Monday September 8th, 2014

As the news for the Big Ten kept getting worse on Saturday night, I thought back to what league commissioner Jim Delany told SI’s Pete Thamel in last week’s Inside Read. “I don’t downplay the game, it takes on an added dimension,” Delany told Thamel before Saturday’s Michigan State-Oregon clash. “I think all the emphasis on these games is merited. They’re potential pivot points for the decision making.”

Delany referred to the decision-making process of the College Football Playoff selection committee, which won’t meet to discuss actual business until late next month. Until then, we’re all trying to divine how 13 people -- one of whom spent part of Saturday jawing at officials -- will weigh the results of a tiny sample size. With four spots in the playoff and five conferences in the sport’s uppermost caste, we want to know which one (or two) will be left out. So, we look at the pivot points. The Big Ten had three such pivot points on Saturday, three chances for tentpole wins that would allow teams in the league to point and say, “See, that’s why we stack up with the other conferences.” Michigan State put up a valiant fight before falling to a better foe on the road. The other two? Ohio State crashed against Virginia Tech. Michigan burned at Notre Dame. And we haven’t even mentioned Northwestern losing to Northern Illinois and Purdue losing to Central Michigan.

One of the draws for moving from the BCS system to the four-team playoff was that conferences couldn’t eliminate themselves from national title contention on Sept. 6. One loss can’t eliminate a team, so a set of losses can’t eliminate an entire league. Right? Well, that should be true, but the Big Ten -- through its scheduling choices and on-field results -- has left itself only a narrow window into the playoff. It hasn’t yet been eliminated, but it already needs some help.

SCHNELL: Marcus Mariota, Oregon make statement in beating Michigan State

While the committee won't reveal its first rankings until Oct. 28, Big Ten teams haven’t provided themselves with many more chances to establish a positive basis for comparison between the Big Ten and other leagues. Here is a list of the best nonconference games remaining on Big Ten programs’ schedules:

• Iowa State-Iowa (Sept. 13)
• Maryland-West Virginia (Sept. 13)
• Illinois-Washington (Sept. 13)
• Minnesota-TCU (Sept. 13)
• Indiana-Missouri (Sept. 20)
• Iowa-Pittsburgh (Sept. 20)
• Maryland-Syracuse (Sept. 20)
• Nebraska-Miami (Sept. 20)
• Ohio State-Cincinnati (Sept. 27)
• Northwestern-Notre Dame (Nov. 15)

Of those remaining out-of-conference foes, only Notre Dame appears capable of contending for a national championship. And Northwestern has done nothing to inspire confidence it can beat the Fighting Irish. After watching Pittsburgh back James Conner plow through Boston College for 214 rushing yards on Friday, the Hawkeyes’ trip to the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers could be interesting. None of the other games should move the meter much. Nebraska-Miami might have helped the conference’s résumé 10 years ago, but the Hurricanes haven’t been able to break out of the middle of the pack in the ACC.

Most of the Big Ten’s best chances have passed. Wisconsin led LSU by 17 points in the third quarter on Aug. 30, but the Badgers gagged away the lead and lost 28-24. Should Wisconsin run the table, the Badgers will need LSU to lose at least three games to offset the head-to-head loss and a Tigers’ schedule perceived to be much tougher. Notre Dame still plays USC and Stanford, so a Michigan win on Saturday might have compared quite favorably, especially if the Irish win one or both of those games. But the Wolverines got smoked, leaving coach Brady Hoke talking on Saturday night about how his team knows how to bounce back despite a lack of tangible evidence that it actually does. The Ohio State-Virginia Tech game didn’t seem like a chance for the Big Ten to earn much credit; the Hokies haven’t truly competed for an ACC title since 2011. But given the way Virginia Tech played, maybe Florida State won’t run away with that league so easily this fall. Still, the Buckeyes will need the Hokies to win the Coastal Division and possibly the league to make Saturday’s 35-21 loss look respectable in the committee’s eyes.

The only game that doesn’t fit on this list is Michigan State-Oregon. The Spartans hung with the Ducks in Eugene, leading by nine points early in the third quarter. One momentum-swinging play could have completely changed the result. Anyone who watched knows a matchup between those programs on a neutral field would be fairly even. That’s why Michigan State probably remains the Big Ten’s best hope to make the playoff.

