On a freight train …

On a freight train leaving town, not knowing where I’m bound … 


Merle might not have known where he was bound, but a few college football fan bases should start checking the rail lines for tickets to Atlanta and Phoenix.  Or, at least planning New Year’s Eve parties around tailgating and televisions.  At the halfway point of the season, the college football playoff picture seems clear as a freight train whistle on a lonely night.  Welcome back to The Campus Game.  It’s been a while.

College Football Playoff Picture – Win and In

In order of likelihood, these unbeaten teams will make the playoffs by winning out …

Alabama – the Tide rolled and then Nick Saban mildly trolled a talented, if dinged up, Tennessee team Saturday and looked every bit the nation’s best team in the process. Bama tends to lose a game along the way every year, and the latter part of the season includes home games with unbeaten Texas A&M, scrappy Mississippi State, and improving Auburn along with a road trip against nothing-to-lose LSU.  An SEC title game against Florida or a rematch with Tennessee would follow.

Ohio State – the Buckeyes survived overtime to come from behind and beat Wisconsin on the road Saturday night. OSU travels to Penn State this week, and hosts unbeaten Nebraska in early November, but all signs point to a mammoth showdown with Michigan on November 26th at the Horseshoe along the banks of the Olentangy.  Winner moves to Big Ten title game, and loser is still very much in the playoff picture.

Michigan – speaking of the Wolverines, anybody dispute that college football is the sport most driven by coaching?  Jim Harbaugh’s squad has played one close game this season (a 14-7 road win over rugged Wisconsin), and probably will not face a stiff challenge until the season finale at Ohio State.  I hope it’s cold, with rain or snow, and that Harbaugh-Urban Meyer channel Bo and Woody.

Clemson – the Tigers were lucky to get out of Death Valley with an overtime victory against NC State this weekend.  The Wolfpack missed a chip shot field goal at the end of regulation, and the Pack outplayed Clemson much of the game.  A road trip to FSU on October 29 is the biggest hurdle to a return CFP trip.

Washington – I think Huskies coach Chris Petersen is outstanding and so is his defense this season.  The remaining schedule is difficult (trips to Utah and rival Washington State), but if the Pac-12 is going to get a team in the playoff, UW is the best bet.

Texas A&M – the Aggies had the week off to prepare for a trip to Alabama; if A&M gets past the Tide the schedule sets up nicely with a trip to Miss State the only remaining road game.  Home games against Ole Miss (Nov 12) and LSU (Nov 24) pose the biggest threat … other than Alabama.

Slowly Fading Out of Sight

These unbeaten teams probably won’t stay that way long.

Nebraska – road trips to Wisconsin and Ohio State dampen Husker hopes, but a Big Ten West title seems reasonable.

Baylor – Bears have been impressive, and everybody likes Jim Grobe, but with trips to Texas, Oklahoma, and West Virginia … well, as the late, great Sam Mrvos used to tell us in PE classes at Georgia “it’s feasible, but not possible” or something like that.

West Virginia –  see Baylor above.  Mountaineers must win a Big 12 gantlet of TCU, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, and Baylor among others.  Unlikely.  The Big 12 is probably odd conference out of the playoff picture.

Boise State – even if the Broncos win out (and they still face pretty good squads in BYU, Wyoming, and Air Force), a bid to the playoff should not be in play barring multiple upsets in Power 5 conference championship games.  An opportunity to play in one of the big bowls is more probable.

One Loss Possibilities

The top tier teams can afford to lose a game (maybe even two) and remain in playoff contention because there are only three once-beaten programs from Power 5 conferences still harboring playoff possibilities.

Louisville – the Cardinals should win out (although the Nov 17 trip to Houston is a challenge) and with only a close road loss to Clemson on the resume, pose a real threat to make the playoff.

Florida – the Gators have quietly lost only once (at Tennessee), but have beaten nobody of note and must travel to Arkansas, LSU, and FSU.  That’s asking a lot.  One more conference loss tilts Tennessee toward the SEC title game.

