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USC vs. Notre Dame and Seven Unlikely National Championship Contenders

The week in college football

Simple Math (or if you went to LSU, Advanced Math — or if you went to Mississippi State, Figurin’ You’d Just Assume Not Fool With)

(7) — Number of teams remaining in the hunt that have not been to a national title game in recent or not-so-recent memory. We’re past the halfway point, so it’s time to start tracking these interlopers. The herd has thinned. Clemson tried its best to give a game to a vastly inferior opponent, but its plot was foiled by its own embarrassing wealth of offensive talent. I declined to include Arkansas in this list — though it has only one loss, and a one-loss SEC team would likely go to the game — because it’s difficult to imagine the Razorbacks achieving the summit of the SEC West mountain with those bullies Bama and LSU pushing everyone down and stepping on their necks. In no order: Clemson, Wisconsin, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, Stanford, Kansas State, Boise State.

(3) — Number of tough games most of these teams have left to play. Of course, upsets occur, but these are the opponents that jump out as potential trouble.

Clemson — The Tigers go to Georgia Tech, the land of a million cut blocks. They have the Gamecocks, of course, where they’ll try to make the Head Ball Coach mad at his quarterback. And then they’d have the ACC championship game. Tough but doable. For Clemson, the crappy teams might be just as dangerous.

Wisconsin — The Badgers have looked great, and have a great-looking quarterback. Their shit appears together, and when they go to East Lansing on Saturday we’ll see just how together it is. Besides Michigan State, they visit Ohio State. The shine is off the Buckeye for sure, but it would still mean something to go to Columbus and take care of business. Big Ten championship — Michigan State or Nebraska again? Some years this would be a great schedule, this year it’s a good one. Maybe good enough, if Wisconsin keeps destroying folks and gets a little help.

Oklahoma State — I’m going to count going on the road against Missouri as a tough game, if that’s OK with everyone. The Cowboys should take care of Kansas State at home, but the way the Wildcats are winning right now I can’t leave that game out. The real deal is Bedlam. Oklahoma State has a chance to do the other teams on this list a favor, and do themselves a greater favor, by toppling Oklahoma. Oklahoma is a 17-car pileup on the road to the big game. And it’s raining. And it’s a holiday weekend. No one can get around the Sooners unless Oklahoma State bulldozes them onto the shoulder. And if they do, will there be any keeping the Cowboys out of the national championship? I don’t think so. They look like the only team on this list that can blaze its own trail with no help from anybody. Is there an over/under on this game yet? OSU could conceivably score 48 and lose by 20.

South Carolina — Only on this list by virtue of having, for now, one loss, and by virtue of residing in the down SEC East. The Gamecocks’ inclusion is predicated on the idea that they could win the SEC title game, which is highly, highly, highly unlikely. As you’ve all heard, Marcus Lattimore is out for the season. The Gamecocks are a wait-and-wonder. But that’s the nice thing about the SEC; you don’t have to wonder for long. Tennessee and Florida have lost their right to be called tough games, and, frankly, if South Carolina can’t beat those two, then it shouldn’t have been on this list to begin with. The three games I’m deeming tough are Arkansas on the road, Clemson, and the title game. When you take all that into account, the Gamecocks have no chance.

Stanford — Playing at USC is no walk in the park. Well, except that in L.A. the parks have coyotes in them, so once it gets dark this game will be like a walk in the park. Oregon, of course. And I’m going to include Notre Dame. Despite those two early losses, the Irish are undeniably much improved, and as long as they’ve got Floyd they can score. What I’m not going to count is the Pac-12 title game. Assuming for the sake of this paragraph that Stanford reached the title game, it would play a good but not great team at home. Did I read that right? The Pac-12 championship will be played on someone’s home field? Maybe I read it wrong. You’re not supposed to play a conference title game at home.

(4) — Number of tough games left for Kansas State. The Wildcats seriously back-loaded this schedule. They won’t stick around long on this list. Oklahoma, OSU, Texas A&M, Texas. Ouch.

(1) — Number of tough games Boise State has left. That’s TCU. TCU isn’t what it was last year, and the Broncos have them up on the camo-turf, so …


Washington at Stanford — This week’s slate is a bit thin, the evidence being that this game made the Whirl. Stanford pounded the high-altitude Pac-12 State University of Washington last week, which, if you’re from Ohio State, you would call THE Washington State University. Now the Cardinal get a chance to flex their style points by pounding the low-altitude Pac-12 State University of Washington. Or will they? Will they now? Yeah, probably. The Huskies are 5-1, though, which ain’t bad, and they’ve got a nice-looking signal-caller in Keith Price. “Just ’cause I’m from the CPT, punk free safeties are afraid of me. Huh!” I just hypothetically quoted Keith Price as he took a classic NWA lyric and made it his own. Because I know how to have fun. Who would have thought a couple of short years ago that Steve Sarkisian would this quickly have Washington in as good a shape as USC, his former coaching home?

Wisconsin at Michigan State — Michigan State is a physically and mentally tough gang that takes pride in its home field. We have to hope the Spartans didn’t blow their emotional wads last week against Michigan. Wisconsin seems unflappable, but that’s how everyone seems until they get flapped. This might be the best chance the Badgers have at a loss before their bowl game. This should be a well-played, hotly contested, hard-hitting affair. Prove me right, Spartans. C’mon! Give TV-land a good game!

