Critical games this weekend in the Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC could go a long way in determining conference championships -- and maybe even playoff berths.
06 Nov 2006
by Russell Levine
There is but one important question left about this college football season: order or chaos?
Order is a bit closer at hand after this weekend. Louisville caused some concern Thursday night, beating West Virginia in a matchup of unbeatens. Since Louisville entered that game ranked behind one-loss Florida in the Bowl Championship Series standings, the Cardinals' win led to speculation that an undefeated Big East team might be jumped by a once-beaten SEC squad for the BCS title game.
That possibility grew more remote Saturday after Florida authored a ho-hum, six-point victory over Vanderbilt, paving the way for Louisville to move to No. 3 in the BCS standings. The other scenario that threatened to deny a Big East team a chance at the title was a potential Ohio State-Michigan rematch, a possibility that also took a hit Saturday. Neither the Wolverines, who found themselves in a 60-minute duel with lightly regarded Ball State, nor the Buckeyes, who had a similar contest against Illinois, looked nearly as dominant as the BCS standings would suggest.
Not only did Louisville move to third in the BCS standings, but the Cardinals significantly narrowed the gap that had existed between Ohio State and Michigan and everyone else. The narrow escapes do nothing to derail the de facto national semifinal in Columbus on November 18, with the winner assured of a berth in the January 8 title game in Glendale, Arizona. But the voters will remember this weekend when deciding how far to drop the loser of that game. The Ohio State-Michigan rematch scenario requires the loser to fall no lower than second in the polls, which now seems unlikely.
Of course, chaos can strike at any moment in a sport with zero margin for error, as is college football in the BCS era. Ball State and Illinois proved that Saturday, and the next major threat to order comes Thursday night, when Louisville visits yet another undefeated team, Rutgers.
Louisville's Bobby Petrino is one of the best coaches in the nation, but he faces perhaps the toughest task of his career in getting his Cardinals ready to play their second consecutive contest with enormous implications. West Virginia walked into an ambush last Thursday, playing before a rowdy crowd primed to witness the biggest game in Louisville history. This week, the tables will be turned.
Rutgers and its fans have never had a moment like the one they will enjoy Thursday: A nationally televised home game in a sold-out stadium with national-title implications aplenty. Not only is it the biggest game in Rutgers's history, it is also the biggest college football game in the New York metropolitan area since Army's heyday in the 1940s and '50s, when it packed Yankee Stadium to play national powers such as Notre Dame.
A Rutgers win would indeed throw the championship picture into complete disarray, as the entire list of one-loss teams would suddenly become contenders for the title game. At the head of the line will be the SEC champion. Florida has clinched a spot in the conference championship game, likely against Arkansas or Auburn. If the SEC winner has a single loss, it will have as impressive a rÃ©sumÃ© as any other contender.
Just behind sits 8â€“1 Texas, whose only loss came to no. 1 Ohio State in September. The Longhorns may have a tough time overcoming anyone from the SEC due to schedule strength; remaining games against Texas A&M, which lost to Oklahoma Saturday, and a potential rematch against Nebraska in the Big 12 championship aren't likely to provide much of a boost.
Next in line is the Pac-10 pair of USC and California. The Golden Bears are one of the hottest teams in the nation and will get a chance to prove their worth at USC in two weeks, though they would prefer the Trojans to be undefeated when they meet. Southern Cal saw a three-year regular-season winning streak snapped at Oregon State last week, but the loss did not completely eliminate it from contention. No team has as many chances to impress voters and the computers down the stretch, as the Trojans face Oregon, Cal, and Notre Dame in back-to-back-to-back home games. Should USC win all those games while the SEC teams are beating each other up, it could be right back in the title-game picture.
Notre Dame is 8-1 and has that contest at USC remaining, but it will be difficult for the Irish to overcome a soft schedule, particularly if they finish with the same record as Michigan. Voters will have a hard time putting 11â€“1 Notre Dame ahead of 11â€“1 Michigan, given that the Wolverines handed Notre Dame a 26-point loss in South Bend in September.
Undefeated Boise State, from the "mid-major" Western Athletic Conference, will not play in the championship game even if it finishes with a perfect record. But results elsewhere moved the Broncos closer to clinching an automatic at-large berth in a BCS game, a huge boost for the program.
