Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Week 14 College Football Picks: The Annual Feast of College Football

This is the part where I rant about something related to the sport – but who cares? It’s Thanksgiving! We can save the talk about the confusing selection committee or impending realignment when there are no games going on.

Starting Thursday night and running through the wee hours of Sunday night, division titles will be decided, rivalries will be renewed, hearts will be broken, seasons will be ruined and so much food will be consumed.

If you love college football as much as I do – or even if you just merely like the sport – this is what the whole season has been building to. After Saturday, it’s conference championships and bowl games.

This weekend is about the essence of the sport. They can move the non-conference games to neutral sites. They can prevent conference foes from playing every year. But the powers at be cannot destroy Ohio State/Michigan, Notre Dame/USC or the Iron Bowl. Well, at least they haven’t yet – and for that, we should be thankful.

Overall Record: 70-75-1
Best Bet: 6-7
Upset Special: 6-6-1

It is becoming readily apparent I will not be hitting .500 in the regular season as I dug myself way too big a hole early in the season and a string of 6-5 weeks have not helped. Thankfully, there are enough bowls that I can turn it around by January. Right?

Tcu (-6.5) over TEXAS
I think Texas is a vastly improved team from the beginning of the season. I think Charlie Strong’s defense will make life miserable for TCU. I think the stadium will be packed and rocking as the faithful show up for a Longhorn revival.

But I also think TCU – despite being so, so wrong earlier this year – is going to make the playoff. I doubted them all year but there are one horrific stretch of football against Baylor from being undefeated and a clear #1 in the country. I wish the spread was a little lower, but this is TCU’s conference championship. Texas is simply a year away from winning a game like this.

IOWA (Pk) over Nebraska
Going against Nebraska has been such a good angle, as their last two losses haven’t come within three scores of covering the spread. This week, the Cornhuskers – in what has to be the end of Bo Pelini’s reign of indifference – finish out schedule against Iowa, where they will surely pick up their pre-ordained fourth loss.

Iowa has been up and down this year but you get the feeling they’ll have plenty of motivation after a heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin last week. Also, Nebraska sucks this year and their only good wide receiver (Kenny Bell) is very questionable.

UCLA (-4.5) over Stanford
This line gives me great pause. UCLA is one of the hottest teams in the country playing at home for a Pac-12 South title while Stanford is barely bowl-eligible and hasn’t beat a team with a pulse all year. I actually would have given Stanford a better chance if they had lost to Cal and needed this game for a bowl. Instead, they have their bowl and UCLA appears to finally have figured out how to keep Brett Hundley protected.

GEORGIA (-13) over Georgia Tech
With a Missouri loss, Georgia is in the SEC Title Game. With a Missouri win, they’re not. So this game, technically, means nothing. It also means everything. Georgia needs a win to secure a New Year’s Six bowl. If they win out, including a win over Alabama, they could be in the playoff mix. For the season Georgia has had, that’s a pretty remarkable statement.

As for Georgia Tech, they haven’t played a team as good as Georgia all year, much less beaten one. Despite this game’s stature as a rivalry game, the more important game for the Yellow Jackets comes a week from Saturday in Charlotte.

LOUISVILLE (-12.5) over Kentucky *Best Bet*
To say things have run off the rails for Kentucky during an ugly five-game losing streak is being kind. They have been non-competitive in four of those five games and really, really non-competitive in road games against LSU and Georgia.

Louisville has reeled off two huge road wins – at Boston College and at Notre Dame – since they ran out of steam against Florida State. Depending on how Georgia Tech finishes, the Cardinals are in a very legitimate spot to play in the Orange Bowl as the ACC’s replacement for playoff-bound Florida State. Bobby Petrino is not one to take the foot of the gas pedal. This could get real, real ugly for the Wildcats.

Michigan State (-13) over PENN STATE
Last week, Michigan State was running end-arounds for offensive linemen in a 45-3 thrashing of Rutgers while Penn State was losing to Illinois. In the past two months, Penn State has only beaten Indiana and Rutgers. Michigan State is looking to make one last statement to the selection committee for a New Year’s trip to Dallas or Atlanta. You think they are about to screw that up by messing around with Penn State?

Minnesota (+13.5) over WISCONSIN *Upset Special*
This has to be a first for me – Minnesota was my upset special a week ago against Nebraska and they’re my upset pick again this week.

I could not have been more impressed with Minnesota a week ago. Regardless of how bad I think Nebraska is, the Golden Gophers had every reason to call it a day. They gave up a touchdown on a field goal return. Their best player, RB David Cobb, was knocked out of the game. It was Senior Day in Lincoln. Yet, they keep pounded Nebraska on the ground and eventually wore them down.

Should Wisconsin win this game? Yes. But despite the exploits of Melvin Gordon, I simply do not trust coach Gary Andersen in a close game. The Badgers blew their opener to LSU and gagged one away at Northwestern. Last week, they did everything in their power to give away the Iowa game, but were saved by Gordon.

On the other sideline, Jerry Kill has proven to be a miracle worker whose teams tend to excel and execute in tight games – only Illinois this year proved to be an exception. This line is way too high.

FLORIDA STATE (-7.5) over Florida
I am so stupid. Florida State has covered small spreads and failed for big spreads. Last week, with a giant line against Boston College, I tried to outsmart myself and picked Florida State. They nearly lost.

I will not make that mistake twice in a row! The parallels to Ron Zook winning his last game as Florida coach in Tallahassee is cute but this Seminole team is the best team in the country. Yes, I said it. They don’t deserve to be #1 but they are the best. They take everyone’s best shot and rope-a-dope like Ali before winning. They may take the first half off again but the smallish spread means it won’t matter.

OLE MISS (-2) over Mississippi State
Vegas has to know something I don’t, right? We just saw Ole Miss get creamed by Arkansas. Mississippi State is still in the SEC West and playoff hunts. Why the heck is this line only two?

The line is begging you to pick Mississippi State. If the house wants you to do something, do the opposite. That’s it. That’s my reasoning. Because there’s nothing football-wise that suggests Ole Miss has a chance here.

Tennessee (-17) over VANDERBILT
They couldn’t make this line high enough. Tennessee is playing for its first bowl berth since 2010 while Vanderbilt just lost 51-0 to Mississippi State. If Vandy even covers, it’s further proof that college football makes zero sense.

