Will Moon's Deep Football Thoughts from Outer Space: Week Twelve Preview
We draw closer to the season's endgame, but for both Auburn and Alabama, week twelve offers a brief respite from conference play. Over the past few years, this weekend was chock full of bought-and-paid-for beatdowns, but it looks like the conference finally got tired of catching hell for it from the national media and stepped in. There are actually five conference games on tap this week, but even with that, this weekend's schedule is a far cry from the jam-packed one we saw last week or will see next week. But still we press on.
The Deep Dive
Well, as you probably all have heard by now, Auburn's ranked sixth in the playoff poll. With both the Pac-12 and Notre Dame pretty much out of the mix, that would seem to favor a scenario where the champions of the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, and Big 12 all qualify for the playoff. While it may end up being that simple, there are a few banana peels out there. I guess the main areas of concern would be the outside chance the ACC has at placing two teams in the playoff, plus the possibility that an Alabama team that loses to either Auburn or Georgia could still make it in without winning a conference title. Wisconsin's placement in the rankings has been the subject of a great deal of scrutiny over the last couple of weeks, but I really don't see any chance that the Badgers don't make it in as long as they take care of business (this was always true). Clemson's lofty #2 ranking does seem to indicate that the committee feels so strongly about them that they may not go away completely even with a loss to either South Carolina or Miami. The Hurricanes probably should be #2, but if they can win their final two regular season games, they could force the committee into an interesting conundrum depending on what happens in the ACC title game.
The rub here is basically that we can't really be sure what the committee's criteria are exactly. In 2014, I felt strongly that the committee was correct in picking Ohio State over TCU and Baylor. The Big 12 was trying to game the system by pushing both schools as co-champions (remember the 'One True Champion' ads?) and avoiding the extra conference championship game. They were duly punished. 2015 was pretty cut-and-dry, with Notre Dame dropping out of the mix late and the Pac-12 not producing a team with fewer than two losses. Last season, though, was a different test for the committee, and one that could reverberate into this year.
I think when, say, people throw out the possibility that one-loss Alabama could still be included over two-loss Auburn should the Tigers run the table and win the SEC, they're comparing that hypothetical situation to last year's messy Ohio State/Penn State debate. (Ohio State could be on the other side of that debate again this season, with Wisconsin.) In case you don't remember, the Buckeyes went 11-1 with wins over Oklahoma and Michigan (who both qualified for Big Six Bowls), but didn't win their division because their one loss came at Penn State. The Nittany Lions went 11-2 with wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin, but lost to Pitt out of conference and were completely annihilated by Michigan. The committee ultimately favored Ohio State's fewer losses and deeper overall body of work over Penn State's head-to-win win and conference title. Obviously, debate ensued. (Both teams lost in their bowl games, for what that's worth.)
This year, potentially, could see Auburn in the Penn State role and Alabama in the Ohio State role. (Or Ohio State in the Penn State role and Wisconsin in the Ohio State role, if that makes any sense.) While most people seem to believe that the SEC champ, regardless of whether it's Auburn, Alabama, or Georgia, will make it to the playoff, there are those who seem to think that a one-loss Bammer team could still be more attractive than two-loss Auburn. While the surface of last year's decision would seem to favor Bama (or Wisconsin), there's more nuance to the debate. Ohio State's win at Oklahoma last year was kind of a game-changer for the Buckeyes. Penn State had nothing like that on their non-conference slate. Add that win to the Buckeyes' wins over Michigan and Wisconsin, and tOSU had beaten three teams who would be selected for Big Six Bowls. Penn State did beat Wisky and OSU, but had taken an extra loss to an OK Pitt team (who also managed to upset Clemson later) and were embarrassed at Michigan.
Alabama, again hypothetically, wouldn't have quite the depth to their resume that Ohio State had last year. Their win over Florida State in the season opener is essentially meaningless now that the Seminoles have faceplanted. Their recent victories over LSU and Mississippi State are the biggest feathers in their cap, as they don't really gain anything from beating Arkansas, Ole Miss, Tennessee, or Vandy. Texas A&M, Colorado State, and Fresno State are all decent enough teams, but not needle-movers. Auburn would, hypothetically, have wins over Georgia (two of them) and Alabama, plus Mississippi State, with losses to a good LSU team and an elite Clemson team. The body of work argument would likely tip a little in Auburn's favor, so that makes an apples-to-apples comparison to last year impossible. (Ohio State would have a much better resume than Wisconsin were those schools to be put in that same position.) The one thing the Buckeyes had last year and would have again this year, as well as Alabama, is the national brand. The committee likes to think it's above referring to reputation when it makes its picks, but that could be tested this year. I think with the narrative already being built that the SEC champ controls its own destiny, Auburn should be in good shape should it take care of business. But don't think there won't be any debate.
There's a whole sidebar argument here about conference titles. Do they matter? Should they matter? Has the playoff made it where only the playoff means anything and everything else may as well not exist? This is a healthy discussion point, and we'll come back to it later.
Tigers This Week
Our dear old friend Louisiana-Monroe comes a-strollin' into town this weekend. I don't know how, but it seems like ULM plays 43 games a year, just so they can appear on seemingly every team's schedule. Strangely, the Tigers and the Warhawks have only played ten times, with the first meeting coming back in 1994 when Monroe was known as Northeast Louisiana. Aside from a couple of close calls in 1996 and 2012, the Tigers have routed the Warhawks every time out, including a 58-7 smoking last year that I literally have no memory of. Auburn started playing a non-conference game between Georgia and Alabama in 2011 (with the exception of 2013), and I'm having difficulty remembering a single thing about any of those games. Just for the record, Auburn defeated Samford 35-16 in 2011, Alabama A&M 51-7 in 2012, Samford 31-7 in 2014, Idaho 56-34 in 2015, and Alabama A&M 55-0 last year. I could've at least worked out who Auburn played without a hint every year except for 2015. That Idaho game sounds like an elaborate conspiracy. I'm not convinced it actually happened.