USC at Notre Dame — I highlighted the Georgia-Tennessee game a couple of weeks back as a particularly enjoyable one for me, a Florida alum, because both are rivals of the Gators and one of them had to lose. So Southern Cal against Notre Dame is like that, but for the whole country. Unless you’re an elderly Catholic, I guess — no tiny group. Trojan alumni, Irish alumni, and old Catholics care who wins. The rest of us get to see Lane Kiffin continue to wallow in the mediocrity that has marked his ascension up the coaching ranks. (If he does not as well as expected at USC, same as he did at Tennessee and the Raiders, next he’ll be the manager of Manchester United. If he does not so hot there, then he’ll be promoted to chairman of the Olympic Committee/Emperor of China/CEO of Outback Steakhouse.) Ah, but the truth is, if Kiffin stays in L.A., his squad will be back atop the Pac-12 in no more than three years. Not because he’ll suddenly become an excellent coach, but because of recruiting. I hope that’s not true, but it’s hard to imagine the Pacific Northwest or the godforsaken desert outslicking these guys once they’re out of NCAA trouble. Let’s enjoy their losses while we can. And if USC doesn’t lose Saturday, then looky who did: the old Golden Domers. I’m sort of bored of seeing FSU lose, of seeing Michigan lose. I was bored of seeing Nebraska lose, and then the Huskers sort of quit doing it. I will never, never, ever get bored of seeing Notre Dame lose. That’s why the Irish are who they are. We care when they lose.

Letter to a Coach

Dear Bill Snyder,

I wanted to get this dashed off and in the mail before the stressful part of the season hit. This weekend you’re going to teach those show ponies from Lawrence what being a workhorse is all about, and I just want you to know that no matter what happens after that, you’re an amazing dude. You built a formidable program in the other Manhattan (if you’re in the middle of nowhere within the context of Kansas, you’re really in the middle of nowhere). You took the team to great heights and then retired, but when fortunes fell and Ron Prince was dismissed, you got that old itch. And now you’re doing it again! How? Every coach says they want to do things “the right way,” and normally that’s worth a chuckle, but if you said that, I’d believe it. I want you to be my grandfather, Coach Snyder. That’s why I’m writing. Both my real granddads passed away, so I’m in need. I know you already have grandkids, because one of them plays for you, but I would be a very low-maintenance addition to the brood. All you have to do is have one phone conversation with me each month of the offseason. A pep talk and a little tough love. I could sure use it. And GO WILDCATS!

Books for dudes (and non-dudes?) who are smart but don’t have the time and/or inclination to sift through the offerings of literary fiction and who could use a solid recommendation or two and who, if they ignore that recommendation, will feel guilty and think a little less of themselves because they know that quality reading improves the quality of the individual

The Book: Iron & Silk
The Author: Mark Salzman
The Sport: Martial arts
The Dope: I like a memoir that isn’t about the writer’s inner life or childhood, but instead exposes the reader to a particular experience in a particular place that the readers are unlikely to experience themselves. I like a memoir that seems more like a solid nonfiction book than like a too-elaborate diary. That’s just me, but this is my column. The memoir is a popular enough form that every writer these days reaches a point at which he or she has to either write one or talk themselves out of writing one. To our credit, we still mostly talk ourselves out of it, talk ourselves out of the task of proving that we’re interesting individuals by roasting up all that should be private — family turmoil and therapy sessions and our own unworthy behavior — and serving it up in a compote of mock regret. This book, Iron & Silk, is written with humility. At all times Salzman gives way to his subject, which is the people of Changsha, China, and their beliefs and traditions. There is an ideal attitude one tries to adopt while practicing kung fu, and the reader comes to understand that attitude and then to understand that Salzman is writing with it. By the end I found myself grateful that Salzman was the person over there representing us (Americans), and that he’s the one who wrote this book. It’s not often a writer can uphold a work of any length with a well-adjusted, non-neurotic, hardworking, common sense-having, respectful main character, but Salzman sure upheld this thing with one. No mental illness as commodity here. Got through the whole book and I couldn’t tell you one thing that’s wrong with the writer’s parents. Maybe this thing isn’t a memoir. They’ve got all sorts of names now — creative nonfiction, personal essay, narrative journalism. Maybe it’s one of those. Calling it a memoir just doesn’t fit. Kind of like when a 260-pound pipe fitter asks his sweetheart to marry him and then you’re supposed to call this big, manly fucker a fiancé. He’s got a chaw in and holes in his boots and three shotguns in his F-150, and now you’re supposed to call him this fluffy French word.

John Brandon is the acclaimed author of Citrus County. He is writing weekly on college football for Grantland.

Previously from John Brandon:
Oklahoma vs. Texas, a Letter to Les Miles, and a Hard-To-Get Hunk
Tide vs. Gators, the Problem With UVA, and a Nice Steak in Tucson
Hunks, Books, and Clemson vs. Florida State
Open Season
Dear Coach Pelini

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Filed Under: Clemson, College Football, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Sports, Teams, USC, Wisconsin