The College Football Spectacular: Week 5 Preview

If you’re like me, you spend a good part of the day pondering this question: how can the College Football Spectacular win a Pulitzer Prize? This week, I realized there was just one way — exposing injustice. Seriously, take a look at the list of recent winners in the investigative reporting category. We’re talking crooked cops, congressional corruption, university cronyism, insurance scams, voter fraud, etc. But I think I’ve got one to top them all:

The SEC East division championship.

Quick background for the uninitiated: the SEC is split into East and West. The regular season winner of each division plays in the conference championship game, and the winner of that plays in a BCS bowl. For each of the past five years, that BCS bowl has been the national championship. In other words, winning the division is step one to winning a national title.

Bear with me while I explain the injustice. The winner of the division is determined by overall conference record. Since the SEC has 12 schools, it’s impossible for one team to play all the other conference teams in a single season. Instead, each team plays the five other teams in their division, but just three of the six teams from the other division. The randomness of which teams they face can lead to a huge scheduling imbalance, and it’s happening in 2011 with Florida and South Carolina.

Both teams are in the East, which means they play only three teams from the West. Here are no. 12 Florida’s SEC West opponents: no. 3 Alabama, no. 1 LSU, and unranked Auburn. Here are no. 10 South Carolina’s: unranked Auburn, unranked Mississippi State, and no. 18 Arkansas.

Let’s consider a scenario where Florida wins on the road at South Carolina this year, but otherwise each team plays to its current ranking for the whole season. That means Florida goes 5-0 in the SEC East, but loses to Alabama and LSU for a 6-2 conference record. South Carolina finishes 4-1 in the SEC East, with the only loss coming against Florida, but they tally three wins against inferior SEC West teams. That makes South Carolina’s record 7-1, and gives the Gamecocks the SEC East championship over Florida. They get the conference title game, the shot at a BCS bowl, and the hope for a national title.

There’s your injustice. The easy solution is to decide the division champion based on division record rather than overall conference record. And by the way, the Big 10, ACC, and Pac-12 do the same thing. So with this change, you’d be fixing more than one major conference. If that’s not Pulitzer-worthy, then they should just cancel the prize.

Moving on to the real world. Hitch your Dungarees for:

THE BIG OLE GAME!

This was another week chock full of contenders. It was tempting to continue the Gator theme and go with no. 3 Alabama at no. 12 Florida. Or pick no. 13 Clemson at no. 11 Virginia Tech, which is so good that it has dark horse national championship implications. But I’m drawn up north to the Big 10 for this week’s chosen showdown:

No. 8 Nebraska at No. 7 Wisconsin

It’s been an incredible, effortless, nearly perfect opening month for Wisconsin. Quarterback Russell Wilson, a transfer from N.C. State, is second only to Baylor’s Robert Griffin III in national QB rating. He’s completing 75.8 percent of his passes at 12 yards a pop, with 11 touchdowns to just one interception. Nick Toon, son of the great Al Toon, has racked up 353 receiving yards and five touchdowns, and Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen aren’t far behind. If you count Wilson, the team has five rushers with at least 16 carries, and the lowest average among any back is 4.9 yards per carry. The most yards the defense has allowed in a game is 292, against UNLV. The most points they’ve conceded is 17. Take a breath, but not too deep: the Badger narrative is one of comprehensive, brutal domination.

And after facing Nebraska on Saturday, the Badgers might not play a ranked team for the rest of the regular season. Italics necessary, my friends. I mean, wow. Wowee wow wow. Consider that. The only ranked team left on Wisconsin’s schedule is no. 24 Illinois, but by the time they face the Illini in mid-November, who the hell knows if Illinois will even be ranked? It sounds crazy to say this before Week 5, but a win at home makes Wisconsin frontrunners for a national championship berth. When you look around at the major contenders in college football that remain undefeated, you won’t find an easier schedule.

