Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Championship Weekend College Football Picks: The Quarterfinals

“We should have an 8-team playoff!”

That has been a common refrain over the past month, from ACC commissioner John Swofford to Baylor officials, as it appears their schools may get squeezed from a four-team playoff. It is the infamous “bracket creep” that the BCS tried to warn us about. It was inevitable. For two years, I’ve been beating the drum that a four-team playoff was unsustainable for that exact reason.

cotton bowl
There is a problem though – an 8-team playoff is the worst possible compromise. If you had an 8-team playoff, what exactly would anyone be playing for this weekend? Or last weekend? Even if you gave the Power Five conference champions an automatic bid, Alabama and Oregon would be quite content in knowing they would be in regardless.

There is little doubt the four-team playoff has added more juice to the regular season. Yes, it matters even more because we pay attention to results and strength of schedule instead of perceptions. I do think there are kinks – the Big 12 needs a title game and the semifinals cannot both be played on New Year’s Eve next year.

But an 8-team playoff solves zero problems while creating a mountain more of them. I am not going to lose any sleep if a 1-loss Ohio State team that lost at home to 6-6 Virginia Tech doesn’t play for a national title. Likewise, Baylor has no one to blame but themselves for their putrid non-conference slate.

College football can either stay at a four-team playoff or move to a full-blown 16-team playoff, with home games for conference champions and auto berths for the Group of Five.

Why would fans respond to an 8-team playoff? Look at this week’s game. The top 7 are all in action and, with the exceptions of TCU, are playing teams ranked 16th or better. The Pac-12 title game, between #2 and #7, is quite literally a quarterfinal game.

This season has, to this point, been a three-month-long reason to embrace the four-team playoff. So it is in true college football fashion that the powers at be wanted to mess it all up.

Overall Record: 76-80-1
Best Bet: 6-8
Upset Special: 7-6-1

A hat tip to my favorite team of the year, Minnesota, as the Gophers covered two weeks in a row as massive underdogs. I look forward to backing Jerry Kill and company as a 16-point underdog to Georgia in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day.

EAST CAROLINA (-7) over Ucf
What happens if Boise State loses? That is the great unanswered question going into this weekend. I mean, Boise State won’t lose, but what if they do? The AAC champion has to be next in line, right? Could that be UCF, despite a loss to UConn? Or Memphis, despite a loss to Houston? Or could that be Cincinnati, whose three losses were by a lot but to good teams?

My guess is Memphis but you never know. East Carolina was the front-runner until a meltdown in the rain against Temple and a wacky loss to Cincinnati ruined their season. My gut tells me that East Carolina will enjoy the ESPN spotlight and produce a big victory to build momentum for a likely Military Bowl game against another ACC team.

Northern Illinois (-6.5) over Bowling Green
It has truly been a pleasure to follow Northern Illinois for the past two years, from ESPN announcers hating on them last year and no one giving them an ounce of respect this year. They are back for their fifth MAC Title Game in a row and they get to play the same team that prevented them from playing in a BCS bowl last year. Can you say, revenge game?

Arizona (+14) over Oregon
I’m not picking Oregon over Arizona. I did last year, I was wrong. I did earlier this year, I was wrong. There is no rational explanation as to why Arizona owns Oregon but they apparently do. Oregon could win by 50 and that’s fine – I’m not picking Oregon over Arizona again.

Iowa State (+33.5) over TCU
It just feels like too many points. Despite a couple of face plants against Oklahoma and Kansas (huh?), the Cyclones have been feisty and competitive. Remember, they beat Iowa at Iowa and probably should have beaten Kansas State. They were within a field goal of West Virginia after three quarters last week.

Is Iowa State going to win? No. But they will play hard and try to keep it respectable.

MARSHALL (-12) over Louisiana Tech
I would not want to be Skip Holtz this week. Even though La. Tech destroyed Rice 76-31 to earn a spot in the Conference USA title game, there is nothing good about what will happen Saturday.

Marshall choked away its New Year’s Six bowl berth and an undefeated season to Western Kentucky on Friday. So the Herd can either pack it in or take out their frustrations on the next opponent. Since Rakeem Cato is a senior and since the game is in Huntington, I’m going with the latter. I think Marshall scores early, often, and then some more. Thanks to the loss last week, this spread is about 10 points below where it needs to be.

