The college football season is eight days from starting. The sport enters the era of the College Football Playoff, and like its basketball counterpart, the focal point of prognostication involves picking who will be in your “Final Four.” Here’s nine keynote thoughts as we take a last overview of the regular season…
*The betting favorites for the four playoff spots center around five teams. Florida State and Alabama are considered virtual locks. Oregon, Auburn and Oklahoma are all priced reasonably comparably for the final two spots before the dropoff in the odds begins.
*Based on the early odds and rankings, the four games that will define the regular season would be as follows—Clemson at Florida State (September 20), where the Tigers, can make themselves a playoff favorite with a road upset. Stanford at Oregon (November 1), as the Cardinal looks for a third straight upset in the game that’s settled the Pac-12 title three straight years. Baylor at Oklahoma (November 8), with the Sooners looking for revenge in a game among the Big 12 favorites. And how can we leave out Auburn at Alabama (November 29) on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
*Beyond the four playoff teams, there will be eight more teams chosen for the “contract bowls” (the new term for “BCS bowls” which was the new term for “major bowls”). Those are the Orange, Cotton, Peach and Fiesta. Unlike previous years, there are no limitations on how teams one conference can get I these games, so how many spots will the SEC scarf up between these and the playoff? Based on current rankings, that number would be three (Alabama, Auburn, South Carolina), but three more (Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss) are right on the threshold.
*The season-ending shoulder injury to Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller has rattled the national situation, and the Buckeyes are being written off as a contender to make the playoff. That makes sense, but don’t rule Ohio State out for the Big Ten title. There is no other clearly dominant team and it’s not unthinkable that a 6-2 conference record could be good enough for a division title if tiebreakers fall right. Last I checked, Ohio State still recruits like crazy and they have a head coach in Urban Meyer that knows what he’s doing.
*I know the ire of Michigan State fans was raised by saying no other Big Ten team was dominant. Sparty is ranked #8 in the preseason polls and after last year’s Rose Bowl win and #3 national finish, Michigan State is feeling its oats. I like this program, but I’m not persuaded that the depth of talent is so good that MSU can just reel off big years and reload after graduation losses. For the same reasons, I have doubts about Baylor’s #10 national ranking. I’m looking for both the Spartans and Bears to come back to the pack.
*The two divisions that are most wide-open are the Big Ten West and the ACC Coastal. My own team, the Wisconsin Badgers are the favorite in the former, but I’m concerned about the defense and the quarterback situation. And a bad loss to Penn State in a big season finale last year has left my confidence shaken. Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Northwestern are all viable challengers. North Carolina is the favorite in the ACC Coastal, but the Tar Heels have never played in the ACC Championship Game and are therefore vulnerable. Virginia Tech, Miami and Duke all lie in wait.
*I find Georgia the most interesting team in the country, mainly because I think the Bulldogs are going to win the SEC, and recent history says that means they’re at least one of the two best in the nation. Georgia needs an experienced defense to drastically elevate its play, and running back Todd Gurley can win the Heisman if he stays healthy. They play Clemson and South Carolina in the first three weeks and even a split keeps their conference and national hopes very much alive.
*No race is more wide-open then that of the “Little Five” conferences (American, Conference USA, Mountain West, MAC, Sun Belt) for their one guaranteed spot in the contract bowls. Based on the first rankings, Central Florida is the favorite to get the spot, but they’re officially unranked (#26, and a long way from #25). Marshall is further behind, Boise State gets a little support and only a few other teams get even a single Top 25 vote. That means a wide-open race which invites us to go off the board, and I’m taking Houston to get this prestige bowl spot.
*The Heisman Trophy race is opening as a two-horse race between Florida State’s Jameis Winston, as he aims to become the second player to win the award twice. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is right behind. Recent history says the winner will be someone other than the early favorites—who saw Winston last year or Johnny Manziel in 2012 coming? Or Robert Griffin III in 2011? Or Cam Newton in 2010? You get the point.
That’s our Notebook Nine to start the year. My own picks to make the College Football Playoff are Florida State, Oklahoma, Georgia and UCLA (seeded in that order) with the Seminoles to win a second straight championship.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
When we heard the phrase “Group of Five” in conjunction with college football, that natural tendency is to think of the five power conferences. But there’s another Group of Five at the reverse end of the college football spectrum. Conference USA, the American, the MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt all represent the college football midmajors. We’re going to target the nine teams from these leagues mostly likely to have national impact.
Thanks to the new postseason system, the best team in these conferences is guaranteed a bid to a major bowl game. Presuming that the best midmajor doesn’t end up in the four-team College Football Playoff itself (a safe assumption), that team will be slotted in either the Cotton, Fiesta or Peach Bowls, who join the Orange Bowl as “the contract bowls” not hosting national semifinals.
