Starting 11: 2015 Will Be a Mess Edition

BY foxsports • October 12, 2015

Buckle up, I'm beginning to think Baylor may well be the only undefeated team in the playoff this year.

In fact, if I had to project the four teams that I think will be in the playoff right now, I'd go with Baylor, Michigan, Stanford, and a one loss SEC champ. I still have no idea who wins the SEC. Florida, LSU, Texas A&M, Alabama, and Ole Miss are all firmly still in the mix. And I think you could make strong cases for any of the five running the table -- or only losing one game -- from here on out.

But think about some of the one loss teams that could be left out. Ohio State, TCU, a couple, potentially, from the SEC. Clemson is likely, at worst, to finish with one loss. Notre Dame's odds of finishing with one loss are pretty good. Utah, Stanford, Michigan State, Florida State, there are a ton of teams with a decent shot of finishing 11-1 or 12-1. 

You thought picking teams last year was tough? We're staring at a situation where there could be eight or nine one loss teams with legitimate claims that they deserve a playoff bid. Good luck trying to distinguish among these resumes.  

And that's even before we get into the mess of what happens with conference title games. 

Here's a wild scenario that's not totally implausible to think about -- what if 12-0 Utah heads to the Pac 12 title game against 11-1 Stanford? The Cardinal beat Utah in a tight game and win the Pac 12 at 12-1, Utah also finishes 12-1, the lone loss coming in the title game. 

Meanwhile, Michigan runs the table in the Big Ten, wins the title game and finishes 12-1. 

But can you put 12-1 Michigan in the playoff over 12-1 Utah when Utah beat Michigan head-to-head to begin the season? Clearly Stanford has to be in as the 12-1 league champ with wins over Utah and Notre Dame. So can you take two Pac 12 teams? So does a Big Ten conference title matter more than a head-to-head out-of-conference win? I don't think so, I think Utah would deserve to get in over Michigan in this scenario.

Conference titles are, in many senses of the word, arbitrary. The best team doesn't always win a conference title game. I'd rather reward a team for its body of work over eight or nine conference games than reward a team for winning one conference title game. It's why, honestly, I'd do away with conference title games entirely and expand the playoff to eight teams.  

But can you imagine the committee having to decide between 12-1 Michigan and 12-1 Utah?

Good luck trying to figure out that riddle. And that's just one complexity that could emerge this year. 

It's going to be fun.

Here we go with the Starting 11:

1. Let's begin with this sideline video from Arkansas at Alabama that was sent to me last night and has since gone viral. 

What we appear to see in the video is Arkansas coach Bret Bielema faking being shoved by a player WWE style, drawing a penalty flag from an official and celebrating the penalty. Now, to be fair, this video isn't perfect and it would be better to have another angle to compare with this version of what we're seeing. 

But watch for yourself.

It's hard to believe Arkansas and Bielema aren't going to have to offer some form of explanation for this.  

2. Utah has to be the number one team in the country, but instead Ohio State still is. 

Right now 27 AP poll voters are still ranking Ohio State number one in the country. That's insane. Have they watched Ohio State play this year? Some of you will scream this at me on Twitter -- THE POLLS DON'T MATTER, JUST WAIT UNTIL THE END OF THE SEASON -- but I disagree. The polls do matter. Where you're ranked impacts two things: 1. how a win is perceived and 2. where you remain ranked even after a loss.

While the playoff committee is supposed to analyze all teams independently and not consider rankings at all, it's hard to argue that Ohio State being ranked number one all season won't impact the committee's analysis as well. 

That's because I think it's going to be very rare that the committee's top four teams don't look a lot like the final poll results. That is, I don't think you'll ever see the committee's four playoff teams be the AP number one, three, seven, and nine ranked teams. The committee's final four will be very similar to the polls, four of the top six, four of the top five, something like that. 

I'm not opposed to the polls themselves, in fact I like having them every week, but what I'm opposed to is pollsters ranking the teams based on what they thought they'd see at the beginning of the year as opposed to what they've actually seen on the field.

The only reason that Ohio State is number one in the country right now is because the pollsters believed that Ohio State would be the best team in the country at the start of the year. That's it. By ranking Ohio State number one effectively what you're saying is this, "Ohio State is number one because I thought they were going to be number one when the season started."

How arrogant is that?

So why does this matter?

Let's say that Ohio State continues to win all year long and then loses to Michigan in the final week of the regular season. The Buckeyes will fall a couple of spots at most, dropping from number one overall to number five overall or so.

