Sunday, October 9, 2016

Six Weeks In

Some thoughts about this college football season now that it's near the midway point:

The Vanishing
Oregon:  After a long run as one of America's most consistent national championship contenders, the Ducks sit at 2-4 and just gave up 70 points to Washington -- and were already coming off a ho-hum 2015 campaign in which they went to a non-New Year's bowl and lost.

Houston:  The press hyped them as a true national power and their coach, Tom Herman, as one of the nation's elite. Don't get me wrong, they are a good team and he is a good coach, but to me, their #6 ranking never looked right and the "elite" label always seemed wrong. Well, yesterday they lost to Navy, against whom they gave up 306 yards on the ground, so I think my skepticism has been vindicated.

Brian Kelly:  He's a good coach, but Notre Dame has been regressing for the last few years with him at the helm and already has four losses this season -- including ones to Duke and NC State, and to a Texas program that is surrendering an average of 48 points per game to every team not called UTEP.

Les Miles:  I am already missing the spectacle of Miles making nonsensical play calls and getting away with them, and watching his head-scratching decisions lead to at least a couple losses per year in games LSU should win. Perhaps the best quote about him came from one of the contributors to the Mizzou blog Rock M Nation, who wrote that "to truly contemplate his one-man insurgency against clock management and the forward pass would be to go mad"... But despite everything I just wrote, Miles's 11+-year tenure at LSU included a national championship, two SEC championships, and a .719 winning percentage that is the best in school history.

The Returned
Washington:  From Warren Moon's 1970's heyday to the mid-1990's, a span which included a national championship and seven conference titles, Washington was one of the country's premier football programs. Then it fell off the face of the earth... But now, in the third season of the Chris Petersen era, the Huskies are 6-0 and just poleaxed Stanford and Oregon in back to back weeks, and the average score of their games this year is 50-14. Watch out.

Michigan:  Granted, with Jim Harbaugh prowling the sidelines, Michigan's return to national prominence is not surprising, but who would have thought it would come this far this fast? Strong defense, efficient offense, 6-0 record. An old-fashioned, gut-it-out, 14-7 win over Wisconsin followed by a 78-0 thrashing of conference foe Rutgers. It is well within reason to say the Wolverines are capable of winning it all.

Tennessee:  I thought the Vols' top ten preseason ranking was a farce -- and while I haven't changed my mind about that, there is no denying that they have legitimately regained their standing as a premier program that can make waves on the national scene. After their insane comeback to beat Florida and miracle between the hedges to beat Georgia, I fully expected them to get trounced yesterday in College Station -- but instead they forced 6-0 Texas A&M to double overtime despite turning the ball over seven times.

Top Conference?
From top to bottom the SEC is usually the best conference in the land, even if its margin of "bestness" is not as large as some of its partisans believe. As for this particular season, it's hard to say right now which conference is tops, but it looks like it's the Big Ten.

The Big Ten has two strong national title contenders in Michigan and Ohio State, and there's a good chance that their season-ending duel will kick off with both of them undefeated... And so far Wisconsin has had one of the most impressive seasons of any team in the country, having opened things up by knocking off LSU and later making mincemeat of Michigan State on the road. They lost by only one score at Michigan, and had just one or two plays gone differently in that contest, the Badgers would be ranked #3 or #4 right now with a strong case to be made that they should be #2.

As for the SEC, Alabama is a clear national title contender and the conference has a deep pool of very good teams behind them -- but it's not obvious that any of those very good teams belong in the top ten right now.

The Pac-12 is only Washington... The ACC has true contenders Clemson and Louisville, but after them there is a steep drop off and very few teams in the conference seem to know how to play defense... And in the Big 12, the standard-bearers are Oklahoma and Texas and their records currently sit at 3-2 and 2-3 respectively.

My Auburn Indulgence
My Tigers entered this campaign coming off a .500 season in which they suffered an otherworldly collapse after the midway point. Combine that with the fact that three of their first four games were against Clemson, Texas A&M, and LSU, and I can't say I'm unhappy about them being 4-2.

Auburn has improved every single week. The offensive line, which resembled a sieve early on, is coming together and it's no coincidence that the offense as a whole has become much more efficient and productive.

But most impressively, Auburn's defense has suddenly returned to its formidable ways of days of yore, owning the line of scrimmage and owning third down. Finally our leading tacklers are once again not defensive backs, which means runners aren't getting into the defensive backfield before they get stopped.

Huge challenges await. Arkansas is next up and has always been a pain in our ass, and Ole Miss will be tough to beat. When we get to Amen Corner in November, the Georgia and Alabama games are both on the road. But if this team continues its trajectory, it can win some of those (yes, even the Alabama game) and make this season something special considering how the landscape looked at the beginning.

...I will opine more about this season later one. Enjoy your Sunday!

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