Is the Big Ten in position to get two teams into the College Football Playoff?
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Scott Frost spoke through a clenched jaw early Sunday morning. He answered every question politely and completely, but couldn't hide his (totally justified) frustration. The Oregon coordinator's offense had come so tantalizingly close against Michigan State. Receiver Byron Marshall ran wide open in the end zone late in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Vernon Adams had time and space to throw. A little less zip on the ball and everything changes.
“We knew coming in that we were going to take some shots on them, and we needed to capitalize on some of our shots," Frost said. “That's what turned the game last year. As tight as their secondary plays, you've got to win on some big plays. Last year, we won on them.… We didn't hit on many today. One more of those, and I think the game changes."
Not just the game. A hook-up on that play means that the Spartans probably don't secure a 31–28 win. The Ducks, not Michigan State, would hold what at this point is considered the best out-of-conference victory of the 2015 season. The Pac-12 would get brownie points instead of the Big Ten. And assuming that each team continues on its predicted path, Oregon would curry extra favor with the College Football Playoff selection committee for 1) scheduling the Spartans instead of a pushover opponent and 2) beating them.
But that is the maddening beauty and iniquity of college football's method of choosing who plays for the national title. Selection committee chair Jeff Long can talk about troves of data points, but that one play with just over a minute remaining in the fourth quarter may have altered the field that makes the four-team bracket. Michigan State and the Big Ten will reap all of the short- and long-term rewards from Saturday night, and going forward there will be no bigger Oregon fans than the Spartans. Adams certainly seems capable of improving on his 309-yard, one-touchdown, two-interception performance, and he likely won't face another defense as salty as Michigan State's for the remainder of the regular season. The Eastern Washington graduate-transfer's continued development would be the best thing for the Spartans and, by extension, for the Big Ten.
Before we get too deep into this, a disclaimer: Yes, I know this was only Week 2; I know any manner of calamity could befall college football's top teams between now and December; and I remember what happened at this time last year, when most wrote off the entire Big Ten following Michigan State's 46–27 loss on the road to the Ducks and Ohio State's 35–21 home loss to Virginia Tech. In fact, I was one of the few who didn't do that. Anything can still happen, so bear that in mind as you read the next few sentences.
Week 2 in 2015 was as good for the Big Ten as Week 2 was bad for the league in '14 . The situation going into Week 3 in '15 looks as promising as the situation going into Week 3 in '14 looked dreary. If all goes chalk for the Big Ten's two best teams, the conference would have a path to get two teams into the playoff. So much can happen between now and then, but the following scenario isn't hard to imagine.
• Oregon has a good season. In this case, “good season" is defined as double-digit wins and at least a Pac-12 North title. Given the Ducks' recent history, this is certainly possible.
• The Buckeyes beat the Spartans in a close game in Columbus on Nov. 21 and then go on to win the Big Ten title and finish with a record of 13–0. Given Ohio State's schedule, this is absolutely possible.
• Michigan State wins every game outside of that loss to the Buckeyes. Given the Spartans' schedule and recent history, this is quite plausible.
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If all of that happens, Michigan State would be the 2015 analogue to Alabama in '11. The Spartans would have beaten everyone on their schedule but the undisputed best team in the country, just as the Crimson Tide did four years ago. As we later learned, Alabama was probably better than the undisputed best team (LSU) that year. The Tide's selection to the '11 BCS title game was controversial, but it would have been far less so if the four-team system that exists now had already been in place. Still, if Michigan State and Ohio State somehow both make the playoff this year, the same people who defended the Alabama-LSU rematch—which was the correct matchup and also helped to hasten the creation of the playoff—would howl.
How do we know this? Because Paul Finebaum filled two days' worth of radio shows last week with SEC fans complaining about the Buckeyes' schedule. An SEC coach with significant Big Ten experience, in answering a question about the SEC having 10 teams ranked in the AP Poll, offered an unprompted critique of Ohio State's schedule. The league's talking points were set before the Week 2 games even kicked off.
“I spent a lot of time in that other conference," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said last Wednesday on the SEC coaches teleconference. “Ohio State is ranked No. 1, and they have one game remaining on their schedule that has anybody ranked. We're going to play eight straight opponents that are ranked.
“It just goes to show, Jeff Long and his committee have a huge task in front of them because if you truly do put a weight on strength of schedule, to get through this conference, everybody can make a joke about it but it's truly unprecedented what every team in this league can bring. If anybody tries to argue with it, they're completely nonsense. [The SEC is on] a whole other level when it comes to competitive nature and balance."
With all due respect to Bielema, let's make two arguments.
• Toledo 16, Arkansas 12
You probably shouldn't criticize the league that schedules MAC teams like crazy if you can't beat the MAC team on your schedule.
