Week 11 College Football Preview: BCS Countdown

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By my count, there are 2.5 HUGE games left on the college football schedule between now and bowl season. The .5 is LSU-Arkansas on Nov. 25. It falls short of a full point only because I don’t believe Arkansas has a legitimate chance to win. We’ve been over this before — the Razorbacks have one loss, but it was an unvarnished throttling against Alabama, and a handful of their eight wins (Ole Miss and Vanderbilt especially) have not been impressive. Nevertheless, LSU is number one, and Arkansas could be as high as fifth by then. It’s worth a mention.

The second HUGE game is Oklahoma-Oklahoma State on Dec. 3. If I had to pick right now, I would guess that the winner (Oklahoma, I suspect) will play in the BCS national title game against LSU. For the Cowboys, it’s a no-brainer; they’re already ranked second, and they control their own destiny. For Oklahoma, ranked sixth, help is needed. As of now, there are four teams for the Sooners to leapfrog if they want to land in the coveted second position. The first is Oklahoma State, who they’d pass with a win. The second is Alabama, and I believe the nation’s desire to avoid a rematch national championship would take care of that. Then there’s Boise State, who will almost certainly end the year undefeated if they beat TCU this weekend. Still, we know how that story goes. The BCS never smiles on the Broncos, and I can’t imagine this year will be any different, even if they’re one of just two undefeated teams in the country.

That leaves Stanford, and brings us to the present for …

THE BIG OLE GAME!

No. 7 Oregon at No. 4 Stanford

Remember the Oregon Ducks? They played for the national title last season. They’ve lost one regular season game in the last two years. They have a running back named LaMichael James who is still, I would argue, the best Heisman candidate at his position. Their only loss this season came against a team that is now recognized everywhere as the best in the country. And yet, Oregon is forgotten. They’re the most unrecognized elite team in the country, and for me that boils down to two reasons.

1. College football’s championship format ensures that a loss in the beginning of the season damns you to relative anonymity until, at best, the very end of the year.

2. Oregon plays out west. In this era where almost every major game in the world is available on television — some way, somehow — you might think our country’s regional biases would diminish. No such luck. The south, from Texas to the Atlantic, gets the most attention. Then it’s the midwest, and Big Ten country. Then it’s the northeast, which at this point is essentially a graveyard for good football. And then, last and least in our hearts, the west coast. In the mind of the national college fan, it seems there’s room for just one west coast team per season. Usually, that teams has to be undefeated and has to feature a Heisman candidate. For the past 10-15 years, USC has mostly held the position. Last year, it was Oregon. This year, it’s Stanford.

And for sure, the Cardinal fit the bill. Undefeated? Check. Heisman candidate? Check plus; Andrew Luck (for reasons I hope to dispute in greater detail soon), is at the top of most lists. But how good is Stanford really?

Up until they faced USC, the Cardinal hadn’t played in a close game. The victory over the Trojans, which came courtesy of an overtime fumble after Luck led a game-tying drive at the end of the fourth, showed that they have whatever combination of fortune and resilience you need to win close games. Luck is phenomenal, even though his statistics put him about fifth on the national QB Depth chart, and even though he’s not exactly playing against the country’s toughest pass defenses. But the offensive scheme, strangely enough for a Pac-12 school, is atypically ‘normal.’

In contrast to Oregon, which uses speed and a no-huddle spread offense to score quickly and often, Stanford features a power offense with lots of NFL-bound linemen and 16 touchdown passes to three highly effective tight ends. In fact, the Cardinal actually run more than they pass, and the margin is healthy. They don’t have Oregon’s flash, but to date they’ve matched their output:

Stanford:

48.2 points per game
505.8 yards per game
281.1 passing yards per game
224.7 rushing yards per game

Oregon:

46.0 points per game
510.7 yards per game
284.9 passing yards per game
298.4 rushing yards per game

As you see, the numbers are nearly identical. What has to differentiate these teams, and what may keep the game from becoming the Pac-12 shootout that everyone’s expecting, is the defense. At this point in the season, LaMichael James is averaging an unbelievable 8 yards per carry. Despite missing two games to injury, he’s still poised to lead the country in rushing yards, and LSU is the only team to really stifle both James and the passing attack. But Stanford, true to its throwback style, defends the run very well, allowing opponents just 3.0 yards per carry. The 78.9 yards they give up per game is the lowest total in the conference, and the interesting aspect of this game will be whether the Ducks go right to the air, where Stanford is weaker, or if they try to spread the defense out and let James defy that strong front line.

