We interrupt this weblog to bring you the latest BlogPoll roundtable discussion questions, to which my answers are offered here and with respect to which your thoughts and observations are welcome in the comments below.
Without further ado, here we go:
1) Coming into the season, many people had October 6th circled on their calendars because it was thought that the LSU-Florida game would be the single match-up that wielded the most influence over the rest of the sport. Now that a singular cataclysm has given way to a weekly series of upheavals, is there a single remaining game that has the greatest potential to deliver on the promise of unique significance foretold in
scripture the preseason blogosphere? Which one is it and why?
I don't believe there is "a single remaining game" fitting those criteria; I believe there are several that will have a meaningful impact, but no one contest that we can say now will prove epochal and definitive the way last year's Michigan-Ohio State or even U.C.L.A.-U.S.C. games proved to be.
With a comparatively weak (or at least unproven) field of unbeatens (Arizona State, Boston College, Hawaii, Kansas, Ohio State, South Florida), a relatively strong set of one-loss teams (Cal, Louisiana State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Southern California), and a general wild vibe running through a season in which any team truly can beat any other team on any given day, the "every game counts" aspect of college football's regular season is magnified to the point that Appalachian State and Stanford are registering victories that could have a meaningful impact on the national championship.
B.C.S. bashers and playoff proponents have been giggling gleefully for weeks now, citing the topsy-turvy wackiness of 2007 as the catalyst that will lead to the breaking up of the bowl system and the implementation of an N.C.A.A. tournament for Division I-A football. I would respectfully suggest that such fans miss the point.
The 2007 season is Exhibit "A" in the case against a playoff. As matters presently stand, Michigan's loss to Appalachian State and Southern California's loss to Stanford dealt devastating blows to the favorites' national championship chances. Were the N.F.L. playoff format in place in college football, though, those results would have been surprising but not ultimately meaningful.
The Maize and Blue are 5-2 and unbeaten in Big Ten play. The Men of Troy stumbled but remain very much in contention in the Pac-10. The only way a playoff will ever be implemented in Division I-A is if major conference champions receive automatic bids to the postseason, so Michigan and Southern California would know that, despite their embarrassing setbacks, it was "win and you're in," with a national title remaining a distinct possibility as long as they got on a hot streak at the right time.
Just think . . . last year, Georgia lost four games in five weeks at midseason but closed out the campaign with three straight wins over ranked opponents. We could have been the George Mason of the 2006 N.C.A.A. football tournament!
I don't have a problem with the idea of a team that loses its season opener to Appalachian State still having a shot at the national title . . . in Division I-AA. At the major college level, though, treating such a setback as inconsequential is unconscionable, and it would lead to results as absurd as those produced by the major league baseball playoffs, which gave us such preposterous outcomes as the 1997 world champion Florida Marlins and the 2006 world champion St. Louis Cardinals.
Thanks, but no thanks. If it's all the same to you, I'll stick to having games played in September and October count for something, so that thrilling and exciting contests played before November actually remain thrilling and exciting instead of being reduced to the level of importance and interest of a week three N.F.L. matchup. Yawn. Wake me when the Super Bowl halftime show starts.
2) Bill Callahan's tenure has been so embarrassing for Nebraska fans that the school just fired the athletic director who hired him. Meanwhile, Tom Brady is doing just fine without Charlie Weis, even though he invented offense; Dream Coach Pete Carroll is facing criticism for his team's preparation and attitude; the Urban Meyer Revolution is televised but not as advertised due to an unreliable running game; Mack Brown's players get arrested a lot; and so forth. Don't get me started on Lloyd Carr. All around the country, coaches are under duress, even the beatified ones. Name a coach or two (or three) who most deserves the criticism and explain why.
Bill Callahan. This guy has to top everyone's list, doesn't he? The latest N.F.L. retread took over a program that had won ten games the previous season, hadn't missed out on a bowl game since 1968, and hadn't had a losing season since 1961 . . . and he promptly guided the Cornhuskers to a 5-6 record. Ditching the offense by which the program had been defined for a generation in favor of a plan of attack for which his players were ill-suited, Coach Callahan produced an 8-4 ledger in 2005, losing 41-24 at Missouri and 40-15 at Kansas before getting bailed out by bad officiating in the Alamo Bowl. A nine-win season followed last year before the bottom dropped out and the tailspin began: Nebraska has lost five of its last nine games, including setbacks sustained by such margins as 49-31, 41-6, and 45-14 . . . all in the last 33 days. This program has become an embarrassment and there is no coach in the country who more deserves to be fired than Bill Callahan.