• Auburn 27, Jacksonville State 20 (OT)
You probably shouldn't criticize the scheduling of the league that has banned playing FCS opponents if one of the (alleged) best teams in your conference needs overtime to beat an FCS opponent.
This is not to say the SEC is a bad league in any way. Recent national title history, out-of-conference records and NFL draft selections provide irrefutable proof that the SEC is an excellent conference. It may be the best in the Power Five from top to bottom. But that doesn't preclude the Big Ten—or the Pac-12 or the Big 12 or the ACC—from having two of the four best teams in the country at the end of a given season. Every conference will have teams that lay eggs against foes from less wealthy leagues (hi there, Maryland and Bowling Green), but the SEC West teams have burned countless calories branding their division as a tower of power in which all seven programs could conceivably compete for the national title. To see two of their number humbled by low-profile opponents plants doubt as to how competitive the SEC West truly is. The Crimson Tide, who made Wisconsin look like a MAC team in Week 1, are the only member of the division so far to have stayed on-brand against quality out-of-conference competition.
At some point, a league will get two teams into the playoff. We assumed that league would be the SEC because of recent history, but the best teams in other conferences have closed the talent gap. The Buckeyes and the Spartans would fare just fine in the SEC. So would Florida State and Clemson. So would Oregon and UCLA. So would Baylor and TCU. (Maybe Oklahoma, too, depending on how good Tennessee turns out to be.) And if no one in the SEC had a problem with Alabama and LSU meeting for the national title following the 2011 season, then no one should have any qualms about the above scenario if Ohio State and Michigan State both make the playoff.
Of course, the Spartans would prefer to beat the Buckeyes, finish undefeated and remove all doubts about their résumé. That is also a possibility. But two weeks in, just about anything remains possible. A year after the Big Ten was left for dead, the league might be in better position than any of its Power Five brethren.
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Projected College Football Playoff
1. Ohio State
The team that played its first game on Monday, Sept. 7, started slow on Saturday, and the complaints from its coach were predictable. But the Buckeyes were never in danger during a 38–0 shutout of Hawaii, and it's tough to imagine they will be until Nov. 21.
As expected, the Crimson Tide crushed Middle Tennessee 37–10. And while Wisconsin's 58–0 win over Miami (Ohio) wasn't shocking, it did provide a little more perspective on the whooping Alabama laid on the Badgers at Jerry World.
Freshman quarterback Josh Rosen wasn't on a hot streak in Las Vegas the way he was in his debut at the Rose Bowl, but the Bruins still easily dispatched UNLV 37–3. Plus, Virginia's play against Notre Dame made UCLA's Week 1 destruction of the Cavaliers look more impressive. Next, the Bruins get BYU and miracle maker Tanner Mangum.
4. Michigan State
Ohio State is probably the only team that the Spartans will face in the regular season with an offense as good or better than Oregon's. Even if Michigan State had to play every other team in the country, that might still be a true statement.
A random ranking
In honor of a Saturday when the cupcakes roared, let's rank the top five cupcakes.
1. Red velvet*
2. Carrot cake
3. The Brownie cupcake from Crumbs Bake Shop in New York
4. The Mississippi Mud cupcake from The Sweet Shop at 4 Rivers Smokehouse in Winter Park, Fla.
5. That maple bacon cupcake I made in the first episode of Andy's Tailgate Test Kitchen
*The red velvet cupcake must have cream cheese frosting to occupy the No. 1 spot. Use buttercream frosting and it drops off the list.
Big Ugly of the Week
The Spartans have done a fine job of developing unheralded prospects during their recent run of success, but sometimes they also land highly-touted recruits. Those guys turn out pretty well, too. On Saturday former five-star prospect Malik McDowell made what turned out to be the biggest defensive play of the game.
McDowell's effort on the stuff of Ducks tailback Royce Freeman on fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line early in the second quarter might have saved Michigan State, which wound up winning by three. McDowell, a nose tackle, crushed Oregon center Matt Hegarty—a graduate transfer from Notre Dame—into the backfield. The Spartans' Lawrence Thomas and Jon Reschke got credit for the ensuing tackle, but Freeman was actually stopped by Hegarty, who was under the control of your Big Ugly of the Week.
1. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham confirmed Sunday that two of his players, sophomore offensive guard Lo Falemaka and freshman tailback Marcel Brooks-Brown, were shot at a party late Saturday night. “Obviously, our first concern is that both Lo and Marcel are going to be O.K., which appears to be the case," Whittingham said in a statement. “We don't have all of the details yet, but it is our understanding that they are the victims in this incident and we feel very fortunate that they are expected to fully recover. It is unknown at this time how soon they will be able to return to the football field, but we are optimistic it will be in the near future."
