Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
13 Oct 2008
by Russell Levine
I suppose we should be used to this by now. Three of the top five teams went down this weekend to once again shake up the poll. But how much has really changed about college football's championship picture?
Texas beating Oklahoma was hardly a surprise; both teams were undefeated after authoring a series of routs against mostly overmatched competition. Florida beating LSU was also expected, although the 30-point margin should open some eyes. Florida was at home, at night, and if the SEC has proven anything over the past few seasons, it's that in games among the league's upper echelon, just about anything can and should be expected.
Florida finally showed off the offense everyone has been expecting since August. Tim Tebow threw for 210 yards and two scores in a highly efficient performance (14-of-21) and also ran for a score. The Gators were able sustain long scoring drives against the LSU defense. Florida unleashed its big-play, quick-strike attack, scoring on a 70-yard pass and a 42-yard run. Three touchdown drives covered less than three minutes. But Florida was also able to possess the ball, twice putting together 11-play field goal marches. The Gators were balanced as well, gaining 265 of their 475 yards on the ground. LSU, which wants to be a power-rushing team, was forced to play from behind the entire contest and managed just 80 yards on the ground.
The Gators must once again be considered serious national title contenders, as they have a far more favorable schedule than does Georgia, their prime competition in the SEC East. Florida has just two true road games remaining -- at Vanderbilt and at Florida State to end the year -- plus the neutral-site game against the Bulldogs to go along with home games against Kentucky, South Carolina, and The Citadel. Georgia, which hasn't offered any single performance nearly as impressive as what Florida just did to LSU, still must travel to LSU, Kentucky, and Auburn, while also facing Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech at home.
Alabama, the SEC's lone unbeaten team, has a one-game lead in the West but has yet to play LSU. That game will take place November 8 in Baton Rouge. It's not too early to say that game will determine the West champ; no other team in the division has fewer than three conference losses.
In summary, despite all the shakeups, the rise of Alabama and Vanderbilt, Georgia's struggles, Florida losing to Ole Miss, the self-immolation of Auburn, etc., etc., the SEC picture is actually quite simple. The Florida/Georgia winner plays the Alabama/LSU winner in the title game in Atlanta. Provided the winner of that game has no more than one loss, it will almost certainly play in the national championship game.
The Big 12 picture is more complicated after Missouri's surprising loss at home to Oklahoma State. Because of the league's almost universal Charmin-soft non-conference scheduling, all its top teams arrived at the season's midpoint as somewhat unknowns. None were more of a mystery than Texas Tech or Oklahoma State. Between the two, they had managed to start the season 10-0 without beating anyone better than 4-2 Kansas State (which Texas Tech beat by 30 last week). Three of the 10 wins came against championship subdivision teams, three more against non-BCS conference clubs with a combined record of 9-8.
Even though both won to remain undefeated, Texas Tech remains by far the bigger mystery. The Red Raiders needed a late comeback to beat Nebraska at home -- a Nebraska team that had been blown out by both Virginia Tech and Missouri in its own stadium -- a result that once again suggests that Mike Leach's team might not be ready to make the leap to conference contender status.
Like all of Leach's teams, this one can roll up statistics with the best of them. It came in averaging 48 points per game but needed every one of the 37 it scored Saturday. It came in averaging 439 yards passing per game but was held to a pedestrian 284 by a Nebraska defense that doesn't exactly conjure up memories of the "black shirts" of old. Nebraska actually outgained the Red Raiders through the air, and might have held on to win if not for a titanic gamble by Leach, who opted to go for it on fourth-and-5 from his own 36-yard-line with under four minutes to play.
Unless this effort was an outlier, Texas Tech's stay in the upper echelon of the polls will be a short one. In the next five weeks, the Red Raiders are at Texas A&M, at Kansas, home to Texas, home to Oklahoma State, and at Oklahoma -- a four-week murderer's row if ever there was one. I have a feeling that during that stretch Leach might wish he had better prepared his team by actually playing somebody in the non-conference schedule that could threaten to win. His teams get soft on the early blowouts, but often blink when put to the test.
I love Leach. His outside-the-box thinking and his wacky, pirate-loving persona are both a welcome addition to college football. My problem is that his program is still scheduling is if its only goal is to get to a bowl game each season. Texas Tech should be past that point. It has enough talent and national profile that it can think about competing for bigger goals. It is time to get a schedule to match.
Oklahoma State is a step behind Texas Tech, and so the scheduling is a bit more forgivable. The Cowboys haven't won more than seven games in Gundy's first three seasons. But with T. Boone Pickens's money, there's no reason to suspect they can't make the leap up to the next level. If this is the season the Cowboys accomplish that feat it will be time for Oklahoma State, too, to beef up the schedule.
For now, neither team will have a leg to stand on if their schedule costs them an appearance in the BCS -- not just the championship game, but an at-large bid if either finishes runner-up in the conference. Call it the Kansas State syndrome. Bill Snyder patented weak scheduling as the way to build up a program, but he could never break the habit even after his program had arrived, and it constantly came back to bite the Wildcats come bowl selection time.
