Revisiting the Playoff Picture Entering Conference Championship Week

There was surprisingly little drama in the final week of the regular season. The biggest “upset” was a thriller between  Notre Dame (6) and Stanford (9), which will go down as a signature moment in Stanford history but had very little impact on the playoff picture itself. The committee has been blessed with a playoff picture far more clear than the turbulence brought on as time whittled away last year. The committee got it right last year, to their credit, but left the Big XII rankled over their exclusion. Oklahoma made sure that didn’t happen this year, and due to the lack of a conference championship game in the Big XII (a problem created by ironically having just 10 teams in the Big XII), the Oklahoma (3)-Oklahoma State (11) rivalry game known as “Bedlam” served as the title game for the Big XII. An emphatic victory by the Sooners guarantees them a spot in the final four.

Locked in, with a playoff spot locked up.

Clemson Tigers (1)

Clemson held off rival South Carolina, 37-32, to finish the regular season 12-0. Clemson holds marquee victories over Notre Dame, Florida State, and a beat down of a talented Miami squad. Most would agree that Clemson has been the best team in the country this season, led by future first overall pick DeShaun Watson. That being said, the Tigers need to proceed with caution. Whoever makes the playoff and wins the title is not necessarily the team with the best body of work overall, but the team who is playing the best football at the moment. Alabama may have been the best team in the country overall last year, but Ohio State was the hottest and therefore best team in the nation when they squared off in the Sugar Bowl. Clemson must watch itself not only this week against a streaking North Carolina team, but whoever is coming in hot in the No. 4 slot should Clemson win out.

If not Clemson, then…North Carolina Tar Heels.

A remarkable turnaround for a Chapel Hill squad that has been mediocre at best in recent years has led them into the most important game in program history. Basketball can wait for once in North Carolina as the red hot Tar Heels hope to make history by knocking off Clemson and inserting themselves as playoff contenders. They easily have the worst loss out of any of the one loss teams in contention (Week 1 to 3-9 South Carolina), but a victory over Clemson would also give them the best win. A team with just one loss and a victory over the number 1 team in the nation can’t conceivably be left out of the playoff. That resume would be as good as any in the nation. Seeding would be another question, but they would definitely be Top 4. Clemson has played uncomfortably close games with Syracuse and South Carolina, but DeShaun Watson is just too good to let this upset happen.

Marquise Williams,

The electric Marquise Williams, a dual threat defensive nightmare.

If there is one guy who could lead a team to a National Championship, it’s DeShaun Watson.

Alabama Crimson Tide (2)

Business as usual in Tuscaloosa, as the Tide rolled over an inferior Auburn opponent on the back of another steady dose of Derrick Henry. Auburn put up a fight, especially defensively, but their offense just simply is not good and neither are they. Auburn is perhaps the biggest flop of the year, starting out ranked No. 6 and finishing 6-6. Jake Coker is uninspiring as the quarterback for this Crimson Tide team built on an overwhelming defense and raging bull of a running back in Derrick Henry. Henry fits the Eddie Lacy and Trent Richardson power back mold of past Alabama backs, and he might be the best of all of them. But is he good enough to carry the Crimson tide limited by Coker’s mediocrity? Survey says no, as Blake Sims was a more polished passer and a terrific runner last year and couldn’t get the job done for Alabama. They’ll make the playoff, but won’t win the natty.

If not Alabama, then…Ohio State Buckeyes.

