Nonconference failings could put Big 12's College Football Playoff chances in jeopardy; more Week 8 analysis in Punt, Pass & Pork.
Heath Nielsen is one of my favorite people in college football. Baylor’s associate athletic director for communications is a true professional who always helps reporters do their jobs. He offers great insight into the Bears. He is also the man who introduced me to the glory of the Gut Pak at Vitek’s BBQ in Waco, Texas, which makes him a personal hero.
Of course, Nielsen’s job occasionally requires him to be a bit of a propaganda minister, and he was forced into that role on Saturday after the Bears lost 41-27 at West Virginia. Trying to pull a silver lining from a loss covered in coal dust, Nielsen watched TCU’s 42-9 blowout of Oklahoma State and tweeted this:
While TCU’s bounce-back performance does make Baylor’s victory over the Horned Frogs from the previous week look better, it does little to erase the fact that Baylor lost by two touchdowns to the Mountaineers, who opened the season with a 10-point loss to Alabama. Meanwhile, in Norman, Okla., Kansas State took control of the Big 12 title race by beating Oklahoma 31-30. That’s excellent for the Wildcats, but the problem for the Big 12 is that every game they win makes Auburn look better because the Tigers won 20-14 in Manhattan, Kan., on Sept. 18.
This is the nightmare scenario for the Big 12, which tipped the scales in favor of a four-team playoff following the 2011 season after Oklahoma State got shut out of the BCS title game in favor of an Alabama-LSU rematch. Thanks to a few choice out-of-conference losses and one team’s abject refusal to schedule a decent nonconference foe, the league finds itself in a precarious position relative to the playoff. Also, because of the particular teams the Big 12 schools chose to play, they may have inadvertently made it easier for the SEC to overwhelm the selection committee. A lot of football remains to be played. But the Big 12 needs LSU and Arkansas to start beating the top teams in the SEC West.
What happens if Kansas State wins out? That’s great, right? The Wildcats would be 11-1. They should be in the playoff, right? But what if Auburn is 11-1 with a loss to Mississippi State or 10-2 with losses to Mississippi State and another playoff contender? Auburn and Kansas State played in the Little Apple. Kansas State lost. Sure, if the Wildcats hadn’t missed three field goals that night, they might have won. But they missed them. So, every time Kansas State wins, a War Eagle gets his wings. That’s something the committee will consider. The committee is supposed to consider whether a team won a conference championship. But if it is comparing Auburn to hypothetical Big 12 champ Kansas State, it should probably also consider that Auburn could win the league playing a Big 12 schedule.
This is the blessing and the curse of challenging nonconference games. You have to win for the gamble to pay off. So, let’s take a look at the results of the Power Five-on-Power Five out-of-conference games played by the Big 12 schools.
• Baylor: None
• Iowa State: Win at Iowa (20-17)
• Kansas: Loss at Duke (41-3)
• Kansas State: Loss vs. Auburn (20-14)
• Oklahoma: Win vs. Tennessee (34-10)
• Oklahoma State: Loss vs. Florida State in Arlington, Texas (37-31)
• TCU: Win vs. Minnesota (30-7)
• Texas: Loss vs. UCLA in Arlington, Texas (20-17)
• Texas Tech: Loss vs. Arkansas (49-28)
• West Virginia: Loss vs. Alabama in Atlanta (33-23); Win at Maryland (40-37)
In 10 games, the Big 12 went 4-6 against the rest of the Power Five. Against the three opponents that still have a chance to make the playoff (Alabama, Auburn and Florida State), it went 0-3. None of those games was a blowout by any stretch, but the problem is the Big 12 didn’t win a single one. Oklahoma did beat an SEC team, but it was Tennessee. Florida won at Tennessee, so that doesn’t speak well for the Volunteers. Baylor declined to help the league offer a better basis for comparison by declining to play any Power Five schools in its nonconference slate.
The Big 12’s nine-game conference schedule creates a full round robin and a thrilling championship race that usually comes down to the final weekend. But it also limits how many tough opponents Big 12 teams will schedule outside the league. That leaves fewer opportunities to provide positive comparisons. And that could be a problem for the conference when the selection committee meets.