Utah – the only blemish for the Utes is a close  loss at Cal, and they get to host conference favorite Washington on Halloween weekend, but the entire remaining schedule is scary (@UCLA; UW; @Arizona State; Oregon; @Colorado).

Playoff Predictions

Before the season I picked FSU, Notre Dame, and Tennesse (along with Ohio State) to make the playoff, so you should obviously put serious money down on these predictions.

Peach Bowl: Alabama (1) vs. Michigan (4)

Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State (2) vs. Clemson (3)

Despite All My Sunday Learning … to the bad I kept on turning.

OK, now about Notre Dame and Georgia.

Nah, the wounds are still too fresh.

Maybe next time …


Playoff Not Perfect … But Better

College football does not set up particularly well for a playoff or for determining a true champion.

For most of the sport’s history, a champion simply got named after the regular season using whatever ranking system happened to hold sway at the time. In the 1970s, the AP and UPI polls (then widely recognized as the championship standards), shifted their final ranking to take into account bowl results. This mostly subjective process created a lot of attention, but was no stranger to controversy with different schools often claiming titles for the same season.

From 1998 to 2013, the much maligned Bowl Championship Series (BCS) took preeminence over the poll system and matched its top two teams in a championship game. The BCS incorporated the poll system into its rankings, and also used various computer models, taking into account strength-of-schedule and other factors in an effort to make the process more objective. Fans and coaches (at least fans and coaches of teams often left out of the top two) despised the BCS and its demise yielded few laments.

For the 2014 season, the College Football Playoff replaced the BCS and marked the first attempt at a true playoff at the big-time level. A committee (some with football expertise and some with little background in the sport) started providing weekly rankings in mid-October and at the end of the regular season seeded four teams into two semi-final games.

So, that solves all the issues with naming a national champion in college football, right? Nah.

Yes, selecting just two teams for a championship game excluded too many worthy challengers. But, naming four teams may not be quite enough. And, expanding to eight teams would probably require giving automatic bids to undeserving conference champions (anybody think Cincinnati or Central Florida is better than Mississippi State or five or six other SEC teams?).

It’s similar to the old Goldilocks and the Three Bears story, except unlike the porridge, or the chair, or the bed, naming the college football national champion may never be “just right.”

However, if the sport is determined to produce a national champion in other than “mythical” name only, the playoff looks to be better than the old BCS system and the poll rankings.

It is difficult to argue with the four teams the committee selected.

#1 Alabama earned the top seed in the playoff and will face #4 Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s night. Immediately before that semi-final game, #2 Oregon meets #3 Florida State in the Rose Bowl. The winners play at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on January 12 for the national championship.

As might be expected, those pairings caused a bit of growling.

The angriest arguments emanated from Waco, Texas, where the Baylor Bears and their head coach, Art Briles, didn’t find the college football playoff selection process to be a fairy tale at all. Baylor finished 11-1, shared the Big 12 title with 11-1 TCU (a team the Bears beat head-to-head), solidly whipped then #9 Kansas State in the season finale, but still got left out of the playoff.

Briles is a blunt Texan, and Baylor’s papa bear crawled all over a few targets. First on his list was Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who made the mantra “One True Champion” the conference rallying cry for 2014. Because Baylor and TCU ended with the same record, Briles believed Baylor rightly owned a tie-breaker since the Bears beat the Horned Frogs on the field. Instead, Bowlsby declared the teams co-champions and presented each with a trophy after their final games. Briles felt the conference weakened Baylor’s case by not arguing for the Bears as sole Big 12 champ, and he told Bowlsby as much.

Similarly, the selection committee did not escape Briles’ ire. He argued that the Big 12 lacked allies on the committee, noting (a bit awkwardly) that the only native Southerner of the group was former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice (a Stanford professor). I think Briles is great, but he might have been even more effective by alluding to the fact that the committee bypassed two relative newcomers to the national scene (TCU finished in the 6th slot) and went with four of the sport’s longtime bluebloods. Those choices are sure to appeal to ESPN television audiences.