This race to the best among five leagues looks to be wide-open. Boise State, the most prominent of the recent midmajor powers is going through a coaching change. Northern Illinois, who reached the Orange Bowl in 2012 is rebuilding. Other strong midmajors of recent years, from TCU to Louisville, have found new homes in the Power Five leagues.
Who’s going to step up Here’s our Notebook Nine, the nine midmajors most likely to get a shot at a major opponent come bowl time. These are not in order of preference (we’ll get to that at the end), but organized by conference.
American… Central Florida: We start with UCF simply because they’re the team who would have had this slot last year—and in fact, did get a Fiesta Bowl bid since the American Conference was still an automatic qualifier. Then the Knights beat Baylor. Now they have to replace quarterback Blake Bortles, the third overall pick in the NFL draft. The defensive back seven is strong, and the receiving corps is good. UCF just needs to find some playmakers. Houston: The Cougars won eight games a year ago and played some solid defense in the process. With eight starters back, that defense is going to be even better this season and sophomore quarterback John O’Korn has a year’s experience under his belt as the starter. Houston lost close games to Central Florida, Louisville and Cincinnati last year. It won’t take much improvement for the Coogs to have a big year. Cincinnati: Tommy Tuberville knows what it’s like to win big, having produced an undefeated team at Auburn back in 2004. This is another team with a defense that was good last year and will be better this season. The Bearcats do have serious work to do at finding a quarterback though, if they’re going to go beyond the 8-9 win level and into the 11-1 range it’s going to take win the coveted major bowl slot. Conference USA… Marshall: Senior quarterback Rakeem Cato has spent his college career as one of the most exciting players in the country, and the entertainment value alone would make the Thundering Herd as marquee a name as we’re going to get out of the midmajors. Marshall went 9-4 last year, beat Maryland in a bowl game and return 13 starters. But the defense needs to get significantly better. UT-San Antonio: I hesitated about putting the Roadrunners on this list—after all, it’s only their third year at the FBS level. But Larry Coker, the coach of the great 2001 national championship team at Miami, has done an extraordinary job here. UTSA is 19-15 over those three years, won seven games last year and has 16 starters back. Could this be the year of San Antonio, from the Spurs to the Roadrunners? MAC… Bowling Green: Their 47-27 upset of Northern Illinois cost the Huskies a major bowl slot and vaulted the Falcons into the role of MAC favorite for the coming year. Matt Johnson is back in the saddle at quarterback, and a defense that was the best in the league last year has six starters returning. The issue? The MAC has been notoriously poor in bowl play, and in any kind of national conversation like this, it has to matter at least a little bit. Mountain West… Colorado State: Jim McElwain came off of Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama after the 2011 national championship year, took just two years to return the Rams to a bowl game and then beat Washington State in last year’s postseason. Now CSU is loaded in the defensive back seven and has an excellent senior quarterback in Garrett Grayson. Look for the Rams to displace Boise State in their division of the Mountain West. Fresno State: The Bulldogs joined Northern Illinois in the hunt for an undefeated season and major bowl bid last year, right to the last game of the year before losing. Derek Carr is gone at quarterback, but perhaps eight returning starters on defense can help that side of the ball carry a little more of the load this time around. Sun Belt… UL-Lafayette: I flat-out love this team. Mark Hudspeth has turned the Ragin’ Cajuns into a winner—he’s gone 27-12 over his three years here and won bowl games. Terrance Broadway is a dynamic all-around quarterback. The defensive front, secondary and offensive lines are all in good shape. A September 20 road trip to Boise probably tells whether ULL can compete for the major bowl spot, or just “settle” for being Sun Belt champs.
I’m going to pick Houston as the team who ends up getting a shot to play in a major bowl game, the first such opportunity for the Cougars since 1984, when they played Doug Flutie’s Boston College team in the Cotton Bowl. I see both Houston and Cincinnati separating themselves from UCF in the American, and the Cougars-Bearcats game then settling both the conference and the major bowl spot.
I’ve got UL-Lafayette coming up a bit short, with the lack of national cache hurting them. Granted, none of these teams really have “cache”, but ULL has even less than most. Which is, of course, not their fault, but we’ve all learned that any role that justice plays in college football bowl selection is purely incidental and never by design.
Colorado State is a team I can easily see making it all the way to New Year’s (all of the contract bowl games will be played on December 31 or January 1). The other teams I see more as contenders on the conference stage, rather than the 11-1 type of team it will take to reach a big bowl date.
The Big Ten Legends Division will see its race kick off in earnest on Saturday. Contenders like Nebraska and Northwestern have played significant conference games, but none within the division. Michigan’s only important tests have come outside the league entirely. Iowa won an opening salvo over Michigan State in overtime last week. But on Saturday there are two head-to-head battles and tough cross-divisional game that will help give early shape to the Legends race.
Nebraska visits Northwestern, hoping to get some revenge for a Wildcats upset in Lincoln a year ago. Each team has lost on the road in Big Ten play, to Ohio State and Penn State respectively. Nebraska also has a win over Wisconsin.
