This week we reached that inevitable point in the season when half my inbox consists of panicky hypothetical questions based on a certain implausible scenario, so let's go ahead and nip them in the bud, shall we?
Hey Stewart. What odds would you give Alabama, Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame all going undefeated?-- Wood, Minneapolis
I'd say 100-to-1. If we've learned anything from 14 years of the BCS, it's that someone will miss a chip-shot field goal. Or lose to a 4-7 team at home. Or face Oklahoma and USC on the road.
I understand that Alabama is, well, Alabama, and will probably be the last team standing at the end of the season. But the Tide have been beating up on mediocre competition. Oregon is scary good. I went to Florida, so I am thrilled to death by its resurrection. But K-State has to be No. 1 now, right? It has been the most impressive team in the country this year, and by a considerable margin.-- Jeff, Baltimore
It just so happens I've attended both of Kansas State's big road victories, at Oklahoma and at West Virginia. I've also seen routs by Alabama (against Michigan) and Oregon (against Arizona State) in person. I've not yet covered a Florida game, which may help explain why I keep (incorrectly) picking the Gators to lose.
And K-State is impressive, no question. For one thing, no team in the country has two road wins of such high quality. The Wildcats won in Norman, which almost no one ever does. They held Geno Smith and West Virginia to 155 passing yards, the lowest of any game in Dana Holgorsen's eight years as a head coach or offensive coordinator. We all know about Collin Klein, but I'm not sure people have fully warmed up to just how talented the Wildcats' defense is. Meshak Williams and Adam Davis get to the quarterback. Linebacker Arthur Brown is an elite playmaker. Cornerback Nigel Malone and safety Ty Zimmerman are among the best in the country at their respective positions.
Yet, I still can't say I agree with Jeff that they've "been the most impressive team in the country this year by a considerable margin." First of all, if you're going strictly by résumé, it's Florida, with the Gators' road win at Texas A&M and home victories over top-10 foes LSU and South Carolina. If you're going by the eyeball test, I'd still have to go with Alabama or Oregon. Neither has played the greatest competition to date, but they've been consistently dominant in all phases. And what puts them ahead of K-State in my mind is their explosiveness. With Oregon, there's the threat of someone breaking a 70-yard run on any given play. With Alabama, AJ McCarron is every bit as effective a passer as Klein, and while Klein and John Hubert are productive runners, Tide tailbacks Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon are more dangerous.
All that being said, K-State may have the best chance of the three to run the table, with this week's game against No. 15 Texas Tech serving as possibly its toughest remaining test. Alabama plays three ranked teams in the next three weeks, most notably No. 6 LSU, while Oregon has remaining games against No. 7 Oregon State, No. 10 USC and No. 19 Stanford. And unlike the Wildcats, both the Tide and Ducks would have to play a conference championship game to finish undefeated. That's not to say K-State won't get upset (see the introduction to this column), but at this point, it has certainly proven it's capable of winning out.
With the Ducks pulling starters by halftime in five of their seven games, their stats are often misleading. Do any of the SI number crunchers have efficiency measurements for Oregon's first halves, when the Ducks have outscored opponents 234-46 to date, specifically defensively? Cheers.-- Aaron, Portland
When looking for efficiency numbers, I usually rely on Bill Connelly's S&P ratings, which can be found at Football Outsiders. His offensive and defensive rankings grade success on a play-by-play basis (rather than cumulative yardage totals) as measured by down and distance and position on the field, and they eliminate garbage-time data, which addresses the problem Aaron addresses. They're also adjusted for strength of opponent, and thus can be a bit haphazard early in the season, but we're reaching a point where things are starting to even out.
According to those numbers, Oregon ranks third in the nation in defensive efficiency, behind only Alabama and Oklahoma. I'm not sure the exact ranking matters, but the fact the Ducks are included in the top 10 (as opposed to 46th in the NCAA's total defense category) is more reflective of their play. For instance, Oregon allowed Arizona State to gain 408 yards in last Thursday's 43-21 win. By conventional metrics, that's not considered a strong performance. However, it looks a lot different upon recognizing the Sun Devils notched more than half those yards (206) in the fourth quarter, when they trailed 43-7, and when the Ducks, from what I could see, were playing primarily guys not listed on their two-deep. If I were to name the top 10 to 15 defenses in the country from what I've seen, they'd mostly align with those sitting at the top of that S&P list.
