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Landmine games for title contenders
Looking at potential problem games for national title contenders and more from around Week 5 in college football.
WHO WILL GIVE THE TITLE CONTENDERS ISSUES?
At this time last season, with five weeks of the college football season down, Florida State was 5-0 and ranked No. 3 in the AP poll.
The Seminoles rolled through an appetizer of feeble opponents in Murray State, Savannah State and Wake Forest before beating Clemson at home and USF on the road. With future first-round pick E.J. Manuel at quarterback, a sense of BCS championship hope lingered for Florida State and the ACC. And, as will happen, FSU then lost to NC State in Week 6 and again to Florida at the end of the regular season.
LSU was also 5-0 and ranked No. 4 in the AP Top 25, believed to be an acceptable antidote to Alabama in the SEC West. The Tigers would lose to Florida the following week and again to Bama to fall out of the title hunt.
Kansas State and West Virginia were both undefeated, ranked No. 7 and No. 8 respectively, holders of what some believed to be less impeded paths to a BCS championship berth, by simple nature of being in the Big 12.
So, of course, the Wildcats would trip up at Baylor. The Mountaineers had just won at Texas – a big victory as Texas was ranked in the top 12 and had yet to reveal itself as a woefully underachieving unit – and then lost the following week at Texas Tech. They’d lose their next four games, too, before being mercifully put to rest by Syracuse in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
These are minor details that become lost in a year’s time, overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of a new season and our zeal for forecasting football outcomes. So as Oklahoma beat Notre Dame in South Bend Saturday, championship chatter and dreams of what might be began to swirl around the Sooners. Georgia beat LSU, and it, too, stirred up title race talk.
I don’t want to simply say it’s too early to project the BCS championship race – it certainly is, given we haven’t even reached out October – because that’s not much fun.
Instead, let’s parse through what the top national championship contenders did in Week 5 and try to sniff out the inevitable "landmine game" that must be avoided to make a title run.
ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
By the very nature of its conference, Alabama usually has a schedule full of landmine games. Having already beaten Texas A&M, this season is lining up much like 2011, in which the Tide lost to LSU and then beat it in their BCS title rematch.
Nick Saban won’t begin discussing LSU for another four weeks, but the Nov. 9 date with the Tigers is the one everyone has circled now for Alabama given its next four games, three of them coming at home.
After shutting out Ole Miss Saturday, the Tide have Georgia State at home next week in their homecoming game. They then go to Kentucky, a place they haven’t lost in 16 years, before getting Arkansas and Tennessee, two teams struggling to find legs under new coaches, at home before a bye week. Then it’s the Tigers.
The Iron Bowl on Nov. 30 in Auburn has a faint upset aroma, but it’s difficult to imagine Alabama losing that game if it’s standing at 11-0 and playing for a berth into its third consecutive national championship game. Since 2008, the Crimson Tide are 19-2 in SEC road games, a remarkable figure that should reach 22-2 (with wins in Lexington, Starkville and Auburn) by the end of 2013.
A few days before he went north to Eugene, Ore., with a plan for stopping Oregon’s offense – attempting to, anyway – Cal defensive coordinator Andy Buh was detailing some of the challenges in facing the Ducks.
I asked him where the preparation for an offense that explosive even begins, and he sort of sighed, saying that you begin by “leveraging every formation” and figuring out how to contain the Ducks within those formations, hoping to compress the room with which Oregon has to operate yard-by-yard.
“[Oregon] has so much speed that you want the edges of your defense to keep contain,” Buh said. “So you figure that out and then work in to out and back to front.”
Considering how Oregon makes minced meat of most opposing defenses, Cal did OK, keeping the Ducks to only 381 yards of total offense, or 56 more yards than the Bears.
A few things contributed to this, all stemming from the conditions: It was pouring rain, thus creating a slick turf. That slick turf also contributed to Oregon RB De’Anthony Thomas hurting his ankle returning the opening kick of the game; he never returned. And the Ducks forced five turnovers, allowing them to score early and go into protect mode with QB Marcus Mariota.
Oregon-Alabama is the championship game most people prefer to see, and to get there the Ducks will have to overcome a very difficult remaining schedule. They’re at Washington in two weeks, which is becoming bigger by the week as the Huskies remain undefeated, and have UCLA at home on Oct. 26. If the Ducks win those, the landmine game we all have our eye on is Thursday Nov. 7 at Stanford. That’s the West Coast’s Game of the Year, and the winner will be a few weeks (and a Pac-12 title game win) away from the national championship game.
We’ll get the Cardinal out of the way now since we can probably agree Oregon is also its landmine game. But as I look at Stanford’s schedule, after it beat Washington State easily in Week 5, there’s a sleeping date that reeks: Oct. 26 at Oregon State.
Stanford will be coming off its homecoming game against UCLA and have a bye week after the Beavers to get ready for Oregon. Could the Cardinal let up a bit against Oregon State? Probably unlikely, considering the incomparable talent levels of the two teams, but it’s not impossible.