Anyway, ULM does have some rather humorous history with the other Iron Bowl participant, as it was Bammer's very first presumed rent-a-win game stashed on the Saturday between Mississippi State and Auburn where the Warhawks dealt Nick Saban what's probably the most embarrassing loss of his career. Things have gone pretty well for the Turds since then, but that was a pretty fun day.
This year's ULM team is a wholly mediocre 4-5, and they've taken losses to such powerhouses as Georgia State, South Alabama, and Idaho. Basically, Auburn just needs to come out crisp, take care of business early, and not get anyone hurt. This'd be a great day to empty the bench and get all the walk-ons some snaps, but I'd mainly just like to see the team keep the fire in its belly from last week while making sure not to require too much effort from the key starters. Oddly, Auburn's last two big seasons (2010 and 2013) didn't feature this between-Georgia-and-Bama game, as the Tigers were able to take a pre-Iron Bowl bye both years. That Auburn's lost to Bama every year it's played a non-conference game directly before them is probably just a coincidental by-product of the Tide's recent strength, but it's still something the coaching staff can focus on to see if the step-down in competition has any effect on Auburn's mental state going into the biggest game of the year.
Auburn 58, Louisiana-Monroe 17
College Football Game of the Millennium of the Week
There's only one really important game across the country this week, and it's in the Big Ten. Wisconsin's once-horrific schedule has managed to become less horrific lately. Northwestern's broken into the tail end of the playoff poll over the last couple of weeks, Iowa blasted Ohio State just before they got blasted by Wisky, and now Michigan has returned to the poll just in time to take on the Badgers (11 CT on FOX). Fortunately for UW, Michigan has to visit Camp Randall (just like Iowa did last weekend). The Fightin' Harbaughs will roll into Mad-town with freshman Brandon Peters under center. Their inability to develop a QB under Harbaugh will be something he may have to answer for someday, but their defense is good enough to keep them around in this one. On the one hand, Wisky's merely taking on the #24 team in the country, but on the other hand, it's Michigan. Maybe it shouldn't mean all that much nationally, but since those winged helmets will be in Madison Saturday, people are automatically going to treat a win like it's something special. Now the Badgers just have to manage to get one.
Wisconsin 21, Michigan 13
Rest of the Menu
You should actually watch the NFL game on Thursday, since playoff contenders Tennessee and Pittsburgh square off at Heinz Field (7:25 on NBC and NFL Network). The college games are crap. The same goes for Friday.
The early window on Saturday features the aforementioned Michigan-Wisconsin game on FOX, Auburn and Alabama's walkover games (11 CT on ESPN2 and SEC Network, respectively), #3 Miami hosting a decent Virginia team (11 CT on ABC), and Mississippi State traveling to Arkansas (11 CT on CBS). Arkansas canned athletic director Jeff Long yesterday, so that probably doesn't mean anything good for Bret Bielema. Maybe scoring an upset over State will help him save his job, but that decision may have already been made.
The afternoon games are led by Georgia's attempted rebound at home against Kentucky (2:30 CT on CBS). I've got a weird feeling about this game that I can't shake. Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Penn State, and Michigan State are all in action against middling conference foes (or Navy in Notre Dame's case), but the most intriguing matchup to me is the rudderless ship that is Florida hosting Bill Clark's resurgent UAB Blazers (3 CT on SEC Network). UAB has a legitimate chance to win, but it'd still be kinda nuts if it were to happen.
Speaking of rudderless ships, Tennessee kicks off the brief Brady Hoke era with a visit from LSU (6 CT on ESPN). That game could get real ugly. Over on the Deuce, Texas A&M squares off with still-competing Ole Miss (6 CT on ESPN2), where another loss could be the final nail in Kevin Sumlin's coffin (if it isn't already nailed shut). Red hot Missouri travels to Vanderbilt at 6:30 CT on the SEC Network with Vandy needing a win to stay in bowl contention.
The primetime and late night action would've been dominated by the Pac-12, but the conference just hasn't been able to produce enough good teams to make anyone care. USC and UCLA play for the Victory Bell this weekend in the Coliseum (7 CT on ABC), while Stanford and Cal battle in the Big Game (7 CT on FOX). Those are both rivalry games, so they could be fun even if they don't mean much on a national scale. At one point, Utah's trip to Washington (9:30 CT on ESPN) looked like it might be one of the conference's best matchups, but the Utes have fallen off badly since then. It's really a whole day of games like that, just nondescript conference tilts everywhere.
Massacre Island Forecast
Not mentioned above, #4 Oklahoma plays Kansas this week (2:30 CT on ESPN). You know this game's going to be on the schedule every year, but that doesn't change the brutality of it. The Jayhawks are their usual preposterously bad selves, and Oklahoma has the kind of offense that could sleepwalk their way to 40 points. With Baker Mayfield squarely in the Heisman mix, I'm not expecting OU to pass up a chance to pad their QB's stats. But even if they call off the dogs in the 2nd quarter, I can't imagine this game not being ludicrously one-sided. The Jayhawks are just that putrid.
Other likely paddlings include Auburn and ULM, Bammer and Mercer, 2-8 Illinois traveling to Ohio State (they play for a turtle-shaped trophy, just FYI), LSU visiting Tennessee, and Clemson hosting The Citadel. Verily, the hills will be alive with the sound of thumpings.
Well, for such a half-a$$ week, let's have a half-a$$ column. I gotta rest up for Bama, too. I'll be back for a recap of all the rat-killings on Monday.