One thing we don’t know if Nebraska has is a defense. After a shutdown effort in a second-half rally over the Badgers, the Huskers were positively torched two weeks ago by Ohio State. There will be a difference in that Wildcat quarterback Kain Colter won’t test the defense to the degree Braxton Miller did in Columbus. But Colter is versatile and can create problems. Just not as many as Taylor Martinez creates for opposing defenses, and I believe he’s enough to get Nebraska a win.
Michigan has revenge on its mind, as well as homefield when they host Michigan State. The Wolverines have torn apart Illinois and Purdue in league play, but I consider this misleading. When Michigan can spread a slow, bad defense out, Denard Robinson runs and throws at will. Michigan State has its problems, but the defense is good and Robinson won’t be able to do what he wants. Nor will Michigan run the ball in the conventional way.
The problem is that so long as Robinson doesn’t make mistakes, he’s still enough to put 21-24 points on the board, and I don’t see any reason to believe Michigan State is ready to match that. They can run the ball with Le’Veon Bell, but the passing game hasn’t improved enough to merit confidence, especially on the road in a rivalry game where revenge is working against you.
Iowa doesn’t play a divisional game, but the Hawkeyes do follow up their win over the Spartans by traveling to Penn State. The Lions are a better team—quite a bit better—and are coming off a bye week.
They also have the motivation of playing for a PSU season-ticket holding friend of mine who got married last week (a stunning coincidence his wedding fell on a bye week) and had a reception marked by a cake shaped like Beaver Stadium. If that’s not enough to stir Bill O’Brien’s troops to get a road win in a place that’s caused Penn state problems over the years I don’t know what is.
The team in the Legends Division that really needs to win is Nebraska. They’re the ones who already have a conference loss, and the schedule-makers did them no favors. The Cornhuskers also have to play Penn State, meaning they’ll play the three best teams on the other side of the conference, while Michigan only plays one.
We’ll take a look at Saturday’s biggest games in our regular Friday college football feature here at TheSportsNotebook. For now, here’s a look at the landscape in the other major conferences…
SEC: LSU can’t get too busy celebrating its win over South Carolina. The Tigers travel to Texas A&M for an early kick at noon EST, and the Aggies can put up points in a hurry. The rapid-paced offenses like the one run by new A&M coach Kevin Sumlin often struggle against real defenses, but that assumes said real defenses are ready to play. LSU needs to be fully engaged, because they’re a still a game back of Alabama.
The Tide travels to Tennessee, a team that has enough explosiveness to tease, but not enough in the way of fundamentals and toughness to compete in a game like this. And this conference’s big game—indeed the nation’s big game—is South Carolina-Florida, one that gets our attention tomorrow.
Pac-12: Oregon and Arizona State are the early leaders in each division, one of them being a surprise and the other less so (I’m going to assume if you’ve visiting a site like this you know which is which). The Ducks and Sun Devils meet on Thursday night in Tempe.
ASU coach Todd Graham and his staff have to find a way to slow Oregon down—dramatically so, because it’s asking too much of sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly to put 35-40 points on the board against an opponent with this kind of team speed. I have no sense of an upset in the making and Arizona State’s biggest games against divisional foes USC & UCLA are still ahead.
Oregon State came out 8th in the BCS rankings and is in position to make a major bowl game, even if they don’t beat Oregon in the season finale. What the Beavers can’t do is lose games like the one they have coming up at home with Utah. Another North Division rival, Stanford, plays archrival Cal in a must-win game, given the Cardinal already dropped a game to Washington.
The biggest question I have regarding this week’s Pac-12 card is this—why did Stanford and Cal move up their usual Rivalry Saturday game in late November to mid-October?
Big 12: Texas Tech quarterback Seth Doege outgunned Heisman frontrunner Geno Smith last week as the Red Raiders blasted West Virginia. Now Doege takes the show on the road to TCU, a team not nearly as defensive as they’ve been in recent seasons. The winner keeps their conference losses to one and their title hopes alive.
Baylor travels to Texas in a game where the Over/Under is posted at 80.5, and given the way both teams play defense (or don’t play it, as the case may be) I might take one team to cover that number themselves. And the league’s biggest game is Kansas State-West Virginia, which gets covered tomorrow.
ACC: There aren’t any big divisional rivalries on tap, but two games that cross Coastal-Atlantic lines loom very large. Florida State gave away its margin for error in the Atlantic when they lost at N.C. State two weeks ago. Now the Seminoles visit Miami in a prime-time affair, where the Hurricanes are off a loss to North Carolina that’s put them under the gun.
Virginia Tech saved its season with a rally from 20-0 down to beat Duke and now goes to Clemson, who is tied with Florida State.
