Conference Questions: The Buckeye-Spartan Showdown, ACC Coastal Chaos, And Pac-12 South Parity

If it’s the middle of the season (seven full weeks down, seven full weeks to go plus Championship Saturday and Army-Navy Saturday), conference races are beginning to acquire some real texture. We talked a lot about the SEC yesterday, and also about the Big 12.  Today, we hit the three other power conferences — the Big Ten, the Pac-12, and the ACC. The Student Section Editors’ Roundtable is, today, a “conference table.”

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Question No. 1: Have the past two weeks against Nebraska and Purdue convinced you that Michigan State is no longer the best team in the Big Ten?

Terry Johnson:

On Twitter: @SectionTPJ

To quote Dr. Evil, “How about no!”

My reasoning is two-fold.

First, I still think Ohio State is the best team in the Big Ten. Sure, the Buckeyes laid an egg against Virginia Tech, but they’ve played like a completely different team since then. The offense – led by a noticeably more comfortable J.T. Barrett – has finally figured things out, averaging 623.6 yards per games over the past three contests. The run defense has also picked it up considerably, holding its last three foes to 70 yards or fewer.

Of course, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Buckeye defense actually ranks 14th nationally in total defense… a mere two slots below Michigan State.

The second point I want to make is that the Spartans have done absolutely nothing to make me doubt that Nov. 8’s matchup with Ohio State will determine the Big Ten champion. Sure, people expected MSU to beat Purdue by more than it did, but a two-touchdown lead over a potential bowl team is hardly cause for concern. Similarly, the Spartans’ five-point win over Nebraska doesn’t look all that sexy on paper, but it’s worth noting that Michigan State dominated the first three quarters of the contest before easing off the gas.

If that’s a supposed to damage someone’s resume, then the committee would also have to ding another MSU squad, which happens to be the top team in the land at the moment.

Mark Dantonio knows what he's doing... but Michigan State does need to be more vigilant in fourth quarters. Is this a crisis? Probably not. Is this a concern? Definitely. Is this a mere blip on the radar screen? Quite possibly.

Mark Dantonio knows what he’s doing… but Michigan State does need to be more vigilant in fourth quarters. Is this a crisis? Probably not. Is this a concern? Definitely. Is this a mere blip on the radar screen? Quite possibly.

Bart Doan:

On Twitter: @TheCoachBart

Nah. Sparty On still.

A few things here before we all go off to a remote reservation and drink the punch at midnight:

One, this is where Michigan State is as a program … so elite that every week, every flaw is going to be combed over with endless precision (or some sort of attempt at precision). It’s a position the Spartans’ in-state rivals used to be in, a position MSU has always wanted. Be careful what you wish for, I suppose, though I’m sure Sparty is glad to have it.

The second thing is that why is every close game a referendum on why the top-level team is bad rather than the others being good? In the form of Nebraska, short of nearly wetting the bed inexplicably against McNeese State, the Huskers have looked pretty damn good.

For Purdue, the 1-11, completely abhorrent version of the Boilers in 2013 pushed Sparty too, allowing only one offensive touchdown en route to a 14-0 loss that had to be put away late. Purdue also has made life sort of miserable for much better Notre Dame teams the past two years. Suffice to say that the Boilermakers get up for big games and can hang.

The more problematic issue for MSU is fourth-quarter scoring. It’s 0-33 the last two games (a defensive touchdown notwithstanding), and if you add the Oregon loss, 0-47. Those are ugly numbers, because this isn’t hockey and you’re going to need to play four to get where you want to be, unable always to fall back on being up 20.

It’s too soon to pile on a team for WINNING close games. Meanwhile, yes, Ohio State looks like a scene in Maximum Overdrive, the old Emilio Estevez cult classic, but who have the Buckeyes played, really? Yes, it’s impressive as to what the Buckeyes are doing after looking so flawed just over a month ago, but let’s tap the brakes and take a long view here.

The cool thing? We’ll find out in a few weeks in East Lansing if Sparty is the best, or it’s passing that torch. That’s how these things ideally work out.