So while Briles made legitimate points, again it’s tough fault the four teams that made the playoff. Alabama won the nation’s toughest division and steamrolled Missouri 42-13 in the SEC championship game to earn the top seed. The Oregon Ducks avenged their only loss of the season by paddling Arizona 51-13 for the Pac-12 title. Unbeaten defending national champion FSU showed its typical resolve in close games by edging Georgia Tech and the challenging Yellow Jacket option attack 37-35 to take the ACC crown. The Seminoles won for the 29th straight time.

That left the final spot to be decided among Baylor, TCU, and the Ohio State Buckeyes. On the strength of the head-to-head win, Baylor was going to get the nod over TCU in the selection committee’s final standings. However, Ohio State continued a stunningly impressive win streak (now at 11 games) by demolishing a pretty good Wisconsin team 59-0 in the Big Ten Title game. That showing was enough to get them into the playoff’s fourth spot.

A College Football Thanksgiving

Growing up in Georgia, one of my favorite sports memories of the Thanksgiving holiday was reading Furman Bisher’s traditional “I’m thankful for …” column. In honor of that Furman Bisher Thanksgiving tradition, this article is written on behalf of college football fans across the nation.

I’m thankful for …

Rivalries … and wow does this week offer a plate full of them. Michigan and Ohio State from the Horseshoe along the banks of the Olentangy River, with the Buckeyes contending for a national title and the Wolverines battling to save head coach Brady Hoke’s job. The Big Ten catches a lot of criticism (much of it deserved perhaps), but this is one of college football’s finest rivalries. The Iron Bowl has become a national championship play-in game the past five years, and this season is no different as Alabama tries to whip Auburn to stay in title contention. The Egg Bowl in Oxford features Mississippi State on the road at Ole Miss trying to nail down a spot in the final four. Oregon travels to Oregon State for the Civil War. The Ducks are in great position for a playoff invitation, but must get past the Beavers and the Pac-12 title game. In Athens, Georgia hosts Georgia Tech in the Clean, Old Fashioned Hate game, both teams with only two losses each. The Battle for Paul Bunyon’s Axe (Minnesota-Wisconsin) will decide the Big Ten West. Clemson-South Carolina, Florida-Florida State, Washington-Washington State, and Notre Dame-USC in a great old intersectional rivalry that retains glamour even when the squads are down. Yes, I’m thankful for rivalries.

Mascots and Nicknames … Ralphie the Buffalo (Colorado), Bevo the Longhorn Steer (Texas), Uga the Bulldog (Georgia), Chief Osceola (FSU), the Sooner Schooner (Oklahoma), Mike the Tiger (LSU), the Oregon Duck (they call him Puddles – did you know that?), Smoky the Blue Tick Hound (Tennessee), Sparty (Michigan State), Brutus the Buckeye (Ohio State), the Rattlers (FAMU), the Vandals (Idaho), the Zips (Akron), the Mule Riders (Southern Arkansas). College football fans are thankful for the pageantry of our nation’s most passion-inducing sport.

The College Campus … having seen many a college campus as a professor over the past quarter century, every one of them is special in its way. Among my personal favorites are North Carolina (Chapel Hill), Virginia (Charlottesville), Kansas (Lawrence), Clemson (Clemson SC), Georgia (Athens), Tennessee (Knoxville), Auburn (Auburn AL), Notre Dame (South Bend IN), Northwestern (Evanston IL), and small college jewels Capital (Columbus OH), and Berry (Rome GA).

Bowl Games … those who love college football cannot get enough of the bowls. The Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton, Fiesta, and Peach are the big six right now (thank goodness for partially doing away with the corporate sponsors in the names), but I will start watching bowl games on December 20th and won’t stop until January 12th. I’m thankful for a whole bowl month.

I hope your college football holiday season provides plenty to be thankful for – Happy Thanksgiving.

