Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Dust Has Settled (For Today)

Wow, what a great day for college football!  It's a great sport.

Now that all of the Big 4 have wrapped up, let's review.  I've been hearing and reading a lot punditry this week about how there's only a 1-2% chance that four teams will make it to the end of the season undefeated.  Okay, I understand that - probabilities stack up pretty fast when you have literally dozens or hundreds of variables at play, and these are 18-22 year old kids with lots of ego and stupid decisions bumping around in their heads.  About the only thing that is guaranteed is that nothing is guaranteed, and that's part of what makes college football the best sport in the country.  Here's what happened tonight...

#1 Alabama

Bama was facing their toughest test for the remaining regular season playing #5 LSU at LSU.  The Tigers had pretty much locked down the Tide despite several miscues, and they had a 3-point lead going into the final two minutes of the game.  However, Alabama is #1 for a reason, and they pulled out their best play at the last moment to score a last-minute TD.  

#2 Kansas State
The Cats hosted #24 Oklahoma State, the third "explosive" offense they've faced this year.  The first two (West Virginia and Texas Tech) were completely throttled, but OSU didn't go away quietly.  After the first quarter, KSU was in control -- I don't recall them being less than two scoring possessions ahead at any point -- but it wasn't a blowout.  At one point, OSU's quarterback left the game with a concussion, but the backup performed his best Peyton Manning impression and kept the Cowboys playing a fierce game of catch-up.  Still, KSU maintained its customary domination of time of possession (38 minutes to 22) and turnovers (+5), and the outcome wasn't ever seriously in doubt.  Collin Klein left the game mid-3rd quarter, presumably with a minor wrist injury, but he wasn't taped up, wasn't being actively examined, and appeared in very good spirits on the sideline through the end of the game.  There's little doubt he'll be back and on fire again next week.

#3 Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish survived a massive scare against Pitt, winning in triple overtime by three, 29-26.  While it's true that an ugly win is still a win, and championship teams find a way to win when the normal things aren't working...this was anything but impressive.

#4 Oregon
The Ducks traveled to USC for a showdown of two of the Pac-12's best.  The game started out in typical Oregon fashion, with the flashy guys rocketing out to a 27-10 lead, but USC eventually closed the gap to three.  The final score ended up 62-51.  This was the most points and total yards ever given up in the Coliseum, and Oregon put down their most difficult game remaining on their schedule.

So, where do things stand now?  Here are the current BCS standings:

The official pundits will have their say tomorrow night when the updated BCS standings are released, but here's my take on it at the moment.

Alabama will remain #1.  They had an ugly, ugly win, but the ugliness will likely be attributed more to the sheer awesomeness -- according to the talking heads at ES(EC)PN -- of the SEC than anything having to do with Alabama's potential weaknesses (of which there are none, of course).  They'll remain on top of the polls.  K-State should stay #2.  They're already at the top of the pile in the computer polls, so the question for them is the human polls - their strength of schedule should improve after beating another ranked team (their fourth), and they actually had the best margin of victory of the four teams this weekend, so objective voters should take notice of that.  I wouldn't be surprised if Oregon jumped over Notre Dame.  For some reason, poll voters seem to look only at the number of offensive points scored when deciding which of two teams looks better; never mind that they gave up 52 points and only won by 11, they looked really swift in their silvery helmets while they ran past USC's defenders.  It's stupid, but that's the way it works.  Notre Dame had the worst showing of the bunch, barely surviving against a mediocre 4-4 Pitt team at home.  They're still undefeated and in the mix, but in a year where style points may be the critical differentiator between multiple undefeated teams, this certainly won't help them.

So what comes next for each of these teams?  Here's the remaining schedule (with rankings as of today):

Alabama: #16 Texas A&M, Western Carolina, Auburn  
K-State: TCU, Baylor, #23 Texas
Oregon: California, #14 Stanford, #11 Oregon State
Notre Dame: Boston College, Wake Forest, #17 USC
Alabama faces a tough test against Texas A&M next week.  The Aggies are coming together really well, and present a very different challenge than they're used to.  Given the emotion of this win over LSU, it presents a major trap game.  They will also have to win the SEC championship, probably against Georgia, another top-10 team presenting a very real upset possibility.  The Wildcats seem to be more focused on the road than at home this year, so K-State should have no problems with road games at TCU and Baylor.  Texas will be a tough game, but they're hardly the juggernaut they were expected to be this year.  They will likely move up in the polls before that last game, so assuming K-State takes care of business and runs the table, they'll get a bit of a bump from the computers and a win over a fifth ranked team.  Oregon has the toughest remaining schedule.  In addition to two more ranked teams, they'll have the Pac-12 championship game.  It will likely be a rematch against USC, and while they just beat the Trojans today it's extremely difficult to beat the same opponent twice in the same season.  Notre Dame has a couple of easy games before finishing against USC, a long rivalry with a lot of upset potential.

