Justin K. Aller
Pittsburgh was barely projected to stay within four touchdowns of Notre Dame last weekend and very nearly pulled a narrative-changing upset. Might TCU or California do the same this coming Saturday?
We're reaching unchartered waters here. I said last week that when it comes to national title races in college football, November tends to clean up a lot of messes. We have quite often entered the 11th month with numerous national title contenders and a lot of big games, and more often than not, the picture gets a lot clearer -- not completely clear, mind you, but clearer -- by the time December rolls around.
Last Saturday reminded us that there are plenty of grenades left for each of the country's undefeated teams to dodge. Alabama almost lost at LSU, Oregon needed 62 points to escape USC with a win, and Notre Dame encountered a much, much stiffer battle with Pittsburgh than anybody anticipated, one the Irish were lucky to survive.
It was a tricky week for your four major, undefeated teams -- Alabama, Kansas State, Notre Dame, Oregon (sorry, Louisville, but we'll get to you in a moment) -- but everybody survived. But here's the deal: aside from a pair of Thanksgiving weekend rivalry games, there aren't many sure tests remaining on the slate for these four teams.
The roads look easy ...
Using F/+ projections as a guide, there are only two games remaining in which one of the four undefeateds is projected to win by fewer than 10 points. Here are their remaining games, in order of closest F/+ projections. November 10 games are in bold.
- Oregon at Oregon State (Nov. 24) | Oregon by 4.3
- Notre Dame at USC (Nov. 24) | Notre Dame by 5.7
- Potential SEC Championship: Florida vs. Alabama (Dec. 1) | Alabama by 10.6
- Texas at Kansas State (Dec. 1) | Kansas State by 15.1
- Potential Pac-12 Championship: USC at Oregon (Dec. 1) | Oregon by 15.8
- Stanford at Oregon (Nov. 17) | Oregon by 16.4
- Kansas State at TCU (Nov. 10) | Kansas State by 18.0
- Potential Pac-12 Championship: UCLA at Oregon (Dec. 1) | Oregon by 18.9
- Texas A&M at Alabama (Nov. 10) | Alabama by 22.9
- Potential SEC Championship: Georgia vs. Alabama (Dec. 1) | Alabama by 23.3
- Oregon at California (Nov. 10) | Oregon by 24.0
- Kansas State at Baylor (Nov. 17) | Kansas State by 24.5
- Notre Dame at Boston College (Nov. 10) | Notre Dame by 24.5
- Wake Forest at Notre Dame (Nov. 17) | Notre Dame by 32.9
- Auburn at Alabama (Nov. 24) | Alabama by 43.9
Two notes: 1. UCLA is now the projected favorite in the Pac-12 South. The Bruins host USC over Thanksgiving and are currently projected to win by 0.3 points. It's a tossup, obviously, but UCLA has the tiniest of edges. 2. Louisville is currently projected to lose two of its remaining three contests. The Cardinals, who rank just 43rd in the F/+ rankings, face a tossup this Saturday at Syracuse (Syracuse by 0.1), an easy home game versus UConn (Louisville by 12.9), and an uphill battle at Rutgers on November 29 (Rutgers by 3.6). They could still very easily finish undefeated, but they have not proven themselves of the same caliber of football's other undefeated teams.
Alabama has three remaining games, not including its tuneup versus Western Carolina. The Tide are projected to win by 22.9 vs. A&M, 43.9 at Auburn and, if the SEC title game opponent is Georgia, 23.3.
Kansas State is projected to win by 18 at TCU, 24.5 at Baylor and 15.1 vs. Texas.
Oregon has probably the toughest remaining schedule, projected to win by 24 at Cal, 16.4 vs. Stanford, 4.3 at Oregon State and, if UCLA is the Pac-12 title game opponent, 18.9.
Notre Dame is projected to win by 24.5 at Boston College, 32.9 vs. Wake Forest and 5.7 at USC.
