Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» Scramble Over/Unders: the Norths

The league's northern divisions pose a number of meaty questions, such as: "Is the Bears' offense due for a repeat performance?" "Why do the Lions have such pronounced splits?" and "Has Johnny Manziel made the Cleveland brass even crazier?"

06 Oct 2008

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Midterm Lessons

by Russell Levine

As the college football season approaches its midpoint, it is time to take a look at what we've learned thus far.

(Yes, I know the schedule continues into December, but some teams have played six games. That's close enough for me.)

First, a few quick hitters: The season has followed 2007's pattern of upsets, though not quite to the same degree, and the current polls look very different from their preseason editions. The Game of the Century (Ohio State at USC) turned out to be a dud. Maybe this week's Game of the Century (Texas vs. Oklahoma) will turn out better. For my money, LSU at Auburn has been the season's best game so far, but I have a feeling we're still waiting on the signature moment of 2008. I have no idea who is going to win the Heisman.

Now, on to some of the campaign's larger themes:

Vanderbilt Is a Player in the SEC East

The first-place Commodores probably won't win the East, but they will be a factor. They have already beaten Ole Miss on the road (the Rebels were last seen winning at the Swamp) and Auburn and South Carolina at home. Vandy has yet to play Georgia or Florida, but the Commodores have done more to earn their standing in the polls than either the Bulldogs or Gators

Vandy's defense is good enough to give anyone fits. If they can get a couple of turnovers and play opportunistic offense, who knows? They did enough against Auburn's vaunted defense with a backup quarterback to win that game. The rise of Vanderbilt, and the legitimacy of Kentucky -- proven in a nail-biter loss at Alabama Saturday -- makes the East a muddled picture. It's possible the division could end up with multiple teams tied with two losses.

Regardless of who ends up on top, this leads into my next point, which is...

The SEC Will Be Unhappy With the BCS

Here's my take on the SEC. The Big 12 is better at the top, but nobody is close to the top two-thirds depth of the SEC. That means the teams are going to beat each other up and the champion will be lucky to emerge with one loss.

I think the conference is deeper than it was in 2007, when LSU won it with two losses and won the national championship. A two-loss SEC team (or any two-loss team, for that matter) will not play for the national title in 2008. There are too many other good teams out there.

A one-loss SEC champ probably plays in the BCS title game, but it's not guaranteed. A 12-1 SEC team would have a big strength-of-schedule edge over, say, 11-1 USC, and should come out ahead in the computers. But because people don't like computers, the polls still rule. The Harris poll isn't out yet, but if we use the AP survey as a barometer, the declared death of USC's title chances was very premature.

It's two weeks later, and the Trojans are ranked eighth by the AP and ninth by the coaches. USC is the highest-ranked one-loss team and LSU and Alabama are the only SEC teams ahead of it.

Of course, an undefeated SEC champ would render the argument moot, but I don't see that happening. There are just too many good teams in the conference. SEC fans better root against USC every week. While they're at it, they should root against Notre Dame too (not that that's ever a bad thing) to prevent the perennially overrated Irish from giving USC a little strength-of-schedule bump at the end of the year.

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The Big 12 Is the New SEC

Remember a few weeks ago when the SEC was trumpeting having five teams in the AP top 10 for the first time in that poll's history?

Well, have a look at the polls today. The Big 12 has three of the top five, including No. 1 Oklahoma, and four of the top 10. Kansas and Oklahoma State are lurking in the midteens.

True, none of these teams have played each other yet and the polls will change radically once they knock each other off, but the Big 12 has surpassed the SEC as the league with the perceived best top end.

I say perceived because of course we don't really know, and won't until bowl season. But right know, Oklahoma/Texas/Missouri have the edge over Alabama/LSU/Georgia/Florida. Part of the perception is based in style. The Big 12 is loaded with explosive offenses and great quarterbacks, while the SEC's calling card is defense. Poll voters have always been impressed by shiny objects such as big offensive numbers.

Look for the Texas-Oklahoma winner to be a solid No. 1 in the initial BCS rankings when they are released in Oct. 19.

Ohio State's Death Was Also Overstated

Remember the Buckeyes? Preseason national title favorites? Haven't been heard from since a certain game at the L.A. Coliseum?

