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.
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.
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: 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.