What a rough week to reside in the top ten of college football. My last column focused on the month of near-upsets, which just proves you should not make generalizations about a month before the last weekend is over. It seemed inevitable, but the real big upsets finally started happening in bulk. For anybody who loves the recent onslaught of television shows such as Survivor and Solitary, college football is the best sport because every week the top teams are locked in a struggle for survival. For anybody who desires excitement and unpredictability, college football hits the spot. If you missed this weekend of college football, there’s still time to make up for it this weekend.
My primary topic is poll voting this week, which seems appropriate after such a shake-up as September 29. Before we get into that, a re-evaluation of those teams split into categories of contenders is merited. One bloody weekend in college football knocked the number of undefeated I-A teams to 15 from the previous mark of 23. As last week’s column explained, these undefeated teams can be split into four categories: The Top Contenders, The Second Tier, The Dark Horses, and Are You Kidding? Although it seems like no more than one undefeated team will emerge in December right now, all one-loss teams have been removed from the “BCS Survivor Pool” classifications until further notice.
The Top Contenders still contains the best two teams in college football, USC and LSU, but newcomers Boston College and Ohio State join the fray at the top of the list. The Eagles and Buckeyes are the class of the weaker BCS conferences and could run the table easier than everyone else. The Second Tier keeps California, but adds Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Cincinnati. California got lucky at Oregon but looks good enough to maybe knock off USC at home, while Wisconsin would be a top contender if they could win a game before the final possession. The Wildcats and Bearcats have been absolutely destroying the competition up until now, and both could end up being competitive in the tough conferences. Still, all of these teams have an uphill battle to stay undefeated.
The Dark Horses are a new lot of teams: Purdue, Arizona State, Hawaii, and South Florida. Each of these teams are undefeated now and have looked good, but each has serious flaws and is probably only the third-best team in their respective conference (except for Hawaii, who is on the outside looking in due to not being in a BCS conference). Now the “Are You Kidding?” file really means what it sounds like, as Missouri, Kansas, and Connecticut finish the list of undefeated teams. The Big XII North had a banner week last week, but the whole conference will self-destruct against each other in a matter of weeks. Connecticut is the only really bad undefeated team left, but who knows with the crazy start in the Big East.
It was a rough week to be a member of the top ten in the polls on Friday and Saturday. West Virginia lost QB Pat White to injury, and the South Florida defense stuffed RB Steve Slaton on Friday night. West Virginia looked like a real fraud in Tampa, and the going will only get tougher against teams like Rutgers. Speaking of the Scarlet Knights, the largest crowd in New Jersey history piled into Rutgers stadium only to see their beloved team choke away another top ten ranking against Maryland. The Heisman hopefuls in the Big East are probably now facing an insurmountable climb to the award after their teams fell behind in the conference race. With Syracuse, Connecticut, and South Florida leading the league standings, watch out for an upside down year in the Big East.
While the Big East may have suffered a credibility hit as the conference becomes more balanced, the Big XII South division has finally fallen from grace. Oklahoma and Texas were stone-cold locks for 3-0 against the North division almost every year, and even Baylor managed 3 wins against the lesser half last season. All of a sudden, the fourth and fifth best teams from the North beat OU and UT in a crazy few hours. And now the only real pushover in the North is Iowa State, matching the South’s Baylor. Instead of being a top five battle for the ages in the Red River Shootout, it’s a battle to avoid an 0-2 start in conference play. Oklahoma and Texas need to learn their lessons quickly, or else this might be the year where a team like Missouri beats a team like Oklahoma State in the Big XII Powder Puff Championship.
The revenge factor did not matter this past weekend, as the USF-WVU and KState-Texas repeat upsets proved. Also in this mix was defending national champion Florida, who lost to Auburn for the second straight year and broke the mystique of playing in the Swamp. Oklahoma and Florida are still top contenders at one loss alongside Oregon, but the Sooners and Gators need to play more than one half of football to beat conference opponents such as Colorado and Auburn. LSU may have lost if they were not playing absolute cupcake Tulane this weekend, and the ability of the Tigers to play well outside of Louisiana is still untested halfway through the season. Still, LSU had the second-easiest time of the weekend so no complaints yet.
