Sunday, October 20, 2013

Eight Weeks In

So it wasn't last weekend, but this weekend -- i.e., the one that wrapped up yesterday -- that will probably go down as this season's Upset Saturday/Weekend of Chaos.

But none of the upheaval affected the national championship picture. It was already known that the Florida State-Clemson clash would eliminate one of those teams, and all of the much-written-about upsets involved teams that were not serious contenders for the national title.

I could rattle on about all kinds of things. I am tempted to gush about how proud I am of my Auburn Tigers in the wake of their huge win over Texas A&M. Instead I will simply wish a respectful RIP to former Washington coach Don James, and offer up my Top Twenty based on what has happened up to now:

1.    Alabama
2.    Oregon
3.    Florida State
4.    Missouri
5.    Ohio State
6.    Baylor
7.    Stanford
8.    Miami
9.    Texas Tech
10.  UCLA
11.  Clemson
12.  LSU
13.  Auburn
14.  Central Florida
15.  Texas A&M
16.  Wisconsin
17.  Louisville
18.  Virginia Tech
19.  Utah
20.  Georgia

Yes, that's Georgia, still in my "rankings," if you will. They've had a rough couple weeks, but we all know that an unprecedented slew of injuries beyond their control is a major reason for that. If they lose to Florida in their next game I will drop them out, but otherwise I will give them the respect they are due for having played three Top Ten teams (something no one else has done) and beaten two of them (which is something else no one else has done).

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Seven Weeks In

Every college football season has at least one Saturday where several big upsets cause turmoil in the polls. Although the word "turmoil" is hyperbolic when describing the impact of yesterday's upsets, it does appear that yesterday might count as 2013's "Upset Saturday."

No one saw Utah beating Stanford, though in hindsight, perhaps some us should have. The Utes are a solid team that nearly beat 5-0 UCLA, and this game was on their home field one week after Stanford's nationally hyped and tightly contested battle against 16th-ranked Washington. In other words, for Stanford this was a textbook example of a trap game, and the trap ensnared them.

Even more surprising, however, was Oklahoma's inability to prevail in the Red River Shootout. Texas was circling the drain, Mack Brown's coaching acumen was assumed to have long since taken its leave, and the Sooners were starting to look like a don't-mess-with-'em bunch of overachievers who stood out in stark contrast to the underachieving Longhorns. But then they got run off of the Cotton Bowl turf by a team that was imminently beatable. To lose like that when the beatable underachievers are your biggest rival is 100% unacceptable, and the Sooners deserve to be ejected from the rankings for it. With extreme prejudice.

Northwestern losing to Wisconsin -- one week after Northwestern narrowly fell to Ohio State, and when Wisconsin was playing at home with its back to the wall -- certainly does not count as an upset even with Northwestern being the ranked team going in. What is a surprise is that the Badgers made it look easy and blew Northwestern away by 29 points. The Badgers proved that they are clearly one of America's best twenty teams.

We are now at the point in the season where keeping a week-to-week Top 20 or 25 becomes increasingly difficult. The wear and tear of the season takes its toll on every team, so the open question is always how far should you drop a good team after they lose a game; and on the flip side, how do you bring an unranked team into the rankings if none of the ranked teams did something that makes them deserving of dropping out?

You have to place weight on all of the circumstances, which include strength of schedule up to now; the quality of the opponent a team just played versus who they played the week before (see Stanford above); the nature of the injuries they are coping with, and how they are coping with them; whether the game in question was at home or away, etc.

Going back to the "see Stanford above" example, a very big part of me believes Utah deserves to be ranked, especially when you consider that they too were coming off a big game going into yesterday's contest. But who should I remove from my Top 20 after having already done away with Oklahoma and Northwestern?

I thought about making room for Utah (or Texas Tech) by removing my own alma mater, Auburn, because Auburn's win yesterday was against one of the worst teams in the FCS -- but then again, why penalize my Tigers when that was their first gimme opponent of the year, and when they have a better record that Utah, and when they play in the acknowledged toughest conference in America, and when nothing that earned them entree to the Top Twenty a week ago changed yesterday?

