Happy Thanksgiving everyone! This week is a time to spend with friends and family in front of a huge meal, followed by a long nap or some football. There will be plenty of college basketball, pro football, and most importantly college football this weekend. Only the Big Ten is finished with their season, so there is still plenty of football to go with that leftover turkey and cranberry sauce. This is also the final full week of football, so we look back on 2007 and find many things to be thankful for.
First of all we remember the BCS bowl season from very early 2007. Michigan was highly disappointed to be left out of the BCS Championship picture and dropped another Rose Bowl to USC on January 1. Still, the tone for the upcoming 2007 and the most memorable game in all of sports in 2007 was to come later that night, when Boise State stunned Oklahoma with the Statue of Liberty play and many others in the Fiesta Bowl. Wake Forest and Louisville shared in a rare Orange Bowl appearance, and then LSU handed Notre Dame a second straight BCS beatdown. Then Florida lived the dream and silenced all their critics with the 41-14 upset of Ohio State in the BCS Championship. In the course of 8 days, Tempe, AZ saw two huge upsets that would change the 2007 season. The WAC and non-BCS teams had credibility, while Ohio State would struggle to gain any credibility in 2007. While not as exciting overall as the 2006 set of BCS bowls, the 2007 bowls did set the tone for the following season.
The first week of the season introduced us quickly to the main maxim of the 2007 football season, that being nobody is safe from upset, and expect the unexpected. #5 Michigan dropped a shocker to Division I-AA Appalachian State at home, becoming the first of what would be a record-setting long line of top five teams losing to unranked teams. The list of top teams falling included the aforementioned Michigan, Oklahoma, Florida, Wisconsin, USC, California, South Florida, Boston College, Ohio State, and Oregon. With the exception of the Bulls and the Eagles, each of these teams is a top college football program that does not normally lose games to unranked teams. This is why the college football season has been so crazy. The upsets have not been limited to fringe Top 10 teams, and that is something to be thankful for this season.
Another great aspect of this season has been the rise of teams who normally would have no BCS consideration. Most notably, the Big XII North division has been the laughingstock of the country these past few seasons as Oklahoma, Texas, et al. kept beating up on the colder half of their conference. This season the biggest late season game as far as the national championship goes is Missouri vs. Kansas, two North division teams! The winner of that contest still has to deal with Oklahoma or Texas in the conference championship game, but there’s no questioning how strong the North division has been this season. The WAC continued to break down doors of the BCS for the little guys with Boise State and Hawaii fighting it out, and other teams who experienced great glory not normally reserved for them include South Florida, Kentucky, and Boston College. With two weeks left in the season, we could end up with a “normal” championship game like LSU v. Ohio State, but it is just as likely we end up with two cinderellas such as Kansas v. West Virginia.
Everybody in the country was thrilled about the Big East trilogy (Louisville, West Virginia, Rutgers) and the Big Ten’s top two (Ohio State, Michigan) all not playing each other until November last season, heightening the drama in those conference races and the national title chase. This season the back-loading of great games has been widespread, with de facto conference championship games in the last 2 weeks of play in the Big Ten, Big East, WAC, and Pac-10. Combined with the ACC, SEC, and Big XII conference championship games, every single conference has come down to a game between the top two contenders. This is a great thing, as we get to see late in the season who deserves a BCS berth the most.
Speaking of de facto championship games, the first of those happened last weekend because the Big Ten loves tradition, and tradition dictates that the season ends before Thanksgiving. Ohio State dominated Michigan in every aspect of the game, including setting up sophomore RB Chris “Beanie” Wells for a Heisman run next season (222 yards on 39 carries, 2 TD, record yards in this rivalry against UM). The star QB Chad Henne, RB Mike Hart, and coach Lloyd Carr have all now been run out of town with 0-4 and 1-6 records against Ohio State in the Jim Tressel era. Despite all this going on in the background, there were a couple other stories from the Big Ten worth following or noting.