The Pac-10 contenders put on quite a show this weekend. USC lost 5 starters to injury, turned the ball over multiple times, and still managed to survive 27-24 in rainy and cold Seattle. This was the absolute worst game I’ve seen USC play under Pete Carroll, but still they won against a reasonably tough opponent. One note on the Huskies: while I applaud you for making it out of the toughest September schedule at just 2-3, Jake Locker needs to learn to stop turning the ball over in the red zone against teams like Ohio State and USC. The Huskies could be a Top 25 team with wins over USC, OSU, and Boise State right now, but they just did not finish the job.
California and Oregon did not explode offensively until the second half, but the game was well-played by both contenders. California showed a lot of mental toughness to escape Autzen Stadium with a win, but Oregon deserved at least overtime barring a freak fumble at the end of the game. Those teams could have gone 4-5 overtimes and doubled the score before it was decided, but both teams will beat USC if the Trojans have another bad day like they had Saturday. A tough day for the top contenders, but all 3 looked good despite the struggles.
The final two top ten teams hailed from Big Ten country, but Wisconsin could not shake the tough game bug running rampant. The Badgers have narrowly escaped games against The Citadel, UNLV, Iowa, and now Michigan State in consecutive weeks. Wisconsin struggles to score any points against anemic UNLV and Iowa, then turns around and finds a way to outscore Michigan State. A late fumble cost the Spartans a sure chance to at least tie the game and go to overtime, but Wisconsin will not continue to get that lucky. This week at a suddenly tough Illinois should be a true test of how good the Badgers are, and perhaps the last true threat before a trip to Columbus in November. Speaking of Columbus, the only team that had an easy time on Saturday throughout was Ohio State as they methodically blew through the Golden Gophers of Minnesota (and if you watched the game, you know what I’m referring to). The Buckeyes are finally coming into their own offensively while the defense stays rock-solid. The Bucks will need a good offense this week to keep up with a Purdue team that will finally challenge the Buckeye defense.
While the Top 10 welcomes new members Boston College, Kentucky, and South Florida this week, each of them should beware the target that just got plastered on their backs. A week with as many crucial battles in the Top 25 as next weekend is always danger zone for these top teams. While the anticipation of this week’s previews might be killing you, there are a couple real issues to talk about before moving on.
First, every coach will always try to find a way to bend the rules to gain a slight advantage. Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema proved that the clock starting on a kickoff could be used to waste the final 30 seconds of a half or game to ice a victory without giving the other team their legitimate chance to come back. This problem has been remedied, but now a new problem sprouts in pro football in calling timeouts before game-winning field goals so late that the snap and kick go off before referees can stop the play. While the Raiders and Browns got robbed in the past two weeks using this “strategy,” Auburn could have lost as well against Florida had it not been for one kicker’s nerves of steel. Unless something is done soon, a big game with national title implications could go sour soon all because a coach moves beyond icing the kicker to basically forcing each important field goal to be kicked twice. This is nothing against Urban Meyer, as he did nothing outside the rules as they currently stand. This needs to be changed before it starts robbing teams in college football, where one game can make or break a season unlike the pro game.
The primary issue of this article - which somehow managed to get pushed to page 4 of this document - is voting in polls! The BCS has enough critics to fill a country or two, but one big problem is the fact that no matter whether more control is given to computers or human pollsters, it feels unfair either way. The problem with human polls is that everybody has a spin and an agenda, especially the coaches who count for 1/3 of the BCS formula. Plus the coaches cannot be expected to follow every game each Saturday with all their other duties. The Harris poll and the AP poll have quite a bit more credibility it seems, but the overall moves up and down of teams indicates that a significant portion of voters are not paying attention.
Despite what Colin Cowherd and others may tell you, if your top 3 is USC, LSU, and Oklahoma right now, you are crazy. Just as crazy as you were for keeping Michigan in the top 15 or 20 after losing to Appalachian State, or for underrating teams like Kansas State, Illinois, and Purdue who have played far better than most other Top 25 teams so far (and each is either undefeated or one bad break away). Oklahoma did not show up to play in the second half, and they should be punished in the rankings. Not as much as West Virginia or Texas who were beaten down, but still punished. The main reason polls are unfair is that it kills the opportunities for teams who do not start the season ranked or in the public eye.