Baylor also picked the absolute worst team to lose against. West Virginia happened to play Alabama in Atlanta to start the season. The Mountaineers dropped some bombs on the Crimson Tide defense, but Alabama -- which hadn’t chosen a No. 1 quarterback yet -- never trailed after the 8:18 mark of the first quarter. That’s an awful lot of transitive property, but with such a small sample size, committee members will have to base their choices on something.
The positive news for the Big 12 is there are enough quality matchups within the SEC and Pac-12 that it's possible those conferences could eat some of their own contenders, leaving an 11-1 Big 12 team looking quite attractive to the committee. The league is tough at the top. Getting through it with one loss would be quite an accomplishment. Unfortunately, with no good wins outside the conference, Big 12 teams may have a hard time proving that to the committee.
Projected College Football Playoff
I’ve shuffled teams here every week, so it’s highly unlikely these will be the four the committee puts in the playoff. But if it is, watch out for the backlash. Power Five commissioners and presidents deliberately chose a system that could, in practice, shut as many as three of their leagues out of the field in a given year. (It could be four, but that would assume one league gets three teams in the playoff and Notre Dame makes it. Or it would assume the same league gets four teams in. That isn't happening.) They say they did this because a quarterfinal round of an eight-team playoff would interfere with final exams, but that isn’t entirely true.
They could easily tweak the schedule, start an eight-team playoff on New Year’s Eve and finish by mid-January. The real reason is that commissioners and presidents still kowtow to the bowls that have been greasing them with swag for decades. A far more sensible playoff -- from a competitiveness standpoint, a regular-season relevance standpoint and a fan-friendliness standpoint -- is to use an eight-team model with quarterfinals and semifinals played at the home stadiums of the highest-seeded teams. This would make winning regular-season games critically important for seeding, and it wouldn’t ask the bulk of fans to travel more than once. It would also allow for automatic bids for the champions of the Power Five conferences and three at-large bids. This would guarantee participation for the leagues with all the power and still offer more access for everyone else. The problem is bowl officials will never agree to be shoved out of the way while they still have a binding contract. Unless commissioners figure out a way to assuage bowl officials, conference leaders will have fans screaming at them for choosing a system that could exclude their league through 2026. Have fun with that.
1. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs had the week off, and they’ll head to Lexington, Ky., Saturday for the biggest game in years that doesn’t involve a backboard or a rim. LSU’s 41-3 undressing of the Wildcats took some shine off this matchup, but expect Kentucky to give Mississippi State its best shot. Of course, with the Bulldogs coming off a bye, that best shot might be no more than a glancing blow.
2. Ole Miss
LSU’s win over the Wildcats was dominant, but the reality of the SEC West returns this week in the form of the Rebels. If the Tigers can’t move the ball against Ole Miss -- and no one has so far this season -- this could be over quickly. Still, the Rebels should be careful. LSU allowed only 3.4 yards a play to the Wildcats. If it remains that stingy and forces a few turnovers, Ole Miss will be challenged.
3. Florida State
The Seminoles took an excellent team’s best shot and barely survived. But they survived. It still seems likely that Florida State will be the lone undefeated Power Five team come December. Obviously, there are other questions, such as the ones posed at the bottom of this story. But if the ‘Noles remain constituted the way they are now, they should claim a playoff spot, especially if Notre Dame keeps winning.
4. Notre Dame
If the Fighting Irish play as well the rest of the way as they did on Saturday in Tallahassee, Fla., they can beat the remaining teams on their schedule. With games at Arizona State (Nov. 8) and USC (Nov. 29) left, it won’t be easy to win out. Notre Dame deserves consideration for the playoff if it can.
A random ranking
This week I’m ranking the top five Michael Bolton songs. I would explain why, but I don’t have to. It’s a RANDOM ranking. Whether you listen ironically or celebrate the man’s entire catalog is of no concern to me.
1. “Steel Bars”
2. “How Can We Be Lovers?”
3. “When A Man Loves A Woman” (Note: For my money, it gets better when Percy Sledge sings it.)
