Saturday, October 24, 2009

On Week 8, And An Alternate Postseason System

This week is a poor slate of games, and thanks in large part to Virginia Tech, I’ve had a poor run of picking, so this seems like a good week to look at the big picture.

The national championship race is pretty simple. The winner of the SEC Championship game, which will almost certainly be Alabama/Florida, will go. If Texas wins out, which they should, they’ll play the SEC winner. If not, we have a mess of undefeateds and one-loss teams with cases.

Now, what if my favored playoff system was in place? Instead of an eight or more team playoff, which seems excessive, or the current one, which is too restrictive, I favor a four team playoff. Since the BCS Championship game is already a week after the New Year’s Day bowls, it wouldn’t even extend the length of the season. Since all schools are off over New Year’s, there is basically no downside to this.

I would pick the four teams by the top four conference champions in the BCS standings (or independents). I think this is attractive because it allows for geographic diversity in the finals and turns conference championship games or big late season matchups into de facto playoff extensions. For instance, this year Florida and Alabama are clearly both in the top four, but that’s no reason to invite them both; if you’re not lose the SEC championship, why should you have a claim to play for the national one?

This retains the current dramatic nature and excitement of the regular season, which is one of college football’s best features, while making the postseason more inclusive, both to great major teams with an early loss as well as spectacular teams outside the big six conferences. For instance, 2004 Utah would have been in.

Let’s take a look at what the landscape would be like this year. As of right now, the SEC champion would be the one seed, Texas two, Boise State three and Cincinnati four. All are undefeated. In the current system, Boise and Cincy have almost no upward mobility; 12-0 probably won’t put either of them in the title game. But it might keep them in the top four.

Outside, teams as low as 15 in the BCS standings would feel they might break into the playoffs if they win out. Iowa and USC, currently sixth and seventh in the BCS, could pass Cincinnati on their own merits, with Ohio State and Oregon still to play (and #11 Oregon might make a similar case if they beat USC). TCU is unbeaten at #8, and still has two ranked opponents to impress voters against. #9 LSU is still in control of their own destiny; they would reach the SEC title game if they knock off Alabama, and then a win over Florida would put them through.

That’s the beauty of my system; suppose this did happen and Texas and Iowa both win out. Beating Alabama and splitting with Florida would be more impressive than sweeping the Big Ten or Big 12, but can you pick them over teams that haven’t lost and do have a couple marquee wins apiece? With an extension just to four, you never have to drop a team with a real claim on #1.

Lower teams need help, but they’re not out entirely. Cincinnati could drop the Pitt and/or West Virginia games. The USC/Oregon winner could take another loss somewhere. Ohio State, with two losses including one to Purdue, still controls their destiny in the Big Ten. Boise State and TCU could be upset. That opens doors. If any of the Miami/Georgia Tech/ Virginia Tech trio starts steamrolling teams like they should, they could benefit, especially the one-loss Canes. Penn State could climb back in, with some breaks. Even Oklahoma State has a shot, if they knock off Texas.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. However, in either case, these things probably won’t be decided this week. There isn’t much going on—when I briefly consider Georgia Tech-UVa as a big game, you know the slate is bare. Here’s the sort-of games we have:

#8 TCU at #16 BYU. Boise State and TCU may not be competing for a spot in a national playoff, but they are competing for an automatic BCS bid. Boise State is ahead, but they’ve not nowhere to go but down. TCU has BYU and Utah to impress voters and get schedule points in the computers. BYU, who was harboring serious ambitions of their own before an ugly loss to Florida State, will want to return the favor. BYU has been scoring tons of points, but TCU has the best defense they’ve faced since Oklahoma, a game that ended 14-13. TCU has had a couple of close calls on the road already, against Clemson and Air Force.

#6 Iowa at Michigan State. Michigan State is unranked, but they’re Iowa’s second-toughest opponent left. The Hawkeyes have no business dropping Indiana, Northwestern, or Minnesota games at home. This game is thus the most important precursor to Iowa-Ohio State. There is a subtler reason, too: an Iowa win all but eliminates Penn State from the Big Ten title. If Iowa can really only take a loss at Ohio State, the Nittany Lions can only tie Iowa’s conference record. They would likely have won a three-way tie if Ohio State had beaten Iowa but they had been Ohio State, but now that would push the Buckeyes to two losses.

