Welcome to Fact or Fanatic! We’d be writing this column from Gainesville, but there’s a 10% chance of rain today. We’ll have to cancel, then amend to postpone this week’s article, and then act like spoiled brats before the SEC intervenes and forces us to write our originally scheduled column.
Another great weekend of football, another 3-2 record on our picks. This has been a crazy season so far, and last week’s slate of games ended up providing the nation with some of the best, most exciting college football in years. That being said, it also provided fans with some seriously puzzling and frustrating issues. To adequately explain what we mean, we’re going to have to revisit two former Trash Acts of the Week.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, The University of Florida, and LSU
In last week’s column, Florida and its outgoing AD Jeremy Foley were our trash acts of the week. Although everyone who has access to a computer or a television knew that Hurricane Matthew was aimed straight at Florida, the UF athletic department ignored multiple requests and offers from LSU to move their scheduled football game and waited until it was too late to do anything other than to cancel the meeting. Within minutes that cancellation had been amended to postponed, and since then both schools have been going back and forth in an acrimonious squabble that makes a playground fight between two kindergarteners seem more productive. Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, who could and should have intervened early last week, now looks like the most ineffectual man in all of college football, and the SEC itself is taking a serious hit.
If the LSU-UF game isn’t played, then thanks to a tiny bylaw in SEC regulations, either school could end up in the SEC Championship despite other teams having played all their scheduled gamed and beaten them in regulation play. For example, Tennessee demolished Florida in the second half of their game and the very next week survived its only other legitimate division foe, Georgia. Tennessee should be the unquestioned SEC East winner if it beats the remaining teams in the division. However, the SEC bylaws state that the team with the best winning percentage goes to Atlanta as the division champion. An SEC record 6-1 Florida team would get the berth over a 6-2 Tennessee (if UT loses a second game), despite UT having the head-to-head win.
What makes this particularly annoying is that both LSU and Florida have out-of-conference foes on November 19. Common wisdom would make this problem simple to solve: The SEC pays off those opponents (South Alabama and Prebysterian, respectively) and the game is moved to that date.
But now, both LSU and Florida are adamantly refusing to lose a home game to make that happen. Florida will not consider playing the game outside Gainesville, and LSU will not give up the revenue of a home game, which the flood-ravaged Baton Rouge community sorely needs.
Let us be frank. The time for Sankey and the SEC to have dealt with this issue was early last week. By the time Foley slapped down his coup de grace, it was already too late for Sankey to do much. Without a reliable and mandated backup plan in place that schools immediately know is the alternative to playing on a scheduled date, this situation will rise again – and why not? It’s an easy way to negate a divisional loss.
This exact same situation has happened twice before, and both times involved LSU. After Hurricane Katrina, the LSU-UT game was postponed until Monday. The Vols flew in, played the game, and flew home all on the same day. And last year, when South Carolina was dealing with catastrophic flooding, LSU opened up Tiger Stadium and the game was played in Baton Rouge. They also gave SC the gate.
Greg Sankey and the Southeastern Conference must make this game happen. If they cannot, then neither Florida nor LSU should be allowed to play in the SEC Championship regardless of their records. The fact that Sankey has sat back wringing his hands throughout this whole affair is pathetic. This situation required strong, capable leadership, and there was none to be found. This game is essential, not just to the SEC but the entirety of college football. As long as Sankey continues to bend over, the rest of the SEC is what’s getting screwed.
Take a look at this film and tell me if this was a targeting penalty.
How about this one?
Over the past few games, officiating seems to have gone from bad to worse. Not just on targeting either.
College football officiating is affecting the outcome of games, and by extension seasons, divisions, conferences, and playoffs. If the rules cannot be applied universally to every team, every play, every game, then officiating on the whole needs to be evaluated and overhauled. The targeting rule in particular. It’s not difficult to see a helmet-to-helmet hit. If the refs are going to call one, they need to call them all. Without oversight and an equitable assessment of penalties, players are getting injured, which is even more disconcerting.
Get it fixed, college football. Now.
Houston Is a CFP Contender
That was absolutely fact – until last week when #6 Houston lost to the then-unranked Navy. The game was a 46-40 heartbreaker and it was the second year in a row that an undefeated Cougars squad had lost to an unranked foe. All that being said, don’t count Houston out yet. It’s still ranked at #13 and still has a meeting with #7 Louisville on the schedule. Considering the next month of ranked-on-ranked games, it’s entirely possible for Houston to get back into the playoff picture. Coach Tom Herman will refocus his players, and we’d be willing to bet that if he can manage to pull off the upset over Louisville, this might just become fact again.
