Rivalry week set to bring the playoff picture into focus; Punt, Pass & Pork
We made it. College football’s dullest weekend of the year is over, and its most exciting one will begin on Thursday as we digest turkey and all the side dishes I’ll be ranking a few sections down in this column. Other than Ole Miss getting shelled by Arkansas, not much happened this week to shake up the College Football Playoff selection committee’s rankings. That’s good. A little stability will make the potential chaos to come that much more exciting.
After enduring a Saturday with little on the line, get ready for three days loaded with high-stakes games. Those games fall into three categories.
1. Playoff contenders versus teams that have no shot at making the playoff but are just good enough to completely ruin the contenders’ seasons
The last slice of pumpkin pie won’t even be consumed on Thursday when 9-1 TCU kicks off in Austin against a Texas team that has looked like a completely different beast in the past month. Malcom Brown is playing like the best defensive tackle in country, and the Longhorns barely resemble the ragtag crew that got destroyed by BYU earlier this season. They still struggle on offense, though, and if they can’t move the ball, the Horned Frogs will wear out the Texas defense with the sheer volume of plays they’ll run. But if Tyrone Swoopes can guide the Longhorns to a few scores, cheers could go up in Waco and Columbus by the end of the night.
On Saturday in Tallahassee, Florida will visit undefeated Florida State. The Seminoles squeaked out a 20-17 win over Boston College on a last-second field goal this week, and now they’ll face a team motivated to send its fired coach out with a victory. The last time the Gators visited Doak Campbell Stadium with a fired coach at the helm to face a superior Seminoles squad was 2004, when Florida State dedicated Bobby Bowden Field and Ron Zook went out a winner. The consequences of that loss weren’t so dire; Florida State had two losses coming into the game. If the Seminoles lose this one, they would combine that loss to a mediocre team with a schedule short on quality wins. Unless a few other teams took losses as well, that would push them out of the selection committee’s top four. Like Texas, Florida is decent on defense and one-dimensional on offense. If the ‘Noles keep the Gators floundering offensively, the offense should have the ball enough to wear out Florida’s defense. If not, Waco, Columbus and Fort Worth -- depending on Thursday’s result -- could be cheering. The noise out of Memphis would be Will Muschamp’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, fielding calls offering Muschamp seven-figure salaries to coach the defenses of various teams.
Meanwhile, two SEC rivalry games will feature teams that appear in the selection committee’s top four facing teams that once appeared in the top four and now have no hope of getting back. The Egg Bowl and Iron Bowl will decide the SEC West, and they'll also decide whether Mississippi State and Alabama stay in the playoff hunt. For Alabama, it’s simple: A win over Auburn in Tuscaloosa would give the Crimson Tide the West title and likely keep them atop the rankings. Mississippi State would need to combine a win over Ole Miss with an Alabama loss to win the West, but the Bulldogs (No. 4 in this week’s rankings) should remain on the happy side of the cut line with a victory. Auburn and Ole Miss can win bragging rights and better bowl position, but each would be satisfied with ruining its rival’s hopes.
2. Games that will decide division titles but don’t currently have playoff implications
The Pac-12 has ripped a page from the English Premier League, starting the games that will decide the South Division at the same time on the same day. At 3:30 p.m. ET on Friday, Stanford will kick off at UCLA and Arizona State will kick off at Arizona. The only team that controls its fate is UCLA. If the Bruins beat the Cardinal, they win the South. If they lose, the winner of the Territorial Cup will win the South and face Oregon the next Friday in Santa Clara, Calif., for the Pac-12 title. Since the division winner is guaranteed to have two losses, and since many one-loss contenders are playing losable games, that Pac-12 championship could turn into a semifinal play-in game.
By the time those games start out west, they’ll be in the second quarter in Columbia, Mo. Arkansas might be the hottest team in college football after beating LSU and Ole Miss by a combined score of 47-0 in the past two weeks, but Missouri has something for which to play. A Tigers victory would clinch a second consecutive SEC East title. Meanwhile, Georgia players will watch two teams they destroyed duke it out to decide whether the Bulldogs get to play for the SEC championship. The hogs will be called in Athens if Arkansas wins its third conference game in a row after previously failing to win one since 2012.
On Saturday, Minnesota and Wisconsin will decide the Big Ten West Division title in Madison. The winner will face Ohio State, which faces a dilemma. The Buckeyes just beat the Golden Gophers on a bitterly cold day in Minneapolis. They would likely have an easier time handling them in a warm dome in Indianapolis. The committee would probably look more favorably on a win over Wisconsin, but watching video of Badgers tailback Melvin Gordon tends to send defenders into the fetal position. This, of course, is assuming Ohio State beats Michigan and remains in the playoff race. Everyone assumes Ohio State will beat Michigan in what looks to be coach Brady Hoke’s final game for the Wolverines.
