Find the First Loss: Analyzing the schedules of the nation's remaining undefeated teams; Punt, Pass & Pork
We're still a little more than two weeks away from the first College Football Playoff selection committee rankings, but with most teams exactly halfway through their regular-season schedules, we can't help but begin arguing about which teams deserve inclusion in the final four.
Every year, we spend October debating the merits of various undefeated teams as if those teams will still be undefeated when the committee releases the only ranking that actually matters in early December. History tells us most of these teams will have tasted defeat by then, but we can't stop ourselves from imagining a 2009-style orgy of the undefeated.
Recent history suggests that won't happen. From 2011–15, the median number of undefeated teams after Week 7 was 10. In each of those seasons, only one team remained undefeated following championship Saturday in December. Of those teams that entered bowl season undefeated, only one (Florida State in '13) won the national title. There are two takeaways here:
1. There is a high probability the team you think is the best in the country will get beaten before season's end.
2. You may still be correct about that team being the best.
So let's look at the 11 remaining undefeated teams and try to figure out when each will lose. One (Alabama or Texas A&M) is guaranteed to lose on Saturday. At least two more (Ohio State or Michigan, Baylor or West Virginia) are guaranteed to lose later. But this season isn't going to end with eight undefeated teams. That's about the only prediction I feel completely safe making.
I cringed every time I heard someone say on Saturday that the Crimson Tide had separated themselves from the pack of undefeated teams. That's a terrible jinx to lay on a team that will close a tough pre-bye week stretch with perhaps its toughest opponent all season. Yes, Alabama combines a defense that ranks eighth in the nation in yards per play allowed (4.3)—and has scored eight touchdowns—with an offense that ranks ninth in the nation in yards per play (seven) and fifth in the nation in yards per rush (6.2). And yes, coach Nick Saban's greatest strength is his ability to coax a consistent performance out of an age group not given to consistent behavior. But history is not on Alabama's side here.
Potential first loss: Saturday's visit from Texas A&M is the obvious choice. The Aggies have a ferocious pass rush, an experienced quarterback (Trevor Knight) who has beaten Alabama before, a deep receiving corps and a resurgent run game. If this sounds like Ole Miss with a running game, that's a pretty accurate description. If the Tide get past the Aggies, they get a week off before facing LSU in Baton Rouge on Nov. 5. The Tigers are an unknown at the moment, because they've only played two games with Ed Orgeron running the team and Steve Ensminger running the offense. Also, neither of those games have included Leonard Fournette. It remains to be seen whether the Tigers are a threat to the Tide, but we should know more after LSU faces Ole Miss on Saturday.
It's tough to get a read on the Bears because their non-conference schedule was (as usual) hot garbage, and they haven't faced any other apparent Big 12 title contenders yet. They may go undefeated, and I'm of the opinion that the selection committee won't leave an undefeated Power 5 champ out of the playoff. Of course, no Big 12 team has gone undefeated in conference play since the league began the nine-game round-robin schedule in 2012.
Potential first loss: We should learn a lot more about the Bears in their next three games. Baylor plays at Texas on Oct. 29. The Longhorns beat an injury-ravaged Bears team last season, but Baylor will be much healthier this time around. After that, TCU comes to Waco. On Nov. 12, Baylor goes to Oklahoma. If the Bears survive that stretch undefeated, it may set up a de facto Big 12 title game between Baylor and West Virginia in Morgantown on Dec. 3.
Boise State (6–0)
The Broncos went up 25 in the third quarter and then withstood a rally from Colorado State on Saturday to come away with a 28–23 win. Boise State also faced a deficit for the first time all season when the Rams kicked a first-quarter field goal to go up 3–0. (The Broncos then scored four consecutive touchdowns.) Boise State has already beaten its two Power 5 opponents (Oregon State and Washington State), but the road the rest of the way won't be easy.
Potential first loss: Boise State's toughest remaining game—besides a potential matchup with San Diego State in the Mountain West championship game—could be Thursday's visit from BYU. The Cougars are 4–3, but their losses came by a combined seven points to Utah, UCLA and West Virginia. BYU has won three in a row since.