2. Yes, BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum worked more final-minute magic in a 35–24 win over Boise State that was much closer than the pick-six-on-a-desperation-heave-aided final score indicates. A week after completing a Hail Mary to clinch a 33–28 win at Nebraska, Mangum did this.
Mangum can't do this every week, can he?
3. Is sophomore DeShone Kizer Notre Dame's version of J.T. Barrett? Just as Buckeyes quarterback Barrett stepped into the starting lineup last year after Braxton Miller went down with a preseason shoulder injury, Kizer must now step in under center for a team with national title aspirations. Kizer's touchdown pass to Will Fuller, which bailed the Fighting Irish out on Saturday in a 34–27 win at Virginia, suggests that the pressure of replacing
the injured Malik Zaire doesn't bother him.
“Certainly DeShone Kizer doesn't have the experience that Malik has, but we can run our offense through DeShone," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told reporters after the game. “He has a lot of weapons around him and we saw that tonight. He has a running back and receivers. We just have to balance the offense and do the things that he is capable of doing. Teams have to overcome injuries. It is unfortunate, but it is what it is and we will find a way to put it together so we can win games with DeShone Kizer as our starting quarterback."
With any luck, the Irish won't need to find their version of Cardale Jones.
4. Oklahoma may have to play against Tulsa next week without safety Hatari Byrd, who gave a one-finger salute to Tennessee fans while leaving Neyland Stadium on Saturday, but the Sooners should play with renewed confidence nonetheless after their come-from-behind 31–24 double-overtime win over the Volunteers. Baker Mayfield showed why he won the starting quarterback job, and first-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley made good on his oft-repeated off-season promise to not forget that sophomore tailback Samaje Perine is really huge and really fast when he's calling plays in crunch time.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma's defense allowed 3.3 yards a play. That's a promising stat for a team less than three weeks away from entering its Big 12 slate.
5. It was only Rice, but the moves made last week by Texas coach Charlie Strong produced a more watchable offense in a 42–28 Longhorns win. Strong demoted co-coordinators Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline and handed play-calling duties to former Sooners co-coordinator Jay Norvell. Strong and his assistants then decided to start redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard over junior Tyrone Swoopes. The result was a much smoother offense that averaged 7.3 yards a play. (Texas ran only 38 plays because of great field position produced by excellent punt returns and five Owls turnovers.)
Of course, the opponent may have had something to do with the ease with which the Longhorns ran their offense. And while that side of the ball looked better, Texas still allowed Rice to gain 462 total yards. But since the Owls ran 96 plays—and kept getting the ball because the Longhorns kept scoring—Strong will probably take that.
We'll likely know quite a bit more about the effects of the changes in Austin after Texas hosts Cal next Saturday.
6. Houston's Tom Herman is 2–0 as a head coach and riding high after leading his team to a 34–31 upset at Louisville on Saturday. But Herman readily admits that he is still learning about this head coaching thing. In the first half against the Cardinals, Herman had an enlightening conversation with Cougars defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.
Louisville was facing fourth-and-two from its own 29-yard line. Orlando asked Herman if Herman thought that Houston should get into a “punt-safe" formation, which sacrifices blockers for a potential return to keep players close to the line of scrimmage in case of a fake. Herman asked Orlando if Orlando thought a team would run a fake so deep in its own territory. “He said, 'Coach, I don't know. It's fourth-and-[two]. You never know,' " Herman said during an appearance on my Sunday night radio show on SiriusXM's College Sports Nation channel. “I said, 'O.K., run punt-safe out there.' " As the punt-safe personnel began to run on the field, Orlando reminded Herman that Herman had final say over which punt return approach the Cougars used. “I don't know if you knew this," Herman told Orlando, “but I've never had to make those decisions before. So any input from you, I'm going to go ahead and trust."
Herman laughed at his brief moment of indecision. “In my little world of being an offensive coordinator, no one ever asked if we should put punt-safe out there," Herman said. Fortunately, he added, he had hired an excellent staff to help him along the learning curve. With a road win over a favored Power Five team under his belt, Herman has already made plenty of progress.
7. On Saturday Mark Stoops led Kentucky to a 26–22 win over South Carolina, the Wildcats' second straight victory over the Gamecocks. Now Kentucky is in prime position to break one of the nation's longest active losing streaks against a conference opponent. The Wildcats have lost 28 consecutive games to Florida, going winless since 1986. Kentucky came close last year in Gainesville, but a bizarre no-call on what should have been a delay-of-game penalty kept the Gators alive for a 36–30 triple-overtime win.
The Wildcats enter next Saturday's meeting at Commonwealth Stadium coming off a big divisional win on the road. Florida, meanwhile, looked lackluster in a 31–24 win over East Carolina. If there is a year that Kentucky can break the streak, this is it.
