Eight weeks into the football season, the endgame is taking shape. As expected, LSU, Alabama, and Oregon are cruising near the top of the rankings. They have been joined by some unexpected competition, however. Kansas State and Florida emphatically proved their worth with one-sided victories over highly-ranked foes. Florida humiliated South Carolina in the Swamp, taking advantage of Gamecock mistakes to roll to a 44-11 victory. The Gators took total command of the SEC East race and they can clinch the division next week with a win against struggling Georgia. Kansas State, meanwhile, rolled into West Virginia and hammered the Mountaineers on their home turf, scoring on their first eight possessions. Granted, West Virginia’s defense is porous, but the Wildcats now have convincing road victories over the other two best teams in the Big 12, and with Texas and Texas Tech both traveling to Manhattan, KS, the Wildcats should be in excellent shape to win the conference.
The big picture should rapidly begin to fall into place, as most of the top teams play each other over the next few weeks. Alabama and LSU will do battle in Baton Rouge in two weeks; in addition, each has to deal with unbeaten, rarely-challenged Mississippi State by season’s end. The winner of this clash will play Florida in what should effectively be a national semifinal playoff in the SEC Championship. Fifth-ranked Notre Dame has brutal road trips to Oklahoma and USC upcoming; I doubt that they will win either, but if they manage to make it through, the Irish have a legitimate case at the title game. Kansas State essentially has to hold serve, with five solid but non-threatening opponents left; the Wildcats’ résumé-building is complete and their lofty ranking reflects it. Oregon State is a long shot now, but the Beavers have an opportunity at the end of the season, with home games against Oregon and potentially USC providing excellent chances at season-defining victories when it matters most. The Ducks continue to roll, and if undefeated, they should emerge alongside the SEC winner in the title game. Kansas State sits immediately behind, waiting for any opportunity.
Of course, all of this prognostication is based on the assumption that nothing unexpected will happen – as it assuredly will. The state of the conference races in the ACC and Big Ten attest to that. Currently, the ACC’s division leaders are Florida State and… Duke, with the Blue Devils having reached bowl eligibility for the first time in 18 years. If the Blue Devils win one of their upcoming games against FSU and Clemson, they will have a very realistic shot at making the ACC title game, much to the chagrin of anyone with an interest in the ACC’s national relevance. In the Big Ten, Michigan and Nebraska will play for the lead in the Legends Division, while Wisconsin has effectively secured a spot in the conference title game. The Badgers currently sit in third place in the Leaders bracket, but the two leaders of the Leaders – Penn State and Ohio State – are both ineligible and the division’s remaining teams have yet to win a conference game. The Big Ten’s pompous and retrospectively hilarious division names contrast farcically with the actual state of the football being played in the conference. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt is quietly putting together a solid season, and the Commodores have an excellent opportunity to win out against inferior opposition and finish 8-4. Yes, you read that right and with a few breaks in competitive losses to Florida and South Carolina, the Commodores could have been in the Top 25 right now.
This week features a number of games of enormous importance, and it has been too long since I have picked any games, so here are some bankable forecasts. Georgia will show its true colors against Florida; unfortunately, the real Georgia will be completely outclassed from the start and lose by 30 or more. Kansas State will take full command of the Big 12 with a hard-fought defensive struggle against Texas Tech (Defensive struggle? Texas Tech? What is going on in this world?), and Oklahoma will reboot its distant title hopes by grinding past Notre Dame. Mississippi State will hang with Alabama early, but in the end the Bulldogs simply do not have the resilience to win in Tuscaloosa. And LSU will watch this game from lounge chairs, hoping the Bulldogs rough up the Tide while the Tigers have an off week right before the big game. This late in the season, every game matters more than the game before it, and someone in the top 15 is likely to crack against an unranked foe. Big games are happening left and right, in sharp contrast to the slow start to the season, and one slip can cost an entire season. College football fans would not have it any other way.