And what about the team that stands in Wisconsin’s way? Nebraska has also amassed a 4-0 record, albeit in a slightly less convincing fashion. They were challenged at home against Washington, allowing the visiting Huskies 420 yards of total offense. Earlier this month, they were up just two points at home in the fourth quarter against Fresno State before Ameer Abdullah returned a kickoff 100 yards to help seal a win. Again, Nebraska allowed more than 400 yards of offense and were actually out-gained by six yards on the day. This is not the strongest defense in Nebraska history, to put it plainly, but the offense has been OK. Quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead are both averaging 6.7 yards on 60+ carries. They’ve found the end zone seven times each, and Martinez has four more in the air. The receiving corps presents a more balanced attack, with no player yet boasting double digit receptions on the season.

Despite the similar rankings, this doesn’t feel like a close game. Wisconsin is currently favored by nine, and at home you’d expect the Badgers to win by that margin or more. It comes down to a triumph of D; it’ll be the best defensive unit Nebraska’s offense has faced all year, but I’m not at all convinced that the opposite is true. The Badger juggernaut shows no signs of slowing, and Nebraska’s shaky defense is due for a reckoning.

Other Clashes of the Ranked

No. 12 Florida at no. 3 Alabama. To have a guaranteed shot at the SEC East title, Florida needs to do two things. First, it needs to beat South Carolina. Second, for the reasons mentioned above, it need to steal a win against either LSU or Alabama. The Gators will have their first shot this weekend at home. Alabama opened as six-point favorites, but that’s dropped to four; with Florida’s defense ranked fourth nationally in points allowed, there are apparently second thoughts circulating about what Alabama can accomplish in the Swamp. And maybe there’s good reason to doubt exactly how efficient its offense can be, but the doubts should pale compared to those on the other side. Florida relies on a rushing approach (by almost a two-to-one ratio), and that’s not a formula bound to succeed against the stalwart Alabama defense. In last week’s blowout win over Arkansas, the Hogs made a token effort to run the ball, and Ronnie Wingo managed just 3.2 yards per carry for his troubles.

Even with homefield advantage, this is looking like a low-scoring slug fest that Florida will lose by 10-15 points. But win or lose, nobody can take this Will Muschamp/Star Wars press conference clip away from them. Instant classic.

Next, I can’t think of a more appetizing game than no. 13 Clemson at no. 11 Virginia Tech. I fully admit that I’m starry-eyed about Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, and the Clemson attack. Along with Oklahoma State, this is the most fun team to watch in college football. Maybe that’s blinding me to their weaknesses, but if that’s the case, I don’t want to open my eyes just yet.

After winning at home against Florida State, it’s right back to the grind for Clemson. At the moment, Tech is a 7-point favorite. And why, exactly? This is a team that squeaked by East Carolina 17-10 on the road. Sure, the Hokies’ defense has been solid against scrubs, but they’re not showing an awful lot on offense. QB Logan Thomas is only completing 57 percent of his passes, and he’s thrown as many picks as touchdowns. David Wilson has had a nice year rushing (516 yards, 5.9 per carry), but Clemson is competent against the run. (FSU only managed 1.9 yards per carry last week.) Road game or not, I’m riding the love affair with the Clemson Tigers until they break my heart.

Last, it’s no. 14 Texas A&M at no. 18 Arkansas. Both teams suffered hard losses last week —Arkansas in a rout against Alabama and A&M in a one-point loss to Oklahoma State. It’s a tough redemption chance for both, and maybe an opportunity for everyone else to get a better sense of the respective strength of the Big 12 and SEC. Were I a man of the gambling persuasion, I wouldn’t touch this game with a ten-foot pole. It feels completely unpredictable, but it’s absolutely a must-win for both. For the loser, the floodgates to a depressing season will be wide open.

Upset Watch

The upset landscape, happily, seems to be less barren than Week 4. Here are three to keep an eye on:

1. Auburn at no. 10 South Carolina. Hmmmm. This is a tricky one, isn’t it? Auburn has carried the stench of an overrated team since its Week 1 miracle against Utah State, but the rest of its results are hard to read. The Tigers won a close one at home against Mississippi State, which looks worse all the time, but they hung around for a while with a Clemson team poised to break into the Top 10. South Carolina, on the other hand, escaped by three against Georgia and Navy, the latter at home. So let’s ask ourselves: could Auburn be better than Georgia and Navy? If the answer’s yes, they have at least a chance to win outright. The spread here is 10.