ALABAMA (-9.5) over Auburn
Last year, Alabama was a 10.5-point favorite on the road and I took them. This year, they’re a 9.5-point favorite at home against an Auburn team that just got thumped by Georgia. Alabama is playing for a playoff berth, an SEC West title and revenge for its most painful loss ever.

If Auburn proves me wrong again, I will humbly admit that Gus Malzahn is the best coach in college football. Until then, I still think Alabama has the best one.

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Monday, November 24, 2014

Should the Big 12 add Houston and SMU?

I was wrong. I was so very, very wrong.

Earlier this year, I thought TCU would ruin the Big 12. My reasons for being wrong have little to do with TCU's on-field performance. Their run to the playoff contention has helped the conference but it was more that I didn't understand the Big 12.

big 12 expansion
I wrote that piece under the mistaken assumption the Big 12 operated like the other power conferences in the extended game of Risk that is college football realignment. I lumped the Big 12 in with the Big Ten and ACC in their attempts to gain a foothold in New York City or the SEC adding Missouri for the St. Louis and Kansas City markets.

The Big 12 has the only Risk piece it will ever need – the state of Texas. When they added TCU, they were merely ensuring the Lone Star State would be closed to outsiders. Sure, Texas A&M can pop up and take some recruits, but it ultimately doesn't matter. Texas is the richest state in terms of football recruits and money. Texas A&M can't take all of it with them to the SEC.

I also foolishly believed that the Big 12 needed to add more quality, big-name programs to bolster its ranks and that was misguided too. The Big 12 has Texas and Oklahoma and that's all it needs.

On Thanksgiving night, TCU will play on the road at a 6-5 team. Yet this past weekend, analysts across ESPN were describing it as a “showcase” or “statement” game for the Horned Frogs. Why? Because that 6-5 team is Texas.

However, the Big 12 does face a looming problem that is not going away without expansion – the lack of a conference championship game.

In the preseason, this did not appear to be a problem. The Big 12 doubled down on their “One True Champion” motto. The league argued that it's the only league where everyone plays everyone else. In theory, it made sense.

In practice, TCU may be playing Iowa State on the same day Alabama is playing Georgia and a day after UCLA plays Oregon. In the case of the latter, that's a rematch and, yet, it means so much more for the Pac-12 than Oregon playing everyone else.

Whether it's a rematch or not, the conference championship game adds another quality opponent on any team's resume. The lack of one is going to severely hurt TCU and Baylor – and more importantly, will hurt Big 12 teams as long as a four-team playoff exists.

Look at the bump Ohio State could get from beating Wisconsin. Imagine if TCU and Baylor, for argument's sake, were preparing to play a rematch. The winner of that game would have an infinitely stronger case for inclusion in the playoff.

Unfortunately for the Big 12, they have other issues that make expansion targets tough to consider. The league should have added Louisville and Cincinnati to go along with West Virginia and that would've solved everything. But now Louisville is in the ACC and Cincinnati by itself doesn't solve the Big 12's problem. They need two teams.

I also argued in the past for Boise State, which would have served the same purpose that West Virginia does now – the geographic outlier that is there to bump up the football side of things. The league can’t sustain two of those.  We've seen with West Virginia that the travel is a serious concern, which eliminate Cincinnati and Boise from being added together. There are few other enticing options.

Two schools that have been bandied about are USF and UCF as a package deal. It makes sense, again, in theory as the schools offer top TV markets and fertile recruiting grounds. But those two schools will always play second-fiddle in the state to Florida and Florida State in the perception battle – you think Oklahoma and Texas want to deal with that?

So that's how I've landed on Houston and SMU. And you probably ended up on this post scratching your head and wondering what I was smoking upon writing this.

The Big 12 has only one significant problem with the makeup of its league – it doesn't have 12 members. That's it. The other possible additions bring their own headaches. How do you do divisions? How will it impact travel? Are those schools guaranteed to be good in football?

Houston and SMU – I swear this is a compliment – are two warm bodies that the league needs to fill out it roster. Their addition would allow the league to create divisions that are shockingly equal in terms of competitiveness:

South: Texas, TCU, Baylor, Texas Tech, Houston and SMU
North: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Kansas, Iowa State, West Virginia

That alignment also solves what was possible the league's biggest problem in a past life – the fall of Nebraska in the 2000's meant the league's South division was far too strong. With this alignment, Texas and Oklahoma are split up, with West Virginia and Kansas State giving the North three teams – four if you count Oklahoma State – that are Top 20 contenders in a given year.

Let's not forget that the Big 12 has a willing host in Jerry Jones for a title game at any time. They just have to ask. With this alignment, not only can they give Jerry Jones the title game, the league can dream about a Texas/Oklahoma title game. And unlike the Big Ten or ACC, they don't have to gerrymander the divisions to make it happen. The ACC divisions are still messed up because the league wanted a Florida State/Miami title game that hasn't happened in 10 years.

The answer of should they add Houston and SMU is an easy yes. Houston has proven to be a decent to very good football program. SMU is currently a dumpster fire but was knocking on the door of relevance a few years ago. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize both schools would be bolstered significantly by a jump to a Power Five conference.

The real question is. “Will this happen?” The obvious answer, as I write this, is no. SMU is the worst team in the FBS right now. The Big 12 has remained steadfastly opposed to expansion.

When will that change? It could change as soon as this December 7, when a 1-loss TCU or Baylor is left out in favor of Ohio State. It could take until next year, when Oklahoma is left out. Or maybe this gets played out for several years.

Make no mistake – at some point in time, the Big 12 will comprehend they need a conference title game. When that moment arrives, they will start looking over options. They will see few good ones.

Houston and SMU bring the least to the table themselves, yet their inclusion opens up a world of possibility for the league.

Pitch a Texas/Oklahoma title game on the first weekend in December with playoff implications to Fox or ESPN, and see what they say.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Parity has come to AAC football, and that's not good

This year, the AAC should have six bowl teams. Last year, they had only 4.