So can we call Geno Smith's early-season stats what they were yet? PlayStation numbers against inferior defenses.-- Pat, Atlanta
It was never realistic to think Smith would maintain his historic early-season pace, and you knew he'd eventually come back down to earth. But I would not have anticipated as severe a crash as we've seen the past two weeks. Sure, the quality of the defenses are a big part of it. I like to say that college football season is a bit like The Da Vinci Code: With each week, a new layer gets peeled back and changes much of what we previously knew. And after watching Texas' and Baylor's defenses in their games since West Virginia played them, you can see why the Mountaineers enjoyed the high degree of offensive success they did.
Still, it's extremely uncharacteristic for a Holgorsen offense to put up the kind of paltry numbers it did the past two games. There are two extenuating circumstances to consider. For one, there's no overstating the impact of star receiver Stedman Bailey's ankle injury. Bailey missed the second half of the Texas Tech game and was a shell of himself against K-State. Also, Grantland's Chris Ryan may be on to something here. Is it not possible that two trips to Texas in two weeks might wear down a team a little bit? I'm still beat from last week's San Francisco-to-Phoenix-to-Pittsburgh-and-back jaunt, and I didn't have to go to practice or watch film upon returning. (Though I did immediately watch the Homeland episode I missed. ... Wow.)
Hey Stewart, I just wanted to say thanks. You've picked against my Gators three times this season, and three times you've been wrong. Keep up the great work ... I guess? Please pick Georgia next week.-- Frank, Raleigh, N.C.
Touché. I can't remember being proven wrong by the same team so repeatedly in one season. But around the time Florida took a 21-3 lead on South Carolina last week while gaining around 30 yards of offense, I finally said, "No more. You've won me over, Gators." And that was before they managed to beat a team by 33 points while gaining just 183 yards, which I didn't think was humanly possible. So I'm done picking against Florida (much to Frank's chagrin).
As a Mizzou alum and a fan of Nebraska (my parents are alums), it is my opinion that realignment has not worked out very well for the former Big 12 schools. Nebraska does not fit in with the Big Ten culturally, athletically or otherwise. Mizzou is getting crushed in the SEC and does not have the same commitment to football as the other schools do. Further, Colorado seems lost in the Pac-12. Is it too early for such a statement?-- Charles Bender, Columbia, Mo.
Yes, much too early. Missouri has played four SEC games. It may be four years until we can truly answer that question. For one thing, these schools have not yet had a chance to reap the financial benefits of their new conferences and thus had a chance to make investments accordingly. Even two years in, Nebraska is not yet receiving a full share of Big Ten revenue. The Pac-12's new media deals only kicked in this year. And also, how can we really say whether these teams' on-field struggles are a product of their new conferences? How do we know Mizzou, which has had a rash of injuries this year, wouldn't be 0-4 in the Big 12 right now? And Colorado's problems began long before it joined the Pac-12.
Of the Big 12 defectors, Texas A&M, which drew by far the most criticism (including from me) when it made its decision to leave the league, appears to be the best fit for its new conference as of now. Part of that is cultural. With its rabid fan support and many cool traditions (Midnight Yell, the 12th Man), A&M has far more in common with its SEC brethren than Missouri, which doesn't always fill its stadium. But more notably, the school made a huge coaching upgrade from Mike Sherman to Kevin Sumlin. Suddenly the program has momentum. Similarly, I'm a bit skeptical whether Bo Pelini will turn out to be the right coach to lead Nebraska to Big Ten titles, but hey, if he beats Michigan this week, he's got a pretty good shot. So I'd hold off reaching any long-term conclusions in the middle of the season.
Stewart, I just got done watching Ohio State's incredible comeback victory over Purdue. The only thing more incredible is the manner in which I watched it: On my laptop, via Skype, via my brother's iPad which was directed at his television in his apartment in Boston.-- Jameson W. Yingling, Chiang Mai, Thailand
That's amazing. I was in Morgantown, W. Va., in the United States, and I couldn't even watch overtime. (The Pittsburgh ABC affiliate switched to Pitt-Buffalo.)
Stewart, given the increasingly likely scenario that Boise State wins out and finishes 11-1 to win the Mountain West, when will you start predicting it to reach BCS games? Boise only has to finish in the top 16 of the BCS (they're No. 21 as of today) and ahead of any other conference champion (you're predicting Wisconsin from the Big Ten which is No. 25 as of today). The Broncos have held their last five opponents to a big goose egg in the first half.-- Patrick Temple, Nampa, Idaho
I'm holding off for a few reasons. For one, it's no sure thing Boise remains the highest-ranked Non-AQ team. Ohio sits only three spots behind, and at some point the voters might decide that an undefeated Bobcats team that won at Penn State should move above a one-loss Broncos team that's best win to this point came against Fresno State. Meanwhile, I'd like to see how the pollsters treat the Big Ten teams in the coming weeks. If Michigan beats Nebraska this week it will most likely jump Boise in the BCS standings. The same goes for Wisconsin if it keeps winning (the Badgers have remaining games against Ohio State and Penn State).
