College Football Preview: Waiting for the Week of Chaos

“Brother Chaos rules all about.”

Those words come from the song “Jimi Thing” by the Dave Matthews Band, and it’s a good idea to sing them out loud if you ever want to be shunned at a party. But don’t sleep on Brother Chaos; he’s a real phenomenon, and he makes his presence known in college football. The Week of Chaos happens every year, usually just once, turning the whole Top 25 upside down. And I’m starting to get the vibe. There’s a feeling in the air, something more than the usual pre-Halloween disquiet, and I think Week 8 will finally deliver on the promise.

The Week of Chaos happens when some ranked teams lose games they’re not supposed to lose, and others have close escapes that leave everyone in a cold sweat. This is the week when you go to bed Saturday night puzzled, your whole concept of the college football pecking order in tatters. It’s easy to reconcile one upset, but the Week of Chaos brings them in batches. It’s topsy. It’s turvy. It’s old-school anarchy, a throwback to the time when dudes with precise beards and bowler hats were handing out flyers about the evils of Benjamin Harrison.

Let’s revisit the Weeks of Chaos from the past three years.

You get the idea — no. 1 seeds going down, close calls across the board, havoc in the top 10. And oddly enough, each of those weeks brought exactly seven upsets, and only two of them were cheapies (Alabama over Georgia in ’08, Virginia Tech over Miami in ’09). The closest we’ve come so far this year was in Week 5, when there were five upsets. Unfortunately, all of them were cheapies, and the only top 10 team involved was no. 10 South Carolina, which fell to Auburn. We can only conclude that the Week of Chaos is long overdue. And what better way to get it kicked off than:


No. 6 Wisconsin at no. 16 Michigan State

The Spartans make the Big Ole Game for the second week in a row (a new world record), and once again, they’re the last line of defense between their opponent and an undefeated season. You want a simple tagline for this game? Here you go: It’s the country’s best offense versus the country’s best second-best defense.

Wisconsin is the only team averaging 50 points per game in the FBS. I don’t have to tell you about Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson, the leading Heisman candidate, and his gaudy stats. He should have a lot of excellent targets to choose from, including Nick Toon (447 yards, 17.9 yards per catch, six touchdowns, considered probable for Saturday’s game), Jared Abbrederis (391 yards, 16.3 yards per catch, two touchdowns), and Jacob Pedersen (239 yards, 14.1 yards per catch, five touchdowns). When coach Bret Bielema gets sick of passing, he can count on Montee Ball to carry a heavy load at running back. And if you were waiting to hear about a weakness, you’ll be disappointed — the Badgers defense allows just 9.7 points per game, the third-best total in the country. So far, they’ve been method actors playing the role of juggernaut. If that continues against Michigan State, the Badgers should steamroll through their remaining schedule without a worry.

But Michigan State showed in last week’s win over Michigan that its defense is a unit to be feared. Denicos Allen, a sophomore linebacker, is the standout, leading the team in sacks (4.5) and tackles for loss (9.5). But the secondary is a watertight unit too, holding teams to just 119.2 yards per game passing and allowing a 47.2 completion percentage. Isaiah Lewis, a sophomore safety, already has three interceptions, two of which he has returned for touchdowns, and his freshman counterpart Kurtis Drummond has two of his own. The Spartans will be ready for Wilson’s passing game. And Montee Ball will have his hands full with the Michigan State front line, which allows just 2.2 yards per carry (fifth in the country) and 67 yards per game (third).

The bad news for the Spartans is that Wisconsin’s defense is almost as good as theirs in every respect. And unlike Wilson & Co., the Michigan State offense is merely average. In passing yards, rushing yards, and points scored, they don’t crack the top 40. Which isn’t to say they’re poor; Kirk Cousins has done a serviceable job at quarterback, with a high completion rate and a 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. B.J. Cunningham is a real receiving threat, and Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell each average nearly five yards per rush in the backfield. Even so, the Spartans are very much in the shadow of the Wisconsin machine.

The numbers favor the Badgers, as they should. But Michigan State is the best defense on their schedule, by far, and they’ll have to win this fight on the road. If I’m right, and we’re on the eve of Chaos, anything goes in East Lansing.

Other Clashes of the Ranked

No. 25 Washington at no. 8 Stanford. Despite facing what was the Pac-12’s best pass defense last Saturday (trying not to laugh), Stanford rose to the occasion and handled Washington State, 44-14. Now Stanford plays its first ranked opponent of the season, and it just so happens to be the worst pass defense in the Pac-12 (still trying not to laugh). The Huskies allow 303.7 passing yards per game, and Stanford averages 304. Seems like the teams are basically in agreement there. Where they diverge is Stanford’s defense, which is quite stingy against the run (59.5 yards per game) and not overly generous against the pass either. And Washington isn’t lighting the world on fire in either department, with both facets of the offense ranked between 40 and 50 in the country. Andrew Luck should have a big game for Stanford, but Huskies running back Chris Polk won’t maintain his average of 5.4 yards per carry. Only Chaos can save Washington, but on the road even that might not be enough.