Last year, the AAC had four of the absolute worst teams FBS had to offer. This year, they have only 1.

ecu temple
That's good right? Nope, it's horrible. The parity that Roger Goodell fantasizes about is now keeping Mike Aresco up at night.

In 2013, the AAC was comically top-heavy in football. UCF and Louisville, each led by first round NFL quarterbacks, combined to go 24-2 and finished in the Top 15. It was a resounding success for the AAC's perception and undeniably crucial as the league's automatic bid to a major bowl game disappeared.

As this year started, the AAC champion seemed to be the front-runner for the Group of Five's new automatic bid to a major bowl for the top-ranked champion. Even back in August, the rumblings about Marshall's weak schedule had begun and the Mountain West appeared void of a top contender with Boise State expected to take a step back.

In short, everything was in place for the AAC to place its champion in the Peach Bowl and remain the best non-power league. That's when parity struck the AAC. That's why the league will likely be on the outside looking in.

The first Top 25 from the selection committee revealed the AAC’s respect as East Carolina with two ACC wins – even over poor ACC teams – was the only Group of Five team in the rankings. Remarkably, they remain the only Group of Five team to be ranked, further indication of the committee’s respect.

Unfortunately for East Carolina, the ACC competition proved a lot easier than the AAC competition. They lost to a vastly improved Temple team in the rain. They went down to Cincinnati. It is not even first in the league.

UCF is currently tied for first. They lost to UConn. They struggled mightily to beat Tulane at home by 7.

There's two ways to look at the parity that has overtaken the league: the teams at the top aren't very good or the teams at the bottom aren’t that bad. It's likely a combination of both. Regardless, the league has produced far more close games and surprising results than it did a year ago.

While the focus last year was on UCF and Louisville, Houston and Cincinnati cruised to 8- and 9-win seasons respectively by feasting on bottom feeders. In the bowl season, the teams were exposed by power conference foes in Vanderbilt and North Carolina – not exactly Alabama and Florida State – in bowl games. They had been artificially propped up.

That isn't happening in 2014. That's why there's currently a three-way tie for the conference lead and four other teams with three conference wins.

The most unfortunate part of this new-found parity is the terrible, terrible timing. Last year, it didn't matter how good the league performed. Someone was playing in the Fiesta Bowl whether ESPN, fans or the media liked. UCF was a worthy team and proved so by dispatching previously-heralded Baylor.

ucf loses to uconn
Yet this is the year that the conference needed a Top 15 team led by an NFL quarterback. This is the year the AAC is forced to prove its worth and earn that bowl bid. East Carolina appeared to be that hope, but they failed once they realized the AAC conference slate is a lot harder than it is in Conference USA – just ask undefeated Marshall.

The conference is still getting respect, as a three-loss Memphis team was cited by selection committee chair as being under consideration for the Group of Five bid. Memphis, though, has no marquee games left and don't you think Aresco wishes Memphis played East Carolina and/or UCF.

It's not a lost season for the conference. The bottom half of the conference had to improve to prevent a Marshall-like scenario. Temple has gone from terrible to 5-5 and should be bowl-eligible. South Florida has improved as well, now 4-6 and finally showing signs of life. The aforementioned Memphis is one of the best turnaround stories in the sport. And while UConn is still leaving a lot to be desired, they have trotted out promising freshmen and have a young coach in place with potential.

There is no doubt that the AAC is a much, much better league from top to bottom in 2014. And that's the problem.

Moving forward, the AAC needs at least one great team to step out every year. East Carolina had that chance and failed. Who will be the AAC's Boise State?

The good news about parity is every AAC school – even SMU with the right hire – can realistically believe they are the answer.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Week 13 College Football Picks: The Pre-Thanksgiving Blues

This used to be the biggest weekend in college football.

There were always big games played on Thanksgiving weekend, but it used to be only a select few. As the years went on, and conference championship games popped up, more and more rivalry games moved to Thanksgiving weekend.

Still, it was only five years ago that Ohio State/Michigan and other season-enders took place before Thanksgiving. But the Big Ten realized that ending its season two weeks before anyone else was hurting its bowl performances. Then the conference expanded to 12, then to 14, and almost every single rivalry game worth watching is played next week.

usc ucla red blue
That leaves us with the second-to-last regular season Saturday of the year looking positively sad. Of the Top 10 teams in the playoff rankings, only UCLA will play another ranked foe. Isn't it funny how that ranked opponent is USC?

It makes you wonder why more rivalry games don't move to this light weekend. Duke and North Carolina, one of the best rivalries in college sports if not known for football, will take the ESPN spotlight on Thursday night.

It's unfortunate that so many college teams and conferences are more than willing to toss this Saturday away – the SEC treats it as a bye week – instead of spreading out rivalry games. There is plenty of opportunity for conferences to move some of the lesser known rivalry games up a week to garner some more attention.

Of course, the beauty of college football is that this light weekend will almost certainly provide a stunning upset, maybe a last-second victory or two, and we'll forget all about #1 Alabama playing Western Carolina by the time we stuff our faces with turkey.

Overall Record: 64-70-1
Best Bet: 5-7
Upset Special: 5-6-1

Last year's 60% win rate seems like a long, long, long time ago. I have been stuck in .500 rut for the past few weeks after falling way below .500. One of these weeks, I need to hit a bunch of winners. I have three left before the bowls start so....let's hope it happens.

WEST VIRGINIA (-2) over Kansas State
This is the game we discover Kansas State is overrated. They are being propped up by a win against Oklahoma in which the Sooners did everything possible to lose the game. It’s not like Oklahoma is the Top 10 team we thought they were. Similarly, Kansas State was completely dismantled by TCU – the same team West Virginia took the wire.  If this game was in the Little Apple, I may have a different opinion.

But it’s in Morgantown and West Virginia has had a bye week to contemplate their let-down loss to Texas, when the Big 12 travel and the TCU loss conspired to render the Mountaineers useless. They will be ready Thursday night.

North Carolina (+6) over DUKE
Time for everyone to admit Duke was a bit overrated. This version is not as good as last year’s version. Their performance against Virginia Tech last week pretty much summed that up. Like Kansas State, they are being propped up by one good win (Georgia Tech) but aren’t that good.

duke football unc
There is a tremendous amount of pressure on Duke in this spot, since they have to win out for a date with Florida State in the ACC Title Game. UNC, on the other hand, feels like it’s on a roll and you know they can score. Can Duke participate in a shootout?

