Sunday, October 12, 2008

Can Anyone Run the Table?

It has been a few weeks since I gave a top 25 write-up. Since that time there have been numerous upsets. We have seen USC, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Auburn, LSU, South Florida and many other teams falter. As of right now no more than 3 BCS conference teams will run the table (and really I think Penn State is the only team with a good shot at doing so). This is shaping up to be a college football season very similar to last season For a hypothetical what happens if everyone has two losses except and unbeaten Penn State and an unbeaten BYU? Does BYU get a shot at the National Title? Will that scenario convince the major conference that a playoff is indeed necessary?

  1. Texas- If you beat number one you have probably earned your spot at the top of the rankings. Colt McCoy should be the early Heisman trophy favorite. Yesterday against Oklahoma he completed 80 percent of his passes, took care of the football and rallied the Long Horns from 11 down. I do not think Texas can make it through a very difficult upcoming stretch unscathed. I think eventually their suspect passing defense will catch up to them, but this team has to be the favorite to win the Big 12 South Right now and could definitely be in the National Title.
  2. Alabama- They may have a more complete resume than Texas at this point in the season. The Crimson Tide defense has been absolutely killing opponents this season. The more I look at Alabama’s schedule the more I think they could make it to the SEC Championship without a loss. Every week is tough in the SEC, no doubt about that, but I am not sure the SEC is as dominant as we all thought it was going to be. Tennessee, Auburn and Mississippi State are all games the Tide should win. Next week against a pesky Ole Miss is a big test and then there is the trip down to LSU on November 8. I still do not Alabama will run the table, but their schedule really does set up nicely for them down the stretch.
  3. Penn State- Is Penn State the third best team in the country? I do not know. I do think Penn State is the major conference team most likely to run the table a reach the National Title game. The game at Ohio State in two weeks promises to be enormous and likely will decide the Big Ten. I know Penn State has had problems beating Michigan in recent years, but something tells me that game is going to get ugly next week. Penn State was incredibly impressive against Oregon State and Wisconsin and looked very impressive against Illinois as well. If Penn State runs the table and makes the National Title game it will be well earned.
  4. Oklahoma- I still think they are the best of the 1 loss teams and probably the best team in the country, but they were exposed some against Texas. I know they were banged up on defense, but the Sooners have looked suspect against good passing attacks this year. In a conference with so many potent passing offenses that could be a cause for concern. The other area where Oklahoma has struggled this season is kickoff coverage. This loomed large yesterday as Texas really started to change the game with a kickoff return for a touchdown. The loss to Texas pretty much takes their destiny out of their hands.
  5. USC- The Trojan defense has been a force since the Oregon State loss. They put on a clinic yesterday. In a very down Pac Ten conference the Trojans are in prime position to run the table. They could be playing for a national title before it is all said and done.
  6. Florida- Perhaps the most impressive team yesterday was the Florida Gators. Their offense made a very good LSU defense look stupid. I think Florida’s offense separates them from the rest of the SEC. If Florida plays like they did yesterday they are going to be tough to beat.
  7. Georgia- The Bulldogs were not very impressive against Tennessee yesterday. They will need to play better the rest of the way if they are going to win the SEC East.
  8. Oklahoma State- Probably the biggest jumpers seeing as I had not ranked them in any polls I have done this season. Oklahoma State is unbeaten and that road win against Missouri is about as good a win as a team can get. The most impressive thing about that game was the way their defense forced the brilliant Tiger offense into so many bad plays (and held Missouri to their first 3 and out of the season). They are going to have to do more to stay up here, but at 6-0 with a win on the road against Missouri they have earned a top ten spot.
  9. Texas Tech- Here is where I am starting to have some trouble grouping teams. Texas Tech was not that impressive against Nebraska yesterday, but for the most part I like this Red Raider team. They play better defense than they have in the past (not saying too much) and that offense is going to light people up week after week. They play Texas A&M before getting games against Kansas and Texas. After that three game stretch we will know much more.