Auburn plays #10 Texas A&M this coming Saturday, and if they lose then, that might be a reason to drop them. But then again, it might not. Since logic says the #20 team should lose to the #10 team in the latter's stadium, why drop #20 lower? If #10 defeats #20, doesn't that usually do more to confirm their respective rankings than it does to change them?

Anyway, I am rambling and who wants to read rambling? I will be out of town this coming weekend so I don't know if I will post any predictions this week, nor do I know if I will post any rankings until two weeks from now. But here is the Stanton's Space Top Twenty based on what has happened through this season's first seven weeks:

1.    Alabama
2.    Oregon
3.    Clemson
4.    Ohio State
5.    Louisville
6.    Florida State
7.    Missouri
8.    UCLA
9.    LSU
10.  Texas A&M
11.  Baylor
12.  Miami
13.  Stanford
14.  Georgia
15.  South Carolina
16.  Wisconsin
17.  Washington
18.  Virginia Tech
19.  Florida
20.  Auburn

Thursday, October 10, 2013

More predictions

Week Seven is one of those that features a number of college football's most intense mid-season rivalries. Here are my thoughts on how that troika will play out, along with some history about each:

Oklahoma vs. Texas
This is by far the most storied of the rivalries that will be on display Saturday. Oklahoma and Texas have faced each other in 107 of the last 113 seasons, and ever since 1932 their game has been held midway between the campuses, in Dallas's Cotton Bowl Stadium, while the Texas State Fair takes place outside the stadium walls. The two schools have accounted for 11 national championships and 76 conference championships while producing 128 consensus All-Americans. Where the sport's most prestigious individual honors are concerned, Oklahoma and Texas claim seven Hesiman winners, eight Outland Trophy winners, and five recipients of the Dick Butkus Award.

As it turns out, however, this year's edition of the Red River Shootout is the most likely rivalry game to be a dud this weekend. Texas has lost the last two in the series by a combined score of 118-38, and this year it is fielding a squad even worse than the ones that were on the receiving end of those whippings. On the other hand, Oklahoma enters the game 5-0 and brimming with more talent, character, and confidence than the boys in burnt orange -- a fact that will be reflected in the outcome. Sooners 32-16

Oregon at Washington
In the late 1980's and early 1990's, Washington bestrode the Pac-10 and won a national title. While Oregon did start to improve during that period, its program remained known for mediocrity and it was a mere shell compared to the one north of the state line.

Then came 1994, when Oregon DB Kenny Wheaton intercepted an out pass by Damon Huard and ran 97 yards to the end zone. It was not until player reactions to that play appeared on TV screens that the rest of America realized how much animosity flows between these schools.

Wheaton's pick-six not only defeated the heavily favored Huskies, it propelled the Ducks to their first Rose Bowl in 37 years and foreshadowed a wholesale changing of the guard in the Northwest. Since that play, Oregon has won four outright conference championships and two co-championships and come within four points of being the 2010 national champions. Meanwhile, Washington has not won a single outright conference title, and of the two co-championships it has managed to record, the last was 14 years ago. The Ducks have won 14 of 18 in the series since the pick-six, including the last nine in a row, compared to having lost five straight and 17 of the previous 20 before the pick-six.

This year Washington's pendulum has swung back to a position of strength, which is good for Husky fans, and Orgeon's has not swung away from its position of strength, which is good for Duck fans. Washington is the first real test Oregon has faced, and with this game taking place in Husky Stadium I expect them to drag the Ducks into deep waters they have yet to tread -- which is to say, I expect the outcome to be in doubt when the fourth quarter starts. I also expect this year's Oregon team to be more like 2010's (which eeked out a 15-13 win against California in its first test) than 2012's (which fell to Stanford by a score of 17-14 the first time it was tested). My mind sees a late touchdown being the difference and the final score being Ducks 38-33

Florida at LSU
Though it hasn't featured the same kind of oomph as the annual tilt between Auburn and LSU, this cross-divisional SEC battle is a longstanding bellwether in which the stakes are always high and the crowds are always in a tizzy. In one stretch during the previous decade, there were three consecutive years in which the winner of this game went on to win the national title.

