Conference Races Hit Top Speed

Moving into late October we have a large enough sample size to gauge how the conference races will shake out.

SEC Favorite: Ole Miss
SEC Sleeper: Georgia

While the SEC West is getting all the attention, Georgia can still ruin everything and win the SEC championship game. The only team that can take the East from Georgia is Missouri and that’s only if the Tigers win out and Georgia loses a game. Going against Georgia in Atlanta for the SEC championship is a tough out. Ole Miss gets Mississippi State and Auburn at home so it is currently the favorite in the West.

PAC-12 Favorite: Oregon
PAC-12 Sleeper: Arizona

Oregon is the only team in the North with a winning conference record at 3-1. Stanford is close at 2-2 but still has to play at Oregon. The PAC-12 South is a traffic jam of four teams at one loss, but I like Arizona to come out of it. Arizona State must come to Tucson and traveling to UCLA on Nov. 1 seems less intimidating now for the Wildcats.

Big 12 Favorite: Kansas State
Big 12 Sleeper: West Virginia

The fact that the Big 12 does not have a championship game makes this conference race more interesting. While Kansas State is the last remaining undefeated team in conference play, West Virginia has a favorable schedule. The Mountaineers have just one conference loss and will host both K-State and TCU. If West Virginia can get past Oklahoma State in Stillwater Saturday then Mountaineer fans must like their chances of singing country roads a few more times.

Big Ten Favorites: Michigan State and Ohio State
Big Ten Sleeper: None

The Big Ten is straightforward, whoever wins the Ohio State at Michigan State meeting on Nov. 8 will win the conference. The Big Ten West is too shaky to pull off the upset this year as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska give different performances each week.

ACC Favorite: Florida State
ACC Sleeper: Duke

Florida State has practically won the ACC Atlantic but Clemson does have a small chance of catching up to it. The story though is in the Coastal where Duke is in the lead to repeat as division champions. The Blue Devils are down to two road games against Pitt and Syracuse (nothing to worry about) with Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest at home. Duke will be favored in all of those games and may sneak up on a napping Florida State in the ACC championship game.

Mountain West Favorite: Boise State
Mountain West Sleeper: Nevada

This conference is still fuzzy but Boise State is always a Mountain West favorite and gets San Diego State at home. The Broncos have already defeated Colorado State and should come out of the Mountain Division as Air Force has a tough schedule. San Diego State is 3-1 in conference play but has a tough slate ahead with Boise, Nevada and Air Force remaining. This opens the door for Nevada to come out of the West. The Wolfpack have defeated Washington State and BYU and should be favored in four of its final five games.

American Athletic Favorite: East Carolina
American Athletic Sleeper: Central Florida

The AAC is a two-team race with East Carolina being the pride of the conference so far at 5-1. UCF is 2-0 in conference play and will give the Pirates a test on Dec. 4. It’s hard to see any other school like Temple, Houston or Cincinnati winning the league but they are long shots.

Conference USA Favorite: Marshall
Conference USA Sleeper: None

It's just too easy for them

It’s just too easy for them

CUSA is all about Marshall and no one else. The last undefeated team among the mid-majors, Marshall is looking at an Orange Bowl bid. Louisiana Tech is 3-0 in CUSA play but has lost to a FCS school so it’s hard to call it a threat.

Mid-American Favorite: Northern Illinois
Mid-American Sleeper: Akron

The MAC is a mess of unpredictability as Northern Illinois lost to Central Michigan at home. Yet I don’t see another team taking them out in the West. Central fell to 2-2 in conference play and Toledo and Western Michigan are unproven. In the East division, Akron’s final five games will be against underdogs as it gets Bowling Green at home. The Zips beat Pittsburgh earlier in the year and is well coached under Terry Bowden.