No. 20 Auburn at no. 1 LSU. Tiger vs. Tiger. I would love, love, love for this to be the trademark Chaos game of the weekend. On paper, Auburn is doomed to outright humiliation in Baton Rouge. But that’s no fun, so let’s see if we can cherry-pick some stats to support an upset theory. First, LSU is “only” 15th in the country in passing defense. Unfortunately, Auburn runs almost twice as often as it passes. Nothing there. What else can we find? How about this: LSU attempts just 21 passes per game, lowest among SEC schools. If Auburn can stop the run, maybe they’ll force them into an uncomfortable situation. Unfortunately, Auburn allows 182.4 rushing yards per game, the fourth most in the SEC. Son of a! That leaves just one argument: Chaos. Auburn is probably the main chaotic team going. The Tigers started the season with two chaotic wins over Utah State and Mississippi State, lost big on the road to Clemson and Arkansas, but pulled off an upset at South Carolina and got a big home win against Florida last weekend. This is a team with a definite ceiling, but it is quite capable of winning close games. If LSU slips up, Chaos could do the rest. (And whoa, has it already begun to work its black magic?)

Upset Watch

After a 2-1 week (sorry for getting your hopes up, Wake Forest fans), the Upset Watch is 6-9 straight up and 9-6 against the spread. Here are three to watch in Week 8:

1. No. 21 Penn State at Northwestern. Northwestern has already played three of the best teams in the Big Ten, and these were the results:

  • Three-point loss to Illinois after a second-half collapse.
  • 42-24 loss to Michigan after holding a 24-14 halftime lead.
  • 10-point loss to Iowa on the road.

And what do we know about Penn State? Sure, the Nittany Lions are 6-1, but they eked out wins over Temple, Indiana, and Purdue; not exactly the cream of the crop. PSU’s defense is very strong, but the offense leaves a lot to be desired, especially on the passing side. Vegas is hedging its bets with a four-point spread, but I say Northwestern wins in the neighborhood of 24-17.

2. No. 22 Georgia Tech at Miami. Miami is actually favored by three in this game, and I can see why. The Hurricanes are a hair’s breadth away from 6-0. The three losses they’ve suffered to this point came by a combined 15 points, and they have a good home win against Ohio State bolstering their résumé. But Miami also has the second-worst rush defense in the ACC, allowing 187 yards per game on the ground. Those numbers don’t bode well against one of the nation’s most prolific ground attacks. Add in the fact that they’re coming off two tense affairs against Virginia Tech and North Carolina, and haven’t had more than a week to prepare for Tech’s option offense, and the Yellow Jackets could have a fireman’s field day. I like Tech to wear Miami down and win by double digits, and I like Tevin Washington or Orwin Smith to deliver at least one 70-plus-yard touchdown run.

3. No. 23 Illinois at Purdue. If the Boilermakers can stay with Penn State on the road, they can stay with Illinois at home. And Ohio State proved last week that if you can shut down the Illini run, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and the passing game won’t light the world ablaze. These teams are similar. Purdue loves to run, Illinois loves to defend the run, and the story is the same on the opposite side of the ball. Fair warning: Do your best not to watch this game. It’ll be a low-scoring, prototypical Big Ten drudge fest. In the end, I think Purdue has a fair chance to cover the four-point spread. This has the feel of a River Styx game for Illinois; a last stop on the slow trip to unranked hell.

The Most Significant Insignificant Game

Rutgers at Louisville. At 5-1, the Scarlet Knights aren’t getting any respect, despite the fact that they have a solid defense and are one nail-biter loss to UNC from being undefeated. Next week, Rutgers hosts West Virginia in what amounts to a Big East championship game. Louisville has a fairly solid defense, and for a Friday night game, this is a good chance to see a team with a legitimate shot to play in a BCS bowl.*

*And get beat 97-4 by a team like LSU.

The (Possibly Ignorant) Football Theory of the Week

When a team has 3rd-and-very-short in four-down territory on the plus side of the field, it’s almost always worth risking an incompletion to run play action and throw deep.

The Energy Infusion Call

In honor of a potential Chaos Week, how about the final play of the greatest college football game ever played?

Everyone calls this play the “Statue of Liberty,” but since the QB wasn’t holding the ball over his head like Lady Liberty holds her torch, I think it needs to be called “The Discobolus.” Who do I talk to about that?

The Conference Rundown

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

ACCNorth Carolina at no. 7 Clemson. Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins should shred the UNC secondary without much problem, but this game could tell us just how vulnerable the Clemson defense is to the run. After giving up 6.1 yards per carry to Maryland last week, it will surely be tested by Carolina.

Big 12No. 6 Oklahoma State at Missouri. I came oh-so-close to picking this upset. So close that if it happens, I want credit. Seriously, though, Missouri’s offense is good enough to put up a lot of points on the board at home. And who better to make an appearance during Chaos Week than Oklahoma State’s own Squinky? This is what I’ll be watching at noon EST.

Big EastCincinnati at South Florida. The two best rushing offenses in the Big East square off. Unfortunately for South Florida, only one of them can defend the run.

Big TenNo. 13 Nebraska at Minnesota. Default choice here, but it could be fun to see just how overrated Nebraska really is.

Pac-12USC at Notre Dame. Yeah, yeah, Notre Dame’s not in the Pac-12, but still, something interesting always happens in this game. And this year, USC and Notre Dame are the two foremost sneaky-good teams in the country. Both love to throw, so Saturday night could be high on the entertainment scale. Win or lose, though, I bet Notre Dame makes a better bowl game. Am I right, Reggie Bush?

SEC Tennessee at no. 2 Alabama. The Crimson Tide are so good it almost hurts to watch. It’s technically not possible for a team to score negative points, but don’t be surprised to see Tennessee threaten the bad side of zero. And with the Volunteers’ so-so run defense, this should be the week when Trent Richardson officially throws his hat in the Heisman ring.

Enjoy the games, and pray for chaos.

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Filed Under: Auburn, Illinois, LSU, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Shane Ryan, Stanford, The College Football Spectacular