While I have no qualms with how Florida played their best game of the year to beat the lackadaisical Buckeyes in Tempe last January, Boise State’s win over Oklahoma proves that the little guy deserves the chance to play for a title when they are one of two or fewer undefeated teams left at the end of the season. That being said, my new philosophy for voting in polls is that going undefeated should be rewarded more than anything else in college football. It is so hard to navigate the minefield for 12 weeks that anybody who survives in any league with a 12-0 record should top the polls. If the computers determine that the team played such a poor schedule that a Boise State deserves to be kicked out of the championship, then let the computers determine that with their 1/3 (or in a perfect world, 1/2). Once the BCS Survivor Pool goes down to 15 or fewer undefeated teams, I am going to vote all undefeated teams above all others. This will not apply to teams with one and two losses because once you lose, I think the losses and overall schedules are worth comparing to see if a two-loss team deserves a higher ranking.
Many will disagree with my new philosophy, as it currently ranks the likes of Connecticut and Kansas above the likes of Florida and Oklahoma. I think pollsters have to stay flexible though, being ready to move teams up or down based on performance. I presume the main criticism of my vote will be the above-mentioned fact that UConn is rated #15, but if they end up unexpectedly running the table and winning the Big East, I want them in the title game no matter how bad their talent is. Even the best dynasties can only count on 2 or maybe 3 undefeated regular seasons out of 10 (and nobody debates how good Miami, USC, and Ohio State have been in recent years), so those special accomplishments should be rewarded. Plus, the beauty of my system is that it will work itself out over the course of October as the undefeated list shrinks quickly, and the highest quality one loss or two loss teams move back into the Top 10.
Please feel free to wreck my method on the message boards or over email, as I’m just as flawed as the next voter. Nevertheless I feel that a principled approach is better than no approach at all, and flexibility is what should be valued more than anything else. With that said...
The tradition is so ingrained that it’s hard to break, but every once in a while a week comes along where I have to preview more than 3 games. The slate of games this weekend dictates that this is so. Instead of what I’ve done in the past, previewing and picking one bonus game which does not count toward my season total, the slate is so good I’m doubling up this week. That’s right, here comes the top 6 games of the week! This may also have something to do with the fact that I’m on vacation next week and will have a very short article if anything.
So here’s a six-pack on the best slate of games all season. Even picking 6 games, I had to leave out 3 very deserving games in Virginia Tech at Clemson (because Clemson is overrated and will lose this game big), Wisconsin at Illinois (because Illinois is not ranking-worthy until they beat a team like Wisconsin), and Kansas at Kansas State (because both these teams will probably falter soon). Think about that, one game between nationally ranked opponents and two more where the combined records are 9-1 of the teams. Those three are just outclassed by the following six. An unbelievable slate, so don’t miss one minute!
The first game of the week is Nebraska at Missouri, a critical battle that may decide the Big XII North title. Nebraska has been much stronger offensively this year behind QB Sam Keller and RB Marlon Lucky. The one concern is the defense, which got sliced and diced against the Trojans three weeks ago. This is bad news as Missouri has an even more prolific offense than Nebraska behind QB Chase Daniel. Look for tons of passing and for both teams to try and establish the run. While Missouri does have the home field and more experience on defense, Nebraska has a much better quarterback and that will be the difference. Nebraska drops another undefeated team out of the BCS race by 7.
The second game of the week is Cincinnati at Rutgers, a Big East opener for both teams. Given that the 0-1 ranks include West Virginia and Louisville right now, I suppose Rutgers should just go and join them. The Bearcats have blown by five straight opponents, highlighted by a 34-3 dismantling of Oregon State. QB Ben Mauk has been decent so far, but he has not been pressured too much. Butler Benton and Greg Moore give the Bearcat rushing attack some serious depth. The opposition will be much bigger this week as the fans in Piscataway will be fired up and ready for vengeance after Rutgers lost at home last week. Cincinnati could make big inroads toward making it a five team race in the Big East with a road win here, but expect the Bearcats to be competitive all season. Rutgers has RB Ray Rice and a killer defense, so with the home field rocking you have to believe Rutgers avoids the two game losing streak. Another undefeated team falls by the wayside as Rutgers should be able to play ball hog all game and tire out the Cincinnati defense. Scarlet Knights by 10.
