Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

Most Recent FO Features

HundleyBre15.jpg

» SDA: Bowl Position

The games this week are much less hyped than last week's, but they still feature closely-ranked teams vying for conference pecking order in bowl season.

30 Nov 2012

SDA: Winner Take All

by Matt Hinton

There was a brief window, after Texas A&M's 29-24 ambush of No. 1 Alabama a few weeks back, when the SEC's six-year reign over the BCS Championship Game seemed to have come to an abrupt, screeching halt. With just three weeks left in the regular season, every team in the conference had suffered at least one loss, and three other frontrunners (Kansas State, Notre Dame, and Oregon) were within reach of unbeaten seasons that would guarantee the SEC's exclusion from the title match for the first time since 2005. It was the end of 19 consecutive weeks with an SEC team ranked No. 1 or No. 2 (or both) in the BCS standings, and potentially of six years of Southern bravado. That window lasted exactly seven days.

Some SEC fans are fond of referring to the conference's annual championship game in Atlanta as the real national championship game, which is all the more infuriating this year as it has a ring of possible truth. Immediately after Oregon and Kansas State's simultaneous stumbles on November 17, Alabama was back in the driver's seat at No. 2 in the subsequent polls, followed by the SEC East champ, Georgia, at No. 3, turning Saturday's collision in the Georgia Dome into a de facto semifinal for the right to be favored to beat Notre Dame in the big one on January 7. Could college football's game of the year possibly be anywhere else?

If Ohio State had possessed enough foresight to keep a 6-6 team home from a meaningless Gator Bowl last December, rather than leave it to the NCAA to levy a ban against the 2012 team, the undefeated Buckeyes might be in a position to challenge the assumption. Instead, they're watching a 7-5 Wisconsin outfit that they just beat take their place in the Big Ten Championship Game against a Nebraska outfit that they also beat. At the very least, OSU could have offered a viable alternative to the status quo. As it stands, it's just a matter of which colors the status quo will be wearing in Miami.

MAC Championship: No. 17 Kent State (+6.5) vs. No. 21 Northern Illinois (Friday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

OVERALL When Kent State
Has the Ball ...
When N. Illinois
Has the Ball ...
Category KSU
(11-1)
NIU
(11-1)
KSU
Off
NIU
Def
KSU
Def
NIU
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 37 29 65 40 42 45
2012 FEI Rk 47 30 62 34 35 33
2012 S&P+ Rk 62 60 70 62 50 56
2012 FPA 11 38
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 39 63 39 54
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 109 51 67 64
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 60 39 81 76
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
70.9% Run
(9)
65.1% Run
(32)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 103 93 98 26
Run-Pass Ratio
(Pass. Downs)
41.0% Run
(21)
46.0% Run
(13)

After inauspicious beginnings –- Northern Illinois lost its opener to Iowa; Kent State was blown out by Kentucky –- the Huskies and Golden Flashes have combined for 21 consecutive wins, putting the winner on Friday night in the astonishing position of landing in a BCS bowl game. Although the MAC has no automatic bid for its champion, and has never come close to placing a team in one of the big-money games as an at-large, BCS rules do allow for the champion of a "mid-major" conference to crash the party if a) Said team is ranked in the top 12 of the final BCS standings, or b) it's ranked in the top 16 of the final standings and also ranked ahead of the champion of at least one of the "Big Six" conferences with auto bids. Following last weekend's bloodbath in the bottom half of the top 25, Kent State is 17th in the current standings; Northern Illinois is 21st. The winner is all but guaranteed to find itself in front of the highest-rated team in the Big East, Louisville. The only question is whether either side can generate enough juice by beating the other to climb to No. 16 with so few opportunities for the teams immediately in front of them to cooperate by losing.

Now, for the really important question: BCS implications aside, is the MAC Championship Game actually worth watching? As similar as these teams look on paper, as programs they're coming to this game on entirely different trajectories. Within the MAC, Northern Illinois is the current gold standard, striding into its third-consecutive championship game with a title under its belt in 2011 and the longest conference winning streak (16 games) in the nation. Kent State is the perennial laughingstock, 40 years removed from its last conference championship (and only bowl game) in 1972, enjoying the greatest season in school history by a thousand miles. Both coaches, NIU's Dave Doeren and Kent's Darrell Hazell are on the short list for higher profile jobs after just two years at their current stops. And if for some reason you're not moved by a good Cinderella narrative, you most certainly will be by the multiple talents of Dri Archer.

