Saturday, September 27, 2008

On the Opening at #1

Since I'm writing this one Saturday, we already know what one of this week's biggest three games was. USC losing.

This makes the race pretty clear cut. If you win out in one of the two good leagues, you're definitely in. Next up would be an undefeated Big Ten champion, then (assuming no 12-0 from USF or Wake Forest) one-loss USC, then a one-loss SEC or Big 12 team. Then whoever.

So, the big games this week are SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten undefeated favorites playing ranked opponents.

#8 Alabama at #3 Georgia. Both of these teams have shown some vulnerabilities on offense. Georgia struggled to score at South Carolina, and Alabama didn't score an offensive TD against Tulane. However, both have played amazing defense, especially against the run. This is particularly troubling for Alabama, since QB John Parker Wilson hasn't proved he's able to beat someone on his own. But this would be a great place to start.

#22 Illinois at #12 Penn State. Illinois is one of those weird teams that hangs with Missouri then can barely put away Louisiana-Lafayette. Who knows what they're going to do week by week. Penn State is one of those teams that looks great but still hasn't played anybody yet. Well, I guess we have to count Oregon State as somebody now.

#24 TCU at #2 Oklahoma. Oklahoma better watch out. Like USC, they have often looked unstoppable right up to the point they lose a game they really shouldn't. For now, Sam Bradford doesn't look like he's going to let that happen. But TCU and their whole conference are red-hot. If the Horned Frogs win this, forget about whether the Mountain West champ can crash the BCS; it's whether their runner-up can grab an at-large.

Predictions: Oklahoma has the athletes to handle TCU's run game, and the Sooners have been playing against decent talent, so they're ready for a good D. Illinois hasn't shown they can put a full game together, so Penn State has to be favored. The SEC showdown is the most interesting. Wilson is capable of pulling it out, but it would have to be perfect. You can't count on perfect.

Picks: Georgia(70/30), Oklahoma(88/12), Penn State(85/15)

LY: 29-110

Overall Adj. WPct: 192-286

Thursday, September 18, 2008

On the Real Opening Weekend for the SEC

The SEC has a couple big games this week, and we shouldn't doubt their quality. Along with the Big 12, they put some more distance between themselves and the other conferences last week. Those two conferences had nine teams in last week's top 12, and none of them were frauds. Five won easily, two won close games to lesser teams but in conference games, Kansas lost a heartbreaker to ranked South Florida on the road and Texas was postponed by a hurricane. Meanwhile out West, it's a good thing USC trounced Ohio State, because otherwise the Pac 10 would be back with the Big East and ACC. Cal lost to Maryland, Oregon squeezed past Purdue, and they went 0-4 against the Mountain West, with Arizona State losing a home game to UNLV and UCLA losing 59-0 at BYU. With such a strong performance by the MWC, we've got to imagine the BCS computers will like the BYU/Utah winner down the road.

This week's biggest matchups are in the Southeast, but the undercards are all over. Georgia goes cross-country to visit Arizona State, which would be a lot bigger if the Sun Devils hadn't choked last week. Still, Georgia's offense was shaky against South Carolina and they will be far from home. Virginia Tech-North Carolina is an intriguing early game in the ACC Coastal race, which is kind of sad. UNC is actually favored in that one. Most intriguing might be Boise State-Oregon. The Ducks' win over Purdue wasn't pretty, but it leaves them undefeated and USC's prime challenger. Boise hasn't played anyone good yet, but they've had two perfect regular seasons in the last four years, meaning that's a program which has talent and knows how to win.

#6 LSU at #10 Auburn. These are very similar teams, and it goes beyond that they're both Tigers. Both teams have dominating defenses and questionable pass offenses. LSU has put up 41 points twice, but against cupcakes and without a need for passing much. Auburn has played Southern Miss and at Mississippi State, winning the latter game 3-2. So they could have used a passing game, too. It's also worth pointing out the home team has won this game each time for several years, but it's almost always been close.

#18 Wake Forest at #24 Florida State. At 12-5 in conference, Wake Forest beats out BC, Clemson and, indeed, Florida State as the past two seasons' top team of the ACC Atlantic. This year, these two join North Carolina as the conference's only undefeateds through three weeks. Wake dominated Baylor and squeaked past Ole Miss; Florida State picked on two I-AA teams. Don't forget that last time Wake came to Tallahassee, they hung an embarrassing 30-0 on the Seminoles.

