By James Ward
Colorado: The Buffaloes have finished in last place or tied for last place in the Pac-12 South every season since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. Colorado’s turnaround is nothing short of miraculous and with a win on Saturday against Utah, Colorado will play for the Pac-12 championship. Imagine Kansas playing for a Big 12 title, or Rutgers in the Big Ten Championship game? Mike MacIntyre has turned things around in Boulder. Underrated.
Leonard Fournette: While he undoubtedly will star in the NFL, Fournette’s ballyhooed career at LSU has been a bust. Injuries have limited the star running back this season, but outside of two all-world months last year, the former No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class has been outdone by numerous running backs in college football. Overrated.
James Franklin: Penn State started this season 2-2 and folks in Happy Valley began wondering if James Franklin was the right man to lead the Nittany Lions back to college football relevance. Seven wins later and a No. 7 ranking in the latest College Football Playoff Rankings, and it is clear Franklin is up to the job. Underrated.
Oklahoma State: The win-loss record says the Pokes are 9-2, but their early season loss to Central Michigan came on a Hail Mary play that shouldn’t have counted. Last week, Oklahoma State beat up on TCU, a game in which the Pokes were actually underdogs. Can Oklahoma State beat Oklahoma next weekend and force the committee’s hand? Underrated.
Ward’s Playoff Rankings:
- Alabama: The Crimson Tide struggled against FCS opponent Chattanooga through one half and although he said otherwise, I think Nick Saban actually enjoyed this result. Early lines have Alabama as a 21-point favorite in the SEC Championship game against Florida and they will likely be favored in every game they play in the CFB Playoff.
- Michigan: It’s a toss up between Michigan and Ohio State for the No. 2 spot, but I’m putting the Wolverines at No. 2 because of their defense. Defense wins championships and the Michigan defense is clearly the second best defense in the country. New quarterback John O’Korn had a rough start against Indiana and a healthy Wilton Speights would do wonders for the Wolverines offense against Ohio State this week.
- Ohio State: The Buckeyes beat Michigan State, but the game was way too close for a potential championship contender. Weather played a factor, but Ohio State’s passing offense still looks out of sync. Don’t look for J.T. Barrett to have any success throwing the ball against Michigan, but their run game is prolific.
- Clemson: Following the upset to Pittsburgh, the Tigers stomped bowl eligible Wake Forest. With Louisville’s loss to Houston, the Tigers are the clear No. 1 in the ACC and the conference’s best chance for a national championship.
First Four Out:
- Wisconsin: The Badgers lost to Ohio State and Michigan, and that’s it, but they need a win against Minnesota on Saturday to clinch the Big Ten West title. If Wisconsin can win the Big Ten Championship game, and that’s a big if, they deserve to play in the College Football Playoff.
- Washington: The Pac-12 North will be determined in this week’s Apple Cup and the Huskies need a win to sniff the College Football Playoff. The committee dislikes their schedule, but a one-loss Power Five conference champion will always make the playoff.
- Oklahoma: Starting 1-2 is a death knell towards making the College Football Playoff, but once again the Sooners are dominating Big 12 play and a win against Oklahoma State next weekend will put the committee on the hot seat. Can a two-loss Big 12 champion make the College Football Playoff without a conference championship game? I think it’s possible, but only if that team is Oklahoma.
- USC: The hottest team in the country needs Utah to beat Colorado in order to play for the Pac-12 Championship game. While USC has three losses, they are currently playing as well as any team in the country. The Trojans are the science experiment on how to view early season failures countered with late season heroics.
Three Things You Probably Didn’t Know (Rivalry Week Edition):
- This year’s Apple Cup pits Washington (10-2) against Washington State (8-3) in Pullman on Friday afternoon. The winner of the game will win the Pac-12 North and play in the Pac-12 Championship game, which makes the 2008 Apple Cup seem like a distant memory. In 2008, Washington (0-10) faced off against Washington State (1-9). The Huskies lost and finished the season 0-12 after a loss to California. The Cougars finished the season 2-10, beating the Huskies in the Apple Cup and FCS school Portland State. It’s safe to say no one will be thinking about the 2008 Apple Cup on Friday afternoon.
- Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster will play in his last Iron Bowl this weekend and to say Foster has a unique perspective to the rivalry game would be lowballing it. Early on in his recruitment out of high school, Foster committed to Auburn. How committed was he to War Eagle? He got an Auburn tattoo on his forearm. Foster changed his mind and went to Alabama, and now he’s an integral piece of one of the best defenses in college football history.