Well don't look know, but Ohio State is not done in either the Big Ten or national championship races. The Buckeyes aren't always pretty, but with Terrrelle Pryor now at quarterback and Beanie Wells healthy, they more resemble the team everyone thought they were in the preseason.

They're coming off a gritty win at Wisconsin and still have a chance to boost their national image when they play Penn State. If they run the table in the Big Ten, Ohio State most definitely could end up in a third-straight BCS championship, though it would require some chaos in either the Big 12 or SEC and a second loss by USC.

And if that doesn't happen? We could see an Ohio State-USC rematch in the Rose Bowl. I'm not sure the Buckeye fan base is excited about that, either.

Anyone Ready for Pitt-Utah Take Two?

The Big East is awful. It no longer has an unbeaten team after South Florida lost at home to Pitt and UConn was blown out at North Carolina.

Pitt, which lost at home to 2-3 Bowling Green to open the season, now sits in first place in the conference. Preseason favorite West Virginia lost at East Carolina and Colorado, and has a coach who is in serious jeopardy of having the JLS Trophy renamed in his honor. The Mountaineers barely survived 1-4 Rutgers at home Saturday.

Pitt sits in first-place in the conference at 2-0.

The way things are going, this looks like it could be a repeat of 2004, when Pitt won the league title with an 8-3 record and was destroyed in the Fiesta Bowl. That led to questions about whether the Big East deserved its automatic BCS bid. West Virginia put those questions to rest by beating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl after the 2005 season, and Louisville and Rutgers joined West Virginia to put the conference in the national spotlight in 2006.

But it's largely been downhill since the conference's reputation peaked with Pandemonium in Piscataway late in the 2006 season. Yes, West Virginia embarrassed Oklahoma in last year's Fiesta Bowl, but it looks like a program in decline since Rich Rodriguez's departure.

Look for the Big East winner to have two or three losses, be unranked, and be matched against the non-BCS party-crasher in the Fiesta Bowl.

The ACC Might Be Better Than We Thought

The ACC's reputation was thrown on the trash heap right around the time Clemson put the finishing touches on its no-show against Alabama opening weekend. Clemson has continued to stumble, adding a loss to Maryland, but the rest of the conference might actually be in better shape.

Wake Forest is a solid team despite its loss to Navy. The Deacons so shut down Florida State that the 'Noles were largely forgotten, but FSU is very young and has since beaten Colorado and Miami.

Nobody is younger than Miami, and though the 'Canes aren't back just yet, they will be a program to watch in the coming years.

Virginia Tech was likewise dismissed after losing to East Carolina to open the season, but the Hokies have ripped off five straight wins, including an impressive showing at Nebraska, and look to be a serious contender in the suddenly deep Coastal division, where Georgia Tech and North Carolina also reside.

Tech has made a successful switch to the option under Paul Johnson and is showing what a team in a BCS-conference can do running what had become a service academy-only offense. North Carolina struggled early with McNeese State, but destroyed Rutgers on national TV and would be undefeated if not for a late collapse against Virginia Tech.

The Tar Heel program in particular is one to watch. Always viewed as a potential sleeping giant because of its excellent facilities and well-heeled boosters, North Carolina appears to be laying the foundation for future national title contention under second-year coach Butch Davis.

The conclusion about the ACC? The league will probably take its lumps for another year, but unlike the Big East, it is on the upswing and should be much better in 2009.

John L. Smith Trophy

It's a short trip from the penthouse to the outhouse. Two weeks ago, Oregon State coach Mike Riley was on top of the world after beating USC.

This week, he wins the JLS Trophy.

Oregon State gave a good account of itself in a last-second loss to Utah, but Riley made a couple of strategic blunders to earn himself this week's award.

First, he went for two after scoring to cut the Utah lead to five late in the first half. That missed point ended up costing Oregon State later. But that was more defensible (Utah had committed a facemask penalty to move the ball to the one) than his end-of-game strategy.

After Oregon State scored to take an eight-point lead with just over two minutes to play, Riley had his kicker pooch the ball short. It was gathered in at the 25 and returned to the 40. Four completions later, Utah was in the end zone, then tied the game after a controversial penalty gave the Utes a second two-point try.

With a chance to win the game in the final 1:29, Oregon State instead imploded. Two incompletions, one run, one shanked punt, and 23 seconds later, Utah had the ball back and drove for the winning field goal.