Hello again, old friend. Alabama is toast if they lose to Florida, a team with a great defense and a putrid offense in a (gasp!) weak division of the SEC. So it won’t be the Gators in the final four, nor anyone else from the SEC, which would put everywhere from eastern Texas on out in a straitjacket. The big hypothetical here is IF Iowa loses to Michigan State. Should the Hawks win and Alabama loses, both Iowa and Ohio State should make it. If Iowa loses, Iowa and Ohio State would be the remaining one loss teams not in the playoff. As much as we might all want the Hawkeyes to make it in anyways, Ohio State’s signature victory over rival Michigan will likely sway the committee to the Buckeyes. Iowa’s best victory is a 40-10 road deconstruction of Northwestern, another great win, but the fact that the committee is still ranking Iowa in the No. 4 slot despite the fact that they are one of only two unbeatens shows that the committee doesn’t regard their strength of schedule as rigorous as Ohio State’s. Plus, the committee had Iowa out of the playoff picture when both Ohio State and Iowa were undefeated. Right or wrong (very wrong), the committee clearly had more faith in the defending champs.  Remember, this is only if Iowa loses to Michigan State. Should Iowa win, Ohio State is really the only choice to go. Michigan State and Stanford are really the only other two contenders, and they would both have two losses against Ohio State’s one.

The SEC’s hopes rest on the shoulders of one man…

Ohio State’s playoff hopes are hanging on by a thread, a blue and orange thread from central Florida.

Oklahoma Sooners (3)

The Sooners have three great signature wins over conference powers. They’re playing great football, they excel in prime time (see Baylor, Oklahoma State), and they have the most exciting quarterback in the country. Watching Baker Mayfield play is fun. The height and conference will inevitably draw comparisons to Johnny Manziel, but the smoothness of his game harks more to Marcus Mariota. Mayfield isn’t as fast or agile in the open field as either of those two, but he can chuck it just as well as Mariota and better than Manziel. Mayfield is a bona fide Heisman candidate and Oklahoma’s running back combo of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon is as efficient as any in the nation. So why aren’t they number 1? It was so long ago it feels like we can hardly remember…who’d they lose to again? Big time rival, historically powerful Texas? Oh no big deal, rivalries can be crazy, Oklahoma is clearly a top 4 team….wait, 4-7 Texas who lost 24-0 to Iowa State?! About that…is it really fair to have them in the top 4 over Ohio State, who lost to then No. 9 Michigan State by three points as time expired? The logic here is that Oklahoma has shredded opponents like soft cheese ever since that embarrassing loss in Dallas. Like Ohio State losing a bad one early and then cruising in 2014, Oklahoma hopes to make it in to the dance based on the quality of their wins and prays the committee looks at the unsightly L as an aberration.

If not Oklahoma, then…Iowa Hawkeyes.

This is again a hypothetical situation in which Iowa loses to Michigan State. Oklahoma has no more games left to play. They took care of business and should have cemented their No. 3 spot. But as TCU learned last year, nothing is ever certain in College Football. It’s almost certain Oklahoma will be in the final field of four. An incredible B1G Championship game in which Iowa plays their best game of the season yet somehow loses would be the only way to bump off OU. If Michigan State wins, they’ll take Iowa’s spot. If Iowa wins, they will hold onto their spot and there is no way a two loss Michigan State team will be in over Oklahoma. Ditto for Stanford, Notre Dame, and other two loss hopefuls. Oklahoma owns the head to head over every two loss Big XII team, and they have no more games left to play to fumble their spot away. Oklahoma is the best lock for the playoff based on their position with no games left. The committee would have to weight a close Iowa loss to Michigan State as a better loss than Oklahoma’s grotesque outing against Texas back in September. Justly or unjustly (unjustly), the committee has placed a one loss Oklahoma team over a undefeated Iowa team. The committee isn’t going to rank a one loss Iowa team higher than an undefeated Iowa team. This scenario is highly unlikely, but it’s the only possible one where Oklahoma would get bumped out.

Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield celebrates a touchdown

Boomer Sooner. OU isn’t going anywhere.