Playoff Projection: As we move toward the conference championships next week, I’m sticking with the scenario that no league gets in two teams. Obviously, a lot can change. Alabama, Florida State, and Oregon still control their destinies. Of the four other one-loss teams still in contention (Baylor, Mississippi State, Ohio State, and TCU), I believe Baylor gets in by winning out. Mississippi State was not helped by the thrashing Arkansas gave Ole Miss, nor was Ohio State by Virginia Tech’s loss to Wake Forest. Since TCU lost head-to-head against Baylor, I can’t see the logic in keeping the Frogs ahead of the Bears.

Note – this column originally appeared in The Blitz (Volume 4 Issue 14; Nov 25-29 2014)

Calm Before The Storm

The 2014 college football season, featuring magnificent matchups and a slate of meaningful games nearly every Saturday, slows down this week. Consider it the calm before a storm of rivalry games blitzes the nation over the Thanksgiving holiday.

With nearly all the major conference contenders off or playing teams of minimal danger, it is a good week to examine rankings, remaining schedules, and simmering issues before rivalry week.

Rankings: The playoff committee releases its rankings every Tuesday in what is becoming a fascinating bit of drama for college football fans. Expect Florida State and Alabama to sit atop the rankings, and those two teams control their own destiny to reach the semifinals. If the Seminoles and the Crimson Tide win out, they make the playoffs. The same is probably true of Oregon. Should the Ducks keep winning all the way through the Pac-12 conference title game, the one-loss champs would in all likelihood make the final four. That leaves one slot. The main contenders are Baylor, Mississippi State, Ohio State, and TCU. If any or all finish with only one blemish, that squad could make a legitimate claim to belonging in the playoff.

Remaining Schedules: Ignore FSU, Alabama, and Oregon for the moment (remember if any of them win out, they are in the playoffs), and focus on those one-loss contenders who may need some help from the playoff committee. Ohio State and TCU face the easiest schedules, Mississippi State will need to get by Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, and Baylor has the toughest road. If all win their remaining games, Baylor might slip in past Mississippi State. Of the four teams that control their destiny, FSU has the easiest path (but the Noles need to watch out if Georgia Tech slips into the ACC championship game).

Simmering Issues: Three topics figure to garner attention as the committee determines its final ranking on December 7th. First, will the committee give preference to a team’s full season of work, or favor a team that is playing its best ball at the end of the campaign? Ohio State is a good case in point. The Buckeyes suffered a bad loss at home to middling Virginia Tech early in the year, but have played like gangbusters since. State backers could argue their team is peaking at the right time, while to detractors a bad loss in early September should count as much as a bad loss in November. Another issue is head to head results. Baylor beat TCU and the squads have the same record, yet the committee ranks TCU over the Bears. In an illogical way, the Horned Frogs are getting an advantage by losing to Baylor because that loss is a better one that Baylor’s loss to West Virginia. Go figure. Finally, don’t think regionalism is off the table. While Alabama’s victory over Mississippi State increased the SEC’s chances of getting two teams into the playoff, it’s no sure bet. Every fan knows the SEC schedule is brutal, but a hunch is the selection committee may well give more weight to conference champions than conference strength.

Playoff Projection: FSU (1) vs. Baylor (4); Alabama (2) vs. Oregon (3)

Around the Nation

This would be a good weekend to get your yard squared away for winter, but USC –UCLA could be fun, and Oklahoma State might challenge Baylor. Tennessee will send Georgia to the SEC title game if the Vols beat resilient Missouri.

Note – this column originally appeared in The Blitz (Volume 4 Issue 13; Nov 18-20 2014)

November to Remember

November and college football go together like turkey and dressing. The sport’s very origins trace to this month back in 1869, when Rutgers hosted Princeton and won a 6-4 contest more closely resembling a rough soccer match (or an Alabama-LSU game) than a modern football game. In all those 145 years, with all those wonderful seasons, college football has never had a November like this one. This month will be one to remember because the big-time schools are vying for a trip to the first ever college football playoff, and the calendar has blessed us with five full November football Saturdays to sort out the contenders.

