Forward Pass: How Alabama, OU, other Week 6 victims stack up in playoff race
Week 6 began with 24-point underdog Arizona winning at Oregon on Thursday night and it ended around 2:30 a.m. eastern Sunday with a 60-59 game (Cal-Washington State). Five of the AP’s Top 8 lost, a first in the 78-year history of that poll, and by Sunday afternoon longtime afterthoughts Ole Miss and Mississippi State had moved in to a tie for the third-best team in the country.
How darn fun is this sport?
And yet as captivating as all those upsets were, they took on a different feel than in the BCS era. The chaos in the air was no less prevalent, but the ramifications were less serious. Instead of talking about teams’ devastated national championship hopes, we’re talking instead about their dented playoff hopes. As I wrote Saturday night, in the four-team playoff world, virtually every power-conference team gets at least one mulligan. Maybe even two.
I also wrote that the widespread parity we’re seeing across the board is reminiscent of the crazy 2007 season. Had a playoff been in place that year we would likely have had three two-loss teams among the four participants. I’m not ready to go that far yet, but would it surprise anyone if the loaded SEC West finishes with a three-way tie of 6-2 teams? Or that the winner of a Nov. 8 showdown between Michigan State and Ohio State – both of whom many ruled dead back in Week 2 – winds up in the committee’s top four?
“I’ve been saying for years there’s more parity in college fooball than ever before,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez told FOX Sports on Sunday. “To say we’re going to have four undefeated teams, that’s not going to happen, and I think it’s even going to be tough to have four one-loss teams.”
Only poor BYU -- which lost to Utah State and lost star Taysom Hill for the season -- got eliminated from contention over the weekend, and the Cougars were long-shots to begin with. But some of the rest are in better shape than others.
Here now I rank Week 6’s five Top 10 victims in order of their likelihood to still reach the playoff.
1) Alabama Crimson Tide
After two weeks of articles about Lane Kiffin’s offensive genius, the Tide managed one offensive touchdown in their 23-17 loss at Ole Miss. You can look at that one of two ways. Either Nick Saban’s dynasty is crumbling to the ground, or ‘Bama lost a close conference road game to a team that currently boasts the best defense in the SEC. My guess is the committee will take the latter approach if the Tide turn around and win the West, which remains entirely possible. Ole Miss more validated its own legitimacy than it set off any five-alarm fires surrounding its opponent.
Blake Sims and Amari Cooper won’t encounter nearly as much resistance this week at Arkansas. Landon Collins and the Tide defense, though, struggled enough against Bo Wallace to raise concerns about facing Kenny Hill, Dak Prescott and Nick Marshall down the road.
2) Oklahoma Sooners
Similar to Alabama-Ole Miss, will Oklahoma’s 37-33 loss at TCU ultimately be viewed as a major upset or a tough road loss to a very good team? The Sooners’ defense has not been the dominant force many expected, but then, in the pass-happy Big 12, allowing 6.3 yards per pass attempt, which puts Oklahoma 29th nationally, is not as bad as it seems.
The Sooners should handle Texas this week and largely cruise until their Nov. 8 showdown with Baylor. The one caveat: Trevor Knight, who went just 14-of-35 with two interceptions against the Horned Frogs, is proving to be much the same up-and-down quarterback as predecessor Landry Jones. OU may need to lean more heavily on its running game.
3) Oregon Ducks
On Thursday night I was ready to write off the Ducks as too fundamentally flawed to put together a championship season. By Saturday night I realized so is everyone else in the Pac-12. Oregon can still win the conference, but it really needs one of its injured starting tackles – most likely Jake Fisher -- to come back ASAP. The Ducks’ current patchwork line has allowed 12 sacks in two games. “They’re one of the worst offensive lines I’ve ever seen at this level,” said an FBS coach who’s watched Oregon recently. “They don’t look like the same team.”
That said, the Ducks’ Sept. 6 win over Michigan State will come in handy with the committee if they can stay afloat long enough to get back in the mix.
4) UCLA Bruins
Boy, was I wrong about the Bruins. Surely their offensive line, so putrid during Jim Mora’s first two seasons, would improve this year now that it finally has some experience. Nope. UCLA allowed 10 sacks in Saturday’s 30-28 home loss to Utah. And no injured players will be coming to the rescue. Even then, Brett Hundley nearly led the Bruins to victory, and they do have a chance to immediately redeem themselves Saturday against Oregon. But this team has been shaky in all but one game. It’s not going to run the table the rest of the way.
5) Texas A&M Aggies
The SEC West may have all those ranked teams, but someone’s got to finish fifth (or worse), and the Aggies may be it. Their big season-opening rout of South Carolina doesn’t look as good now that the Gamecocks are 3-3. Their defense is still a mess. And Mississippi State showed Hill can in fact be stopped.
A&M may still go to the playoff … but not until 2015.
TCU NOW ON PLAYOFF PERIMETER
Gary Patterson scoffs at the notion that it must have been hard for the longtime TCU head coach to completely change his offensive scheme after 14 years at the helm. If anything, people underestimated how much it went against the defensive-minded coach’s philosophy to install an up-tempo, wide-open offense.