Matt Zemek:

On Twitter: @SectionMZ

This is a tricky subject — two points are worth making here:

First, one can be seen as an accident, and two as a trend. The key question, then, is this: Was Michigan State’s game against Nebraska an accident or not even part of that familiar saying? Michigan State dominated the first three quarters of that game. Against Purdue, the Spartans’ defense was much more spotty from start to finish. Therefore, it’s hard to definitively conclude that the Spartans are immersed in a “trend.”

The second point to note is that Michigan State should not be giving up 31 points to Purdue. The Boilermakers lit up Illinois for 38. They shouldn’t be in the same zip code if Michigan State’s defense is right.

Is Michigan State slipping, or is this team dumping mental energy right now and saving it for the bigger games later in the season? College football fans do have to realize that kids (non-professionals in the emotional sense of the term, not the entertainment-based sense of the expression) are not going to go through seasons with metronomic consistency. In terms of assessing Michigan State in terms of mindset, this team (program) has earned the right to have an off day. It should be able to bring its best to the dance when Ohio State comes calling.

In terms of football merits, though, Ohio State has gotten much sharper over the course of the season, and that’s where the Buckeyes-Spartans equation gets very complicated.

Consider this a cop-out, but right now, these teams are even. That does mean, of course, that Ohio State has grown in relationship to Michigan State over the past month.

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Question No. 2: After Arizona’s loss to USC late Saturday night, what’s your sense of how the Pac-12 South will pan out?

The Hail Mary escape against USC has kept Arizona State in the hunt in the Pac-12 South, but Todd Graham hasn't scared Stanford at all. The Sun Devils' worst matchup in the Pac-12 last season was the Cardinal. David Shaw's team used its muscle in the trenches to pound the Sun Devils into submission. The good news for ASU is that Taylor Kelly just might be able to play this week. If Kelly is up to the task and Stanford's red-zone offense continues to struggle, Arizona State could find a path to a second straight division championship.

The Hail Mary escape against USC has kept Arizona State in the hunt in the Pac-12 South, but Todd Graham hasn’t scared Stanford at all. The Sun Devils’ worst matchup in the Pac-12 last season was the Cardinal. David Shaw’s team used its muscle in the trenches to pound the Sun Devils into submission. The good news for ASU is that Taylor Kelly just might be able to play this week. If Kelly is up to the task and Stanford’s red-zone offense continues to struggle, Arizona State could find a path to a second straight division championship.

Bart Doan:

My sense of the Pac-12 South is a little like that scene in Independence Day when everyone finds out the aliens aren’t here to play McDonald’s Monopoly.

It’s complete and utter chaos, and Randy Quaid isn’t coming to save it anytime soon. No longer is that side of the conference likely to produce a CFB Playoff participant, though there is still an outside shot for the one-loss teams. The conference can be deep all it wants, but the reality is that it’s going to be tough to squeeze a 2-loss team in the playoff the way things are going right now.

Now, I think an exception has to be made for one of the teams, and I like its odds going forward: Arizona State. Though the Sun Devils were thrashed by UCLA, the deal got done without Taylor Kelly, who has returned to practice and supposedly has a real shot to play against Stanford this week.

They also harbor the most manageable schedule left of the one-loss teams in the division. It’ll be interesting to see how the CFB Playoff committee treats teams with significant injuries to players that affect results. ASU, though, is a long way from that. Will Smith just stepped outside and looked in the sky, bewildered. We still have a lot of space ship chasing and battles first.

Matt Zemek:

Living out here in the West (Seattle), I’m constantly struck by the way certain reputations and identities stick (or don’t) on a national level.

“Clemsoning” becomes a familiar term, even though the Tigers won the Orange Bowl and no longer deserve to be tagged like that. “Sparty, NO!” used to be a thing before Michigan State won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl. “Purdon’t” and “#goacc” are well-established parts of college sports Twitter.

Somehow, the West isn’t as much of a magnet for this sort of dynamic.

Yet, UCLA — ever since the loss to Miami at the end of the 1998 season — has been the kind of underachiever Clemson and Michigan State were before the past few seasons came along. Arizona has never won an outright Pac-12 title or made the Rose Bowl. Arizona State has occasionally reached the Rose Bowl, winning it once, but the Sun Devils own a long list of heartaches in their own right. Why don’t these programs get a self-deprecating conference hashtag or an expression of exasperation? They’ve left a lot of achievements on the table, so a Pac-12 South title would mean a great deal to each of them.

