Wednesday, October 29

Week 9 Top 25

As we head into November, it's time to take a closer look at the top teams in the country.

Looking around, there's depressingly few teams truly deserving of ranking. The top ten is great, even if #10 is a bit unproven. (don't discount winning at Oregon though) It's around #15 that you can see how quickly things drop off. Practically speaking, everyone after 15 is #25... and even then, in name only. We're looking for anyone who can turn in a solid performance next weekend, and they'll probably be ranked. Seriously, anyone. This means you, ACC - although we understand that this task may be more difficult for you than most.

1. Texas
Top ten opponents stream into Texas, and one after another they fall to the Horns. Texas has now faced a #1 team, a Heisman-leading QB, and the best rushing attack in the country, all in consecutive weeks. This weekend they will face the nation's top passing attack and best WR on the road. Few if any teams could survive this stretch unbeaten.

Texas is getting the job done primarily at the QB, WR, and DL positions. Offensively it starts with McCoy, completing 82% of his passes and compiling a 186.5 passer rating. Jordan Shipley and Quan Cosby have each hauled in over 55 receptions and average a combined 178 ypg. Shipley has legitimately become one of the nation's best receivers, finally meeting those expectations that seasons of nagging injuries had left largely unrealized. When all is said and done, the Texas offense ranks 5th in scoring.

The Horns ranks 29th in scoring defense, but considering that they've faced the #2, 4, and 6 scoring offenses, that's really not a bad stat. The line is key as they hold opponents to the third-lowest rushing totals nationally, forcing Texas's opponents into an aerial duel with McCoy. The secondary is also an improved unit.

2. Alabama
Proving that he is in fact Ma Jae Yoon in head coach form, Saban's transformation of Alabama is complete. The Tide boast the nation's #10 scoring defense, and if they didn't turn the switch off in the second half against Georgia it would easily be ranked higher. This unit has saved its best performances for the road, where they shut down Georgia for a half and held Tennessee to 9 points - sure, a struggling Tennessee claw-your-own-eyes-out-fense, but nonetheless something that just doesn't happen at Rocky Top. That's a good thing, as the Tide's toughest game before the SECCG is at LSU.

But Alabama's had good defense in the past; the problem was always that they got hung out to dry. The difference between this team and others is that they pack enough punch on the other side of the ball to give the defense a breather and put a modest amount of points on the board. Like Saban's championship Tigers, Alabama employs a three RB system that grinds out 200+ ypg. Freshman WR Julio Jones is the only real receiving threat, but the big tight end Nick Walker gets his share of catches to occupy the middle.

(Bonus points: Alabama is responsible for the hit of the year, falling victim to an Eric Berry 360-degree (really, 540-degree) hit last weekend.)

3. Penn State
I'm going to be honest that this is a kind ranking for me, as I didn't see a top five team playing in Columbus on Saturday. Penn State went out and scheduled Coastal Carolina, Oregon State, Syracuse, and Temple when they already play in a weak conference. Add to that the fact that they don't face conference #3 Minnesota - yes, right now Minnesota is the 3rd-best team in the Big Ten - and you have probably the easiest path to the title game that any contender faces. If Texas Tech upsets Texas, don't be surprised to see the Red Raiders move up.

That said, maybe there's an explanation for Penn State having a schedule that includes Ohio State and eleven cupcakes. Maybe in his age, JoePa confused Coastal Carolina with East Carolina (I mean, the part of the Carolinas that borders the ocean is eastern...). Maybe he saw Donovan McNabb's college highlights on Youtube and said whoa, we need to schedule Syracuse, not realizing that McNabb hasn't played there in a decade. I dunno, I'm trying to think of something.

But they've played who they've played and for the most part, PSU has dominated every game except this last one. Penn State has the #3 scoring defense in the country, giving up just three ppg more than USC. Incidently, PSU let Ohio State score 6 points while USC surrendered just 3, so I think there's some accuracy to this! In all seriousness, though, this is one of the nation's better defenses.