3. The game that has no playoff stakes and won’t decide a division but still counts for something
Virginia Tech and Virginia are each 5-6. Each school’s coach is on the hot seat. They’ll meet Friday at Lane Stadium with a trip to a mediocre bowl on the line. What does that mean? It means things will get weird, and that’s why we’ll watch.
Projected College Football Playoff
I don’t think the selection committee will move any teams this week, but I swapped two because one résumé got better while another got worse.
The Ducks’ 44-10 rout of Colorado was nothing special for a title contender, but other events on Saturday improved Oregon’s résumé. UCLA, which Oregon beat 42-30 -- and it wasn’t really that close -- in Pasadena on Oct. 11, moved to 9-2 by throttling USC 38-20. Meanwhile, the team that beat Oregon (Arizona) moved to 9-2 by whipping Utah 42-10 in Salt Lake City. That loss looked fluky when it happened because of the 24-point spread, but now it appears the Ducks -- then hobbled by offensive line injuries -- were beaten by a quality foe. Add all this to a Week 2 win over Michigan State (9-2), and Oregon has the best body of work.
The Crimson Tide’s best win (a 25-20 victory over 10-1 Mississippi State) remains excellent, but their 23-17 loss at Ole Miss on Oct. 4 looks worse after Arkansas -- which nearly beat Alabama in Fayetteville -- smashed the Rebels 30-0. Alabama still has the Iron Bowl and, with a win there, the SEC Championship Game to bolster its résumé. The two teams at the top could flip-flop yet again.
3. Florida State
The Seminoles are what they are. They play games down to the wire. But guess what? They haven’t lost. While I still don’t think Florida State could survive one of its sloppy starts against Oregon or Alabama, the Seminoles have the talent to beat anybody else playing that way. The committee has also dropped the ‘Noles to No. 3, and it could conceivably drop Florida State again after a three-point win over Boston College, although that seems unlikely.
The Bears handled Oklahoma State 49-28 in the rain in Waco. That’s not a huge achievement this season, but a committee enamored of the game control stat probably respects a wire-to-wire win. Of course, the committee still thinks TCU’s résumé -- read: its victory over Minnesota -- overcomes Baylor’s head-to-head win against the Horned Frogs on Oct. 11. The committee also has Mississippi State ahead of the Bears despite the fact that neither played a quality nonconference foe and Baylor has a superior best win (TCU). I disagree, but I don’t get a vote.
A random ranking
Time to rank the best Thanksgiving side dishes. Hopefully this will be an annual fixture of Punt, Pass & Pork. Warning: No. 1 is the king of all side dishes and will never, ever drop. Its meal control metric is off the charts.
1. Mac and cheese
2. Mashed potatoes and gravy
3. Stuffing or, if below the Mason-Dixon Line, dressing
4. Sweet potato casserole
5. Cranberry sauce (can-shaped)
6. Cranberry sauce (non can-shaped)
7. Green-bean casserole
8. Pillsbury crescent rolls
9. Squash casserole
10. Sister Schubert’s rolls
Play of the week
Of course it looks familiar. Even before then-Boise State coach Chris Petersen and offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin -- now the Broncos head coach -- called a play named Statue on a two-point conversion in overtime of the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma on Jan. 1, 2007, you had run Statue approximately 4,372 times in your backyard or in the street in front of your house. And it never, ever worked. The defense never bought it. But inside the giant Hersey’s Kiss called University of Phoenix Stadium, Statue beat the Sooners, Ian Johnson proposed to Chrissy Popadics and we got another reminder there is indeed magic in this world.
Saturday in Laramie, Wyo., Harsin dialed up Statue again. The stakes weren’t so high. Instead of facing a one-point deficit, the Broncos nursed a 14-point lead. It wasn’t overtime. It was a few minutes before the half. Still, quarterback Grant Hedrick channeled his inner Jared Zabransky, and Jay Ajayi played the Johnson role, taking the ball past a bewildered Wyoming defense for a 20-yard touchdown.
Harsin added a pre-snap wrinkle: motion to the field side that made the defense believe the play was a swing pass to Jeremy McNichols. But everything else looked the same. Just as it did in Glendale, Ariz., the play ended in the end zone.
Big Ugly of the week
Michigan State senior Connor Kruse would've locked up this week’s honor had he cut the corner sooner and started running over dudes on this inspired offensive tackle end-around. Unfortunately, Kruse succumbed to the temptation that has sucked in so many backs. He kept running west when he should have gone north.
