Thursday, October 30, 2008

On the BCS Picture, and Whether Texas Tech Can Do Anything About It

Regular readers (all four or five of you) should remember that the top three games discussed each week in this space are chosen with regard to BCS implications. Now that we're down to about a month of college football regular season, let's take a moment before starting to make a handy-dandy reference guide at how each team and conference's BCS prospects stack up. We'll start with the likely multi-bid leagues, who also include the top national title contenders, and work our way down.

Big 12: Almost certain for two bids. Texas is a title game lock if they win out, with whoever's standing from Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State looking strong for an at-large bid. If Texas Tech wins out, they might not pass Alabama and Penn State, but considering this would involve beating Texas and Oklahoma, they might. A three way tie at 7-1 in the Big 12 South would result in the highest coaches' poll team going, which would probably be Oklahoma. On the off chance the North champion wins the Big 12 title game, whoever of Oklahoma and Texas didn't play in that game will probably go.

SEC: Almost certain for two bids, also. This one's really simple. If Alabama goes undefeated, they'll go to the national championship. If they go undefeated until losing the SEC championship game but lose to the Florida/Georgia winner (hereafter FGW), they'll probably still get the at-large. If a one or two loss SEC West champ loses to FGW, then both FGW and FGL will go (unless FGL loses again in between). If the SEC West champ beats FGW, then FGL will probably jump them and go, which hardly seems fair. See? Simple.

Big Ten: Penn State needs to win their last three and get help, but I think as of right now they have a better chance of playing in the national title game than anyone. They only have to get past Iowa, Indiana and Michigan State to finish the regular season undefeated. If Texas or Alabama loses to any of Texas Tech/Big 12 Champ/LSU/Auburn/FGW/other, PSU is back in business. Also, Ohio State is probably win out and at-large. If they drop another game, the Big Ten might be out of luck.

Pac 10: USC is the clear conference favorite, and are probably second behind Oklahoma in the line of one loss teams. I don't think they should pass a potential one-loss Texas or Alabama, but they would. Oregon has an outside shot at an at-large birth, especially if USC were to sneak into the title game and the Rose Bowl wanted a Pac 10 replacement, but it's unlikely. This conference is really soft.

Big East/ACC: These conferences are disasters. There's not a BCS-worthy team in the bunch, which unfortunately won't keep them from sending two teams. The Big East is favoring West Virginia, Pitt and maybe Connecticut, with temporary favorite South Florida already 1-2 in conference. For the ACC, literally 10 of 12 teams are still in play for the conference title, with one of the other two being Clemson, who is the only team in the whole conference with BCS-level talent top to bottom. Terrible.

Others: There will almost certainly be someone from a minor conference involved in the title discussion. If the Utah/TCU winner wins out, they'll go. Boise State could go undefeated and miss out. Having beaten Oklahoma in the same situation two years ago, they'll complain, but maybe the WAC shouldn't suck so much. They could be bailed out if Utah beats TCU but drops the BYU finale. If all three stumble, Tulsa or, somehow, Ball State will sneak in. They're both way better than anyone they play, and could keep bubbling up the rankings if they keep winning.

If the season ended today, here's how the major bowls would most likely look:

BCS: Texas-Alabama

Rose: USC-Penn State

Sugar: Georgia-West Virginia

Fiesta: Oklahoma-Utah

Orange: Florida State-Ohio State

But it doesn't. So let's go to the games that can change it.

#1 Texas at #7 Texas Tech. We know all about Texas. They score points. Lots. Against everybody. And recently, they've always scored a lot of points against Texas Tech in particular, averaging 48 points in their last five matchups. The Red Raiders score in bunches too, most spectacularly recording touchdowns on eight straight drives (except one halted by halftime) to open the Kansas game last week. While Colt has been unstoppable, his last three opposite numbers have combined for 72% completions and 8 TDs against the Horns themselves, and Graham Harrell is more efficient then any of them. As usual, don't expect a lot of stops.

#6 Georgia vs. #8 Florida at Jacksonville. Two more teams I've said a lot about already. Since halftime of the Alabama game, the Bulldogs have been very good, holding down Tennessee and Vanderbilt with defense and putting up a whopping 52 points at LSU. For their own part, Florida has beaten Arkansas, LSU and Kentucky by 119 combined points since the Ole Miss loss. These teams also have a traditional rivalry beefed up by Georgia's full-team celebration early in a big win last year. Thanks to the talent and the emotion, this game, while featuring one-loss teams instead of undefeateds, will almost certainly be played at a higher level than Texas-Texas Tech.

