We are 10 weeks into the 2015 college football season and almost all the contenders have played nine times, with a single supplemental bye week. This previous Saturday took popular assumptions many of us had about the landscape of college football and put them into a wobbly dryer on high. The Heisman Trophy is seemingly back in the hands of a late season hero still to be determined, the Buckeyes were overtaken as the AP Poll's top team for the first time in months (I had a different major the last time Ohio State didn't sit atop the AP Poll), and the playoff hunt became more clear (in theory). With three-quarters of the season now behind us, we can now be sure that college football is in fact still the greatest sport in the world.
With four fingers symbolically above my head as college football enters its fourth quarter, lets take a few minutes to evaluate the current landscape in college football, one that may be as deceiving as it appears clear.
The Big 12's new best hope
It is only fitting that I start with this week's hot stock, Oklahoma State. Oklahoma State has been little more than an overrated formality in the polls up until this weekend. The Cowboys have snuck by poor teams all year, hiding deep in the Top 25 scores list running at the bottom of your screens. To be honest with all of you, I was fairly sure for almost a week that they had lost to Texas in Week 4, only to realize that they remained unbeaten a few weeks ago (oops). That is how under the radar Gundy's team has been, methodically waiting for their chance to enter the limelight.
Week 10 was their "The Decision"; all eyes were on Stillwater, and the boys in orange and black. Following their performance against a prophetic TCU team, there seems to be little chance that the Cowboys will leave the headlines of the sports media or blogosphere any time soon. They are, after all, the media's overcompensation pick of the week, and frankly I expect the College Football Playoff rankings to follow their lead.
I, however, have an alternative narrative to preach, one which Cowboys fans, and Big 12 administrators will not want to hear. Perhaps, no one has been sleeping on Oklahoma State. Perhaps TCU was just an above average team with a pretty good quarterback, and the clock was bound to strike midnight at some point on the Horned Frogs. Therefore Oklahoma State did secure a nice win, but maybe did not achieve the world beating status that polls and headlines may suggest.
Oklahoma State has beaten empirically average teams all year long, they have recently found their offensive prowess, but nothing about their resume (controlling for TCU) screams elite. What their resume does scream however, is Big 12 elite, which is a completely different thing, as recent bowl seasons have displayed. Thankfully, the Cowboys have a backloaded schedule, in which both ranked games will take place in Stillwater. Furthermore, the Cowboys have been fantastic in recent years in big games at home, with a memorable win over No. 4 Baylor in 2013. I tend to think the Cowboys will probably beat Baylor, taking their stock to new heights, but then pull an Oklahoma State and lose to its big brother, Oklahoma in the season finale. Prove me wrong Oklahoma State: you control your destiny.
Next, we shall move down south, to a conference that may be at its lowest point in years. The SEC is treading water, and the sports media is artificially propping it up worse than United States does pariah regimes. Three playoff "contenders" still exist in the greatest conference in any sport in the entire universe ever. The first is obvious in Nick Saban's Crimson Tide. They picked up an impressive win on Saturday night, defeating this year's Mississippi State, LSU, pretty handily. The second team that could potentially sneak into the playoff if every star in the entire universe were to align perfectly is LSU. And lastly, the third contender, running on fumes only, is Florida. Currently, it looks like Alabama will meet SEC East champion Florida in Atlanta early next month, but trips to the cow bell capital of the world (Starkville), and the scene of the "Kick-6" (Auburn) stand in the Tide's way.
Florida, who had to dig deep to pull off a late game score to beat Vanderbilt this past week, will not beat Alabama. Let's all remember that Houston beat that same Vanderbilt team 34-0 just the week before Florida's "football" win over the Commodores Saturday. Just think what Houston would do to Florida. I suspect that Florida is a product of the SEC East's mediocracy rather than being good at football on a relative scale. I expect the Gators to struggle mightily with an ordinary Florida State team during rivalry week, before sacrificing themselves to College Football's Sith Lord, Nick Saban. But just like I told Oklahoma State, please Florida, prove us all wrong.
Calm before the storm in the B1G
It finally happened, Michigan State's mediocracy caught up to them, and no punters, or fourth down spikes were even involved. Unfortunately for Dantonio and the Spartans, with their surprising loss to Nebraska this past Saturday, their hopes and dreams are all but gone. They will most likely finish at 10-2 and play Florida, LSU, or Mississippi State in the Capital One Bowl (or a similar Big Ten-SEC non-New Years Day game). It will be hard for senior leader Connor Cook to go out on a three year low but I suppose they could still beat Ohio State November 21st.
