Post-Gazette sports reporter Paul Zeise blogs about the world of sports, and Pittsburgh sports in particular, with an assist from Seth Rorabaugh and his Morning Links. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulZeise and Seth @emptynetters.
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The four major undefeated teams all survived.
Barely in the case of two of them, but they all live another week and keep their national title hopes alive.
And just as we thought – Oregon got a little bump from finally playing – and beating – a quality opponent so the Ducks nudged passed Notre Dame and into the third spot behind Alabama and Kansas State.
But here is a closer look at the top four teams.
1.) Alabama: The Crimson Tide got over a big obstacle Saturday when they escaped Death Valley and LSU, 21-17. The Tide trailed the game late and probably should have trailed by more except for some really questionable decisions by Les Miles and a poorly executed field goal attempt. But they mounted a late drive and scored the game winning score with less than minute to play. The Crimson Tide are not completely out of the woods yet though as they still have two more obstacles standing between them and another undefeated season: A tricky home game against Johnny “Football” and Texas A&M this Saturday and then a likely SEC title game matchup with Georgia. In between, the Tide will play Western Carolina and Auburn and I’m not sure which game is actually going to be tougher for them as both teams are awful.
2.) Kansas State: The Wildcats got another quality win – over Oklahoma State – and they were fairly dominant in the game. But that isn’t what fans are focused on as the big question going forward is this – when will Collin Klein be healthy? Klein got hurt – an apparent concussion - in this game and didn’t play most of the second half. There seems to be optimism coming out of Manhattan that he will be able to play Saturday against TCU but that’s Bill Snyder controlling the message so who really knows where he stands. What we do know is that team showed something in the second half by hanging on and thriving with a backup quarterback in the game. K-State will have a tough game either way with TCU and then the season finale against Texas. Unlike Alabama, though, there is no conference championship game to get through so the Wildcats finish line is closer than the Crimson Tides.
3.) Oregon: The Ducks offense was impressive against USC. The defense was awful. And that is why it is so hard for me to believe they are going to win out – we’ve seen too many of these PlayStation offense teams lose a game because the offense has an off day and the defense can’t stop anyone. The Ducks should handle Cal this week but then they finish with games against ranked opponents Stanford and Oregon State – and that game is in Corvallis where the Beavers are really difficult to deal with. And then there is a Pac-12 Championship game and it could very well be against a 10-2 UCLA team that could easily score enough points to upset them. If, however, Oregon survives all that, the Ducks will have a good chance to slide past Kansas State and into the second spot.
4.) Notre Dame: Obviously a sore spot around here as the Irish survived with a triple overtime win over Pitt – 29-26 – in a game the Panthers really should have won. Pitt was the victim of some tough calls down the stretch, a missed call in overtime (the two No. 2s on the field) and then Kevin Harper missed a very makeable game-winning field goal in the second overtime. It was a lucky win for the Irish but the bottom line is Notre Dame survived and if you are going to win a national title, sometimes you have to be a little lucky and find a way to survive these kinds of games. Notre Dame has two games against bad teams before a season-ending finale at USC. An undefeated season seems possible but it will be interesting to see where that leaves the Irish given how much they have struggled in so many games.
Not Joking Around: Well, the SEC officially has a second coaching position available now that the administration at Kentucky took time away from gushing over the Men’s Basketball program to realize just how horrible the football program had become and fired Joker Phillips. I’m thinking that it is probably the correct call given that the Wildcats, who are 12-23 under Phillips in three seasons, just lost 40-0….TO VANDERBILT. I know it is in the SEC and all that but let’s be honest, this is not a great job so I don’t expect an A-list of guys but this school should be able to find someone who can do for Kentucky what Paul Rhoads has done at Iowa State – make a tough job in a power conference competitive and relevant. Nobody is asking the Wildcats to compete with Florida and Georgia annually but they need to get to a point where they can upset teams occasionally and hover around that 7-win mark each year.
SEC coaching turnover: As I just wrote Kentucky is open, we know Arkansas is open but the SEC could have a few more jobs come open and it will be interesting to see who fills them. The biggest name could be Tennessee, which is right now 0-5 in the SEC. Tennessee is a program that has always left me with the “should be better” feeling, especially in the past decade. It is a school with a lot of resources, 100,000+ fans in the stands every week, a great conference, etc., etc. but in order to be successful the Vols need a bulldog recruiter. That state isn’t that fertile with prospects and the Vols coach needs to go to throughout the South to find them but that means bumping heads with SEC teams in their home states. But the right coach could make the Vols a power and unfortunately it doesn’t seem like Derek Dooley is that guy – he seems like he is in over his head to be honest.