Unrelated: Does Georgia Tech want to win the ACC Coastal? If they beat Georgia (heck, or even play them close) and don’t make the ACC Title Game, they will play in the Orange Bowl. If they do make the ACC Title Game, they would have to beat Florida State to play in the Orange Bowl. The former seems way more doable than the latter, no?

MICHIGAN STATE (-22) over Rutgers *Best Bet*
The last two times Rutgers went on the road, they were bludgeoned into submission by Nebraska and flat-out embarrassed by Ohio State. Similar to last year, Rutgers is a team that wins the games they are supposed to and loses the games they are supposed to.

This is most definitely a game they should lose. Michigan State is still very much in play for a New Year's Six bowl and it feels like they will be making a statement in their last two games against Rutgers and Penn State. This is a “name the score” deal for the Spartans.

Minnesota (+10.5) over NEBRASKA *Upset Special*
This is just a stupid line. Nebraska gave up 4,008 yards to Melvin Gordon last week. Minnesota's David Cobb has already rushed for 1,300+ yards. That feels like a recipe for disaster.

As I said last week, Nebraska is not a very good football team this year and I have zero idea why they are ranked instead of an undefeated Marshall. Minnesota gave Ohio State a pretty decent game but simply did not have the athletes to keep up with the Buckeyes. Luckily for the Gophers, Nebraska does not have Ohio State's talent...or quarterback...or coach.

Smu (+28) over UCF
This may seem like a strange game to pick, especially considering SMU is winless and UCF is tied for first in the AAC. But I'm a UConn fan, so I know UCF's only conference loss came to a really, really bad team.

Other reasons I like this pick: SMU has been extremely feisty in its last two games, which shows it has not given up hope of getting a win, and UCF hasn't beaten an FBS team by four touchdowns all year, which includes some pitiful teams like Tulsa and Tulane. I wouldn't go crazy and predict an SMU upset, but this feels like a game where SMU is winning 10-7 at half and holds on for an easy cover.

FLORIDA STATE (-19) over Boston College
Florida State has a pretty obvious pattern, in terms of gambling. They cover small spreads eventually; see Louisville and Miami. They do not cover large spreads; see Clemson, Notre Dame and Virginia.

In those five games, I am 4-1, missing out only on the Virginia game. So why am I going against trend here? Because Boston College was the only ACC team that gave FSU a game last year. That, combined with the Noles falling to #3, makes me think this becomes a statement game. I said that before the Virginia game and was wrong. Let’s see if I’m right this time.

ARKANSAS (+3) over Ole Miss
TENNESSEE (-3.5) over Missouri
I’m putting these two together because they’re eerily similar. The home teams have finally turned the corner after some tough losses and have young, talented rosters that seem ready to produce big wins. The road teams are playing for their playoff and SEC title hopes, respectively. The road teams also have terrible matchups to deal with.

arkansas defense lsu
For Arkansas, their Achilles heel has been great offensive teams, like Auburn and Georgia. Ole Miss, without Laquon Treadwell, is not a great offensive team. This will be another low-scoring affair and Arkansas has been great in those – beating LSU and playing the #1 and #4 teams very tight.

For Tennessee, their Achilles heel has been teams with superior talent in space, like Oklahoma, Alabama and Ole Miss with Treadwell. Missouri is not that team.

Throw in the home field advantage – not to mention both home teams playing for a long-awaited bowl berth – and it’s really dicey for the road teams.

NOTRE DAME (-4) over Louisville
Notre Dame's season is either about to run completely off the rails or end up pretty respectable. With Louisville and USC to finish, Notre Dame could beat two ranked teams to end the season, go 9-3, and probably play in Orlando against Kansas State or Oklahoma. Or, they could lose both, finish 7-5, and end up back in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Here's the deal with Notre Dame: they are simply too good to go 7-5. I know that sounds crazy for a team that lost to Northwestern, but that was the product of Brian Kelly having two of the worst brainfarts in recent coaching history. Seriously, who goes for two up 11? It made poor Doug Flutie's brain hurt as he tried to explain it.

Usc (+3.5) over UCLA
Before USC put the car in the garage, they were absolutely throttling Cal. And before that, they tore up Washington State. Let's not forget that USC should have beat Utah, but a misplaced foot on a fourth-down call gave Utah life. If that doesn't happen, USC is 8-2 and a Top 10 team. Oh, and Arizona State won on a Hail Mary, so USC should be 9-1.

Meanwhile, UCLA is 8-2 and a Top 10 team because they beat the Arizona schools. However, they have been less than impressive against every non-Arizona school. I'm not sold on UCLA at all.

While everyone is discussing UCLA as controlling the Pac-12 South, USC remains very much alive in the division race. If they beat UCLA, they would only need an Arizona State loss to set up an enticing Pac-12 Title Game versus Oregon. I believe USC is better than people think and I believe UCLA is not as good as people think – makes this a no-brainer, right?

WASHINGTON (-6) over Oregon State
The line tells you everything you need to know about the relative strength of these two teams. Oregon State upset Arizona State at home in one of those wacky #Pac12AfterDark games where nothing makes sense. Earlier in the day, Washington outplayed Top 15 Arizona on the road and gagged it away late with a bad fumble.

Make no mistake: Washington is a better team than Oregon State this year. The home field advantage plus teams feeling very different – an angry Washington team and an Oregon State team ripe for a letdown – equals a Washington victory.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

An Undefeated Marshall Deserves to Play on New Year's Eve

No one knows how good Marshall is this year. We should find out.

The playoff era in college football will kick off in Atlanta, just past noon on New Year's Eve day, when the Peach Bowl becomes the first “New Year's Six” bowl to kick off. If Marshall is a 13-0, Conference USA champion, they need to be in that game.

rakeem catoBefore the season even started, the rumblings about Marshall's schedule began. In the non-conference, Marshall played three MAC schools – bad ones at that – and an FCS school. Their Conference USA foes have proven to be as uninspiring as they appeared in July. Marshall hasn't scored less than 35 or won by less than 15 in 10 games this season.

Are they really that good? Does it even matter at this point?