Charlie Strong Is on the Hot Seat
Well, yeah. Duh. Of course he is.
It looked like he’d managed to save himself after the upset of Notre Dame the first week of the schedule. We were buying into Strong totally. But what looked like a charge of momentum heading into the season now looks like two mediocre teams playing a mediocre game. Notre Dame is perhaps the biggest flop of the season so far, sitting with a 2-4 record that has people in South Bend wishing they hadn’t signed that extension for Brian Kelly quite so fast. And now Texas is drowning in the fanbase’s ire after losing consecutive games to Cal, Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma.
Boosters around Austin are murmuring in back rooms about buyouts and how expensive Tom Herman might be if they succeed in luring him away from Houston. If Texas doesn’t win out, Strong is done. But with Texas Tech, TCU, West Virginia, and Baylor still on the schedule, the odds of that happening are slim enough that not even a fanatic thinks that is a possibility.
On to the Picks
We are a clean 20-10 for the season, giving us a 66.6% record (if you’re into that spooky Halloween kind of thing). With a massive slate of important games on tap, our record may not be so clean by this time next week. That being said, this is one of the most important weeks in the CFB season. Welcome to The Third Saturday in October, when college football hits its peak season and the world is only a few weeks away from the first College Football Playoff rankings. Those rankings are going to be strongly affected by what happens on the field this weekend, which makes this one of the most important slate of games this year. Let’s take a look at the top five games.
North Carolina versus #16 Miami
Last week wasn’t all that great for either team. The Tarheels got throttled by Virginia Tech while Hurricane Matthew turned everything into a swamp. Miami, on the other hand, let a second-half lead slip away against Florida State. Both teams are gunning for the ACC Championship game and control of the Coastal division. But with UNC’s super-stud RB Elijah Hood trying to come back from an injury against the Hokies, and QB Mitch Trebinsky throwing for just 131 yards and his first two interceptions of the year, coach Larry Fedora has to find a way to get his team back on track.
Miami played lights out against the Seminoles, and lost on a blocked PAT, resurrecting the special-teams mythos that has always surrounded its series with FSU. The difference may be on the defensive side of the ball. Both UNC and Miami allowed a lot of points last week. Miami’s defense is young; UNC’s defense is pedestrian. Both are porous in the secondary. So which coach gets his team settled first? The U’s Mark Richt, or the Tarheels’ Fedora? We have to go with the team that has the most veterans.
UNC 35 Miami 31
#10 Nebraska versus Indiana
This is an intriguing matchup. The Cornhuskers are surging back into the national spotlight, back in the top 10 and hungry for a return to the glory days of Nebraska football. The Hoosiers have played scrappy, heads-up ball this season, and don’t look like the Indiana of old.
The emergence of these teams in the B1G is both exciting and reassuring. The domination of Ohio State and both Michigan teams needs to be challenged, not just because it’s time for a change but because better competition will help the conference’s chances of getting back to the CFP. All that being said, we think Indiana is still a year away, and Nebraska is coming off a much-needed bye week.
In this game, neither of those things might matter. Both offenses are crazy fast when it comes to scoring touchdowns. The key matchup, however, comes with Indiana’s rushing offense against Nebraska’s run defense. If Indiana can establish the run behind Devine Redding against the Cornhuskers’ defense (which statistically is among the worst in the nation), it will be hard for Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong to combat when his offense is on the field.
This is a tough one, and may very well end up being a shootout. If that’s the case, it’s hard to deny Nebraska the nudge. But we won’t be shocked if Indiana pulls out the upset either.
Nebraska 48 Indiana 45
#12 Ole Miss versus #22 Arkansas
This is a titanic SEC West matchup between two teams that both have a lot to prove. The Rebels let double-digit leads against Florida State and Alabama slip through their fingers thanks to defensive meltdowns in the second half. Arkansas lost barely to Texas A&M in a brutal game, followed by a visit from defending national champion Alabama last week. Early on in that game, it looked like Arkansas was going to get stomped, but the team managed to hold everything together. QB Austin Allen threw for 400 yards against the Tide’s vaunted defense, and this despite getting hit 26 times.