If the Spartans can bounce back from the loss and rip through league play, they might find themselves fighting two-loss squads from other leagues for a spot in the four-team field. If Oregon wins the Pac-12, it would bolster Michigan State’s case.

Of course, I’m looking at this like someone who gives importance to preseason rankings. That’s a bad idea, because those are really just educated guesses. Let’s consider the possibility -- however far-fetched -- that the Big Ten does produce an undefeated team that is eligible for the postseason. (Sorry, Penn State. Blame Mark Emmert for overstepping his authority.) Given what already happened, there is no way that team will be one that received a lot of preseason love. The two most likely candidates are Nebraska and Iowa. Yes, both teams almost lost on Saturday. The Cornhuskers needed Ameer Abdullah to break what seemed like several dozen tackles on a check-down pass to beat McNeese State, while the Hawkeyes required an inspired fourth quarter from quarterback Jake Rudock to top a Ball State team that anyone who watches weekday football knows is pretty good.

So, what happens if the Cornhuskers or Hawkeyes run the table? Nebraska would have a win at Michigan State, a win over Wisconsin and a win in the Big Ten title game. If Miami makes a run in the ACC, that would help the Huskers’ case. Iowa would have a win at Pittsburgh -- which could look pretty good by season’s end -- a win over Wisconsin and a win in the Big Ten title game. Would that be enough to leapfrog a one-loss SEC or Pac-12 runner-up? That’s debatable. In fact, it would become the topic of quite serious debate in the selection committee room.

If the Big Ten had even one tentpole win, it would be in a better position right now. But after Saturday’s string of outcomes, that win isn’t going to come this year.

Not Power Five, but plenty powerful

While we’re irresponsibly speculating about the potential results of games that won’t be played for two months, has anyone taken a look at BYU’s schedule?

The Cougars, who crushed Texas 41-7 on Saturday, face this the rest of the way:

date opponent
Sept. 11 Houston
Sept. 20 Virginia
Oct. 3 Utah State
Oct. 9 at UCF
Oct. 18 Nevada
Oct. 24 at Boise State
Nov. 1 at Middle Tennessee
Nov. 15 UNLV
Nov. 22 Savannah State
Nov. 29 at California

Those aren’t all gimmes. UCF nearly beat Penn State in Ireland, and Brian Polian has Nevada at 2-0 after defeating Washington State on Friday. Boise State is Boise State, and Cal looks better in Sonny Dykes’ second season at the helm. But it’s not a stretch to imagine that BYU will be favored in every game going forward. If the Cougars win them all, it should be fun to watch the committee try to decide whether BYU deserves a shot over a Power Five champion or runner-up.

Remember, the Power Five leagues keep saying BYU doesn’t belong and that games against the Cougars don’t count in their “tougher” scheduling guidelines. Try this test. Give coaches a truth serum and ask which team they'd rather play.

BYU or Purdue?
BYU or Illinois?
BYU or Kentucky?
BYU or Vanderbilt?
BYU or Kansas?

Not one would answer BYU.

STAFF: Saturday Snaps: Recapping the best of college football in Week 2

Projected College Football Playoff

As a reminder, I’m projecting the four-team playoff field based only on results from this season. If you’re shocked a particular team is not listed below, it might be because that team hasn’t beaten anyone of consequence yet.

1. Georgia

The Bulldogs had last week off and will open SEC play on Saturday against South Carolina. Will star tailback Todd Gurley look as superhuman against the Gamecocks as he did in teammate Chris Conley’s Star Wars fan film (12:38 mark) and in Georgia’s season-opening 45-21 victory over Clemson?

2. Oregon

The Ducks’ offense was typically explosive on Saturday, but the most impressive part of Oregon’s 46-27 win over Michigan State was the way it clamped down on defense. The Ducks went into the game planning to load up to stop Michigan State’s rushing attack. They did that early, but Spartans quarterback Connor Cook carved them up through the air. So, coordinator Don Pellum adjusted his emphasis. He brought nickel and dime packages in the second half to confuse Cook. He dialed up more pressure, and defensive lineman Arik Armstead -- all 6-foot-8, 290 pounds of him -- was happy to provide it. The results were clear. Michigan State averaged six yards a play in its first nine possessions. It averaged 4.4 yards a play and scored zero points in its final seven.