West Virginia at #25 Connecticut. Yep, one of these games. Someone has to win the Big East, and this game's winner will be the new favorite. Both of these teams have been amazingly up and down. WVU was outgained by Syracuse in a 17-6 win; Connecticut both managed to beat Louisville while being nearly doubled up in yards and outgain North Carolina but lose 38-12. And that was in consecutive weeks. Bottom line: who knows which version of either of these teams will show up? And even if one brings their A-game, it might just lose it for them.

Predictions: Sorry, Colt. Texas Tech has the ability to execute on offense, the Longhorns are both mentally exhausted and have to feel like they're mostly out of the woods by now, and you know Mike Leach's team has saved every wrinkle they've ever practiced on both sides of the ball for just this occasion. It's time. In the SEC, you don't give up 500 yards and 38 points to LSU and expect to stop a rested, prepared and extremely motivated Florida the next week. It's that simple. For West Virginia, Noel Devine's Steve Slaton impression has been getting better by the week. They have no business losing to UConn.

Picks: Texas Tech (40/60), Florida (69/31), West Virginia (60/40)

LW: 121-0

Overall Adj. WPct: 681-356, .657

I didn't want to give away my picks on TT and Florida ahead of time, but here's my likeliest end of season scenario:

BCS: Penn State-Oklahoma

Rose: USC-Alabama

Sugar: Florida-West Virginia

Fiesta: Texas-TCU

Orange: Florida State-Ohio State

Friday, October 24, 2008

On the Top Games From the Top Conferences, and Fun with the BCS Rules

Here we go again. It seems like we've always got a Big 12 undefeated in a big game, either Ohio State or Penn State, and another pair of ranked Big 12 teams (this week, #8 Texas Tech-#23 Kansas) shunted off to the side. Got to love a season where a big SEC game barely makes the list, though.

Oh, before I start, a quick word about rankings. Originally, I was using the AP rankings because they're the ones quoted on ESPN. Then recently, I switched to the Coaches' Poll because it's in the BCS and the AP isn't. Starting this week, I will quote the BCS Top 25.

#6 Oklahoma State at #1 Texas. The Longhorns are up to their third of four consecutive games against top 12 teams (if Texas Tech wins this week), and they've looked awfully good twice so far. Against Oklahoma and Missouri, Texas has put up over 1000 yards, converted 64% of third downs, and committed no turnovers. Also, Colt completed 85% of his passes. Oklahoma State features a terrific offense themselves. Their best player is probably WR Dez Bryant, who has caught 45 of Oklahoma State's 97 completed passes and 11 of 14 passing touchdowns, but more importantly they average 283 yards rushing. That will be interesting, since Texas has held every opponent except UTEP under 50 yards rushing. Not that most of them have tried.

Not that it has anything to do with this game per se, but there's one more thing I just found out about. Suppose all the national title contenders except Texas take a loss between now and the end of the season, bringing Oklahoma back up to #2. Then suppose Texas loses a heartbreaker to multi-loss Missouri (or Kansas) in the Big 12 title game. They might not drop that far in the polls, and certainly with their brutal Big 12 South plus Kansas and Missouri plus the better one again schedule, the computers will still love them. If the final BCS puts Oklahoma 1st and Texas 2nd, that's the first priority. The Big 12 Champion would be barred from the BCS entirely. This won't happen, but it could.

#3 Penn State at #9 Ohio State. Both teams look pretty darn impressive now. Penn State has been good in every dimension. With only 2 INTs and 5 sacks, QB Daryll Clark has been taking care of the ball, and the balanced offense and D have done the rest. The run D has had some trouble against the mobility of Illinois and Michigan, which is a good sign for Ohio State: they have to be able to run. Pryor has still never had to throw 20 passes in a game.

#7 Georgia at #13 LSU. Both teams look to recover into the conference and national title races in the first of a pair of major games. Next week Georgia plays Florida, while the week after LSU hosts Alabama. These are balanced but not overwhelming squads, getting through the SEC efficiently but unspectacularly, except for tripping up against the other's big remaining hurdle.

It's also worth pointing out that while this is a national championship elimination game for both, Georgia but not LSU would still retain control of their own conference destiny with a loss. LSU would drop two games behind Alabama, whereas Georgia would only be one down to Florida, with a chance to win the head-to-head and get the tiebreaker.