But most of all, why are you so sure the Broncos will win their regular-season finale at Nevada? Whether or not Boise can slow down the nation's leading rusher, Stefphon Johnson, the ghost of Kyle Brotzman's shanks still hover over Mackay Stadium.
Regarding your bowl projections: If we do indeed get Alabama-Oregon as the national championship game, it means that the Sugar and Rose get to select their replacements before any other games are matched up. Isn't there a chance that one of those two games would take Notre Dame instead of simply selecting a replacement team from the SEC or Pac-12?-- Jeremy, Fergus Falls, Minn.
I've asked a couple bowl people about that very scenario, and I would say the odds are highly unlikely. While I'm sure some at the Rose Bowl might prefer 11-1 Notre Dame to, say, 10-3 USC, and the Sugar has never shied away from the fact its sole priority is selling tickets, this is not the year to alienate your partner conference's commissioner. Bowls will start submitting their bids to be part of the forthcoming playoff rotation in January. If you're the Sugar Bowl, which is also vying to host the new Champions Bowl, now is not the time to tick off Mike Slive by taking Notre Dame instead of Florida.
Can you stop whining about SEC fans in every single article you write? I've lived in Athens, Ga., my entire life, and I can say that not every single SEC fan is an ignorant fool that mindlessly chants SEC at all hours of the day. I think a lot of readers would agree that we're sick of your off-base perceptions and stereotypes.-- Greg, Athens, Ga.
Do I really do that? My bad. No question, SEC fans are some of the most passionate and knowledgeable in the country, and I should really start giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Oregon's defense may be improved, but them beating up on someone else from the WAC-12 is nothing. If you put them in the SEC do you really think they would be 7-0, or would they be 3-4 like Missouri? I know, from living in the Southeast, that the SEC is the best football conference in the country. Period. Anybody who disputes that only has to look at what they've done over the last six years. If I'm wrong, prove it where it counts, in a head-to-head matchup, not some WAC-12 game.-- Gregory Jones, Wake Forest, N.C.
So ... these are the e-mails I should stop publishing? Your loss.
It's getting ugly in the Commonwealth. In Blacksburg, the 4-4 Hokies' streak of 10-win seasons is over, their division title hopes are hanging by a thread and even the 19-year bowl streak looks to be in danger. The Hokies have sputtered in all three phases of the game, including what used to be the program's staple: special teams. Meanwhile, in Charlottesville, Mike London's turnaround has gone past 180 degrees to 360. The third-year coach for the 2-6 Cavs is getting a lot of the blame for sloppy play and poor game management. What does the future hold for these programs, besides an underwhelming Commonwealth Cup?-- Mark Gribbin, Richmond, Va.
Virginia Tech is having a down year, no question, but I'm not ready to read anything more into it than that. The Hokies came into the year with three returning starters on offense, having lost a first-round running back (David Wilson), their top three receivers (Danny Coale, Jarrett Boykin and D.J. Coles, who went down for the season in Week 1) and four starting offensive linemen. It's not unexpected that they're struggling. The defense and special teams woes are more alarming. Still, if you're Frank Beamer, I think you've earned the right to one down season every nine years. If the Hokies don't bounce back next year, let's revisit things.
As for Virginia, the Cavs' slide from 8-5 last year has certainly been disappointing. Then again, in hindsight, last year was a bit of a mirage. The highpoint of the season was obviously a 14-13 win at Florida State, but Virginia turned around and lost 38-0 to Virginia Tech the next week and got blown out by Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. And this year's team is much younger than that one. On the one hand, London has made apparent inroads recruiting. On the other, the Cavs have now lost six straight games, including to teams they should be beating, like Maryland and Wake Forest, and they can't seem to settle on a quarterback. I'll be interested to see how London's team responds after this week's bye. Whereas last year's team fizzled out, this year's team needs a couple late-season upsets to regain momentum for 2013.
Why do you keep disrespecting the Gators? You've been wrong about them all season. You should not be picking any more of their key games (Georgia and FSU). You suck. I swear, if I see your pick online for the Georgia game for the Gators to win I will never visit your website again and have my magazine subscription canceled. You're soooooooo stupid! Damn! Go Gators!-- Greg, West Palm Beach, Fla.
So just to be clear, you're mad at me for disrespecting the Gators -- but you're going to be furious if I start respecting them now? ... And to think someone wants me to stop publishing these e-mails.