First, with the notable exception of 1-11 Minnesota, every other team in conference was bowl eligible at 6-5 or better and needed wins to lock up bowl berths. With Iowa’s out-of-conference loss to a MAC team, the situation becomes very interesting. The pecking order for bowls appears to be: Ohio State, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State, Indiana, Michigan State, Purdue, Iowa, Northwestern. The Big Ten only has 7 tie-ins including the BCS, so three of those teams may be left without a partner for bowl season. Northwestern is certainly out at 6-6, and Iowa at 6-6 should be also (but if a spot opens up in any bowl anywhere for a 6-6 team, Iowa is one of the top 5 draws for bowl games as Hawkeye fans love to get out of frigid Iowa City and Cedar Rapids this time of year). The 7-5 trio includes Indiana, Michigan State, and Purdue. The bowls might normally leave Indiana in the cold, but the Terry Hoeppner story of “Play 13” and the fact that IU beat both the other 7-5 teams should land them in a bowl for sure. Michigan State is a perfect fit for the final bowl slot in Detroit (Motor City Bowl), and they beat Purdue also. A shocking result almost certainly ensues, as Purdue at 7-5 gets left out and Iowa at 6-6 also gets left out. Clearly both these teams hope Illinois gets into the BCS at-large mix, or some other conferences open up a slot or two for these usual bowl teams.
The other interesting story from the Big Ten is the resurgence of Illinois. All of a sudden with conference limitations on BCS bowls, Illinois could slip into a BCS at-large slot. This is a big deal for a program that averaged about one win a year the past four seasons. What is interesting is that looking at Illinois’s three losses, they came in the season-opener to Missouri (looks a lot better than it did at the time), and then a two game streak in the middle of Big Ten play to Iowa and Michigan. With the win over Ohio State, Illinois pulled within one game of the conference lead and would have won the crown if the upset at Iowa had not happened. The Buckeyes should be sending gift baskets to Iowa City for that victory, since that seemingly unimportant Iowa 10-6 win ended up drastically changing the final standings in the conference. The Big Ten is in the clubhouse, though, so let’s move onto upcoming topics.
Normally at this time of year, I write an article explaining why an 8-team playoff would be absolutely amazing in Division I-A, showing what that kind of playoff would be this year. With so many conferences coming down to de facto or real conference championship games in the final two weeks of the season, too much is still unclear to make that argument look compelling. At this time of Thanksgiving, we should be thankful for the things we do have. We have instant replay, which has made the game of college football far more fair and just when entire seasons ride on the outcome of one game. We also have a system for pairing teams in true championship games that never would have happened under the pre-1998 bowl system (Miami v Ohio State, Texas v USC, Florida v Ohio State). Sure, the BCS is a flawed system that cannot make everybody happy all the time, but this sure is a lot better than one decade ago.
Even though I will not continue the playoff argument tradition in this column for 2007, I will continue to give BCS bowl projections with explanations of how the process works and how I came to the conclusions I did. First, a quick primer on 2008 BCS bowls. The BCS Championship in New Orleans gets the top 2 ranked BCS teams in the final BCS standings released in 2 weeks. Then automatic qualifiers are the champions of each BCS conference, and Hawaii/Boise State if they make it into the Top 12, or if they make it into Top 16 and get ranked above a BCS conference champion. Every other team in the Top 14 with at least nine wins can be chosen as an at-large to fill the BCS line-up (extended to the Top 18 if not enough teams to fill the slots). Finally, the rule most in controversy in the BCS is that no conference may send more than 2 teams to BCS bowls. This will likely come into play this year, just as it did when Wisconsin got left out last year.
After the BCS Championship gets the top 2 teams, the other four bowls get their traditional conference champions if they are still available (Rose Bowl gets Pac-10 and Big Ten, Sugar Bowl gets SEC, Orange Bowl gets ACC, Fiesta Bowl gets Big XII). The empty slots still left are filled first by any bowl that lost it’s traditional conference champion to the Championship game, and then in backwards chronological order of when the bowls are scheduled (this year, the picking order is Orange, Fiesta, Sugar). At this point all the bowls have their teams and we finally get to kick back and relax once 2008 begins with some great college football. So let’s do a projection with all those complicated rules in mind.
We have to make some assumptions to make these projections from the final two weeks, and here is how we will project it (in this season, some upset is bound to change this). In the ACC, the winner of Virginia/VA Tech plays Boston College for the title, and I think BC will come out as champion. They get slotted into the Orange Bowl as ACC Champion. In the Big XII, the winner or Kansas/Missouri will take on either Oklahoma or Texas. This could get very complicated, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll project Kansas to beat Missouri and Oklahoma to beat Kansas, so OU goes to the Fiesta. In the Big East, WVU knocks off Connecticut and Pittsburgh, ending up #2 in the BCS and going to the championship game. The Big Ten champion is Ohio State, so they go to the Rose. Arizona State and USC play this week for the Pac-10 title (although Oregon is still in it technically, I’m assuming they will lose one of their final two due to Dixon’s injury), and I’m projecting USC as the winner there, going to the Rose Bowl. The SEC comes down to LSU vs. Georgia or Tennessee, and I project LSU will run the table and end #1 in the BCS, going to the title game. The only other conference of note is the WAC, and I project Hawaii beating Boise State for the conference crown, which should put them in the Top 12 of the BCS standings as an automatic qualifier.
