Ten Things - Week Six
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With the season already half over, it’s right about the time to start sorting out the serious contenders. LSU, Georgia, Texas – thanks for playing. While there seem to be a few more teams in the top ten with more to prove (we’re looking at you Florida and Kansas State), the meat of conference schedules is certainly not disappointing thus far. Surprises abound from South Bend to the Happy Valley and Columbus, while road trip of disappointment begins in Fayetteville, with pit stops in Lincoln, Ann Arbor, and Baton Rouge before returning to Arkansas. We still have what seems like a two horse race, with Alabama and Oregon sharing the top two spots in both major polls for the third consecutive week. Spots 3-5 have seen a total of nine teams since the preseason, and the rest of the top ten has been even more erratic. But with everything coming into a clearer picture, let’s salute the best Ten Things of the week that was…
1. Penn State Continues Climb - In what looked to be a long and dreadful season for the Nittany Lions, Coach Bradley has been able to rally the troops to turn a corner on the season. What started as an embarrassing loss at home to Ohio (granted, Ohio is a fine team) has turned into three straight victories, a 2-0 conference record, and beating the last undefeated Big Ten team with bowl eligibility. Bradley has done a terrific job rallying the troops after enduring the worst year any team since 1970 Marshall. From taking a 10-0 lead to trailing at half, fighting back, and a 22-point fourth quarter to regain the lead, the Nittany Lions have started to show that they will be a spoiler this season. Next week holds a trip to Aimes, but it’s the following game hosting Ohio State that will be the litmus test to determine how promising the future is for both Coach Bradley and the PSU football program.
2. Arkansas Rebounds - After four straight losses, both at home and on the road, the Razorbacks got a much needed victory against an equally struggling Auburn Tiger team. Though this game means about as much as Ole Miss-Kentucky, it’s a positive sign for an Arkansas team that has so desperately needed one. With an offense that combines one one of the best quarterbacks (Tyler Wilson) and running backs (Knile Davis) in the SEC, the Razorbacks have gone from preseason top-10 and dark horse national title contender to struggling against Jacksonville State, losing 52-0 at home, and needing an upset against a team like Mississippi State to become bowl eligible. Don’t hold your breath, though. We are looking at one of the biggest single season collapses a team has ever faced without NCAA sanctions.
3. Florida Stands Tall - The Swamp is one of the most difficult stadiums for visiting teams to win a game. LSU found that out the hard way, as their national title hopes took a big hit. The Gators rode the defense to a 6-0 halftime deficit, but made the necessary adjustments to outscore the Tigers 14-0 in the second half. Though Jeff Driskell is no Tim Tebow and the days of Percy Harvin and Aaron Hernandez are long gone, there’s a strong core group that is able to go toe to toe with anyone. The Gators picked up their best win to date under second year head-coach Will Muschamp, and if they can stay healthy should move into the lead in the race for the East.
4. Top Five Woes – They say when you’re the king of the mountain, you carry a target on your back every week. That’s even more true when you coach at programs that refuse to settle for merely “one of the best”. You have to be THE best. Just ask Jimbo Fisher and Mark Richt. Two very successful coaches have fallen just short of maintaining the standard of greatness required by their respective fan bases. While losing to another top ten team is fine (as Georgia did to rival South Carolina), to do so by a score of 35-7 when your team wasn’t even close to competitive is not acceptable. To lose to a 3-2 NC State team (albeit on the road) is a cause for concern. Florida State has fallen to this type of bug before; just ask Wake Forest. But both of these coaches are going to need a big finish to the season to recharge the fan base. If either of them can represent, and win, their respective conference, it would go a long way toward rebuilding some fading goodwill. If not, there are two athletic directors that will have some tough decisions to make.
5. West Virginia Deserves Serious Consideration – While the defense is still sketchy, there’s no mistaking the offensive prowess roaming around when Holgerson’s group takes the field. One would think that the #3 total offense and #5 scoring offense in the country would have higher margins of victory, but somehow the Mountaineers take care of business. At Baylor two weeks ago, quarterback Geno Smith showed out with a record-breaking performance. Last week against Texas, they only threw 35 times and had an astounding 42 rushing attempts. What’s even more staggering is they still managed 4.6 yards per rush. If the Mountaineers can shore up a few gaps on the defensive side of the ball, they might be able to ride the most successful offense this side of the Oregon state border to a title.