It’s been almost 20 years since Stanford has won in consecutive trips to Corvallis (1992 and ’94), and it struggled against the Beavers for nearly three quarters at home last season before pulling away. Like this year, that game was also the week before playing the Ducks. Oregon State currently ranks second in the country in passing yards per game (420.6), and Stanford, while having speed in the secondary and a loaded LB unit, ranks 78th in the country in passing defense.
Stanford is the homecoming game for Oregon State this season. Couldn’t you envision one of those wet Corvallis nights, where thick fog settles above the field and a late field goal squirts right in the closing seconds?
Let’s tackle UCLA as a darkhorse title contender, since the Bruins’ case is simple: They play at Stanford on Oct. 19 and then at Oregon the following week. It’s as brutal a two-week stretch as you can have this year in college football.
If UCLA wins both of those, it will have the makings of a strong BCS title case. That’s very unlikely, however, so the goal should be to win one and then beat the other in a rematch in the Pac-12 title game and let everything else around the country settle itself out.
One other landmine of particular relevance Sunday morning: At USC on Nov. 30. Troy is in flames after head coach Lane Kiffin was fired overnight outside of a LAX terminal, but we know there’s still talent at USC and I think Ed Orgeron taking over the interim job will be a welcomed change for the Trojans. He’s instant energy and will have USC ready to compete at the very least.
With Georgia out of the way, there are still two high-quality landmine games to choose from for Clemson: Florida State at home on Oct. 19 and at South Carolina on Nov. 30 to end the regular season. But for a true “landmine,” I’m going with the third option: Oct. 26 at Maryland.
The Terps, 4-0, were off this week and go to Tallahassee next week. Their undefeated hopes probably end there, but that doesn’t mean their upward trend has to. Maryland is currently tied for 27th in scoring (39.8 ppg) and third in scoring defense (10.3 ppg). C.J. Brown has been a big improvement at QB – he ranks 32nd in passing (260.8 ypg), right behind Washington’s Keith Price and FSU’s Jameis Winston – giving Maryland someone competent enough to utilize super sophomore receiver Stefon Diggs.
It’s more likely Clemson handles the Terps and moves forward in its quest for a national championship, but forget about last year’s 45-10 blowout at Clemson, a game in which Maryland had to start linebacker Shawn Petty at quarterback. This year’s game in College Park will be much more of a threat.
FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
Let’s handle FSU quickly while we’re talking about the ACC. The Noles beat Boston College Saturday, and their clear landmine game is at Clemson on Nov. 19. The visitor in that series is 1-10 in the last 11 games, and as much as I love Jameis Winston, I’m rolling with Tajh Boyd in one winner-take-all game.
If the Noles do beat Clemson, then we look ahead to Miami at home on Nov. 2, which I don’t see FSU losing in that scenario, and at Florida on Nov. 30 to end the regular season, which certainly could be a loss.
The ACC might end up being good enough that Florida State (or Clemson) could possibly overcome one loss and still play its way into the BCS national title game, but it would need help. I think any undefeated or one-loss SEC or Pac-12 team would get the nod over a one-loss ACC team, but who knows? A win in the Swamp might be a final chance to make a national championship case.
OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
Two things stood out about Ohio State’s win over Wisconsin Saturday: How silly the talk of any QB controversy in Columbus is, and OSU’s relative effectiveness against Badgers running back Melvin Gordon.
Braxton Miller returned after missing the majority of the last three weeks with a sprained MCL and connected on 17 of 25 passes for 198 yards and four touchdowns. He also carried the ball 22 times for 83 yards. Urban Meyer played up the possibility of featuring two quarterbacks against the Badgers, but as we saw in a close game, that was never a real option. The first option was always Braxton, and Kenny Guiton will see time in blowouts.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes “limited” Gordon to 4.9 yards per carry (15 carries for 74 total yards) before Gordon left with a knee injury.
“The hardest thing for an athlete to do is restart his feet with power after contact,” an opposing defensive coordinator told me the other day. “That’s the sign of an explosive athlete. I see Melvin do that time and time again. He’s one of the most explosive guys at his position this year.”
That Ohio State survived Gordon and Wisconsin’s other top RB James White (eight carries, 31 yards) is a positive sign heading into the Buckeyes’ landmine game: Next week at Northwestern. OSU will have to deal with RB Treyvon Green, who’s averaging 7.0 yards per rush, and two mobile quarterbacks.
You could easily point to the Michigan game on Nov. 30 as the landmine, but two thoughts: 1) We don’t really know how good Michigan is 2) If OSU is undefeated and playing for a title berth, can you see it losing that game, even with it being in Ann Arbor?
It feels wildly premature to discuss the No. 14 Sooners as national championship contenders, but they’ll receive a bump in various polls across the country with two top-12 teams losing in Week 5.
Oklahoma has Texas on Oct. 12 in the Red River Rivalry, and it seems strange to say that’s not its biggest landmine game. But for me, the choice is easy: Nov. 7 at Baylor.
