Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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13 Oct 2008

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Shakeup, Really?

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.

John L. Smith Trophy

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.

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

Dropped Out: Northwestern (No. 25).

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.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 13 Oct 2008

21 comments, Last at 15 Oct 2008, 6:59am by DandyDan


by Dales :: Mon, 10/13/2008 - 4:15pm

I do not take it for granted that a 1-loss SEC team (assuming there is one) and a 1-loss Big 12 team (assuming there is one) will meet in the BCS title game.

I think an undefeated (assuming they stay that way) Penn State team makes the BCS championship game.

by Dave Glass (not verified) :: Mon, 10/13/2008 - 4:35pm

I agree with Dales - if 12-0 PSU misses the title game, then the BCS system loses any and all credibility (not that it has much now) with me...but let's wait till after the PSU-OSU game in 2 weeks.

And yes, I'm assuming Michigan is a win...there's no excuse, none whatsoever, for PSU to blow that game at home to this Michigan team.

by Kevin Eleven :: Mon, 10/13/2008 - 7:40pm


Penn State's non-conference schedule (Coastal Carolina, Oregon State, Syracuse and Temple) is soft, and the Big Ten isn't in the same class as the SEC or Big-12.

Not to worry- I doubt we'll see one undefeated team, let alone three.

by Alex51 :: Mon, 10/13/2008 - 8:44pm

Penn State's non-conference schedule (Coastal Carolina, Oregon State, Syracuse and Temple) is soft

Well, yeah, but Oregon State did beat USC, and Penn State absolutely demolished Oregon State, so I think that counts for something. And Penn State is already ranked 3rd, and I doubt that anyone will jump them in the polls if they stay undefeated.

by Kevin Eleven :: Mon, 10/13/2008 - 10:58pm

It definitely counts for something...but no one is arguing an undefeated PSU over Southern Cal.

The bottom line is no one could put PSU ahead of an unbeaten from the SEC or Big 12.

Pac-10 isn't in the discussion.

by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Tue, 10/14/2008 - 12:04am

Again, it really depends. If Ohio State and Michigan State win out, except for each other and Penn State, and Penn State beats both of them (and all others) by 14 points or more, why wouldn't they be ahead of an SEC/Big 12 unbeaten if those unbeatens were close games?

This isn't Hawaii in 2007, which went unbeaten with close victories. This would be a team in a BCS conference, dominating its opponents. You could put that team easily over another unbeaten, depending on how those victories came.

In general, though, assume equal quality of victory for both teams, you're right.

by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Mon, 10/13/2008 - 9:38pm

At this point, the chance of seeing an undefeated team is the chance of Penn State beating Ohio State in two weeks. If Penn State's 11-0 going into its final game at home versus Michigan State, it's an absolute lock. Penn State's got one of the biggest home-field advantages in the nation, and when they're standing on the verge of a Big Ten championship, a national championship, and an undefeated season, Michigan State would have to sell its soul in order to win that game.

Other teams have a shot at an undefeated season too, but Penn State's got the easiest path.

Penn State's non-conference schedule (Coastal Carolina, Oregon State, Syracuse and Temple) is soft, and the Big Ten isn't in the same class as the SEC or Big-12.

Yes, but when you beat every opponent by 14 points or more, you've established yourself well above the competition. It's all about how Penn State does against Ohio State and Michigan State. The game at Iowa could be interesting too, depending on how Iowa does in the remaining games as well. If Penn State dominates (14+ again) all of that group, it's a given that they're in the NC. There won't be 2 other teams in college football that will have dominated their opposition like that.

by DMP (not verified) :: Tue, 10/14/2008 - 12:24pm

I find it difficult to imagine the OSU or MSU offenses keeping up with Penn State's. A win at OSU should virtually put a stamp on an undefeated season. About the only thing that would stand in the way after that would be Lloyd Carr's ghost, but I'm guessing not even that is going to help Michigan at Penn State this week.

by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Tue, 10/14/2008 - 6:24pm

I don't think even a Presidential decree declaring Michigan the victor could help them win this week. If you remember that Michigan's problem is that they've got a bunch of young kids on offense, it gets even worse. Freshmen... facing 110,000 loud, raucous fans, already half-drunk because it's Homecoming, and they've been outside in Paternoville for two days.

The worst thing for Michigan is that Penn State's a particularly bad matchup for them. Option runs, screens, bubble screens, end arounds - they all attack the linebackers in particular, and Michigan's linebackers are a particularly weak spot. Just about the only silver lining is that Penn State's linebackers are a little slow (I really don't get the love for Bowman), and so a similar pattern of plays (which is pretty much all Michigan runs) will stress them a bit, too. But given the quality of the skill players, this is a pretty minor silver lining. More like a "silver glint." Or "the faint hint of a silver lining."