Here is what we know about the playoff picture as of now. The four playoff teams will all come from the so-called “Power Five” conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC). Four of those conferences crown their champions with a title game, while the Big 12 winner is determined solely by regular season record. The playoff selection committee (now a group of twelve since Archie Manning recused himself for health reasons) will name the four semi-finalist teams on Sunday, December 7, 2014.

Here is an analysis of the conference races, followed by a prediction for the playoff.

ACC: Unbeaten Florida State can wrap up the Atlantic Division by beating Miami this week or Virginia the next. The Seminoles have perhaps the smoothest path to the four-team playoff. Their toughest Coastal Division opponent would be Georgia Tech, but the Yellow Jackets need to win out and have Duke lose two of its last three games.

Big Ten: Ohio State throttled Michigan State on the road and looks to be the class of the conference. Nebraska may come out of the West Division, but it’s tough to see anyone in this league beating the Buckeyes.

Big 12: This conference may be the league to garner two playoff spots. TCU has a favorable schedule, but if Baylor wins out the Bears would get the nod due to a head-to-head win and a conference championship. If both finish with only one loss, how will the committee keep either out of the playoff?

Pac-12: Arizona State from the South and Oregon from the North appear on a collision course to the conference championship clash, which would likely become a de facto play-in game to the final four.

SEC: Alabama’s Houdini-like escape of LSU propels the Tide into a showdown with top-ranked Mississippi State this weekend in Tuscaloosa. It would appear Bama and State are the only SEC teams with a chance to make the playoff, but each also has to finish the season with rivalry games in the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl. That is not an easy road.

Playoff Projection: Mississippi State vs. Baylor; FSU vs. Oregon.

Around the Nation

The SEC features Mississippi State at Alabama. State wins the West with a victory, while the Tide would control its destiny by washing away the Bulldogs. Georgia hosts Auburn in the South’s oldest rivalry, while Missouri continues a quest for a second consecutive East Division title on the road at Texas AM. In the ACC, Florida State takes its talents to South Beach to play Miami, and Clemson goes to Atlanta to face surging Georgia Tech. The Big Ten West will shake out this week when Nebraska plays at Wisconsin, and Ohio State visits impressive Minnesota.

Note – this column originally appeared in The Blitz (Volume 4 Issue 12; Nov 11-15 2014)

Fall Back

The “fall back” weekend is one of my favorites of the year. The late autumn air turns crisp and bracing, the leaves change colors and scatter over our yards, and the clocks fall back gaining us another precious hour of rest.

The college football world seems to have fallen back too because even the new playoff committee rankings are rekindling old controversies.

The playoff committee released its initial rankings last week amidst charges of SEC bias. The league boasted three of the top four teams, aggravating fans of other conferences. Then Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher piled on by inferring that negative coverage of his Seminoles was a result of ESPN’s relationship with the SEC Network.

Fans of a certain age recognize that all this noise hearkens back at least to the 1960s. Then the charge was northern bias, particularly in favor of Notre Dame. In 1966, the Fighting Irish outpolled unbeaten Alabama for the national championship despite the Irish settling for a 10-10 tie on the road at #2 Michigan State. In 1977, #5 Notre Dame leapfrogged the Tide and other schools after the bowl season to claim another disputed national championship.

Claims of bias are not limited to the Irish, nor are the current complaints the first leveled at ESPN. In 2006, the four-letter network’s Kirk Herbstreit and his GameDay buddies lobbied long and hard for an Ohio State-Michigan rematch for the national title. Florida narrowly edged out Michigan to get a shot at the Buckeyes, then trounced them 41-14 in the national championship game to trigger the first of seven consecutive SEC titles. That streak would never have started had Herbie and the rest of his Big Ten-centric crew had their preference.

So, the charges of favoritism and unfairness are nothing new, they are simply fall back positions that have been around a long time.

By the way, SEC fans should not gloat. The conference is very unlikely to land two teams in the playoff. Expect the committee to increasingly move toward regional representation as the SEC West teams continue to knock each other off. A one-loss conference champion from any of the other four Power Five conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12) will get the nod over a two-loss SEC that doesn’t win the league (and perhaps even a two-loss champ).