8. MAC-tion isn't limited to weekdays. Everyone's favorite Tuesday-night conference notched two big road wins against Power Five opponents on Saturday.
The biggest was Toledo's 16–12 win over Arkansas in Little Rock. The Rockets defense allowed quarterback Brandon Allen to throw for 412 yards, but the Razorbacks gained only 103 yards rushing and couldn't put the ball in the end zone when they needed to most. Toledo quarterback Phillip Ely, who replaced Aaron Murray at Plant High in Tampa and who began his college career at Alabama, completed 21 of 38 attempts for 237 passing yards and a touchdown.
Meanwhile, Bowling Green bounced back from a season-opening 59–30 loss at Tennessee by laying a 48–27 whipping on Maryland. Falcons quarterback Matt Johnson torched the Terrapins for 491 yards and six touchdowns. On Bowling Green's athletic department website, the story about the Falcons' win bore the headline B!G>B1G.
9. Elsewhere in the MAC, Kent State's April Goss became the second woman in major college football history to score in a game when she kicked an extra point in a 45–13 win over Delaware State.
10. Hey, man. We've all been there.
What's eating Andy?
I don't usually issue disclaimers for my food reviews, but this week's deserves one. If you choose to eat what I ate last week, please make sure to exercise regularly. Keep reading and you'll understand why.
What's Andy eating?
Don't do this. Just don't.
Don't make a mental note because you heard that Michigan State's offensive linemen occasionally make the trip to Joe's Gizzard City, and who would know edible delights better than a group of 300-pound mauling machines? Don't get into your car. Don't drive 19 miles southwest from Spartan Stadium to Potterville, Mich., which looks like a town in a Jimmy Stewart movie. And, yes, I know they would have called it Pottersville instead of Bedford Falls had the bad guy won in It's A Wonderful Life. The point is the town is delightful. But don't go there.
Because if you do, you will park on that quaint Main Street. You will walk into Joe's Gizzard City. Three men will be drinking Bud Heavy out of Mason jars at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday. You will take a seat at the bar. The bartender, who looks as if she should be teaching kindergarten instead of serving moderately priced macrobrews in the early afternoon, will offer you a menu. You will look. You will see that everything is fried. Everything. Even the burgers. Gizzard City has the Batter Burger, which is a one-third pound patty in a bun. Deep-fried. It has the Triple-D Burger, which Guy Fieri helped craft when he filmed a segment for Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. It has that same one-third pound patty along with pickles, onions and a tomato slice, and it is also deep-fried. You don't hate Fieri, so this isn't offensive. You are not that guy from The New York Times who went to Fieri's Times Square restaurant and then acted comically offended when the place served exactly what one would expect at a Times Square restaurant backed by Fieri. Hopefully, that guy drizzled a little olive oil and sautéed all the fish after he finished shooting them in that barrel.
Still, the guy from the Times has a point. You can do better than Fieri. But don't. Resist. Don't ask that lovely bartender if it's possible to add a second patty to that burger. Don't ask for cheese. Don't ask to add bacon. Because she will say, “Nobody has ever asked for that," before going into the kitchen to ask Cassandra if such a monstrosity is feasible in either the theoretical or physical world. Cassandra's mythological namesake is a prophet whom no one believes. Cassandra of Potterville is an artist who uses a deep fryer to create the unbelievable. There is a guy who comes in and asks for the steak hoagie deep-fried. Cassandra can do that. Cassandra can deep-fry anything. So, of course, Cassandra can deep-fry your bacon double cheeseburger that smokes Fieri's wimpy Triple-D Burger.
But don't ask her to do this. Because she will.
She'll fry it, and it will be placed before you in all its golden glory. You'll have to wait a few minutes for it to cool. Then you'll be able to bite or cut into it. But please, dear reader, do not do this. If you do, you will taste something that is more reduced sugar doughnut than bun, and it will surround crisp, smoky bacon, gooey cheese and juicy beef. You will realize Cassandra isn't an artist. She is an angel sent to deliver your stomach's greatest desire.
Yes. A deep-fried double cheeseburger tastes exactly as amazing as you would imagine. But resist. Your stomach may want it. But your heart probably can't take it. Think about it. Deep. Fried. Bacon. Double. Cheeseburger. Your cardiologist just felt his heart skip a beat, and he doesn't know why.
So, heed this warning. I have lived this dream, and now I hear the burger's sizzling siren call whenever my stomach grumbles. If you drive to Potterville, walk into Joe's Gizzard City and ask Cassandra to dunk a bacon double cheeseburger in the deep fryer, you will eat that burger and you will love it. Then you will want more. And that will be entirely my fault.
For that, I am so sorry.