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Playoff scenarios based on the latest AP Polls (Week 8, 2018) October 18, 2018

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Week 7 in college football for the 2018 provided considerable thrills – and headaches – for fans, what with upsets abounding, especially near the top of the rankings.  Unranked Tennessee taking down then-No. 17 Auburn, and unranked Virginia beating then-No. 16 Miami (Fla.) are small potatoes compared to upsets elsewhere that week.

Indeed, no fewer than four AP top ten teams went down in defeat in Week 7 of 2018.  For starters, No. 17 Oregon outlasted then-No. 7 Washington, 30-27, in overtime.  Unranked Michigan State toppled No. 8 Penn State on the road, 21-17.  Iowa State leveraged their special night-time atmosphere to help them beat then-undefeated (and then-No. 6) West Virginia 30-14.  Even more significant was No. 13 LSU pommeling then-No. 2 Georgia 36-16.

As a result of these four key upsets, Washington fell from the No. 7 ranking to No. 15.  Penn State fell from No. 8 to No. 18.  West Virginia fell from No. 6 to No. 13, while Georgia fell from No. 2 to No. 8.

Last year, the Bulldogs made it to the national championship game.  Now, the prospect to return is in jeopardy.  At least it’s October and not November, meaning there is still time to recover.

Regardless, the current AP Top Ten now suggests some very intriguing playoff possibilities.  These are important for the health of college football.  An all-southern/all-SEC college football championship game my thrill the faithful in the southeastern region of the country, but it turns off the rest of the country.  That’s bad for business.  If your sport starts to be perceived as regional in its nature, that hurts your national image, and prevents you from engaging the markets you need to be interested in order to ensure its long-term strength and viability.  Alabama vs. Clemson and Alabama vs. Georgia thus saw a TV ratings decline, whereas Texas vs. USC (2005-’06) and Ohio State vs. Oregon (2014-’15) where perfect matchups to bring in robust, national audiences.  Ohio State vs. Florida (2006-’07), Ohio State vs. LSU (2007-’08) and especially Ohio State vs. Miami (2002-’03) were decent-to-great matchups as well for this purpose.  Alabama vs. Notre Dame (2012-’13) was good on paper, but the outcome of the game proved that it was a mismatch, with the Irish clearly being overrated at the time.

Start with a basic premise that it’s good for business when traditional powers do well.  If Georgia does well, that engages the Atlanta market, which is pretty big, in case you forgot.  If Notre Dame does well, it engages the Chicago and New York City markets.  If USC does well, it engages the Los Angeles market.  If Ohio State and Michigan do well (either or both), that engages much of the Midwestern markets, as well as the Big Ten alums who have left the Midwest for the East Coast, the South, or the West Coast.  If Texas does well, it engages the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston Markets.  You get the picture.

Now, back to the Week 8 Top Ten rankings from the AP poll.  At No. 1 remains Alabama.  Ok, fine.  With Georgia knocked out of the No. 2 spot (but still in the top ten), that allows for Ohio State to take over that position.  This is good for the sport.  Clemson has moved a spot to No. 3, while Notre Dame has quietly moved up to the No. 4 ranking.

Just by looking at these current top four spots, if these remain unchanged and translate directly into playoff rankings, one would have a great playoff scenario to engage a critical mass of the viewing public.  Alabama and Clemson would be there to keep the South’s fever pitch at maximum levels, while Ohio State and Notre Dame enjoy national audiences so as to include enough of the rest of the country as well.  The Fighting Irish’s ranking this time is no wishful thinking.  Thoughtful analysts concur that this 2018 ND team is much stronger and more athletic than its overrated 2012 counterpart.  Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd has gone so far as to observe that this is the best ND team since the Lou Holtz era.  As ESPN’s Lee Corso would exclaim, “Yo!”

While there is no west coast team in sight in these current rankings, that is not a deal-breaker, either.  There are enough Big Ten grads on the west coast to keep those markets engaged should Ohio State make it to the playoffs.   The Buckeyes, in this scenario, would represent the West Coast as well as the Midwest.

Naturally, much football remains to be played, and the remainder of the top ten shall make all efforts to crack their way into the playoffs as well.  Of those currently poised for such possibilities, some of them, too, offer intriguing engagement opportunities.  LSU sits at No. 5 after their ripping upset victory over the Bulldogs, and are destined for a major showdown with the Crimson Tide come Nov. 3, in Baton Rouge, no less.  Michigan sits at No. 6 after their big win over Wisconsin last night.  If they maintain their momentum, their Nov. 24 annual grudge match with the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor could be epic.