Iowa Hawkeyes (4)

The nice thing for the committee this year is that the ACC and B1G have win-and-you’re-in scenarios for their title games. There is no Big XII madness this year. The whole Michigan-Ohio State-Stanford-Notre Dame scenario sorted itself out nicely, as they were not forced to pick a two loss team from the field to play elimination games in January. Iowa is playing in one of those elimination games this Saturday. Iowa has yet to lose, winning in a variety of ways. Defense-Pitt, Northwestern, Maryland. Behind Jordan Canzeri, LeShun Daniels, and Akrum Wadley-Pitt, Northwestern, Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue. And behind CJ Beathard-Minnesota, Iowa State, Purdue. Iowa plays the best fundamental football in the country. Their games aren’t Big XII wild west shootouts where the first team to 70 points wins, and that’s a good thing. As Oklahoma State learned, that type of football won’t work in crunch time. Instead, Iowa pounds the rock, plays stingy defense, and avoids shooting themselves in the foot. Iowa beat Nebraska (the same Nebraska team who beat Michigan State) without converting a single third down. That’s terrible. And it’s awesome. What that means is Iowa is not the little kid tagging along for the ride in the top four. No, they’re hear to stay and the Nebraska game was a perfect explanation as to why. Iowa picked off Tommy Armstrong Jr. four times. Some of that is due to Armstrong gun slinging more than was advisable, but if that’s not opportunistic defense, what is? A physically dominant defensive line plugs running lanes due to their intentional immovability, and Desmond King anchors the secondary with eight picks. On offense, the word that comes to mind with CJ Beathard is crafty. Beathard was about as mobile as Peyton Manning following his groin injury, yet he pulled an option bootleg to stun Minnesota on the goal line. Beathard is remarkably consistent, and when he’s faltered, the running game is always there behind the historically dominant offensive line. The big boys plow wide open running lanes for the three headed monster of LeShun Daniels, Jordan Canzeri, and Akrum Wadley. Iowa won that Nebraska game due to explosive plays, namely big runs from Canzeri, demonstrating that they can tap into that big play reserve when needed. Beathard won’t win you every game (see Wisconsin, Nebraska), but he will never lose it for you (just three picks). They face a dangerous Michigan State team this week fresh off a 55-14 annihilation of Penn State. Sparty had been inconsistent this year, contrasting big wins over Oregon and Ohio State with struggles against Purdue, Rutgers, and Nebraska. MSU had almost always played to the level of their competition, keeping games close against most opponents until the final quarter. The fact that they embarrassed a good Penn State team last week is a sign that the Spartans are starting to put it together. Iowa will need to win in the trenches to take home the hardware in this one. It will be interesting to see MSU defensive end Shilique Calhoun go up against Iowa’s top notch O-Line. Connor Cook and Aaron Burbridge versus Desmond King is another one to watch.

If not Iowa, then…Michigan State.

This one’s easy. The B1G Championship Game is a winner take all scenario. Even with Ohio State’s big win over Michigan, Michigan State owns the head to head match up and is much better positioned (No. 5) to break in than Ohio State (No. 8). Michigan State has had a great season and their win over Ohio State was huge, but Iowa is just far too consistent to throw this one away. Iowa wins games with time of possession, and they need to keep the ball away from Connor Cook. Plus, they’ve shown they can go the distance any time. It’s time for Iowa to show the committee why they should get the respect they deserve.

Best in the B1G West.

12-0? You’d better believe it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pictures: I do not own any of these pictures and all credit goes to the photographer and the website.

  1. http://www.latimes.com/sports/la-sp-oklahoma-oklahoma-state-20151129-story.html, Tom Pennigton/Getty Images.
  2. http://collegefootball.ap.org/article/top-25-picks-breakout-opportunities-tar-heels-cougars, David Goldman/AP File.
  3. http://www.espn.go.com, Photographer not given.
  4. http://www.cbssports.com/collegefootball/eye-on-college-football/25292417/breaking-down-alabamas-35-17-win-over-wisconsin-derrick-henry-stars, Photographer not given.
  5. http://ftw.usatoday.com/2015/09/urban-meyer-explains-why-he-decided-to-start-cardale-jones-over-j-t-barrett, Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports.
  6. http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaaf/big12/2015/09/09/baker-mayfield-oklahoma-sooners-football-quarterback/71965950/, Brett Deering, Getty Images.
  7. http://www.hawkcentral.com/story/sports/college/iowa/football/2015/11/27/iowa-hawkeyes-nebraska-cornhuskers-football-big-ten-championship-kirk-ferentz/76348460/, Byron Houlgrave/The Register.
  8. http://www.si.com/college-football/2015/11/27/iowa-hawkeyes-nebraska-cornhuskers-watch-online-live-stream, Matthew Holst/Getty Images.