The selection committee made it very clear with its first rankings that Marshall was not the front-runner for the lone Group of Five slot, reserved for the best champion of a non-Power Five league. Those initial rankings did include East Carolina, who had a pair of wins over ACC teams and only a tight loss at SEC East contender South Carolina. It was a no-brainer: if East Carolina won out, they would play in the Peach Bowl.

But the Pirates proved to be a paper champion. Those wins proved to be over mediocre ACC teams. They have lost twice since to bowl-bound AAC teams. They are no longer part of the discussion.

Now, observers look to the Mountain West, which boasts a one-loss Colorado State team and a two-loss Boise State. The Rams have the best single win, though a road victory over a middle-of-the-road Boston College team is hardly awe-inspiring. The Rams also lost to Boise State, which makes the Broncos the Mountain West favorite. Unfortunately, the Broncos were annihilated by Ole Miss in their first game and added another loss to Air Force.

In order to maintain some semblance of a united FBS, the power conferences guaranteed one spot a year to the non-power conferences. Someone has to play in that bowl game. That someone needs to be Marshall.

The phrase that pays in college football this year has been “strength of schedule” and it's all we've heard. It has been endlessly and fruitlessly debated. The strength of a team's schedule, due to the importance of every game for small sample size, varies wildly from week to week. TCU's win over Minnesota has, at times, looked great, good, bad and meaningless. Florida State's win over Notre Dame went from proof of greatness to reason for concern. It's maddening.

Most maddening, though, is the outsized importance of schedule strength. Yes, a team needs to be challenged. Yes, a team should be play good teams. No, a team should not be judged solely on its competition.

When Marshall put together its 2014 schedule, they had no idea what the criteria would be for inclusion in a major bowl game. Hell, there is still no concrete evidence that we even know now what will be used as criteria for inclusion. It's all being made up as we go along.

Just as Ohio State and Florida State cannot be blamed for the failures of their conference brethren, neither can Marshall. Conference USA, more so than any non-Big East conference, has been decimated in realignment. The newly-formed American swooped in and raided every team with value. UCF, Houston, Tulsa, Tulane, Memphis, East Carolina – they were all swiped away. It left Conference USA a shell of its former self and it has left Marshall to beat up on a string of overmatched opponents.

Why does Marshall get punished?

Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, the Thundering Herd is being punished for the sins of the BCS.

In 2007, Hawaii parlayed a ridiculously soft schedule into a Sugar Bowl bid, which in turn became one of the worst televised beatings in recent memory. I believe Colt Brennan is still part of the Superdome turf. That Hawaii team, you may recall, escaped week after week by the skin of their teeth against bad opponents. Marshall hasn't done that.

peach bowl 2015In 2012, Northern Illinois parlayed a Big Ten disaster – Ohio State on probation meant an unranked Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl – into a BCS bowl berth because they snuck into the Top 16 despite a loss. They played Florida State tight for three quarters but all people really remember are the really, really bad TV ratings.

Only last year, Fresno State (win over Rutgers) and Northern Illinois again (win over Iowa) were very, very close to undefeated seasons that would have guaranteed them a BCS bowl berth. Both teams had a better win than Marshall. Both teams lost after Thanksgiving. Before the losses, both teams endured ridicule from a national sports media that really, really wanted to see Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

I fear that the selection committee will go out of its way to send a message to Marshall, which is a whole lot different than sending a message to Baylor.

Baylor is a Big 12 team with a Heisman Trophy winner and a preseason playoff contender that willingly chose to eschew any challenge in the non-conference. Flush with TV money, Baylor will be fine. They played in the Fiesta Bowl last year. No one will cry if Baylor misses out on a playoff spot because the Bears played Buffalo.

Marshall is a Conference USA team that no Power Five conference team wants to play. Few will pick up the phone when the Marshall AD calls to schedule a game. It may be years before they trot out another Rakeem Cato as quarterback.

It's not Marshall's fault that Conference USA sucks this year. It's not Marshall's fault that Hawaii and Northern Illinois didn't win their BCS games. It's not Marshall's fault no one wants to play them.

The Thundering Herd is 10-0. They have yet to be challenged. It would be a damn shame if they finished the year that way.

The Peach Bowl is being played just past noon on New Year's Eve day. Of the New Year's Six this year, it is clearly low-man on the totem pole. Let's make it fun. We know Marshall fans will travel in droves. We know the likely SEC opponent (Ole Miss? Georgia? Auburn?) will ensure an easy sell-out.

Let's find out how good Marshall is. They deserve it.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Week 12 College Football Picks: Dak Prescott for Heisman

Marcus Mariota has been anointed as this year’s Heisman Trophy winner and I don’t get it.

Oregon lost at home to Arizona. The last play that mattered of the game featured Mariota literally getting the football ripped away by a defender. That’s my Heisman Trophy winner?

dak prescott heisman pose
Meanwhile, Mississippi State is 9-0 for the first time in school history and ranked #1 for the first time in school history. It’s impossible to quantify how insane it is that Mississippi State is the best team in the country. It’s actually so hard to comprehend that no one has. We’ve sort of shrugged our shoulders and accepted the SEC is the best conference, so a good SEC could always be #1.

We’re messing up. Dak Prescott’s performance this year is every bit as good as Cam Newton’s back in 2010, if not better. When Prescott scampered off on his already-legendary run against LSU, I pegged him as the Heisman winner and that it would make all his Heisman reels. In fact, I didn’t think it would even be close unless the Bulldogs lost.

Instead, Mariota has been given an incredible amount of leniency for his awful performance against Arizona – an injured offensive lineman is the excuse – and is now a 1-5 favorite.

It’s insane. It’s wrong.

Dak Prescott has his moment on Saturday. For everyone that has handed the trophy over to Mariota, you may want to wait at least a few more days. If Mississippi State beats Alabama in Tuscaloosa, it will be Prescott as the 1-5 favorite, which he should be now.

Overall Record: 59-64-1
Best Bet: 4-7
Upset Special: 5-5-1

I went 5-8 last week, lost my best bet, my upset special and nearly my dignity until Ohio State and Oregon covered. Can I do better? Could I possibly do worse?

