Football Informant 10/23/11

It has been a momentous weekend for college football fans, as the first major upsets of the season were delivered. Michigan State pulled off a ridiculous, last-second Hail Mary play to beat mighty Wisconsin, and Texas Tech humbled Oklahoma’s defense, doing just enough to outscore the Sooners, 41-38. The cluster of undefeated teams at the top of the standings is dwindling, and what looked like an impossible mess of a title race has clarified significantly. At this point, the list of realistic championship contenders has been narrowed significantly. Here are the contenders, ranked by their chances of reaching the title game if they finish unbeaten.

First Priority: LSU-Alabama winner. There is no contest here, as an unbeaten SEC champion could not possibly be denied entry to the title game.

Second: Oklahoma State-Kansas State winner. If the Cowboys go unbeaten, they should be in without much trouble as well, as they would have a stronger schedule than their main rival for this spot, Stanford. Kansas State would make it if they win out, simply because that would require consecutive wins over the Oklahoma schools, Texas, and A&M. It’s unlikely, but the Cats still control their own destiny and do not necessarily need outside help to make the championship.

Third: Stanford. Despite the carnage at the top, Stanford still finds itself on the outside looking in. The Cardinal need the winner of either of the previous matchups to lose somewhere else. Still, college football is insane, and Stanford is still in position to take advantage of missteps by those in front of it.

Fourth: Clemson. The Tigers would be hard-pressed to make it, even if chaos breaks out above them. The ACC has been weak long enough that the Tigers will remain near the back of the line of unbeatens.

Long Shot: Boise State. The Broncos may be highly ranked for now, but when it comes down to it, they are unlikely to be ranked ahead of a major-conference unbeaten, even Clemson. Boise would need losses by all but one of the other unbeatens (and probably Wisconsin as well) to have any chance at all.

Wild Card: Arkansas. Despite a faceplant against Alabama a few weeks ago, the Hogs can still win the SEC West with an unbeaten finish and an LSU win over Bama. A one-loss, SEC champion Arkansas team would be hard to deny, and could sneak past an unbeaten side into the final. LSU and Alabama both have to win out, as Arkansas would have the advantage in a three-way tie situation by virtue of losing earliest in the season. It’s a twisted system, but that is just college football.

However, this analysis should not be misconstrued as a Top Ten ranking. This is what the media rankings will look like, but those rankings have lost all meaning. The polls are a beauty contest, with teams ranked by their résumés instead of actual strength. This was confirmed in the 2007 regular season’s final rankings, when 11-1 Ohio State was #1 and 11-2 LSU was second, while Vegas favored the Tigers by 6 points. Obviously, LSU was better, as they proved in the title game, and I wonder how many voters who put Ohio State first would have laid money on it. Still, OSU had the better record, so they took the better ranking.

With that in mind, the season is finally advanced enough for a realistic Top Ten ranking. My basis for this ranking is simple: in a comparison of any two teams, which would win on a neutral site with plenty of time to prepare? That is the format of the title game, and that is what the rankings should reflect. So, without further ado:

10. Clemson Tigers. Clemson has been far from dominant this season, with the notable exception of its headline victories over Florida State and Virginia Tech. The Tigers struggled mightily against Auburn, Maryland, and somewhat inexplicably, Wofford. The defense has been unreliable, and as Oklahoma showed, it is impossible to rely solely on offensive firepower. The Tigers should be fine in the ACC, but against truly elite competition they would come up short.

9. Michigan State Spartans. MSU has one loss, a tough one at unpredictable Notre Dame, but the Spartans have offset that with three impressive wins in a row, culminating in a dramatic comeback against undefeated Wisconsin. MSU has a good shot at a Big Ten championship, as their only true test remaining is a trip this week to overrated Nebraska, with the Legends Division title likely at stake for the winner. While it is silly that the Big Ten has a Legends Division, the Spartans can all but wrap it up this weekend and coast to a likely rematch against Wisconsin in the inaugural conference title game.