The Tigers barely survived a visit from NC State on Saturday, and they might never have made to overtime to pull out the win had Wolfpack coaches called for a run instead of a pass on first-and-10 from the Clemson 12-yard line with 30 seconds remaining. Clemson's Dexter Lawrence sacked Ryan Finley on that play for a four-yard loss, making Kyle Bambard's ensuing field goal attempt just a little bit tougher. Bambard missed, and the Tigers got another chance.
With the exception of the Louisville win—and not even the entirety of that game—Clemson has not been as dominant in 2016 as it was in 2015. There seems to be a little 2015 Ohio State in these Tigers, and that eventually could lead to a loss for the Power 5 team that seems to have the easiest remaining path to an undefeated season.
Potential first loss: Clemson's Oct. 29 visit to Florida State doesn't look like such a foregone conclusion now. Unfortunately for Louisville, which needs two Clemson losses to get back into the ACC title race, the Tigers will be heavily favored the rest of the way.
Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images
By taking Ohio State to overtime on Saturday, Wisconsin confirmed that its narrow loss to Michigan said more about the Badgers' skill than the Wolverines' limitations. Michigan and Ohio State seem to be on a collision course to play for a division title on Nov. 26 in Columbus, but Wisconsin's play suggests the Big Ten title game wouldn't be a gimme for the East champ.
Potential first loss: The Buckeyes, of course.
The Cornhuskers withstood a rally at Indiana on Saturday to stay perfect. They've lived dangerously at times this season, but that isn't a reason to criticize. Nebraska lost all of its close games in the first half of last season, so the fact that the Cornhuskers have found a way each week is a huge improvement.
Potential first loss: The Oct. 29 matchup between Nebraska and Wisconsin in Madison could decide the Big Ten West title, and Wisconsin—the nation's best two-loss team—probably will be favored.
Ohio State (6–0)
Wisconsin pushed the Buckeyes to the edge on Saturday, proving Ohio State isn't invincible. Of course, this probably means beating Ohio State requires a defense as good as Wisconsin's. That's a short list of teams.
Potential first loss: The Wolverines, of course.
Texas A&M (6–0)
The Aggies won in double overtime against Tennessee on Oct. 8 despite allowing 6.8 yards a play. That's not going to work against Alabama, because the Tide are capable of milking the clock if they take a lead, and the Aggies might not get enough possessions to win. That said, if Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall can harass Jalen Hurts in the passing game and contain Hurts in the running game, Texas A&M has a chance to take control of the SEC West race.
Potential first loss: Texas A&M goes to Tuscaloosa on Saturday. Most teams lose there.
The Huskies look like the most complete team in the Pac-12. They also look like a playoff team. Still, the league's nine-game schedule is a grind. Oregon State is improving, but the Beavers shouldn't threaten Washington this week. After that, three of Washington's last five (at Utah on Oct. 29, vs. USC on Nov. 12 and at Washington State on Nov. 25) could be tricky. And that's before the Pac-12 championship on Dec. 2.
Potential first loss: Utah—currently 6–1 and leading the Pac-12 South—isn't as explosive as Washington on offense, but the Utes like to beat up opponents at the line of scrimmage just like the Huskies do. A trip to Utah next week could trip up Washington.
West Virginia (5–0)
It's time to take the Mountaineers seriously after they shut down Texas Tech's offense to 4.9 yards a play—2.8 yards a play less than the Red Raiders' season average—in a 48–17 win in Lubbock. So few Air Raid teams can pull off even a passable defense, and Tony Gibson's group has been downright dominant at times. The Mountaineers don't have a brutal schedule stretch like they did last year when they had to play the Big 12's four best teams in consecutive games. They do, however, have a few tough spots they must navigate if they hope to win their first conference title in their new league.
Potential first loss: TCU had a bye week last week and will visit Morgantown on Saturday. After that, the Mountaineers head to Stillwater to face Oklahoma State.