Meanwhile, Texas has survived another test and now sits at No. 7.  If QB Sam Ehlinger stays healthy, who knows how much further the Longhorns could continue to climb?  This is key to note because Texas in the playoffs engages a different market than the Southeast.  The beauty of Texas in the championship game is that they can theoretically engage two markets simultaneously, as a B1G team can do vis-à-vis both the Midwest and other regions.  In Texas’ case, not only can a Longhorn playoff appearance pique the interest of the DFW and Houston metro areas (San Antonio and Austin don’t hurt either, as that is another combined 4 million-plus people in that mini-megalopolis), but the Southeast could vicariously join in, too.

An Oklahoma (currently No. 9)  playoff appearance, while a different region than the Southeast, has a limited upside.  Yes, it engages the central plains, but there is not much major population there).  Best case scenario is that it will interest the OU grad transplants living in the major Texas markets.  The Longhorns, thankfully, have done their part, though, in making the more market-significant team better-poised for a playoff run at this point.

This is not a swipe at the SEC, or the fans therein, for a personally love southern football and identify with the South.  As someone who is concerned about the national and long-term health of college football, however, perspective must be maintained.  Fans in SEC country will watch the playoffs no matter who is playing.  Fans elsewhere, though, will only watch if they feel they have a stake in things; that they are being represented.  We have enjoyed such perfect or near-perfect matchups in the past, such as the aforementioned Texas-USC games and the Ohio State-Oregon games, for example.

Meanwhile, more big games remain, and the way things have gone thus far, more upsets are likely to occur.  Teams currently in the bottom half of the top ten could claw theyr way up with help from such theoretical upsets.  After all, we’re halfway to regular season’s end, and the stakes and urgency only intensify from here.  Let’s enjoy the ride, and cheer on the key wins that would help make for the best playoff matches with optimal, national appeal while we’re at it!

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College Football Opening Weekend 2013: What to watch August 29, 2013

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Georgia-Clemson2013Note:  Rankings are based the ESPN-Coaches Poll, not the AP Poll as is usually the case on this blog.

Though many good games kick off the season on Thursday (hello, North Carolina @ South Carolina!) and Friday, the real action begins, as it always does, on Saturday (Aug. 31, in this case).  Let us cut through the clutter and focus on the good games to watch.

Noon (12:00 PM, EDT):  Let’s face it; in recent years, most noon games have been throw-away games (generally, lots of lower-tier Big Ten, ACC and Big East matchups).  This seems to be mostly the case this time around, too (case in point:  Florida International @ Maryland, which makes Louisiana Tech @ N.C. State look like a marquee game).  Yet one game in this time slot is rather intriguing, that being Purdue @ Cincinnati.  Both programs have new coaches.  Purdue’s Darrell Hazell is working diligently to breathe new life into a program that has underachieved since the 2003-2004 season.  Meanwhile, U-Cincy brought in Tommy Tuberville to provide some stability to a program that lost Brian Kelly to Notre Dame after the 2009 season, and just lost Butch Jones to Tennessee prior to this upcoming one.  From a business managerial standpoint, the two new coaches make for an interesting study in contrast in that Hazell’s role is clearly turnaround CEO, while Tuberville’s role is that of caretaker to a program that Kelly built up quite well and Jones did reasonably well in maintaining.  Talent-wise, it ought not to be close, as odds are the Bearcats could dust the Boilermakers.  Nevertheless, this game is far more interesting than the rest of the game fare offered at noontime, and it goes without saying that this game merits a nod for “Intriguing Coaching Matchup” award.

3:30 PM EDT:  Normally, one can always look forward to at least one strong SEC matchup during this time slot, but there are none to be had on this date.  Syracuse @ Penn State makes for a poor substitute indeed.  BYU @ Virginia is for more intriguing than that.  Still…next!

With that said, a potentially good game that few people are talking about occurs at this same time, that being Mississippi State at Oklahoma State.  The Bulldogs have grown in strength under head coach Dan Mullen, while the Cowboys have also grown in stature under Mike Gundy’s leadership (not to mention T. Boone Pickens’ money).  Seeing these two teams butt heads could be very engaging.

5:30 PM EDT:  Granted, this is not your traditional time slot for a Saturday game, but it’s the opening weekend, so who cares?  If anybody doubts that Atlanta is one of THE epicenters of college football, then they would be well-served to take not that No. 1 Alabama opens the season in the Georgia Dome against Virginia Tech.  On paper, it’s a decent matchup in that a top-tier SEC team is about to take on an upper-tier ACC team.  But as decent as the Hokies are, the game could very well be a bloodbath, as odds are the Crimson Tide is going to roll.  Still, it’s better than the 3:30 PM options.