This is how SI's Andy Staples sums up Saturday's meeting: "Now, we finally get to see if the entire SEC has shifted into a high-scoring, pitch-and-catch league. Florida's defense has held 13 consecutive conference opponents to 21 points or fewer. The Tigers have gained more than 400 yards in each of their first six games for the first time in school history."

But it would be shortsighted to look at this game simply as a match-up between the Gator defense and Tiger offense, for on the other side of the ball, a Gator offense with few playmakers will be going up against a Tiger defense that is far from chopped liver and is hungry to prove its worth.

I would give a slight edge to LSU on a neutral field, and since Saturday's game will be on its own turf you can expect them to prevail. Though not by much. I predict this to be the kind of slugfest that will bring smiles to the faces of purists like Staples and myself. Tigers 21-17

There are two other intriguing games this weekend that don't count as rivalries, and as a bonus, here are my thoughts about those:

Missouri at Georgia
Georgia's season has been nothing short of remarkable, with them facing three Top Ten teams and their only loss in those contests coming on the road, by three points, in the season opener, in a game in which eight of their defensive players were making their first career start. Usually I would pencil this in as a sure win for the Bulldogs, but lately they have been bitten not so much by an injury bug as by an injury shark.

By the end of last week's game against Tennessee, Georgia's top three receivers and top two running backs were out with injury. Of those five, only one (RB Todd Gurley) might play on Saturday, and even if he does, he won't be 100 percent. This wholesale loss of offensive talent is particularly troubling when you consider that Georgia's defense has been its weak link and Missouri's offense is one of the most potent in the country. Absent the injuries I would expect Georgia to win, and probably by a fair margin, but with the injuries my prediction is: Tigers 30-23

Northwestern at Wisconsin
Northwestern came within six or seven inches of beating Ohio State and putting themselves in the national championship race. They are undoubtedly one of the top fifteen teams in the country.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin is far and away the best two-loss team in America.

Unfortunately for Northwestern, they are facing a wounded predator on its home turf and the old adage is true: A wounded predator is the most dangerous. Badgers 33-30

Sunday, October 6, 2013

College Football: Six Weeks In

Some thoughts about this college football season now that its sixth week has ended and its midway point is upon us:

Do I... 
...get to mention that I went 6-1 in the predictions I made for Week Six's key games? I guess I just did.

But admittedly...
...some of those correct predictions were not exactly spot on. For example, I said Florida State would beat Maryland, and they did -- but I also said Maryland would "put up a good fight," and the final score ended up being 63-0.

Jerry Kill
It is past time for Minnesota's head coach to hang up his whistle. On Saturday a seizure forced him to miss the annual game against Michigan for the Little Brown Jug, and the only thing different was that he missed a whole game instead of half a game.

Kill has epilepsy, and in the last two years has experienced several mid-game seizures that resulted in him leaving in an ambulance while his team and assistants finished without him. The seizures have happened on the sideline, and in the locker room at halftime. It has long been assumed by casual observers, and reported as truth by some media, that these seizures are precipitated by game day stress.

Saturday's happened before Kill even arrived for the game. In my opinion, Minnesota should have found a way to separate him from his post before now, but if they needed any more reason to justify doing that without running afoul of anti-discrimination laws, this event should be it. It is one thing to have a history of not finishing races, but quite another to have a history of not reaching the starting line.

The main issue, however, is one of humanity. Like repeated concussions, repeated seizures can have a deleterious effect on one's brain. Would you want to employ a person when you knew that the nature of you employing him could very predictably result in him losing mental capacity down the road? It is in Kill's best interest for him to no longer be head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, and it is in everyone else's best interest as well.

