Sizing up the SEC West ahead of first playoff rankings; Punt, Pass & Pork
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Minutes after walking off the field at Tiger Stadium following an interception that ended his team’s bid at an undefeated season, Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace was asked to gauge the mood in the locker room. “We’re ready. We’re thinking everybody’s going to have one loss now,” he said. “We have Auburn coming to our place next week. That’s what our mind is on right now.”
The Rebels can’t afford to sulk. They play another set of Tigers on Saturday, and afterward one of the teams will likely be nixed from national title contention. The College Football Playoff selection committee will meet on Monday and Tuesday and issue its first set of rankings, but it will have to rip it up and start from scratch the following week, and the week after that. The true elimination games begin this weekend when Auburn visits Oxford, Miss., and Oregon hosts Stanford. The next week they continue in earnest. Alabama visits LSU. Ohio State visits Michigan State. Kansas State visits TCU. Oregon visits Utah. A week later, Mississippi State goes to Tuscaloosa, Ala. The carnage will come quickly, and the prospect of 2007-level chaos looms large as the contenders bunch at the top of the Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.
This is why I question the concept of the committee meeting and releasing weekly rankings from this Tuesday until the first week of December. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament selection committee meets at season’s end, when résumés are complete, and then chooses the teams. That should also be what the football committee does, but the elimination of the BCS left a rankings release show-sized hole in ESPN’s programming schedule. ESPN pays the equivalent of the GDP of certain banana republics to televise this playoff. If it wants a weekly rankings show, it’s going to get one. While I understand the business side of this decision, I worry it will force committee members to become too caught up in the week-to-week ebb and flow of the season, and to get too married to notions that may be true in early November but are proven false by early December.
For instance, Saturday introduced a thought that heretofore would have been expressed only by those who think the SEC’s dominance is some sort of media creation, not the result of a bunch of national titles and key out-of-conference victories. Maybe the SEC West isn’t that much better than everything else. While the West probably boasts the deepest group of good teams in the FBS, Week 9’s results suggest setting aside playoff spots for the top two teams in the division might be a tad presumptuous. Mississippi State struggled to keep Kentucky out of the end zone in a 45-31 win. Auburn survived a scare at home against a South Carolina team that entered with three SEC losses. Ole Miss couldn’t score more than seven points against an opponent that got shelled by Auburn and barely beat mediocre Florida.
The zealots will insist that LSU’s 10-7 win over the Rebels was the product of a throwback matchup between two great Ess-Eee-See defenses. That isn’t true. It was much too sloppy to be that. LSU committed four turnovers -- only one on a stellar defensive play -- and tried desperately, for three quarters, to hand Ole Miss the game. The Rebels, who broke down offensively after left tackle Laremy Tunsil pulled his bicep, simply refused to take it. Alabama rolled to a 59-0 win over Texas A&M on Oct. 18 and jumped to a 27-point lead at Tennessee on Saturday, but might that reflect the quality of competition for a team that nearly lost at Arkansas on Oct. 11?
These are things the committee must consider this week. But should the committee be considering them right now?
What we saw on Saturday could be cracks in the armor of the SEC West’s best teams. Or they could be anomalies. The SEC homers could be completely correct. LSU could be back to contending form. Alabama could have everything figured out. The Egg Bowl could still be a de facto playoff quarterfinal. We’ll know more next week and even more the week after. So, why rush the committee into declaring a position when more data points are on the way?
Of course, this probably won’t matter if chaos strikes. Whether the committee met one or 10 times won’t make parsing a bunch of two-loss teams any easier, and that may very well be the applicant pool. If Florida State can get past Louisville on Thursday, the Seminoles aren’t likely to lose again. But the same can’t be said for any team atop the Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC. We know either Auburn or Ole Miss must join the two-loss ranks on Saturday. So, what if Auburn beats Ole Miss and then later loses to Georgia? What if LSU beats Bama and then the Crimson Tide go on to defeat Mississippi State? What if Stanford beats Oregon and then Oregon tops Utah?
All of these scenarios are possible, and only the teams that handle defeat well can rally and make the playoff. “This stretch is tough,” Freeze said after the loss to LSU. “It wears on you physically and mentally. The thing is we still can control everything that we want with the schedule that lies ahead.”
Indeed, the Rebels do control their conference fate, but so do both sets of SEC Bulldogs. So do Arizona and Arizona State, and so do Oregon and Utah. So does Kansas State. So does Baylor. So does the winner of Ohio State-Michigan State on Nov. 8. And waiting for someone to fall are Alabama, Auburn, Oregon and TCU, which might wind up being better than all of the above.