3. Florida State

Jimbo Fisher got a chance to play some of the younger players he didn’t trust in a tight game against Oklahoma State on Aug. 30 in the Seminoles’ clash with The Citadel on Saturday. Freshman tailback Dalvin Cook ran for 67 yards and scored his first career touchdown, while freshman receiver Ermon Lane caught three passes for 37 yards. Meanwhile, 303-pound freshman Derrick Nnadi played on the defensive line. Now the ‘Noles have an open date before Clemson comes to town on Sept. 20 for what should be the de facto ACC Atlantic Division title game.

4. Texas A&M

It was only Lamar, so Texas A&M’s 73-3 win on Saturday doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme. But the Aggies’ 52-28 rout of South Carolina in Week 1 remains one of the better wins of the season so far. Unfortunately, Kevin Sumlin’s team may not get challenged again until October.

The poll ballot

I have no AP Poll vote anymore, but occasionally I feel like putting things in the proper order. Rice faces Texas A&M this week in a matchup of former Southwest Conference foes. The SWC last played football in 1995. Here are the best one-hit wonders from ‘95.

1. “I Wish” -- Skee-Lo

2. “Here Comes The Hotstepper” -- Ini Kamoze

3. “Cotton Eye Joe” -- Rednex

4. “In the House of Stone and Light” -- Martin Page

5. “Candy Rain” -- Soul For Real

Play of the week

I’d like to give you some schematic breakdown of the most important play from last weekend, but in this case there was no scheme. The play just broke down. With about six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Oregon trailed Michigan State by nine and faced third-and-10 on its own 41-yard line. The play the Ducks intended to run doesn’t matter, because Spartans linebacker Riley Bullough blew it up. Bullough had Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota in his grasp, and if Bullough would have brought Mariota down the game may have had an entirely different result. But Mariota escaped. Then he escaped linebacker Ed Davis.

Mariota found himself with room to run. Still, reaching the first-down marker was no certainty. But Mariota realized he was behind the line of scrimmage and saw freshman back Royce Freeman roaming free. Mariota shoveled the ball to Freeman, who took it to the Michigan State 42-yard line for a first down. Five plays later Mariota hit Devon Allen for the score that got Oregon back into the game.

Sometimes, a coach draws up beautiful X’s and O’s. Sometimes, the best player on the field simply makes magic happen.

Big Ugly of the Week

This week’s honored husky guy is Virginia Tech left guard David Wang, who is in his sixth year in Blacksburg because of a litany of injuries running from his shoulder to his feet. The Hokies’ entire offensive line excelled against a group of grown-ass men on Ohio State’s defensive line, but Wang stood out most. He pancaked Adolphus Washington at the point of attack on Shai McKenzie’s two-yard first-quarter touchdown run. Later, Wang sealed linebacker Joshua Perry to spring Marshawn Williams for a 14-yard score. The matchup between Ohio State’s defensive line and the Hokies’ offensive front was the one that worried Virginia Tech coaches the most, but Wang and his linemates rose to the challenge and helped pull off the upset.

BECHT: Three and Out: Virginia Tech stuns Ohio State in Columbus

First-and-10

1. Should USC athletic director Pat Haden resign from the selection committee after interacting with the refs during Saturday’s 13-10 win over Stanford? No. While that was an odd move for any AD -- and especially for one of the five sitting ADs on the selection committee -- it doesn’t really have any bearing on Haden’s ability to choose four teams to participate in the playoff. (Feel free to insert your own Pac-12 officiating joke here.) Haden apologized in a statement Sunday night and then banned himself from the sideline for two games. He did not explain any contingency plans in case he gets any more urgent texts from the sidelines. Haden, Arkansas AD Jeff Long, Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez, West Virginia AD Oliver Luck and Clemson AD Dan Radakovich need to understand they are very public people whose every action will be parsed in the hunt for a bias that almost certainly exists -- everyone is from somewhere, everyone works or previously worked somewhere -- but probably doesn’t matter on a larger scale. The Pac-12 is reviewing the incident, and the league has handed down discipline for confronting officials before. In March 2013, commissioner Larry Scott fined Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller $25,000 for confronting an official and for acting inappropriately toward a staff member in a hallway.

2. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini put it best on Saturday. “Thank God for Ameer,” Pelini said minutes after tailback Abdullah saved the Cornhuskers with a 58-yard touchdown catch in the final moments of a 31-24 win over McNeese State. Pelini did not have such kind words for everyone else in red. “This football team needs to take a good hard look in the mirror -- starting with me,” he said. Pelini was miffed because he believed the Huskers could have put away the Cowboys in the first half. He was correct. But the good news for Nebraska is that it can make all of its necessary adjustments as an undefeated team.

3. Programs with elite defensive linemen hate playing option teams because -- while legal -- all that cut blocking can lead to injuries. On Saturday Florida State lost three linemen against The Citadel. Defensive tackle Eddie Goldman left Doak Campbell Stadium wearing a walking boot and using a crutch. Later, Goldman’s backup, Justin Shanks, also went out with an injury. Nose tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample also went out with an ankle injury. On Sunday, The Citadel guard Victor Hill posted a comment beneath a story in The Post and Courier (Charleston, S.C.) saying Bulldogs linemen “preached to each other all week that we would be going for the knees from the first play to the last.” Hill later deleted the comment and issued an apology through the school for making it. The Citadel coach Mike Houston also released a statement condemning Hill’s remarks. “Victor’s words in no way reflect the philosophy, the mindset of what we are trying to build within this program,” Houston said.

4. After blanking Michigan 31-0 and producing an image that will sear itself into your brain, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder needs a nickname. We give you … Brian VanSwagger.

5. How does a road underdog jump out to an early lead? Demoralize the defense by converting third downs. In Virginia Tech’s 35-21 win at Ohio State, quarterback Michael Brewer and the Hokies converted all five third downs they faced in the first quarter. The result was a 14-7 lead and a high pucker factor in the Horseshoe.

6. How does a defense from prevent itself from getting shredded by the same athletic quarterback for the second consecutive season? By moving the ball on offense and not allowing said quarterback to take field. Unfortunately, the Texas offense failed to do that against BYU. Injuries and suspensions left the Longhorns with five career starts along the line entering Saturday's game, and Tyrone Swoopes was making his first start at quarterback. Not surprisingly, the Longhorns struggled to move the ball. Before the 13-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in the Longhorns’ only score and cut the deficit to 34-7 in the third quarter, Texas had gained 2.8 yards a play. The Longhorns’ defense actually played better than it did last season in Provo. It limited BYU to six first-half points and would have held up longer if not for the Texas offense’s inability to hang onto the ball. This scenario looks quite similar to Florida’s in 2013, when offensive ineptitude eventually drained the life out of what should have been a pretty good defense. Maybe Swoopes and the linemen just need experience. But if Saturday is a harbinger of things to come, the situation in Austin could get worse before it gets better.

7. Speaking of Florida, the Gators won for the first time since beating Arkansas on Oct. 5, 2013. A 65-0 win over Eastern Michigan doesn’t answer many questions, but Kurt Roper’s offense did look far more competent on Saturday than the one that bumbled its way to a loss against Georgia Southern last November. It wasn’t all good news, though. Jake McGee, the graduate transfer from Virginia whom Roper had hoped would fill a void at tight end, broke his leg and is out for the year.

8. The Big 12 suspended replay official Mike Angelis and a replay communicator for one game each after director of officials Walt Anderson determined that play should have been stopped to review Kansas State receiver Tyler Lockett’s catch near the goal line toward the end of the first half of the Wildcats’ 32-28 win at Iowa State. Lockett hit the pylon while catching the ball. The pylon is considered out of bounds in college football. Kansas State hurried to the line of scrimmage and ran a one-yard quarterback sneak for a touchdown with 26 seconds left in the half. Anderson said in a statement that while video of Lockett's catch was inconclusive, the replay official should have buzzed the referee to stop game action so the catch could be reviewed.

9. Remember the note about Brewer and Virginia Tech’s offense? Until this summer, Brewer was at Texas Tech. He graduated and transferred after Davis Webb won the Red Raiders’ starting quarterback job. Through two weeks Brewer seems to be on the better team. Texas Tech rolled up 504 yards of offense, but needed a nine-yard Webb touchdown pass to Brad Marquez with 2:32 remaining to squeak by UTEP 30-26. Suddenly, Arkansas’ visit to Lubbock on Saturday seems fraught with peril.

