By James Ward
Struggling Powerhouses: UCLA, Michigan State, Notre Dame and Oregon all entered the season ranked in the AP Top-25 Preseason poll. Expectations were high at the beginning of the season, following 39 combined wins last season between the four schools. This year, the four schools are a combined 9-20. In a sport where the best teams each year lose one or two games, it’s been a down year for a few of college football’s perennial powerhouse programs. Overrated.
Fake Rivalries: College football is a sport based on rivalries and there is no rivalry quite like UCF/UCONN. Right? There’s nothing like “The Civil ConFLiCT.” UCONN head coach Bob Diaco created the rivalry when he became the Huskies head coach, but UCF has yet to acknowledge its existence. In fact, the rivalry means so much to UCF, that after the Knights beat the Huskies on Saturday, they left the coveted trophy on the field. Overrated.
Jonathan Allen: The celebrated defensive end scored his second touchdown of the season on a fumble return against Texas A&M. While Allen is undoubtedly the best player on the best team in college football, he has no shot at winning this season’s Heisman Trophy. Jon Solomon from CBSSports.com wrote about it in depth this week and the analysis was spot-on: dominant defensive players need to be considered Heisman Trophy candidates. Underrated.
Fresno State: Tim DeRuyter was fired this week after three seasons of trending in the wrong direction. The Bulldogs won 11 games in 2013 with Derek Carr at quarterback, but Fresno State has won just 10 games since Carr made the leap to the NFL. In order to stay relevant, Group of Five teams need to capitalize on successful windows with better recruits and more winning seasons, but after two straight Mountain West Championships in 2012 and 2013, the Bulldogs went 10-24. Overrated.
Ed Oregeron: Coach Oeaux is now 3-0 since taking over for Les Miles at LSU and the first coach in Tigers history without an accent is making a strong case at the permanent coaching position in Baton Rouge. The Tigers beat Ole Miss last weekend behind Leonard Fournette’s record-breaking performance and Oregeron is quickly putting the LSU administration in the same position he put the USC administration, when he took over for Lane Kiffin in 2013. With games left against Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and Texas A&M, Oregeron’s fate will be decided on the field. Underrated.
Ohio State/Alabama: Penn State beat Ohio State on Saturday night under the lights in Happy Valley and a legitimate college football playoff team lost for the first time this season. With Michigan still looming on the Buckeyes schedule, Ohio State can still make the College Football Playoff if they win all of their remaining games. It’s also worth noting that Las Vegas still has the Buckeyes with the second best championship odds. Does a one-loss Buckeyes team play an undefeated Alabama team on New Year’s Eve in the first round of the College Football Playoff? Sign me up. Underrated.
Three Things You Probably Didn’t Know:
- The biggest game of the college football weekend pits the Nebraska Cornhuskers against the Wisconsin Badgers. While head coaches Mike Riley (Nebraska) and Paul Chryst (Wisconsin) are both new to the Big Ten, Riley and Chryst have known each other for 25 years. In 1991, Riley was the head coach of the San Antonio Riders of the World League of American Football, and he hired Chryst to join his staff. Also of note: Jason Garrett was the San Antonio Riders quarterback in 1991. (h/t @RichAckerman)
- On Saturday afternoon, Illinois freshman quarterback Jeff George Jr. made his collegiate debut, starting for the Fighting Illini against Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan team. Jeff George Sr. started for the Indianapolis Colts from 1990-1993 before being traded to the Atlanta Falcons. The Colts dumped George to make room for their new starting quarterback. That quarterback? Jim Harbaugh.
- Alabama scored their 12th non-offensive touchdown of the season against Texas A&M on Saturday. It was also the 10th straight game the Tide scored a defensive or special teams touchdown. Preseason Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffrey has four touchdowns this year and hasn’t gone into the end zone since Sept 17. Another note of comparison: Alabama’s leading rusher Damien Harris has two touchdowns this season.
Washington (-9.5) at Utah: The Southeast has Alabama and the Northwest has Washington. (I guess I’m willing to give the Northeast to Syracuse.) In a down year for the Pac-12, the Huskies are the class of the conference and while Utah is in the conversation for Pac-12 runner-up, the Utes don’t have a signature win. The Utes are 7-1 and they’ve already racked up four conference wins, but UCLA, BYU, USC and Oregon State all had opportunities to upset Utah in the fourth quarter. While Utah has played close games, Washington has manhandled their opponents. Since beating Arizona by a touchdown on Sept. 24, the Huskies beat Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State by a combined score of 155-44.
Utah loves to play man-to-man defense, but that won’t work against Washington. Jake Browning and his impressive group of wide receivers will pick the Utes defense apart, much like UCLA backup quarterback Mike Fafaul did to the Utes last week. If Fafaul can throw for five touchdowns and 464 yards against the Utah defense, how high is the ceiling for Browning? On offense, the Utes are banged up. The big story surrounding last week’s win for the Utes was the performance of running back Joe Williams, who ran for 332 yards. Williams actually retired earlier in the season and only came back to the football team because the Utes depth chart was decimated by injuries. Williams’ return was a nice story, but Utah’s lack of depth on offense will be a major problem against the No. 2 defense in the Pac-12. On Saturday afternoon, Washington will again show that they are the Pac-12’s best chance for a national championship.
Baylor (-3.5) at Texas: The Big 12’s only chance for entry into the College Football Playoff is an undefeated season, and both West Virginia and Baylor have formidable opponents this week. While the Longhorns are in the middle of a sharp decline, the line for this game shows that the Las Vegas oddsmakers are actually giving Texas a chance in this game. In my opinion, it is more of an indictment of Baylor than a vote of confidence for the Longhorns. While the Bears haven’t played any of the top teams in the Big 12, they beat Oklahoma State. Texas has wins against Notre Dame, UTEP and Iowa State. Advantage: Baylor.
In recent years, the Big 12 has been marred by terrible defense, but this year, Baylor and West Virginia are actually playing solid defense. The Bears are actually No. 3 nationally in yards allowed per game. The Longhorns offense, behind new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, has improved each week and is derived from the Baylor offense. Baylor’s spread offense with Seth Russell at quarterback and a bevy of explosive skill players is what the Texas offense aspires to be in the future. Baylor is a notch better than Texas in every facet of the game. Expect another long Saturday afternoon for Charlie Strong and the Longhorns.
Michigan (-23.5) at Michigan State: This line is huge and that always scares me in rivalry games, but realistically, Michigan is 24.5 points better than Michigan State and it’s a known fact that Jim Harbaugh is not shy about running up the score (See: Rutgers 78-0). Harbaugh will use Ohio State’s loss last week as a motivating reminder to his team to not slip up. Michigan State has dominated this series in recent years, winning three straight and seven of the last eight, but this is arguably the best Michigan team since Lloyd Carr’s national championship team in 1997. On the contrary, Michigan State is not very good. This was supposed to be a down year for Sparty, but an early season win against Notre Dame altered expectations. A few weeks removed, we know that Notre Dame is awful and the Spartans have lost five straight Big Ten games.
While Alabama’s defense is seemingly getting all of the accolades, Michigan’s defense leads in the country in every notable category (except for defensive touchdowns). The Wolverines defense is allowing 207 yards per game, which is first in the nation by over 40 yards per game. In fact, the vaunted Crimson Tide defense has allowed 747 more yards than the Michigan defense. In Michigan State’s only game against a top defense, they scored just six points against the Wisconsin Badgers. Jim Harbaugh will be pushing for a shutout and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Wolverines got one.
Last Week: 1-2
Season Record: 12-12
Ward’s Winners Overall Record: 42-32-0