If both teams remain undefeated until then, I imagine the Sooners will be favored by a small handful of points, but I’m not sure they should be. Yes, it’s likely that Blake Bell and the Sooners move the ball freely against the Bears, but Baylor’s offense is so incredibly potent that it may not matter. QB Bryce Petty and RB Lache Seastrunk lead the nation’s top scoring team – a team that is scoring 10 more points per game than second-place Oregon.
I don’t think Baylor can contend for a national championship without playing any defense, but I think it can certainly beat Oklahoma that way. If the Sooners win that game (and every game until then, of course), they will have earned their place in the national title discussion. I just don’t see it happening.
ONE-LOSS SEC TEAMS
There’s a handful of them that are all playing for a berth into the SEC title game, which then is their chance at a berth into the national title game.
After losing to Georgia Saturday, LSU can play its way into that game by winning out, which would include wins over Alabama and Texas A&M. A potential landmine game for the Tigers could be Oct. 19 at Ole Miss, but I don’t see it happening, not with LSU’s much improved offense. If this was the old LSU that struggled to put up points, I could see the Rebels ambushing the Tigers are home. But Zach Mettenberger has turned into a stud.
Georgia is in a good position in that its landmine game is clear – Florida on Nov. 2. Win that and the Bulldogs have a relatively clear path to the SEC title game. The Gators control their own goals still, but they’re at LSU next week and at South Carolina on Nov. 16. They could win the East and also have two losses – but would that be good enough to get a title game nod?
Then there’s Texas A&M, which needs to win out and hope Alabama suffers at least one loss. The first part will be tough enough, since the Aggies’ landmine game from here out is clearly Nov. 23 at LSU. Without the ability to beat Alabama, there seems to be too many other quality teams with more favorable scenarios to envision the Aggies in Pasadena playing for a title.
A note about Lousiville
Despite being a top-10 team, I’m not including Louisville in this discussion simply because there are no landmine games on its schedule. It’s an unfortunate situation to put the Cardinals in – what can they do other than beat who is on their schedule? – but that’s the nature of having a soft non-conference slate and playing in a weak league. I wouldn’t take an undefeated Louisville over a one-loss SEC or Pac-12 team, let alone another undefeated, and I would probably even take the right two-loss SEC or Pac-12 team over the Cards, depending on the losses.
Five completely non-football related things that happened.
Georgia men’s hoops coach Mark Fox joined the 'Spike Squad' by painting himself red and donning spikes on his shoulders for the LSU game. Well, he did for a quarter anyway. Then he had to go recruit.
Before playing LSU, the Georgia joker had a message for the Tigers (kudos to the college kids who made this).
Floyd Mayweather had an interesting day betting on college football.
LeBron James, sort of a Buckeye, riled up Buckeye fans with a pregame speech.
NOTES FROM THE NATION
An assortment of links from around college football.
Alabama’s defense slammed the door on Ole Miss’ fast-paced offense, writes Andrew Gribble.
Confident Ole Miss was silenced in Tuscaloosa, writes Hugh Kellenberger.
Georgia beat LSU in a shootout between the hedges, writes Chip Tower.
Zach Mettenberger was great for LSU, but the Tigers came up short, writes Jim Kleinpeter.
After the loss, USC fired head coach Lane Kiffin.
Washington beat Arizona in the rain to improve to 4-0 for the first time since 2001, writes Adam Jude.
Stanford made easy work of Washington State, writes Tom FitzGerald.
How do you stop the Bear Raid? As Oregon learned, just add water, writes Ryan Thornburg.
Little went right for the Gophers in their homecoming loss to the Hawkeyes, writes Joe Christensen.
Ohio State beat Wisconsin, and Braxton Miller showed that he’s the man, writes Bill Rabinowitz.
For the Badgers, it was a combination of too much Miller and too many mistakes that sunk them, writes Jeff Potrykus.
Oklahoma’s offensive line and running backs made up for a dismal performance last season against Notre Dame, writes Ryan Aber.
The rain awakened TCU from its slumber, writes Travis L. Brown and Stefan Stevenson.
Miami beat South Florida, and afterward Stephen Morris called the Bulls a “dirty team,” writes Susan Miller Degnan.
Clemson was focused and dismantled Wake Forest, writes Aaron Brenner.
Jameis Winston’s version of a Hail Mary helped Florida State beat Boston College and improve to 4-0, writes Brendan Sonnone.
NC State throttled Central Michigan, writes Joe Giglio.
Northern Illinois crushed Purdue and became the first MAC team to beat two Big Ten teams in the same regular season, writes Shannon Ryan.
What Notre Dame learned against Oklahoma is that it’s just not good enough, writes Brian Hamilton.
Houston beat UTSA and is now 4-0, writes Joseph Duarte.
San Diego State rallied to beat New Mexico State and earn its first win of the season, writes Stefanie Loh.
Boise State smoked Southern Miss, 60-7, and Chadd Cripe recaps it all here.
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