7:00 PM EDT:  Washington State @ Auburn — now we’re getting somewhere.  We the fans are not treated to SEC vs Pac-12 matchups enough, in my estimation, so when it happens, it is always something to be relished.  What makes this game especially interesting is that the dread pirate Mike Leach is trying to turn around the Cougars program while Guz Malzahn has just been brought in to revive the Tigers’ very quick fall from grace.  Could be interesting, especially when one considers how a Pac-12 team not named USC can handle a hyper-hostile SEC stadium crowd.

The other interesting game that evening is the Western Kentucky vs. Kentucky game in Nashville, Tenn.  This too merits an “Intriguing Coaching Matchup” nod in that it also pits first-year coaches at both schools, both of whom came there under radically different circumstances.  Mark Stoops took the UK job as a top-rated assistant coach at Florida State, with the mission to turn around a perennially struggling Wildcats squad.  Thus far he has made lots of recruiting hype, but the actual product he can deliver on the field remains to be seen.  On the Hilltoppers’ end is Bobby Petrino, one of the best coaches in the business, but left his CEO job at Arkansas in disgrace and scandal.  The WKU job is a rung or two down the ladder from the jobs he has previously had, thus is objective is twofold:  maintain what predecessor Willie Taggart had already built (something at which he is more than adept), and also rehab his reputation.  Look out for a possible Hilltopper upset over the Wildcats, as it is always dangerous to give Petrino more than a week to prepare for a game.

8:00 PM EDT:  No. 5 Georgia @ No. 8 Clemson — easily the biggest game of the day, if not the whole weekend.  Head Coach Mark Richt takes a loaded Bulldogs team led by talented QB Aaron Murray (no relation, sadly) in to Clemson to take on a Tigers program that Dabo Swinney has slowly yet quietly strengthened over the past several years (they did beat a strong LSU team in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, after all).  This will be a great opening test for the Bulldogs, who are no doubt looking to eventually unseat Alabama at the number one spot in both the conference and the nation.  Odds also are that you will be “looking LIVE, at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C.,” as in all likelihood this will be the game that Brent Musburger calls along with Kirk “Herbie” Herbstreit, folks!

9:00 PM EDT:  No. 12 LSU vs. No. 20 TCU in Dallas (Arlington, Texas, specifically).  Just as Atlanta has its season kickoff Peach Bowl with a SEC-ACC game, over the past few years, Dallas has endeavored to do the same thing with a season kickoff Cotton Bowl of sorts, usually bringing in an SEC and a Big XII team (though there has been the occasional SEC vs Pac-12 game thrown in sometimes, read:  LSU vs. Oregon in 2011) as is the case this time.  Les Miles almost always has the Tigers up for big games, while it will be a quasi-home game for the Horned Frogs as they have but a half-hour drive (at the most) from their home base in Fort Worth.  Moreover, Gary Patterson has built up a strong program over the course of more than a decade, even recently taking TCU to a Rose Bowl just a couple of seasons ago.  Moreover, though the Horned Frogs are ranked lower than the Bayou Bengals, they have the good fortune of playing LSU at the beginning of the season, which is historically when the team is most vulnerable to a loss.

10:30 PM EDT:  No. 22 Northwestern at California.  Normally, the only game one might find on the cable tv guide this late at night is a home game at Hawai’i.  Not this time, though.  This time, head coach Pat Fitzgerald takes his nimble Wildcats westward from Evanston, Ill., to the west coast.  The rankings could be deceiving.  Yes, on paper, Northwestern could possibly crush Cal.  But that could easily be nullified because of geography.  Take a team in the eastern or even central timezone out to the Pacific timezone, and strange things happen to them.  Pro teams do not have this issue (say, the New York Giants journeying out to Seattle to play the Seahawks), because they’re older, more mature, and, well, professionals.  But in the college game, folks*, you’re dealing with 19-20 year-old kids, who are far more apt to be out of their element when traveling such a distance.  Let us also not forget that Northwestern’s internal clock will still be on Chicago time (9:30 PM), not San Francisco time (7:30 PM), which could also make a difference.  One could therefore expect a close, hard-fought game, if not even an upset by the Golden Bears.  That said, Pat Fitzgerald is one of the most underrated coaches in the business, and has proven to be very adept, time and again, at not only recruiting decent players into a school with the most academically-rigid standards in the Big Ten Conference, but also coaching them up to be competitive in that conference and in bowl games, too.  No doubt he’ll have a trick or two up his proverbial sleeve to try to nullify the problems of geography and time discrepancy.  We shall see soon enough, as that is why they line up and play.

* Another Musburger-ism, in case you missed the reference!