Western Michigan (7–0)
Even with wins against two Big Ten teams (Northwestern and Illinois) the Broncos probably won't be able to Row The Boat into the playoff even if they go undefeated. Such is life in the MAC. But depending on what happens in the American Athletic Conference and the Mountain West, they might be able to play their way into a New Year's Six bowl. Western Michigan just has to keep winning. Given the fact that they just hammered MAC East co-leader Akron 41–0 on the road, the Broncos might have the best chance of anyone at finishing the season undefeated.
Potential first loss: Western Michigan plays consecutive Tuesday night games on the road against Ball State (Nov. 1) and Kent State (Nov. 8). MACtion cares not for our probability or logic.
A Random Ranking
Our topic this week comes from reader Tyler Rathjen, who probably had no idea how many difficult choices I'd have to make to whittle this list down to 10.
1. Cobra Commander, G.I. Joe
He's as evil as he is incompetent. This makes him the perfect cartoon villain. And shame on the show's creators for thinking they could replace him with Serpentor, who was more evil, more incompetent and less likable.
2. The Brain, Pinky and The Brain
We had a brief debate on Twitter as to whether The Brain qualified as a villain. He was, after all, the protagonist of his own show. We ultimately decided he helped usher in today's Era of the Antihero. You're welcome, Walter White.
3. The Joker, Batman: The Animated Series
If you've been reading this space long, you know I consider Mark Hamill's Joker the best Joker. You also know I think it's Hamill's best performance—and that includes Luke Skywalker.
4. Wile E. Coyote, Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies
If he'd only filed a lawsuit against the Acme company for all those defective products, he could have bought his own island.
5. Plankton, Spongebob Squarepants
The Chum Bucket would never get reviewed in the What's Andy Eating section of this column.
6. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, Phineas and Ferb
7. Sideshow Bob, The Simpsons
Of course I'm going to embed the rake scene.
8. Megatron, Transformers
But definitely not Starscream, because Starscream was a punk. Now watch something that traumatized seven-year-old Andy as the ultimate 80s soundtrack song plays.
9. Scar, The Lion King
I'm not sure how I'd react if ever met Jeremy Irons in person. He was that good as Scar.
10. Skeletor, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
How did a skeleton get so jacked? It was the '80s, man.
Projected College Football Playoff field
Wait. Didn't I just finish explaining how Alabama might lose a game? And now I'm moving the Crimson Tide up a spot from last week? Yes. Because the past few years have shown us that losing a game doesn't keep teams from winning the national title, and Alabama is playing like the best all-around squad at the moment.
2. Ohio State
So it is possible to slow down the Buckeyes' offense. That has to give everyone else in the Big Ten hope. Saturday's result also makes me wonder about something else. What if Ohio State and Michigan meet as undefeated teams on Nov. 26? And what if Wisconsin then beats the winner in the Big Ten title game? Wouldn't the Badgers in that scenario be the perfect choice for the first two-loss team to get serious consideration for the playoff?
The Huskies will play every game the rest of the way with a giant target on their backs. Like Saban, Chris Petersen is excellent at getting this age group to perform in a consistent fashion, and he'll need to be at the height of his powers in the coming weeks.
This is more of a vote of lowered confidence in Clemson than any change in how I feel about the Wolverines, who were off this past weekend. Clemson could earn that confidence back in Tallahassee on Oct. 29. Michigan could also keep putting the hammer down on overmatched opponents until the week of Thanksgiving. Either way, these teams still control their destinies.
Big Ugly of the Week
This week's award goes to two Alabama offensive linemen who could have been the Tide's weak link and instead helped their team dominate at Tennessee. Right tackle Jonah Williams is going to be a superstar, but he was still a true freshman playing his third SEC road game. Right guard Lester Cotton was replacing starter Alphonse Taylor, who missed the game with a concussion.
Williams and Cotton consistently moved their men in the run game, and that helped quarterback Jalen Hurts make some excellent choices on read option plays as the Tide racked up 438 rushing yards on 49 carries. A perfect example is this zone block on a read option play. Cotton (66) and Williams (73) wipe out a defensive tackle and a linebacker—creating a pile that temporarily held up every Tennessee defender on the back side. That left a huge hole for Hurts, who ran 45 yards for a touchdown.