The Atlantic Division times—FSU & Clemson—are the ones under the most pressure. They are the better teams, meaning neither can count on its rivals to lose again. My guess is the Miami-Virginia Tech race might be a backpedal to the finish line, with Duke possibly still getting back into the picture (North Carolian is on probation), so if either the Hurricanes or Hokies slip a game back it’s not the end of the world.
Big East: It’s a light schedule, as is often the case for a league with only eight teams where the seven conference games are spread out from September to December. The big one of this week is Louisville hosting South Florida. The Cardinals are still undefeated, but the Bulls and B.J. Daniels have been a big disappointment thus far. The USF we’ve seen the last few weeks isn’t ready to win this game on the road.
Rutgers takes its show on the road to Temple, but while the Owls are rebuilding nicely in the wake of large graduation losses and an upgrade from the MAC to the Big East, they are a long way from being in the class of the Scarlet Knights and their swarming defense.
The Best Of The Rest: We’re actually going to wait for the Friday marquee feature to shower some love on the Sun Belt, with its big UL-Monroe-Western Kentucky showdown. The rest of the card in the midmajors is pretty bland, with Western Michigan’s visit to Kent State noteworthy, as the Broncos are good enough to hand the Golden Flashes their first league loss.
And the Notre Dame-BYU game, which had such promise when the schedule came out, doesn’t look so hot anymore. BYU is 4-3, with quarterback Riley Nelson and the defense seeming to regress a little each week.
We can’t rule out a letdown from the Irish after the dramatic goal-line stand in overtime against Stanford. Nor can we ignore the fact that Notre Dame’s lower-scoring physical style is something BYU will be comfortable matching up with.
But I consider that analgous to the Thursday night NFL game between the Seahawks and 49ers—if a team is going to pull a road upset they need to take the home team out of their comfort zone, not play into it. I don’t know how good Notre Dame will look on Saturday, but I’d expect a win.
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.
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.
The college football season starts Thursday night. TheSportsNotebook has completed all previews of the major conferences, as well as the mid-majors. We’ll have a final preseason extravaganza on Wednesday, with national championship picks and projections of major bowl matchups. Today we’re going to warm up by reviewing the top 11 teams. I’ve chosen the number eleven for three reasons—I have to make a superficial effort to be different from everyone else, the number has obvious relevance to football, and most importantly it’s my tribute to Oceans 11, both the original Sinatra movie and the Clooney/Pitt/Damon/Garcia remake, a name I also use for my Fantasy Football league teams. With that out of the way, TheSportsNotebook runs through the top 11 teams in the country…
Before we go into the teams, note that these are not necessarily my top eleven. This is 1 thru 11 in the current AP poll. And we’ll assess them against the betting odds Las Vegas has posted regarding their chances to win the BCS National Championship, along with their Over/Under number on total wins. Please also note that the win totals must be achieved in the 12-game regular season, with conference championship games and bowl games not counting to the total…
The Big Three: USC (5-2, 10.5), Alabama (5-1, 10.5), LSU (6-1, 10) In my SEC preview I talked about how Alabama and LSU had to rebuild their defenses and that left the door open in the SEC for a dark horse. Having said that, the national title odds aren’t all that bad. The SEC champ will get benefit of the doubt in a close vote and whichever of these teams gets to Atlanta and the SEC title game obviously found a way to put new pieces in place and those pieces would have had 12 games to jel. And if an SEC team gets to Miami for the BCS National Championship Game, is anyone ready to bet against them? I’m not saying I’d pick at, but at 5-1 or 6-1, that’s a reasonable shot. As to USC, while that’s who I’m leaning toward as my own national title pick, 5-2 are just too tight for odds. Betting on an 11-1 season and taking the Over on win totals makes more sense.
The Top Challengers: Oklahoma (10-1, 10.5), Oregon (8-1, 10.5), Georgia (15-1, 9.5)
If I were lounging in the sports book at the Bellagio right now and saw these odds posted, I’d be at the window to get a ticket on Oklahoma at 10-1. They are clearly the best team in the Big 12, have a home game with Notre Dame that’s both easily winnable and worth some value with the voters and don’t have a conference title game to deal with. If it’s an election year with a title game in Miami, mark the Sooners down for being there, whether it’s 2000, 2004, 2008 and now 2012. Then it’s just about whether they can finally win it. But 10-1 is a great number for all that. I’m less high on Oregon, and while I like Georgia I don’t see them as decisively better than the rest of the SEC East, making either number a tough play.
The Dark Horses: Florida State (10-1, 10), Michigan (45-1, 8.5), South Carolina (30-1, 8.5)
This is what I was talking about with Florida State when I picked them to win the ACC, but said they were still overrated. To give them the same odds as Oklahoma is ridiculous. And you can’t even consider the Over, because there is no way they go 11-1 and if that doesn’t happen you can only hope for a push. It heartens to see some realistic numbers on Michigan, who is getting too much media hype. Apparently Las Vegas money sees the Wolverines a little more clearly and that 8.5 number on wins is a very reasonable Over bet. As far as a national title shot, South Carolina is the one I like the best. The Gamecocks are my pick to win the SEC East and to eventually win Spurrier’s first SEC championship. If you think a team will get to the SEC title game, possibly win it and they’re 30-1, the conference’s track record tells you it’s worth a flyer.