What’s fascinating, then, as you dive into the Pac-12 South, is that while USC has been the division’s signature program in this century, UCLA is the team that — should it fail to win the division — would be seen as the greater failure, even though its only BCS bowl appearance was in the BCS’s first season (1998). USC has a new coaching staff and is trying to build itself back into a Pete Carroll-level winner. A division title would immediately validate Steve Sarkisian and tell the program that it’s on the right track.

UCLA is by far the team with the most pressure on its shoulders in the Pac-12 South. Jim Mora beat USC last year, but dominating the Pac and playing in New Year’s Day bowls are the bigger objectives for Mora. After picking up a second conference loss in two weeks, Mora knows that if he loses more than one additional conference game, his team is almost certainly toast. UCLA could win a multi-team tiebreaker with a 6-3 Pac-12 record, but four conference losses will very likely leave the Bruins locked out of the Pac-12 title game in San Francisco.

UCLA has to play Stanford in late November. Stanford’s defensive line should eat up the Bruins. UCLA therefore has to win the rest of its games. Would you bet on that occurring? Not after a pair of home-field losses that had the letters “S-O-F-T” painted all over them.

Rich Rodriguez now faces the central task of making sure his players don't lose faith after a classic Arizona stomach-punch loss against USC. The one original Pac-10 member without a single Rose Bowl appearance has to stay the course. If it does, the Pac-12 South is still there for the taking. The winner of this division will probably have at least two conference losses by season's end. Arizona can overcome just about any scoreboard obstacle, but the Wildcats' offense needs to be able to score more than 13 points through three quarters at home. The Wildcats were stuck on 13 after 45 minutes in home games against California and USC. The Wildcats overcame the Golden Bears. They weren't able to make one last kick against USC. Start-to-finish consistency on offense  is what Rich Rod has to cultivate over the next month and a half.

Arizona can overcome just about any scoreboard obstacle, but the Wildcats’ offense needs to be able to score more than 13 points through three quarters at home. The Wildcats were stuck on 13 after 45 minutes in home games against California and USC. Start-to-finish consistency on offense is what Rich Rodriguez has to cultivate over the next month and a half.

Terry Johnson:

While the Pac-12 South reminds me a lot of the “Wacky WAC” back in its prime, I’ll go on the record as saying that Arizona will win the division.

Make no mistake about it: the Pac-12 is the toughest conference in the land. Unlike other leagues, there’s no such thing as a week off in conference play, as anyone can beat anyone on any given Saturday. Just look at Utah, which beat then-top South favorite UCLA just one week after losing to last place Washington State the week before.

Let’s be honest: the Wildcats should be undefeated right now. After rallying to cut what had been a 15-point deficit to two, Arizona perfectly executed an onside kick to get the ball back. However, instead of relying on the arm of Anu Solomon – who threw for 395 yards – Rich Rodriguez opted to play for a field goal, even though his kicker had already missed twice in the evening. Had he decided to go for the end zone, UA would be in the top 5 right now.

Regardless, a loss is a loss.

So, why do I think the Wildcats will win the South?

Simply put: they have the best resume in my mind. Sure, they’ve had a few close calls, but the Wildcats are the only team in the country where absolutely no lead is safe. Whether it’s mounting a second half comeback, converting on a Hail Mary, or (nearly) scoring twice in the final 1:08 of the game, Arizona has found a way to put itself in a position to win every game.

As any college coach will tell you, knowing that you can win is half the battle.

In addition to having the moxie to get the job done at crunch time, the Wildcats have the most impressive win in the country thus far, a road win over Oregon.

That, my friends, stands out a lot more than a missed field goal.

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Question No. 3: Which team is most likely going to win the ACC Coastal Division?

Duke picked up a critical win at Georgia Tech last weekend. The Blue Devils probably didn't expect Virginia to be an equally consequential contest the following weekend, but the other teams in the ACC Coastal didn't expect Duke to represent such a key game last season. Duke is now finding out what it's like to be on the other side of the tracks. Virginia-Duke will do a lot to shape the evolving ACC Coastal race.