 

 

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Nightmare and Dream Scenarios for the CFB Contenders

The new CFB Top 25 rankings have yet to come out after another week of chaos in the College Football landscape, so these are based off of last week’s rankings.

1.Clemson

Sorry, Jared Goff. DeShaun Watson is the best QB in College Football.

Dream: Win out, and win big to lock up the number one seed in the playoff. As evidenced by Ohio State last year, it’s not necessarily the best team in the four team field who brings home the hardware, but the hottest team who’s hitting their stride. Ohio State came fresh off a demolishing of Wisconsin in the B1G title game, and used it as a launching pad to dominate when it matters. Clemson can follow their blueprint here, with an emotional victory over rival South Carolina and an emphatic victory over the Tar Heels in the ACC Championship game. Riding red-hot QB DeShaun Watson, Clemson blows out the 4 seed and then dices their opponents through the air in the National Championship Game en route to their first natty since 1981.

Nightmare: Obviously, losses in the next two games would most likely doom their season, but there is so much more that can go wrong. An injury to Watson would threaten to derail their season and even if they win without him, the committee’s perception of Clemson without him may eliminate them from the playoff altogether. An injury to running back Wayne Gallman would hamstring this offense. Not everyone has a Cardale Jones lying in wait. Star receiver Mike Williams was already lost in the first game of the season. More injuries to the wide receiver corps could really test their depth and throw a monkey wrench into the selection process.

2. Alabama

Dream: Pound Auburn into submission as revenge for the unforgettable kick six, have Jacob Coker start to look like Joe Montana, have Derrick Henry make Florida’s vaunted defense look like swiss cheese, and coast through the playoffs with the advantage of having the most talent in the country.

Nightmare: Somehow lose to either Auburn or Florida, or throw up unimpressive performances against both, while some other team gets white hot. Alabama could conceivable lose to Auburn (you never know with rivalry games), then beat Florida to win the SEC but still be left out of the playoff conversation due to their two losses. Florida’s ugly win over a 2-9 Conference USA opponent will do nothing to help ‘Bama’s strength of schedule. If Florida loses to Florida state, they will look even weaker and a narrow victory over mediocre Auburn and a close finish in the title game against Florida would destroy Alabama’s strength of schedule. The  strength of schedule would look even worse if Ole Miss gets blown out by Mississippi State.

3. Ohio State

According to Ezekiel Elliot, more carries for him were the answer in the MSU game.

Dream: Overpower Michigan in every facet of the game, while both Iowa and Michigan State somehow choke in the last game of the season and then proceed to stumble over each other in the B1G championship game. Hope the committee confuses themselves and looks at their 2014 season. Pay off the committee and bribe their way in. Low blow, considering the history with Jim Tressel? Ok, fine, let’s not kick Ohio State while they’re down.

Nightmare: They did a nice job of taking care of this one. Plus, the two players that led them to a championship last year have stated that next week will be their last game as a Buckeye.

4. Notre Dame

The jerseys looked awesome, the game looked awful.

Dream: Hope the committee doesn’t penalize them for keeping it close with Boston College, who’s offense would probably go three and out against a Pop Warner team, make Stanford look silly next week, and follow the mantra of “get hot at the right time” into a rematch with Clemson where they come out on top this time. Then hope the National Championship game goes better than last time vs Alabama.

Nightmare: DeShone Kizer looks just as lost as he did against Boston College vs Stanford, let Christian McCaffrey do to them what he did to Cal this week, and plummet out of the playoff and into a meaningless bowl game.