Sun Belt Favorite: Georgia Southern
Sun Belt Sleeper: Louisiana

Georgia Southern at the top of the Sun Belt at 4-0 in the conference. Louisiana Monroe at home to the end the regular season appears to be its toughest remaining game. Louisiana is 2-0 in Sun Belt play though and will host Arkansas State Tuesday who is also 2-0. The Ragin’ Cajuns are playing well in the Sun Belt after a disappointing non-conference campaign. I’m picking Louisiana to win Tuesday and perhaps grab a share of the Sun Belt with Georgia Southern.


Texas A&M Saves us from Boredom

When I was looking into journalism in college I read that newspapers were 10 percent actual news and 90 percent filler. This Saturday in college football was filler.

College GameDay was at Missouri vs. South Carolina. Two teams with a loss each and Missouri’s came to lowly Indiana. Yet, Missouri won the game. Go figure.

Heck, Michigan State’s rout of Wyoming somehow made it to ESPN 2. The ABC primetime game involved Syracuse, a school who nearly lost to FCS Villanova and was humbled by Maryland. ESPNU showcased a SWAC duel between Alcorn State and Southern. In other words, quality games were not there.

Next week will be different but today we were left with Texas A&M rallying to beat Arkansas and Florida State surviving NC State on the road. The only bout between ranked teams was No. 11 UCLA lighting up No. 15 Arizona State 62-27 and that game was on… Thursday.

Here are the winners and losers from the week.

Winner: Texas A&M

The Aggies had to deal with “trap game” talk all week and needed two fourth quarter touchdowns to bail them out against the Razorbacks. Arkansas had 484 total yards but only 73 came in the fourth quarter and overtime. The Hogs will also have to question this slow developing run on fourth down in overtime that was quickly stuffed at the line of scrimmage.

What Arkansas fans see in Hades.

What Arkansas fans see in Hades.

Bottom line: Texas A&M players don’t have to worry about trap games anymore. Mainly because they know No. 14 Mississippi State can beat them without anyone in the media telling them so.

Loser: Penn State

Penn State was excited to be eligible for the Big 10 title game this season but not anymore. Losing to 1-2 Northwestern at home takes care of that. The Wildcats had lost to a MAC school and their only win was against a FCS team. Yet, Northwestern never trailed as it scored two touchdowns in the first quarter to win 29-6. PSU quarterback Christian Hackenberg averaged over 300 passing yards per game coming into the contest but had just 216 today to go along with an interception. The only school that stands in Michigan State’s way in the Big 10 East now is … Maryland? Maybe Ohio State? Maybe?

Winner: Air Force

The Falcons went 2-10 in 2013 and a depressing 0-8 in Mountain West action. Not this year, as Air Force took it to perennial Mountain West favorite Boise State and won 28-14. It has to be the school’s biggest win since topping Georgia Tech in the 2010 Independence Bowl. One thing is for sure, the Mountain West is going to be interesting this season.

Loser: Pittsburgh

When you lose to Akron at home 21-10 it’s going to be tough. It was the first win for Akron against a power conference school since defeating NC State six years ago. The Zips kept star Panther running back James Conner in check, holding him to just 92 yards. Coach Paul Chryst has damage control duties to do in Western Pennsylvania.

The Slightly Better Football Teams

I take it "Cal Wins" doesn't happen very much.

I take it “Cal Wins” doesn’t happen very much.

You can’t win a national title in the first week of the season but you can satisfy the expectations of your fan base. For those hoping their football team would just “get better” then you’re in luck if you are a fan of one of these teams from each conference.

ACC: Virginia

Virginia hung in there against UCLA Saturday and that’s a win for a 2-10 team in 2013. Heck, this was a squad that was trashed by Ball State at home last season 48-27 so losing 28-20 to No. 7 UCLA is amazing. The Cavaliers have an experienced team and should break their ACC losing streak this season given how weak the league is. Going to a bowl game will be tough but anything over 2 wins should be a plus.

PAC-12: California

Remember how California lost by two touchdowns to Northwestern in the season opener a season ago in Berkeley? Things changed as the 1-11 Golden Bears won their first game at Northwestern 31-24 in what I thought was the biggest upset of the weekend. Cal has already matched last season’s win total and now gets to host FCS Sacramento State this week.

