Monday, November 19

The Six Contenders

The craziest race to the BCS national championship came to a very unfortunate ending for two of the top-ranked teams in the country in the past three days.

Thursday night, Oregon got off to a hot start against conference foe Arizona. This was both a game UO lost last season and a road game this season, so it was arguably their biggest hurdle remaining. The Ducks marched down the field with ease of their opening two possessions, with only an unlucky bounce resulting in an interception keeping their lead at 8-7. They had driven down into the Arizona red zone for a third time when Dennis Dixon's previously injured knee collapsed. Though he walked off the field, it ended up being a torn ACL and the end of a great individual season. The Ducks salvaged a field goal out of that drive, but without their leader in the game they gave up a quick 24 unanswered points, including INT and PR touchdowns by Antione Cason, to fall behind by 20 points. Without Dixon, it took UO up until the fourth quarter to close the gap to 7; then the Wildcats hit a long field goal to put the game out of reach.

Saturday night, Oklahoma got off to a hot start against conference foe Texas Tech. This was the site of a controversial loss two seasons ago, and the Red Raiders feature one of the premiere quarterbacks and wide receivers in the nation. The Sooners scored a quick defensive touchdown, forced a punt, and then held TTU to a long field goal after a fumble on OU's first offensive play. On their second possession, Sam Bradford took a hard hit that resulted in a concussion, knocking him out of the game. Without their leader in the game, the Sooners gave up a quick 24 unanswered points to fall behind by 20. The Sooners were able to close within 14 with 8 minutes remaining, but a turnover on downs at the TTU 14 yard line all but sealed the deal with three minutes left and the Red Raiders held on for a seven point victory.

Two very different teams with two very different quarterbacks, same ending to their national title hopes. For the Sooners, Sam Bradford should be ready to go in December if not next week, so the conference championship and a BCS bid are still very much in the picture. For the Ducks, they must hope that USC or Arizona defeats Arizona State in order to clinch the Pac 10 championship and a Rose Bowl berth against Ohio State by winning out, but without Dennis Dixon a trip to UCLA followed by The Civil War game have become all the more difficult.

But as life and death are part of the same cycle, so are opportunity lost and opportunity created. Losses by two of the previous BCS top 7 have made a clearer path for Arizona State to advance to New Orleans. The Sun Devils will have the most difficult path there, but all they really need is for the four teams above them who are still playing to lose... and one of them is guaranteed to their next game as Kansas and Missouri square off.

And I'll say it now, if Ohio State is the only team with 1 or fewer losses by the season's end, then nobody else deserves to play for the title. Including Hawaii and their #857 ranked schedule. Just give it to the Bucks, or hell have them play against Appalachian State for a chance to redeem the conference.

Without further adieu, The Six Contenders:

1. LSU
Key Wins:
* Va Tech (BCS #8) 48-7
* Florida (BCS #12) 28-24
* Auburn (BCS #26) 30-24
* at Kentucky (BCS #28) 43-37 3OT
Big Games Remaining:
* Arkansas (BCS #33)
* SEC Championship (prob - BCS #18 Tennessee)

QB: Matt Flynn (Sr, 125.3 rtg)
Off: #11 scoring
Def: #9 scoring

Outlook: With a 0.99 composite BCS score, LSU controls their own destiny more than any other team right now... in fact, it's safe to say that they control their own destiny. However, the SEC East winner will be a huge challenge and, though the team is not very strong, the McFadden-Jones duo could pull an upset in the regular season finale.
Should LSU win out and secure a title game berth, they would have the huge advantage of playing in New Orleans at the Sugar Bowl. Incidentally, three teams have played for the BCS title in their home state (FSU 00, LSU 03, USC 05) and only LSU actually won the game! Beyond that, LSU is a team who are better than they've played the second half of the season. Like many top teams who have fallen, the Tigers have been plagued by injuries. They may be the first title favorite who actually benefits from the long layoff.

2. Kansas
Key Wins:
* none
* none
Big Games Remaining:
* Missouri (BCS #4)
* Big 12 Championship (prob - BCS #10 Oklahoma)

QB: Todd Reesing (So, 156.3 rtg)
Off: #2 scoring
Def: #2 scoring

Outlook: Having already moved into the top two before their biggest two games, it would be difficult to imagine the Jayhawks not making the BCS title game if they win out. Numerically, they are the equivalent of 1.5 spots above West Virginia who is 3rd in the BCS, so it is safe to say that they control their own destiny.
None of Kansas's victories thus far have been over opponents currently in the BCS top 25. However they have yet to lose, and their next two (assuming B12CG berth) opponents will likely finish in the BCS top 15.
Statistically, this season the Jayhawks have made it look easy on both sides of the ball. If Kansas is really as good as the numbers say, they'd make a great BCS title game team. But with their schedule it's still too early to say for sure how this group which has looked really amazing against inferior opposition will hold up against the NCAA's other top offenses and defenses. We'll know about the defense after they face Missouri, and the offense will have more of a challenge should they face Oklahoma or even Texas in the B12CG.