South Florida at #20 Pitt. See what I mean about this being a bad week? We’re stuck here with a sort of important Big East game. Pitt is playing well and will get Cincinnati at home to end the season. For the Big East’s purposes, I think they’d like Pitt and Cincy to win out until then. If Cincinnati wins, they might have a shot at the national title game if things break right. If Pitt wins, Cincinnati might get the Big East an at-large bid. However, if South Florida wins at starts the conference back toward chaos, business as usual. Cincy won’t have a shot at a signature win, even if they do keep playing well.


BYU (45/55). I think these teams are about even; so far, they’ve had great games and a couple weak ones. The difference is TCU managed theirs against teams that had no shot at actually beating them, whereas BYU picked Jekyll-and-Hyde Florida State for their turn. I think for the second straight year, the home team ruins the other’s perfect season.

Iowa (46/54). The gap between these teams isn’t very big, but Iowa is better. And the Hawkeyes have had enough trouble in East Lansing to limit trap-game potential. Anytime you can take a 7-0 team as an underdog against a team with three losses to unranked teams, I think you take it.

South Florida (31/69). The Bulls had a few too many mistakes against Cincinnati, but they’ve had a long week to recover, and another loss is it for them. A desperate team with an athletic defense is a dangerous team. On the other side, Pitt has no marquee wins and a loss to NC State, who lost to Duke. That’s too few degrees of losing to Duke for football.

Last Week: 39-104

Year to Date: 369-570, .393

Thursday, October 15, 2009

On Week 7

Now that everyone’s got two or three good games under their belts, the season has started to take shape. Florida and Alabama emphasized their supremacy in the SEC, and by extension everywhere. The winner of that game is almost certainly going to be playing for the national championship.

For now, the spotlight shifts elsewhere. This week’s three games will go a long way toward deciding three of the five other conferences. (The final two conferences are the Big Ten and Pac 10, which await Ohio State’s November schedule and the USC-Oregon game, respectively, to probably be decided). This is another strong week, whose matchups include Iowa-Wisconsin, Texas Tech-Nebraska, South Carolina-Alabama and even Boise State-Tulsa yesterday. USC-Notre Dame is the biggest game relegated to the undercard, omitted because each team needs a win just to stay in the game. Winners of the three games below will be on the inside track for a BCS bid.

#20 Oklahoma vs. #3 Texas. Two of the preseason top 3, and there’s not much evidence they didn’t deserve it. Oklahoma does have two losses, but they were by two total points, and Bradford wasn’t around to save either of them. And it’s safe to say he’s back, throwing for 389 yards and helping the Sooners rack up 34 first downs against a Baylor team that hasn’t been half bad. Texas is one of the few unknowns left in college football. They haven’t had a close call yet, but they haven’t had much of a chance. A ten point home win over Texas Tech wasn’t perfect, but they never were in danger. The Sooners are going to be dangerous.

#8 Cincinnati at #21 South Florida. Tonight’s game features the two undefeated teams in the Big East. Both are overachieving. While Cincinnati did win the Big East last year, the Bearcats had to replace ten of their eleven defensive starters. They’ve held up fine, though, and the offense has made up the difference, scoring 42 points a game and pushing QB Tony Pike into the Heisman race. South Florida is the opposite case. When star QB Matt Grothe went down, their offense was expected to sputter. But they’ve persevered, and the defense has picked up even more slack, holding Florida State to 7 points and then forcing seven Syracuse turnovers in the last two games. This is a fun matchup, pitting strength against strength.

#4 Virginia Tech at #19 Georgia Tech. USC-Notre Dame is sexier, but VT outranks the Trojans, GT outranks the Irish, and Virginia Tech can effectively clinch the ACC Coastal with a win, since they’ll have tiebreakers on Miami and Georgia Tech and have no ranked teams left on the schedule. A convincing win, and they’ll hang on to ambitions of a national title game appearance. A Georgia Tech win pushes the conference into chaos and also effectively takes the ACC off the national stage for the balance of the season.


Texas (61/39). This should be a great game. Both teams are loaded with talent, Bradford’s back, and everyone on both sides has been looking forward to this all year. Also, Oklahoma’s two losses are out of conference. They’re out of the title picture, but if they win this game they should win the Big 12. However, the Longhorns have more experience, more motivation, and Colt has had longer to get in rhythm. I have to take Texas.