1. The coaching carousel made its most predictable turn Sunday when Purdue fired Darrell Hazell, who is 9–33 in four seasons and 3–24 in Big Ten play. This likely will be the toughest Power 5 job to open this year, but here's new Purdue AD Mike Bobinski trying to explain why it's a good job.
2. As Purdue looks for the next Joe Tiller, let's remember that if you're a bottom feeder in a league, you need to find a coach that makes your team different in a good way. I'm not saying the Boilermakers should hire the high school coach in Arkansas who doesn't punt, but I'm saying the Boilermakers need to hire someone like the high school coach in Arkansas who doesn't punt.
3. Speaking of schools that hired coaches who make their teams different in a good way, Dino Babers coached Syracuse to its biggest win of this century on Saturday. Baylor, Tulsa, Texas and Syracuse are the only schools that run this particular offense, and on Syracuse's side of the country, it's going to be a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators until they become more accustomed to dealing with it. Syracuse isn't going to beat many teams getting off the bus, but that offense makes the Orange a much tougher out and makes them capable of beating heavily favored opponents. Take notes, Purdue.
4. The winners of the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry traditionally get celebratory cigars. The Crimson Tide's Calvin Ridley enjoyed his on the field at Neyland Stadium until stadium security ushered Ridley back into the locker room. The video Ridley posted has since been deleted, but Saturday Down South has all the screen shots.
5. A bad year for officials got worse thanks to the American Athletic Conference crew working the Tulsa-Houston game. Houston escaped with a 38–31 win after stuffing the Golden Hurricane on the goal line as time expired, but that play wasn't the problem. It was the play that came before it. Tulsa had first-and-goal at the Houston 1-yard line with 15 seconds remaining, and the Golden Hurricane opted against substituting. This meant Houston could substitute at its own risk. The Cougars ran two defensive linemen on and ran two off. The problem was the two running on were offsides and the two running off didn't get off the field in time. So Houston was offsides and had 13 men on the field. The officials threw zero flags. Good job. Good effort.
6. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is lucky the exchange he had with a Stanford strength coach following Saturday's 17–10 loss didn't get captured on video. The confrontation was described by reporters at the game, but that isn't nearly as sexy or provocative as video of the incident would have been. At 2–5 with little hope of pulling out of the spiral, Kelly doesn't need sexy and provocative.
Kelly said in his postgame news conference that the Stanford staffer brushed passed him and said "Bye bye." Feel free to guess at whether that's a reference to Kelly's job security or a reference to the fact that the Cardinal were about to fly back to California. (Occam's Snark Razor suggests it's the former.) Kelly probably isn't in danger of losing his job, but he can't afford any weirdness to go along with all the losing. This is a down year for a guy who has done quite well in his time at Notre Dame. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick is keenly aware that Kelly's job is more difficult than the other ones with similar expectations. That's why I wouldn't expect any change at the top in South Bend. If this happens again next year, that's an entirely different conversation. But as long as Kelly doesn't explode on camera, he's probably pretty safe this season.
7. Congratulations to Western Michigan tailback Jarvion Franklin, who carried 33 times for 281 yards and a touchdown in the Broncos' 41–0 win at Akron on Saturday.
8. Rest in peace, former Auburn defensive end Quentin Groves. Groves died in his sleep at age 32 in Trinidad on Saturday.
9. Rest in peace, former Tulsa defensive end Dennis Byrd. Byrd, 50, was killed Saturday in a car crash in Oklahoma. Byrd was best known for learning to walk again less than a year after suffering a paralyzing, career-ending injury while playing for the New York Jets in 1992.
10. Samford linebacker Deion Pierre enlisted his teammates — and Ed Sheeran — to help him propose to girlfriend Jasmine Henderson on Saturday after the Bulldogs beat VMI.
What's Eating Andy?
I mentioned above that I had to make some brutally tough choices in the Random Ranking section. Here, in no particular order, are the honorable mention villains who just missed the cut: Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget, Gargamel from The Smurfs, Boris and Natasha from Bullwinkle and Friends, Mumm-Ra from ThunderCats, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty.