5. Iowa

 

Floyd of Rosedale, check. Purdue, check. B1G Championship?

Dream: Win out and you’re in. Hope CJ Beathard’s groin injury continues to improve and ride the momentum of wins over Nebraska and a flawed Michigan State team into a huge upset in the playoff and the National Championship Game, proving that B1G and the midwest is the cream of the crop regarding America’s game. Iowa’s always top notch offensive lines paves the way to the granddaddy of them all. Iowa’s O-Line, probably the best in the country, vs Alabama’s D-Line, also considered the best in the country, would make for a fascinating matchup that would have NFL scouts thrilled.

Nightmare: Based on the fact that Iowa is the only undefeated team in the country not in the Top 4, the committee seems to have concerns about their strength of schedule. Even one loss will sink them. No matter the finish, it’s been a terrific season in Iowa City, the best in a long time and an unbelievable improvement over last year’s uninspiring 7-6 performance.

6. Oklahoma State

Goodbye, OK State. Those strength of schedule concerns were warranted.

Dream: Embarrass Oklahoma in their rivalry game, then hope TCU lights up Baylor. But not too much, because they don’t want their loss to Baylor to look too bad. Then hope Stanford beats Notre Dame but loses to USC in the Pac-12 title game. Then hope the B1G kills eachother off.  Then hope chaos ensues on rivalry weekend, ‘Bama loses two games somehow, Clemson loses…yeah, they aren’t going to make the playoff.

Nightmare: Have insult added to injury when Oklahoma mauls OK State. All other teams swear they will never join the Big XII so the conference is stuck with 10 teams forever and they never get a title game to make sense of the madness.

Others:

Oklahoma needs to have a great game in Stillwater, and needs some help from a Top 4 team throwing it away in the final week or a shocking upset in a conference title game. Maybe Florida beating Alabama? The play of Baker Mayfield has elevated them to the point where they will merit strong consideration for a spot in the playoff. Among the contenders currently outside the Top 4, only Iowa is better positioned to break into the field of 4.

Stanford victory over Notre Dame and a beatdown of USC in the Pac-12 title game would give Stanford a slight chance of cracking the Top 4. If the teams ahead of Stanford all manage to acquire a second loss, Stanford is arguably the best two loss team in country. Both of their losses could be considered “quality”-a surprisingly good Northwestern team and a surging Oregon, both ranked, could influence the committee to grant Stanford some leeway if chaos ensues. If the committee wants to pit Heisman contenders against each other in those New Year’s bowls, a field of four including DeShaun Watson, Derrick Henry, Baker Mayfield, and Stanford’s electric Christian McCaffrey would make for excellent TV ratings. Hmm.

If Baylor rolls-and by rolls I mean 50+ point victory-TCU, and Oklahoma and Notre Dame lose, Baylor could reenter the conversation. They too have intriguing star power-wide receiver Corey Coleman is a good as they come-and their sole loss could be diminished by a OK State victory over the Sooners. By the transitive property, Baylor would technically be better than OU. Except, you know, they lost to them.

Michigan’s two losses are eerily similar to those of Stanford. A week one loss that appeared to doom them, to a streaky opponent who started the year off on a tear, then a late narrow loss to a big rival. Would a Michigan victory over Ohio State hold more weight than a Stanford victory over Notre Dame? The issue for Michigan is that they would need Michigan State to look awful and pick up two more losses to be in the conversation as the B1G’s representative. That in turn would make their last second flukey loss to MSU look worse. So Michigan State has to lose, but not by too much. While Iowa would have to lose big to Nebraska, then stumble over itself in the title game while Michigan State does the same, but then again, not too badly. Just bad enough to lose, but play well. The good news is Harbaugh’s presence and strong recruiting classes ought to make Michigan a National Championship favorite for the years to come. Unless they do something dumb, like fire Harbaugh when all he did was bring your program out of the ashes into championship consideration in one year. AHEM.