- 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Michigan square off in The Game as two teams both contending for a national championship. Ten years ago, No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan played in The Game and it was the first and only time in the rivalry where both teams entered the game ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation. Ohio State beat Michigan, but lost to Florida in the BCS National Championship Game to now head coach Urban Meyer’s Florida team.
Arizona State (-2.5) at Arizona: The Wildcats are having one of their most disappointing years ever. (You tell that Wildcat behind the wheel to slow down.) Arizona is 0-8 in the Pac-12 and their only two wins this season came against Grambling State and Hawaii. Arizona hasn’t won a game since September 17th and there are rumors that Rich Rodriguez is on the hot seat. In addition to a poor win-loss record this season, the Wildcats are 1-10 against the spread, which is the worst in college football. (h/t R.J. Bell) It has been an immensely frustrating season so far for Arizona and their quarterback play has been one of the main issues. Brandon Dawkins and Anu Solomon are definitely both run first guys, but they’ve shown zero ability to throw the ball this season. Solomon is expected to start, but both quarterbacks will play. Solomon’s regression has been disappointing, especially after the hype surrounding last season. On paper, Solomon has “Lamar Jackson” type skills, but they haven’t translated to the field this year for Arizona.
Arizona State is also having a rough season, but they do have Pac 12 wins against UCLA and Cal, and a non-conference win against Texas Tech. ASU can score and while they are struggling this season, they beat a much better Arizona team last year 52-37 in Tempe. They have two explosive running backs in Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage. Ballage, if you remember, had 8 TDs against a bad Texas Tech defense earlier in the season. This is a battle between two bad teams, and while this is more of an anti Arizona pick than a pro Arizona State pick, I think the Sun Devils’ offense is the best unit on either side and the Wildcats’ defense might be the worst. The losing will continue for the Wildcats.
Utah (+10) at Colorado: The Buffaloes are in the middle of their best season since 2001 and can actually clinch the Pac-12 South with a win against Utah. The turnaround this season is miraculous. With that being said, this is too many points for a rivalry game against a good Utah team. This Utes team is very similar to Stanford, a team Colorado beat 10-5 in an ugly game comprised mostly of punting and defense. While Utah can’t win the Pac-12 South, they can play spoiler and stop their rivals from playing in the Pac-12 Championship game.
Buffs quarterback Sefo Liufau is one of the key factors to the Buffaloes turnaround, and while he’s hoping to build of last week’s game against Washington State where he threw for 345 yards and rushed for 108 yards, the Utes defense is a lot better than Washington State’s defense. Three weeks ago, the Utes defense almost singlehandedly upset Washington. The Utah offense is mostly one dimensional behind running back Joe Williams. Last week, Washington State had some success running the ball against Colorado, but for some reason Cougs head coach Mike Leach abandoned the run. Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham won’t do that and Utah will have success on the ground against Colorado. I’m not expecting a Utah win, but they will keep this game close.
Wyoming (-3) at New Mexico: Wyoming has dominated the Mountain West Conference this season, outside of a fluke loss to UNLV, where the Cowboys were obviously looking ahead to San Diego State. Wyoming beat Boise State and San Diego State, the perennial powerhouses of the conference and head to New Mexico this week to face a New Mexico team that lost to Rutgers. Yeah. New Mexico lost to Rutgers and the Cowboys are only favored by three points.
Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen threw for 282 yards last week against a very good San Diego State defense and running back Brian Hill ran for over 100 yards for the eighth time in 12 games. New Mexico’s defense allowed 49 points to Colorado State last week and they won’t be able to stop the Cowboys offense. On the other side of the ball, New Mexico has had problems at quarterback all year and last week certainly wasn’t an exception. Austin Apodaca and Lamar Jordan threw a combined six of 16 for 81 yards passing, and while they rushed for 285 yards, the Lobos will face off against a Wyoming defense that limited San Diego State superstar Donnel Pumphrey to 76 yards on the ground. This line is way too low. Wyoming will win by double digits.
Last Week: 3-0
Season Record: 18-18
Ward’s Winners Overall Record: 48-38-0
James Ward is the Associate Producer of the DA Show, as well as the Executive Producer of CBS Sports Radio Weekends and Sunday Morning Football. On Saturdays, you can find him in studio producing Eye on College Football and catching as many games as possible. Check him out on Twitter (@JamesWardCBS).