The Football Informant: Fear the Tree and Other Stories of Entropy

It is that time once again, the most wonderful time of year, when football season is just getting off the ground and anything is possible. These first three weeks of the new season, despite featuring only three games between ranked teams, have already substantially altered the status quo in a way that only college football can provide. In the NFL, a 1-2 start is very recoverable, and by no means the sign of a lost season. In Fayetteville, Arkansas, the same record is understandably producing wailing and gnashing of teeth. There may not have been too much drama so far, but the few exceptions have been, well, exceptional. Hopefully, these opening weeks are a sign of madness to come.

Everyone had this season figured out at the start of the year. LSU and Alabama would duel for the SEC West, and USC would be waiting in the title game. Matt Barkley would run away with the Heisman Trophy, and the Trojans were finally about to break the SEC stranglehold on the crystal ball. True, Oklahoma and Florida State were also good, and do not count out Oregon and Arkansas, but this season had clear-cut favorites from the start. Then the wheels came off.

The first startling revelation was Alabama’s utter destruction of Michigan on opening night. Now, anyone who has followed the pattern of Michigan football in recent years would not have been surprised by this, but apparently Denard Robinson was supposed to have a big-time coming-out party against a defense that just pitched a shutout in the national championship game. Oops. As this was the only game of note in week one, it received 110% of the sports media’s attention, vaulting Alabama to the top of the polls for a performance that, honestly, should have been expected.
Week two saw the Arkansas Razorbacks’ swan-dive against Louisiana-Monroe, dropping the Hogs out of the AP poll and national title contention. The lesson, oddly, was the same as in the Bama-Michigan game; a well-constructed team is a better bet than a superstar quarterback left to his own devices. Out went Tyler Wilson following a series of vicious hits from the rent-a-win Warhawks, and out went the Razorbacks’ promising season. Monroe still earned every bit of that victory, going 6-for-7 on fourth down, including the game-winning play in overtime. The Warhawks had nothing to lose, and they played like it; the same all-or-nothing strategy nearly earned them another victory the following week at Auburn. Kudos to the pride of the Sun Belt Conference for showing up the big boys with sheer, insane effort.

The new conference alignments will take some getting used to; in all likelihood, for instance, the Big 12 title will swing on the results of a game in Morgantown, West Virginia. The much-anticipated SEC debuts of Texas A&M and Missouri went out with a fizzle, as both teams blew second-half home leads in winnable games. A&M is in over its head in the SEC West, where fourth place is looking like the best-case scenario, but Missouri has what it takes to compete in the East this season; indeed, without the Hulk-esque performance of Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, Mizzou would be on top of the division with its hardest division game out of the way. I still maintain that the Heisman Trophy is a meaningless beauty pageant, but even so, Jones by all rights should be the frontrunner right now after single-handedly netting two Georgia touchdowns by forcing turnovers on back-to-back fourth-quarter drives, and possibly swinging the SEC East title. Meanwhile, Alabama continued to lay down the law, throwing down a 52-0 scoreline on Arkansas in Fayetteville, turning the smoking crater of the Razorbacks into something that more closely resembled a supernova. So much for another challenger in the SEC West.

However, the biggest news was oddly the continuation of a reliable trend. For the fifth time in six years, Stanford knocked off USC, one of the more unlikely runs of dominance imaginable. This game was just as inexplicable as the immortal 2007 upset that started the streak, as the second-ranked invincible juggernaut Trojans were utterly shut down on offense, losing in humiliating fashion 21-14. The game was perfectly summed up by its final meaningful play, when Heisman “frontrunner” Matt Barkley heaved a Hail Mary pass out of bounds on fourth-and-40 with nine seconds left. Stanford punished Barkley and the Trojans, not a bad recovery after nearly losing at home to San Jose State on opening day. This perfectly highlights the dangers of picking the trendy risers at the start of the season; odds are, the teams that will be really good this year were the teams that were really good last year, freak accidents and Cam Newton aside. Now, we just have to wait for the annual Florida State Flameout. The simplest and most effective predictor of success is success, and so far, Alabama has it and pretty much everyone else does not. It is too early to have any idea how this season will turn out, and that is a glorious thing. Unless you are an Arkansas fan, in which case, better luck next year.

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