The chaos is why we love it, right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pictures: I do not own any of these pictures and all credit goes to the photographer and their website.

https://www.google.com/search?q=google+images&espv=2&rlz=1C1CHWA_enUS601US601&biw=1600&bih=775&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwipzeGGmKfJAhUUVWMKHWxWDOUQ_AUIBigB#tbm=isch&q=alabama+football+2015&imgrc=L_YheV9k4m6yhM%3A

https://www.google.com/search?q=ohio+state+vs+michigan+state+2015&rlz=1C1CHWA_enUS601US601&espv=2&biw=1600&bih=775&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwia3vibnafJAhUQOogKHXxjDJkQ_AUICCgD#tbm=isch&q=notre+dame+vs+boston+college+2015+&imgrc=Z8dK4nQjrNX00M%3A

 

https://www.google.com/search?q=google+images&espv=2&rlz=1C1CHWA_enUS601US601&biw=1600&bih=775&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwipzeGGmKfJAhUUVWMKHWxWDOUQ_AUIBigB#tbm=isch&q=ezekiel+elliott+vs+michigan+state+2015&imgrc=BsnJ6oVne3EwNM%3A

 

https://www.google.com/search?q=google+images&espv=2&rlz=1C1CHWA_enUS601US601&biw=1600&bih=775&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwipzeGGmKfJAhUUVWMKHWxWDOUQ_AUIBigB#tbm=isch&q=iowa+vs+minnesota+2015&imgrc=6TFcikYIG5fpJM%3A

 

 

Cautiously Optimistic about Blaine Gabbert

I’ve learned my lesson about predicting great things for the 49ers off of one game. Looking at just Gabbert’s stat line, it comes off as an unimpressive day. 15-25 for 185 yards, 2 TD’s and 2 picks. But ignoring the statistics and evaluating his game based on feel yields a different conclusion.

First, the 15-25.

Gabbert’s completion percentage for the day would have been much higher had his receivers, especially Jerome Simpson, shown any desire whatsoever to catch a football. One pass comes to mind in particular where Gabbert lasered in a perfect throw down the seam that hit Simpson in the numbers but popped up off of Simpson’s pads and into the hands of a Falcon defender. Boom, a 30 yard completion turned into an unsightly interception. That was only one of Simpson’s three drops on the day, and he finished with no receptions.

Secondly, Gabbert had many smart throw-away’s that prevented the Niners from losing yards. Unlike his predecessor, Colin Kaepernick, Gabbert showed classic QB intuition of the situation and parlayed that into a more impressive statistic: No sacks on the day. Behind this offensive line, that’s impressive. Had his receivers performed to an acceptable NFL level, he would have had perhaps four incompletions.

Gabbert’s quick release and strong arm were on display all day long as he fired serveral powerful throws in between defenders. But Colin Kaepernick can do that too. Where Gabbert really showed the difference between the two was his touch. Gabbert used his check downs often and efficiently, and showed nice touch on his second touchdown pass to Garrett Celek. He is also a far superior thrower of the back shoulder fade than Kaepernick.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Gabbert’s performance was his poise in the pocket. At Missouri and in Jacksonville, he was accused of being skittish in the pocket and therefore unfit to be an NFL quarterback. Gabbert had strong pocket presence and made some nice throws while under heavy duress. The other big knock was that he was simply too inaccurate to stick in the NFL, yet Gabbert dispelled the notion that he cannot be accurate on Sunday. It remains to be seen if he can be consistent.

It wasn’t a perfect day, but there’s no two ways about it. Gabbert was darned good. He even rushed for more yards than Kaepernick has in a single game despite taking several kneeldowns.

However, it’s unwise to put too much stock in Gabbert’s performance. After all, it’s only one game. Jim Harbaugh named Kaepernick the starter after only one game and that story had mixed results. The 49ers looked dominant Week 1 against the Vikings and have been lifeless since. Gabbert faces a far tougher test in Seattle, where he will be tested on the road against one of the best secondary’s in the league. That game will be far more indicative of what type of QB Gabbert really is.