8. Oregon Ducks. Oregon has rebounded nicely from the opening beatdown by LSU, and there have been no real question marks, as the Ducks have been challenged only once, by Arizona, since then. However, their ability to perform against real heavyweights remains a valid concern, and the loss of star running back LaMichael James could prove crippling. Oregon should challenge Stanford for the Pac-12 crown, but a BCS bowl win seems unlikely.

7. Arkansas Razorbacks. Arkansas is not in the SEC elite, as shown by its come-from-behind victory against Ole Miss last Saturday. However, the Razorbacks are good despite their inconsistency. A season-ending upset of LSU would not be unthinkable, but the Hogs are not a serious threat to win the SEC West, as a disappointing upset loss is overdue for this team.

6. Wisconsin Badgers. A disappointing loss to an excellent Michigan State team should not tarnish what has been an excellent season so far. Wisconsin suffered a series of major errors yet still pulled off a big comeback on the road. If the Badgers had stopped the Hail Mary attempt and won in overtime, their ranking in the national polls would be much higher; however, I will not drop them for a random freak event. Wisconsin is an elite team, one that will only get better with time. They played a bad game against a good team and came up just short, and there is no shame in that.
5. Oklahoma State Cowboys. OSU has been excellent but not dominant so far, but the Cowboys have shown that they can perform under pressure, with a huge comeback at Texas A&M and a hard-fought victory at Texas. The Cowboys are far from invincible, but they should be able to handle their remaining Big 12 schedule. The Oklahoma game still looms large, as the conference title is still on the line and the Sooners have a nasty habit of wrecking promising Cowboys seasons. However, this should be the year that State breaks that psychological curse, and while an upset is a strong possibility, the Cowboys should take the Big 12 title at the very least.

4. Stanford Cardinal. Stanford has been the most dominant team on the season so far, despite the accolades showered upon the SEC juggernauts. The Cardinal have won every game by 26 points or more, and have reached 40 points in all but one game. However, the catch is that only one opponent–#25 Washington–was ranked at the time, and none currently are. Stanford has only one shot to impress the national voters, against an already-humbled Oregon side, because their schedule strength leaves much to be desired. Stanford seems likely to reach the Rose Bowl, but more than that may be a stretch.

3. Boise State Broncos. Yes, I am completely serious. The Broncos excel in big-time games against big-name opposition. Since 2008, Boise is 6-1 in marquee early season games and bowl games against ranked opposition, with only one home game in the bunch. The only loss was by a single point to a very good TCU squad, a loss that was avenged the next year. Other victims include Oregon twice, Utah, Virginia Tech, and Georgia. The point is, Boise will very likely win their bowl game, regardless of the opposition. I am still skeptical of their ability to beat LSU or Alabama, but those games would likely come down to the wire, and as an LSU fan, I would be terrified to play the Broncos in January. Boise has passed every test in recent years, and I see no reason why they could not beat any other contender on the big stage.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide. Except for a poor first half against Tennessee, the Tide have been unstoppable. Still, their offense is unreliable at times, and they have not been untouchable. Alabama could drop a game this season by playing poorly or losing a key player. That is why they are not quite at the top.

1. LSU Tigers. For all the things that have gone wrong, the Tigers have been the best team in the land so far. Juggling constant suspensions, a quarterback controversy, shakeups in the coaching staff, and a challenging schedule, LSU has simply dominated. To steal the catchphrase of their star corner Tyrann Mathieu, aka the Honey Badger, the Tigers don’t care, they just take what they want. LSU is not invincible by any means, but so far the Tigers have won games in which they struggled, most notably against Oregon. The collision with Alabama will be a game for the ages, but these Tigers have shown their true colors so far, and I expect them to be holding the crystal ball at season’s end.

Week 9 Game Picks:
Michigan State by 13 at Nebraska
Kansas State by 7 vs. Oklahoma
Georgia by 17 vs. Florida
Arizona State by 10 vs. CU
Clemson by 20 at Georgia Tech

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