Predictions: Texas has too much more talent than Oklahoma State to lose at home. Also, the Cowboys' defense hasn't shown a lot of evidence they're up to slowing Colt & Co. down. Penn State-Ohio State should be a great game, but I like PSU due to their demonstrated ability to make adjustments quickly. OSU is more limited in that regard simply due to personnel (i.e. Pryor). I also think Georgia will beat LSU, simply because LSU isn't that good. The Tigers haven't had a really convincing performance yet. Here's their resume: they've crushed a I-AA team and North Texas, both of which Sun Belt teams regularly do, beat 2-5 Mississippi State by 10, a team Georgia Tech and Tennessee both beat by 30, eked past Auburn and South Carolina, who are each 2-3 in SEC play, and got crushed by Florida. What's top 13 about that?

Picks: Texas (77/23), Penn State (54/46), Georgia (48/52)

LW: 119-0

Overall Adj. WPct: 560-356, .611

Thursday, October 16, 2008

On Missouri, Michigan State and the Mountain West

Halfway through the season, we have ten teams left with a zero in the loss column. These break down nicely into three groups: five BCS busters (BYU, Utah, Boise State, Tulsa, Ball State), a pair of Cadillac programs (Alabama, Penn State), and half the Big 12 South (Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State). The fact that there's only five teams in the latter two groups has to give hope to the former, at least as far as finishing top 12 is concerned. Whether they can think bigger we'll get to in a little bit.

Meanwhile, this week's meaningful but "other" games, as usual, come in two types. There are battles of okay teams in the barely okay ACC, Wake-Maryland and VT-BC, and of better teams in much better conferences, Vanderbilt-Georgia and Kansas-Oklahoma.

#12 Missouri at #1 Texas. This is this week's game with the biggest national title implications by far. Texas is playing the second of an absurdly difficult four week stretch that ends with Oklahoma State and at Texas Tech. Even if they go 2-1 in these next three, three extra wins to close the season and a win in the Big 12 title game could still land them in the national championship game, as long as the loss doesn't keep them from winning the division. If they win all three, Colt will win the Heisman, and people will start anointing them as among the best ever. (Just so we're clear, this would be ridiculously premature. I'm just saying, people would). Missouri doesn't play Oklahoma or Texas Tech, so after the meltdown against Oklahoma State, this is their last regular season chance to prove themselves to voters. Knock off Texas, and Chase Daniel and the Tigers are back in the national picture. A second straight loss, and their hold on the Big 12 North gets shaky.

This is a tough matchup for Texas. The Longhorns are really good at stopping the run, which doesn't help all that much against Mizzou. Bradford and Oklahoma had 387 yards and 5 TDs last week, and Daniel, with targets Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman, is almost equally dangerous. However, if Illinois and Oklahoma State are any indication, Missouri isn't much for getting stops themselves.

#11 Ohio State at #17 Michigan State. Besides PSU, these are the only two teams without a Big Ten loss. Since the USC disaster, Ohio State has gotten back on track, if not usually very prettily. QB Terrelle Pryor may be a future star, but for now the Buckeyes can't count on their passing game at all. Michigan State has been getting along similarly, recovering from an early Pac 10 loss (Cal) with a win streak keyed by defense and a star RB, with Javon Ringer playing the Beanie Wells role. Or maybe it's Wells playing the Ringer role, since the Michigan State senior already has over 1100 yards. Unbelievably, he's averaging over 35 carries a game. He's already over last season's total carries.

#8 BYU at #24 TCU. Brigham Young actually has an outside shot at reaching the national title game this year. Like Utah four years ago, they've reached the top 10 by midseason, but unlike those Utes, BYU has two conference games against ranked teams to prove themselves. Utah went 13-0 and got Alex Smith picked #1 without playing a team that got within two touchdowns of them, but none of their opponents really should've. With this game and the season finale against Utah, BYU has two worthy opponents to push them past one-loss BCS teams.

Of course, they have to win first. And what do we really know about BYU? They were an overzealous official's call away from overtime with 0-5 Washington. They made their reputation by dominating shutouts against UCLA and Wyoming in consecutive weeks, but in retrospect, so what? I know their strength is in the passing attack, but with the big leads they've gotten, you'd expect they might have outrushed Northern Iowa, Wyoming, Utah State or New Mexico. Nope. Still, they are outscoring opponents 37-10.

We know quite a bit about TCU. They're good, but not that good, as demonstrated by six easy wins over bad to mediocre teams and one big loss to Oklahoma. Offensively, they're about as run-heavy as BYU is the opposite. Still, they're outscoring opponents 34-11.

