College Football Nation: It’s all about peaking at the right time

Eric Avidon

Timing is everything.

Don Larsen had it, pitching a perfect game in the World Series to immortalize an otherwise ordinary career. And how else to explain the popularity of pet rocks or Paris Hilton’s fame?

It’s true of college football, too.

Teams rise and fall throughout the season, looking like world-beaters one week and cellar-dwellers the next. They come and go near the top of the rankings, rising and rising until they hit a reality check, and then they disappear.

Each year there are legions who look like they might play a role in the national title debate early on but fade away as the season progresses.

Miami is an example this year, a young team that had some impressive wins over Oklahoma and Georgia Tech but crashed against Virginia Tech and then was beaten by Clemson. California is a perennial example, year after year racing out to hot starts only to lose decisively when days shorten. Conversely there are teams like Mississippi last year, which was 3-4 before winning its final six games.

Those teams are championship pretenders, good ones but not great ones, ones whose ebbs and flows prove crushing. Where timing truly comes into play, however, is among championship contenders.

Even among teams that are good enough to still be undefeated, trends emerge. It’s the teams that are on the rise this final month of the season, the ones who maybe looked mediocre at times earlier but survived to win a close games here or there but now are steamrolling the opposition, that are most likely to run the table and reach Pasadena on Jan. 7.

Conversely, the ones who are suddenly struggling, who maybe looked like juggernauts early on but are suddenly surviving by the slimmest of margins, are most likely to slip.

It’s about peaking at the right time, versus peaking too early.

Texas is showing perfect timing. Alabama is not.

The Longhorns were ranked No. 2 in the polls in the preseason, predicted to play Florida for the national championship. But throughout the first six weeks of the season Texas repeatedly looked mediocre, struggling to beat Texas Tech at home, trailing a terrible Colorado team at halftime and barely beating Oklahoma, who was without Sam Bradford save for a few plays.

But all of a sudden the Longhorns are thundering through the Big 12, decimating good teams.

Two weeks ago they went to Missouri and put up 35 points by halftime on their way to a 41-7 win, then last week traveled to Stillwater and overwhelmed a one-loss Oklahoma State team, 41-14.

Last year at this time Texas was limping, hanging on by a thread to beat Oklahoma State in Austin and then losing at Texas Tech in a game that cost the Longhorns a shot at the national championship.

“Our theme now will be to play to the standard of the best team in the country,” Texas coach Mack Brown said on Monday at his weekly press conference. “We want to be the best in the country and we can improve in so many areas, and we are good right now, but we can get better.”

It’s tough to tell, given that most highly-ranked teams play different competition - that there are no common opponents - but Texas may just be the best team in the country as the season starts to get late. The Longhorns have the top scoring offense in the nation at 42 points per game, but unlike last year when the defense was vulnerable they’re ranked third in total defense and 11th in scoring defense.

“For us, we understand that there is a lot of football left to play,” said Texas quarterback Colt McCoy. “We are through the first two parts of our season. ... It’s the most important part now. We’ve got to finish.” 

On the flip side is Alabama.

The Crimson Tide were the most impressive team in the nation through the first half of the season, including a double-digit win over Virginia Tech on a neutral field and a 22-3 manhandling of Ole Miss in Oxford. But Alabama struggled at home in its last two games before a bye last weekend, getting a fourth-quarter touchdown to finally put South Carolina away and blocking a potential game-winning field goal attempt as time expired to beat Tennessee by two points.

This weekend the Crimson Tide host LSU, and if their downward trend continues they might get clipped, which with so many unbeaten teams remaining could eliminate Alabama from national title contention. Should they survive the Tigers, Florida looms as a probable opponent in the SEC Championship Game, and to beat the Gators the Tide would have to be a lot more like the team that rolled early than the one that’s ebbed of late.

Alabama’s arc this season doesn’t look all that different than last year. The Tide started with 11 straight wins, but after a tough loss to the Gators in the SEC Championship looked morose in a loss to Utah in the Sugar Bowl.

“I think that when you play eight games in a row, everybody is a little tired emotionally, mentally and physically,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said at his press conference on Monday. “It’s been my experience when play more than six games in a row, without getting some rest, it gets to be a little strain n the players to continue to make progress. So I think the bye week did everybody a lot of good.”

Seven undefeated teams remain in the Football Bowl Subdivision, including five from the six BCS conferences. There won’t be seven undefeated teams after the first weekend in December when the regular season comes to a close and bowl match-ups are set. Some will have peaked at the perfect time, finishing with a flourish. Others will have peaked too soon, and limped to the end.

Timing, after all, is everything.

