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29 Sep 2008
by Russell Levine
If this weekend's carnage at the top of the college football polls bore a familiar look, it should. It was vintage 2007.
Last year was a season marked by uncertainty, when no poll position was safe. Upsets became so common that Ohio State lost its final home contest -- and still made the Bowl Championship Series title game. LSU lost its final regular-season game, its second loss of the season, and still won the national championship.
This season appears headed for more chaos after a weekend in which three of the top four teams in the major polls lost, and four of the top 10. Three of the losses came to unranked opponents -- another hallmark of 2007, when a top-five team lost to an unranked foe on 13 occasions.
Saturday's upset parade was so lengthy that by the conclusion of the night, former No. 1 USC's loss at Oregon State Thursday was almost forgotten. Saturday began with Ole Miss stunning No. 4 Florida on its home field, 31-30, by blocking an extra point in the final minutes.
Next up was No. 9 Wisconsin, which somehow lost 27-25 to a Michigan team that managed one first down and five turnovers in its first 10 possessions. Then it was Georgia's turn. The third-ranked Bulldogs were run out of their home stadium by No. 8 Alabama, which raced to a 31-0 halftime lead. Georgia made it interesting for a few minutes in the second half, but the result was never in doubt as Alabama held on 41-30.
The many upsets mean a major shakeup in the polls, and in the national championship outlook. Anyone who follows college football spends much of the season engaging in weekly speculation as to which two teams will end up with the coveted spots in the BCS title game, a selection process that at times looks less organized that picking names out of a hat. The scenarios vary wildly from week-to-week, but there were some clear winners and losers -- even among the team that lost -- this week.
The schools that received the biggest boost from the weekend's results were Oklahoma, which routed TCU 35-10; Texas, which crushed Arkansas, 52-10; and the aforementioned Alabama, which moved all the way to No. 2 in the AP poll. Oklahoma has destroyed four straight opponents by an average score of 50-13. Only a road trip to Baylor stands between the Sooners and the Red River Shootout game against Texas. The Longhorns are also 4-0, with four routs on their resume. Texas, which has a tricky road trip to Colorado next week, has been beating opponents by an almost identical margin: 50-11. Should both Texas and Oklahoma arrive in Dallas undefeated, that game now looms as one of the most important of the regular season, as the winner should be No. 1 when the initial BCS standings are released on Oct. 19.
A week ago, the SEC was the dominant force in the polls, with five teams in the AP top 10. Following the upsets, it's the Big 12 that sits atop the college football landscape, with three teams in the top five: the newly anointed No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 5 Texas, and No. 4 Missouri, which was off this week. The Tigers have an easier road in the Big 12 North than either Texas or Oklahoma in the South, and should be waiting to face the winner of that game in the league championship at the end of the year.
Upstart Alabama is now the SEC's highest-ranked team at No. 2, and is looking head to a game with enormous implications at third-ranked LSU on November 8, but all is not lost for Georgia and Florida. With each upset, the likelihood that the participants in the national title game will be undefeated drops, meaning all the one-loss teams remain in play. Georgia and Florida are still the class of the SEC East, and face each other November 1. Unless Vanderbilt or Kentucky somehow goes undefeated in the SEC -- a less likely result than all this week's upsets put together -- the winner of the Florida-Georgia game will play for the SEC championship and have a chance to play for the national title.
The week's losses were far more damaging for USC and Wisconsin. Both the Big Ten and Pac-10 are having down years, and it will be difficult for either team to climb back up the polls against their soft remaining schedules. USC, because of its national reputation, might benefit from attrition ahead of it, but it will be difficult for the Trojans to win an argument against any other one-loss team if their best results this season end up being against an OK Ohio State and a slightly-improved Notre Dame (the Irish visit USC November 29). USC, at No. 9, is one of just two ranked Pac-10 teams.
Things are only slightly better in the Big Ten, where preseason favorite Ohio State continues to underwhelm, even as the Buckeyes improved to 4-1 with a win over Minnesota Saturday. The Big Ten's best hope now appears to be No. 6 Penn State, which finally played a decent opponent and emerged with a solid, 14-point win over Illinois at home Saturday night.
As tough as things are in the Big Ten and Pac-10, both conferences can still look down their noses at the ACC (no undefeated teams left after Wake Forest lost to Navy on Saturday) and the Big East, where only South Florida and Connecticut remain unscathed.
Then again, with the situation in the polls so fluid from week-to-week, perhaps looking ahead in college football is complete folly. Chaos is the new normal in college football. Don't like the polls this week? Just wait seven days -- they're sure to change.
It was a difficult choice for the JLS trophy this week, as even the bevy of upsets lacked the kind of coaching brain-cramps we've seen the past few weeks.
Still, not everyone is blameless. Take Urban Meyer. Now, any Florida fans caught complaining about their coach should be forced to buy Syracuse season tickets, but I'm not a Florida fan with fresh memories of a national title, so I get to criticize.
After having a potential game-tying extra point blocked, the Gators had another chance to come back and beat Ole Miss Saturday. Trailing 31-30 with 55 seconds left, Florida faced a fourth-and-1 at the Ole Miss 32. Meyer could have sent in the field goal unit to try and win the game with a 49-yarder. It was his one guaranteed shot at victory. Instead, he opted to go for the first down.
Tim Tebow has been pretty much an unstoppable force on short-yardage runs in his career. Still, perhaps there is a problem when even the quarterback knows that everyone in the stadium knows he's going to carry the ball. "I thought I'd will myself to the first down," Tebow said after the game.
He never had a chance. He was buried in the backfield as seemingly the entire Ole Miss defense converged on him.
Meyer is a great coach, and a creative offensive mind. He's going to have to put some of that creativity to work on his short-yardage playbook. Running the quarterback up the gut 100 percent of the time is a trend even college defenses can pick up on.
And if I was hesitant to give the Meyer the JLS Trophy, his third-down call one play earlier cinched it. What are you doing handing the ball off on third-and-10? Yes, Brandon James is explosive and he gained nine yards, but that is a passing situation. Have your Heisman winner put the ball in the air.
Rankings that may require further explanation: Oklahoma gets a slight nod over Alabama because they have been completely dominant in every phase of every game. It's close though, and I'll be re-evaluating these two each week. South Florida makes a big jump because I feel the win over Kansas is a good one, plus being undefeated is suddenly a pretty exclusive club. Again, they'll need to continue to impress to hold the spot. I feel I should punish USC more than I did for a bad loss at Oregon State, but the Trojans are always tough to evaluate. They have more talent than anybody, and would probably still be favored over every single team in the country on a neutral field. I know I would pick them against every team below them and probably a few above (and then hope they decided to show up that day). Georgia takes a bigger hit for pulling a no-show in the first half of a big game -- at home, no less. Florida's loss to Ole Miss might look less like a bad loss as the year goes on. The Ole Miss win affected two other teams: Vanderbilt gets a boost for having beat a team that beat Florida, and Wake Forest stays in the poll after losing to Navy for having beat the Rebels. Texas Tech, please play somebody. The dividing line in this week's poll between teams I feel pretty good about and everyone else falls after sixth-ranked Missouri.
Games I watched at least part of: USC-Oregon State, Connecticut-Louisville, Wisconsin-Michigan, TCU-Oklahoma, Alabama-Georgia, Mississippi State-LSU, Illinois-Penn State, Virginia Tech-Nebraska.
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
12 comments, Last at 01 Oct 2008, 8:12am by footballprofessor