College Football: The Rivalry Week Spectacular

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Rivalry Week is here, and there’s a lot more at stake than just pride. Which is great because, really, who cares about pride? Most of us threw that out the window when we went on welfare just so we could afford HBO. It’s the American story, folks. Don’t blame the messenger. Anyway, there are more games with BCS implications this week than I can ever remember. The rundown is enough to make you store canned peaches and rifles in an underground shelter and pray for Thursday. So, here it be. (Note: I realize that not all of these games are true rivalries, so quit it with your semantics. There are bigger problems in this world, dude, such as your reflexive anger at trivialities.)

The Meaningful Games

No. 3 Arkansas at no. 1 LSU — Obvious. Both teams are vying for a place in the BCS title game, and an Arkansas win would throw the SEC West into swirls of chaos. More on this later.

No 2. Alabama at no. 24 Auburn — From the looks of it, Alabama is all but guaranteed a BCS championship berth with a win. And it won’t even have to go through the hard work of an SEC championship. Which, in fact, creates the bizarre situation of the Crimson Tide rooting for LSU to win so that they don’t win their division. Looks like Alabama coach Nick Saban had a plan all along when he attempted all those impossible field goals against LSU. He was playing possum! Rope-a-dope! Crazy like a fox! Saban-metrics?

No. 5 Virginia Tech at Virginia — With wins over Georgia Tech and Florida State, the Cavaliers are deceptively tough. The winner of this game will face Clemson (which, frankly, looked awful against NC State, a team that can’t even afford leg pads) in the ACC championship game. And the winner of that, of course, makes the BCS bowl.

No. 8 Houston at Tulsa — Unheralded Tulsa is currently undefeated in C-USA, and should be set to provide the toughest challenge of the season to Case Keenum and the Cougars. Two more wins, though, and Houston makes a BCS bowl with an at-large berth.

Knowing how the selection committee operates, Houston will probably have to face the least appealing team possible — think Rutgers or Cincinnati — just so it doesn’t have a chance to prove, yet again, that the BCS system is flawed. Call it Boise State Syndrome. After the Broncos beat Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, ending the season undefeated and leaving real doubt as to whether or not anyone could beat them, the BCS matched them up with TCU the next time they made a BCS bowl in 2010. That way a win wouldn’t shatter the ridiculous notion that the system is fair. While we’re here, just for kicks, let’s look at what’s happened over the past few years to undefeated teams in small conferences when they’ve met a power conference team in a BCS bowl.

    2011: TCU 21, Wisconsin 19
    2009: Utah 31, Alabama 17
    2008: Georgia 41, Hawaii 10
    2007: Boise State 43, Oklahoma 42
    2005: Utah 35, Pittsburgh 7

Other than Notre Dame, which I refuse to count because of its automatic qualification rule (The Fighting Irish make a BCS bowl with if they manage not to punt it backward for an entire season), those are the only games in BCS history between the six power conferences and an outsider. As you see, the outsiders are 4-1. And yet the BCS still has the gall to keep those teams out of a playoff system?

But as they say in Westerns, it’s a fool who looks for justice in college football.

No. 22 Notre Dame at no. 6 Stanford — There are two positive possibilities for Stanford. First, it beats Notre Dame and Oregon loses to Oregon State. That would put Stanford in the Pac-12 title game. Second, it beats Notre Dame and Oregon, Alabama, Virginia Tech, Arkansas, and Oklahoma State (in two weeks) all lose. In that case, Stanford would be in the Pac-12 title game with a chance to make the BCS championship against LSU. Sounds far-fetched, but when you remember what happened last week, anything seems possible.

No. 19 Penn State at no. 16 Wisconsin — The Nittany Lions’ loss to Nebraska after the Sandusky scandal broke gave Wisconsin the sliver of opportunity it required. If the Badgers win at home (and they’re 15-point favorites), they make the Big Ten championship game and get a chance to avenge the Hail Mary loss to Michigan State. That accomplished, they’d head to the Rose Bowl. If Penn State pulls off a minor miracle this weekend, it faces Michigan State for the same stakes.

Oregon State at no. 10 Oregon — A win by the Ducks puts them in the Pac-12 title game, where they’ll only have to beat Utah or UCLA or Arizona State to reach the Rose Bowl. A loss, and Stanford goes in their stead.