Ole Miss lives and dies with QB Chad Kelly’s arm. Take the FSU game, where he threw three interceptions. It’s safe to say that both teams are better than their records indicate, which makes this game even more important. OM had a bye last week while Arkansas was fighting a monster and turning the ball over five times. Both racked up big passing yards on their common opponent, Alabama. Both allowed massive rushing yards against the Tide, Ole Miss giving up 334 and Arkansas 264.
This is a tossup for all practical purposes. Most oddsmakers have Ole Miss winning by a touchdown. Unless the Hogs’ Bret Bielema can come up with the best game of his SEC career, the Rebs seem like the better pick. That’s why we’re going with Arkansas.
Arkansas 38 Ole Miss 35
#2 Ohio State versus #8 Wisconsin
This is the first big test in the B1G for the Buckeyes, who have been running clinics since their defeat of the Oklahoma Sooners in week three. Wisconsin has one of the best defenses in the country and are coming off a bye week.
Ohio State, on the other hand, looked haphazard last week in a 39-17 win over Indiana that was much closer than the score might indicate. For one thing, Hesiman candidate JT Barrett had a bafflingly bad game, hitting 9 of 21 passes for only 93 yards and an interception. His 137 yards rushing, however, led the Buckeyes in a 263-yard team effort.
But Camp Randall is primed and ready to welcome the Buckeyes, because the Badgers have been absolutely brutal on third down both offensively and defensively. If the Wisconsin defense can force Ohio State into passing situations and long third down situations, they might be able to restrict the Buckeyes offensively.
Where the Badgers run into trouble is their hit-or-miss offense. Their run game is anemic, and Alex Hornibrook had a dire game against Michigan two weeks ago, going 9-25 passing for 88 yards and three touchdowns. With Ohio State’s defense ranked in the top 10 in every statistical category, it might take more than the third quarter Jump Around to save the Badgers.
Ohio State 28 Wisconsin 17
#1 Alabama versus #9 Tennessee
Welcome to The Third Week In October, a rivalry that’s among the oldest and most storied in college football. Alabama is riding high: defending SEC and national champs, ranked number one, and coming off a brutal game against Arkansas. Tennessee left it all on the field last week in College Station, coming back from a 21-point deficit to take the Aggies into double overtime before losing its first game of the year 45-38. The Volunteers turned the ball over an astonishing seven times. They entered Kyle Field down five players, and lost eight more to injury during the game.
But instead of what they lost, take a look at what they did. Senior TB Alvin Kamara rushed for 127 yards and gained another 161 receiving – the first NCAA football player in 20 years to get the magical 100/150. Senior QB Joshua Dobbs threw for 400 yards and rushed for 57 more. Dobbs currently leads the SEC in touchdown responsibility with 14. Last year, Dobbs had 15 all season.
The Crimson Tide has been a juggernaut so far this season. WR Calvin Ridley has been a thing of beauty, QB Jalen Hurts is exciting to watch, and Bama’s star DE Tim Williams is one of the most disruptive players in the SEC. Then again, so is UT’s star DE Derek Barnett. This game is in Neyland Stadium, and the rivalry is finally as important this year as it ever was during the heyday of Bama-Tennessee slugfests.
Before the season started, we circled this game as a loss for UT, setting up a rematch in Atlanta for the SEC title game in December. But there’s an element about the Vols we didn’t take into account: their determination. Win this game, at home, and all the uncertainty about Atlanta is done, though national sports media announced after its loss to A&M that Tennessee’s “luck had run out.” Coming from behind to win every game but one against ranked teams? That’s not luck. That’s a top-tier team.
This is the last ranked team UT will face, and six of the seven teams it will have played before Sunday are ranked in the top 50. Virginia Tech, Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M, and Alabama were either ranked when the Vols played them, or are ranked now. And with the Tide’s defense allowing QBs to rack up big yardage, that might become an issue.
Once again, this is a game we never pick. We know better. This rivalry is mean and vicious and always will be. Tennessee almost snagged Alabama last year in Tuscaloosa; this year, the Neyland Effect comes into serious play. We’re going with the upset, gods help us.
Tennessee 38 Alabama 31
Yes, we’re nervous about our picks. Who wouldn’t be? In a year that’s been wild since week one, we know anything can happen.
Except in Gainesville. Which reminds us: there’s a 30 percent chance of rain for the Missouri-Florida game tomorrow. Might be a good idea to postpone that game too. Get on it, Commissioner Sankey.