East Carolina (-3) over CINCINNATI
Cincinnati has played four teams that have decent to good offenses. They gave up 34 points to Toledo, 50 to Ohio State, 41 to Memphis and 55 to Miami. Yikes.

The last time we saw East Carolina, they were gagging away a game as bad as one can gag a game away. They lost 20-10 to Temple in awful conditions despite outgaining Temple by 300 yards because they were -5 in the turnover battle. Let’s do that in all caps – they were MINUS FIVE in turnovers. We’re going to use some horse racing parlance and consider that a toss-out.

GEORGIA TECH (+3.5) over Clemson
DUKE (-5) over Virginia Tech
The ACC makes zero sense. In the past three weeks, the home team in conference games has a record of 4-12. That’s mind-bogglingly bad. So what’s my angle for these two picks? Regression to the mean, baby! Home teams need to start winning a few. Also, Duke and Georgia Tech are better teams than their opponents, which helps.

rice upset marshall
Rice (+21) over MARSHALL *Upset Special*
Rice started its season by getting thumped on the road by Notre Dame and Texas A&M. They added a terrible home loss to Old Dominion and the defending Conference USA champs were 0-3 in a heartbeat. However, they haven’t lost since.

Is Marshall good? Sure. Is Marshall undefeated good? Probably not. We saw last year with Fresno State and Northern Illinois that it is really, really, really hard to go undefeated, even if you play nobody. At some point, you will be exposed.

I’m saying Marshall is exposed this week against the best team they will likely play all year.

WISCONSIN (-6) over Nebraska
Nebraska has four wins in the Big Ten. Those wins came over the four worst Big Ten teams, who are a combined 3-18. I don’t know why anyone thinks Nebraska is good this year but they’re out there and Nebraska is ranked in the Top 20.

Here’s a spoiler alert: Nebraska is not that good. Wisconsin will win by at least two touchdowns.

Mississippi State (+7.5) over ALABAMA
After that intro, did you really think I was going to take Alabama?

It has been a bizarre few weeks for Mississippi State, as a mid-season reprieve from ranked competition has idiots like this guy poking holes in their resume and questioning how good the Bulldogs really are. There are now convenient excuses for how they beat up LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn – all currently Top 25 teams.

It’s very important to remember that Mississippi State didn’t just win those games. They absolutely dominated those ranked opponents. So they didn’t bring their A game to Kentucky or Arkansas, they didn’t have to. This team is the top-ranked team in the country for a reason.

I keep going back to something Eric Crouch said on the Big Ten Network about six weeks ago – I wish I had hit record – that an NFL scout told him Mississippi State’s front seven was the most talented in the country. Yes, Dak Prescott gets the headlines but Dan Mullen has built a football factory without anyone noticing.

Alabama is still Alabama. Mississippi State is becoming an Alabama. They’ll prove that Saturday.

GEORGIA (-2.5) over Auburn
I am always wrong about Auburn. I picked against them all last year and the L’s piled up. This year, I haven’t gotten one of their games right that I’ve picked. So with that as a warning…

I love Georgia here. They’re getting the best player in the sport back. They basically control their SEC East destiny, unless you think Missouri doesn’t have another loss in them. They could even weasel back into the playoff hunt with Auburn, a Top 20 Georgia Tech and a potential Top 5 SEC West champion on their schedule. Everything is in front of Georgia.

I feel like they’ve watched this play a few times this week. They will be ready.

Florida State (-1) over MIAMI *Best Bet*
Florida State has won 9 games this year. The last time Miami beat a team that finished a season with 9 or more wins was Maryland in 2010. So after four years of futility, suddenly Miami is on the level with the defending national champions who haven’t lost a game in almost two years? What the hell am I missing here?

As if Florida State needed any further motivation, they got jumped in the playoff rankings by a team that lost at home. Miami – other than a win in a driving rainstorm over Duke – has beaten nobody. They have certainly looked impressive in winning their last three but Cincinnati, North Carolina and Virginia Tech are all mediocre – at best – teams.

With Jameis Winston at QB, Florida State is the best team in the country. I’ve said that all year and I’ll continue to say it until proven otherwise. This line is an affront to common sense.

Lsu (+2.5) over ARKANSAS
Speaking of lines that make no sense, Arkansas hasn’t won a conference game in years and is favored over an LSU team that has wins over Wisconsin, Florida and Ole Miss. Again, what the hell am I missing here?

Look, Arkansas is – or, should be – a live underdog here. They’re getting LSU in a classic “week after” game. They get them at home. They will play a smash-mouth game that Arkansas thrives in. But you know who else likes playing low-scoring football? Yep, LSU.

I believe Arkansas will beat Ole Miss next week. And it’ll look like a huge upset coming off a loss to LSU.

boise state rb
BOISE STATE (-14) over San Diego State
By kickoff, the temperature in Boise will be hovering around 12 degrees. No, that’s not a type. 12 degrees. Do you think the kids that play football in the country’s most perfect weather city are going to be feeling that in November?

Yes, San Diego State won its bowl game in Boise last year but it had nearly a month to get ready. This time, they have to travel a week after playing at home meaning the difference in temperatures for them one week to the next will be about 60.

Speaking of 60, that’s the number Boise State put up last week and its offense has been rocking and rolling for the past month. Just a terrible spot for the Aztecs.

Arizona State (-9.5) over OREGON STATE
This is the definition of a trap game. Arizona State is coming off of the program’s biggest victory since Jake Plummer. They have to travel way up north for a road game at night against an Oregon State team fighting for its season. It feels like the type of game Arizona State gags away.

There’s just one tiny, little problem: Oregon State stinks at football this year. It seems like they never recovered from the overtime loss to Utah and have been in freefall mode for about a month. It would not surprise me if Oregon State loses out and finishes 4-8.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

For NASCAR, 11th Time’s a Charm

The moment Kyle Larson’s car hit the wall on Sunday evening, NASCAR could revel.

It took a decade of tinkering, declining ratings, falling attendance and thousands of negative articles, but NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup finally became an attraction in 2014.