The Longshots: Arkansas (30-1, 8.5), West Virginia (50-1, 8.5)
Taking either of these teams to win a national title is tantamount to pulling money out of your wallet, lighting a match and starting a blaze. I don’t even like Arkansas on the win prop number, given the uncertainty in the program after Bobby Petrino’s departure and John L. Smith’s arrival. Taking West Virginia for a nine-win season is reasonable, although I still see them for fourth or fifth place in their first season in the Big 12.
BEST BETS: Oklahoma (10-1) and South Carolina (30-1) to win the national championship. That’s based on the betting odds. Who TheSportsNotebook actually picks straight-up comes later this week.
Big 12 football is sporting a new look this fall, as Missouri and Texas A&M have left for the SEC and the conference welcomes in West Virginia & TCU. Add that to the departures of Nebraska and Colorado prior to last season and this is not your father’s Big 12. Well, actually since the league has only existed since 1996 maybe we should say it’s not your older brother’s Big 12. Whatever it is, it’s a league trying to survive as a power league in an era of change and TheSportsNotebook previews the 2012 race…
The more things change the more they stay the same and that’s certainly true when it comes to Oklahoma. The Sooners are loaded for a big run this season. Landry Jones is back at quarterback and while he needs to prove he can come up with clutch throws in big games, no one doubts his ability to mass produce yardage. While favored target Ryan Broyles is gone, Jones should have no problem targeting Kenny Stills and the rest of the receivers’ corps. With four starters back on the offensive front, Jones will likely have plenty of time in the pocket and running back Dominique Whaley, back from a broken foot, will have plenty of holes to run through.
OU is similarly stacked on defense, with seven senior starters, including all four defensive lineman and cornerback Demontre Hurst, one of the conference’s best. Add to all this the fact that Sooner punter Tress Way is one of the nation’s best and Oklahoma will be using all this talent in good field position. This is indisputably the team to beat in the Big 12 with the only question being whether a national title is in the offing.
Oklahoma State won the conference championship a year ago and while the prolific passing duo of Brandon Weeden-to-Justin Blackmon is now in the NFL, the cupboard is not bare in Stillwater. A veteran offensive front, led by guard Lane Taylor will clear the way for Joseph Randle and the defense has a lot of experience, especially in the secondary with corner Broderick Brown. Freshman quarterback Wes Luntin has a learning curve ahead of him, but a team that can run the ball and play defense is a ideal place to do the learning. Texas went 7-5 last year, beat Cal in a bowl game and has a lot back this season. But it’s a mark of how young the ’11 Longhorns were that they still have 18 non-senior starters. Look for Texas to continue gradual improvement and get to the 8-9 win plateau in the regular season, but a big year is a season away in Austin.
Kansas State continues to be the no-respect team in this conference. The Wildcats went 10-2 last regular season, but were passed over for a Sugar Bowl bid by both Michigan and Virginia Tech, who produced a game excitingly because of shared mediocrity. Now the Wildcats aren’t getting respect in the Big 12 this season, in spite of having a veteran defense and the return of the magnificient Collin Klein at quarterback, who can run, pass and generally carry a team. He’s got his skill position people back, but the right side of the line has two freshman in starting jobs. That will keep K-State from pushing for a championship in a league with a clear dominant power, but they have enough to compete with everyone else.
The newcomers, West Virginia & TCU, each have a shot at making some noise, especially the Mountaineers, who are off their stunning 70-35 demolition of Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Geno Smith will rival Klein as the most versatile quarterback in the conference, he’s got three offensive lineman back to protect him and two solid receivers in Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. What WVA does not have is a good back eight in their 3-4 defense and in a league where most everyone can score in a hurry that’s a problem. TCU has similar rebuilding to do in its linebacker and secondary groups and will have to rely on the defensive line to carry them on that side of the ball. On the other side, the trenches are lacking and we’ll have to see what quarterback Casey Pachall, running back Ed Wesley and an experienced group of receivers can do without any veterans to block for them.
Baylor’s been enjoying a golden age in its major athletic programs. The basketball team’s made a regional final of the NCAA Tournament twice in three years, the football team’s had success and the Heisman Trophy triumph of Robert Griffin III was the crowning moment. RG3 is now in Washington, trying to turn around the Redskins, but the Bears have a chance to still be competitive without him. The receivers are back, and tackle Cyril Richardson is a solid presence on the offensive front. The defensive ends and secondary return, but the defense is soft on the interior. And more to the point, the defense wasn’t any good a year ago. They have to at least be average this time around.