Michigan however is right back in the hunt for both the Big Ten East's crown and a trip to Indianapolis in early December to take on a probably undefeated or one loss Iowa squad. Unfortunately the worst nightmare seems to be unfolding for Ohio State Buckeye fans, two wins over Illinois and Michigan State, and there will be a one game season, in Ann Arbor over Thanksgiving weekend.
The Ohio State Buckeyes, getting less and less respect each week, won a tight game over Minnesota in Columbus this past Saturday, with back up quarterback Cardale Jones getting the start over suspended J.T. Barrett. Thankfully Barrett will return this week against a pesky Illinois team, which should be a good opportunity to fine tune for the Michigan State game in less than two weeks.
Thankfully for the Buckeyes, they just have to win four games, and they will be back in the College Football Playoff; unfortunately for the Buckeyes, three of those four games will be against top 15 teams. I haven't felt this uncertain about the Buckeye's capabilities since the Virginia Tech loss last fall, so these next four weeks will be fascinating.
My gut tells me that the core of the team that won the title last year is still around, and those players simply find it within themselves to win when it matters (Michael Tomas comes to mind). I expect Ohio State to look like a competent football team again with J.T. under center this week, then lay waste to the Spartans in Columbus a week later. I honestly have little idea of what the Ohio State-Michigan game may look like right now, but the Wolverines should not overlook their trip to Beaver Stadium during their 11th game; white-outs have rarely been good to the Maize and Blue.
The only thing I am asking for this Thanksgiving is an Ohio State win over Michigan, using their "Bama" field goal kick return play, at the last second. Who ever said my generation was materialistic?
Pac-12 playoff hopes riding on one night in Palo Alto
The Pac-12's playoff hopes now lay with a team which shares a similar narrative (so far) to last years Ohio State team; Stanford. After a week one loss to a now 7-2 ranked Northwestern team, the Cardinals have looked fantastic almost every week since (perhaps minus their should-have-been loss to Leach's Cougars). When Notre Dame visits Stanford during rivalry week, it appears that a de facto quarterfinal will occur. Both teams have high chances of being 10-1 apiece by Week 12, and both should be ranked close to the cusp of the playoff projection (Notre Dame may be in this week's CFP rankings). You have to respect what both Stanford and Notre Dame have done since suffering losses earlier in the season.
Unfortunately for the rest of the Pac-12, perhaps minus Utah, the hopes of a College Football Playoff are simply out of the cards. Utah is still alive, and frankly may control it's own destiny, but I will have to see it to believe it. It seems like the playoff will either get a Big 12 team or a Pac-12 team, and right now Stanford (with future wins over Notre Dame and Utah), would trump any of the Big 12 teams, undefeated or not. Lets hope that scenario doesn't happen, it may just kill the Big 12.
Houston, we have an opportunity
Houston, the least mentioned undefeated team in the American Athletic Conference, is sitting incredibly pretty with four tough games left to play. Having non-conference wins over notable Power 5 teams such as SEC's Vanderbilt, and ACC's Louisville, the Houston Cougars have a fairly respectable schedule, and have yet to play the heart of it. In the next four weeks they will likely have three home games against ranked opponents, Memphis, Navy, and Temple (AAC Championship). If Tom Herman's squad can somehow manage to win all four games left on it's schedule, they will be set to play in a New Year's Day Bowl, and will have legitimate claim to be included in discussion for the playoff (this is not a drill).
Alabama fans know how tough Tom Herman offenses are to stop, and there is little evidence that his new offense at Houston will be stopped this year with AAC player of the year candidate, Greg Ward Jr. under center. Houston should bathe in this glory while it can because all good things eventually end, and with Tom Herman's instant success, there is a good chance that he will get picked up by a bigger, Power 5 school this offseason.
SPECIAL MENTION: Bert is a really large version of Rudy
Bert and his Razorbacks stayed hot this past week with a crazy lateral win of their own. Arkansas marched into Oxford, Mississippi and got a top 20 win over Ole Miss, assuring the Rebels' late season decline for a second straight year. The box score for this gem of a game is the most satisfying part. Both teams scored the exact same number of points in each quarter, except Arkansas had an 8-7 edge in overtime, securing a winning record through nine games. You have to love that Bert went for two in overtime, throwing caution into the chilly southern wind. The best part about Bert getting to 5-4 is the chance for him and his Razorbacks to get to 6-4.
The Arkansas Razorbacks head to Death Valley to get a shot at the wounded LSU Tigers this coming week, and watch the upset in Louisiana. This game at face value reminds me of 2007 when Arkansas visited eventual national champions LSU, and pulled off a 50-48 three overtime classic win, except this time Bert will be wearing the headset.
Current final Playoff projection:
2. Ohio State
4. Notre Dame
Being three-quarters of the way through 2015's college football season is bittersweet, but I have a feeling no one will be disappointed by quarter four ... except maybe Big 12 fans.