College Football Nation: Playoff needed this season
As Saturday turned into Sunday, a demon lurked.
Shortly before the clock struck midnight, mere days before Halloween, the abomination that is the BCS was poised to attack another season, potentially rising up to feast on the hearts of people who gives themselves over to some school for four solid months each fall.
It was then that the realization began to set in that the offseason’s news that a playoff is near, a mere two seasons away, might be two seasons too late to rescue this one from the demon.
Four undefeated teams sit atop the polls, three from power conferences and Notre Dame.
Each plays a schedule worthy of contending for the national title, and given the way each has played against strong teams so far, each has a real chance at perfection. It’s unlikely none of the four will suffer a surprise loss before all is said and done, but they might.
But should Alabama, Kansas State, Notre Dame and Oregon all finish without a loss - Ohio State and Louisville, also undefeated, don’t factor into the discussion - only two will get a chance to play for the championship because of the demon that has been allowed to wreak havoc for the last 15 years and now is living on a two-year stay of execution.
“Our focus is on what we can control,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said during his weekly press conference on Tuesday, voicing the mantra of any coach whose team has embarked on a special path. “If we don’t prepare well and have a good week, that’s going to spill into how we play Saturday.”
The easiest remaining road to perfection is Kansas State’s.
The Wildcats have already played their toughest games, winning at Oklahoma and blowing out West Virginia in Morgantown. Two currently ranked teams remain, but Oklahoma State and Texas have proven to be defensively inept, and the Wildcats have already shown what they can do against teams that rely solely on offense to win, crushing the all-offense-no-defense Mountaineers 55-14.
Notre Dame, which has played the most consistently difficult slate so far, has the second-easiest remaining path to perfection.
The Fighting Irish’s marquee win, the one that showed they’re not going away quietly this year, came Saturday night when they won 30-13 at Oklahoma, and they’ve already handled plenty of decent teams like Miami, Michigan, Michigan State and Stanford.
The next three weeks should pose no problem, with games against Pitt, Boston College and Wake Forest.
The looming threat is a trip to the Coliseum to play USC, but with losses to Stanford and Arizona the Trojans are a lesser hazard than they were expected to be when they began the season atop the AP poll.
Oregon has a difficult road ahead, but given the way the Ducks have played against teams like Arizona and Washington, they seem unstoppable.
They face perhaps their biggest challenge of the season this Saturday night when they head south to Los Angeles to face the very same USC team that still looms for Notre Dame, the very same USC team that couldn’t beat Arizona last Saturday, which Oregon beat 49-0. Should the Ducks survive the Coliseum, Stanford at home and then a trip half an hour north to play Oregon State remain.
If they’re still perfect after the Civil War, the Pac-12 title game will be all that stands between the Ducks and perfection.
Finally, there’s Alabama.
The Crimson Tide head into a haunted house on Saturday night when they play LSU in Death Valley. But the Tigers are one-dimensional, all defense and no offense, eminently beatable for a team as staggeringly complete as Alabama.
After that, Texas A&M comes to Tuscaloosa, which will be no simple task after the fight that will be waged in Baton Rouge. But then come easy games against Western Carolina and Auburn.
The final test will be the SEC title game, where the Tide, assuming they survived Death Valley, will face either Florida or Georgia.
“The playoff started in the first week of September,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said on Tuesday, “and when you lose you’re eliminated for the playoff. Where we are as a football program right now, every single game we play is huge.”
Nothing is certain.
Other than Kansas State, the remaining unbeatens face difficult roads. But should any fall along the way it will be an upset.
Saturday night will provide a view into what looms. If Alabama survives Death Valley and Oregon slays its opponent in the Coliseum, a demon looms.
And stupidly, the way to kill it lies just two years away.
What We Learned
Knee injuries are commonplace. They happen so often that we’re numb to them. While athletes fall to the ground in agony, we watch and simply calculate the time it will take to recover and return.
But Saturday there was a knee injury that struck a chord, maybe made us feel like we should always feel when someone’s body is twisted to the point where it tears to pieces.
It’s spawned an outpouring of sympathy, and what’s one more expression of sadness and hope for a young man who already went through the agony of torn knee ligaments and surgery and recovery once, and now has to do it all over again?
What happened to Marcus Lattimore on Saturday was disgusting.