Texas Tech & Iowa State are on the fringes of the bowl picture. The Red Raiders lost their final five games a year ago to end up 5-7 and miss the bowl party. They have to rebuild the defense, but when the defense gives up 256 points in that five-game losing streak it’s not something anyone in Lubbock is really dreading. Seth Doege is back at quarterback, with a decent offensive line in front of him and favored target Eric Ward back at wideout. Iowa State made a bowl trip last season at 6-6 before losing to Rutgers and are more rush-oriented, with backs James White and Jeff Woody running behind a respectable line. But there is some re-tooling on the defensive side. Kansas is the one team in the league not really competitive. They went 2-10 last year and while Charlie Weis is now the head coach and has brought in old Notre Dame QB Dayne Crist to run the offense, the team has to rebuild its entire pass defense, from linebacker on back. We haven’t heard anything from Weis about a “decided schematic advantage” this time around in his efforts to enjoy long-term success as a head coach.
PREDICTIONS: I’ve made my view on the big pick already clear, and Oklahoma will win the conference championship. Next week there will be final picks on whether the Sooners will get to the next step and whether the Big 12 will get an additional BCS bid. For now let’s assume the answer to the latter question is no. Once the BCS is done, the conference’s next bowl slots are the Cotton (vs. SEC) and the Alamo (vs. Pac-12-runner up). Then there’s good midlevel games in the Insight, Holiday and Texas Bowls, two against the Big Ten and one against the Pac-12. Then the final spot is in Yankee Stadium against a middling Big East team.
I like Oklahoma State and Kansas State to get the quality runner-up spots in the Cotton & Alamo. Then fill in Texas, West Virginia and TCU for the middle three spots and Texas Tech to eke out the final bowl bid, as they flip places with Iowa State this time around.
Big Ten football is suffering from a public relations problem right now. The on-field performance hasn’t been up to snuff for several years now, between close Rose Bowl losses and utter debacles in the majority of the minor bowl matchups against the SEC. Then there have been the off-field scandals at Ohio State and Penn State that effectively gutted the division race on one side of the conference. But if nothing else, the conference has a chance to fix its on-field perception this year, with most teams returning key players on the defensive front and most quarterback situations looking stable. TheSportsNotebook breaks down how the conference race is likely to shake out.
The Legends Division is where the action is, as Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska will stage a lively race for a spot in Indianapolis on December 1 when the conference championship is settled. Michigan is seen as the top-heavy favorite, but while I respect the Wolverines as a contender, I don’t see them as head-and-shoulders above their two rivals.
Michigan’s case in the national media runs thusly—they won 10 games under Brady Hoke a year ago, and then won the Sugar Bowl. Now they have an explosive do-everything quarterback in Denard Robinson back and set to contend for the Heisman Trophy. They have a good offensive line, led by tackle Traylor Lewan to lead the way for Fitz Toussiant, the back who came on down the stretch a year ago. They’re experienced in the back seven and since they’ve already won a major bowl game, the next step up is national championship contender.
It sounds good enough and when it comes to the returning talent it’s all true. But Michigan was not deserving of a BCS bid a year ago, nor was their Sugar Bowl opponent in Virginia Tech. (Kansas State and Michigan State, who actually won the Legends Division last year were both better choices). Michigan needed an atrocious call in overtime to bail them out in the Sugar Bowl itself. In short, they were an above-average team that made good strides under Hoke in his first year as head coach. As such, we expect them to be one of a few contenders for league honors this year. But their season was not on a par with other major bowl winners like Oklahoma State or Oregon, so the baseline they are building off of is lower than the national media is presenting it.
Michigan State, on the other hand, is still the no-respect team in this division. Mark Dantonio is the best coach in the Legends Division. He won a share of the Big Ten title in 2010, the last year prior to the superconference format. He lost a gut-wrencher to Wisconsin in last year’s championship game and had his team not foolishly roughed the punter in the last two minutes would likely have at least forced overtime. Both years the Spartans deserved a BCS bid and both years they were passed over for more noteworthy Big Ten teams (Ohio State in 2010, Michigan last year). Now Sparty is being overlooked again because they need a new quarterback and receivers. But look at what Dantonio does have—four starters back on the offensive line, a talented back in Le’Veon Bell, eight starters back on defense, including top pass rusher William Gholston and two of the three new starters are seniors. That spells contender.
Nebraska is stacked defensively, with eight seniors in the starting lineup, including the entire front four. Now it’s up to Bo Pellini to prove he can generate some offense consistently. He’s got the skill position weapons in quarterback Taylor Martinez, and running back Rex Burkhead. If the line can be re-tooled, Nebraska can compete for the division.
Whomever wins the Legends, all three of these teams are better than anyone on the Leaders side. Wisconsin has gone to the Rose Bowl the last two years and with Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the league championship game, the Badgers have the path cleared for another trip to Indianapolis. But while this is a good team, it doesn’t look championship-caliber. The defensive line has six starters back, but other than Chris Borland at linebacker, none are all that noteworthy. And maybe I’m only noting Borland because as a Wisconsin resident and big fan of the team I’m overrating him. He’s not listed in the annuals as one of the league’s top players.