South Florida (46/54). I like the minor upset here. Oregon State and Fresno State both played Cincy tough. In fact, each had more first downs than the Bearcats in their games. South Florida’s D came up huge in their biggest game. Holding Florida State to 7 points is impressive; the Seminoles have been a disappointment, but they’ve also put up plenty of points. And remember. Cincinnati has 10 new defensive starters. On the road, big conference game, national TV, I’m not sure I trust them.

Virginia Tech (58/42). I’ve been picking against Virginia Tech all season, but not this time. Their D has been up and down, but when they’ve had trouble it’s been against teams who can stretch the field vertically (even Duke). And Georgia Tech can NOT do that. Georgia Tech can run, and they did damage on the ground last year against VT, but this year’s Hokie defense has shut down the run much better. They can’t count on that again. On the other side of the ball, Georgia Tech hasn’t played much D against decent teams. Why should they start now?

Last Week: 62-16

Year to Date: 330-466, .415

Saturday, October 10, 2009

On Week 6

Now we’re talking. After a month of having to take any decent matchups we could find, we’re finally to the point where we have to turn serious games away. Nebraska’s win over Missouri Thursday night didn’t make the list, and neither will a handful of other games worth checking in on. Boston College-Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech-Florida State in the ACC, Michigan-Iowa in the Big Ten and Oregon-UCLA in the Pac 10 all have conference implications, even if they’re not nationally big games. For nationally big games, look to the SEC.

#1 Florida at #4 LSU. If there’s one thing that proves this season is wide open, it’s that even two undefeated SEC heavyweights have flaws. LSU put together their most complete game of the season last week to beat Georgia, but they only put up six points in a dominant first half, surrendered the lead twice in the fourth quarter and got an assist from a phantom excessive celebration penalty to finish it out. Previously, they’d struggled with both Washington and Mississippi State. Florida has most of last year’s team, which means the Gators are proven, but this year they’ve only played one decent team, Tennessee, and the Vols defense gave them trouble.

That said, these are clearly two of the most talented teams in college football. Florida doesn’t play Alabama, Ole Miss or Auburn, so a win today practically guarantees them a spot in the SEC Championship game. Of course, the flip side of this is that LSU’s road to the title game is that much harder, because they’re the only West contender that can pick up a loss to Florida. If they beat the Gators, though, computer rankings and tiebreakers will smile upon them.

#3 Alabama at #20 Mississippi. Time to test out the value of home field advantage. Alabama has been awesome so far. Everybody knew their defense was for real, but they’ve also put up 40 points a game, including 498 yards and 37 minutes of possession against Virginia Tech. Ole Miss has been struggling, with a terrible offensive showing at South Carolina followed by three more interceptions in an unimpressive win at Vanderbilt.

But there are a few reasons this game could be closer than it looks. First, Mississippi’s struggles have been on the road. This is their first big home game of the year, and the fans have been waiting all season for it. Second, Alabama’s offense isn’t that experienced, and even in the Virginia Tech game, they scored eighteen of their points in the fourth quarter when VT was wearing down. Third, and most important, Houston Nutt’s teams show up for big SEC games. Last year, Ole Miss upset Florida, lost just 24-20 to Alabama and beat LSU 31-13—all on the road. In 2007, Nutt’s Arkansas team beat LSU in Baton Rouge, almost knocking the Tigers out of the national title game. How many coaches have ever beaten consecutive national champions?

Wisconsin at #9 Ohio State. Two of the three Big Ten teams without a conference loss meet in Columbus. For Wisconsin, it’s a chance to prove they’re a team to be taken seriously, a point that four close wins and blowing out Wofford hasn’t quite yet made. For Ohio State, on the fringes of the national championship race, it’s the best chance for a statement game until November, where Penn State, Iowa and Michigan are waiting.

On the field, it’s Big Ten football: all about the run game and the turnover battle. In last year’s game, the teams combined for about 400 yards rushing and 250 passing. And this year, both squads have played in turnover-heavy ballgames. Wisconsin has 15 takeaways in 5 games, but 10 giveaways. Ohio State is at 12 and 8. If there really are four or five more turnovers this week, it’ll be an interesting game.


Florida (74/26). The other way to look at Florida’s struggles against Tennessee is that they don’t need Tebow-like production to win a game by 10. Even if his concussion keeps him out, Brantley—and more importantly, Urban Meyer—have had a bye week to prepare for this one. Giving Meyer a big game off a bye week is just unfair. On the defensive side of the ball, UF has been great, and the first three and a half quarters of the Georgia game don’t inspire confidence that LSU will move the ball too well.