My Auburn Indulgence
Few national commentators are talking about Auburn, but I am thoroughly enjoying the experience of watching this team gel. And since I have always been ten times tougher on them than neutral commentators have been (specifically because I want them to legitimately be better than every other team in the country), I am confident when I say that the positive feelings I have about the 2013 Tigers are not a result of me wearing the rose-colored glasses that usually cloud the judgment of alumni.

Coming off a horrendous 3-9 campaign last year, this team is now 4-1 despite not having faced a single cupcake...The most points Auburn scored last season was 20, and they only did that once, but this year the least they have scored is 21 and they are averaging 29...Last year their defense was a sieve, but last night its front seven slammed the door on a ranked opponent despite being depleted by injuries and playing lots of freshmen and sophomores...They have shown they can win by battling back after being behind, and have shown they can make a lead hold up by knocking down an opponent who is starting to show signs of comeback momentum.

The powers that be have not made them a ranked team, but they should be ranked, and based on what has happened this season I have them at #20.

Other Tigers
How can an SEC team be 5-0 and coming off a 23-point road victory over a conference foe than had won ten of its last twelve, and not be ranked? Damned if I know, but who am I to talk when even I don't have the Missouri Tigers in my Top 20?

Mizzou has not played a tough schedule up to now, and it is that strength-of-schedule differential, not my diploma, that has me feeling definitive about putting Auburn of them. But their 51-28 dismantling of Vanderbilt was a statement game, and when you consider how prolific their offensive numbers were in that game, it is worth noting that defense is the one area in which Vanderbilt has always been strong.

Mizzou already has a strong case for a national ranking. If they play well in Georgia this Saturday poll voters are going to be duty-bound to find a way to put them in the Top 20 or 25, even if they lose.

My rankings
And without further ado, here is the Stanton's Space Top 20, showing little movement from last week:

1.    Alabama
2.    Stanford
3.    Oregon
4.    Clemson
5.    Ohio State
6.    Georgia
7.    Louisville
8.    Florida State
9.    LSU
10.  Texas A&M
11.  UCLA
12.  Miami
13.  Oklahoma
14.  Northwestern
15.  South Carolina
16.  Washington
17.  Virginia Tech
18.  Florida
19.  Baylor
20.  Auburn

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Some Week Six Predictions

Saturday's slate of college football games kicks off in a less than an hour. While there are no marquee match-ups like last week's Georgia-LSU contest, there are many intriguing contests out there and some of them will impact conference standings, national rankings, and perhaps the national title outlook. Here are a few predictions on how they will play out:

Ohio State at Northwestern
Coached by Patrick Fitzgerald, its former All-American LB, Northwestern has quietly built a very strong program over the last seven or eight years. Right now they are the only team left in the Big Ten that has a realistic chance to knock off the Buckeyes, and they get this game on their home turf with Ohio State coming off the kind of big win that is often followed by a drop-off in intensity the following week. There is a reason they are ranked, and I am predicting they will grab America's attention today with a signature win that some will consider a major upset. Wildcats 31-28

Washington at Stanford
The Huskies are back, they are for real, and Husky Stadium has a vibe it hasn't felt in years, but this game is not at Husky Stadium. And Stanford is too powerful up front, too capable of controlling the ball, and too focused to not prevail in the Pac 12's biggest game so far this season. Cardinal 28-17

Maryland at Florida State
This doesn't sound like a big game, but Maryland cracked the AP Top 25 last week and both teams are undefeated. Maryland has had two weeks to prepare for this one and will put up a good fight, but they won't be undefeated when their bus leaves Doak Campbell this afternoon. Seminoles 37-28

Georgia Tech at Miami
I thought Georgia Tech was a legitimate sleeper to make a run this year due to a scrappy defense, typically prolific running game, and unusually effective passing game. Then Virginia Tech handed the Jackets their tuckuses and revealed that their program is not "there" yet. I still believe they are a talented bunch and I still believe they could beat Miami if Miami doesn't bring its A game; however, Miami is feeling that it has a chance to enter the national championship picture and there is no way it will take the field with anything less than its A game. Hurricanes 35-17