To paraphrase a much more competent Callahan, "A coach has to know his limitations."
Mike Stoops. I'll admit it: I bought into Arizona as a potential dark horse in the preseason, but now I know better. Just as many political issues have germinated in California before moving east (e.g., cutting taxes in the late 1970s, illegal immigration in the early 21st century), so too did parity come to the Pac-10 before migrating in the direction of the Atlantic. For all the longstanding perception of the West Coast B.C.S. league as "Southern California and the Nine Dwarves," the facts are that five of U.S.C.'s last six losses have come against Pac-10 opponents and nine of the league's ten teams have won or shared a conference title since 1996, with six of them having at least tied for a Pac-10 championship since 2000. 'Zona, however, hasn't claimed even a piece of a Pac-10 title since 1993 and the 'Cats are the only team in the conference never to have made a Rose Bowl appearance. Those fortunes have only diminished under Bob Stoops's brother, whose three-game winning streak late last season provided the program's first appreciable sign of progress, only to be exposed as a chimera during Arizona's subsequent 2-6 run. There's a point at which losing competitive games will no longer cut it and Coach Stoops has reached that point. Orson Swindle said it best:
3) With few elite teams, a plethora of pretenders, and the aforementioned steady procession of upsets, filling out a ballot each week can be challenging. What is the single hardest decision you'll have to make this week when voting?
This week is going to be one of those weeks in which I pull out a clean white sheet of paper and start from scratch, in full resume ranking mode, so the toughest call will be answering the question, "Who's No. 1?"
Starship captains always know the answer to that question; sometimes pollsters don't.
Undefeated South Florida goes on the road to take on Rutgers on Thursday night. Unbeaten Ohio State hosts quirky Michigan State. Wounded Louisiana State, for whom a strong case for No. 1 still can be made (yeah, it's a rationalization, but that doesn't necessarily make it wrong), welcomes Auburn to the bayou. Enigmatic yet unconquered Arizona State and Boston College have bye weeks and other potential contenders have intriguing games, as well: Cal travels to U.C.L.A., Kentucky gets the Gators in the Bluegrass State, and Oregon ventures forth to face Washington in a heated rivalry game.
In short, six teams in my top ten have opportunities to make at least somewhat significant statements this week, while two teams in my top five will add no extra evidence whatsoever, leaving the high likelihood of still more chaos. Who's No. 1? Danged if I know . . . and I doubt whether I'll be a whole heck of a lot clearer upon that point come Sunday morning.
4) This one is similar to the last question: many teams have sent voters mixed signals all year. Is BC really a top-five team? What am I supposed to do with South Carolina? Are there even two good teams in the Big Ten? Borrow a page from EDSBS and give me two teams to buy and two teams to sell.
Buy Auburn. The Plainsmen struggled out of the gate, barely beating Kansas State and losing to South Florida and Mississippi State. None of these performances appeared the least bit impressive at the time, but, now that we know the Wildcats, the Bulls, and the Bulldogs all are better than we believed in the early going, none of those outings seems especially embarrassing. Since then, Tommy Tuberville's Tigers have beaten Florida and Arkansas on the road while shellacking an otherwise scrappy Vanderbilt squad at home. Guided by perhaps the best coordinator in the Southeastern Conference---no, not Al Borges, Will Muschamp---Auburn is peaking. I hate Auburn.
Except for Will Muschamp, of course . . . but, then, he's a Georgia graduate.