#3 Florida at Tennessee. Tennessee may have a loss, and Tebow may have a Heisman, but this is still a very dangerous game for UF. Tennessee blew the UCLA game but clearly outplayed the Bruins, and anyway rebounded with a convincing rout of UAB. On the other hand, Florida has had an extra week to prepare, their defense and special teams have scored nearly twice as many points as they've allowed and RB/WR Percy Harvin is apparently back to 100%. That's tough.

Predictions: Auburn-LSU should be a spiritual successor to two years ago's 7-3 game (in which, by the way, JaMarcus Russell played, fully healthy. Nice pick Oakland). I like Auburn's experience, early tests and home field to carry them. Wake has been playing over their heads and Florida State has great athletes, and may have finally found a QB. In the last matchup, it's impossible to pick against everything the Gators have going for them.

Picks: Auburn (45/55), Florida State (65/35), Florida (71/29)

LW: 65-41

Overall Adj WPct: 163-176, .481

Friday, September 12, 2008

On Week 3

The Big East is the new ACC. Thanks to East Carolina's vastly more impressive than last week's win, this time against supposed national title contender West Virginia, there are now two supposedly major conferences who can barely break their best team into the top 20. That loss drastically increased the chances that neither conference will receive an at-large BCS bid, meaning fans of contenders in the other four should be very happy. At worst, one such team will be left out in favor of whichever of East Carolina, Utah, BYU and Fresno State can steal a top 12 finish.

This week has a decent number of solid matchups. Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech is an early key matchup in the ACC, and the fact that an at large is already out makes it only more important. If you don't look past the jerseys, it's easy to get excited about Michigan-Notre Dame. UCLA-BYU gives UCLA a chance to pick up a second quality win, or else re-establish BYU as a legit BCS buster after their lucky, referee-assisted win at Washington. Untested and overrated Oregon visits Purdue, who might be the best team no one cares about yet. That game will go a long way to determine which conference becomes third in the pecking order behind the Big 12 and SEC. But not as much as this week's top game:

#5 Ohio State at #1 USC. Before the season, I thought the Buckeyes had a really good shot at this game, and I don't think I was alone. The Trojans would be breaking in a new QB and several new defenders, and OSU would show up more ready to play. Now they limped past Ohio, Beanie Wells is injured, and the trendy pick is USC in a blowout. But here's the thing: even without Wells, Ohio State has eighteen starters from the national runners-up. They still have two running backs who are 100 I-A teams would be happy to trade their backs for. They've allowed one offensive TD in two games, and they had a punt return to make up for it. They allowed Youngstown St. all of 74 yards and picked Ohio four times. They have no business getting blown out of this or any game, and USC better not expect them to be.

#10 Wisconsin at #21 Fresno State. The Battle of P Hill. Wisconsin RB PJ is a definite star and already has a 200 yard game under his belt this season. Fresno State coach Pat loves playing big-time opponents more than anything. Wisconsin tends to struggle in their road opener, and Fresno State has sufficient talent and experience to make things interesting, as evidenced by a fairly convincing opening win against Rutgers. A win for Fresno would put them at the forefront of the BCS buster pool, while a win for Wisconsin would give them a boost, and make the Buckeyes' October 4 visit to Madison all the more interesting.

#13 Kansas at #19 South Florida. This is the last chance for the Big East. If Kansas, who, even as highly ranked as they are, are only the fifth most highly rated team in the Big 12 takes down the new Big East favorite on the road, that's pretty much it. If South Florida can win, and keep winning, the loser of the USF-WV game could still sneak into the BCS.

Predictions: I really, really want to pick Ohio State here, but I can't actually justify it. The offense will have to play really well, and USC should be prepared. I'm not sure Fresno State really has the personnel to take Wisconsin. The Badgers are way more physically imposing than Rutgers, and while impressive the Bulldogs didn't really blow Rutgers away. In the early game, I think Kansas executes more consistently than South Florida. Todd Reesing makes the right play for the Jayhawks' offense, and KU's D has been extremely impressive so far. Meanwhile, South Florida was lucky to escape UCF last week.

Picks: USC (80/20), Wisconsin (55/45), Kansas (41/59)

LW: 13-73

Overall Adj WPct: 98-135, .421

Saturday, September 6, 2008

On Conference Strength

Early in the college football season, often the biggest thing going on is not sorting out specific teams but establishing the pecking order of conferences. This is especially important with the addition of an extra BCS bowl. When 3-4 major conferences get two bids instead of 1-2, there's a lot more room to use conference reputation to steal a spot.