The other interesting job watch is at Auburn, where Gene Chizik has transformed the Tigers from national champion to really awful SEC bottom feeder in a matter of a few years. Auburn fans aren’t happy, especially when Nick Saban has Alabama rolling like it is right up the road. And here is the tough part for Chizik – he has no track record of success other than that Cam Newton year so there is no reason to believe he can get this thing turned around.
Obviously Tennessee and Auburn haven’t fired these guys yet and anything can happen but if Auburn opens up the one name I’ve heard which would turn that league upside down is Bobby Petrino. If he gets that job, the rivalry between Alabama and Auburn goes to a whole different level – and that could be kind of fun.
SEC strength: OK, I get it – the SEC is strong and all that stuff but I’m sorry, it is a little overrated and that much can be determined by looking at the BCS standings. Alabama is No. 1, Georgia is No. 5, Florida is No. 6, LSU is No. 7 and South Carolina is No. 8. So five of the top eight teams in the country are in the SEC – which is laughable for this reason. Take a look at the SEC’s nonconference schedule and tell me what excites you in terms of defining wins beyond Alabama over Michigan and LSU over Washington.
I’m not saying these teams aren’t good but all of their quality wins are against each other. South Carolina to me is the biggest farce in this list – the Gamecocks have two losses, have nonconference wins over UAB and East Carolina and outside of a win over Georgia have done nothing impressive.
But they are getting boosted by the strength of the SEC.
I think the league is strong, it is very good, it is the best league, but there isn’t five of the top eight teams in the country in this league.
What about us…: There is one other undefeated team in the country beyond the top four teams – Louisville. And the Cardinals just keep on rolling. I know people look at some of their close wins and say they aren’t that strong but like I wrote about the top teams, you have to grind out some wins on your way to undefeated. That’s the thing about going undefeated and why it is so tough – a lot of teams with one loss (are you listening Florida State) have that one game where things don’t work, where they have to grind it out and find a way and don’t get it done. So any team at this point which is 9-0 deserves a lot of credit. The question is, can they finish the season now. Clearly with games left against Syracuse, Connecticut and Rutgers, the Cardinals are a threat to go undefeated. The question is will that be enough to get them into the top five? My guess is yes, but the Cardinals won’t sniff the national title game even if there is only one other undefeated team left standing.
Octane needs a boost: The coach we all love to make fun of because he makes it so easy, Todd Graham, actually looked like his “High Octane” football was going to take off in the desert as he had Arizona State at 5-1, ranked and the Sun Devils were the talk of the Pac 12. Then they started playing varsity teams and it has been a three-game losing streak and given that they still have to play USC and at Arizona, it is entirely possible Arizona State could finish 6-6 – which is what his record was last year at Pitt. Hmmm, maybe, just maybe Tino Sunseri taking sacks wasn’t the only problem with that high octane system…
More Trouble in the Desert: Arizona was coming off two big wins in a row and looked like a team that had turned the corner. Of course, then the Wildcats go and get crushed by UCLA by 56 points and you start to wonder where the program actually is. Obviously there is good progress being made but there is still a long way to go. The good news is there is really a great opportunity for the Wildcats to get to an 8-4 season as they have Colorado and Utah and then a home finale against high octane football. That would put them in a decent bowl game and by that point, people will hopefully forget that they lost two games by a combined 105 points this year.
Game of the Week: Texas 31, Texas Tech 22. There was actually some talk in Austin a few weeks back that maybe it was time to push Mack Brown out the door as it seemed like the Longhorns had slipped and were much closer to the Big 12 cellar than they are the top of the conference. But this was their third win in a row and now at 7-2 they have a chance to get to 10 wins – and with a bowl win, 11. In this game, the Longhorns got a big day from their quarterback, David Ash (264 yards passing) and their red zone defense was excellent as well. But this game wasn’t put away until the special teams blocked a field goal late. So for now, people in Austin are feeling a little bit better about the Longhorns, though the reality is they are still 1-9 in their last 10 games against teams who were ranked in the AP top 20.