What's Andy Eating?
Plenty of restaurants have a celebrity wall. Look, it's Snooki posing with a burrito the size of her head! It's Dweezil Zappa enjoying some chili cheese fries! Cattleack Barbecue has a celebrity wall, too. But the celebrities come from a very specific world. As diners wait in line to order, they can peruse portraits of some of the Lone Star State's finest pitmasters.
There's Jeremiah "Baby J" McKenzie of Baby J's BBQ in Palestine, Texas. There's Roy Perez from Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas. There's Miss Tootsie Tomanetz of the great Snow's Barbecue in Lexington, Texas. There's a tribute to Miss Tootsie's late son, Hershel, who tended the pit with his mom until his far-too-early death in March. There's Justin Fourton of Pecan Lodge in Dallas. From a business standpoint, he's a competitor. But if you've tasted a Pecan Lodge beef rib, you know commercial concerns couldn't keep him off this wall of honor.
This little joint tucked into an office park near the Galleria mall in north Dallas draws more conventional celebrities as well. While I waited in line, Emmitt Smith dropped by to say hello to the staff. But owners Todd and Misty David obviously care deeply about the craft of cooking barbecue, and it shows in their own cooking. After a lunch at Cattleack, it's clear the Davids belong alongside all those pitmasters they revere.
Todd David owned a disaster recovery company for 30 years before selling in 2010. After cashing out, David decided to turn his hobby into his profession by opening a barbecue catering company. In 2013, the Davids opened the restaurant. Even though it was only open seven hours a week (10:30 am to 2 p.m. on Thursday and Friday), the place quickly became one of the hottest barbecue destinations in the state. The Davids have recently added hours; they're open the first Saturday of every month from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. This probably still isn't enough to satisfy anyone who has tasted their moist brisket or juicy pork ribs.
I had hoped to try Cattleack in September, but a flight delay landed me in Dallas too late. On Oct. 7, I was driving from Fayetteville, Ark., to Dallas to film something with new partner Fox at the Texas State Fair. A reader tweeted that morning to ask if I still planned to try Cattleack. I was driving on Highway 69 through eastern Oklahoma—near the sign that declares that hitchhikers might be inmates escaping from the Mack Alford Correctional Center. I looked at the clock and got excited. During a fuel stop a few minutes later, I plugged Cattleack's address into the GPS. I could be there by noon. This. Might. Work.
When I arrived, the line was about 20 minutes long. Nothing had sold out according to the sign behind the counter. I texted Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn—his job is real, and it's spectacular—to make sure I didn't miss any must-order item. He texted back quickly: "Order me a beef rib. I'll see you in a few minutes." Vaughn had just eaten a giant burger (for work), but he wasn't about to miss a chance to have some Cattleack.
I had planned to order a beef rib anyway. Remember the Bronto Rib scene in the Flintstones' closing theme?
One of Cattleack's beef ribs looks like one of what Fred ordered. A huge pillow of meat covered in a thick salt-and-peppered bark pulls off a giant bone with a gentle tug. Cattleack doesn't get too fancy with the rib. David cooks it to the perfect temperature and lets the meat and rendered fat do the rest. The same goes for the moist brisket, which boasts a prominent smoke ring and equally delicious bark.
I also ordered a pound of pork ribs. As soon as the man cutting the meat said "It's a good day for pork ribs," I was tempted to order 10 more pounds. I didn't think the diners behind me would appreciate that, so I kept the order manageable. But "a good day" was the understatement of the year. A pig's spare ribs don't typically yield a thick pad of meat the way cow ribs do. But these ribs had hunks of meat about an inch-and-a-half thick jutting off the bone. The Davids chose their pork supplier well, because this raw material combined with their cooking expertise produced some of the best pork ribs I've ever eaten.
Vaughn agreed with me on the pork ribs, and we managed to plow through about three pounds of meat in one sitting. He got to take a little beef rib home for the kids. I got to take a little brisket back to my hotel. The pork ribs, meanwhile, ended up as a pile of thoroughly cleaned bones.