There had been indications the new system had brought the urgency and desperation – two ingredients for any successful auto race – back to the staid NASCAR environment. There was the crapshoot at Talladega, with every Chase driver engaged in a never-before-seen extended game of chicken and roulette at high speeds in close quarters. There was the endlessly repeated scrap between Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski; weeks after Matt Kenseth set his sights on Brad.

kevin harvick chase
While the focus leading into Phoenix was off-the-track, the real story was on-the-track. I would consider myself a lapsed NASCAR fan. I was drawn to the sport as a kid and stay with it until the mid-2000’s and the Chase first appeared. Like a band that had sold out, I stopped watching NASCAR because it felt too corporate. They had whittled away what I loved about it.

I would still check in from time to time. I watched the Daytona 500. I watched the Coca-Cola 600 this year, while battling a flu that ruined my Memorial Day weekend. I kept tabs but rarely kept tabs open.

In mid-October, I was spending a Saturday night with my parents when my dad kept flipping back to the Charlotte race. There was college football on! This infuriated and confused me. What was he doing? Why are we watching this?

“It’s good,” he told me. “It’s getting good.”

That was the night Matt Kenseth attacked Brad Keselowski. That got me hooked. I chose the final third of races at Talladega and Texas over the NFL. On this past Sunday, a dearth of quality football had my television fixated on NASCAR for the most time in several years.

As the field took the white flag, it appeared my viewership would be in vain. Even though Ryan Newman was only a spot away from transferring, it appeared his tires had too much wear and he wouldn’t get past Kyle Larson.

It helped that ESPN – the logo onscreen for its final NASCAR season should be a giant postage stamp – initially missed the final move. It added to surprise and the intensity. Seconds after showing Kevin Harvick winning the race, the camera cut quickly to Larson’s car being shoved aside by Newman’s 31 and into the wall. It was the most dramatic a last-turn move since the 2011 Indianapolis 500.

We watch sports that reward our viewership. Once a sport delivers, we give them more chances to impress. That’s why we always watch the NCAA Tournament even if every year doesn’t provide wall-to-wall buzzer beaters and upsets – it’s the tantalizing possibility. That’s why the NFL and college football bring in millions of viewers. It’s why we watch LeBron and playoff hockey but not the 76ers and November hockey.

The Chase for the Cup, from the moment it was introduced, was doomed to fail. While it artificially added excitement to August and September, it didn’t change much about October and November. With the exception of the Tony Stewart/Carl Edwards duel, the Chase ended in a similar way that most seasons ended – with a champion emerging through consistency and greatness. We love to watch greatness. We get bored with consistency.

It’s a struggle for any individual sport because we are trained to not care about season-long points battles. We value the champions because we respect their accomplishments and specific wins. It adds to their resumes. No one sits around to wistfully remember how exactly Dale Earnhardt clinched those 7 Cup titles, just that he has 7.

The PGA Tour, like NASCAR, has tried and failed to make a playoff system work. The PGA Tour, like NASCAR, seems to tinker every year with the points system and the schedule.

I advocated earlier this year that the PGA Tour should turn its Tour Championship into a match play event, with one-on-one matchups to eliminate players in one final weekend to crown a champion. The PGA Tour would never think outside the box like that. I failed to realize NASCAR already had.

The first graphics for the 2014 Chase featured a bracket and it didn’t quite dawn on me what NASCAR had put into place. The format change was roundly and routinely criticized when it was announced. I’m sure even those at NASCAR HQ had to be wary – did we do the right thing?

With 16 cars, the playoff field may be too big as the first three races and first four eliminations did little to excite the fans. There was no urgency yet to winning. There was no desperation for top drivers. Then everything changed. Then the intensity level went straight to 11. Then people started paying attention.

Time will tell if this is a revival for NASCAR or a momentary reprieve.

Regardless, I will ensure my plans allow me to watch the season finale on Sunday – and I haven’t said that in years.

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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Week 11 College Football Picks: The Regular Season Now Means More

Every Game Counts. The laughable BCS tagline is even funnier in retrospect.

Doesn’t it seem like two decades ago instead of two years ago that “Every Game Counts” was the de facto explanation for the lack of a college football playoff? Can you believe, before a Saturday featuring 6 Top 25 matchups, we were told a playoff would devalue the regular season?

nd fsu
Playoffs are not perfect but striking the balance of an acceptable field size is so crucial. The NBA and NHL, for example, have too many teams in. MLB used to have it right, added an extra team and now the regular season is dull. The NFL has a really good mix, though it is discussing extra teams for more money.

College football, for the past 15 years, had a two-team tournament. I still believe a 16-team tournament, with advantages given to top seeds, would still work. I think we may find a 4-team tournament is too unwieldy with five power conferences. We are still in the “information gathering” stage for the playoff system.

What cannot be denied is the energy it has brought to the sport. In years past, this week’s Big 12 and Big Ten showdowns would be important but not heart-stopping. In 2014, these games all very much mean something. We have given up the sport’s legacy formed by “Game of the Century” matchups for a weekly dose of high-impact, high-intensity playoff elimination games. It has meant no off-weeks for the sport – even weekends without high-profile games are must-see television.

The playoff creates a day like Saturday, when we will learn so much. Even better, we will pay close attention to how these results take place.

When selection committee chair Jeff Long explained that Arizona State jumped Notre Dame in the rankings, he pointed out their relative performances against Stanford. In years past, that level of scrutiny would never be applied – especially by computers forbidden to take into account margin of victory.

College football has been irrevocably changed. The regular season is even more important. Who would have guessed – oh yeah, everyone did.

Overall Record: 54-56-1
Best Bet: 4-6
Upset Special: 5-4-1

My never-ending quest to hit .500 had zero progress last week, as I went 6-6. The bright spot? My Florida State best bet was an awesome late cover. If I lived in Vegas, I would have put a small fortune on that game and probably jumped off a bridge by halftime.

PURDUE (+17) over Wisconsin *Upset Special*
You probably won’t believe me, but 3-6 Purdue is one of the most improved teams in the country. They played Notre Dame tough. They should have beaten Minnesota on the road. They were down only 7 late in losses to Iowa and Michigan State. Only a head-scratching loss to Central Michigan was a “Purdue 2013” performance.

purdue goodMeanwhile, Wisconsin is coming off of two straight ass-kickings of Big Ten newbies Maryland and Rutgers. It feels like Wisconsin has righted the ship.