4. “Time, Love and Tenderness”
5. “Said I Loved You … But I Lied”
Play of the week
Down 7-0 at Oklahoma in the first quarter, Kansas State got on the board with a play that drives defensive coordinators crazy -- and for good reason. The Wildcats lined up heavy, with two tight ends, a receiver and a fullback (Glenn Gronkowski) who set up next to quarterback Jake Waters. At the snap, the line fired off as if it were blocking for a run. Waters then took a Rocker Step, moving toward the line as if the play were a designed quarterback run before rocking back into a throwing position. Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen used this concept a lot with Tim Tebow at Florida, and it was equally effective for Waters. Oklahoma's safeties raced toward the line of scrimmage. Gronkowski slipped behind them. Waters lobbed the ball to the wide-open Gronkowski, who raced for a 62-yard touchdown.
The pop pass to Baby Gronk might end up on Kansas State's university seal.— David Ubben (@davidubben) October 18, 2014
Why does the play so vex defensive coordinators? It forces them to teach players to be more disciplined, sure. But it also usually involves an offensive lineman wandering too far downfield and officials not noticing. In this case, Kansas State center B.J. Finney was a full four-and-a-half yards past the line of scrimmage when Waters threw the ball. This is against the rules, but not by as much as most people realize. In the college game, ineligible players are allowed to venture three yards beyond the neutral zone before the quarterback throws a pass. This wreaks havoc on a defense, because defensive backs are trained to play the run when they see linemen blocking downfield. Officials would have to make a bang-bang judgment call to flag a lineman four yards downfield, so they usually let it go. This is why run-pass option plays have recently exploded. The offensive line can block the run, and the quarterback can decide whether he wants to throw as every key the defenders read screams run. Meanwhile, the officials rarely bother to call when the blockers move too far downfield ahead of the throw.
This is a case where the NFL might have the better rule. In that league, linemen can move only one yard past the line of scrimmage before getting flagged. Since there is an official looking directly down the line of scrimmage, he can fairly easily discern if a lineman has ventured too far. At the very least, it'd be nice if college officials actually enforced the existing rule. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema can complain about tempo all he wants, but defenses would be helped a lot if officials simply would throw the flag when blockers go too far downfield ahead of a forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage.
Big Ugly of the week
This week’s honoree is Notre Dame defensive tackle Sheldon Day, whose night on Saturday was described thusly by Florida State guard Josue Matias: “He got me a few times.” Day terrorized the Florida State offensive line, and he deserves the most credit for Notre Dame’s offense having a shot at a game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds.
Had Florida State been able to get out from in front of its own end zone late in the fourth quarter, the Seminoles could have simply run out the clock. Thanks to Day, they were forced to punt. On first-and-10 from the seven-yard line, Day blew past right guard Tre’ Jackson and stuffed freshman back Dalvin Cook for a five-yard loss. On third-and-13 from the four-yard line, Matias had to tackle Day to keep him from blowing up Cook in the backfield again. Cook gained six yards, but even if he had made the first down, the penalty -- which Notre Dame declined in this situation -- would have given the Seminoles third-and-15 from the two. The ‘Noles punted, and Notre Dame got great field position for a drive that would have won the game if not for a fourth-down offensive pass interference penalty.
1. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly remained angry on Sunday about the offensive pass interference call that wiped off the Corey Robinson touchdown that would have lifted the Fighting Irish to a win at Florida State. The day after the game, Kelly was more confused. “Actually, I have less clarity,” he said on a teleconference. “I guess it was actually called on Will Fuller, not C.J [Prosise]. Just adds more uncertainty as to the final play.”
If the call was indeed on Fuller, it makes less sense. Fuller was running a route and collided with a defender. He didn’t do anything illegal. Prosise, however, executed a textbook drive block on safety Jalen Ramsey into the end zone. That would have been fine on a run or a screen pass, but not on a forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage. For what it’s worth, Florida State players thought the call was on Prosise. The shame of it was Robinson would have scored had Prosise not driven Ramsey into the end zone.
“In terms of what we ask our kids to do, it was pretty clear what happened on the play,” Kelly said. “Florida State blew the coverage, and they got rewarded for it. So, it’s unfortunate.”