Rutgers fans are probably wondering where their team fits. Unfortunately for the Scarlet Knights, they are attempting to come from very far back in the BCS standings to reach the title game even if they go undefeated. Though they have yet to play West Virginia in addition to Louisville, the boost from those two games is not likely to move them to the top two in the standings. That's due in part to being unranked in the preseason and in part to a non-conference schedule that included 1â€“8 North Carolina, 2â€“8 Illinois, and Division I-AA Howard. Still, even being able to debate the topic with a straight face has to satisfy fans of a program that was the joke of college football as recently as a few years ago.
Wake Forest fans probably feel the same way. After knocking off Boston College Saturday night, the Demon Deacons hold first place in the ACC's Atlantic Division, though they still must play Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Maryland.
In a season of surprises -- undefeated Rutgers, unranked Miami and Florida State, resurgent Michigan -- Wake's success has managed to fly under the radar. The school has but one conference title in 53 years and certainly wasn't expected to compete for a second this season in the beefed-up ACC. Can the Deacons pull it off? Perhaps, if chaos rules.
John L., we hardly knew ya. With the announcement this week that Smith will be fired following the season, this week's JLS Trophy takes on special significance.
Since the birth of this column, the weekly award for the wackiest coaching decision has been named for three men. First was Hal Mumme, the former Kentucky and current New Mexico State coach who never met a fourth down that looked like a punting situiation to him. Many a potential Kentucky win in the Tim Couch era went down in flames as Mumme elected to go for it on fourth-and-10 from his own 25 in the first quarter.
But with Mumme out of the picture, I wanted a more topical face for the award. I found it in former St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz. The deciding factor in Martz's favor came when he challenged the ruling on a fumble by his quarterback, believing his quarterback's arm had been in motion, but ignoring the fact that the pass/fumble had been caught in mid-air by a defender for a touchdown.
Alas, Martz was sidelined last year with a heart ailment, and I felt bad about kicking him when he was down. The column had become much more college-centric by that point, and so the JLS Trophy was born. Smith had just provided his epic "the coaches are screwing it up!!!" halftime interview sound bite, and the choice was an obvious one. Since then, JLS has not disappointed, providing plenty of material, capped off by his personal piece de reisstance, slapping himself during a press conference following a loss to Illinois earlier this year.
We wish JLS well and hope to find him back on the sidelines soon. The college football world is a duller place without him in it, and the award will continue to carry his name. All of which brings us to this week's recipient.
If I were still writing about the NFL in this space, Bill Parcells would be an obvious choice for electing to go for two in the first half against Washington Sunday.
In the college ranks, I considered handing it to Wisconsin's Bret Bielema for his end-of-half tactics against Penn State, in which he instructed his team to twice take intentional offsides on the kickoff in order to drain the clock without giving Penn State a chance to score. There was a healthy debate about this strategy on the Seventh Day Adventure thread, which I won't rehash here. My stance was that it was a clever discovery of a loophole in the rules, but it was also classless and a bush-league maneuver. It also won't win Bielema any friends in Big Ten coaching circles, particularly given that he pulled the stunt against coaching legend Joe Paterno. I would hope the NCAA moves to close the loophole immediately, and saves us from seeing some other coach get the bright idea to try this. But because it can be argued that Bielema's strategy helped his team win, he avoids the JLS.
Instead, the award goes to Boston College's Tom O'Brien, who became the latest coach whose failure to grasp the new timing rules hurt his team's chances. Hoping to get the ball back for one final possession against Wake Forest, O'Brien used his first timeout before the Demon Deacons' first play of the drive. Though the new rules dictate that the clock run in that situation, O'Brien cost his team 15-20 seconds by using a timeout there, when the maximum amount of time that can run off the clock is 25 seconds (the length of the play clock) rather then 40-45 seconds after a play is run (the length of the play clock plus the time it takes the typical geriatric college official to spot the ball).
Coaches work 80-100 hours a week looking for any conceivable edge in a football game, yet they routinely miss something as simple as basic math that could be the difference between getting the ball back for one final snap and not seeing it at all. O'Brien, who is an excellent coach, nonetheless takes home the JLS for committing that sin against Wake Forest.
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Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
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