From that group, plus Florida State, Notre Dame and maybe LSU if the Tigers truly have undergone a renaissance, the committee will select four teams. The top four this week could change completely by next week. Hopefully, the committee scrubs the slate clean each week and evaluates the entire season every time it convenes.
The fact that this week’s meeting will produce so much angst proves the playoff will be a massive success on the balance sheets of the companies involved, even if the committee isn’t successful at picking the four best teams. We’re interested. We’re engaged. We’re going to watch.
They’ve got us right where they want us.
Projected College Football Playoff
I have very little confidence these choices are correct. Every team has some sort of flaw. The next few weeks feature so many good-on-good matchups that the picture could look completely different when we wake up on Nov. 16. That’s why, as mentioned above, I question the wisdom of having the playoff committee meet every week and rank teams. We project the playoff here because it’s fun and gets people talking, but our prediction doesn’t mean anything. The committee will actually decide which teams make the playoff, which make the high-dollar bowls and how millions of dollars will move among the conferences. Should committee members really worry about the week-to-week horse race? Or should they come in when the résumés are complete and use only a full season’s worth of information? They should do the latter, but they’ll do the former, because the former makes for much better TV.
1. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs continued to score every time they absolutely had to, but they also struggled to stop a Kentucky team that scored three points at LSU a week earlier. Wildcats quarterback Patrick Towles torched the Bulldogs for 390 passing yards with two touchdowns, but every time Kentucky got within a score, Dak Prescott always made sure Mississippi State went back up by two touchdowns. Maybe this can be chalked up to a conference road win in which the Bulldogs learned they’ll take every team’s best shot from this point forward, but it threw up a few red flags that weren’t there before.
2. Florida State
The Seminoles return to action Thursday at Louisville. While they’re considerably better than the Cardinals, don’t be shocked if Louisville finds a way to keep it close for a bit. It’s never easy to be a road favorite on a Thursday night. Of course, if Florida State can overpower a thoroughly motivated opponent, the 'Noles might find themselves back at No. 1.
The Ducks also have red flags. Their pass-blocking deficiencies force quarterback Marcus Mariota to move laterally in the pocket a lot. Fortunately, Mariota is as good at sprinting out as he is at seemingly everything else. When he is healthy, only a handful of teams can explode for two or three touchdowns -- regardless of opponent -- as quickly as the Ducks can. But some team is going to chase down Mariota if Oregon’s linemen allow him to keep getting flushed from the play’s prescribed launch point. This week’s foe, Stanford, might be that team. Given the fact that the Cardinal appeared to find their offensive groove on Saturday against Oregon State, this meeting could be every bit as important as the past four.
The Horned Frogs also belong to the handful of teams that can flip the scoreboard in mere minutes. Had TCU been able to hold a 21-point fourth-quarter lead at Baylor on Oct. 11, the Frogs would probably be No. 1 on a lot of playoff projection lists. At his current pace, TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin will be No. 1 on a lot of Heisman Trophy lists. Now, Boykin must try to lead TCU to something more meaningful than an individual award.
A random ranking
Halloween is on Friday, so here are the top 10 -- plus one extra -- treats.
1. King-size Snickers bar
2. Regular-size Snickers bar
3. Fun-size Snickers bar
4. The big, chewy Sweet Tarts
5. Cherry Nerds
6. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
7. Hershey’s miniatures (especially since I’m one of the few who favor Special Dark and can therefore trade for more Special Dark)
10. Pixy Stix
1,784. Candy corn
Play of the week
I spent much of my column from the Ole Miss-LSU game focusing on the Rebels' final fourth-down call, because there was so much to unpack. However, Freeze's previous fourth-down call had just as big an impact. With 1:46 left, Ole Miss faced fourth-and-one from LSU's 47-yard line. A first down would have given the Rebels ample chance to maneuver for either a game-tying field goal or a game-winning touchdown. After LSU stopped I’Tavius Mathers for a one-yard gain on third down, Freeze hoped the element of surprise would get his team the first down. He ordered Wallace to hurry the offense to the line, get under center -- an unusual spot for a Rebels play to start -- and run a quarterback sneak on a quick count.
LSU’s defensive linemen and middle linebacker Kendall Beckwith were more ready than the Rebels were. They fired off faster than Ole Miss’ offensive linemen, and they submarined the Rebels and created a wall in front of Wallace. Safeties Jalen Mills and Jamal Adams then jumped over the wall to shut down any potential forward progress.
Had the play succeeded, the outcome might have been different. But LSU was more ready to play at a fast tempo than the up-tempo offense on the other side.