But the offense was exposed by this same Buckeye team for the snake oil that it is. They were completely unable to move the ball against an Ohio State defense whose problems against real offenses have been well documented, and that makes me think that Penn State's season plays out in one of the following ways:

1) Go 12-0, face a Big 12 team in the championship game. Lose 59-20. Colt McCoy/Graham Harrell/Sam Bradford sets a championship game passing record.
2) Go 12-0, face a SEC team in the championship game. Lose 32-9. SEC improves to 5-0 in championship games: three victories over the Big Ten, one over Oklahoma, and one over Florida State.
3) Go 12-0, get left out to play in the Rose Bowl against USC. Lose 24-3. USC continues to do the BCS's dirty work despite getting screwed by that very system in 2003.

Eh, maybe I'm too much of a cynic. YAY BIG TEN FOOTBALL!

4. Florida
Since their bizarre one-point loss to Mississippi, Florida has been on an absolute tear. winning each game by 30 or more. In fact, Mississippi was the only team who's even managed a close score against UF, and the Gators' defense has been downright nasty. They're 6th in scoring - up from 41st a year ago. Solidly in the 'teens against both run and pass, and the secondary has produced a 5:10 ratio of TD:INT.

Offensively, the good news is that two UF backs have each gained more ground yardage than Tim Tebow. The bad news is that they've still combined for just 81 carries to his 82. Some of these are sacks, sure, but Tim is still carrying more of the load on offense than Meyer would like. This overreliance indeed cost Florida their lone loss of the season, as everyone on defense knew exactly what was coming.

The Gators face Georgia this weekend, and a win here could start their discussion with the voters of forgiving that odd loss.

5. Texas Tech
Well, it was about damn time the Red Raiders finally decided to show up. They were kind of the de facto Top 10 undefeated team, but after a complete dismantling of Kansas last week they've finally done something to show they're worth ranking in the Top 5. This week, on the other hand, is going to be one hell of a showdown, and Chris is excited about not getting to see this game and getting a rebroadcast of Duke / Wake Forest instead.

How'd they get here? Imagine at the beginning of the season, I told you Texas Tech would start off 8-0. How do you think they'd get there? Smashmouth football and a great defense, obviously.

6. USC
USC was barely left out of the top five, and it was pretty much entirely because we couldn't leave Texas Tech out of the top five for two teams with a loss apiece. And while the Red Raiders have gotten off to a shaky start, they've played a few teams the quality of Oregon State and managed not to lose to any of them.

So that kinda explains why they are where they are. But what about who they are? (what?!) USC is the only team in the country allowing fewer than 10 ppg, at a measly 8.1! With seven games under their belt, the Trojan defense has given up over 10 just once, and that abberation of a game is responsible for 27 of the 57 total points they've surrendered all season! USC's defense is #2 against the pass and #10 against the run, which is pretty tough to be in the top ten for both categories. The stars are Rey Mauluga and Taylor Mays, but really everyone on this defense is good.

The inconsistencies have been on offense. Some weeks this unit looks unstoppable, even when they're playing someone other than Washington State or Ohio State. Against the Arizona schools, they looked flat, and they showed up a little too late against Oregon State. Overall, this is the #14 scoring unit in the country, so it is more a question of consistency that capability, as clearly they are able to put points on the board. Mark Sanchez is turning the ball over too many times, and despite the fact that USC is +3 in turnovers, back when they were playing for championships their turnover margin per game was greater than 1.

Nonetheless, a very strong team.

7. Georgia
Where the fuck has this kind of effort been all season? Stafford was efficient and Moreno ran roughshod all over a seemingly good LSU defense. Sure UGA gave up a bunch of points, but three TDs came after the game was all-but-over. How this is the same team that got killed by Bama before squeaking by Tennessee and Vandy, we're not sure. That's also why we're keeping them below USC.

At this point, the only thing we can really say is that UF-UGA is a must-watch game. This has really been two different teams at various points of the season... only, unlike last season when it was like a spark went off midway through, this time around it's been more like a weekly coin flip. Which side lands up is probably going to determine how the Dawgs are viewed when it's time for bowl selection and final rankings, as Florida has been punishing every team they've faced since OMU.

8. Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State roughed up the Texas defense with a physical running game and huge receiving tight end, while the defense forced McCoy into two critical mistakes. If this is a blueprint for how to beat Texas, the problems are that a) nobody else Texas faces is capable of executing that gameplan and b) it wasn't enough anyway.

Oklahoma State's defense has looked great, though, in their biggest two games. Most teams would expect to give up 51 points apiece to Texas and Missouri, so holding those two offenses to that is actually a strong performance. Meanwhile, Kendall Hunter is one of the nation's top backs, averaging 140 ypg rushing, and Keith Toston is a real beast averaging 7.3 yards a pop (65 ypg) - very tough to bring down. The Cowboys play Big 12 football the way it used to be played; refreshing to see that it can still work in the era of the airraid and zone read offenses.

9. Oklahoma
The biggest shafting in the week-to-week rankings happened to Oklahoma, who beat Kansas State by 23 but dropped 5 spots, including being passed by a team who lost last weekend! (Oklahoma State) How's that happen? For starters, Florida, Georgia, and Texas Tech all won convincingly. USC continues to play great defense, which we value better than great offense... unless the QB is completing 107% of his passes which is clearly impossible to stop. Oklahoma State... well, they played Texas closer than the Sooners did despite the game being in Austin. And they've beaten Missouri. And they run the ball and play defense. Good enough for me.

Let's talk about OU though, why they're a top ten team and maybe better than we're giving them credit. Sam Bradford is fucking awesome. He's thrown 29 touchdowns and averages 15 yards per completion, which we think is a little low but at least it's not 12 (Chase Daniel, Colt McCoy). We are a little concerned that Bradford hasn't thrown a 50+ yard TD pass in his last three games, although we suspect it's because defenders are tackling OU receivers inside the 5 in an attempt to sabotage his manly stats. Slingin Sammy threw three such passes against TCU, leading us to postulate that he may be saving his deepest passes for the toughest teams. With TTU and OSU still on the schedule, we've got plenty to look forward to.

10. Boise State
So this is one place where there may be a gap between them and the team above, and by "may be" we mean "probably is." I haven't seen Boise play like a team capable of making a game against Texas Tech, but they've handled a mostly easy schedule as well as we'd expect. The thing separating them from the three other midmajor unbeatens is the road win over a ranked BCS opponent - Oregon.

11. Utah
At this point, we just can't give any credit for beating Michigan and Oregon State as both teams are in disarray. Brian Johnson is again putting up kinda meh stats, and Darrell Mack has conceded the role of leading rusher. They're playing TCU next week in what will be a proving game.

12. TCU
Speaking of, we'd written these guys off a bit prematurely and that came back to bite us in the ass. TCU has a good defense and plays well when they're ahead. They've got almost a +190 yard rushing differential, which means they're really controlling the flow of the game and hanging onto the ball. Unfortuantely, against the Sooners "hanging onto the ball" meant Bradford was throwing 60-yard TD passes, but hey at least the defense isn't getting tired.

13. Missouri
Again, it's a matter of playing two tough opponents, but the Missouri of last season would have found a way to win one of those games. Or so we think. One way or another, something's missing from this team and we think that's consistency.

14. Tulsa
God, Tulsa almost made us sweat last night, playing way too close against UCF before finally deciding to open up and score on 850 consecutive possessions in the second half. That sums up Tulsa in a nutshell - ridiculously fast-scoring offense, ridiculously explosive offense, ridiculously on-fire defense in a very literal sense, ridiculously easy schedule, ridiculously crazy impending blowout in a BCS bowl if Boise State and Utah spit the bit.

15. Ball State
Again, we're not sure how strong they are - ie, how well they would really stack up with some of the teams ranked #25 - without Dante Love. But fuck it, they've played eight solid games.

25. West Virginia
On one hand, WVU probably doesn't deserve to be ranked this high. On the other hand, they pretty much straight dominated and wore out an Auburn team that still kind of has a defense (although that may vary with time as they get used to playing 40 minutes a game). Also, they were kind of left for dead after their craptastic opening, but it looks like Bill Stewart finally figured out to let Pat White run instead of pass.