Colorado at Utah — Amazingly, the 7-4 Utes have a chance to make the Pac-12 title game. In fact, they have a pretty good one. If they win at home against Colorado (the Buffaloes are just 1-7 in conference), and UCLA loses to USC, both the Bruins and the Utes will be 5-4 in conference. Utah would own the head-to-head tiebreaker, having trounced UCLA 31-6 earlier this month. But wait …

California at Arizona State — The Sun Devils would also be 5-4 with a win at home. And while they lost a nail-biter to UCLA, they beat Utah with ease earlier in the season. Which means we’d have ourselves a three-way tie! A failure of the transitive property! I wonder what the Pac-12 has to say about all that? Prepare yourselves now for some mathematical dexterity — the race would then go to division record, where ASU would be 3-2, Utah would be 3-2, and UCLA would be 2-3. That eliminates UCLA, at which point head-to-head is used between the remaining schools, sending Arizona State to the title game. But, of course …

UCLA at USC — The Bruins can avoid all those complications by beating their Los Angeles rival. Then they’d be Pac-12-title-game-bound. And in case you’re wondering, yes, USC has a better record than any of these teams in the South Division, but it can’t go to the conference championship because of NCAA violations. Lane Kiffin tried to assassinate Les Miles, I think. It’s all unclear. And in case you’re still wondering, yes, I just wasted way too much time figuring out which team will get the honor of being blown out by Oregon next week.

Iowa State at no. 9 Oklahoma — If the Cyclones can pull off a second straight stunner, Oklahoma would be eliminated from BCS contention. Even a win against Oklahoma State next week wouldn’t do the trick. The Cowboys would clinch the Big 12 title on a bye. In which case, they could just have in the final week, throwing the ball at the ref, bringing pizzas onto the field, kicking 90-yard field goals, etc.

The ‘Just for Pride’ Games

No. 13 Georgia at no. 23 Georgia Tech — After a shaky win against Kentucky secured an SEC championship berth for the Bulldogs, they’ll want to go into that difficult matchup on a high note. Against Georgia Tech, it’s all about establishing an early lead for quarterback Aaron Murray. Manage that, and Georgia Tech will have a hard — not to say impossible — time mounting a comeback. But falling behind to Tevin Jackson and the Yellow Jackets option offense is a quick way to invite frustration into your day. That’s one bee’s nest you don’t want to throw a broom at, if you get what I’m saying. If there’s one thing Tech knows how to do, it’s chew clock. And the last thing Georgia needs before facing one of the SEC West giants is a rivalry loss.

No. 17 Clemson at no. 12 South Carolina — There’s one object here for the Tigers, and that’s to right the ship after a humiliating blowout loss to NC State last week. Unlike Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks, they still have a shot to reach a BCS bowl. But a South Carolina win might mitigate what must be a bitter taste, despite a strong 9-2 record. Unlike many of its SEC East brethren, the Gamecocks were blessed with a schedule that did not include LSU or Alabama. The Florida Gators are evidence of what those teams can do to an innocent season, but South Carolina couldn’t take advantage of their leisure.

The reason? There was one team even luckier, and that team was Georgia. Not only did the Bulldogs avoid LSU and Bama, but they also dodged Arkansas. In fact, that’s the difference in the season. South Carolina beat Georgia, but Arkansas provided the critical second loss in conference, and the Gamecocks were relegated to a lower bowl. It’s not fair, but as we already know, it’s a fool who looks for justice in college football.

No. 25 Texas at Texas A&M — This is essentially a mercy-killing game for the Longhorns, who can put the Aggies down for good after one of the most frustrating seasons in fake military history. When you consider that A&M held a double-digit halftime lead in every single loss except the Oklahoma game, it actually boggles the mind. (It’s true — I never knew what that phrase meant until I contemplated A&M’s fate. Now I have conversations with coffee mugs.)

With a competent coach at the helm, this team would be 10-1 and on the verge of winning the Big 12 championship. Instead, it’s 6-5 and unranked. Meanwhile, the Longhorns are in a down year and have lost to every ranked opponent on the schedule, plus Missouri. But credit goes to Mack Brown for winning the games he was supposed to win, despite the young quarterbacks and the relative inexperience, and leading his team to bowl eligibility. Make no mistake — A&M is the better pure team here, and it should win at home. But “should” isn’t a word that’s been real popular in College Station this season.

Ohio State at no. 15 Michigan — It seems like Luke Fickell is on the way out, but he can go proudly by maintaining the school’s seven-year win streak against Michigan. As far as interim coaches under extreme pressure go, Fickell has been terrific. It’s important to remember that four of Ohio State’s five losses have come by seven points or less. A lot of things didn’t work out, but he always had his team in position to win. As for Michigan, the season essentially came down to a two-touchdown loss at Michigan State. After that game, they never had a chance at the Big Ten Legends Division. But a 10-2 season, and a closing win over the Buckeyes, would still look pretty sweet.