Big Ugly of the week
The Big Ugly of the week selection committee unanimously chose Arkansas guard Sebastian Tretola because committee members were pretty sure they would never get another chance to vote for a 6-foot-5, 350-pound guard who threw a touchdown pass. A committee must have a code, and this one’s is when a Fat Guy Touchdown Pass happens, that guy is the Big Ugly of the week.
So, how did our husky hero wind up tossing a six-yard touchdown pass to long snapper Alan D’Appollonio in Arkansas’ 45-17 win over UAB? He did it thanks to a pretty brilliant play design that began in preseason camp, when Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema noticed Tretola throwing a ball around practice. Arkansas has had the play ready for a few weeks, but Bielema wasn’t prepared to spring it until the team faced fourth-and-goal in Saturday’s second quarter.
The Razorbacks lined up in a swinging gate formation. With the ball just to the right of the left hashmark, one cluster of players -- including kicker Adam McFain -- went in motion and reset near the right hash. This, along with feigned confusion by the Arkansas players, drew four UAB defenders to that side of the field. Then Tretola, who was lined up behind and to the left of D’Appollonio, went in motion. He wound up directly behind D’Appollonio. D’Appollonio was the last uncovered man on the line of scrimmage, so he was already an eligible receiver. And, since D’Appollonio wears No. 82, he didn’t have to report as eligible to the officials and blow the play’s cover.
It was easy after that. The confused Blazers didn’t bother to cover D’Appollonio. Tretola, with a man in his face, lofted a perfect fade for the score. “We probably have a quarterback controversy now in the eyes of Tretola,” Bielema said. Hey, the numbers don’t lie.
1. Michigan coach Brady Hoke apologized to Michigan State on Sunday after the Wolverines planted a tent stake in the field prior to Saturday’s game at Spartan Stadium. The act enraged the Spartans, who responded with a just-because-we-can touchdown with 28 seconds left to make the final score 35-11.
“During our regular Friday night team meeting, one of the topics presented to motivate our team was a history lesson addressing commitment and teamwork in a tough environment,” Hoke said in a statement. “A tent stake was presented to the team as a symbol of this concept. The stake was brought into our locker room as a visual reminder, and one of our team leaders chose to take it out on the field. As the leader of our football program, I take full responsibility for the actions of our team.”
This is what it has come to at Michigan. The Wolverines get their butts kicked and have to apologize to their opponents the next day. Maybe instead of looking for totems that symbolize abstract concepts, the staff should teach the team to block and tackle better. That way, it could celebrate after a game instead of disrespecting the opponent’s field before it.
But it’s probably too late for that now.
Even though Michigan still has a coach, here’s another suggestion for a new one: Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Narduzzi would instill in the Wolverines the mentality that helped the Spartans go from Little Brother to Daddy in the rivalry. The move would also damage a division rival. It makes perfect sense, but the Wolverines would likely never do it, as they’d consider it beneath them.
2. Here’s another name you can expect to hear a lot when the coaching carousel goes into full swing next month: Jim McElwain. McElwain’s Colorado State team took a four-touchdown lead on Wyoming Saturday before allowing garbage-time points in a 45-31 win, and the Rams currently sit at 7-1 and are tied with Boise State atop the Mountain West Conference Mountain Division standings. Boise State holds the head-to-head tiebreaker and must lose another conference game for Colorado State to compete for the league title.
Still, McElwain shouldn’t have to win the Mountain West to be considered for bigger jobs. What he's done in Fort Collins, Colo., is nothing short of remarkable. After helping Alabama to the 2009 and ’11 national titles as offensive coordinator, McElwain took over at Colorado State and inherited a team coming off consecutive 3-9 seasons. He went 4-8 in ’12, 8-6 last year and now has his team in contention for a conference title. That’s some impressive program building.
The tricky part is McElwain agreed to a contract extension earlier this year that calls for a $7.5 million buyout if he leaves for another program before 2019. That could scare away a lot of schools. But the contract also includes a provision that suggests Colorado State might not hold McElwain to that number. The contract states: “… in the case or event of extenuating circumstances the University's President shall have the discretion, but not the obligation, to reduce in whole or in part McElwain's obligation to pay Liquidated Damages to the University. McElwain shall have the right to request that the Parties engage in a good faith discussion of such Liquidated Damages amount prior to McElwain providing formal notice to the University of his decision to terminate this Agreement without cause, and in such event the University agrees to engage in such discussion, although the University has no obligation to reduce in whole or in part McElwain's obligation to pay Liquidated Damages, with an understanding and acknowledgement that time will be of the essence in coming to a final decision.”