Now, let's look at the Cats.  Here's what they've done so far to make it to 9-0:

- Missouri State, 51-9
- Miami, 52-13
- North Texas, 35-21
- at Oklahoma, 24-19
- Kansas, 56-16
- at Iowa State, 27-21
- at West Virginia, 55-14
- Texas Tech, 55-24
- Oklahoma State, 44-30

At the time these games were played, not a single one of these opponents had more than one loss; Oklahoma was ranked 5th, West Virginia was 13th, Texas Tech was 14th, Oklahoma State was 24th.  K-State is averaging one of the highest margins of victory in the country this year, they've completely shut down two 'high octane' offenses run by Heisman candidates and outpaced a third, and they've blown out more than half of their opponents.  As the pressure mounts with each successive win, it'll get harder and harder to avoid a trap.

Running the table is an extremely difficult and rare feat, but at this point I think K-State will do it.  It's mentally tougher than any K-State team I can recall.  Last year they won nailbiter after nailbiter.  That gives you a sort of invincible feeling that minimizes nerves when crunch time comes, allowing you to perform better when it matters most.  This year, they've added another level of domination on top of that, completely controlling all facets of many of their games.  They have refused to let any other teams play their game, instead imposing their own will on their opponents.  They grind the other team down, physically and mentally, as they inexorably play better and better throughout the game.  I heard one commentator describe it as a 'slow throttling', and I think that's exactly right.  They don't get ruffled, they take care of business.  They don't beat themselves, but they do take maximum advantage of their opponents' mistakes.  I won't go into many stats, as those can be misleading, and when you're ranked in the top five they kind of speak for themselves.  In short, K-State is as good a team as any in the country, and they've conducted themselves with sound football based on hard work and tremendous focus.  Collin Klein provides the key leadership and emotional drive that both holds the team together and propels it forward.  If he hangs on to win the Heisman, it's icing on the cake.

And yet...if it comes down to three undefeated teams, I'd bet money that K-State is the one left out in the cold.  It's a combination of coastal bias and superiority that's always been there.  You can see and hear it with almost every analysis from a talking head.  They give lots of love to K-State, but always end up minimizing their accomplishments and just assume that they're not as good as the other, more established teams.  Last week, I heard one guy talk about a hypothetical game in which K-State turned the ball over a couple of times would put them out of the running for a spot in the championship game.  In the next breath, he then went on to talk about a hypothetical one-loss team getting into the championship if only Alabama ran the table; he suggested with a straight face that Florida would probably be the best choice.  Of course, that was immediately after Florida committed six turnovers in their loss to Georgia.  SEC love, anyone?  But that's just how it works.  The only way K-State gets into the championship is if they and no more than one other team ends up undefeated.  Not even the SEC bias can overcome that.

I think it's a very good bet that K-State ends up undefeated.  Their computer rankings are great, no trouble there.  If Alabama or Oregon does too, then they'll almost certainly get the nod from the human voters instead.  Notre Dame is likely to, as well, but more lackluster wins may prevent them from being a serious contender.  Both Alabama and Oregon face a couple of tough challenges, especially in their league championship games.  My hope is that Alabama gets picked off by Georgia and Notre Dame loses their finale to USC, leaving just K-State and Oregon as undefeated.  There would be no doubt about who should get in, and I think Oregon presents the best possible match-up for the Wildcats.  Alabama is a tough, grinding, dominating team, much like K-State.  Their styles are very similar, but Alabama is littered with 4- and 5-star players that will probably win out in the end.  Oregon, however, is a very different beast.  They're incredibly talented on offense, but K-State has stopped three incredibly talented offenses so far.  The key difference is that they have little defense, certainly not enough to stop Klein and the Wildcat offense.

I would be extremely apprehensive about a face-off with the Tide, but Oregon?  I say bring it on.

Time will tell, but first things first - K-State has to keep on winning.  If they do, a second Big 12 Championship is secure, and a potential berth in the national championship game is waiting just around the corner.

Go Cats!

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