6. Notre Dame, the Next to Falter or the Real Deal? – No team has underperformed expectations more so than the Fighting Irish, which haven’t been relevant in the college football world since Weis’ first two years. Even then, the closest they came to big wins was almost. Brian Kelly seems to have found the formula to success, converting his high flying offense from Cincinnati to a defense first tank of a program led by linebacker Manti Te’o. Notre Dame has a big upside on their schedule – everyone except for Navy and BYU is from one of the six power conferences. If they can continue this level of defensive performance (no touchdowns allowed in 12 quarters) while Everett Golson continues to improve (completing 60% of his passes and the same number of touchdowns and interceptions, 3) the Irish might survive losing a couple games and still make it to the BCS.
7. Big Ten Roulette Wheel Spins Again – It’s incredible to see that for the first time in the history of the Coaches’ Poll, there isn’t a single Big Ten team. Yes, Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible, but one would have thought that between Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin that ONE of them would be able to get it together enough to bring around some conference pride. But with the Buckeye’s slaughter of Nebraska, and Penn State’s well-earned win vs. Northwestern, for the second straight week two Big Ten teams were dropped from the rankings. It’s really incredible to think that by season’s end, a non-BCS conference team will be playing in a BCS bowl over both the Buckeyes (who may very well be unbeaten) or what could wind up being one of the biggest feel good stories in the nation in Penn State (from 0-2 to 4-2 and improving). It’s downright shocking that this could happen and no one would complain, since every other conference team has so drastically underwhelmed thus far.
8. Heisman Watch – It’s quite refreshing to see that even with all of the politics that go on with Heisman voting, seeing the preseason favorites get undeserved equity later in the year and typically cherry picking simply the best player on the best team, it seems that two of the players getting the most press and exposure are not just the two best at their respective positions, but quite possibly the best on their side of the ball. Geno Smith has been on a tear, throwing for 24 touchdowns and zero interceptions. All the while, he has thrown over 200 times and completed 166 of them (81.4% completion percentage). On the other side of the ball, Manti Te’o has been a hoss, leading one of the nation’s most improved defensive units to near dominance. There will be others given consideration – the residual Matt Barkley votes, De’Anthony Thomas, and perhaps a dark horse like Collin Klein might sneak in there. But for now, it seems that at least the right players are becoming the most visible.
9. State of the SEC – In what used to be the deepest league in the country, what has apparently happened is that the upper middle class is trying to eat at the big boy table, while the lower middle class has sunk into near obscurity. Auburn, just two years from a nation title, and Arkansas, riding an unprecedented string of successful seasons, have a combined record of 3-8. Ole Miss has that many wins. New kid on the block Texas A&M has twice as many conference wins (2) as they do in half as many tries. On the flip side, South Carolina and Georgia seem to have awakened in a major way, though Georgia was served some humble pie over the weekend. Still, the conference has a tied for a national best seven teams with 4 or more victories, and unlike the conference they are tied with (Big Ten), none of the SEC teams have more than one loss. It’s promising for the overall depth of the conference, but this early in the season an amount of skepticism is in order given the amount of cupcakes eaten before the real meat and potatoes arrive.
10. Top Three to See
A. Texas at Oklahoma – Technically, they are both traveling as the annual Red River Rivalry is played right smack dab in the middle of the Dallas State Fair. Aside from the inevitable cutaway featuring this year’s finest in fried cuisine, the game itself puts together two top-15 teams with aspirations to avenge disappointing losses. Texas is just coming off a close call with West Virginia while Oklahoma got its groove back against Texas Tech. The winner will continue to hold dreams of a Fiesta Bowl berth while the loser is likely Holiday Bowl bound, at best. Texas, still trying to mend its defensive holes are exploited by the Sooners young offense and fall 27-20.
B. Stanford at Notre Dame – I can’t believe I’m actually saying a game between Notre Dame and a non-SEC or ACC team is a must watch, but the fact remains that this game means a lot. Stanford is salvaging BCS hopes while Notre Dame is dreaming for the first time. This will be the biggest game South Bend has seen since, well, technically Michigan State earlier this year. But it’s still an important game for both squads. With a wind, the Irish can add the PAC-12 to its list of victims, while a loss would bust the dam on the “See, I told you Notre Dame was overrated!” talk in the coming week. I think Notre Dame is starting to put the pieces together in a very good way, and for that reason I think they pull out a close game, 24-17
C. Texas A&M at LA Tech – I know what you’re thinking. “Why in the world would I want to watch a second rate SEC team play a nobody from the WAC?”. Great question. Here’s the reason – with a win, the Bulldogs will likely jump into the top 20 and are victories over Idaho, New Mexico State, UTSA, Texas State, Utah State, and San Jose State away from either a Sugar or Orange Bowl berth. What looked like a potential upset at the beginning of the year has evolved into a must watch game because the upset possibility is still there AND now both teams are ranked. But as much as you would probably like to see the underdog win causing a potential BCS breakdown, the smart money is on Kevin Sumlin and his team getting the win on the road, 41-31.
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