Other than UO-OSU and ND-USC, none of these games are expected to be close. We are plowing, full speed ahead, into a scenario where a) an undefeated Notre Dame team is not only left out of national title consideration, but is a distant fourth, and b) either the best Kansas State team ever (arguably) or the best Oregon team ever (ditto) is also left out. I don't know whether there was any way to change BCS and television contracts in the short-term, but we really, really should have tried to implement the future four-team playoff this season.
... but this is still college football.
Notre Dame was projected to beat Pittsburgh by 27.8 and needed late scores and a missed field goal in overtime to win. Projections are about probabilities, and let's just stay that nothing is amazingly certain when dealing with 18-to-22-year-olds. It is a college football truth truer than any other.
Notre Dame survived a serious breakdown last Saturday in South Bend. What if each of the other three has a similar unexpected breakdown? When would a poor game most likely result in a loss? For Alabama, Kansas State and Oregon, the answer to that final question for all three could be, "this week."
We already discussed Alabama's impending battle with Texas A&M, and the unique challenges it could present, Wednesday. So let's focus on the other two.
Ezra Shaw, Getty
Oregon at California
Including his two seasons as offensive coordinator, Chip Kelly has coached at Oregon since 2007. In that time, his offenses have averaged 43.4 points per game. They have also averaged just 15.5 points per game in two trips to Berkeley. Oregon lost, 26-16, at California in 2008, and in the Ducks' roll to the national title game in 2010, they won only one game by fewer than 11 points: a narrow, 15-13 triumph at Cal.
Now, this is the epitome of "small sample size." That quarterback Jeremiah Masoli had an awful game in Berkeley four years ago doesn't tell us much about how Marcus Mariota will fare on Saturday. But if you're trying to figure out which "unexpected struggle" to actually expect, this one makes some sense. Jeff Tedford's teams have fared as well as anybody against Chip Kelly's offenses. The Golden Bears won, 31-24, in Eugene in 2007 and 'only' allowed 43 points and 544 yards per game in trips to Oregon in 2010 and 2012 (hey, it's better than others have fared). And while the Cal offense is in complete, injury-plagued shambles at the moment, the defense isn't awful. The Bears have held four of their last five opponents to 21 points or fewer, and I still think Oregon's offense could run into some trouble on passing downs at some point this year, even it very much did not at USC.
You have to search pretty hard for matchups that either favor California or at least don't favor Oregon significantly, but there are two that could make this a battle.
Oregon's Offense On Passing Downs. Oregon ranks sixth in the country in Standard Downs S&P+, maintaining decent balance and, in general, doing whatever it wants on first-and-10 and second- or third-and-short. But the Ducks do just rank 31st in Passing Downs S&P+, while California's defense ranks 47th in the same category. Oregon still has an advantage, but if Marcus Mariota suddenly turns into the redshirt freshman he is alleged to be (you can't really tell it in his play), then Cal could get some stops and generate some momentum.
California's Offense On Standard Downs. Oregon's defense is ferocious on passing downs, harassing the quarterback and seemingly registering a pick six in every game. With Cal quarterback Zach Maynard banged up and questionable and star receiver Keenan Allen out with a knee injury, this might seem like sure death for the Golden Bears. And it probably will eventually end in Cal's demise. But a) Maynard has been woefully inaccurate in 2012, and backup Allan Bridgford might not be demonstrably worse (quite the pep talk, eh?), and b) Cal's offense isn't too bad on standard downs. The Golden Bears have three interesting backfield weapons with C.J. Anderson, Isi Sofele and Brendan Bigelow, and freshman wideout Chris Harper has shown some sporadic potential; Harper caught four of seven passes for 82 yards versus Stanford, seven of nine for 86 versus Utah and an interesting-but-inconsistent seven of 15 for 101 versus Washington in Allen's absence. If Cal can stay on schedule and remain a little unpredictable in their run-pass splits, the Bears will negate a lot of Oregon's aggression.
This is clearly not a whole-hearted endorsement. If Oregon plays its typical Oregon game, the Ducks will either match or exceed their projected margin of victory of 24 points. But if, like Notre Dame, the Ducks turn the ball over a few times and let their opponent establish a decent ground game, they could find themselves in a battle.