Big Ten: Rutgers

Big Ten fans are happily claiming Rutgers after its road trip to Seattle where it knocked off Washington State 41-38. The Scarlet Knights did go 7-6 last season but not many were expecting them to do much in the Big Ten. Maybe Rutgers will avoid the Big Ten cellar after all.

Big 12: West Virginia

Going up against Alabama, many thought West Virginia would be cannon fodder but the Mountaineers made a game of it. It was a 33-23 defeat but the Mountaineers trailed by only three at halftime. After a 4-8 season, West Virginia has a chance to win four of its next five games. Its date with Maryland on Sept. 13 will be crucial.

SEC: Tennessee

Tennessee shutdown an explosive offense in Utah State Sunday night, holding it to seven points. Tennessee is looking to improve from 5-7 this season and should be favored in at least five more games this season. The Vols should be going bowling.

American Athletic Conference: Temple

One team in the SEC that did not improve was Vanderbilt, a school that was embarrassed by Temple on Thursday 37-7. Temple was 2-10 in 2013 and is a lock to surpass last season’s win total. Temple really made the new SEC Network look bad as all the “experts” called for a Vanderbilt rout. Nice job Owls.

Mountain West: Hawaii

Hawaii only won one game last season but showed improvement in its one point loss to No. 25 Washington 17-16. The Rainbow Warriors should have won this game as they held the Huskies scoreless in the 2nd half. They will get another crack at a PAC 12 school as Oregon State comes to the islands Saturday.

Sun Belt: Georgia State

Georgia State surpassed last season’s win total with a victory over FCS Abilene Christian Wednesday 38-37 meaning it is already an amazing season for Panther fans. Seriously, everything from here on out is bonus money. The Panthers will have a great shot at beating a FBS team for the first time in school history this Saturday as they host the Aggies of New Mexico State.

MAC: Akron

The MAC East is has no clear favorite this season and maybe Akron can sneak in. The Zips blew out FCS Howard Thursday and that is an upgrade from last season. All five of Akron’s wins in 2013 had a margin of victory of a touchdown or less. This could be the year of the Zips. We’re pulling for you Terry Bowden.

Conference USA: UAB

UAB hasn’t even sniffed bowl eligibility in the last few years but that could be changing. UAB broke a three-game losing streak to in-state rival Troy State Saturday. In the rebuilt Conference USA look for the Blazers to do some damage despite a 2-10 record in 2013.

Mid-Major Identity Crisis

I take it tickets are still available.

I take it tickets are still available.

I did something Saturday that I probably shouldn’t have. I returned to my alma-mater, Ball State, to watch a basketball game.

That may not sound like much of a regret but it is when your basketball program is finding every way it can to hinder itself. Just like Michael Bay when he makes a Transformers movie.

I detailed how I became a Ball State fan when I guest wrote for Over the Pylon, a Ball State sports blog. No need to rehash how I my relationship with Ball State athletics began, the issue now is maintaining it.

Ball State’s problem is more than the 4-15 record of its mens basketball team. It’s more than the fact the football team lays an egg in seemingly every big game. It’s more than the poor finances of the Olympic sports like field hockey, swimming, volleyball and tennis. It’s the fact the athletic department has no identity.

This is a common problem for schools in the MAC, Sun-Belt, Conference USA and Mountain West. They can’t figure who they are.

My sports editor at the Ball State Daily News explained it perfectly to me when I covered the school’s mens volleyball team. Mid-majors like Ball State can’t focus on every sport. They simply don’t have the resources. It leaves schools in Ball State’s situation a tough to choice to make.

  1. Focus on football at the expense at every other sport you have. Count on the football team to increase boosters and hope the other sports can do more with less.
  2. Just view football as another sport and pool more resources to others. Don’t worry if the football team struggles because other programs should emerge to satisfy fans and boosters.

