Playoff Craze Trade-Off: Regular Season Challenges
College football's conference races are well and truly under way.
They may be billed as the undercard for the BCS championship, but in many ways, many of them carry much more intrigue.
One thing these revamped conferences and championship games have done is eliminate great regular season matchups within the leagues. Thank the creation of divisions for that.
Clemson and Florida State have a big game scheduled in two weeks in the ACC, but the Tigers do not play undefeated Miami, while the Seminoles do. They may meet in the conference title game, but they don't play this year in the regular season in what would have been a dynamic matchup.
Alabama is rolling along at 5-0 this season and has only LSU left on its schedule in what would seem like a tough game. Bama does not play Florida, Georgia, or South Carolina in the regular season, and many people are wishing that one of them would take the place of Arkansas or Kentucky on the Tide's league schedule. Texas A&M does not play the Gators, Bulldogs, or Gamecocks, either. Missed matchups like that hurt college football.
And as long as SEC teams prefer to play eight conference games instead of nine -- they just won't shake those cupcake opponent fundraisers from the schedule -- they're sacrificing a dramatic matchup that may soon cost them when a selection panel determines who will be among the four chosen teams based on, among other factors, their strength of schedule.
Even though USC is down, fans look forward to a USC-Oregon matchup in the Pac-12, but that won't happen this season. Ironically, though, the Ducks do play UCLA. Unless the Bruins fall to either of the Arizona schools, they'll represent the Pac-12 South for a third year in a row, and if the Ducks can overcome Stanford and Washington, they'll meet UCLA in the third-ever Pac-12 championship game for the third year in a row.
In the Big Ten, Michigan gets a pass on Wisconsin, while Ohio State does not have to worry about playing Nebraska. They can meet in the championship game, but the regular season does lose some luster when these marquée matchups don't take place. At least this conference is going to a nine-game schedule by 2016.
There are, however, some interesting league games this weekend. Rutgers and Louisville head the AAC schedule as they kick off the weekend on Thursday night. The Scarlet Knights pose one of the few serious threats to the Cardinals' undefeated season aspirations, but they're faced with doing it on the road after a short week of practice. Good luck with that.
Washington almost knocked off Stanford on the road last week, and now they host No 2 Oregon this week in the Pac-12. The Huskies have shown their team speed equals that of the Ducks, but what's set Oregon above the crowd is its impeccable execution. Even with the 'retirement' of top TE Colt Lyerla, the Ducks will simply replace him with another well-drilled playmaker. Stanford's efficiency was probably the difference in its survival over the Huskies -- the Cardinal were bested in every stat category except final score and Ty Montgomery touches -- and now has another tough game at Utah; the Utes almost defeated UCLA last week in a physical contest, and their task is to recover sufficiently to face the most physical team in the league. Tall order.
The Red River Rivalry will take place, as usual, in Dallas at the Texas State Fair. Oklahoma will play Texas in a game that may finally seal the fate of embattled Longhorns coach Mack Brown. Texas looked overly beatable last week at Iowa State, and the Sooners have much tougher weapons than the Cyclones.
The SEC has two top games, Florida vs LSU and Missouri against injury-ravaged Georgia. In contrast to recent seasons, every contender in this conference appears to have flaws that are exploitable, and there are no better examples than the Gators and Tigers. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs were beyond fortunate to escape from Rocky Top with a victory. Mizzou has come out of nowhere to post a 5-0 record, but face facts; those wins are over Murray State, Toledo, Indiana, Arkansas State, and Vanderbilt. Even for the cupcake-happy SEC, those are a lot of calories!
Frankly, it looks like the opponent they're most ready to play is Savannah State.