Arkansas at Florida
Their record might not reflect it, but Arkansas is much improved from last year and is sure to score some big wins before the season ends. Florida might seem to be the perfect victim because the national press keeps playing up the significance of the players the Gators have lost to injury, but there is a case to be a made that losing QB Jeff Driskell will help rather than hurt them. Plus, the Gators' main strength is their depth on defense, and that depth, combined with the home crowd, will be too much for Arkansas today. Gators 23-16

West Virginia at Baylor
For West Virginia, which last week notched the school's biggest win in several years, this is a chance to prove they are a genuine factor in the Big 12. For Baylor, which has not faced a quality opponent all season, this is also a chance to prove to prove they are for real. I expect Baylor to prevail because I don't think West Virginia can play back to back like they did against Oklahoma State last Saturday. Bears 30-22

Ole Miss at Auburn
I figured I'd save my alma mater's game for last. I am pleased with the way Auburn has improved from game to game and the way they scrapped back in the loss at LSU. They are showing the kind of character that is necessary to make last year's 3-9 disaster fade from memory. Ole Miss provides a challenge because they are legitimately ranked and far more talented than usual, and (contrary to what some media people claimed) they played well last week in Tuscaloosa. Beating Ole Miss is usually not a major accomplishment, but it will be this year if Auburn can do it. I can think of as many reasons to predict an Auburn loss as I can an Auburn victory; but am going to go way out on a limb and forecast that, with two weeks to prepare, Gus Malzahn will come up with the right strategy for his team to pull out a squeaker. Tigers 29-27

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

et ceteras

I've been very tied up for the past week and a half and am still feeling that way tonight. Sooner or later I'll have time to write in depth about some of the things rattling around in my brain, but right now am settling for a quick-hit approach, so here goes:

Parts of the federal government are now shut down, and the good news is that people are bound to notice when the sky doesn't fall and businesses don't shut their doors...The bad news is that other people won't notice and will instead succumb to the hype that Leviathan's absence is making everything go to Hell in a basket...The big question is which group will be larger, because if it's the former, the GOP will see its prospects for 2014 rise, and if it's the latter, the Democrats will see theirs rise. Either way, I applaud the Republicans who stood up for having the courage of their convictions.

I do not have a problem with the NFL cracking down on head-to-head hits, but I do have a problem with the overzealous way it is trying to make its point...Officials are now doling out 15-yard penalties just about every time a hard hit occurs, even when the hit is not to the head. I have seen multiple players get flagged after hitting an opponent below the shoulder pads and not leading with their head to do so...The NFL might as well ban defense, cut to the chase, and switch to being a flag football league.

Speaking of football, it is disgusting how Tampa Bay QB Josh Freeman has been wronged by Coach Greg Schiano and others in the Buccaneer organization. It is a travesty from a football perspective, and more importantly, a moral outrage from a human perspective. I hope to publish a post dedicated to this particular subject in the near future.

On the other hand, the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team is a model of class. Manager Joe Maddon treats his players with respect and they perform for him because they know he will never throw them under the bus...Despite having a microscopic payroll, the Rays have made the postseason four times in the last six years, which is more than any other team in the majors including the much ballyhooed Red Sox and Yankees. Monday night's complete game win by pitcher David Price, in the one-game playoff that put the Rays in this year's postseason, was one for the ages...It's not likely that the Rays will win the World Series, but it would sure be fitting if they do.

I recently found myself reading about Errol Flynn on Wikipedia (don't ask) and came upon a sentence that struck me as one of the most amusing I have ever read. Here it is, and keep in mind that Flynn was only 33 years old at the time of which it is referring: "Grateful to the country that had given him fame and wealth, he attempted to join the armed services but he had several health problems, his heart was enlarged, with a murmur, and he had already suffered at least one heart attack; he had recurrent malaria (contracted in New Guinea), chronic back pain (for which he self-medicated with morphine and later, with heroin), lingering chronic tuberculosis, and numerous venereal diseases." All I can say is: Damn.

That was all quite random, but hey, the topic was "things rattling around in my brain," so what else can you expect? Until next time, take care.