It was visually horrific, his right leg bent in an awful direction, but that’s not what made it disgusting. It’s that Lattimore, a junior running back at South Carolina, just went through all this.
It was a reminder of the fragility of stardom.
When Lattimore came out of high school a scant three years ago, it was as the top running back in the entire nation, a five-star recruit with the world at his fingertips. To see such promise put in such peril is not only sad but scary, and for anyone capable of empathy it hurts.
In the wake of the injury has been unprecedented support for someone seemingly universally liked. Not only did Lattimore’s South Carolina teammates come to his side as he was carted of the field on Saturday, but so did many of the Tennessee players and coaches on the opposing sideline. Since then, there have been supportive messages from athletes as prominent as LeBron James and Tim Tebow.
On Monday, when a rally of support was held at South Carolina on Lattimore’s 21st birthday, Gov. Nikki Haley declared it Marcus Lattimore Day in South Carolina.
“The message he gave me was, ‘I’ll be back,’ ” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said at the rally. “So he’s coming back.”
No one should have to go through the devastation of two catastrophic knee injuries in the span of barely a year, and if he makes it back to the field no one will be more deserving of our appreciation, and respect.
Game of the Week
Los Angeles and Baton Rouge will be the twin centers of the college football universe this weekend. It’s in those places that two of the four teams seemingly on a path to perfection will face what figure to be their most difficult obstacles.
Oregon must fight USC in the Coliseum, and Alabama must battle LSU in Death Valley.
But while the obstacles are big for both the Ducks and Crimson Tide, they should not be too great to overcome.
Both Oregon and Alabama are better in every single way than their opponents. Oregon simply has the scariest offense in the country, a unit that averages 53.4 points per game despite being so far ahead at halftime that starters rarely play in the third and fourth quarters, and its defense holds opposing offenses to just 19.4 points per game despite it too playing mostly reserves in the second half.
USC, conversely, averages 35 points and allowed 19.5. Throw in that Lane Kiffin can’t measure up to Chip Kelly as a coach and it looks like the Ducks should blow out the Trojans, just as they’ve blown out everyone else on their schedule.
Emotion might carry USC to an upset, but it would be a major surprise if Oregon lost.
“I have a lot of respect for what they do,” Kiffin said of Oregon during a conference call with the media. “And it’s not just an offensive deal. They’ve drastically improved their defense.”
Like Oregon, Alabama seemingly has every advantage over LSU.
The Tide scores 40.6 points per game, and is leading the nation on defense allowing just 8.1 points per game. A.J. McCarron, Alabama’s junior quarterback, astoundingly hasn’t thrown an interception all season and leads the country in passing efficiency.
LSU has a strong defense as well, but allows over six points per game more than Alabama. Its offense, with quarterback Zach Mettenberger struggling all season, is averaging 31 points per game.
Throw in that Les Miles, despite winning one national title can’t quite measure up to Nick Saban and it looks like the Tide should roll over the Tigers.
Emotion might carry LSU to an upset, but it would be a major surprise if Alabama lost.
“This will be a very challenging game for us,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said on Monday. “I think the most important thing is for us is to focus on doing the things we need to do to take care of our business, what we control. That’s always the most important thing in games like this.”
Nothing is guaranteed in sports, especially when the games are being played by young athletes more prone to ups and downs than their professional counterparts. But barring something surprising, Alabama and Oregon should still be unblemished late Saturday night when another college football weekend comes to a close.
My Top 10
1. Alabama (8-0): The Tide’s biggest game to date looms Saturday night.
2. Oregon (8-0): The Ducks’ biggest game to date looms Saturday night.
3. Notre Dame (8-0): The Irish need to avoid a letdown against Pitt.
4. Kansas State (8-0): Oklahoma State could pose a challenge.
5. LSU (7-1): The Tigers have to hope their defense plays a dominant game.
6. Ohio State (9-0): Ineligible for the postseason, which makes for intrigue.
7. Georgia (7-1): Spectacular defense drove the Dawgs against Florida.
8. Florida (7-1): The Gators now need help to win the SEC East.
9. Florida State (8-1): Taking care of business since a loss to N.C. State
10. Clemson (7-1): The only blemish is a loss to Florida State.
Eric Avidon can be reached at 508-626-3809 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ericavidon.