The win over Missouri got Oklahoma State up to No. 11 in the coaches' poll, but the Cowboys, too, are about to run the Big 12 gauntlet. The next four weeks includes road trips to both Texas and Texas Tech, and the regular season ends at home against Oklahoma.
Not to take anything away from Oklahoma State, which was outstanding the entire game (one dubious coaching decision aside -- see below), but I have a feeling Missouri might have played a lot better had this game been simultaneous to the Texas-Oklahoma contest. Instead, it started about four hours after the Sooners were knocked off, and Missouri knew going in that it was one impressive performance away from getting serious consideration for being No. 1 in the polls. The Tigers never seemed to get started, and looked like they were pressing throughout.
On an individual level, Chase Daniel could have seized control of the Heisman chase with a big game against the Cowboys. Instead, he looked out of place -- both wearing No. 25 (to honor a fallen teammate) and in throwing three interceptions.
Missouri and Daniel have no time to feel sorry for themselves, with a road date at Texas this week. That's the bad news. The good news is that if they can put things together and beat the Longhorns, they'll be right back in national title contention. They have a much easier road in the Big 12 North, and should face Kansas at the end of the year with a berth in the league championship game on the line. Like in the SEC, winning the conference title should be an automatic ticket to the BCS championship, provided the titlist has no more than one loss.
So, LSU and Missouri both have legitimate paths back to title contention. Oddly, Saturday's results were most devastating to the team that came in ranked No. 1, Oklahoma. Because they lost to a South division rival, the Sooners now need help to even reach the Big 12 title game. There are three teams in the south -- Texas, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State -- that are undefeated. The Sooners can take care of the latter two themselves, but will need Texas to lose twice.
And don't look now, but lurking at No. 4 in the coaches' poll is USC, the loss to Oregon State all of two weeks ago now but a distant memory. If the Trojans keep winning, they will certainly be in the mix come January.
What will next week bring? In the modern state of college football, your guess is as good as mine. There's only one certainty, that it's ridiculous to interpret the impact of a single loss in its immediate aftermath.
I've said it so often in this space I should probably dispense with it. "It" being the statement "I hate to kill coach X on a day when he ended up with a huge victory, but still..."
So, with that non-apology apology, I present this week's JLS Trophy to (drum roll please) Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy.
On a night his team earned a potential program-defining win over then No. 3 Missouri, Gundy (who's a man, in case you weren't sure) nearly handed back all of Oklahoma State's early momentum with an asinine fake punt attempt.
With 10 minutes to play in the first half, Oklahoma State led 7-3 and had completely stifled Missouri's offense. Yet on fourth-and-17 from its own 24-yard line, Oklahoma State punter Matt Fodge took the snap, rolled to his right on one of the rugby-style punts that have become all the rage in college football, and kept ... on ... rolling.
Fodge thought he saw an opening and took it up the sidelines, where he was easily forced out of bounds by a Missouri defender five yards short of the marker.
Less than two minutes later, Missouri completed the 36-yard touchdown drive to take the lead at halftime.
Now, it's possible Fodge made the decision to go for it on his own. The rugby-style formation does give the punter that option in certain circumstances. But it is the coach's job to tell his punter "YOU WILL KICK THIS BALL" when it's fourth-and-17 and the only thing that can hand the momentum to your opponent is some sort of a turnover.
And yes, I imagine Gundy speaking in all caps. Enjoy the big win coach, but you still get the JLS.
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 .
Rankings that may require further explanation: Texas, Alabama, and even Penn State are a toss-up and will shuffle from week-to-week. Texas has beaten the team I felt was the best in the country and also has a decent win at Colorado, while destroying everyone else. Alabama destroyed Georgia (for a half, anyway) on the road, edged Kentucky at home and destroyed everyone else. The Clemson win doesn't look like much anymore. Penn State has destroyed everyone, with wins over ho-hum Illinois, and potentially decent (despite three losses) Wisconsin. I give the slight edge to Texas over Alabama right now, with Penn State just a touch farther back. Great win by Oklahoma State, but they've played a one-game season thus far. Keep it up, and they'll move past USC. USC is ahead of Florida because a road loss to Oregon State is better than a home loss to Ole Miss, in my book. Yes, the rout of LSU was impressive, but maybe I was wrong about LSU? The Tigers' big win was over Auburn, and Auburn looks like its headed for a losing record. Right now I have more questions about the strength of the SEC than I do the Big 12. Georgia has yet to really put it together for 60 minutes, Florida has looked lousy in stretches, and I don't believe Kentucky is that good. Vandy just loss to Mississippi State. You get the picture. If there's one area I'm not happy about, it's ranking South Florida while not finding room for Pittsburgh. I justify this because Pitt lost at home to Bowling Green, a team that is 3-3 and 1-1 in MAC play.
Games I watched at least part of: Clemson-Wake Forest, Toledo-Michigan, Texas-Oklahoma, Vanderbilt-Mississippi State, Nebraska-Texas Tech, Notre Dame-North Carolina, Tennessee-Georgia, Penn State-Wisconsin, LSU-Florida, Oklahoma State-Missouri.
21 comments, Last at 15 Oct 2008, 6:59am by DandyDan