3. West Virginia
Key Wins:
* at Rutgers (BCS #35) 31-3
* at Cincinnati (BCS #24) 28-23
* at South Florida (BCS #23) 21-13
Big Games Remaining:
* Connecticut (BCS #20)

QB: Pat White (Jr, 153.5 rtg)
Off: #12 scoring
Def: #8 scoring

When Louisville tanked early and WVU was upset by a hot South Florida team, everybody kinda forgot about the rest of the Big East. USF finally lost to Rutgers, and the conference was pretty much written off. Quietly WVU rebounded and has since posted victories on the road at Rutgers and at Cincinnati as well as winning a revenge game from last season over Louisville. Some defenses seem to have solved the Jet offense, but at the same time this is by far the best defense WVU has had in the Pat White era. It may be the most improved defense in the country... or certainly up there anyway. WVU still needs to hope that either LSU loses or the B12N team loses in their conference championship. They also have two games left, both at home but UConn is having a very good season and will be playing to get a BCS berth whose surprise level could only be topped by Kansas making the title game.
Should WVU get to the title game, I have to think that two factors would be working against them. First, particularly against a great defense like LSU's, Ohio State's, or possibly Kansas's (if they're actually this good), the one-dimensional offense might have trouble moving the ball. Second, the Big East has not provided the defining challenge that LSU got from Florida and Auburn or that Kansas and Missouri will likely provide each other. USF and Cincinnati simply are not opponents of that quality.

4. Missouri
Key Wins:
* at Illinois (BCS #17) 40-34
* Texas Tech (BCS #27) 41-10
* at Oklahoma (BCS #10) 41-31
Big Games Remaining
* at Kansas (BCS #2)
* Big 12 Championship Game (prob - BCS #10 Oklahoma)

QB: Chase Daniel (Jr, 154.7 rtg)
Off: #6 scoring
Def: #34 scoring

Despite being #4 in the current standings, Missouri still controls their own destiny in the BCS. Should they defeat Kansas this weekend, they will likely move up to #2 based on that alone. Both human polls have Mizzou and WVU basically tied (they are tied in the Harris), and while the computers put Missouri 6th to WVU's 3rd, the lead is actually less than half a spot-equivalent, and Missouri's ranking will shoot up if they beat the team the computers have at #2.
How likely are their chances of winning the title should they get there? Offensively, Chase Daniel has been nothing short of brilliant. The Tigers' two 6-foot-6 250-lb tight ends are almost indefensible in tandem, and they have three big, strong wideouts and a fast, agile RB in Tony Temple, who came just shy of a Sun Bowl rushing record last season in the Tigers' last second loss. They may actually have the nation's second-best offense behind Florida.
It's the other side of the ball where their woes lie. No team has won a BCS title with a defense that ranked lower than 10th in scoring, and currently the Tigers' D is ranked #34 and giving up an unsightly 23 ppg. Even if they manage to shut out Kansas and the B12S champion, their defensive average would still be 19.5 ppg which would currently place them at #23 overall. Missouri does not have a championship caliber defense. That does not mean they can't win the BCS, but it may mean that Daniel has to find a way to score 51 points against LSU. (The Tigers might want to see Ohio State, whose quarterback play has in big games matched Mizzou's level of defensive mediocrity.)

5. Ohio State
Key Wins:
* at Penn State (BCS #31) 37-17
* Wisconsin (BCS #21) 38-17
* at Michigan (BCS #30) 14-3
* Illinois (BCS #17) 28-21

QB: Todd Boeckman (Jr, 150.3 rtg)
Off: #35 scoring
Def: #1 scoring

The Buckeyes are the only team on this list that has taken care of everything they can, meaning they're also the only team who can do nothing but wait and watch. Ohio State has only slight worries about being surpassed by the likes of Arizona State or Georgia, but what they must hope is that two of the following three happen: WVU loses, Missouri/Kansas winner loses B12CG, and LSU loses. That's not as unlikely as it sounds, but obviously it's asking for a lot to go right in those five games.
As for their outlook on winning the national title, should they get there, obviously you can never count out the #1 defense in the country. While OSU's stats have benefited from the Big Ten not having a year up to their usual standards, the level of talent and execution of this particular unit has been extremely impressive for anyone who has watched them. OSU has held 7 out of 12 opponents to under 10 points and only once given up more than 20. Yes, this is the same thing they did last regular season. However, the secondary appears faster and the unit overall has much more starting experience than they did a season ago. But before we go comparing them to the 2002 squad that won the national title with a great defense and mediocre offense, remember that Krenzel was an excellent game manager if not the most gifted thrower of the football. Boeckman has a pretty good arm but makes terrible decisions. Against LSU's defense or in a shootout with Missouri, OSU would not be able to afford the costly interceptions.

6. Arizona State
Key Wins:
* Oregon State (BCS #37) 44-32
* at Oregon (BCS #9) 31-20
Big Games Remaining:
* USC (BCS # 11)

QB: Rudy Carpenter (Jr, 152.3 rtg)
Off: #27 scoring
Def: #14 scoring

Obviously, "clear" and "easy" aren't synonyms. Arizona State's path to the NC game is indeed clear. First, they must win out. Then, the Big 12 South team must win the B12CG, LSU must lose to Arkansas or in the SECCG, and West Virginia must lose to Connecticut or Pittsburgh. Ohio State is the points equivalent of 2 spots ahead of ASU in the USA/Coaches poll and almost 2.5 spot equivalents ahead in the Harris poll, while the computers have both teams tied overall. ASU would of course pass Ohio State in the comps by beating USC, but given OSU's edge in the human polls it probably wouldn't be enough. Nothing is impossible, but Ohio State has a clear poll advantage at the moment.
Besides that, the Sun Devil's own path is perilous. Next week they host USC, a team vying for their sixth straight BCS appearance and with Rose Bowl hopes still alive. The Trojans' rushing attack has been impressive and ASU's statistically better than average rush defense hasn't seen a group of backs like this one. Next they would host Arizona, fresh off a huge upset of the Oregon Ducks and with two weeks to prepare for a rivalry game that would determine the Wildcats' bowl eligibility. My gut feeling is that uSC will end ASU's slim title hopes.