  10. Ohio State- I flat out have not been impressed with Ohio State in any game this season and yet I still have them at number 10 because they always find a way to win games. Their defense had a great performance yesterday, but the Buckeye offense is far from potent. Still, with the game against Penn State at home I think Ohio State is going to have another shot at a Big Ten title.
  11. Missouri- In the end they may be better than both Ohio State and Texas Tech, but I do not trust their defense. Until this week their offense had just been abusing teams. My biggest issue with Missouri is if an opposing defense can slow down their offense at all, Missouri is very vulnerable.
  12. LSU- I am not very confident in either of their quarterbacks. The defense got abused by the Florida Gators yesterday, but I think that probably has more to do with that Gator offense finally clicking than the LSU defense. Bottom line, LSU is good enough to beat some people, maybe good enough to win the west, but they have too many weaknesses to be considered an elite team.
  13. BYU- The Cougars are a team I struggle to rank. They have looked impressive enough week in and week out for me to put them around 13, but I do not think I can rank them much higher unless they really look great against the likes of TCU and Utah. I would love to see what they can do against top notch competition (and good for them they will go to a BCS bowl if they keep taking care of business)
  14. South Florida- Their banged up defense struggled to stop the Pittsburgh running game. They still have great balance on offense and can really get after the quarterback on defense. I think their win over Kansas is a very good win and I think they have been impressive throughout the season.
  15. Michigan State- They are just a solid football team. They run the ball and play very good defense. Fifteen might end up being a little high for them, but with solid wins over Notre Dame and Northwestern this seems reasonable.
  16. North Carolina- The Tarheels got another big win this time against Notre Dame. Their defense continues to make plays. Butch Davis has to be a favorite for coach of the year.
  17. Virginia Tech- They have been an entirely different team with Taylor at the quarterback position. They have not been overly impressive but keep finding ways to win games. Another BCS bid and an ACC championship are very much in reach.
  18. Kansas- Kansas has won the games they need to win. They were impressive in the second half against Colorado. They have a hungry Oklahoma team this week followed by a date with Texas Tech…these are the regular season tests Kansas seemingly avoided last season and will tell us a lot.
  19. Cincinnati- Six games, 4 different quarterbacks have seen the field. The Bearcats have continued to take care of business. This is the most talented team I can remember at UC and they have continued to battle through adversity. The Bearcats get to the bye and now have an extra week to get healthy before heading to UCONN. Tony Pike should be back to lead the cats into battle. The Bearcats still have the best receivers in the conference, they have a solid offensive line, and the running game has started to get going. The Bearcat defense has started to really put pressure on opposing teams and UC certainly has no shortage of playmakers in the secondary. All that combined with special teams units that are second to none and this Bearcat team is more likely to move up than go down.
  20. Boise State- Their BCS fate likely hinges on Utah and BYU both losing, but the Broncos are once again having a special season.
  21. Utah- We are getting closer and closer to an undefeated battle between Utah and BYU with a conference title and BCS bid on the line. Either will be a well deserved representative from the Mountain West Conference which has certainly looked like a BCS caliber league this season.
  22. Wake Forest- I may be judging Wake Forest too harshly for their loss to Navy. Their other wins are certainly noteworthy. They have already beaten the preseason conference favorite and seem to have the upper hand in the ACC Atlantic.
  23. Pittsburgh- I do not trust Pittsburgh, but if they play to their talent level they are definitely a top 25 team. They still have yet to demonstrate the consistency I think will be necessary for winning the Big East.
  24. California- They have a really bad loss to Maryland and a really good win over Michigan State. I think they are the clear number two in the Pac Ten at this point, but at this point I am not sure how impressive being number two in the Pac ten is.
  25. Ball State- I will give the class of the MAC some love. They have looked impressive and I do not particularly like my other options for this spot.