With all those assumptions out there, the automatic qualifiers are LSU, West Virginia, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Boston College, USC, and Hawaii. After all teams are slotted in their respective bowls, Hawaii and three at-large teams need to be selected to fill the bowls. The BCS #3-4 teams can become at-large teams for sure if they are not a conference champion, and I think Georgia will miss out on the SEC championship but still slip in at #4. The remainder of teams to pick from then are 12-1 Kansas, 10-2 Missouri, 10-2 Arizona State, 10-2 Texas, 10-3 Virginia Tech, and 9-3 Illinois. One of the Big XII teams will presumably be taken, and a 10-2 Texas would likely be that team (sorry Kansas). Given the strength of the Pac-10, Arizona State is likely the next selection, but Illinois would get consideration and Virginia Tech may also get consideration. Slotting those selections in the bowls in order results in the projection shown below. As you can see, there is some work in accurately projecting BCS bowls!
2008 BCS Bowl Projection I
Whew. That was quite a job this season, but thankfully the analysis gets a lot simpler the next two weeks. I did project the bowls correctly after games were over last season, so hopefully I will be able to offer the same service this season (for those of you who just have to know who’s going where before all your buddies). Moving onto this week’s best games, I had to leave out the de facto Big East championship, UConn at West Virginia. West Virginia still needs a little help, but the Mountaineers may be 2 wins away from the BCS Championship Game. No matter those implications, the game this weekend will determine another automatic qualifier for the BCS and should not be ignored. Still, it just missed on being one of the games I preview for Week 13.
The first game of the week is the Thanksgiving Day battle for the Pac-10, USC at Arizona State. USC needs a win here and an Oregon loss to win the Rose Bowl, but Pete Carroll’s team would be happy with that after losing two games this season. Arizona State leads the conference by a game right now in a resurgent season. Both offenses will dictate the flow of this game, and the USC defense is still banged up and the Arizona State defense is not all that great. Both teams are coming off a bye week as well, which favors the injured Trojans. Trojan QB John David Booty will be key, as his health and poise will be necessary to win in a hostile environment. Sun Devil QB Rudy Carpenter will test the USC backfield, but expect the Trojan defense to make a critical fourth quarter stop to seal the victory. USC wins by 10.
The second game of the week is Boise State at Hawaii. If Arizona State and USC are going to light up the scoreboard, watch out in this one. Each team puts up about 500 yards of offense per game, and 45-50 points is the norm. These top 10 offensive units will be going against decent defenses, but not great defenses. One advantage Boise State has is experience in big games, and the one-dimensional nature of Hawaii’s strong offense (2nd best passing attack, 4th worst rushing attack in Division I-A). Hopefully the week off for QB Colt Brennan has been enough to get him healthy, as Hawaii does not have the proper guns to keep up without him. Bronco RB Ian Johnson will be the key element in this game, as draining Hawaii’s defense and crowd in long drives will be the key to victory. The first team to 50 may not win this game, and scoring records will be set if it goes to overtime. While all X-factors seem to bend in Boise State’s favor, the trip out to Hawaii is always a huge advantage for the Warriors. If Brennan is healthy then the Warriors should narrowly win (and that was the assumption made above). Still, I just see something happening to Brennan to keep him out and so I’m picking Boise State by 17.
The top game of the week is Missouri vs. Kansas at Kansas City. For those who struggle with geography, Kansas City is in Missouri on the border, so neither team has an advantage here. This is yet another game with two top-10 offenses (this is going to be one fun week to watch football). Missouri will be led by QB Chase Daniel, but the key to their offense will be establishing a running game with RB Tony Temple. When Kansas is on the field, QB Todd Reesing is the star, with 30 TD against only 4 INT. The Kansas rushing duo of FB Brandon McAnderson and RB Jake Sharp should keep the pressure off Reesing all day. Missouri has been good in the shootout kind of game, and Kansas has not really been tested (one could argue the best team they have faced is Oklahoma State, and that’s not saying much). Nevertheless, Missouri was trampled by another good offense in Oklahoma and this game will be no different. Kansas might not have a defense capable of holding Missouri under 30, but when you score 45 a game that’s not a huge deal. Kansas by 9.
GOTW Record to Date: 21-18 (.535)
Fitz Top 10 – Week 12
Again, have a Happy Thanksgiving everybody! See you next week.