2. No. 16 South Florida at Pittsburgh. This is a fascinating Big East match-up that has “pick ‘em” written all over it. Pitt actually opened as three point favorites, but the betting swung it back to USF, which is now favored by two. Pitt, at 2-2, is coming off a hard loss to Notre Dame and a 4-point defeat at Iowa. The only thing it does particularly well on offense is run, with Ray Graham averaging 5.1 yards per carry. South Florida scores a lot of points with a balanced attack, and quarterback B.J. Daniels has been effective, with eight touchdowns to just one pick. But against the Irish in Week 1, the Bulls needed some late mistakes to notch a close win. On the road at Pittsburgh, these teams look evenly matched, and I can’t see a compelling reason (besides the deceiving record) to favor South Florida.

3. No. 15 Baylor at Kansas State. The “how good is Baylor?” question really comes down to “how good is TCU?”, the team it beat in Week 1. That’s unclear at the moment, but we do know that Baylor’s Griffin III has been the best quarterback in the country, and we know the Bears have scored at least 48 points in every game. At the same time, Baylor is capable of a defensive meltdown. This is the Bears’ first road game, and Kansas State is coming off a surprise win at Miami. If the Wildcats defense can even partially stifle Griffin, I think this is the best upset chance of the week.

The Most Significant Insignificant Game

Toledo at Temple. What the hell is up with the Temple Owls this year? They’d be 4-0 if not for a tough finish against Penn State, and last week’s 38-7 win over Maryland has to be the most shocking result of the season. Also, the only ones who picked them to lead the nation — the NATION — in points allowed were actual owls. And yet it came to pass. Don’t be surprised if they finish 11-1 and play a team like Arkansas in a bowl game. But this weekend is no gimme. Toledo almost upset Ohio State, and would have beat Syracuse if the referees knew how to use video replay. This one could be fun … as far as MAC games go, at least.

The (Possibly Ignorant) Football Theory of the Week

In the modern game, the old cliché about the run setting up the pass is obsolete. Today, at least against the best defenses, the pass sets up the run.

The Keith Jackson Energy Infusion Call!

Let’s go old school.

The Conference Rundown

Here are the best games, not previously mentioned, from the six major conferences.

ACCWake Forest at Boston College. Wake’s only loss this season came in overtime at Syracuse, and they’ll probably beat Boston College and move to 3-1 on the year. And Boston College will have to deal with the reality of losing home games against both Wake and Duke. Can an entire football program go to confession?

Big 12No. 17 Texas at Iowa State. Almost included this one among the upset watches, but Iowa State’s three wins have come by a combined eight points. Watch out for a surprise, though, or at least a closer game than the 9.5 spread would have you believe.

Big EastRutgers at Syracuse. Syracuse has two overtime wins already this season, which surely puts them on pace to set the record. Trivia: Who won the first overtime game in college football? Answer: our old friends Toledo, 40-37 over Nevada, in the 1995 Las Vegas Bowl.

Big TenNorthwestern at no. 24 Illinois. After dodging bullets for the past two weeks, Ron Zook’s crew is officially on watch. The undefeated season can’t last forever, but is it really in danger against a 2-1 Northwestern team that only beat Boston College by seven and just lost to Army? Probably not.

Pac-12UCLA at no. 6 Stanford. This is the 10:30 p.m. game, and by that time, the tension has typically worn me down. It’s always nice to sit back and watch a dynamic Pac-12 offense run up the score as I fall asleep. And that’s exactly what we’re getting here, because UCLA has no chance in hell against Andrew Luck and the mighty Cardinal.

SECMississippi State at Georgia. Sort of a default pick here, but this could be interesting insofar as both teams are desperate for a conference win, and a road loss for Mississippi State would mean an 0-3 conference start and the possibility of ending the season below .500. Tune in if potential misery is your kind of scene.

I’ll see you Monday for the recap.


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Filed Under: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Clemson, College Football, Florida, NCAA, Shane Ryan, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, Wisconsin

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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.

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