There are good examples for each here right in the Mid-American Conference. Northern Illinois, Western Michigan, and Central Michigan take option No. 1. Football is what drives them as all three have predominantly been among the conference elite in that sport. TCU, when it was in the Mountain West, had a football focus allowing it to get promoted to the Big 12. The same can be said for Marshall in the 90s and early 2000s when it was in the MAC.

Option No. 2 has worked MAC examples Kent State, Akron, and Miami University. Kent State has been a force in basketball and its baseball team has crashed the party at the College World Series. Akron has had great success in basketball and men’s soccer. Miami can even fund a hockey team that reached the Frozen Four.

This is where I come back to Ball State. In the 1990s the school had an identity. Rick Majerus had the basketball team running as a MAC powerhouse. The mens volleyball team was competing for national championships, and is still the only sport the school has with any hope of achieving a national ranking on a yearly basis.

Then the school had an athletic director change and the focus shifted to football. Having an awful football team was no longer an option. For a time it seemed to work as Coach Brady Hoke was a genius, leading the Cardinals to an undefeated regular season in 2008. Then Ball State struggled to find a replacement as bigger schools stole Hoke and he is now at Michigan.

While the football team has improved, the lack of local recruits will always hold the program back. Coach Pete Lembo has to go into other states far from Indiana to sell the school. The basketball and volleyball teams do not have that problem. Recruits can be found just a short drive away and the facilities in those sports are excellent for a mid-major. Ball State could have been as good as Butler in basketball or as good as UCLA in mens volleyball. It can still happen. This should be its identity. But in football the best it can hope for is to win the Bowl.

That is why it was so sad watching the basketball team play Northern Illinois at home Saturday. The roster is composed of seniors who were too old to transfer for just one year, and freshmen who would have needed to redshirt if they went anywhere else. Even against NIU, a school that focuses on football, Ball State couldn’t get it done.

The Cardinals broke out to 30-15 lead late in the first half only to let Huskies cut it to 30-22 at halftime. Ball State’s starters got into foul trouble and Northern hit a huge three to force overtime. The result was a 67-65 NIU win. Ball State’s talent scarcity showed as it went a horrendous 14-28 from the line. Hitting just one more free throw in regulation would have won the game.

Ball State had blown a game to a conference rival with a losing record at home. To make it worse, no one cared. The fans have bought into the notion that Ball State is a football school because of a few winning seasons, so why does it matter if the other sports struggle?

I wish I could share in their ignorance.

Thank You Akron Zips

In a week where everything wrong with college sports was exposed, one game Saturday made me proud of the NCAA again. While Sports Illustrated and Yahoo! reported stories of big schools from Alabama to Oklahoma State cheating to get ahead the tiny Akron Zips proved there are some good things left.

If placing a zipper on your helmet makes you a good football team then you do it dangit.

If placing a zipper on your helmet makes you a better football team then put it on there already!

Akron entered the largest stadium in the country against one of college football’s most prestigious programs in Michigan. Michigan had just defeated Notre Dame while Akron had not won against a FBS school since 2010. Needless to say Michigan was a huge favorite. A 37 point favorite to be exact.

The game was an obvious candidate for the budget games as I was pretty sure it was guaranteed win for the Wolverines. Michigan’s coach Brady Hoke thought so too apparently calling it a glazed donut game. It was more about how the school was giving away donuts to entice students for the early kickoff against a poor opponent but still.

Michigan scored quickly in the first to take 7-0 lead, but that was all the points it mustered in the first half. Akron had a chance to kick two field goals before halftime but bad clock management made them tough kicks. Both were missed and came back to haunt the Zips.

Akron then had two first and goals in the fourth quarter where it came up empty. One was a poor pass intercepted in the end zone and the other a turnover on downs as time expired. If the Zips had made one of those two previous field goals it would have only needed another one down 28-27. Instead it was 28-24 forcing a touchdown. In summary, Akron had four great chances to win the game and all slipped away.