3. Kansas State remains the lone Big 12 team without a conference loss, but how long the Wildcats stay that way could depend on the pain tolerance of quarterback Jake Waters. Waters took a nasty shot to his right (throwing) shoulder in a 31-30 win at Oklahoma on Oct. 18, and he appeared to be in pain at various points of Kansas State’s 23-0 victory over Texas on Saturday. Still, he remained in the game until getting lifted with a huge lead late in the fourth quarter. Waters went 19-of-30 for 224 passing yards, taking few risks with the Wildcats’ defense in control. “Jake is a tough-minded young guy. He can handle virtually anything,” Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said on Saturday. “He has proven that he can do that. I am proud of the way he played.”
The injury seemed to limit Waters’ ability to run between the tackles, but he wasn’t afraid to pull the ball on the zone read and head outside. The Wildcats may not need all of Waters’ running and throwing gifts against a reeling Oklahoma State squad this week, but they probably will on Nov. 8 when they visit TCU in a matchup that could help decide the Big 12 title.
4. If we could build a time machine, it might be useful to go back to Aug. 30 so we could more fully appreciate a game that included West Virginia receiver Kevin White and Alabama receiver Amari Cooper. In Bama’s 33-23 win in the Georgia Dome, White caught nine passes for 143 yards and a touchdown, while Cooper made 12 grabs for 130 yards. They were only getting warmed up. White, who entered this Saturday leading the nation in receiving yards per game, had only 27 receiving yards in a 34-10 win at Oklahoma State, but he did score a touchdown. Meanwhile, Cooper broke an Alabama school record with 224 receiving yards in a 34-20 victory over Tennessee. He also scored two touchdowns. Cooper’s big night allowed him to slide past White on the receiving yards per game chart, but both players are looking up at Colorado State’s Rashard Higgins, whose five catches for 174 yards and two scores against Wyoming allowed him to move up to No. 1.
5. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs was supposed to redshirt this year at Tennessee. Instead, he could spend the back half of this season giving the Volunteers hope for the future. Coach Butch Jones burned Dobbs’ redshirt Saturday after Tennessee’s first two possessions yielded no points. Jones yanked Nathan Peterman -- who was starting in place of the injured Justin Worley -- and inserted Dobbs, a sophomore from Alpharetta, Ga., who majors in aerospace engineering. And while there was no saving a game in which the Vols dug into a 27-0 hole, Dobbs moved the ball against one of the nation’s best defenses. He completed 19-of-32 passes for 192 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He also led the Vols with 75 yards rushing.
Jones wouldn’t say whether Worley will be back for this Saturday’s game at South Carolina, but Worley, a senior from Rock Hill, S.C., will likely do everything within his power to get back for his final opportunity to play in his home state. Still, Dobbs may be the quarterback who gives the Vols the better chance to win. Add that to the fact that he’ll be on the roster next year, and Dobbs might be Tennessee’s quarterback of the future and the present.
6. Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave seems to be completely cured of the yips that sent him to the bench for the Badgers’ first five games. In his second start of the season, Stave threw for 155 yards -- including a 47-yard touchdown pass to Alex Erickson -- as Wisconsin rolled over Maryland 52-7. Of course, Stave may get pushed by punter Drew Meyer, who did his best Tim Tebow-at-Florida impression in the first half.
7. After beating USC 24-21 on Saturday night, Utah controls its destiny in the Pac-12 South. But the Utes face a brutal stretch as they try to stay in control. In the next four weeks they will play at Arizona State, at home against Oregon, at Stanford and at home against Arizona. That’s a tall order, but Utah leads the Pac-12 in sacks (35) and ranks second in yards per play allowed (4.8). It also has the league’s best punter in Tom Hackett, who averages 47 yards a kick and has pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line on 21 of 44 punts. Plus, the Utes have the league’s best return man in Kaelin Clay, who has taken one kickoff and three punts back for touchdowns. If they can keep up all that and get quarterback play similar to what Travis Wilson showed in a 73-yard touchdown drive in the final two minutes against the Trojans, they might be able to survive it and have a chance to win the division.
8. The great Dan Rubenstein of SBNation.com said it best in this video breaking down the officiating gaffes in Ohio State’s 31-24 double-overtime win at Penn State. The Pac-12 isn’t the only place to find Pac-12 referees.
The Big Ten issued a statement on Sunday to Jon Solomon of CBSSports trying to clarify the situation. “In regards to the play that was called an interception on the field with 13:07 remaining in the first quarter, the video feed to the replay booth was tested and confirmed on Friday and prior to the game on Saturday, but at the start of the game, the booth was no longer receiving all available feeds,” the statement read. “The technician in the booth followed procedure by contacting the production truck, which immediately began working on the issue. Due to these technical difficulties, only one isolated shot from the overhead camera was available and the view did not provide sufficient information to reverse the call. As a result, the play stood as called. The production truck rectified the technical issues shortly thereafter, and the replay booth had access to multiple feeds for the remainder of the game.”