I can't kill Riley for passing and trying to win, but the whole sequence was set up by the silly decision to pooch the previous kickoff.

BlogPoll Ballot

This season, I am again voting in the BlogPoll, hosted by mgoblog, and now available on CBS Sportsline. I'll post my ballot in Junkie each week. Feel free to comment, and I may make changes based on comments for a revised ballot later in the week .

Rank Team Delta
1 Oklahoma --
2 Texas 2
3 Alabama 1
4 LSU 1
5 Missouri 1
6 Penn State 1
7 Southern Cal 2
8 Brigham Young --
9 Florida 2
10 Georgia 2
11 Vanderbilt 4
12 Texas Tech 2
13 Ohio State --
14 Utah 3
15 Boise State 3
16 South Florida 9
17 Oklahoma State 9
18 Kansas 2
19 California 7
20 Virginia Tech 4
21 North Carolina 5
22 Michigan State 1
23 Wake Forest 1
24 Ball State 2
25 Northwestern --



Dropped Out: Auburn (No. 10), Oregon (No. 19), Wisconsin (No. 20), Fresno State (No. 21).

Rankings that may require further explanation: It's not that I'm that impressed by Texas's win over Colorado, but the Longhorns get credit for destroying all comers while Alabama was flat and lucky to win over a Kentucky team that I'm not yet sold on. Plus, come on, you wanted a 1-2 matchup this week in Dallas. Admit it. Texas Tech and Oklahoma State finally played opponents with a pulse, but their positions in the poll should be viewed as very temporary. One bad game and both will drop like stones. Is Vandy too high? I don't think Auburn is that good -- the offense is putrid. But Vandy's resume is deserving of the spot. The bottom six teams is a lot of guesswork. Pitt, Boston College, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Tulsa, Arizona, and TCU all deserve consideration as well.

Games I watched at least part of: Pitt-South Florida, Oregon State-Utah, Rutgers-West Virginia, Illinois-Michigan, Auburn-Vanderbilt, Missouri-Nebraska, Oregon-USC, Ohio State-Wisconsin.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 06 Oct 2008

21 comments, Last at 25 Apr 2011, 4:00pm by Jon S

Comments

1
by CoreyG (not verified) :: Mon, 10/06/2008 - 4:17pm

UNC only survived Miami because of a semi-miraculous simultaneous strip/interception of Miami in the end-zone with about 15 seconds left. They only got their first-lead in the final minute of the game, and still almost lost. Saying they'd be undefeated if not for the collapse to VT is totally inaccurate.

2
by CoreyG (not verified) :: Mon, 10/06/2008 - 4:19pm

So I look like a moron. Sorry about that :(

3
by Tom Gower :: Mon, 10/06/2008 - 4:24pm

I love the manufacturing of 1 v. 2 matchups. Ohio State @ Texas in 2006 is probably the most prominent example, as I don't think anybody really thought that Texas team with Colt instead of VY was really the #2 team in the country. I was arguing for Ohio State's elevation to #2 before the USC game this year, just for the sake of 1v2 again, but the game against Ohio destroyed that idea. If you look at the history of 1v2 matchups, though, they've tended to be really, really rare-I think more than half in the 72+ year history of the AP poll have occurred in the last 12 years. The BCS, for its flaws, has been largely responsible for this, but we've seen more in the regular season, too.

On the poll, the one thing that surprises me is seeing Ohio State get leapfrogged by Vandy and Texas Tech. I know they were favored, and you were down on the Badgers after the game against Michigan, but that's still a legit win of the kind Ohio State hadn't had this year. I'd flop Ohio State and Georgia, whose destruction by a top 5 opponent came at home and which doesn't have a win as good as Wisconsin (yes, I say Wisconsin is better than South Carolina).

4
by Chone Figgins (not verified) :: Mon, 10/06/2008 - 4:40pm

"While they're at it, they should root against Notre Dame too (not that that's ever a bad thing) to prevent the perennially overrated Irish from giving USC a little strength-of-schedule bump at the end of the year."

Brilliant. Well timed too, considering there are about a million squibs, stories, and blog posts today about ND still being unranked while at 4-1.

Yes, clearly ND is perennially overrated.

Clearly.

11
by Harris :: Tue, 10/07/2008 - 8:59am

Blast. I wanted to say this.