2. This column gets posted late on Sunday. If you’re reading Monday morning, there is a chance Will Muschamp might not be the coach at Florida anymore. The die was cast for Muschamp in Saturday’s ugly 42-13 homecoming loss to Missouri. If AD Jeremy Foley opts to keep Muschamp through the season, he could conceivably save his job by ripping off a win streak. But does anyone believe at this point the Gators can beat Georgia, South Carolina or Florida State?
Florida lost to the Tigers in the most Muschamp-era way possible, playing effective defense and getting blown out because the offense and special teams were inept. Missouri gained only 119 yards, but the Tigers scored touchdowns on a kickoff return, an interception return and a fumble return. Another touchdown was set up by a recovery of a Florida fumble on the Gators’ 19-yard line.
Unless he feels he must to restart the donor pump or reassure the fan base, Foley doesn’t need to fire Muschamp immediately. (Though with a bye before a game against Georgia, this is probably the least distracting time for a midseason firing.) In 2004, Foley fired Ron Zook two days after a loss at Mississippi State because the Gators needed to beat Notre Dame to the punch and begin their backchannel wooing of Utah’s Meyer. Florida fired Zook almost six weeks before Notre Dame fired Tyrone Willingham, and Foley and lieutenant Greg McGarity (now Georgia’s athletic director) were far better prepared when they arrived in Salt Lake City following the regular season to make their sales pitch to Meyer.
This year, Florida and Michigan will likely be looking for new coaches, but the dynamics have changed. Whereas Florida and Notre Dame were viewed as roughly equal jobs in December 2004, everyone but the most ardent Michigan fan knows Florida is a far better job. The Gators will get their pick of coaches. The issue is there is no Meyer sitting out there this season waiting to make the leap. Former Meyer offensive coordinator Mullen could wind up winning the national title at Mississippi State, and if he can do that, it might not make much sense to attempt an offensive rebuild at another school in the same conference.
3. Muschamp has had some bad luck the past two seasons at Florida, but is it any worse than the luck Mark Richt has had the past two years at Georgia? The Bulldogs played through a rash of injuries last season, and this year they have gone on the road and won twice since having their best player suspended.
Without tailback Todd Gurley, the Bulldogs outscored Missouri and Arkansas by a combined 79-32. It’s pretty clear now the Bulldogs are the class of the SEC East, and depending on whether they get Gurley back, they certainly have a chance to make the playoff.
4. It appears Stanford’s time atop the Pac-12 is over. The Cardinal reached the red zone only twice in a 26-10 loss at Arizona State, and their defense simply can’t overcome the ineptitude of their offense. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils have bounced back nicely after laying an egg against UCLA at home on Sept. 25. It helps when receiver Jaelen Strong is making catches such as this one.
5. Mad Alabama is scary. The Crimson Tide lost at Ole Miss and nearly lost at Arkansas, but they responded by destroying Texas A&M 59-0. Alabama held the Aggies, who entered Saturday averaging 7.2 yards a play, to just 3.1 yards a play. Meanwhile, the Tide threw for 304 yards and averaged 6.6 yards a carry.
Nick Saban, who almost always finds some nit to pick with his team, was blown away. “I was really proud of the way our players played today,” he said. “I think this is as close to the Alabama football that we want to try to get from our players in terms of effort, toughness, emotional excitement and execution that we got throughout the game.” It’s probably impossible to play at that level for an entire season, but if Alabama can reach it against Mississippi State and Auburn, the Tide can compete for the SEC and the national title.
6. The Big Ten’s top teams are rolling through the easier portions of their slates. Ohio State broke 50 for the fourth consecutive game since losing to Virginia Tech, beating Rutgers 56-17. Michigan State let Indiana hang around for much of the first half before pulling away to win by the same score, as the defense held the Hoosiers to 11 yards in the second half. Nebraska, which trailed by three at the half, outscored Northwestern 24-0 after the break to cruise to a 38-17 road win.
Expect a few more routs before the league’s biggest regular-season game. Before Michigan State hosts Ohio State on Nov. 8, the Spartans get a visit from Michigan, while the Buckeyes face Penn State and Illinois.
7. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze apologized to Tennessee coach Butch Jones on Saturday for tacking on a late touchdown that made the final 34-3. Freeze didn’t realize his younger offensive linemen would open such big holes. “I apologized to him for calling a run play on that last one,” Freeze told The Clarion-Ledger from Jackson, Miss. “We had all our young linemen in and wanted to get them a few reps. Didn't think we would run it in with them in there really.”
8. The Pac-12’s surprise team went on the road and grabbed a 29-23 double-overtime win at Oregon State last Thursday. On Saturday, Utah players learned they'd be dressing a little more stylishly against USC. Coach Kyle Whittingham unveiled a new black and chrome helmet, the reaction to which should explain why programs are constantly tweaking their helmets and uniforms.
9. Speaking of typically unhappy coaches who were thrilled with their teams on Saturday, Maryland’s Randy Edsall loved the way his Terrapins came back from a 14-point deficit to beat Iowa 38-31 and notch their first Big Ten home win. Edsall was especially thrilled with reserve quarterback Perry Hills, who began the week as a third-teamer who hadn’t played since 2012 and wound up shepherding the Terps offense through the third quarter.
Hills became the backup when Caleb Rowe suffered a season-ending knee injury at practice last week. Hills entered the game just after halftime when starter C.J. Brown went out with a trapezius muscle injury. Maryland led 17-14 at the time. Edsall did not want Hills to do much. Brown was likely going to return -- which he did early in the fourth quarter -- and Hills hadn’t had many chances at practice. Still, Hills threw a 53-yard touchdown to Stefon Diggs that extended Maryland’s lead. “I’m a little rusty, but I should have prepared better, just through the season with mental reps or getting reps on the field, I should have been taking notes and preparing a little better,” Hills said. “Two years is a while, but it’s like riding a bicycle. Once you knock that rust off, everything starts to slow down for you and it starts to get easier.”
10. Marshall continued its march toward an undefeated season with a 45-13 win at Florida International. Playing in his hometown of Miami, Fla., Thundering Herd quarterback Rakeem Cato broke Russell Wilson’s NCAA record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass. Cato’s one-yard, first-quarter toss to tight end Ryan Yurachek gave the senior a touchdown pass in 39 consecutive games.
What’s eating Andy?
I’ve already put five Michael Bolton songs in your head. You’ve suffered enough.
What’s Andy eating?
I had hoped to wow you with a review of South Bend Brew Werks, which has an excellent beer list and a very cool concept that allows diners to choose the charity to which 50 cents of the cost of each pint drunk will be donated. But the place pulled the culinary equivalent of Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo calling for a pass instead of just handing to Gurley on first-and-goal from the South Carolina four-yard line on Sept. 13. It got too cute.
The special when I visited on Wednesday night was a sandwich that featured brisket on a bed of mashed potatoes. That sounds fantastic. Unfortunately, it became clear as my teeth bounced off the brisket that the place doesn’t have a smoker. You can’t cook brisket quickly, and that’s exactly what it tried to do. (Pro tip: At the very least, just throw the brisket in a Crock-Pot with potatoes and carrots and call it Texas pot roast.) The place makes a perfect grilled cheese sandwich and serves excellent artisan bacon, but when I asked for a slice of bacon on said grilled cheese sandwich, I was told the bacon was only being served in the pasta that night. That’s a massive failure. Don’t brag about your bacon and then neglect to make it available in non-crumble form.
Fortunately, we shuffled along to LaSalle Kitchen and Tavern, the gastropub installed in 2013 atop venerable South Bend steakhouse LaSalle Grill. There, we found a beautiful list of whiskey concoctions that I couldn’t try because I still had more work to do. We also found a menu item guaranteed to pique my interest: Neuske’s Bacon “Steaks” drizzled with New Holland Beer Barrel Bourbon glaze.
Think of the thickest cut bacon you’ve ever seen. Now double it. Double it again. Now add a touch of sweet, biting bourbon glaze. That’s the bacon steak at LaSalle.
Bacon is nature’s most perfect food. Bacon meant to be consumed with a knife and fork is the ideal perversion of nature. It lives somewhere between normal bacon and country ham, and it combines the best of both. So, take notes, South Bend Brew Werks. If you’re going to tout your bacon, it had better be perfect, and it had better be available. Because you live within walking distance of Bacon Nirvana.