I like the addition of Danny O’Brien, the Maryland transfer, to play quarterback, but he’s a big step down from the departed Russell Wilson and the receivers’ corps needs some work. In the end, Wisconsin will still win at least 8-9 games thanks to running back Montee Ball and an offensive line led by tackle Ricky Wagner and center Travis Frederick. Even the need to replace three starters isn’t a big deal in Madison, where lineman come off the assembly line. In the watered-down Leaders Division, this will be enough to put Wisconsin in the league championship game and they have to hope the rest of the team has jelled sufficiently by December 1 to give them a chance in that game.
Illinois & Purdue are the two teams most likely to steal the Leaders Division crown from Wisconsin in light of the probations in Columbus and State College. Both are coming off 6-6 seasons and bowl wins, so there’s at least basic competitiveness in both programs. I’d give Purdue the best chance, because this is the fourth year for head coach Danny Hope while Illinois is under new leadership with Tim Beckman. Purdue also gets Wisconsin at home, while Illinois comes to Madison. Both teams are experienced in both lines and the secondary, but I’d give Boilermaker quarterback Caleb TerBush a slight edge over Illinois counterpart Nathan Scheelhaase.
Shifting back to the Legends Division, Iowa has a major rebuilding project on their hands, as Kirk Ferentz has to rebuild both lines, and has two freshmen and a sophomore slotted in starting roles. Minnesota has a chance to be improved, in their second year under head coach Jerry Kill and a veteran offensive line to protect versatile quarterback MarQueis Gray. The back seven on defense should also make a step up. If Kill can get a defensive line together he’s got a shot at six wins and a bowl bid. And Northwestern should again make a bowl and continue their quest for the first postseason victory in school history. Pat Fitzgerald will start four seniors on the offensive line, have a solid front seven on defense and he’ll reap the rewards of enduring last year’s frustrating injuries to quarterback Dan Persa, because it means new starter Kain Colter isn’t really all that new—he’s a two-threat quarterback who’s got some experience under his belt. Mark NU down for seven wins.
Ohio State is going to be the big wild-card in the conference race this year. Ineligible to play beyond the regular season and in their first year under Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes have a talented defensive front lined by end John Simon and run-plugger Jonathan Hankins. The secondary is similarly experienced and good. Braxton Miller is a versatile quarterback who got valuable experience last season. The offensive front is a little young, but with four juniors starting, they should be coming together by mid-October and help Meyer build a lot of momentum for next season. Which is bad news for opponents like Wisconsin and Michigan, who draw the Buckeyes in November.
Finally we come to Penn State and Indiana. The Hoosiers have their defensive line back, but on the other side of the trenches they have to start three sophomores and no one is sure if returning sophomore quarterback Tre Roberson can hold off juco transfer Cameron Coffman for the job. IU might do better than the 1-11 season they had last year, but they aren’t winning more than three games overall and no more than one in league play. Regarding Penn State keep this mind—this was going to be a major rebuilding year anyway with only six returning starters. Then came the sanctions in light of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the departure of running back Silas Redd, among others. It’s going to be a long year(s) in State College.
PREDICTIONS: I’m picking a rematch of last year’s epic conference championship game, when Wisconsin nipped Michigan State 42-39. This time around, the Spartans take their revenge and Dantonio gets a deserve showcase on the BCS stage. Michigan gets another major bowl bid as an at-large and this time they’ll actually deserve it. The league’s spots in the Capital One/Outback Bowls, where they are usually made to look silly by SEC teams on January 1, go to Nebraska and Wisconsin. The Gator Bowl is another New Year’s Day game between the Big Ten-SEC and gets the fourth choice after the BCS is done. Mark Northwestern for that spot, and give the spots in Insight and Meineke Car Care Bowls against the Big 12 to Purdue and Illinois. The last two spots on the ladder are for games against C-USA and the MAC and with the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions on probation, the conference might not be able to fulfill them. Iowa and Minnesota have the best shots, but it’s going to be tough for either one.
The MAC and Sun Belt may occupy different geographic milieus in the world of college football, but they come together in the postseason. Surely you set aside time to watch the fabled GoDaddy.com Bowl, which features the champions of each league in early January. Even though both conferences are at the bottom of FBS college football, the league races are exciting and MAC football gets TV coverage with their Tuesday and Wednesday ESPN dates. TheSportsNotebook offers a concise summary of both the MAC & Sun Belt as we stand seventeen days from the first college football game of the season…
MAC: If you think the NFL is a quarterback-centered league, the pros have nothing on the MAC. Almost every conference team has a pretty good quarterback and none were better last year than Northern Illinois’ Chandler Harnish. He led the Huskies to a come-from-behind rally for the league title and then to a win over Sun Belt champ Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. But Harnish is now carrying a clipboard behind Andrew Luck in Indianapolis and NIU has to re-tool. The Huskies are going to be good again and have a legitimate shot, but they are more darkhorse rather than true contender.