While there may be a prettier game in the SEC this weekend, all eyes will be on the third game of the week on Thursday night in primetime, Kentucky at South Carolina. Kentucky is ranked in the Top 10 for the first time in decades and has a dark horse Heisman QB in Andre’ Woodson, but the Wildcats are going into a brutal three game stretch where they play the best three teams in the SEC (at SC, then home against LSU and Florida). South Carolina will be ready to fight with experienced head coach Steve Spurrier only dropping a game to LSU thus far. Look for South Carolina to finally score some points and get some offense going behind QB Chris Smelley and his primary playmaker WR Kenny McKinley. Unfortunately, Kentucky and Woodson have survived enough close games to make it out of this one still undefeated heading into the big game against LSU. Kentucky by 13.
There are many names for the Red River Shootout this season: Texas vs. Oklahoma, tickets still available, the battle to avoid 0-2, the what might have been bowl... No matter the name, both rivals will be even more ready to fight after being upset last weekend. Oklahoma has been scary good outside of Boulder this season, ripping through all opponents including Miami. QB Sam Bradford leads a potent Sooner passing attack, but the real strength of their offense is the rushing duo of Allen Patrick and DeMarco Murray. QB Colt McCoy is becoming a Lone Star superstar, but Texas is clearly worse than it has been the past two or three seasons. A second straight punking at the hands of K-State is just the tip of the iceberg, as Texas is lucky to escape games against weak Arkansas State, TCU, and Central Florida. Oklahoma has lost the last couple in this series, but the talent is just too much this season and Texas has played too sloppy on defense to win this one. Oklahoma by 7.
Every week seems to bring a monster game in the SEC, but this week brings the crown jewel of them all: Florida at LSU. Even with Florida’s second straight loss to Auburn last weekend, LSU and Florida were clearly looking forward to this one as both played half-heartedly. LSU’s defense has been the best in football this season, but Urban Meyer always seems to be able to come up with a scheme to befuddle the best defenses. LSU has not had a real tough road game yet (that comes next week at Kentucky of all places), but the good news for them is that this one is as far away from the Swamp as you can get. QB Matt Flynn needs to continue his solid play, while his opponent Tim Tebow has to find help from WR Percy Harvin and RB Kestahn Moore. Tebow will certainly pull the whole Gator team on his shoulders again if he has to, but LSU is too smart to lose track of him. Florida officially loses any hope of defending the national title with a second straight loss this week, as LSU wins by 17 (on the defense!).
There’s only one battle of undefeated teams, so the last and top game of the week is Ohio State at Purdue. While the Big Ten has been mediocre so far overall, these two teams have played the best out of all the conference teams. Neither team has been really challenged in five weeks, so we will find out how good these undefeated teams are on the big stage Saturday night. Purdue has a strong offense as usual behind QB Curtis Painter (18 TD) and RB Kory Sheets, but there will be no 45 points this week against a dominant Buckeye defense. The Buckeye offense has survived road trips to Seattle and Minneapolis so far, and QB Todd Boeckman and RB Chris “Beanie” Wells seem to be hitting their stride at the right time going into this game. Purdue has played the Buckeyes tough in recent years, forcing the 2002 Buckeyes to win on the famous “Holy Buckeye” pass, pushing the 2003 Buckeyes to overtime before losing, and winning the last meeting in 2004. Unfortunately for the Boilermakers, Ohio State is a second-half team while Purdue makes their hay usually in the first half. Purdue also had the closest call against the joke that is Notre Dame and gives up more points than they should, so barring poor weather the Buckeyes will grind out a 14 point win. If it rains, Buckeyes by 3.
GOTW Record to Date: 9-6 (.600)
Fitz Top 10 – Week 5
Hopefully I will get in a very short article next week, but in any event we’ll see you soon. Keep watching those great college games!