The Football Informant: Apocalypse now, Tuscaloosa style

After a sluggish start to the season that featured an eight-team logjam of unbeaten sides through seven weeks, the chaos of conference play has erupted in full. In quick succession, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Clemson, and Kansas State absorbed their first losses to drop essentially out of the national title picture, for now. Arkansas and Stanford barely held on to their spots in the pecking order, and suddenly the title chase is the clearest it has been all season. But upsets giveth, and upsets taketh away, and it would only take a few more critical slip-ups to create a chaotic mix of six or seven one-loss teams and an unbeaten Boise State. Speaking for all football fans, I would love to see the BCS sort that one out. Meanwhile, here is my second Top Ten ranking, which once again attempts to reflect which teams are the best in college football.

10. South Carolina Gamecocks
Carolina has been unimpressive for the past few weeks, but they have shown that their defense can carry them when the offense fails. The Gamecocks may not be the best team in the SEC East right now—Georgia has staked a solid claim for that—but due to early-season results, Carolina is in the driver’s seat, and only a road test at cardiac Arkansas and a home date against flat Florida separate Carolina from its second consecutive East title. Arkansas looks like a Good Bad Team—one that wins a lot of games against weak competition without actually being any good—and Carolina should capitalize.

9. Georgia Bulldogs
After struggling at the start of the season, UGA has ripped off six straight wins, but the Dawgs are still behind South Carolina in the SEC title hunt. Barring a Gamecock loss in-conference, Georgia is headed for second place in the East, avoiding humiliation against the West winner and achieving perfect contentment with a 10-0 finish and a Capital One Bowl berth. Mark Richt saves his job with ease.

8. Nebraska Cornhuskers
This columnist thoroughly apologizes for calling the Huskers overrated last week. Nebraska dominated a very good, if tired, Michigan State team. Suddenly, the wins outweigh that competitive loss at Wisconsin, with the Huskers leading the Legends Division and a title game rematch with the Badgers in sight. On a neutral field, the Huskers claim the Big Ten title in their inaugural run.

7. Stanford Cardinal
Of all the teams on this list, Stanford has played by far the weakest schedule. The Cardinal’s signature wins on the season are against Washington and USC. I will not penalize the Cardinal for playing close on the road at USC, in a game where the underrated Trojans had nothing to lose, but so far Stanford has been less impressive than conference rival Oregon. This does not look like a team that can beat an SEC juggernaut for the national title.

6. Oklahoma Sooners
What a turnaround. After annihilating a very good Kansas State team on the road, OU has thoroughly responded to its wake-up call against Texas Tech. OU has several very impressive wins on its résumé, and is now in the very dangerous role of spoiler against rival Oklahoma State. Watch out for OU.

5. Oregon Ducks
Oregon has demolished all comers since that opening-day debacle in Dallas, and is very capable of going into the not-so-hostile confines of Stanford Stadium and emerging with a win. Oregon should take the Pac-12 North, then obliterate Arizona State at home in a formality of a conference final. Let’s not forget that Oregon was competitive for much of the game against LSU. Give the Ducks some credit.

4. Oklahoma State Cowboys
OSU is the best all-around team in the Big 12. The Cowboys have played one bad half of football all season, the first half of a top-10 match at rabid Kyle Field against A&M. They are in the driver’s seat for the national title game. They lead the Big 12 standings outright. In the end, that will be their undoing. If Oklahoma had been undefeated going into the season-ending Bedlam showdown in Stillwater, I would feel confident about OSU’s chances. However, the Sooners are a psychological boogeyman to State, and Bob Stoops is at his most dangerous with nothing to lose. The Cowboys will drop Bedlam in heartbreaking fashion, again, ending their title hopes.

3. Boise State Broncos
Nothing new to report here. Boise should roll to an unbeaten season with little difficulty, creating an unsolvable dilemma for the BCS voters.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide
Dominant. Physical. Overwhelming. Stifling. Alabama has it all. They play smash-mouth power football and they are very good at it. They have one of the most devoted fan bases in sports filling the eighth-largest stadium in the world. They are led by one of the nation’s premier coaches. They are potentially better than any team since ’06 Texas. What could possibly stop the Tide from hoisting that crystal ball at season’s end?

1. LSU Tigers
Adversity. Confusion. Avoidable errors. Suspensions. Instability. The Tigers have overcome everything that they have thrown at themselves all season. As for their opponents, none have even bothered LSU into the fourth quarter. The Tigers have been utterly dominant on the field so far, and although they have a tendency towards late-season swoons, this year they seem to be improving week to week. LSU will not be rattled by 101,000 hostile fans in Bryant-Denny; they have faced hostile crowds all season. As a personal witness to the titanic LSU-Bama game last year in Baton Rouge, I can report that should LSU grab a late lead, Alabama will be hard-pressed to pull even. The Tigers have an effective passing game for the first time in four years, and they simply refuse to lose. In the end, that will be the difference in Tuscaloosa.

BCS Bowl Previews
Rose Bowl: Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. Oregon Ducks
Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma Sooners vs. Stanford Cardinal
Sugar Bowl: Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Orange Bowl: Clemson Tigers vs. West Virginia Mountaineers
National Championship: LSU Tigers vs. Boise State Broncos

Assuming that the scenarios I have previously laid out come to pass, this seems to be the most likely layout for the big games at the end of the season. I think that Boise State can finally slip through for several reasons. Assuming that everyone else but LSU takes a loss, the Broncos would be competing against Oregon, Oklahoma, and Alabama for the #2 spot. Oklahoma, currently ninth, has a lot of ground to make up, but they are the most likely team to pass the Broncos. Oregon has already lost to LSU, and the voters would not likely set up a rematch. Ditto for Alabama, as the idea of an all-SEC final is (understandably) repulsive to many. In the end, I expect the lingering echoes of the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, where Boise joined the big boys by stunning Oklahoma, to convince the media poll voters and at least some of the coaches that the Broncos are deserving. The computer rankings would likely be comparable, and Boise State would finally—by the slimmest of margins—get its chance. As for the result, who knows? No matter what happens, we will finally get an answer to the Big Question that has dogged college football since that fateful Statue of Liberty play four years ago. As an LSU fan, I admit that I would not be too heartbroken if the Broncos sprung the upset after all they have been through. The Crimson Tide is another matter. To borrow a turn of phrase from the crimson faithful, Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, Go to Hell Alabama. Geaux Tigers.

Week 10 Picks
Oklahoma State by 17 vs. Kansas State
Oklahoma by 27 at Texas A&M
South Carolina by 13 at Arkansas
And the big one…
LSU by 6 at Alabama

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