Instead, we’re splitting the award again this week. Since nearly 15 years passed between TCU’s LaDanian Tomlinson setting his FBS single-game rushing record and Wisconsin’s Gordon breaking it, I figured I wouldn’t need to honor another entire line as I did for the Badgers last week. Then Oklahoma freshman Samaje Perine went off for 427 yards in the Sooners’ 44-7 win over Kansas. Perine ran through gaping holes, so his linemen deserve much of the credit. Left tackle Tyrus Thompson, left guard Adam Shead, center Ty Darlington, right guard Nila Kasitati and right tackle Daryl Williams, you are the Big Uglies of the week.
1. Because I’d rather make mac and cheese and smoke a pork butt than write on Wednesday, and because you’d rather eat turkey (or pulled pork) than read on Thursday, we’re changing up the programming schedule. The Walkthrough will run on Wednesday this week, which means the written version of #DearAndy is getting preempted. However, since reader David Anderson posed a great question on Sunday, I figured it deserved an answer.
What is each Power Five league’s best out-of-conference win? Let’s give it a go.
• ACC: Virginia Tech 35, Ohio State 21 on Sept. 6 in Columbus. It’s a true road win over a national title contender by a team that went on to lose six of its next nine.
• Big 12: TCU 30, Minnesota 7 on Sept. 13 in Fort Worth. This one has aged like a fine wine. If the Golden Gophers beat Wisconsin on Saturday and win the Big Ten West Division, it could help the Horned Frogs pop the cork on the playoff.
• Big Ten: Indiana 31, Missouri 27 on Sept. 20 in Columbia. Unlike TCU, Indiana can’t take advantage of beating a potential division winner. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld threw for 252 yards against the Tigers, but he suffered a shoulder injury at Iowa three games later and was out for the season. The Hoosiers now stand at 3-8 and will go winless in the Big Ten if they can’t beat Purdue. Meanwhile, Missouri can win its second consecutive SEC East crown by defeating Arkansas on Friday. Unfortunately for the Tigers, that loss to Indiana is an albatross that could drag down the entire SEC should Mizzou win the East and then the league title game.
• Pac-12: Oregon 46, Michigan State 27 on Sept. 6 in Eugene. The Spartans didn’t go on to win the Big Ten East, but they have otherwise held up their end of the bargain. Michigan State has won eight of nine since this loss.
• SEC: LSU 28, Wisconsin 24 on Aug. 30 in Houston. Given the Badgers’ late surge, this one narrowly edges Auburn’s 20-14 win at Kansas State on Sept. 18.
2. Speaking of Wisconsin, congratulations to the Badgers. They were handed a West Division title by the intern who ran the Big Ten’s official football Twitter feed on Saturday. A tweet encouraging Wisconsin fans to buy tickets for the Big Ten championship game was ultimately taken down, but not before it enraged and/or amused Minnesota fans who know their team still has a chance to claim a trip to Indianapolis by winning on Saturday in Madison.
3. While plenty of deserved praise has been heaped upon Florida State freshman tailback Dalvin Cook for helping the Seminoles out of jams against Louisville, Miami and Boston College in recent weeks, the ‘Noles’ most consistent player has been quietly going about the business of keeping his team undefeated. Receiver Rashad Greene will play his final game at Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday against Florida, and here’s hoping he gets a long, loud ovation. Greene, who made two catches for first downs during the game-clinching drive against Boston College, finished with eight grabs for 106 yards. He also broke the school record for career receiving yards. He already held the school record for career receptions.
Greene isn’t flashy, but he’s always effective. He will wind up leading Florida State in receiving yards in all four years of his career, and with the exception of 2013 -- when a coming-of-age Kelvin Benjamin drew a lot of attention -- Greene has had to pile up yards with the defense keenly aware that he is the primary target. So far this season Greene has 83 receptions for 1,148 yards with five touchdowns.
4. For the seniors at Arkansas, college football has been a wild ride. (Insert your own motorcycle reference here.) Recruited by Bobby Petrino to a program then on the rise, they went through Petrino’s ouster, a sad year under John L. Smith and an 0-8 SEC season in 2013. Now, after a 30-0 win over Ole Miss, the Razorbacks are bowl eligible. Bret Bielema promised to rebuild the program, and his team looks like it will be a handful in ’15. Meanwhile, those seniors will enjoy one extra game in the ’14 campaign. “I was sitting in the locker room after we do our little celebration song and just remembering the times where my freshman year, we were doing that a lot,” Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers said. “For us to go through some rough times and be back on the rise, it was very humbling.”
5. Speaking of being back on the rise, UCLA finally looks like the team it was hyped to be in the preseason. Even a prominent USC fan -- whose son at one point was getting recruited by both schools -- had to give it up for the Bruins.