Pac-12 Championship: No. 16 UCLA (+8) at No. 8 Stanford (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, Fox)

OVERALL When UCLA
Has the Ball ...
When Stanford
Has the Ball ...
Category UCLA
(9-3)
Stanford
(10-2)
UCLA
Off
Stanford
Def
UCLA
Def
Stanford
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 31 8 28 4 32 47
2012 FEI Rk 24 8 28 3 26 45
2012 S&P+ Rk 34 11 32 4 45 48
2012 FPA 14 6
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 51 3 36 59
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 17 9 53 46
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 25 4 60 68
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
60.4% Run
(53)
61.6% Run
(46)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 35 17 15 34
Run-Pass Ratio
(Pass. Downs)
31.9% Run
(64)
39.2% Run
(25)

Stanford shoved UCLA around last week in a 35-17 win in the Rose Bowl, so convincingly so that one longtime L.A. hack actually asked Bruin coach Jim Mora after the fact if Mora -– with the Pac-12 South title already sewn up –- had intentionally "managed" the game like a preseason game in the NFL in order to engineer a rematch at Palo Alto for the title rather than the trip to Oregon that would have awaited the Bruins if they knocked Stanford from first place in the North. Mora was properly indignant, but the assurance that his team was actually trying is no comfort for fans who watched Stanford dominate both lines of scrimmage. The Cardinal outrushed UCLA by nearly 200 yards, sacked Brett Hundley seven times, and racked up a nine-minute advantage in time of possession that was much larger prior to the final, meaningless minutes of the fourth quarter.

When Hundley did have time to throw, he was able to connect on a handful of big plays against the less formidable Stanford secondary, including a 71-yard bomb to Shaquelle Evans, but getting time is easier said than done against a front seven that leads the nation in both rushing defense and sacks. The Cardinal offense has been undeniably better since turning over the reins to redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan, who is now 4-0 as a starter with consecutive victories over more-hyped classmates Hundley and Marcus Mariota of Oregon. Even if that's largely a byproduct of playing behind Stanford's offensive line, opposite Stanford's defense, Hundley still has neither.

No. 11 Oklahoma (-6.5) at TCU (Saturday, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN)

OVERALL When Oklahoma
Has the Ball ...
When TCU
Has the Ball ...
Category Oklahoma
(9-2)
TCU
(7-4)
Oklahoma
Off
TCU
Def
Oklahoma
Def
TCU
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 6 35 12 8 9 88
2012 FEI Rk 5 20 5 12 13 81
2012 S&P+ Rk 12 43 23 15 11 98
2012 FPA 41 42
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 36 5 45 108
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 25 29 2 75
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 24 7 6 97
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
51.2% Run
(106)
60.8% Run
(51)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 6 13 36 70
Run-Pass Ratio
(Pass. Downs)
18.8% Run
(121)
39.3% Run
(24)

If the MAC champ does claw its way into a BCS game, its ticket will almost certainly be the one reserved at the moment for the runner-up in the Big 12. Barring a stunning turn of events in Fort Worth, or in Texas' trip to Kansas State (see below), that runner-up will be Oklahoma. Which would lend itself much more easily to lamentations and the rending of garments over the injustice of it all if the Sooners hadn't spent most of the last three weeks praying for their own survival: back-to-back upset bids by West Virginia and Oklahoma State both came down to Sooner touchdowns in the final 30 seconds of regulation, on the heels of a competitive, back-and-forth win over Baylor. Senior quarterback Landry Jones has put the ball in the air a staggering 254 times in OU's last five games, with 15 touchdown passes. But the defense that thoroughly humiliated Texas in October has been bombed into near-submission.