Oregon defends the pass fairly well, at least by Pac-12 standards, allowing 234 yards per game and snatching 10 interceptions along the way. Where the Ducks might struggle is against the Cardinal run, which features Stepfan Taylor and his impressive 6.1 yards per carry behind a great offensive line. Against LSU, Oregon actually fared well against the run, giving up 3.6 yards per carry despite facing an incredible 48 attempts by the other team. The Ducks will have to be just as sturdy against Stanford, who are at least the second-most powerful team they’ve faced all season.

Vegas has Stanford favored by 3.5 at home, but for me this game comes down to a difference in philosophy. Forget homefield advantage, forget records, and, because the teams are so close, forget statistics. This is a match of speed versus power. Oregon excels at the former, Stanford at the latter. And all things being equal, recent history has taught us to that speed is the key variable in college football. It’s great to have both, but if you have to pick just one, it’s speed every time. I think Oregon plays a brand of fast, blinding football that Stanford frankly might not be ready to handle. The Ducks will concede points- a lot, probably- but I’m expecting something along the lines of last year’s 52-31 win.

When it happens, the rest of us will have no choice but to take notice.

Other Clashes of the Ranked

There’s a healthy menu this weekend.

No. 19 Nebraska at No. 12 Penn State. I think the Paterno/Sandusky drama is being covered well enough without me jumping into the fray, but I’ll say this: Joe Paterno and the university can equivocate all they want, but there’s no sidestepping the hard truths at the center of this one. I like and respect the man, but they had to let him go. And secondly, how can anyone expect Penn State to win? Nebraska has confused me all season. I called them overrated at the start, felt vindicated when they lost big to Wisconsin and barely got by Ohio State, and then insisted to the wider world that they had absolutely no chance against Michigan State. I can’t remember ever being more sure of an upset pick.

Of course, Nebraska won that game 24-3, made me look like an idiot, and went on to lose at home to Northwestern last weekend. In other words, I’m totally confused at this point. Taylor Martinez is starting to look very good, but suddenly the running game has dried up. What I do know, though, is that even leaving the scandal aside, Penn State is vastly overrated, with close wins against Temple, Indiana, Purdue, and Illinois. Aside from Alabama, the three hardest games on the schedule are in the three final weeks of the season, and I fully expect the Nittany Lions to go from 8-1 to 8-4 before we can blink. Throw in the Paterno distractions, and the inevitable visit from karma, and this is a reckoning game all the way.

No. 10 Virginia Tech at No. 21 Georgia Tech. Finally, a decent Thursday night game. The winner here will control their own destiny in the ACC coastal division, and likely meet Clemson in the conference title game. Every game against the Yellow Jackets essentially comes down to whether the option offense can be stalled or at least contained, and Virginia Tech has the second-best rushing defense in the conference, allowing 2.9 yards per carry and 86 yards per game. On offense, the Hokies have been far from spectacular. Logan Thomas has had a mediocre year at quarterback, and the fact that Duke held this team to 14 points shows how bad things can get. On the other hand, David Wilson is among the nation’s leading rushers, averaging more than 6 yards per carry, and Georgia Tech isn’t very adept at stopping the run. The game is listed as a pick’em, but I like Virginia Tech by 10.

No. 20 Auburn at No. 15 Georgia. This is a great game, matching two SEC teams who just keep hanging around. Georgia now controls its own destiny in the SEC East, and will, for all intents and purposes, land a spot in the conference title game with a win (the Bulldogs finish their SEC schedule against Kentucky). But Auburn has shown an odd kind of resilience, winning against Florida and South Carolina despite getting smoked by the cream of the SEC West. The importance of this game for Georgia coach Mark Richt can’t be overestimated. His team is finally starting to find their feet behind the excellent Aaron Murray, and a win Saturday can erase a lot of bad memories from the past few years. Even if they lose big in the title game, which they will, just making it there is statement enough for now. A loss, on the other hand, puts Georgia squarely back in the middle of the SEC pack, and forces Richt to buy an umbrella to protect himself from all the question marks raining down on his head.

Upset Watch

It’s back, with a 7-14 straight up record and 10-11 against the spread. The real upset will be if I manage to get a game right this time around. But I’m feeling lucky, baby.

1. No. 17 Michigan State at Iowa. After beating Wisconsin, the Spartans seem to be in a weird free fall. Call it the “selling your soul” phenomenon. You put everything into that big win, and nothing afterward is ever quite as good. The same thing happened to Texas Tech, which has looked positively abysmal after stunning Oklahoma. Michigan State lost to Nebraska two weeks ago, and then eked by one of the worst teams in the Big Ten, Minnesota, last Saturday. Meanwhile, Iowa is coming off a nice upset against Michigan (yeah, yeah, they loss to Minnesota the week before … what’s your point?). I like the Hawkeyes to cover the 2.5 spread and win outright.