Alabama (64/36). After all that arguing that Ole Miss is dangerous, which they are, I have to go with ‘Bama. The Ole Miss offense hasn’t been in sync at all, and there’s a decent chance the Tide defense wins it single-handedly. I know this is basically how the Rebels had been playing when they shocked Florida, but still. If there’s a 30% chance that Mississippi’s offense really is the one from the South Carolina/Vandy games, and otherwise the game’s a tossup, then the smart money is on Alabama.

Wisconsin (16/84). Yes, Ohio State is the better team, and in the Horseshoe. But at five to one (a -15.5 spread), you better have a team you trust, and that’s not the Buckeyes. So far, Ohio State has beaten Navy by a 2 point conversion play, lost to a USC team missing their best player and their starting QB, and then taken care of business against Toledo and the two last place teams in the Big Ten. Up against an undefeated team with a history of playing the Buckeyes tough, 84/16 is high.

Last Week: 97-73

Year to Date: 268-450, .373

Friday, October 2, 2009

On Week 5

Last week, I picked very poorly, but I won’t take it personally. Lots of good teams had rough weeks too. It was already obvious that the national championship spots are Texas’ and the SEC champion’s to lose, but now that’s basically all we’ve got. I mean, Boise State is fifth right now. They’re nice, but top 5? Already?

In a season like this, the only thing to do is keep it simple. So the three games we’ll pick this week are the only three games between Top 25 teams.

#4 LSU at #18 Georgia. Not only is Boise State fifth right now, but LSU is fourth, which might be even worse. So far, the Tigers have been outgained by both Washington and Mississippi State. Not that those teams are awful—Washington beat USC, after all—but we should be able to find at least four more convincing teams than that. Georgia’s been in their share of entertaining games too, with the opener at Oklahoma State, two wins that came down to the wire and a third 52-41 over Arkansas. It’s hard to say which team needs this win more. Georgia has a loss already, but LSU has Florida next week and then the full West gauntlet, including Alabama and Ole Miss on the road. Wicked conference.

#7 USC at #24 California. This game looked a lot cooler before the 42-3 beatdown Oregon put on Cal last week, but it’s still one of the biggest games on the Pac 10 schedule. A Cal win would revive their season and possibly bury USC in the process—that would be two conference losses. USC has pressure to win and win impressively. If there’s going to be a one-loss team in the national title, the Trojans are always going to be in the discussion. The loss was early and came with the starting QB and All-American safety out, two factors that could give voters some sympathy. But they need to get some style points in their remaining chances, which mostly come down to this game, Notre Dame and Oregon, all on the road. Last year, USC crushed Cal with defense, holding them to 27 yards rushing and 165 overall, which is even rougher than the Golden Bears got last week in Oregon.

#8 Oklahoma at #17 Miami. Except for the conference implications, this game is sort of a clone of the last one. Oklahoma is the national title contender who lost a game without their QB, and is trying to get back in the national title discussion. Miami is the trendy team who got wrecked last week on the road, and is trying to salvage respectability. The differences favor Miami’s having a shot, though. Bradford still isn’t back for the Sooners, and Miami’s loss was more reasonable than California’s. Virginia Tech is good, and Miami’s pass attack was grounded in part by the fact that it was pouring in Blacksburg. Better conditions, and that game might have been different. That said, the Sooners are awfully good, winning their last two games 109-0, including one over a pretty decent Tulsa team.


LSU (39/61). Neither team has been totally convincing, but Georgia’s been squeezing by less talented teams than the Tigers regularly. While their offense has been really good, it sputtered against Oklahoma State.

USC (64/36). Again, keep it simple. USC always beats Cal, USC would probably still be undefeated if Barkley could have played against Washington, and USC’s giving up ten points a game, while Cal put up three last week.

Oklahoma (73/27). Sure, Miami could keep it close, and the counter to how impressive Oklahoma’s looked is that they’ve only played one serious game so far this year, and they lost it. But, again, keep it simple. They’ve been preparing, they know they’ve used up their margin for error, they have Baylor between this and Texas, so it’s not a trap game. Miami’s rep came from beating a Jekyll-and-Hyde Florida State team, which now has been done twice by teams from southern Florida, and Georgia Tech, who is a smart team with limited talent. There’s nothing in there that says they can play with the Sooners.

Last Week: 0-175

Year to Date: 171-377, .312