10. Alabama doesn’t seem any closer to settling on a full-time starting quarterback after Saturday’s 41-0 throttling of Florida Atlantic. Blake Sims got the start, but Jacob Coker played much of the game. Afterward, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said he expects Alabama could need both signal-callers at some point in the season. As for deciding how he’ll decide who gets the majority of the snaps when the games become less cupcake-y, Saban told reporters: “This is not one that’s going to be a popularity contest.” The “AIGHT?” was implied.

What’s eating Andy?

Reclining a seat in the friendly skies is now grounds for grounding a flight. Last week a Delta flight from New York to West Palm Beach, Fla., was diverted to Jacksonville because a woman flipped out when the woman in front of her reclined her seat. The previous week a flight from Miami to Paris was diverted to Boston when a man went berserk because the passenger in front of him attempted to recline.

These and a few other seatback blowbacks have sparked several thousand Buzzfeed in-flight pet peeve lists. Almost all of these pieces paint those who recline as King Joffrey-level villains. This, of course, is foolishness.

I recline on planes. So should you. Why? Because we can. If someone reclines in front of me, I don’t complain. I simply recline my own seat. If I’ve got a bulkhead behind me, I curse my luck, but I don’t begrudge my fellow flier his extra knee space. (I might jam my head into the area directly behind his lower back and go to sleep, but that’s just me.) We live in an age in which people can sit with their yippy dogs on planes, call it a cure for anxiety and not get one cross look. Yet when we recliners try to take the few extra degrees of comfort that have been commonly available on commercial airlines for decades, now we’re the monsters. Next time I fly I’m going to get a note from my doctor allowing me to bring my basset hound on the plane to settle my nerves. If the person behind me complains about my reclining, I’m going to set that hound to howling. Sure, the piercing wail will annoy fellow passengers. But my doctor’s note will explicitly state that her song is the only thing that will keep me calm.

What’s Andy eating?

I’m a sucker for a great name. Anyone who reads my recruiting coverage knows this. So, when I saw that Austin has a fried chicken trailer called Ms. P’s Electric Cock, I knew I’d find my way there. I also knew I’d take home a piece of clothing.

My wife grew so tired of my drawer-stuffing collection of restaurant T-shirts that she began randomly to throw them out about a year ago. One day I had a vintage McRib shirt. The next day I didn’t. I asked her to make a quilt out of the ones she deemed no longer fit to wear, but she mentioned something about the pain of childbirth. Wracked with guilt, I dropped the subject. The Mrs. did, however, concede that if I wanted to switch from collecting restaurant T-shirts to collecting restaurant hats, she probably wouldn’t throw them all away on a random Tuesday.

For some reason, the places I frequent mostly sell mesh-back trucker caps. This is simply knowing your clientele at a place like The Catfish Hole in Fayetteville, Ark. It’s a hipster affectation at a place like Ms. P’s. That’s OK. It’s a hat featuring a glowing rooster (accurately) described as an electric cock. I’m happy to wear it.

Andy Staples

This came in handy during my order. I asked for a three-piece chicken (thigh, drumstick, wing), an order of truffle mac and cheese and the Marty, a cob of Mexican street corn coated with jalapeno aioli, cotija cheese, shaved pasila pepper and lime. I also asked for a hat. A few minutes later, I realized I forgot to order a beverage. I spotted a Sweet Leaf Mint & Honey green tea -- the best bottled tea on the market -- and pulled out my wallet. “No, man,” the guy at the register said. Then he pointed to my freshly purchased hat. “It’s on the house, since you’re going to rock the cock.”

And I’m pleased to rock it after a taste of the chicken and the truffle mac and cheese. It might not be Austin’s best fried chicken. There is, after all, a branch of Memphis institution Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken in town now. But it is a superior fried chicken, crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. The star, though, was the mac and cheese, which uses just enough truffle oil. Too much, and Ms. P’s would be trying too hard. Too little, and it couldn’t justify the price. But this was perfect. You’ll want to bathe in the béchamel. Don’t do that. The temperature climbs above 100 degrees pretty regularly in Austin, and that might produce a bit of an aroma after a few minutes. Instead, just eat it. And, if possible, rock the cock.

Andy Staples

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