TCU does not pose nearly the threat in the passing game of a West Virginia or Oklahoma State, but that didn't stop the Horned Frogs from ambushing Texas last week in Austin -– TCU attempted just ten passes –- courtesy of ball-control attack that generated 217 yards on the ground and a suddenly vintage-looking Gary Patterson defense. That's the same formula that doomed Oklahoma earlier this year in both of its losses, to Kansas State and Notre Dame, and if the Horned Frogs aren't quite on par with the (probably) BCS-bound Wildcats or Irish, they're close enough to contribute significantly to Bob Stoops' emerging ulcer.

Conference USA Championship: Central Florida (+2) at Tulsa (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

OVERALL When UCF
Has the Ball ...
When Tulsa
Has the Ball ...
Category UCF
(9-3)
Tulsa
(9-3)
UCF
Off
Tulsa
Def
UCF
Def
Tulsa
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 34 59 55 33 49 68
2012 FEI Rk 44 51 57 32 44 70
2012 S&P+ Rk 48 54 44 40 58 66
2012 FPA 9 72
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 20 58 66 47
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 57 34 46 85
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 37 59 54 67
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
66.0% Run
(26)
66.7% Run
(23)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 51 29 57 96
Run-Pass Ratio
(Pass. Downs)
23.4% Run
(112)
31.5% Run
(67)

The C-USA title game is one of multiple championship rematches this weekend, in this case reprising Tulsa's 23-21 win at Central Florida just two weeks ago. The final score in that game may have been somewhat misleading: despite the narrow margin, Tulsa outgained UCF by 226 yards, held the Knights to a season low in total offense, and sacked quarterback Blake Bortles four times. For the season, the Golden Hurricane have been impressively balanced on offense, turning in a league-best 236 yards per game on the ground while passing for 226, and have also been the best in C-USA in terms of rushing defense, total defense, sacks, tackles for loss, and sacks allowed. On its own home field, UCF gave no indication it could keep pace on Tulsa's barring a barrage of turnovers.

SEC Championship: No. 2 Alabama (-7) vs. No. 3 Georgia (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, CBS)

OVERALL When Alabama
Has the Ball ...
When Georgia
Has the Ball ...
Category Alabama
(11-1)
Georgia
(11-1)
Alabama
Off
Georgia
Def
Alabama
Def
Georgia
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 1 11 13 25 3 9
2012 FEI Rk 3 11 20 22 9 16
2012 S&P+ Rk 1 10 5 30 1 4
2012 FPA 3 26
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 8 14 1 19
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 5 58 4 1
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 17 19 3 3
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
65.2% Run
(31)
59.9% Run
(58)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 2 32 1 13
Run-Pass Ratio
(Pass. Downs)
46.2% Run
(12)
44.4% Run
(15)

It's a testament to these two defenses (and to the SEC's reputation of soul-crushing defense, in general) that such a massively-hyped, winner-take-all affair featuring the two most efficient passers in the nation can still be regarded almost universally as a pending slugfest. It also says something about the murky reputations of those two quarterbacks, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Alabama's A.J. McCarron, both of whom have struggled in the face of upper-echelon defenses. In Georgia's only loss, at South Carolina, Murray completed just 11-of-31 passes with no touchdowns and an interception in a 35-7 rout; two weeks later, he was picked off three times in a sloppy, defensively-driven upset over Florida. Despite his clutch heroics at LSU, McCarron was a nonentity prior to the game-winning drive, and threw two costly interceptions in the subsequent loss to Texas A&M. Left to their own devices against defenses loaded with future draft picks, it can and will get ugly.

Which brings us, inevitably, back to the line of scrimmage. On paper, the tranches remain Alabama's domain: statistically, the Crimson Tide rank second nationally against the run, first in both total and scoring defense (as is custom), and boast the more-decorated offensive line by far. Personnel-wise, the gap is much less obvious. Besides the glaring parallels at quarterback, both offenses roll with big, versatile, productive tandems at tailback and deep, reliable receiving corps that lack a go-to star. Defensively, both sides run pro-style 3-4 looks anchored by future first rounders in the middle of the line (UGA's Jonathan Jenkins, Bama's Jesse Williams) backed up by All-American linebackers (UGA's Jarvis Jones, Bama's C.J. Mosley). It goes without saying that everyone on the field is, or was, considered a blue-chip prospect. The only undeniable advantage that justifies Alabama as a touchdown favorite is its track record: we've seen the Crimson Tide under Nick Saban win multiple games of this magnitude over the past five years, and bigger. Georgia's record in big games prior to beating Florida was pathetic, a string of futility that included a 42-10 shellacking at the hands of LSU in last year's championship game. The stakes on Saturday are much higher than they were then, and it's still an open question whether the Bulldogs have come far enough to do them justice.

ACC Championship: No. 13 Florida State (-14) vs. Georgia Tech (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

OVERALL When Florida State
Has the Ball ...
When Georgia Tech
Has the Ball ...
Category FSU
(10-2)
Ga. Tech
(6-6)
FSU
Off
Ga. Tech
Def
FSU
Def
Ga. Tech
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 13 64 30 81 12 20
2012 FEI Rk 16 57 53 78 14 24
2012 S&P+ Rk 9 40 13 83 17 18
2012 FPA 13 71
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 5 115 48 4
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 27 56 11 41
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 7 96 14 11
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
57.1% Run
(76)
84.9% Run
(5)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 19 66 39 43
Run-Pass Ratio
(Pass. Downs)
36.4% Run
(41)
64.5% Run
(4)

Georgia Tech has not exactly conceded defeat in the face of the most-lopsided point spread of the weekend, but Yellow Jackets aren't burning any bridges when it comes to picking up a bowl invite, either. Like UCLA last year, Tech successfully petitioned the NCAA for a waiver that will allow it to play in a bowl game even with a losing record (6-7), arguing that the seventh loss shouldn't count against their eligibility if it comes in the process of playing for a conference championship. That's just the latest in the line of bizarre circumstances surrounding the Jackets' presence in this game, which is only possible in the first place because NCAA issues knocked Coastal Division rivals North Carolina and Miami out of the running. Prior to that, Georgia Tech was just a floundering mediocrity notable mainly for firing its defensive coordinator at midseason following a double-digit loss to Middle Tennessee State.

Although Florida State was dealt a sobering reality check last week in a 37-26 loss to Florida, there was nothing in that game or in Georgia Tech's 42-10 debacle at Georgia that suggested the Yellow Jackets are a viable upset threat in Charlotte. The triple-option is always an x-factor, but it will take a monumental letdown on FSU's part to fall that far into the tank with the Orange Bowl on the line.

Big Ten Championship: No. 12 Nebraska (-3) vs. Wisconsin (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, Fox)

OVERALL When Nebraska
Has the Ball ...
When Wisconsin
Has the Ball ...
Category Nebraska
(10-2)
Wisconsin
(7-5)
Nebraska
Off
Wisconsin
Def
Nebraska
Def
Wisconsin
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 14 21 4 14 17 40
2012 FEI Rk 10 19 9 16 15 50
2012 S&P+ Rk 7 21 6 16 20 36
2012 FPA 106 17
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 3 7 25 44
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 14 24 17 22
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 5 9 28 38
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
69.9% Run
(12)
72.6% Run
(7)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 44 51 4 7
Run-Pass Ratio
(Pass. Downs)
37.9% Run
(33)
43.5% Run
(16)

The Big Ten Championship Game is another rematch, from a 30-27 Nebraska win on September 29 that, in retrospect, neatly sums up Wisconsin's season. In that game, the Badgers scored touchdowns on three of their first four offensive possessions and led 20-3 in the second quarter, at which point they retreated into hibernation: their last nine offensive possessions resulted in five punts, two fumbles, a missed field goal, and a single, short-field touchdown set up by a Cornhuskers turnover. Those seven points weren't nearly enough to hold off the Nebraska comeback. Including negative yardage on sacks, the Wisconsin ground game netted 56 yards that night on 1.4 per carry, leaving the offense as a whole sitting in dead-last in the Big Ten in rushing offense and total offense -– categories Wisconsin dominated en route to back-to-back Rose Bowl runs in 2010 and 2011 –- a full month into the season.

Since then, Wisconsin has looked much more like its old self in the running game, but still can't get a handle on close games. For the season, the Badgers' five losses came by a combined 19 points, 13 of those points coming in overtime losses to Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State over the last four weeks. For Nebraska, on the other hand, the comeback in Madison was only the first of many for a team that has subsequently rallied from second-half deficits in wins over Northwestern, Michigan State, Penn State, and Iowa. In eight conference games, in fact, the Cornhuskers only carried a lead into halftime in two of them, one of which was a 7-6 advantage against Michigan. Mediocre record notwithstanding, Wisconsin has been here before, whereas Nebraska is seeking its first conference championship since winning the Big 12 crown in 1999. But if it's close, late, the Huskers are the ones with the track record.

No. 18 Texas (+11.5) at No. 6 Kansas State (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC)

OVERALL When Texas
Has the Ball ...
When Kansas State
Has the Ball ...
Category Texas
(8-3)
K-State
(10-1)
Texas
Off
K-State
Def
Texas
Def
K-State
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 19 5 21 18 38 22
2012 FEI Rk 17 4 18 7 42 19
2012 S&P+ Rk 28 25 22 31 35 24
2012 FPA 7 1
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 7 56 73 15
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 44 25 22 33
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 19 26 52 21
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
64.6% Run
(34)
69.8% Run
(14)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 24 27 19 18
Run-Pass Ratio
(Pass. Downs)
30.7% Run
(73)
37.4% Run
(35)

Welcome to the Letdown Bowl! Which team is more deflated: a K-State outfit that saw its undefeated season and golden ticket to the BCS title game go up like the Hindenberg at Baylor? Or the Longhorns, who threw away a month of momentum in a nationally televised Thanksgiving flop against TCU, and lost their starting quarterback in the process? Both sides have had extra time to mull over the disappointments, and they cannot like what they see.

At least for Kansas State, there is a tangible prize on the line on Saturday night: with a win, the Wildcats will claim at least a share of their first Big 12 title since 2003 and the conference's automatic BCS bid in the Fiesta Bowl. Texas, which had been holding out hope for a darkhorse run at the championship and an at-large BCS bid, has nothing on the line after its latest loss except pride and a sense of progress for a program that has remained stagnant for most of the last three years. In this case, given that Wildcats quarterback Collin Klein is in his final home game, opposite a shaky counterpart in Case McCoy and a UT defense that still ranks last in the conference against the run, I tend to favor the tangible.

Picks

The Picks
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
Visitor Spread Home Matt F/+
Kent St. +6.5 N. Illinois NIU Kent St.
UCLA +8 Stanford UCLA Stanford*
Oklahoma -6.5 TCU Oklahoma Oklahoma
Oklahoma St. -4.5 Baylor OSU OSU
UCF +2 Tulsa Tulsa UCF
Middle Tenn. +10 Arkansas St. MTSU MTSU
Alabama -7 Georgia Alabama Alabama
Florida St. -14 Ga. Tech FSU* FSU
Nebraska -3 Wisconsin Nebraska Nebraska
Texas +11.5 Kansas St. Texas K-State
Season-long Results
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
Last Week
Season Total
F/+: 7-5 (1-0) 78-54-1 (7-5)
Matt: 9-3 (1-0) 59-73-1 (5-7)

Posted by: Matt Hinton on 30 Nov 2012

3 comments, Last at 01 Dec 2012, 4:04pm by JonFrum

Comments

1
by JIPanick :: Sat, 12/01/2012 - 1:14am

"Some SEC fans are fond of referring to the conference's annual championship game in Atlanta as the real national championship game."

Except last year.

2
by ilikeflowers (not verified) :: Sat, 12/01/2012 - 12:02pm

I don't know why Georgia would be in the championship if they win. A one loss team with a close loss I understand, but a one loss team that's played only three teams of note and was completely destroyed by one of them I don't.

3
by JonFrum :: Sat, 12/01/2012 - 4:04pm

Jeff Sagarin has Alabama #2, Florida #4, and Georgia #6 in his computer rankings. Georgia has already beaten Florida. If they beat Alabama, do you keep them out versus Oregon at #3 or Kansas State at #5? Hard to say. Oregon has one overtime loss, but they aren't playing world-beaters either. And they allowed a weak USC team to score 51 points on them. And Kansas State got hammered as well. It's not like Georgia's rivals are obvious options.