Western Michigan is the prohibitive favorite in the league’s Western Division and Alex Carder is a gunslinger behind center. The Broncos have an experienced offensive line to protect Carder, and with that as an offensive foundation, they should be able to fill in the pieces at the rebuilt skill positions. The defense is not dominant, but none in this league are and with six returning starters it’s enough to punch Western Michigan’s ticket to Ford Field and the conference championship game on November 30.
The East is a tougher division at the top, as both Ohio and Kent State are strong contenders both divisionally and to win the league. Ohio went to bowl game last year and beat Utah State in a crazy Idaho Potato Bowl finish (yes, I watched the game start-to-finish. I know I need to get a life). The Bobcats have a terrific versatile quarterback in Tyler Tettleton, son of former Detroit Tiger catcher Mickey. The rest of the offense will be good, but I am concerned the back seven defensively is too young, which is why I don’t grant the Bobcats the favorite’s role in the East, even though they will get one of the MAC’s four bowl slots.
Kent State finished strong in 2011 under first-year coach Darrell Hazell, who cut his teeth on the coaching staff at Alabama. A 5-7 record obscures the fact four of the wins came in the final five games and the loss on the road at Ohio was a competitive 17-10 game. Now Kent State is loaded offensively and has eight starters back defensively. Because Golden Flash quarterback Spencer Keith isn’t as highly regarded as Tettleton, Kent State isn’t seen as the favorite, but I believe the senior Keith will thrive in his second year under Hazell and surrounded by experienced personnel. And with the season finale against Ohio at home the Friday after Thanksgiving, look for Kent to win the division.
For the rest of the conference just breaking into the quartet of Western Michigan/Northern Illinois in the West and Kent State/Ohio in the East and snaring a bowl bid would constitute a successful season. I like Miami-Ohio quarterback Zac Dysert, and I like the overall returning cast at Eastern Michigan. Toledo and Ball State also could surprise, but the middle class in this conference is generally even more unpredictable than in other college conferences. The only team we can really rule out is UMass, which begins FBS play this year, replacing Temple, who bolted to the Big East.
SUN BELT: Arkansas State, as noted above, won the Sun Belt a year ago and did with a tough defense. The Red Wolves will have to change their M.O. this season. The defense needs rebuilding and the personnel strength shifts to the offensive side, with quarterback Ryan Aplin and an experienced receiving corps. Arkansas State also brought in highly regarded Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn to be the boss and it’s safe to see a sea change in philosophy is coming into the program.
With a new coach and new defense I don’t see Arkansas State repeating this time around and would instead look at Florida International and Western Kentucky. FIU head man Mario Cristobal has been steadily building a good, consistent program and though he needs to find a quarterback, Cristobal has the defense and offensive line to make at least another bowl run, and possibly a championship push. As for Western Kentucky, they were a surprise team last year, going 7-5 under first-year coach Willie Taggart and being snubbed at bowl time. The momentum from that season, the motivation from the bowl snub (two teams below them got postseason nods) and a veteran lineup at least put the Hilltoppers into a bowl game and will give them a shot at a crown.
Louisiana was one of the teams that leapfrogged WKU in the bowl selection process last year, thanks to an electrifying quarterback in Blake Gautier, and they went on to upset San Diego State in a postseason game played in New Orleans. I don’t know that they’ve got the overall team balance necessary to do it again, but Gautier will make every game exciting. Louisiana joins Arkansas State and UL-Monroe as those with legitimate bowl aspirations, even if I doubt their chances at the trophy.
Troy and North Texas will be respectable, but not bowl-worthy. Keep an eye on North Texas though. The Mean Green is coached by Dan McCarney who turned Iowa State into a winner and made North Texas at least competitive on a week-to-week basis in just one year. At the bottom of the league is Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic and new FBS member South Alabama who are threats to no one except each other.
PREDICTIONS: I’m picking Kent State to win the MAC and Western Kentucky to win the Sun Belt, which sets up those two schools for what will surely be a hyped GoDaddy.com Bowl. Though I’m being sarcastic the insult is at the media, not the schools. I’d rather watch a game like that among teams that earned it through good regular seasons than a couple of 6-6 major conference teams where one coach is fired and both fan bases are pouting.
For the guaranteed bowl slots, the Sun Belt only has one more, in the New Orleans Bowl and that will go to Florida International. The MAC has three bowl slots to fill beyond its champ. Western Michigan and Ohio are locks. I’d like to be bold and pick an underdog for the fourth spot, but I like Northern Illinois head coach Dave Doeren too much to bet against him, so I’ll stay chalk. Both conferences will have chances at additional slots if power leagues can’t fill their quota, and Louisiana and Eastern Michigan will have the best shots at getting those.