Levine is still bitter that the Irish beat his skunk bears, so we should forgive him such an asinine statememnt.

"A little celery is always nice after a good pee."

13
by witless chum :: Tue, 10/07/2008 - 12:46pm

"Yes, clearly ND is perennially overrated."

It's going to take a lot more than a 4-1 team with wins over nobody good to balance that ledger.

Though, I suppose as a Michigan State fan I should join the chorus to inflate our strength of schedule. I think Iowa is MSU's best win, though, and the Hawks might do some damage if they can not turn the ball over multiple times one of these weeks. They can steamroll over some teams in the Big 10, I predict, and make a bowl this year. Their one-point loss to the Wannstache is looking better now, too.

5
by ElAngelo (not verified) :: Mon, 10/06/2008 - 5:36pm

Actually, we don't need the AP Poll as a barometer for USC---you have them ranked 7th for some reason.

21
by Jon S (not verified) :: Mon, 04/25/2011 - 4:00pm

I'm looking for Angel Gomez' son, my wife's half brother who she never met. Someone with the username "elangelolsu" has Angel Gomez listed as his father on Ancestry.com, but I haven't been successful reaching him. Are you him? If you are, you may be my wife's half brother, and she wants to meet you. Please email me back at jonsbluecamaro@yahoo.com.

Thanks,

Jon

6
by Kevin Eleven :: Mon, 10/06/2008 - 7:05pm

1. Alabama- barely clinging to #1 after a close win.
2. Oklahoma- a win next week against Texas should vault then up to #1.
3. Missouri
4, Penn State
5. Texas
6. LSU- they drop, as the win at Auburn looks less impressive now.
7. Utah- they're undefeated, they beat Oregon State, and Oregon State beat USC. Utah must rank ahead of USC.
8. Southern Cal
9. Vanderbilt- the question isn't whether or not they'll bowl, but how big of a bowl they'll go to. Not a BCS, but at this point New Year's Day isn't out of the question.
10. Georgia
11. BYU
12. Florida
13. Virginia Tech
14. Ohio State
15. North Carolina
16. California
17. Texas Tech
18. Boise State- no real idea where to rank this team. My guess is they'll be dropping, as the Oregon win may not look as impressive as it did when it happened, and they play literaly NO ONE for the rest of the season.
19. Illinois
20. Oklahoma St
21. Kentucky
22. Michigan State
23. TCU
24. Auburn
25. Pittsburgh

7
by Travis :: Mon, 10/06/2008 - 8:50pm

The worst AP poll vote: Chris Fowler of ESPN, who voted Fresno State #21 (down only 1 spot from the previous week), despite a home loss to 1-3 Hawaii. My guess is either that he submitted his ballot before the 2:15 a.m. Eastern finish of that game, or that he never saw the result.

8
by Kunk (not verified) :: Mon, 10/06/2008 - 9:54pm

The ACC has a horrible OOC showing, then starts to play each other, and now they look like they may be getting better? I don't see it. Each week a different team looks to be improving, then blows it in a stunning loss. UNC may very well be the best team in the conference, but their best wins came against Big East teams, a conference you say is "awful".

Also, I'm not counting OSU out, but it's not because of Terrelle Pryor. Beanie Wells appears to be the key to that offense. I know, nothing shocking in that statement, but Pryor's success thusfar is a bit overblown. His passing skills look like they need a lot of work. The game against PSU will likely be the Big 10 game of the season. Maybe we shouldn't count out a 5-0 Northwestern team, either.

9
by BadgerT1000 :: Mon, 10/06/2008 - 10:04pm

If WI doesn't sit back on that final drive and let the guy survey the field they increase their chances of winning. They should have taken a bit of risk and forced the issue. How many times does the coaching staff have to see its secondary get riddled while in zone before they realize it's just not working?

Won't be posting much more. I do most by handheld and this site doesn't seem to play nice with my BlackBerry.

It's been fun. Ciao.......

18
by DMP (not verified) :: Wed, 10/08/2008 - 1:36pm

Say it ain't so, Badger! Well, I for one enjoy your posts. I have a lot of respect for Badger football and basketball, never ranking very high in the recruiting and always coming out with solid teams (at least).