Ugly Game of the Week: Northern Illinois 63, UMass 0. This was as ugly as it sounds and the Minutemen are finding the jump to Division I-A is not easy to do. UMass, which gave up 610 yards and turned the ball over four times, is a MAC team now and is 0-9 and looking like a serious threat to finish 0-12. Incidentally, UMass is one of only two winless teams left in the country. The other is Southern Miss but Southern Miss has at least been competitive in a few games and had an opportunity to win a couple as well. UMass has had its doors blown off every week.
Upset of the Week: I know in the standings and watching the games, this is not a huge upset but Indiana 24, Iowa 21 based on the history of the respective programs is still one that jumps off the page and it is fairly significant. That’s because the Hoosiers are now in position where, if they can beat Wisconsin, they will win the Leaders Division and play in the Big Ten title game – presumably against Nebraska. And given how bad the Big Ten has been this year, perhaps it would be fitting that a five-loss team would be in the Championship game.
Team of the Week: How about the job that Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M has done this year? We talk about a lot of Coach of the Year candidates, but how about Kevin Sumlin. Nobody seems to be talking about the Aggies, but the reality is they have two losses – a three-point loss to Florida and a five-point loss to LSU. That’s two Top Ten teams and this past weekend they went to Starkville and pounded Mississippi State, which was No. 15 in the BCS. A&M is a young team and Manziel is a redshirt freshman so this is clearly a team to watch in the near future. But that win over Mississippi State this weekend was indeed impressive. Don’t be surprised if the Aggies take top ranked Alabama down to the wire Saturday. This is a really good football team.
Player of the Week: It almost doesn’t seem right that Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray broke Peyton Manning’s single-game passing record in a game the Vols struggled against TROY but that’s what happened. And yeah, it was against Troy, but when someone breaks a record held by Peyton Manning, well, it deserves to be recognized. Bray completed 29 of 47 passes for a school record 530 yards and five touchdowns and the Vols beat Troy, 55-48.
Finally, here is my Top Ten – minus the SEC bias that seems to show up in every single poll these days:
1. Alabama (9-0) – The Crimson Tide are simply the best team in the country. And now they have shown they are most clutch team in the country as well. Sigh, the rich get richer….
2. Kansas State (9-0) – The status of Collin Klein is the biggest mystery about this team. If he is healthy, they have a chance to get to 12-0.
3. Oregon (9-0) – The Ducks offense is ridiculous, to be honest, but to get to 13-0 they better fix that defense as it is porous right now.
4. Notre Dame (9-0) – Survive and advance is the name of the game and the Irish did just that – barely – against Pitt. This is still a great defense.
5. Georgia (8-1) – The Bulldogs don’t feel legitimate to me and it won’t shock me if they get crushed by Alabama in the SEC title game. But as of now, their resume puts them here.
6. Florida (8-1) – Another ugly, disgusting, defensive win – 14-7 over Missouri – for the Gators but they keep on rolling. That offense needs to improve but this defense is one of the best units in the country.
7. Louisville (9-0) – The Cardinals have the worst resume of these ten teams because they are in the worst conference and beat nobody in the nonconference. But undefeated is undefeated.
8. Florida State (8-1) – The Seminoles national title hopes are probably fleeting at best but Jimbo Fisher needs to take this step – finish the season 11-1 and win the ACC. It has been way too long since Florida State won the ACC.
9. Clemson (8-1) – It helps that the ACC is bad but the Tigers are rolling right now, especially on offense. They still need an FSU loss to get into the ACC title game.
10. Oregon State (7-1) – Oregon State became the latest adopted team among Pitt fans as the Beavers beat Todd Graham and Arizona State
And here are five more to watch:
LSU (7-2) – The Tigers have a lot of talent, this much is evident, but something is missing with this team and they seem to leave you with the “should be better” feeling every week.
Texas A&M (7-2) – I really like this team and the way that it is playing right now. And Manziel is a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender.
Nebraska (7-2) - The Cornhuskers were destroyed by Ohio State a few weeks ago but have since won three in a row – including wins over Michigan and Michigan State - and now have control of the Legends Division .
Toledo (8-1) – We thought maybe Ohio would be the team from the MAC but Toledo has won eight in a row since losing a heartbreaker to Arizona in the season opener.
UCLA (7-2) – Another team on a three-game winning streak and that includes a 66-10 destruction of Arizona this past weekend. The Bruins are looking more and more like the best team in the Pac 12 South.
OK, that about does it for this week.
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