Look at our above example I laid out of 12-1 Michigan vs. 12-1 Utah, Michigan might get in over Utah because the implication will be that the Wolverines just beat the number one ranked team in the country the week before they won the Big Ten title. But what if Ohio State was adequately ranked, somewhere below Michigan when that game was played? That is, what if number four Michigan beat number six ranked Ohio State in the final regular season game of the Big Ten and Ohio State fell outside the top ten as a result? It's still a good win, but it isn't played as the equivalent of beating the best team in the nation, because it wouldn't be.

The polls are so messed up right now that Michigan, the number 14 team in the coaches poll, is presently a seven point favorite over Michigan State, the number four team in the coaches poll.  

Anyone ranking teams based on what we've seen on the field so far has to believe that Michigan is better than Michigan State and Ohio State, right?

Sure, the Wolverines have a loss and the other two teams don't, but it was to what should be the number one ranked team in the country on the road.  

Perception governs reality. And the perception of Michigan beating a number one ranked Ohio State team will be different than Michigan beating a team ranked lower than them. 

3. Michigan is the best team in the Big Ten.

The Wolverines will beat Michigan State this weekend and Ohio State the final weekend of the season.

In so doing, Jim Harbaugh is going to make it a lot tougher on coaches at major programs who spend years arguing that they're too young to win now. The simple fact of the matter is that every dominant coach at a major college football program wins big in his first or second year on the job.

Look at this list of coaches since 2000 who have won a national title within three years of taking over a program: Jim Tressel, Bob Stoops, Pete Carroll, Nick Saban, GENE CHIZIK!, Urban Meyer -- TWICE, Larry Coker, and Les Miles.

Jimbo Fisher won it in his fourth year. (Beating Gus Malzahn in his first year at Auburn).

My point here is pretty simple, coaches who are going to win national championships almost always do it within their first three years at a major program.

The only coaches in the past twenty years who have won titles after being at schools for five years or more are Tom Osborne, Bobby Bowden, Phil Fulmer, Steve Spurrier and Mack Brown. And all five of these coaches also won immediately in a big way at their respective schools too.

While every new coach asks for time and blames youth for losses, the reality is pretty simple, big time winning coaches win big immediately at big programs.

(I will allow an exception if you take over a program that never wins and build it up. For instance, Art Briles has turned Baylor into one of the best teams in the country. But it's impossible to compare Baylor to a major football power with a tradition of winning. And that's not even always the case at non-traditional powers either. Gary Patterson won ten games his third season at TCU).   

4. Baylor has the best chance to make the playoff of any team in the country. 

Sure, the Bears haven't played a very tough schedule yet, but they are going to be big favorites over everyone left on their schedule except Oklahoma and TCU. Assuming the Bears stay moderately healthy, I think Baylor makes the playoff. After studying schedules and potential lines in upcoming games, I took them at 11-1 to win the title on Friday of last week. I think that's really good value. 

Here's Baylor's remaining schedule. 

West Virginia

Iowa State

at Kansas State

Oklahoma

at Oklahoma State

at TCU

Texas

Other than that game at TCU, and I'm on record saying I don't think TCU is a top ten team, what even gives you pause on here?

5. Tennessee beat Georgia, ruining the Bulldogs season and also ending Nick Chubb's year.

This was an important win for Butch Jones, but I still think Jones is going to be judged this year for his team's collapse against Oklahoma and Florida unless the Vols finish on a real hot streak. Let's assume that Alabama will beat Tennessee in two weeks -- although I do think that the Vols should be really competitive in this game -- and the real question will be this -- can UT run the table in a final five of at Kentucky, North Texas, South Carolina, at Missouri and Vanderbilt? 

Tennessee will be favored to win all five of these games. Win them all and a bowl game to get to nine wins and that will leave everyone pretty excited for 2016, when most of this team returns. Lose any of those games and 2015 will be a disappointing season.  

Here's the big question I have for the rest of the year, is Tennessee going to call plays on offense like they did against Georgia or are they going to continue to be too conservative?

Josh Dobbs passed for over 300 yards and ran for over 100 yards against Georgia. While the Bulldogs were pretty awful on defense, I think this also demonstrated something Tennessee fans have been screaming -- OPEN UP THE OFFENSE. 

It took getting down 24-3 to Georgia for Butch Jones to finally say, "Fuck it, let's take some chances."

What would Tennessee's record be if they had play called all season like they did against Georgia? Hell, the Vols might be 6-0. 

Having said that, Tennessee was fortunate to win the Georgia game. The Vols got a ton of breaks, from converting a 4th and 9 for a 40 yard touchdown down 24-3 on a pass I'm not sure Josh Dobbs was throwing to the receiver who caught it, the subsequent fumble on the kickoff return that UT turned into another quick touchdown, to the ball rolling out of bounds inside the one on the final punt, to Georgia dropping a sure fire touchdown pass late in the game, the breaks finally went Butch Jones's way.

