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?
05 Nov 2007
by Russell Levine
Sunday's Bowl Championship Standings release saw LSU move into the coveted second position behind No. 1 Ohio State, but this topsy-turvy college football season is far from decided.
For the moment, LSU's win at Alabama in the Nick Saban Bowl has propelled the Tigers into the second spot vacated by Boston College, which was beaten at home by Florida State Saturday night.
Oregon, which offered one of the weekend's most impressive victories by handling previously unbeaten Arizona State at home in a rare national-TV game, sits just behind LSU in third. Kansas, the only other undefeated team from a BCS conference, sits fourth, while Oklahoma rounds out the top five.
No. 1 Ohio State, winners of 28 consecutive regular-season games, will surely play for the BCS title on January 7 should they win their final two games against Illinois and at Michigan. But there is much to be determined during the season's final four Saturdays. Can Oregon catch LSU? What about Kansas? Can any of the other one-loss teams play their way back into position to reach the January 7 national-title game in New Orleans?
The temptation is to assume that LSU will qualify for the championship game should it win its remaining contests, but it's not quite that simple. Because the Tigers' remaining schedule -- Louisiana Tech, at Ole Miss, Arkansas, and the SEC Championship Game -- is relatively week, LSU won't get a strength-of-schedule boost from the computers that account for one-third of the BCS formula. Still, the Tigers will play at least twice more, and possibly three times, in nationally televised games on CBS, which never hurts with the human voters -- provided LSU looks impressive.
Like LSU, Oregon has already faced the heart of its schedule. The Ducks have games remaining at Arizona and UCLA and home against Oregon State, but they will be hurt by the fact that the Pac-10 does not play a conference title game.
Perhaps even more damaging to the Ducks' chances is the Pac-10's overall lack of media exposure. While the likes of Ohio State and LSU play on CBS, ABC, or ESPN virtually every week, the Ducks have been seen nationwide on one of those networks just twice -- although two or three of their final four games will be shown on either ABC, ESPN, or ESPN2.
The reason national exposure matters is because of the importance of the human polls. They make up two-thirds of the BCS formula, and the reality is that many of the voters see few games other than those shown nationally.
Comparing Oregon and LSU can be an exercise in futility. Each team has a single loss: Oregon at home to Cal and LSU on the road at Kentucky.
Oregon's loss came by seven points to a team that was ranked sixth at the time, and the Ducks fumbled the ball through the Cal end zone for a touchback in the game's final minute, squandering a chance to send the contest to overtime. It was in triple-overtime that LSU fell to then-no. 17 Kentucky when the Tigers failed to convert on a fourth down. Since those games, both Cal and Kentucky have fallen from the rankings.
Both Oregon and LSU play in top conferences. The top of the Pac-10 -- with Oregon, surprising Arizona State, and talented by inconsistent USC -- may be better than the top of the SEC -- which features LSU, then a pretty significant drop-off to the likes of Auburn, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee. Whatever the SEC lacks at the top end, it makes up for in depth. No conference has more teams capable of knocking off its own leader than the SEC.
Oregon has beaten
three two teams that were ranked at the time they played, and all three both were in the top 10: Cal, USC and now Arizona State. LSU has six five wins over ranked foes, including two from the top 10. The current state of affairs, however, is kinder to Oregon. Cal has dropped from the rankings, but Oregon's 39-7 road stomping of then-unranked Michigan looks more impressive now that the Wolverines have won eight straight games to move to No. 12 in the BCS.
For LSU, wins over then-ranked South Carolina and Alabama are less noteworthy now that those teams have combined for seven defeats. Florida, another victim of LSU's, has also lost three times overall.
"LSU is slightly ahead [in the computers] because the SEC is considered to be the toughest conference by all but one of the computers and LSU's best win (in non-conference games), over Virginia Tech, rates better than Oregon's best win, over Michigan," said Sam Chi of BCSGuru.com. "Therefore, LSU has an edge in the strength-of-schedule component.
Chi also added that LSU's margin over Oregon in the human polls "will be tough to overcome unless LSU puts up some really putrid performances."