10
by Pete (not verified) :: Tue, 10/07/2008 - 7:51am

Take a look at the Sagarin rankings. The sample size is still too small, but it is interesting to see how the ELO-Chess looks for some teams (Florida 48 vs. 2) compared to the Predictor. I'm a Gator and I have not been impressed with the offense this year. I do not remember Tebow completing a pass more than 12 yards (several 7-12 yard passes where Harvin has 30 YAC).

12
by bird jam :: Tue, 10/07/2008 - 11:15am

"I have no idea who is going to win the Heisman."

Barring injury, Chase Daniel.

14
by Dave R (not verified) :: Tue, 10/07/2008 - 12:55pm

Look for the Big East winner to have two or three losses, be unranked, and be matched against the non-BCS party-crasher in the Fiesta Bowl.

That's pretty much impossible this year, unless the Fiesta really wants that matchup and the Big 12 champ is in the title game. The BCS selection order this year is

Bowl that loses BCS #1
Bowl that loses BCS #2
Fiesta
Sugar
Orange

Those spots go to 4 at-large teams from the BCS top 14, and the Big East champ. If the top-ranked non-BCS conference champ is in the top 8, they automatically get a bid (right now, it seems extremely likely that the BYU/Utah winner will get this, with an outside shot for Boise State). If ND is in the top 8, they also automatically get a bid (this seems extremely unlikely). And there are rules that give an autobid to BCS #3 or BCS #4 if they don't win their conference under some circumstances.

If a Big 12 team goes to the BCS title game, the Fiesta Bowl will have the first or second choice for a replacement, and dibs on a second Big 12 team if they want it; I can't see any plausible scenario where they wouldn't. While the Rose would have dibs on a second Big Ten or Pac-10 team if a Big Ten or Pac-10 team went to the title game, and the Sugar would have dibs on a second SEC team, both of those can't happen at the same time. And because of its location and the location of three of the highly-ranked non-BCS teams this year, the Fiesta is probably more favorable to non-BCS teams than to any Big East champion.

The Big East champ isn't quite locked into the Orange Bowl; if things play out such that the Fiesta doesn't want a non-BCS champ (Utah, BYU, or Boise State would go over well in Phoenix, but it's quite possible a big-name SEC or Big Ten team could be available as well), then the non-BCS team probably falls to the Orange and the Big East champ is in the Sugar.

In any case, it would take really bizarre results to get the Big East champ in the Fiesta. I can't think of any way that would happen just now.

15
by Kevin 11 (not verified) :: Tue, 10/07/2008 - 3:48pm

While we're talking bowls, the rule where only two teams per conference can recieve BCS invitations is silly, silly, silly.

Don't be surprised if Oklahoma State derails Chase Daniel's Heisman campaign on Saturday night.

16
by Dave R (not verified) :: Tue, 10/07/2008 - 4:37pm

The rule would be sort-of silly if the BCS were distributing spots in a seeded tournament. But it's not; it's a device to help the major conferences make more money. Without the two per conference rule, almost all the at-large bids would go to the SEC and Big Ten every year, and the other 4 major conferences wouldn't sign on for that deal.

17
by blocksmash (not verified) :: Wed, 10/08/2008 - 9:10am

Why does every person who choses to rip the big east manage to completely ignore cincinnati. The only loss they have is to a team that word has it is pretty good. I'm not saying that they should definitely be ranked, but they certainly deserve at least as much, if not more, consideration as any of the teams that are around the cut off.

19
by Kevin Eleven :: Wed, 10/08/2008 - 2:27pm

Huh?

Cincy got blown out by OU, and has yet to beat a single decent team. They beat Akron 17 - 15.

Not exactly the team a conference wants to point at and say "See? We're Good!"

There's no way of getting around it- the Big East is wretched this year.

20
by tide182 :: Thu, 10/09/2008 - 3:44pm

"Alabama was flat and lucky to win over a Kentucky team that I'm not yet sold on."

Alabama may have been flat, but I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say they were "lucky" to win. If you watched the game - as I did with a bunch of Kentucky fans in the city - nobody would suggest that Kentucky was really threatening to "win" the game at any point. The Alabama defense was very strong with the notable exceptions of 2 screen plays and one poor sideline coverage. The offense rolled up 282 yards on the ground to compensate for another of JPW's complete eggs of a game. This was about as comfortable a 17-14 game as it gets - I'd say flat out "uneventful" and otherwise inconsequential.