Predictions: Missouri-Texas is going to have a lot of points. Both this year and last, Missouri hasn't shown the defensive ability to stop good teams, which means Chase is going to have to be back to perfect. In Austin, that's a lot to ask. Ringer is going to have to run out of steam at some point, and Ohio State has the defense to make it soon. And tonight, I think BYU is going to be exposed. I'm not alone. The Horned Frogs are favored.

Picks: Texas (66/34), Ohio State (61/39), TCU (54/46)

LW: 133-0

Overall Adj. WPct: 441-356, .553

Thursday, October 9, 2008

On the Red River Shootout, and Everything Else

This week has a bunch of matchups that looked better on paper in the preseason than they do now, and one gem that has turned out to be even bigger.

It would have been reasonable to believe Arizona State-USC, Tennessee-Georgia, Purdue-Ohio State, UCLA-Oregon, Nebraska-Texas Tech or even the so far boring Clemson-Wake Forest game going on right now to feature two good teams instead of one. But they don't. On the other side, a recovering Notre Dame and suddenly decent North Carolina play probably the biggest game all season between two teams that combined for seven wins last year. Another of the lesser games that has grown even more in stature is the Saturday night game between Oklahoma State and Missouri. Overshadowed by the four Big 12 undefeateds in the top 8, the 5-0 Cowboys have posted 56, 57, 55 and 56 points in their last four games. Like the SEC matchups last week, this game could be one of the top three in quality. It just doesn't make the cut because as good as they are, does Okie State really have a shot at the Big 12 South? Along with Texas Tech, they'd have to get past:

#1 Oklahoma vs. #5 Texas. What's to say? This is the kind of matchup that make sports fun. A neutral site game between traditional rivals, both of whom are in the Top 5, outscore opponents by 36 points a game and have Heisman candidate quarterbacks with absurd numbers. Both teams even have the same potential weakness: rush offense. The Longhorns' leading rusher by far is QB Colt McCoy, which is fine for UTEP but not so much Oklahoma, and the Sooners were themselves held under two yards a carry in their one tough matchup against TCU.

#4 LSU at #11 Florida. The Red River Shootout must be big to overshadow this game, you know, the one where the national champs visit the Heisman winner? Both teams are ridiculously good, but neither has been quite as overwhelming as they'd like. Florida gave away the Mississippi game with three turnovers, 1-11 third down conversions, an 86 yard TD allowed in the fourth quarter, a big fourth down decision gone wrong and a blocked extra point. LSU survived Auburn on the road and struggled to put away Mississippi State last week. Both of those conference games saw the Tigers allow over twenty points. It won't be easier in the Swamp.

#6 Penn State at Wisconsin. This game gets the nod in this spot because it feels more urgent. Oklahoma State has three big chances at redemption if they lose this week, but with two straight conference losses in winnable games already, this could pretty much be Wisconsin's season. And while a Missouri loss would still leave them in the Big 12 North driver's seat, a loss here and Penn State would be facing a must-must-win situation two weeks from now in the Horseshoe. To win, the one-dimensional Badgers have to be able to run. Penn State has only faced one team so far with a shot at establishing a run game, and Illinois did. But they still shut down the Illini after the first quarter, and haven't had any problems except then. PSU has also been explosive on offense and special teams.

Predictions: Oklahoma-Texas should be a great game, but I like the Longhorns. That TCU game raised a couple of red flags. Oklahoma had 56 yards rushing, took 4 sacks and was only 19/34. They coasted through anyway with big gains and turnovers, but with Texas' athletes and ball protection, they can't count on that this time. And besides, like I was ever going to pick against Colt. Despite their records, Florida is better than LSU. They had more than their share of mistakes and bad luck in their loss, while LSU has been struggling for the simpler reason that something like seven of last year's starters are in the NFL now. Wisconsin seems like a natural choice here: they're always good at home (in fact Penn State has scored three points in each of their last two visits), they're by far the best defense Penn State has seen this year, and a desperate team is a dangerous team. Of course, the other relevant piece of history is that both teams are very similar to the ones that played Penn State's 38-7 win last year.

Picks: Texas (32/68), Florida (68/32), Penn State (67/33)

LW: 89-0

Overall Adj. WPct: 308-356, .464

Saturday, October 4, 2008

On A Week With a Lot of Okay Games

To this point in the season, most of the focus has been on which conferences are stronger than others. Now, five weeks in, teams have most of their byes and non-conference games out of the way, and we start really sorting teams within their conferences. An early loss still leaves you the chance to win your conference and get back up the rankings, but we're starting to get to the point where teams can knock themselves out of the BCS for good.