“It’s been 33 years of play-action, run-type offenses, so this wasn’t just a ‘since I’ve been here at TCU’ type of thing,” said Patterson, formerly an assistant on a team that ran the split-back veer and, for one season at Navy, the triple-option. “You watch most places that have gone to this [offense] in some way, they have not played as good a defense.”
But after ranking 103rd nationally in total offense last season while suffering his first losing record (4-8) since 2004, Patterson sought a way to level the playing field in the conference TCU joined two years ago, the Big 12. So he hired co-offensive coordinators Doug Meachem from Houston and Sonny Cumbie from Texas Tech to install the same Air Raid-style offense that conference foes Tech, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Baylor run.
The new-look Horned Frogs had their national coming out in Saturday’s 37-33 upset of then fourth-ranked Oklahoma. Quarterback Trevone Boykin, a junior formerly seen as a liability who has transformed himself under Cumbie’s mentorship, torched the Sooners for 318 yards on 20 completions, including two long touchdown passes. “He was different from any time we’ve played him before,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said afterward. “He was much more controlled, calculated. I thought he was great.’’
Now, the Horned Frogs, who jumped from 25th to ninth in the latest AP poll, must turn around and visit No. 5 Baylor, which seems like a daunting grind. Except that Patterson’s team had more than enough time to rest up and prepare thanks to two bye weeks in September.
“I felt like we would play our best football [against Oklahoma], because of all the byes,” Patterson told FOX Sports. “I thought we’d get better from Week 4 to Week 6. I thought if we could get through September and we could be 3-0, we’d get into October and start playing every week and be fresher.
“We’ll play better football this week than we did last week.”
If the Frogs play well enough to beat Baylor, they might put themselves in position to be this year’s Auburn – from 4-8 last year to national title contender the next.
PARITY MAY CRUSH PAC-12’S PLAYOFF CHANCES
After touching off the madness Thursday with his own team’s 31-24 win at then second-ranked Oregon, Arizona’s Rodriguez got to sit back like the rest of us and watch Saturday’s chaos unfold from home. “That was so nice,” he joked, “playing Thursday and winning and then watching everyone else suffer on Saturday.”
Rodriguez’s ongoing resurrection of the Wildcats took another major step with their second straight upset of Marcus Mariota and the Ducks. This one required tougher sledding than last year’s 42-16 rout in Tucson, and they did it in large part behind a redshirt freshman quarterback (Anu Solomon) and true freshman tailback (Nick Wilson). Arizona’s defense, hardly its strong suit in recent years, exploited Oregon’s aforementioned offensive line issues to the tune of five sacks, with linebacker Scooby Wright III’s strip of Mariota proving a game-sealing play.
“One of the factors is, we have the same philosophy as them as far as offense goes -- go up-tempo, like to run,” said the spread offense pioneer. “What they do offensively, we’ve been doing it since before Oregon thought about doing it. We’re comfortable in that uncomfortable world.”
But Rodriguez’s team has also helped put the Pac-12 in uncomfortable territory in terms of its playoff prospects. The league’s three most touted teams coming into the year -- Oregon, UCLA and Stanford -- all lost in Week 6, with the offensively challenged Cardinal’s 17-14 defeat at Notre Dame their second blemish already. Arizona, 5-0 for the first time since 1998, is the conference’s lone remaining unbeaten. As one Pac-12 coach told me: “There’s a lot of good teams that can beat anyone on any given day, but I don’t know how many totally complete teams there are.”
Saturday’s Pac-12 slate included the league’s second game-winning Hail Mary in three weeks, as Arizona State’s Mike Bercovici hit Jaelen Strong to top USC; a Top 10 team, UCLA, missing two attempts at a game-winning field goal; and a record-shattering 60-59 shootout in Pullman where Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday threw for an FBS-record 734 yards only to lose to Cal on a missed 19-yard-field goal.
It was pure insanity, but also a clinic in parity. Just a week earlier, Utah lost at home to Wazzu. Arizona State lost by 35 at home to the Bruins, then turned around and won at USC. The Trojans have lost twice but managed to squeeze in a win at Stanford. Cal is 4-1, its lone loss coming on that Hail Mary to Arizona, yet the Bears needed three overtimes to survive recent cellar-dweller Colorado. And all 12 teams still have at least six games left to go on this roller-coaster.
“I said before the season, we’re going to eat each other up, we’re going to cannibalize each other,” said Rodriguez. “There’s going to be more games like those [Saturday] because of the play of the quarterbacks.”
The Pac-12 may be the nation’s clear No. 2 conference, but it appears increasingly unlikely to produce one of the four best teams.
THIS WEEK’S BOWL FORECAST
Each week, I'll update my predicted lineup for the New Year’s Six bowls based on the latest week's games.