Still, while the debate over Oregon and LSU rages, it could be another team that has the best opportunity to swoop in and reach the title game: fourth-ranked Kansas. The Jayhawks began the season on nobody's radar, but have raced to a 9-0 start that includes Saturday's 76-39 thumping of Nebraska. The Cornhuskers may be awful, but that's the kind of score that gets noticed. Plus, Kansas has the best remaining schedule, as it includes two potential games against top-10 teams: the regular-season finale against Missouri, presumably for the Big 12 North title, and then the Big 12 championship game, likely against Oklahoma. Win both those games in impressive fashion, and the Jayhawks could stun everyone by getting to No. 2 in the BCS.
"I believe that if [Kansas] actually gets to 13-0, it will move up to at least No. 2 in the polls," BCS expert Jerry Palm posted on his Web site Sunday. "The Jayhawks might even be a strong No. 2."
"So, I feel that if anyone controls its own destiny for the title game, it would be Kansas," wrote Palm, before adding that the human voters still need to lift the Jayhawks above those teams in front of them because of the importance of the polls.
Could longtime doormat Kansas actually play for a national title? In a season with more plot twists than a Six Flags ride, it might even be an appropriate outcome.
Easiest. JLS Trophy. Ever.
Anyone who watched Navy end Notre Dame's 43-game winning streak in the series knew that Notre Dame Charlie Weis was in for a JLS this week. Weis passed on a 41-yard field goal attempt to take the lead with 45 seconds left. Instead, he put his 119th-ranked offense back on the field on 4th-and-8.
Quarterback Evan Sharpley was sacked, the game went to overtime, and Navy eventually won in the third extra session. Weis explained after the game that his kicker couldn't hit from that distance in pregame warm-ups going into the wind. The kicker is on scholarship, mind you. Notre Dame has the worst offense in the nation. Navy is the furthest thing from a big-play offense there is, mitigating fears that a missed field-goal might lead to a loss in regulation time -- indeed, after the sack, Notre Dame got another possession after Navy went three-and-out.
I had thought a loss to Navy might be the tipping point for the fan base to turn on Weis, and it appears I might have been correct. The world's most optimistic, supportive fans can be found on the Notre Dame blog Blue-Gray Sky, but even the posters and commenters there were full of vitriol after this latest debacle by the Irish.
On the other hand, every American who doesn't consider Notre Dame their favorite team (and probably even a few that do) had to be rooting for Navy in this game. Check out this reaction from some Navy fans after the fourth-down sack of Sharpley -- as athletic a play as you'll ever see from supposedly inferior Naval Academy athlete Ram Vela:
Rankings that may require further explanation: This week, I'm feeling confident about my top eight. Arizona State doesn't get hammered for the loss at Oregon, which is a team I feel should play for the national title ahead of LSU. From ninth place on down, there's a lot of guesswork.
I have no idea what to make of the SEC teams beyond LSU, so I lumped all those two- and three-loss teams in from 15 to 18, and threw Arkansas a bone at 24. My stance on the SEC this week: Its top tier is not as good as the Pac-10's top tier. However, it's the deepest conference, which accounts somewhat for all those losses in the East. Still, the non-conference losses (Auburn to South Florida, Alabama to Florida State, Mississippi State getting hammered by West Virginia after doing some damage in-conference) far outweigh the LSU thumping of Virginia Tech.
The key comparison, of course, is now Oregon vs. LSU. I come down on the side of Oregon based on the fact that they have been more dominant over the season's second half. The teams' losses are a toss-up. Slight edge to LSU in that they lost on the road, but both were by razor-thin margins to decent competition. The losses themselves are certainly not enough to decide this debate.
Got a gripe? Post it in the comments, please.
Games I watched at least part of: Virgina Tech-Georgia Tech, Wisconsin-Ohio State, Nebraska-Kansas, Michigan-Michigan State, Navy-Notre Dame, LSU-Alabama, Arizona State-Oregon, Rutgers-Connecticut, Florida State-Boston College.
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
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