Here’s a wacky idea: Connect one of the monitors in the replay booth to cable. That way, if the fancy system fails, the replay official can still see what millions are seeing at home and keep the conference from looking stupid.
9. Officiating issues weren’t limited to the Big Ten on Saturday. The SEC confirmed on Sunday that officials missed a call on the final play of Auburn's 42-35 win over South Carolina. The Tigers had two players wearing No. 1 on the field. Montravius Adams plays defensive tackle and normally would have been on the field, but coaches also inserted receiver Duke Williams to help defend South Carolina’s Hail Mary attempt. Had officials spotted the double number, the Gamecocks would have gotten a second attempt at the Hail Mary.
10. Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah broke the school’s single-game all-purpose yards record by piling up 341 in a 42-24 win over Rutgers. He rushed for 225 yards and three touchdowns, caught two passes for 26 yards and returned two kickoffs for 90 yards. Abdullah is the only player in the FBS with two 300-plus all-purpose yards games this season.
What’s eating Andy?
Why don’t more offensive linemen throw touchdown passes? We know it’s possible now. Further refusal to let big men throw will be considered Fat Guy discrimination.
What’s Andy eating?
Covering SEC slobberknockers such as the one in Baton Rouge burns a lot of calories. OK, maybe not. But I have to justify my intake this weekend somehow.
It started in Lexington, Ky., with Burgoo and bread pudding at Keeneland, the venerable racetrack and site of the world’s largest thoroughbred sale. The kitchen at Keeneland has to pump out enough to feed between 15,000 and 25,000 people during a race meet, so the food should taste like the slop served at most stadiums. It does not. The Burgoo, a traditional Kentucky stew that can be made with mutton or even squirrel but is made at Keeneland with beef, sticks to the ribs and tickles the taste buds with hints of sherry and red wine. Meanwhile, the bread pudding might be one of the nation’s best mass-produced desserts. It was originally conceived as a way to burn off unused hot dog buns, but years ago Keeneland switched to Sister Schubert’s rolls. Anyone who has eaten one or eight at a holiday gathering knows they are soft but still thick enough to stand up to whatever they’re dipped in. This makes them the perfect rolls for bread pudding and the ideal foil for the Maker’s Mark bourbon sauce in which each piece of bread pudding swims. Just don’t eat five of them and try to drive.
On Friday night, I visited The Village Idiot in downtown Lexington since a friend recommended its truffle mac and cheese. That had come off the menu, but it had been replaced by pulled pork mac and cheese. The dish had smoky pork atop penne noodles bathed in a smoked Gouda Mornay with cornbread crumbles. Apparently, there had been some dissent among the regulars when the truffle mac and cheese was pulled, but revolution was quickly quelled by the richness of the Gouda mixing with the savory pork. It would be difficult not to order this again, but next time I visit I’m going to try the fried quail and waffles. And I’ll probably get the pulled pork mac and cheese on the side and call a wheelbarrow to carry me out.
On Saturday in Baton Rouge, I finally got around to visiting Fleur de Lis Pizza. I had wanted to visit this 68-year-old joint much earlier but just couldn’t seem to make it work. I’m glad I did.
Before we go any further, a word about me and pizza. While I’m a barbecue snob who parses the difference between pulled and chopped pork and asks what kind of wood is fueling the fire, my palate for pizza is far less refined. Of course I can tell the difference between generic chain pizza and the good stuff. But beyond that it all tastes pretty good to me. I don’t favor New York style over Chicago. In fact, I think of thin crust and deep dish as entirely separate and equally delicious entities.
So, it didn’t bother me a bit that the pizzas at Fleur de Lis were rectangular. That’s how they’ve been making them since the original owners began cooking pies on cookie sheets in the 1940s. I actually loved that the crust was not quite as thin as you’d expect from a pizza made on a cookie sheet. It was just chewy enough to be interesting. My pie featured pepperoni, Italian sausage, Canadian bacon, salami, mushrooms and hot banana peppers. The sauce had just enough bite, and the sausage was the star. It comes crumbled into tiny bits that wind up covering every square inch of the pie. That provides an even distribution of meat, cheese and sauce in every bite, and it made for a delicious pizza that you may not find nearly as delicious as I did. And that’s fine.
But don’t begrudge me my love for pizzas of every stripe. Life is too short to be a snob about every category of food.