Peach: Michigan State (Big Ten champ) vs. East Carolina (Group of 5)
Fiesta: Stanford (Pac-12 champ) vs. Mississippi State (at-large)
Orange: Clemson (ACC) vs. Alabama (B1G/SEC/ND)
Cotton: Notre Dame (at-large) vs. Baylor (at-large)
Sugar (semifinal): No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 4 Oklahoma
Rose (semifinal): No. 2 Florida State vs. No. 3 Ole Miss
This week we unveiled the FOX Four, selected by a 13-member committee of FOX Sports on-air and online analysts – of which I humbly serve in the Jeff Long role as chairman. In submitting my own ballot I realized there’s likely going to be a season-long difference between my top four right now and the four I’m predicting will be there Dec. 7. For example, I had TCU, not Oklahoma, ranked No. 4, because the Frogs earned it on the field. I did not have Mississippi State among my Top 4 because the Bulldogs didn’t play anyone out of conference. Ultimately that won’t matter as much if they beat three or four Top 25 teams in their own division.
I was tempted to add Ohio State back to the lineup. The Buckeyes have improved as much as any team over the first month, with their offense putting up another 533 yards in a 52-24 win at Maryland. But Michigan State did dominate Nebraska for three quarters before holding on 27-22 and remains my Big Ten favorite for now, which would require handing the Buckeyes a second loss.
Finally, I have no earthly idea who’s going to win the Pac-12, only that its champion might be 9-3. Stanford has the best defense in the country. I’ll ride that for now.
I’LL BE KEEPING AN EYE ON …
* Georgia Tech. Well, look at that. The 5-0 Yellow Jackets are one of just 10 remaining undefeated teams following a 28-17 win over Miami and tied with Virginia atop the ACC Coastal. Who would have thought I’d be writing that? Paul Johnson’s team hosts reigning division champ Duke this week.
* Northwestern. Well, look at that. The Wildcats, once 0-2, are now 2-0 in the Big Ten following a 29-6 rout at Penn State and a 20-14 win over a ranked Wisconsin team. Sophomore defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo leads an improved defense that notched four interceptions against the Badgers.
* Utah QB Kendal Thompson. The Oklahoma transfer – and son of Sooner great Charles Thompson -- replaced starter Travis Wilson in the first quarter against UCLA and never came back out. His running ability – 83 yards on 19 carries – seemed to boost the Utes’ long-struggling offense.
* Iowa State AD Jamie Pollard’s wallet. Pollard knows the fine from Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby is coming. His postgame rant about the conference’s “unfair” officiating toward his team was obviously premeditated. It’s also petty, but at least coach Paul Rhoads knows the boss has his back.
THIS WEEK’S COACH OF THE YEAR CANDIDATE
Memphis’ Justin Fuente. The Tigers went 5-31 in the three seasons prior to Fuente’s arrival. This year, they’re 3-2, having played UCLA and Ole Miss tough in those losses. On Saturday, the 38-year-old’s team throttled Cincinnati, 41-14, on the road, and appears to be East Carolina’s biggest challenger in the American.
THIS WEEK’S COACH ON THE HOT SEAT
Illinois’ Tim Beckman. Michigan’s Brady Hoke may not even be the most obvious lame-duck coach in the Big Ten. That would be the Illini’s third-year leader, whose record dropped to 1-17 in conference games following a 38-27 loss to lowly Purdue. His lone win came against last year’s 1-11 Boilermakers.
ON TO NEXT WEEKEND
Three games we’re most excited for:
No. 2 Auburn at No. 3 Mississippi State (Saturday, 3:30 ET). The Bulldogs have skyrocketed from unranked to No. 3 seemingly overnight. Dak Prescott gets a chance to justify the hype against MSU’s highest-ranked foe yet.
No. 9 TCU at No. 5 Baylor (Saturday, 3:30 ET). Bryce Petty was just 7-of-22 for 111 yards against Texas, but Baylor won 28-7. “This is a mature, tough-minded, confident team that knows how to win," said coach Art Briles.
No. 3 (tie) Ole Miss at No. 14 Texas A&M (Saturday, 9 ET). Barring injury, the defensively tough Rebels are going to finish the season higher than the Aggies, but that doesn’t mean A&M can’t catch them coming off an emotional win.
Three games you shouldn’t miss:
No. 12 Oregon at No. 18 UCLA (Saturday, 3:30 ET). Yes, they both lost last week, but this could still be a preview of the Pac-12 championship game. Not to mention it’s Marcus Mariota vs. Brett Hundley, if either can stay upright.
No. 13 Georgia at No. 23 Missouri (Saturday, Noon ET). The SEC East champion is most likely going to be one of these two teams, but the Dawgs already have a loss. So Mizzou might end up running away with it again if it wins.
No. 11 Oklahoma vs. Texas (Saturday, Noon ET). The Red River Shootout seems anticlimactic this year, though ‘Horns coach Charlie Strong will draw far more admirers than just Roger Goodell if he pulls off the upset.
One under-the-radar gem:
Penn State at Michigan (Saturday, 7 ET). I just can’t turn away no matter how hard I try. This may actually be the 2-4 Wolverines’ best remaining shot at a Big Ten win, playing the only league team with a shakier O-line than their own.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.