Buy Oregon. We should have seen this one coming. In the 21st century, the Ducks have operated according to a clear pattern: odd-numbered football seasons have been good and even-numbered football seasons have been bad . . . you know, the exact opposite of "Star Trek" movies. An 11-1 campaign in 2001 was followed by a six-loss season in 2002, but Oregon rebounded to win eight games in 2003 before posting a 5-6 ledger in 2004. Back came Mike Bellotti's club in 2005, when the Ducks went 10-2, then down went the gang from Eugene in 2006, when Oregon finished 7-6 following a season-ending four-game skid. Now it's 2007 and it's the Ducks' time to shine . . . and I'm not just talking about their Day-Glo uniforms, either. Oregon's lone loss was as close as close could be against a quality California team and the Ducks have manhandled a resurgent Michigan team in Ann Arbor, gone to The Farm and dropped 55 points on a Stanford squad that would upset the Trojans at the Coliseum, and administered oft-thumped Washington State a thumping like no other the Cougars have received this season. Arizona State, Oregon State, and U.S.C. all visit Autzen Stadium and the Ducks are flying high. Don't be surprised if they run the table, profit from a Southern California win over the Golden Bears, and snag a Rose Bowl berth.
Sell South Carolina. Yeah, yeah, yeah . . . the Gamecocks beat the Bulldogs fair and square, but the East Coast U.S.C. boasts the weakest tradition in the Southeastern Conference and, sooner or later, some second-string defensive back for the Palmetto State Poultry is going to glance down, look at his jersey, have a revelation, and announce to the team in abject horror: "Guys! Oh, no! . . . We're South Carolina!" Last weekend's win over North Carolina was a harbinger of bad things to come against a late-season slate that includes Tennessee, Arkansas, and Florida on back-to-back-to-back Saturdays.
Sell Southern California. Sunday Morning Quarterback's brilliant breakdown was to my opinion of U.S.C. what George F. Will's Restoration was to my view of term limits: the persuasive case, replete with evidence, that crystallized my thinking upon the subject. Be honest, now . . . we've all had misgivings about the Trojans for a while, but we've been blinded by the aura surrounding Pete Carroll's program, viewing the Men of Troy through Rose Bowl-colored glasses and seeing them as the stuff of sepia-toned legend and Shelley Smith feature stories standing astride the college football world like a Colossus. This, though, is the reality of Southern California's last five conference games: a 13-9 loss at U.C.L.A., a 47-14 win over a Washington State club that suffered a similar beatdown at the hands of overrated Wisconsin and a worse hammering from Oregon, a 27-24 win at Washington, a 24-23 loss to Stanford, and a 20-13 win over Arizona. Upcoming for the Trojans after Saturday's Notre Dame game are outings against No. 7 Oregon, giant-killer Oregon State, No. 10 Cal, No. 9 Arizona State, and bitter crosstown rival U.C.L.A., whose embattled coach likely will need to beat the Men of Troy just to save his job. All of those contests are losable for U.S.C., and, while I don't expect the Men of Troy to close out the season on a five-game skid, there are at least a couple of losses in there, which would put Coach Carroll's crew at 9-3 . . . right where Miami (Florida) ended up in 2004, after having gone 11-1 in 2000, 12-0 in 2001, 12-1 in 2002, and 11-2 in 2003. If Southern California---which posted an eerily similar sequence of seasons, going 12-1 in 2003, 13-0 in 2004, 12-1 in 2005, and 11-2 in 2006---mirrors the 'Canes again this year, we will know the trajectory the program is taking and we will know which way this movie will end . . . badly.
Yes, perhaps even this badly.
5) Now that we know the strengths and weaknesses of many teams, explain to me how your team will make out over the remainder of the regular season.
You've got me . . . the Georgia team that beat Oklahoma State and Alabama could beat any team left on the Bulldogs' slate, but the Georgia team that lost to South Carolina and Tennessee could lose to any team remaining on the Red and Black's schedule.
The 'Dawgs have games remaining against Florida, Troy, Auburn, Kentucky, and Georgia Tech. Unless the bye week allows the team to heal and gel before going on a run, or unless the Classic City Canines are manhandled in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party---neither of which seems highly probable---I think 5-0 and 0-5 both are off the table. While I'd be pretty happy with a 4-1 finish, the most likely scenarios vary only slightly, between 3-2 and 2-3, although that distinction---the difference between 8-4 and 7-5---matters a great deal.
Those are my views. We welcome yours. We now return you to your regularly-scheduled weblog, which is already in progress.