Here is a projection of the four teams most likely to land in the playoff: 1) The SEC champ assuming the team has only one loss. 2) Florida State – the Seminoles must win out though. 3) Oregon – the Ducks look like the class of the Pac-12 after finally handling Stanford. 4) TCU – the Horned Frogs have a charmed (lucky?) season going.

A question remains however. How does the committee rank TCU over Baylor when the Bears beat the Frogs head to head? If both finish the season with one loss, shouldn’t Baylor get the nod?

Around the Nation

What a wonderful weekend of games we have in store. In the Big 12, Kansas State plays at TCU in a game that could decide the conference and a playoff spot. Baylor faces a test at Oklahoma. The Big Ten’s premier matchup of the year takes place in East Lansing when Michigan State hosts Ohio State. Notre Dame travels to Arizona State as the Irish need some luck to stay in playoff contention. Finally, the SEC West gantlet continues when Alabama travels to LSU.

Note – this column originally appeared in The Blitz (Volume 4 Issue 11; Nov 4-8 2014)

Trick or Treat

What a nice way to end the month of October. The first college football playoff rankings come out Tuesday, Halloween falls on Friday, and clocks get set back on Saturday. So we will have ample time to talk college football before, after, and during our candy gorging. Hopefully your team has provided you plenty of treats and very few tricks this season.

This week we get into the spirit of the season by passing out a trick (bad) or treat (good) to a few college football notables.

Treat to the SEC West. The nation’s most dominant division included four of the top five teams in the nation last week, before Ole Miss lost a thriller to LSU in Baton Rouge. From a pure football standpoint, a playoff amongst the top four teams that emerge at the end of the season from Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, and LSU would probably provide fans the best teams and entertainment. But we are getting that in the regular season, so enjoy. Never has one division been so far superior to the rest of the nation.

Trick to Jimbo Fisher and Florida State. This rotten egg is not because the Seminoles have played poorly (they are unbeaten and unlikely to lose in the listless ACC); instead it is because the defending champs have coddled their star quarterback. Jameis Winston is a great talent, and stays unruffled on the field, but he is a bonehead off it. Where there is smoke there is fire, except in Tallahassee. Fisher and FSU will keep Winston on the field regardless of his behavior.

Treat to Brad Nessler and Todd Blackledge. For my money, this is the most professional and informative broadcasting duo in college football. Nessler is smooth without condescension; Blackledge is knowledgeable without arrogance. They are terrific.

Trick to Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson. This pair gets great SEC games every week, but they add little to the drama. My mute button is more popular than Nick Saban masks in Tuscaloosa at 3:30 ET on Saturdays.

Treat to the Pac-12 and Big 12. The league scheduling for these two is sweeter than the Twix bars I’ll pass out Friday. Both play nine conference games, meaning outstanding matchups each week and truer championship races.

Trick to the Big Ten. Michigan State is head and shoulders above everybody else in the heartland, and should the Spartans get past Ohio State in early November, they remain in contention for a playoff spot.

Treat to Ameer Abdullah. The Nebraska tailback should receive significant Heisman attention and is only 825 yards behind Ron Dayne on the Big Ten’s career all-purpose yards list.

Around the Nation

Halloween weekend features some frightful challenges for several of the nation’s best squads.

Florida State travels to Louisville in a key Thursday night game. This is probably the toughest regular season game left on the FSU schedule. In the SEC, Will Muschamp may be coaching his last Cocktail Party game when Florida faces Georgia. Ole Miss plays at Auburn in what may well be a national championship elimination game.

The top Big 12 game of the week takes place in Morgantown when TCU travels to West Virginia. Keep the scoreboard lights ready in that one because they will be blinking.

In the Pac-12, Arizona takes on UCLA in a South Division battle, and up north Stanford travels to Oregon. The Ducks typically struggle mightily with the Cardinal as contrasting styles make this an interesting matchup.

Note – this column originally appeared in The Blitz (Volume 4 Issue 10; Oct 28-Nov 1 2014)