What We Learned

After dismantling USC, it’s clear that Oregon is not only the class of the Pac-10 this season but also, like Texas, a team that appears to be getting better and better as the season progresses.

In fact, were it not for that embarrassing loss to Boise State to start the season, the Ducks would likely be the team in best position to benefit if either the Longhorns or the duo from the SEC - Alabama and Florida - slip up.

After that loss to the Broncos, Oregon was shaky for a couple of weeks, barely beating Purdue by two points, then surviving against Utah. But after that things started to click for the Ducks under first-year head coach Chip Kelly, who had been the offensive coordinator the last couple of years under Mike Bellotti.

A 42-3 win over Cal was a harbinger of things to come.

Since beating Utah by just seven, the Ducks are averaging 42 points per game while allowing just 12.

“We are growing as a group,” Kelly said after the win over USC. “You have to play with what you got, and I know we only have lost a few players to injury, but the next guy just steps up and plays. The college football season is the long haul and you can survive by having quality depth and players that can contribute in different aspects of the game.”

With games remaining against Stanford, Arizona State, Arizona and Oregon State, the Ducks should be 11-1 when the regular season ends, though this weekend at Stanford - which is 5-3 - is a classic trap game coming the week after an emotional victory.

But even if Oregon survives the Cardinal and wins out, and even if teams like Texas, Alabama, Florida, Iowa and Cincinnati lose a game, the Ducks will have trouble getting to the BCS Championship Game. The problem is that pesky loss to Boise State.

Even though the Ducks will have played a much tougher schedule Boise State, and are playing as well as anyone in the nation, many poll voters will be reluctant to push them ahead of Boise State. It would be one thing if the Broncos had quality wins dotting its schedule - then there would be no debate - but they don’t. 

At a certain point wins over four ranked teams - including one that was ranked in the top five - perhaps trumps a head-to-head win from the very first week of the season.

But that’s immaterial right now. What we learned last week is that Oregon is substantially better than USC, that there’s a Pac-10 team better than the Trojans for the first time in eight years, that the Ducks are rising.

Game of the Week

LSU looked lousy at times during the early part of the season. Alabama looked like the best team in college football during the early part of the season.

But the Tigers have routed their two opponents since losing 13-3 to Florida, showing a level of offensive proficiency they didn’t in their previous games. And the Crimson Tide have looked ordinary against their last two opponents, showing a concerning level of offensive deficiency.

The two meet in Tuscaloosa on Saturday afternoon in a game that will likely decide the SEC West and determine who plays Florida in the conference’s title game.

“It’s really big because it’s the upcoming game,” said Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy. “If we were playing the smallest school in the country it would be a big game because it’s next. That’s just the way this team operates. In the SEC it doesn’t matter if you play the best team or the worst team - you have to play your best every week because if you don’t you are vulnerable.”

The game, of course has implications beyond the SEC as well. If Alabama wins the impact is obvious - the Tide remain on a collision course with the Gators for a match-up that will effectively be a national semifinal.

But there are high stakes for LSU as well.

If the Tigers can win, and then take down Louisiana Tech, Ole Miss and Arkansas they’d be 11-1 and headed for a rematch with Florida. And if they were to win that, well, they’d be the premier one-loss team in the land, very possibly in position to play for their third national championship this decade.

“I can tell you that our football team wants to compete for the SEC Western Division championship every year, and certainly that’s this game,” said LSU Coach Les Miles. “I don’t think that there is anything other than the want to play well for that reason. I don’t think we need to put other pretense on this game. This is a game that is very significant, and our guys understand it.”

Saturday in Tuscaloosa is one of those games that make college football special, one of those games that will shape the landscape for the rest of the season.

If I Had a Ballot ...

Alabama (8-0): LSU is the last serious roadblock between the Tide and the SEC Championship Game.

Florida (8-0): Brandon Spikes got off light for trying to gouge the eyes of an opponent.

Texas (8-0): With Kansas’ recent slide, the rest of the schedule looks pretty easy for the Longhorns.

Iowa (9-0): They don’t win pretty. But they win, and do it against some good teams.

TCU (8-0): The Horned Frogs are rolling.

Oregon (7-1): No one saw that kind of beatdown coming against USC.

Georgia Tech (8-1): It seems crazy, but when the Yellow Jackets visit Duke next week the ACC Coastal could be at stake.

Cincinnati (8-0): The song remains the same - no good opponents means no respect for your record.

LSU (7-1): There’s opportunity to make a leap this week.

Boise State (8-0): Wow, great win over San Jose State!

Eric Avidon is a Daily News staff writer. He can be reached at 508-626-3809