That being said, WVU is still in the driver's seat in the Big East, although upcoming back-to-back games against UConn and Cincinnati will help to figure out just how far that'll carry. If recent form holds at this point, WVU is going to lose by 20.

25. Ohio State
Buckeye. Of course, they won't lose another game this season, and they have tiebreakers over Michigan State and Minnesota, so we're probably going to see Ohio State in the Rose Bowl again. You know what that means:

Don't Cry Out Loud II: Don't Cry Out Louder. (Well, technically Don't Cry Out Loud IV, but we're not getting into the Friday the 13th-level sequels until we have to.) If you wanted to see what Ohio State would have looked like facing USC with Terelle Pryor and Beanie Wells, tune in to see pretty much the exact same thing happen again.

25. LSU
This is punishment for two stinkbombs in a row; at this point, LSU has beaten everyone who's clearly better than them but gotten rocked by two teams that are clearly Top 10 material. We're not totally skeptical yet, but they're on probation until they do something else. The matchup against Alabama in a couple of weeks will be a key indicator that they may be better than we thought .... well, either that or if they get outright Giggity'd later.

25. BYU
We're not sure whether the TCU game was a hiccup or if BYU's offense is just that unable to handle a legitimate defense. The decision-making that game was horrible as BYU basically abandoned the run and allowed the Frogs' defensive front to focus on pass rush. Unfortunately they only have one more chance to redeem themselves - against Utah.

25. North Carolina
After a bizarre slip against Virginia, the Sextoncannon's back on course with an outburst against Boston College that was largely keyed by the defense. Closing the seasons with at least two wins is almost a sure thing; three or four are possible.

25. Minnesota
We want to point out that Minnesota is 7-1 and has a very winnable final four games. All of us here at Left Field Bluffs are rooting for the Gophers to go 11-1, for Ohio State to drop some random game, and Minny to go to the Rose Bowl. Preferably while two Big 12 teams ranked ahead of them are skipped over because Jim Delany wants his goddamn tradition preserved. And Minnesota does a great job of continuing what Illinois started last season, namely getting blown out by USC.

25. Michigan State
This season, one great RB equals a top 25 team. *sigh*

25. Oregon
It's not that they've beaten anybody good, so much as it is that they haven't lost to anybody bad.

25. USF
Losing two of their last three, the Bulls are dropping fast. Most seasons these losses would probably drop them out of the top 25, but no... meanwhile, Grothe has thrown as many INTs as TDs in each of these losses, and once again has fit the role of a double-edged sword.

26. Florida State
Look, don't think Florida State is good. So far, they've beaten 2 1-AA teams, a neophyte Miami team, NC State, Colorado (meh), and Virginia Tech. Sure, that VT game looks good on paper until you realize that a) Tyrod Taylor only played one snap and b) Sean Glennon didn't make it out of the third quarter. In other words, they beat a team that was playing its emergency QB - a converted WR at that - by only 10. Ye gods. Hopefully Georgia Tech can beat the shit out of them and we can move on to more sane things.

Watch list:

Cal - had they not had a bizarre third quarter meltdown against 'Zona, they'd be yet another team with #25 beside their name. Yes, that's how desparate we're getting.

Connecticut - they beat Cincy, who was on our watch list. A good outing against West Virginia would put them into the discussion.

Notre Dame - god, how we hate, hate, HATE seeing this team up here. Hopefully they can blow a game and get off this list, but at this point 5-2 while looking quasi-competent is good enough to effectively be a top 30 team.

Anyone who plays a good 60 minutes on Saturday - seriously. Last season, there were 40 top 25 teams and maybe 3 top 10 teams. This season there's about 9 top 5 teams and 20 top 30 teams. You know what I mean. We've seen a reversal from widespread parity into consolidation of power, as the only upsets in the top 15 right now are USC's loss to Oregon State and Florida's loss to Ole Miss. Everyone else in our top 15 is either unbeaten or lost to a higher-ranked team. I can't ever remember that being true at this stage in the season. The top teams are good - very good - for sure. But nobody else is pulling their own weight, either.