In my mind, there are nine really meaningful games this Saturday, and none of them are in the ACC or Big East. (The Big East's game was Pitt over South Florida Thursday night, which pretty much confirmed the four at-larges are indeed coming from the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and non-BCS highest ranked). Also, none of them are real headliners.

The six undercards come in three natural pairs. The first pair, Arizona State-Cal and Illinois-Michigan, are between talented and underachieving teams that can climb back into contention with a win. These teams, all with high hopes, are a combined 9-7 right now, but only one of those seven losses came in conference. And no one at the high end of these two conferences has looked invincible. The second pair, Penn State-Purdue and Texas Tech-Kansas State, put relatively untested teams with perfect records in their first real test on the road, against a team they should beat but is dangerous. The third pair, Auburn-Vanderbilt and Kentucky-Alabama, are games that would easily go in the top three if we were willing to believe Vandy and Kentucky, both undefeated, actually had a chance to finish ahead of Florida or Georgia. Also, since Auburn has a direct loss to LSU and visits Alabama in the season finale, every game for them is now do-or-die.

#23 Oregon at #9 USC. Thanks to Boise State and Oregon State, this probably isn't the best game of the week, but it's still the most important, for one simple reason: who can keep the winner out of the Rose Bowl? A second conference loss would (probably) finish USC, but since the Trojans would probably still beat everyone else, Oregon would have that much more of a cushion. On the other hand, if USC can win convincingly, it's the first step back into the national title game—Arizona State, California and Notre Dame are all at home as well, and the SEC and Big 12 have a ridiculous number of games between their top teams.

#14 Ohio State at #18 Wisconsin. Wisconsin had a masterpiece of failure last week, giving up 27 straight second half points to Michigan to lose in spite of forcing five turnovers and outgaining the Wolverines by almost 50%. They should be ready to make amends. Ohio State, though, thanks to promoting Pryor and getting Beanie Wells back, have a whole new offensive backfield than the one that got nowhere against USC. With a win, both teams would be able to set their sights on a home date with Penn State for the conference.

#4 Missouri at Nebraska. An upgraded version of the Texas Tech and Penn State games, this road trip is Missouri's biggest hurdle to winning the Big 12 North. Kansas is better than Nebraska, true, but the Jayhawks struggle running the ball and also have to play Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech. It's almost impossible to believe they can overcome that schedule. Nebraska may have trouble keeping up, but how much do we really know about the Tigers? Their only dangerous opponent so far, Illinois, put up over 500 yards. Bo Pelini, the Huskers' coach, came from the DC spot at LSU, and Nebraska hasn't lost to Mizzou in Lincoln in over 30 years.

Predictions: This could be a letdown for USC, except they just had one. They've got to be prepared; no way does USC get swept by the state of Oregon. Ohio State has to be worried that they're bringing a true freshman QB into Camp Randall Stadium, but fortunately Wisconsin hasn't shown a consistently two-dimensional offense either. Ohio State loves traditional football, and with a power RB and shaky dropback QB, Wisconsin fits the bill. Despite their shaky D, Missouri has Chase Daniel. Until Nebraska plays consistent defense against a good opponent, I'm going to remember that last year, Daniel and Kansas' Todd Reesing put up 71% completions, 765 passing yards and 117 points against the Cornhuskers last year.

Picks: USC (83/17), Ohio State (52/48), Missouri (76/24)

LW: 27-70

Overall Adj. WPct: 219-356, .381

A Note on How Bad My Picks Have Been, For John Six: One thing I have been doing that hurts me is picking the games before looking up the actual odds. The idea is that I didn't want to bias myself, but I also create an artifical correlation between favorites winning and how I look. Since picking all underdogs has been a winning strategy so far this year, it has pushed my winning percentage down. The way I've been picking, I don't think I should be making things harder on myself. From now on, I'm looking at the percentages before I pick. This week, I'm sticking with the favorites anyway, although the 83/17 made me at least look twice at Oregon.

Still, I don't want to give the impression that's my only problem. Looking back over it, there's only twice I would have switched to the underdog based on percentages: I thought Georgia would beat Alabama, but I would have taken Alabama at 70/30, and, as you can tell from what I wrote at the time, I thought the Ohio State-USC game was a lot closer than 80/20. If I'd picked the Tide and the Buckeyes, I would trade in a -70 and +20 for the reverse, which would leave me at 269-306. And .468, while not as bad, is still bad. I'll try to do better.