Yet I can’t shake the feeling that this is the game Purdue puts it all together. With Northwestern and Indiana to finish, Purdue could very easily return to a bowl if they win this one. I would hate Purdue at Camp Randall, but I love them at home.

Iowa (-1.5) over MINNESOTA
Minnesota might be 6-2 but that doesn’t mean they’re good. They’ve beaten zero teams with a winning record and lost to Illinois. I like Jerry Kill and I’ve had a soft spot for Minnesota since I played them endless in NCAA 2004 – hello Marion Barber & Laurence Maroney! – but they aren’t good.

I hate taking Iowa on the road but they came through so huge for me last week against Northwestern that I have to ride them again. Simply put, they are a much better team than Minnesota. As long as they overcome the coaching deficiency, they should win this one easy.

OKLAHOMA (-5.5) over Baylor
TEXAS (+3.5) over West Virginia
Kansas State (+6) over TCU

I’m putting these three games together because I am roughly 2-20 for Big 12 games. Okay, it may not be that bad but I can’t for the life of me figure this conference out. So we’re making these picks for the following reasons:
  • Oklahoma is the Big 12’s best team. They should have beat Kansas State.
  • Baylor’s game does not travel. They are a different team away from Waco.
  • Texas will make a bowl game this year and they have to beat West Virginia to do so.T
  • he travel for West Virginia in the conference is a lot to overcome. They are 2-6 in November the past two years.
  • TCU is emotionally spent from last week while Kansas State is fresh and rolling.

UConn (-4.5) over Army
Funny how UConn always ends up in New York City when it’s time for a revival. Last year, Kevin Ollie led UConn into Madison Square Garden to reclaim its throne as an elite college basketball program. This year, Bob Diaco – fresh off of a stunning win against UCF – leads UConn into Yankee Stadium.

UConn has been improving but I didn’t want to jinx it by writing that down. After they played Boise State close, I got excited and they proceeded to get real bad. After a win against UCF, the promise is paying off and there is again honest-to-goodness hope around the program. After the Paul Pasqualoni error, it’s hard to overstate how important that is.

Also, Army is awful again.

Notre Dame (+2.5) over ARIZONA STATE *Best Bet*
I believe Florida State is the best team in college football. I saw Notre Dame, in Tallahassee, outplay  Florida State. If not for Jameis Winston putting forth the best performance of any player all year in the second half, Notre Dame wins the game.

arizona state celebrate
I truly believe Notre Dame is one of the best four teams in the country. I thought that in April and nothing I’ve seen has changed that. Arizona State is a very, very good team. Notre Dame is a great team. It’s a slight distinction, but it means everything.

Unrelated to the pick, but this game got bumped way up in viewership when ABC placed it at 3:30 p.m., against only an Auburn/Texas A&M game that figures to get ugly. In primetime, Fox, ABC and CBS will all air Top 20 matchups. But in the afternoon, only Notre Dame/Arizona State will dominate broadcast. There’s a good chance – thanks to the market cannibalization in primetime – that this game is the week’s most-watched. And yet people still wonder if Notre Dame will stay independent…

FLORIDA STATE (-19) over Virginia
On Oct. 4, Virginia was 4-2 and looking like one of the most improved teams in the country. In the past month, they have lost three straight games and the wheels are off. If I were a gambling man, I’d put Virginia at 4-8 at the end of the season and Mike London on the unemployment line. They’re just not good enough.

Florida State is the best team in the country and if they act like it for even one quarter; they will beat Virginia by three touchdowns.

Ucla (-4.5) over WASHINGTON
Washington has scheduled themselves to 6-3. UCLA is an actual good team. There’s the analysis you come here for.

BOSTON COLLEGE (+3) over Louisville
As a UConn fan, it pains me to write the following: Boston College may be really good at football. Ugh, yuck.

Everyone sort of assumed the win over USC was an anomaly. It’s quickly looking like the loss to Pitt was the anomaly. The other losses were both of the one-score variety to a ranked Clemson and a one-loss Colorado State team that very well may end the year at 11-1. You hate to lose games like that at home but they are certainly nothing to hang your head about, especially the Colorado State loss that felt like a knee-slapper when it happened.

I wasn’t a fan of Louisville and seeing them fall apart in the second half when Florida State decided to play some football didn’t change that any. Frankly, it’s absurd they are favored in this game. They may win but this a classic pick ‘em – so thanks, Vegas, for the free field goal.

Ohio State (+3.5) over MICHIGAN STATE
Is Michigan State great? We know they’re good, but are they a great team? They’ve played two teams with a pulse this year. Both times, they completely melted in the fourth quarter. Against Oregon, they were going toe to toe with Oregon until the Ducks wiped them out. That performance seemed great until Arizona won in Autzen. Against Nebraska, they blew a 27-3 lead so completely that Nebraska had the ball and was driving at the end of the game before losing 27-22.

urban meyer dantonio
Is Ohio State great? They lost at home to what is a bad Virginia Tech team and nearly lost on the road to what is a bad Penn State team.

So why am I picking Ohio State? Because I think this game is going to be high-scoring. Because I think Michigan State is overrated. Because I think Urban Meyer has been focusing in on this game for two months. Because I think Ohio State will play loose and easy, unlike their tight and scared performance in last year’s Big Ten title game.

LSU (+6.5) over Alabama
I’m never picking against LSU at home at night. Yeah, it bit me against Mississippi State but it came through against Ole Miss. And does any team in the country have a better home slate this year than LSU? Like a steady stream of Top 10 teams showing up.

Even if Alabama does pull off the win, I could see it being similar to two years ago and they win by a field goal or something. The Alabama dynasty is teetering. Can they survive this month?

Oregon (-8) over UTAH
My angle? Utah is spent, emotionally and physically. Three weeks ago, they beat Oregon State on the road in 3OT. Two weeks ago, they beat USC in the final seconds at home. Last week, they fell to Arizona State on the road in OT. They now return home to face the Pac-12’s best team.

To recap, that’s three nail-biters, two road trips and one long month. I could see a raucous crowd keeping Utah in the game for a half – maybe even three quarters – but eventually Oregon will wear them down. It would not surprise me if this game played out like Florida State/Louisville from last Thursday.

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