The only way it could get worse is if it were a night game.

by Dave R (not verified) :: Mon, 10/13/2008 - 4:52pm

I think the odds of an undefeated BCS conference team missing the BCS title game in a year with two or fewer undefeated BCS conference teams is pretty close to zero. Even if the undefeated team were Duke, Baylor, or my Orange, and they had played a cupcake non-conference schedule.

Having said that, I've maintained all year (and all of last year, too) that the SEC champion will have two losses, and so will miss the BCS title game. It looks like the Big 12 champ will have 1 loss (I can't see Texas or Oklahoma State running the table). And while a 1-loss traditional SEC power might get voted in ahead of a 1-loss USC, I don't think the Big 12 teams will have that luxury.

by Kevin 11 (not verified) :: Mon, 10/13/2008 - 5:25pm

1. Alabama
2. Texas
3. Penn State- this IS Paterno's final season, and he deserves credit for how well he has handled...everything. In an ideal world JoPa would go out with a big bowl win, Tom Bradley would follow, and he would do well.
4. Oklahoma State- forget about Mike Gundy's wacky press conference. Sticking to the facts, has he done well by his school?
5. Georgia
6. Oklahoma
7. Utah
8. Florida
9. Southern Cal
10. BYU
11. Missouri
12. Virginia Tech
13. Ohio State
14. LSU
15. Texas Tech
16. North Carolina
17. California
18. Pittsburgh
19. Michigan State
20. Boise State
21. South Carolina
22. TCU
23. Georgia Tech
24. Ball State
25. Wake Forest

Russell, thanks for turning me on to www.thewizofodds.com. Wicked cool site.

As you’re all aware, the axe fell squarely on Tommy Bowden’s head today. Such an early firing is unusual, and it made me wonder: Bowden had a reputation as a coach that several times seemingly was one loss away from being fired. It seemed as if Clemson didn’t want to give him a chance to finish 8 – 4 and salvage a chance to coach again in 2009.

The guys at CFN put it best: “While Bowden certainly had some high points, on and off the field, since arriving in 1999, a decade is a very long time to get over the hump. Too long, in fact.”

by lionsbob :: Mon, 10/13/2008 - 5:43pm

It sounded like Bowden lost his players from their quotes about his firing.

by t.d. :: Mon, 10/13/2008 - 6:57pm

Florida looked like they figured it out on offense, and I could see them running the table. Texas has been more thoroughly dominant than Penn State but they really face a gauntlet from last week forward. Penn State could have a relatively easy ride to the title game.

by Dave R (not verified) :: Mon, 10/13/2008 - 7:10pm

Florida looked like they figured it out on offense, and I could see them running the table.

... but given that it's the SEC, where no one has an offense, though Florida can sometimes use Tebow to simulate one (to great effect last Saturday), you just know they've got an excellent chance of losing another game. Even if they're not playing MSU, and so can't get Croomed.

by Fourth (not verified) :: Mon, 10/13/2008 - 10:49pm

Did you watch the LSU game? See Demps, Jeff...Rainey, Chris...or Harvin, Percy--Tebow had about 22 of the 250+ rushing yards in that game. He had 210 yards passing. That wasn't a one man show Saturday, which granted is a departure from the 2007 version of the team.

by Justin Zeth :: Mon, 10/13/2008 - 11:43pm

Missouri's #25 tradition is really very cool.

by pawnking (not verified) :: Tue, 10/14/2008 - 10:12am

Thanks to LSU losing to Florida, it's easy to see how they could beat Alabama and lose one more, maybe to Georgia, handing Bama the West.

by War Eagle (not verified) :: Tue, 10/14/2008 - 10:55am

They'll get blown out by Bama if they play like that again.

by Marcumzilla :: Tue, 10/14/2008 - 3:55pm

Go Rockets!

(my alma mater)

by Mac (not verified) :: Tue, 10/14/2008 - 5:48pm

Yeah, I think Georgia would be favored over LSU right now, and Alabama really shouldn't have a problem with anyone else on their schedule. Auburn is collapsing, Tennessee has collapsed, and the Mississippi schools are the Mississippi schools. And all but Tennessee (and LSU) are at home. I might even say that the most likely scenario is Alabama finishing 11-1 with the one loss at LSU and winning the west.

Knowing Alabama as I do -- I am a fan, but also a realist -- I could see them blowing any conference game. But they shouldn't.

by DandyDan (not verified) :: Wed, 10/15/2008 - 6:59am

Texas Tech was lucky, only the article misses much of the story. That fourth down play, at least according to Graham Harrell in the postgame press conference, was supposed to be one of those attempts to draw the Huskers offsides, only the center snapped it when he thought one of them was, only they didn't get the penalty. So they got lucky there. But even after they scored Nebraska scored to force overtime. And in overtime, while Tech scored, they missed the extra point (I think it was a block and BTW, Tech's kicking is really bad), so Nebraska could have won. However, Joe Ganz threw an interception when he clearly should have taken a sack and that was it. Tech was lucky and I don't see them winning the Big XII South.