6. Fox reporter Jill Painter described UCLA's Jim Mora as “very demonstrative” when he discussed why the Bruins aren’t talking about the playoff right now.
That was actually pretty tame. This is how a Mora man gets demonstrative while trying to avoid talking about the playoffs.
7. After a second consecutive loss to Minnesota, Nebraska seems to be stuck in the same place it has been since coach Bo Pelini arrived prior to the 2008 season. The Cornhuskers are 8-3, which is good. They’ve lost to the best three teams on their schedule, which is not. If they split their final two, they’ll have lost four games in all seven seasons with Pelini at the helm.
I posted a video on Saturday night that some took as a call for Pelini’s firing. It really wasn’t. It was a question. Does the Nebraska administration consider this plateau acceptable? The answer may seem easy at first glance, but it is not.
Things could be better, but they also could be a lot worse. My guess is that everyone in Lincoln expects championships, but it’s tough to justify firing a guy who wins nine games a year. I could write an entire column on this, but I already wrote it last year. Just update the numbers and it reads basically the same.
8. Sometimes, we reporters don’t ask the obvious question because we know no one will answer it at that precise moment. That’s why Mark Helfrich didn’t get many queries about whether Marcus Mariota is leaving Oregon after this season from the paid press this week. Fortunately, Charlie Pape, a sixth-grader at Eugene’s O’Hara Catholic School, isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions in the most entertaining manner imaginable.
9. Congratulations to Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, which played to a 0-0 tie at the end of regulation on Saturday and may have supplanted the 2008 Auburn-Mississippi State game (Auburn won 3-2) as the worst 60 minutes of power-conference football in the current century. “We put offensive football back 100 years,” said Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson, whose team won 6-3 in double overtime yet has not rushed all season for as many yards as Oklahoma’s Perine did on Saturday.
The losing side was even more aghast. “You name it, we didn’t do it,” Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler told Andy Bitter of the Roanoke Times. “We turned the ball over. We didn’t run the ball well. We didn’t protect well. We didn’t throw it well. You name it, that’s what we did, and that’s the result.” The Hokies now have to beat Virginia on Saturday or the nation’s second longest bowl streak will be snapped. The loss also turns up the heat on Frank Beamer, who should be able to go out as he chooses but looks increasingly at risk of losing his job.
10. Congratulations are also in order for Harvard, which beat Yale on a Conner Hempel-to-Andrew Fischer touchdown pass with 55 seconds remaining to win the Ivy League title and cap a perfect 10-0 season. Also, thanks to the Ivy Leaguers from both schools for providing the season’s best set of College GameDay signs. The cream of the crop? Yale cites Wikipedia.
What’s eating Andy?
Nothing. This is the week we give thanks, so it would be silly to complain. Thanks to my wife and kids for putting up with my travel schedule and generally making me the luckiest person alive. Thanks to SI for letting me have my dream job. And thanks to all of you for taking the time to read.
What’s Andy eating?
The photos of this week’s culinary adventure will not do the dishes justice, so you’ll have to take my word that the offerings of Paul’s Pot Pies in Marietta, Ga., are heavenly circles of delight.
Unfortunately, there are few attractive ways to photograph the inside of a pot pie. What makes them so divine is the gooey mélange of ingredients bubbling beneath a light, flaky crust. Unfortunately, photos of gooey mélanges tend to just look gooey. So, trust me when I tell you that it is in your best interest to visit Paul’s.
If you live in the metro Atlanta area, you can trick your family into thinking of you as a master of the kitchen by swinging by Paul’s on your way home from work and grabbing a few pies -- made that day and chilled -- to shove in the oven. All the hard work is done. You need only reap the rewards as your spouse and kids realize that pie crust, Italian sausage, mozzarella, provolone, zucchini, bell peppers, onion and tomato sauce (the Italian Sausage Pie) is even better than a calzone.
Or, if you’re just passing through, call about 40 minutes ahead of time and have a fresh pie baked to order. I did not do this. I assumed Paul’s to be a traditional restaurant. It is not. There are no seats, only pies and more pies. Fortunately, Paul’s is situated on Marietta’s beautiful downtown square. If the weather is nice -- as it was this past Thursday -- take a stroll and wait for your pie(s) to cook.
I ordered a six-inch Italian Sausage and a six-inch Chicken Pot Pie. The crust mixed with the sauce and sausage gives the Italian Sausage an irresistible blend of savory and spicy, but the Chicken Pot Pie is the mainstay and star. There is nothing unusual about it. It has white-meat chicken, carrots, peas and corn in a suspension that never gets too soupy and a crust that makes a main course taste like dessert. Nothing about the ingredients makes it any different than any chicken pot pie you’ve had. Its absurdly competent construction will make it the best one you’ve ever had.