This year, Week 1 did nothing to change the reputations of the SEC and Big 12 as top dogs; in the current rankings, both have five teams ranked higher than anyone else has more than two. The middle conferences are the Big Ten and Pac 10, with national title contenders Ohio State and USC being chased by not-quite top 10 Wisconsin/Penn State and Oregon/Arizona State. The Big East had a weak showing, with bad losses by middle class Pitt, Louisville and Rutgers. The ACC was even worse, with bad losses by supposedly high class Virginia Tech and Clemson. It was bad when 2007 ACC favorite VT lost 48-7 at LSU last year, but at least the Tigers went on to win the conference and national championships; 2008 ACC favorite Clemson lost 31-10 on a neutral field to Alabama, who at least for now is the fifth-ranked team in the SEC. And their lone TD was a kick return.

The reason I discuss this sorting is except for a possible big upset, this conference positioning is all we're getting out of Week 2. There's only one intriguing game all week, and that just barely. Other than that, there's nothing. No title contender facing a serious upset opportunity. No BCS busters with a real statement game opportunity. No major conference darkhorses facing each other. No early-season conference games with serious championship implications (no matter bad as the ACC looked, Georgia Tech-Boston College does not count). This week's results will affect the season through league strength in general, not the games below. With that endorsement:

#8 West Virginia at East Carolina. Here's the barely. ECU did outplay Virginia Tech, outgaining the Hokies by over 100 yards and Pickney completing 19 of 23 passes, but it took a blocked punt in the last two minutes for them to pull out the win anyhow. But if their pass defense plays well again, they could keep this one interesting, as West Virginia wasn't overwhelming either. Pat White threw well and often—about 60% of the time—against Villanova, but his receivers were ridiculously open most of the time. I'm still not sold on him as a passer. Defensively, West Virginia gave up 400 yards and 28 first downs to a I-AA team. Some of those were in the fourth quarter after the game was over, but still, if you're a top 10 team, that's never okay.

Cincinnati at #4 Oklahoma. For what it's worth, Oklahoma showed how a national title contender should play against a I-AA team: hold them into 3-17 passing, 36 total yards on 53 plays, two first downs and no points. On offense, score 50 points in the first half then shut it down, pull your starters, and only post seven in the second. Still heavy favorites, they shouldn't have it quite so easy this week. Cincinnati is coming off a blowout win of their own, and more importantly, last year they played four ranked teams and beat three of them. If Oklahoma can blow this game open, it will mean something.

Miami, FL at #5 Florida. In cruising to a 56-10 win over Hawaii, Florida showed off their athleticism: they scored on two interception returns, a punt return, and three offensive plays of more than 30 yards. Miami's blowout win was over much less impressive Charleston Southern, but their young team showed plenty of athleticism too, and the D looked solid under Bill Young, the guy largely responsible for putting together Kansas' defense last year. Miami collapsed down the stretch last year, and they are probably a year away, but they definitely have talent. Like Cincy, they aren't a pushover, and if they can even push the Gators, I'm sure the whole ACC would appreciate it.

Predictions: I don't know how East Carolina got two straight big opponents to play at their place, but I'm sure they'll be thrilled it got them a split. Expect West Virginia to go back to their rushing attack and score a lot of points. Cincy has a good defense, but they rely on pressuring the QB and Oklahoma has all five O-linemen back. Their spread offense always puts up points, but the Sooners will put up more. Miami fans may be talking themselves into the current edition of their team after Charleston Southern, but like Oklahoma last year, Florida will give them some perspective. That game will be over by halftime.

Picks: WV (73/27), Oklahoma (94/6), Florida (93/7)

LW: 85-62

Overall Adjusted WPct: 85-62, .578

What these numbers mean: This year, I'm going to keep track of my record, but I want some way of accounting for the fact that I'm picking three games straight up which may (like this week) not be all that balanced. So I'm using the money line to determine the oddsmakers' probabilities of winning the games, and awarding points based on that. Last week, Missouri was 74/26, Clemson was 62/38 and Utah was 41/59. So I gave myself +26 for Mizzou, +59 for Utah and -62 for Clemson. I can't find the exact results, but as I recall last year using this method I spent most of the season between .550 and .600.