CINCINNATI (-6.5) over Houston
On Tuesday night, Tommy Tuberville told the crowd at a Cincinnati basketball game that he will buy them all 2 tickets to this game to watch Cincinnati go for the AAC title. How cool is that? It shows that Tuberville still has his team motivated to produce a second-straight 9-win season and share the AAC title with Memphis and possibly UCF.

It won’t be easy. Houston regressed this year but still beat Memphis in Memphis in a game that will likely keep the AAC champion out of a New Year’s Six bowl. But following three straight bad losses to Ohio State, Memphis and Miami, Cincinnati has reeled off six wins in a row and the defense has finally decided to, ya know, start playing defense.

This probably isn’t the season Cincinnati envisioned in August but 9-3 and building momentum for 2015 is nothing to sneeze at.

OKLAHOMA (-20) over Oklahoma State *Best Bet*
Oklahoma State has thrown in the towel on the season. The scores of their last five losses: 42-9, 34-10, 48-14, 28-7 and 49-28. They haven’t covered a 20-point spread in any of them. Mike Gundy has been bandied about for seemingly every open job as his apparent unhappiness with Oklahoma State higher-ups has become very, very public.

It’s not like Oklahoma is a great team this year – I got at least one preseason prediction right – but they will be spending the holidays playing either UCLA in San Antonio or Clemson in Orlando. Either game will be one of the bowl season’s biggest. The Sooners merely need to show up to cover this spread and, with the game in Norman, I believe they will.

Missouri (+14.5) over Alabama *Upset Special*
Why not? One of the top 4 is losing this weekend. It won’t be TCU. It won’t be Florida State. And it’s no fun if Oregon does, because Arizona would simply take their place. So why not Missouri?

missouri football
The Tigers have been to Atlanta before and went toe-to-toe with Auburn for 50 minutes last year, so the moment isn’t too big. The lack of respect is nothing new. They were big road underdogs to Tennessee and Texas A&M – they won both. Arkansas was the best 6-5 team in recorded history and Missouri beat them.

Missouri even has decent reasons for both of its losses. Against Indiana – a game that I think only I watched – Missouri put forth a D- effort. It was disgusting. In horse racing terms, it was a toss-out. Their other loss was getting smashed by Georgia in the Todd Gurley game – no one was beating Georgia the week Gurley got suspended.

Missouri is a better team than people think and Alabama is absolutely vulnerable. The Crimson Tide has played away from Tuscaloosa five times. They lost to Ole Miss, went to overtime with LSU, won by 1 over Arkansas and was in a one-score game with West Virginia in the fourth quarter. Only a win over 6-6 Tennessee was easy for them away from home.

Missouri is going to win this football game and all heck is going to break loose.

Florida State (-4.5) over Georgia Tech
Come on, the Florida State saga is not ending in a half-filled stadium in Charlotte. There is no way we are being deprived of Florida State on New Year’s Day. Jameis Winston will play like the best player in college football for a quarter or two, Florida State will pull out another stupid victory and they will be in the first playoff.

Wisconsin (-4) over Ohio State
Michigan – terrible, awful Michigan – ran for 121 yards against Ohio State. The week prior, Indiana's Tevin Coleman ran for 228 yards and 3 TDs.  The week before that, Minnesota's David Cobb ran for 145 yards and 3 TDs. That's a bad trend going into a game against Melvin Gordon.

There is a lot of talk about Cardale Jones and the Ohio State offense, but I have no worries that Urban Meyer will figure out a way to score points. I simply do not trust the Ohio State run defense to stop, or even slow down, Melvin Gordon. It feels like this will be a repeat of last year’s title game, when Michigan State eventually wore down the Buckeyes.

And Urban Meyer can spend the offseason explaining why he still hasn’t developed a top-flight defense in Columbus.

BOISE STATE (-21) over Fresno State
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter deserves a gold star. His team lost just about every player of note from last year’s conference champions and he somehow managed a 6-6 season with a West division crown. Sure, the Mountain West West was the worst division (by far!) in college football. But he got them to reel off three straight wins and into this game. Unfortunately, they have only beaten one team with a winning record – San Diego State – all season.

The Bulldogs gave Boise a game in mid-October, but Boise State has turned into an absolute monster since then. They have scored 55, 60, 38, 63 and 50 since then. The game last week against Utah State figured to be an intense matchup and was over in about 10 minutes of game time. Boise State is rolling and they will use their CBS showcase to make a final statement before heading to the Fiesta Bowl as a Top 20 team no one will want to play. Sorry, Arizona.

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