Michigan had superior size clogging up the running game of Akron. Yet the skill positions, such as receiver, were even. The Zips ended with more passing yards (311-248) and more first downs (21-19). This was a team that was pounded at Central Florida and could barely beat FCS James Madison for God sakes!

Those passing stats from a MAC school should never happen against a Michigan team loaded with prized recruits. The players on Akron probably couldn’t get a scholarship offer anywhere else in FBS.

Michigan has blown games to inferior teams before at home. There was FCS Appalachian State, and then came Toledo out of the MAC. Saturday would have been the worse though. It should have been the worse as Akron deserved to win this game. Michigan did not.

The faces of the Michigan fans told the story. What was supposed to be a three-hour party for Michigan that involved boosters pledging money turned into a horror movie. Losing here would scar Michigan yet again. Ohio State fans would have new ammo to ridicule their rivals with for another decade. “Hey, remember when your boys lost to the last place MAC school at home in 2013?”

The things you find on Twitter. Click save image as Ohio State fans.

The things you find on Twitter. Click save image as Ohio State fans.

Akron reminded us what is great about college sports. While some schools will cheat to score recruits, some build programs the right way. It is why I love the lower levels of college football so much. Scandals occur in the MAC and FCS too but they are smaller and less frequent. The players are there because the big name programs did not want them. Agents and boosters are in no hurry to throw money at their way. A football scholarship means a lot to these kids.

So when an Akron with their zipper helmets (love the look) takes the lead in the fourth quarter against Michigan I was loving every second of it. It was more compelling than Alabama at Texas A&M. I wanted to see the Zips make history.

Thank you Akron. Thank you for reminding us what is right with college football.

The Budget Games: Week 3, 2013

We have a few more lopsided affairs to look forward to this week in college football. Not every game can be Alabama at Texas A&M as some tiny schools need cash from the juggernauts. Welcome to the Budget Games, where the odds are never in your favor.Budget Games new

3. Akron at Michigan
The Akron Zips selected their nickname off of a zipper factory in the town. How they selected a kangaroo as their mascot is another story you can research on your own. Michigan is a prestigious college football program with a stadium the size of the Death Star. Take a guess as to who is favored.

Can Akron pull off the upset? Heck no.
You’re more likely to be abducted by aliens than the Zips chances of winning this game. Michigan is coming off a huge win over Notre Dame while Akron could barely survive a Football Championship Subdivision school at home. Akron is trying to pay the bills of a new stadium that opened in 2009 and cost over $60 million. A nice check from Michigan is a good move. Just don’t complain when the score is 70-0.

2. West Virginia vs. Georgia State
West Virginia will be reportedly paying Georgia State $550,000 to come to Morgantown and get smashed. I think that’s a bargain for West Virginia as some payouts for easy wins have gone for twice that. Georgia State is struggling in its second year in the Football Bowl Subdivision and they were not very good in their FCS days either.

Can Georgia State pull off the upset? It would take a miracle.
Georgia State lost to FCS Chattanooga last week at home and now plays at a Big 12 school. Its only hope is how sluggish West Virginia looked in their week one win against FCS William and Mary. Maybe the Mountaineers struggle on offense again opening the door… nah this game will be at least a three touchdown win for West Virginia.

1. Massachusetts at Kansas State
UMass is in its second year of the biggest mistake in their school history, I mean second year of their transition to FBS play. Kansas State will be paying $750,000 to the UMass athletic department in exchange for pounding the hell out of its football at home. Order your tickets now and Kansas State will run up the score an additional touchdown. Operators are standing by.

Can UMass pull off the upset? Might as well ask yourself if unicorns play video games.
Sure, Kansas State lost to FCS North Dakota State but North Dakota State is a good team. UMass is not. In fact the only player UMass has on some All-MAC rosters is their punter. That’s because he gets a lot of snaps. UMass just lost to FCS Maine last week and will continue to struggle at Kansas State.

Honorable mentions: UTSA at Arizona, Florida Atlantic at South Florida, Kent State at LSU, Savannah State at Miami.