Duke at North Carolina — This game will determine whether UNC coach Everett Withers is merely fired or burned at the stake in downtown Chapel Hill.

Iowa at No. 21 Nebraska — Two 4-3 Big Ten teams that never quite had the firepower to win the big one.

Texas Tech at no. 18 Baylor — Robert Griffin III has his chance to follow up the Oklahoma upset and put an exclamation point on his Heisman candidacy.

About That LSU-Arkansas Game …

Let’s ask the question we’re all thinking: Does Arkansas really have a chance?

My answer is no, and these are the reasons:

1. Look at LSU’s schedule. How many close games do you see? One. Alabama. Beyond that, the smallest margin of victory is 13. The Tigers haven’t even conceded more than 11 points in a game since September. Now look at Arkansas. There’s the blowout loss to Alabama. There’s the crazy comeback against Texas A&M. There’s the escape against Ole Miss. There’s the escape against Vanderbilt. I know you can’t use the transitive property to predict sports, hence the presence of so many three-way ties, but let’s be honest: There are two profiles emerging here. On one side, you’ve got a pretty good team. On the other, you’ve got a great team. Maybe historically great. Maybe better-than-Abraham Lincoln great.

2. The game is at LSU.

3. Arkansas loves to pass. In fact, the Razorbacks pass even more than they run, a rarity in the SEC. Tyler Wilson has had a nice season, with more than 3,000 yards, 21 touchdowns, and just five interceptions. Unfortunately, LSU is one of the top-five passing defenses in the country. It has allowed only five passing touchdowns the whole season. A terrific secondary, led by Tyrann Mathieu and Eric Reid (questionable for Saturday, it should be noted), takes pride in conceding nothing.

The team they most resemble, of course, is Alabama. And how did Wilson and the Razorbacks fare in that loss? Well, he completed 22-of-35 for 185 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. But here’s the crucial stat — he averaged just 5.3 yards per attempt. On the season, even including that game, he averages 8.4 yards per attempt. That tells you everything you need to know about how stifled the Razorbacks felt when facing an elite defense. And it’s not going to be any better against LSU. We know that by now.

4. Arkansas is eighth out of 12 teams in the SEC in run defense. It allows 4.3 yards per rush, compared to 2.7 for LSU. The bad news, as you’ve probably already guessed, is that LSU is the second-best rushing offense in the SEC, averaging 210 yards per game. The Tigers run twice as often as they throw, and have been able to bully every team they’ve faced except Alabama. Spencer Ware and Jordan Jefferson and Michael Ford and Alfred Blue will absolutely find room in the Razorback defensive line. Les Miles is no dummy; he knows how to exploit a weakness, and don’t be surprised to see him grind Arkansas into dust.

It’s nice to think about a three-way tie in the SEC and all the drama it would create, but we’re getting our hopes up for nothing. Vegas has LSU favored by 13, but they’re only halfway to the truth. Sort of like most cults. They just never go far enough.

The Energy Infusion Call

Then again, what’s wrong with hope? Here’s one for the Hogs.

Holy hog!

The Upset Watch

I’m going to make this quick. After a week of rejuvenation, we’re now 10-17 straight up and 13-14 against the spread. With a perfect week, I could become better than a coin flip, proving my father wrong once and for all.

1. Iowa at no. 21 Nebraska. After the Huskers’ disheartening loss to Michigan last week, I like the Hawkeyes to beat the nine-point spread and win outright.

2. No. 5 Virginia Tech at Virginia. Vegas is already running scared, setting the line at five. When’s the last time you saw a top-five team favored by less than a touchdown against an unranked opponent? I like Virginia’s attitude, and I like its big wins over Georgia Tech and Florida State. Also, Tech keeps narrowly surviving against teams like Duke and UNC. It’s time to pay the piper.

3. No. 14 Michigan State at Northwestern. We saw last week with Clemson what happens when a team clinches its division and doesn’t really care what happens against a so-so opponent. Northwestern got its big win against Nebraska, but performed surprisingly well against the best the Big Ten had to offer all season. The Wildcats have now won four in a row, and this will be their Super Bowl. The spread is just seven, but I like Northwestern to win by 10.

I’ll spare you the conference rundown since we covered almost every game in existence. As a prelude to Championship Saturday, this year’s Rivalry Week is a gem. Enjoy the holiday, you turkey-gobbling saints.

Previously by Shane Ryan:
Fantasy Fantasy Football: The Experts’ Week 11 Picks
Maui Invitational, Day 1: A Triumph of Discipline
Inspired by the Greatest Upset Ever: A Maui Invitational Preview


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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere