Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
25 Sep 2006
by Russell Levine
A common observation coming out of Notre Dame's miraculous 40-37 win over Michigan State Saturday night was that the Irish had just pocketed a BCS at-large bid. Notre Dame stands at 3-1, and has seven straight games against unranked opponents before playing USC to end the season. A 10-win campaign should get the Irish into the BCS, no matter what happens against USC.
But relying on assumptions can be a dangerous game in college football this season. The weekend's action was devoid of upsets, but that doesn't mean everything went as planned. Just ask the Georgia Bulldogs. Undefeated and ranked no. 9 in the AP poll, Georgia was a four-touchdown favorite at home against a rebuilding Colorado team. Colorado had lost its home opener to Montana State, a middling Division I-AA program. The Buffaloes had just 23 points in three games, and were facing a Georgia defense coming off back-to-back shutouts.
But what looked like a laugher turned into a nail-biter, as Georgia trailed 13-0 after three quarters before rallying for a 14-13 win on a touchdown in the final minute.
So while it's presumed that no. 1 Ohio State will remain undefeated until it faces Michigan if the Buckeyes can beat Iowa on the road this week, one would be wise not to overlook an October road date at Michigan State, for example.
No such assumptions are made about the nation's no. 2 team, Auburn, which still must face both Florida and Georgia at home before a season-ending road date at Alabama. The same can be said of fifth-ranked Florida, which has trips to LSU and Florida State as well as the annual neutral-site game against Georgia still to come in the SEC's death march of a schedule.
USC is ranked third, and is a popular choice to play in the BCS championship game precisely because it's believed that only the aforementioned Notre Dame game November 25 stands between the Trojans and a 12â€“0 record. Oregon and Cal, the latter now fully recovered from its week one meltdown at Tennessee, would beg to differ. USC will host the Ducks and Bears on back-to-back weekends before playing Notre Dame.
Predicting an undefeated season for fourth-ranked West Virginia may be the safest bet, thanks to the lack of depth in the Big East, but the perceived weakness of its schedule may be precisely what keeps the Mountaineers from moving up the polls. West Virginia had a ho-hum 27â€“20 win over East Carolina on Saturday, the type of relatively unimpressive result that the Mountaineers must avoid if they are to win favor with the pollsters and the computers that will determine their BCS chances.
So which of the top teams has the best chance to avoid the land mines on its schedule and end up playing for the national championship in Glendale, Ariz., on January 8?
The answer is Ohio State. The Buckeyes' biggest concern entering the season -- a defense with only two returning starters -- has become a strength in just four games. Ohio State returned a pair of interceptions for touchdowns in the final three minutes to turn a tight game with Penn State into a laugher, and its defense has already dominated then-no. 2 Texas in a road win two weeks ago. On offense, quarterback Troy Smith has emerged as the leading Heisman contender of the early season; his whirling, 37-yard touchdown pass against the Nittany Lions will surely be shown on all the season-ending highlight reels. And the Buckeyes have found another go-to receiver in Anthony Gonzalez to complement their game-breaker, Ted Ginn Jr.
Ohio State's strength on both sides of the ball will help it survive during the inevitable game in which one unit or the other struggles. The Big Ten conference is strong enough -- with Michigan currently enjoying a top-10 ranking in a thus-far resurgent season, and Iowa a solidly ranked team -- to prevent the Buckeyes from having to face any questions about schedule strength, especially when the Texas game is factored in. That win over the Longhorns will probably stand up as the best non-conference result by any of the top teams at season's end, giving the Buckeyes another leg up on the competition for BCS spots.
Beyond Ohio State, it looks as if the preseason theme of a wide-open championship race is coming to fruition. The SEC is the nation's strongest conference, but its top-heavy depth could easily saddle all its best teams with a loss. Georgia, for example, has a championship-caliber defense but a very limited offense. That offense will keep the Bulldogs from contending for the national title, but the defense is good enough to upset Auburn or Florida.
Either West Virginia or Louisville is a fairly safe choice to emerge undefeated from the Big East, but such a result could create a new kind of controversy for the BCS. In past years, the BCS has dealt with issues arising from multiple one-loss teams and multiple undefeated teams. But suppose West Virginia knocks off Louisville and goes undefeated, yet ends up third in the BCS rankings behind one-loss Auburn?
The BCS title-game participants have always had at least the second-best won-lost record from all BCS-conference teams. While nobody would argue that the Big East is competitive with the SEC top to bottom, keeping an undefeated team home in favor of a team with one loss would certainly kick the BCS grumbling into overdrive.
But it's far too early to worry about such scenarios. As Colorado nearly proved at Georgia on Saturday, assuming too much about the college football season before the month of September is out is a fool's game.
The only thing we know for sure this season is what we don't know -- namely, the top two teams. That is unlike a year ago, when USC and Texas went wire-to-wire atop the polls before meeting in the championship game. While Ohio State has led the polls all season, the no. 2 spot has already been occupied by three teams: Texas, Notre Dame, and now Auburn. Odds are, a few more schools will rotate through that spot before bowl bids are handed out in early December.
It will come as little surprise to anyone who watched Michigan State's second-half debacle against Notre Dame Saturday night that Spartans coach John L. Smith gets to keep his namesake trophy this week.
There was no single strategic decision by Smith that cost the Spartans a game they led by 17 points at the start of the fourth quarter. Instead, it was a top-to-bottom, wheels-come-off performance that included:
Those are not the signs of a well-coached team, and JLS may be running out of chances to turn things around at MSU. The Spartans' typical MO in recent years has been to knock off a good team, often Notre Dame, before folding like a house of cards the moment they start getting any national media attention. Last year's upset of Notre Dame was followed by a home-field beat down at the hands of Northwestern. Smith may have to beat Michigan in two weeks and get eight or nine wins to keep his job.
Rankings that require some explanation include:
65 comments, Last at 29 Sep 2006, 12:29am by chris