(Cal could also get a boost from the "Win one for coach" factor, in which teams with a coach either on the hot seat or already dismissed plays out of its mind one last time. One should never expect that, however, since teams are just as likely to completely fall apart in such circumstances.)
Tom Pennington, Getty
Kansas State at TCU
You won't get a complete endorsement out of me in this one either, but it bears mentioning that TCU's ceiling is much, much higher than California's this year, and with Gary Patterson on the sidelines, Bill Snyder's KSU Wildcats are probably going to face some serious home run swings from the 6-3 Horned Frogs. If Kansas State plays up to its recent potential -- the Wildcats have beaten three straight decent-to-good teams (West Virginia, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State) by an average score of 51.3 to 22.7 -- then your No. 2 team (according to the BCS standings) should remain No. 2 next week.
But would you want to coach against Gary Patterson with your undefeated season on the line? Even if you're Bill Snyder? Do you feel safe going up against the guy whose team took out the consensus hottest team in the country, Wisconsin, in the Rose Bowl two years ago? The guy whose team broke a seemingly forever-long home win streak for Boise State last year on the blue field? The guy who called for, and made, a two-point conversion in double overtime to beat West Virginia last week?
In theory, this game could represent K-State's biggest challenge. It's on the road, against a decent team, against a coach who has a very, very strong record in big games. TCU does boast one of the nation's best run defenses; the Horned Frogs rank eighth in Rushing S&P+ and, in the last two weeks, held West Virginia's Andrew Buie to 4.0 yards per carry and Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle to 3.9. You simply cannot beat Kansas State if you cannot prevent gashes in the run game, but TCU should be up to that challenge. Last week aside, however, the Horned Frogs have suffered more glitches in pass defense than they are accustomed to suffering. They rank just 53rd in Passing S&P+, and while you would prefer for Collin Klein to try to beat you with his arm instead of his legs, in 2012 he has done just that more often than not. On passing downs, Klein has completed 34 of 47 passes to Tramaine Thompson, Chris Harper and Tyler Lockett for 463 yards (9.9 per target).
Still, stopping the run is Mission No. 1 to beating Kansas State, and TCU could do that.
Mission No. 2, however, is being able to engineer long, mistake-free drives. TCU has not really proven it can do that. Kansas State ranks just 32nd in Def. S&P+ (Football Outsiders' play-by-play measure) but sixth in DFEI (Football Outsiders' drive-by-drive measure) because they pin you deep, prevent big plays, and assume that you will eventually make a drive-killing mistake. It is a worthy gamble against most college offenses, and against TCU it might work just fine. The Horned Frogs have been beset by injuries and defections in the backfield in 2012; quarterback Casey Pachall was supposed to be handing off to a wonderful trio of Matthew Tucker, Waymon James and Ed Wesley. Instead, Pachall is in rehab, Tucker has been fighting through an ankle injury (he missed the Iowa State game and has averaged just seven carries per game since), James is out for the season with a knee injury, and Wesley left school this past summer. The backfield now consists of redshirt freshman Trevone Boykin and, mostly, true freshman running back B.J. Catalon. An area of strength has turned into an area of extreme youth.
To his credit, Boykin is holding steady. His first start began horribly in a loss to Iowa State, but he has played well in three of the last four games, and he showed serious poise in the late stages of last week's win at West Virginia. And he has five interesting receivers with whom he can test a secondary's depth. Josh Boyce (76 targets, 50 catches, 687 yards) is the star, but Brandon Carter (10.7 yards per target), Skye Dawson (9.1), LaDarius Brown (10.0) and Cam White (8.2) have all had their moments.
There is a pretty clear reason why Oregon and Kansas State are each big favorites on the road this week. They are facing inferior opponents, and they really haven't shown that they suffer any serious letdowns away from home. They are, after all, each elite, brilliant teams. But brilliance takes a week off from time to time.
If Oregon plays poorly at Cal, the Ducks could be in for a 60-minute fight. And if Kansas State even just plays a mediocre game at TCU, the Wildcats could get bitten by a salty, if not always effective, team. Signs point to college football dealing with four interesting, undefeated teams come December. But signs are often wrong. It wouldn't be any fun otherwise.
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