On the other sideline, Georgia did what Georgia typically does under Mark Richt, lose a game that it probably should have won. While the Nick Chubb injury on the first play of the game was a tremendous blow -- get well Nick Chubb -- the Georgia defense got whipped in this one. 

Having said that, if Florida loses to LSU and Georgia beats Mizzou -- two things the oddsmakers are predicting to happen -- then Georgia will roll into the Cocktail Party in a familiar position, beat the Gators and they have a good chance the SEC East. 

6. I feel like this is Steve Spurrier's last year coaching.

Look at the way Spurrier is acting on the sideline. He's the most peaceful he's ever been. It appears to me like Spurrier, the man who made slamming his visor an art form, is almost enjoying the sideline experience this year even though his team is awful.   

Personally, I wish Spurrier would announce this is his final year coaching so every SEC team could honor him. Even growing up a Tennessee fan who watched his Florida Gators beat my Vols year after year, I've always loved Spurrier. 

It wouldn't shock me if South Carolina went 4-8 this year and it even wouldn't shock me if Vanderbilt beat South Carolina this weekend and the Gamecocks finished 0-8 in the SEC. 

7. Clemson and Florida State are headed for a November 7th showdown. 

Earlier I was talking about the difficulty of figuring out which one loss teams deserve to make the playoff.

I don't think that either Clemson or FSU would be in the playoff mix as one loss teams based on the weakness of the ACC so I think they'd have to win out and finish undefeated. That makes FSU at Clemson a potential playoff game of sorts.

If Clemson wins that game they're waltzing into South Carolina undefeated for Steve Spurrier's final game as a college coach. That's a messy game, but the Tigers should win it. The same holds true for whomever they'd face in the ACC title game.

If FSU beats Clemson then they will close out the regular season at Florida. That's a tall task to win, but the Seminoles would have to win that one and finish undefeated to make the playoff.  

Remarkably, the ACC is only going to have two top 25 teams this year.

And could this be the year that David Cutcliffe sneaks into the ACC title game and pulls of a huge upset to win the ACC title?

It wouldn't shock me. 

8. Florida came close to locking up the SEC East with a win at Mizzou.

The Gators are 6-0, 4-0 in the SEC with three SEC East wins over Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Given Tennessee and Alabama have now beaten Georgia, all Florida needs to do is split LSU and Georgia and then beat South Carolina and Vandy and they've won the east by Halloween.  

Since this figures to be the worst team that Jim McElwain has for years to come, what does it say about his future if he wins ten or more his first season?

Hell, what if he makes the playoff his first season at Florida?

Look out. 

9. Smart move by Oklahoma to lose to Texas and ensure Charlie Strong is in Austin for another couple of years.

They don't call him Big Game Bob for nothing, knowing when to lose is half the battle. 

And Stoops has been losing quite a bit, he's now 8-6 in his last 14 games in Norman. 

While the win was huge for Charlie Strong, was it really that big of a deal for Oklahoma? If the Sooners won out, don't you think 11-1 Oklahoma would still have a strong case for the playoff?

With wins over TCU and Baylor, I think Oklahoma would still be in the mix. 

Now, mind you, I don't think the Sooners are winning out, I'm just saying, like a ton of other one loss teams, the Sooner playoff dream is still alive even after a bad rivalry loss.

10. Who will USC hire to replace Steve Sarkisian?

I hope that Sark gets well and gets the help he needs. 

It's time to break away from the Pete Carroll coaching tree -- which, to be fair, has been a total disaster of a tree -- Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron, Norm Chow, and Steve Sarkisian have all failed as head coaches.  

Here are five names that make sense to me: 

1. Chip Kelly

2. Brian Kelly

3. James Franklin

4. Kliff Kingsbury

5. Tom Herman

I'm not sure Chip Kelly would leave the NFL, but he would dominate at USC. Brian Kelly leaving Notre Dame for USC would be a huge story, but SC is definitely a better job. 

I don't think James Franklin would leave Happy Valley given how well the Nittany Lions are recruiting, but you might try and call him. He has the energy that USC needs. 

As for Kingsbury and Herman, with the talent in place, don't you think these guys could win big there?

11. Here are my SEC power rankings.

1. Texas A&M

2. Florida

3. LSU 

4. Alabama

5. Ole Miss

6. Tennessee

7. Georgia

8. Mississippi State

9. Arkansas

10. Kentucky

11. Missouri

12. Auburn

13. South Carolina

14. Vanderbilt

I'll probably get a ton of Tweets and emails asking how Arkansas is ranked below Tennessee. The answer is -- because Arkansas is 2-4 and lost to Toledo and Texas Tech. At every point in the season it becomes impossible to always have a team ranked above a team they beat. You have to consider the entire resume. This is that point in the season.


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