2. Texas A&M at No. 14 Kansas State. Okay, so let me get this right — “The Gaggies” have showed a propensity to choke all season, and they’re coming off a bad loss against Oklahoma. Kansas State, meanwhile, keeps pulling out close wins and nearly upset Oklahoma State last week on the road. But A&M is favored by 4.5? Yes, please. Collin Klein is going to run all over the Aggie defense, and head coach Bill Snyder will find a way to win at home. Or, if he can’t, Mike Sherman and A&M will find a way to lose.

3. Florida at No. 13 South Carolina. I’m not sure why I’m picking this one, since the Gamecocks are favored by just 3.5, but I still say Florida is underrated. My argument gets weaker by the loss — I get that — but still, let’s look again at those four setbacks. LSU, Alabama. Duh. Auburn on the road. Fair enough. Georgia at a neutral site, just barely. Respectable. South Carolina has been a little better, but the results against common opponents are so similar that I don’t think there’s a clear favorite. For the past three weeks, Florida’s defense has been moderately effective just as SC’s offense has slipped. In a toss-up, I’ll take the Gators.

And just for the record, keep one eye on Alabama at Mississippi State. A lot of upset ingredients are there; a noon game on the road, huge letdown potential after the LSU loss, and an opponent who aren’t as bad as everyone thinks and would desperately like to prove something after a hard season. I’m not quite dumb enough to make this one of my three picks, but I’m just putting it out there. If it happens, I plan to take full credit. If Alabama blows them out, I was never here.

The Most Significant Insignificant Game

UCF at No. 22 Southern Miss

I think we’re heading for a fun Conference-USA championship game between Southern Miss and Houston, and this is a chance to see what the 8-1 Golden Eagles are all about. From what I can tell, they have about five different guys who run the ball effectively.

The Energy Infusion Call

For Stanford fans …

Yikes, a little rough with the extra point stuff at the end there, fellas. But hey, we were all excited.

The Conference Rundown

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

ACCWake Forest at No. 9 Clemson. The Tigers have to keep their heads about them in order to maintain the one-game lead over Wake in the ACC Atlantic. Clemson is the better team, but a letdown after the loss to Georgia Tech could hand the division to the Demon Deacons and cost them a very good chance at a BCS bowl. The good news in Death Valley is that Wake has struggled of late, with their only win in the past month coming by one point against Duke.

Big 12No. 16 Texas at Missouri. Credit to the Longhorns for righting the ship after two straight losses against the Oklahoma powerhouses that I thought would ruin their season. But with Missouri’s Henry Josey averaging 8.6 yards per carry and leading the nation in rushing, and QB James Franklin having a nice season with 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions, there’s a lot of upset potential here.

Big EastWest Virginia at No. 23 Cincinnati. Someone on twitter yelled at me for not including Louisville in my wrap-up post after the Cardinals posted two straight quality wins, and that person was probably right. But they’re still about a week away (and a win against Pitt) from deserving anyone’s attention. In the meantime, the Bearcats can establish a stranglehold on the conference and that wacky BCS berth with a win at home against WVU. Isaiah Pead is the man to look out for at running back as Cincy tries to stay undefeated in conference.

Big TenNo. 24 Michigan at Illinois. The Wolverines still have a really great chance to make the Big Ten title game, but they have to get their act together in a hurry against the Illini, a formerly ranked team who are capable of a surprise. This one should be close. Plus, it’s always fun to get angry at Denard Robinson every time he throws off his back foot. Who taught him to throw?

Pac-12Washington at USC. The two “other” teams in the Pac-12. The Trojans are still in the running to “win” the Pac-12 South, despite the fact that they’re barred from the conference championship game. Neither team can really defend the pass, so there should be a plethora of points.

SECTennessee at No. 8 Arkansas. Default choice here. Then again, Arkansas seems like a team that could lose to just about anyone if the situation is right. But the Vols are 0-5 in the SEC, so a blowout is probably the safer bet.

Somehow, I made it through this whole post without diving into TCU at No. 5 Boise State. The Horned Frogs are the last real challenge standing between Boise and its dark horse chance at the national title game. This one is a deceptive gem nestled in the 3:30 slot. Enjoy it, and enjoy the weekend.


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Filed Under: Arkansas, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Kansas State, Michigan, Michigan State, Missouri, Oregon, Penn State, South Carolina, Stanford, Texas, Texas A&M, The College Football Spectacular, USC, Virginia Tech, West Virginia

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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