Best of the Rest (in no order): Tulsa, Florida State, Boston College, Tulsa, Notre Dame, Oregon, Vanderbilt

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Big East Still Lacking Respect

In the college football world perception means far more than reality. As of this week the Big East Conference is down to 1 ranked team in the Coaches poll and 2 ranked teams in the AP poll. The perception is that the Big East is down and that there are not any really good teams in the conference. As a fan of the Big East there have been some disappointments this season. West Virginia has been the bellwether program for the conference, but they have started off slow under the new regime. Rutgers has fallen about as far as a program could fall in two seasons going from Big East contender in 2006 to a team that has yet to beat a single 1A opponent in 2008. With the sudden drop of these two programs and Louisville’s fall last season the general view is that the Big East is down ranks last when compared to the other BCS conferences. When one takes the time to examine the accomplishments and failings of the Big East, ACC and Pac Ten that perception does not hold up. There really has not been a major difference in the performances of these conferences…merely the perception. In a sport dominated by polls, perception is far too often viewed as reality.

We can gain a better understanding of the perception vs. reality argument when we compare the two major BCS programs in Ohio. This season Ohio State has beaten 1AA Youngstown State while the Bearcats beat 1AA Eastern Kentucky. The Buckeyes trailed the MAC’s Ohio University in the 4th quarter before rallying to win, while the Bearcats trailed Akron in the 4th quarter before doing the same. Cincinnati thumped the Miami Redhawks at home and Ohio State got by Minnesota. Ohio State played then number 1 ranked USC on the road and the game was over by mid second quarter. The Bearcats played the currently number 1 ranked Oklahoma Sooners in Norman and let the game get away from them over a 5 minute stretch in the third quarter. Up until this past weekend these two teams had nearly identical resumes. They had not beaten anyone of any real significance and had been beaten solidly by top ten teams (In UC’s case the team currently sitting number 1 in the country). If OSU had done exactly what Cincinnati did against Cincinnati’s schedule they would have more than likely been ranked about where they are right now. However, because OSU has history and went to the national title the last two years they get more credit than a UC team that finished at number 17 last season. And in Ohio State’s case I think their ranking is fairly well earned. However, the larger point is that until last weekend’s trip to Camp Randall they had not done anything particularly impressive this season and their ranking was simply a product of perception.

I think it has been pretty obvious that the best conferences this season are the SEC and Big 12 in that order. After those two the Big 10 has looked like a solid number 3. However, among the Big East, ACC, Pac Ten and even the Mountain West it has been far harder to see a distinct difference. The Big East has two absolutely horrendous teams in Syracuse and Rutgers (well Rutgers has been so far at least). That being said the Pac Ten comes to the table with Washington, Washington State, and UCLA, another pretty awful combination of teams, while the ACC boasts Virginia, Duke and North Carolina State. The bottom of all three conferences...well, no world beaters among that group.

These conferences are pretty similar among there top 70-75 percent (That’s top 7 for the Pac Ten, top 9 for the ACC and top 6 for the Big East). The top 6 teams in the Big East have gone 23-8 winning 74 percent of their games. The top 9 in the ACC have gone 34-12 winning an identical 74 percent of their games. Meanwhile the top 7 (70 percent) of the Pac Ten have gone 22-14 winning only 61 percent of their games. When we look at these league records as an aggregate it is clear they have been pretty similar.

According to the AP top 25 the ACC has 3 teams ranked (Virginia Tech, UNC, and Wake Forest), the Big East has 2 teams ranked (South Florida and Pittsburgh) and the Pac Ten has 1 team ranked (USC). Of these teams South Florida, UNC, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh all have pretty compelling cases for their rankings. Pittsburgh has a bad loss but they have beaten Iowa and have a road win over USF. The Bulls have taken down Kansas, Central Florida, and pounded NC State. North Carolina probably should have beaten Virginia Tech but has big victories over Rutgers and UCONN to go with a win over the Miami Hurricanes. Virginia Tech has beaten Georgia Tech, UNC and Nebraska with their 1 loss coming to East Carolina. I have a harder time justifying Wake Forest’s ranking because of their loss to Navy, but they too have some meat on their schedule so far.

Each one of these conferences has some good non-conference wins over BCS opponents. The best wins for the Big East Conference to date are over Kansas, Iowa, NC State, Virginia, Kansas State and Baylor. The Best Wins for the ACC are over Mississippi, UCONN, Cal, Colorado, and Rutgers. The Best wins for the Pac ten are Ohio State and Virginia (both by USC), Tennessee (by an awful UCLA team), Purdue and Michigan State.

Ignoring the bottom teams I already mentioned in these conferences lets examine who the non-conference losses are to in each league. The Big East has lost to UNC, Oklahoma, Kentucky, East Carolina and Colorado. The one really bad loss for the top teams in the league was Pitt losing to Bowling Green. The ACC has losses to Alabama, South Florida, Florida, USC to go with bad losses to Navy and Middle Tennessee State. The Pac Ten has losses to BYU, Fresno State, UNLV, New Mexico, Maryland, TCU, Notre Dame, Penn State, Georgia and Utah. In reality the Pac Ten has more questionable losses than the ACC or Big East. Really the only team who has carried the torch for the Pac Ten is USC.

