan Kilgore. Troy and MTSU have been consistent contenders and the Trojan win gives them a leg up in a race that now looks more open than it did last week.
MANAGER OF THE YEAR HONORS
The debate for Manager of the Year has two clear frontrunners. If you’re going to take a stand against either Joe Maddon of Tampa in the AL or Kirk Gibson from Arizona in the NL, you better have a strong case. Maddon’s Rays suffered huge personnel losses from a 97-win team a year ago, being raided by richer teams in Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field. It hasn’t stopped Tampa from being respectably all year and then turning in a stunning September run that has them poised to move past Boston for the wild-card berth. As this post goes online Monday night, it looks like the Rays are set to pull even with the Red Sox. More to the point, that Tampa is even in this position, with a bullpen that was inconsistent and an offense usually challenged for power, is a credit to the manager’s creativity and ability to keep his mostly young team on an even keel.
Gibson’s Diamondbacks were in the same division as the defending Series champ and pitching-rich San Francisco Giants. The Arizona rotation looked woefully short of depth and certain to fade as the pressures of the race wore on them. The loss of shortstop Stephen Drew for the season was one more problem they didn’t need. But the rotation came together and the bullpen became reliable. It was San Francisco that faded at the season’s pressure point and the D-Backs have coasted into the playoffs.
There have been other credible managerial performances. Manny Acta did a nice job with a young Cleveland team, and John Farrell in Toronto is still in position to have a winning season in a division where he stares upward at New York, Boston and Tampa. In the National League, kudos to Clint Hurdle for keeping Pittsburgh in the hunt for four months. But Manager of the Year in 2011 should be an easy vote, with Maddon and Gibson bringing home the honors.
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