Despite 3 straight BCS bowl wins over the SEC champ, the ACC champ and the Big 12 champ; despite an 8-2 record the last two seasons in bowl games; despite regular season victories this season and last over Auburn, Oregon State, Kansas, Virginia, Kansas State, and Maryland among others the Big East is still not perceived like the other leagues. The slip-ups by Big East teams get viewed in a more negative light than those of ACC and Pac Ten teams. The recent accomplishments of Big East teams are quickly dismissed or forgotten. In reality no team in the Big East has yet to really show they are a top notch team, though there are some teams that have the potential to be there by seasons end (South Florida, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and I would never rule out WVU). Though there is not that clear top team, the league is still solid and has been every bit the conference the Pac Ten and ACC have been this season.

People keep asking the question of whether or not the Big East can win a BCS bowl (the same question was asked the last three years and answered the same way each time…yes). The Big East has plenty of good teams, whether it is recognized nationally or not. I would bet the farm that if you put BYU, Boise State, or Utah in this conference they would lose 2 or 3 games. There is plenty of talent on the field every week. In the battle to gain consistent respect and positive perception among the college football elite the Big East is not their yet. Despite that the product on the field has been, is, and will continue to be fine. The Big East will have another solid year, another solid Bowl Season, and may even win another BCS Bowl. So much of college football is perception based and not reality based…to me the perception that the Big East is down this season continues to be overblown. The Big East had done plenty to establish themselves as a solid BCS conference and by seasons end there will be plenty of accomplished teams carrying the torch for the Big East Conference.

Friday, October 3, 2008

A Cub Fan Refuses to Give Up Hope

That was the second inning from hell. I guess the Cubs defense was only credited with two errors (I thought Theriot should have had one as well). Big Z got not 1, not 2, but three double play balls that the Cubs infielders promptly coughed up and turned into ZERO outs. Think about that for a minute… They Cubs left 6 outs on the table. Carlos Zambrano basically was asked to get three innings worth of outs in one inning. When I think about how badly that inning went it makes me sick. Those are plays the Cubs infielders have made all year. The Cubs ranked second in defense this season… they consistently played great baseball and yet in that one instance it all fell apart. You cannot give any team 1 extra out, much less 6.

Looking back I was proud of the way Z handled himself that inning. So much went wrong he could have lost it. Sure he ended up giving up the big bases loaded double to Martin, but the man had already been out there far too long. When he left the Wrigley fans gave him a well deserved standing ovation... Z brought it last night when no one else did. I hope I get the chance to see Z pitch again this season.

As last night closed Cubs fans were heartbroken, viewing their season as being over. But here is the thing about baseball that is so easy forget through all the heartbreak the Cubs have inflicted…momentum can easily get stopped by a great pitcher. On Saturday the Cubs are sending out their most dominating pitcher to try to save the season in LA. Harden has been nearly unhittable at his best this season. He is rested and he is ready to go.

When the Red Sox were down 3-0 against the Yankees in 2004 it appeared that their season was over. At that point you just have to go out and play the next game. If anyone had the choice of having Rich Harden or Hiroki Kuroda to start a playoff game for them who do you think the choice would be? This is a game that a fan would look at as one the Cubs are most likely to win in any other circumstance. So lets get this one and then worry about the next one.

The biggest difference between this Cubs team and last years Cubs team is the depth of their rotation. The Cubs are not putting Rich Hill on the mound with their season on the line, they are putting Rich Harden. If Rich gets through that game the Cubs will not be trying to run Z on short rest, they will be giving the ball to a rested Ted Lily to face a Dodger Lineup that thrives on left handed bats. If Rich Harden can do what aces do he can stop the momentum and start getting it back the other way. The Cubs just need to relax. No one expects them to win now, so go do it.

This Cubs team has battled all season. They have come back from 8 runs down to beat the Rockies, they’ve had a 2 out ninth inning rally to beat Brewers, they’ve had multiple 5+ game winning streaks…they can do this. Their backs are against the wall, they are down, but they are not out. If this series ever gets back to Chicago the pressure is going to be on the Dodgers just as much as it is on the Cubs. I want to close with wisdom from the great Andy Duphrane:
“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.” Have hope Cubs fans…I for one have not given up yet.