Duke picked up a critical win at Georgia Tech last weekend. The Blue Devils probably didn’t expect Virginia to be an equally consequential contest the following weekend, but the other teams in the ACC Coastal didn’t expect Duke to represent such a key game last season. Duke is now finding out what it’s like to be on the other side of the tracks. Virginia-Duke will do a lot to shape the evolving ACC Coastal race.

Matt Zemek:

This Saturday’s Virginia-Duke game is surely an important one in the ACC Coastal, but Virginia Tech-Duke — in Durham, N.C., on Nov. 15 — sets up as the decider.

Reasons?

One: Duke plays Wake Forest and Syracuse as its two crossover opponents from the ACC Atlantic.

Two: Virginia — in order to win the Coastal — will have to endure Florida State and constant nemesis Virginia Tech. The Cavaliers a good bet to finish no better than 5-3 in the conference, very possibly 4-4.

Three: Miami and North Carolina have already played themselves into hugely difficult positions, and Pittsburgh has lost to Akron, an indicator that the Panthers are not long-distance runners.

Four: Georgia Tech must host Clemson and Virginia while handling three other league games on the road against teams not called Wake Forest. Duke already has a tiebreaker over the Yellow Jackets, so Georgia Tech needs to go 4-1 in those five games if it wants to feel confident it will lead the division at the end. Maybe Duke will fall apart, but as long as the Blue Devils finish 5-3, Tech will need to go 6-2.

Four: Virginia Tech gets Miami and Boston College at home, Pitt and Wake Forest on the road. That’s a good home-road split for the Hokies, who should be no worse than 5-3 in the league. If Virginia Tech beats Duke and is part of a three-way 5-3 tie with Duke and Virginia, the Hokies would likely hold both tiebreakers in their hands.

If there’s a spoiler in all this, by the way, it’s North Carolina. The Tar Heels gave Notre Dame a good run in South Bend. They were awful in the first half of the 2013 season before awakening in the second half. If a similar turnaround occurs in 2014, Carolina will hold the key to the Coastal, despite being further removed from title contention, relative to its competitors.

Terry Johnson:

What do you get when you cross an elephant and a rhino?

All kidding aside, it’s a very tough call to make at this point. I wouldn’t be shocked if the eventual champion sports a 5-3 record in conference play.

To answer the question, I’ll say the Virginia Cavaliers will win the ACC Coastal.

At this point, I am sure many of the you are thinking, “Wait a minute, Johnson: didn’t you say Coach London was on the hot seat heading into the season?”

Yes, I did, and I was dead wrong. In fact, I’ll be shocked if London doesn’t win ACC Coach of the Year.

Back to the question at bar, I like the Cavs’ chances to win the Coastal because of their defense. Let’s be honest: offenses might win games, but defenses capture championships. Virginia has one of the top defenses in the country, ranking 3rd nationally in turnovers forced, 6th in quarterback sacks, and 12th in interceptions. In addition, the ‘Hoos have held every FBS opponent on their schedule to 358 yards or fewer, allowing a mere 297 yards per contest in conference play.

That type of defensive excellence will make the difference in what should be an extremely tight race. Considering that it can hold its own against Brett Hundley and Taysom Hill – two of the best quarterbacks in the country – it’s safe to say that the ‘Hoos can stop just about anyone.

Mike London, who had been sinking in Charlottesville, has abruptly restored order at Virginia. If he can take down Duke this Saturday, London will be in position to win a division title every bit as unexpected as Duke's 2013 Coastal crown. Imagine the level of catharsis felt throughout the Virginia program if it can nail down the Coastal by beating longtime nemesis Virginia Tech in November. First things first, though -- Virginia has to announce its presence on defense against Duke's offense in Durham.

Mike London, who had been sinking in Charlottesville, has abruptly restored order at Virginia. If he can take down Duke this Saturday, London will be in position to win a division title every bit as unexpected as Duke’s 2013 Coastal crown. Imagine the level of catharsis felt throughout the Virginia program if it can nail down the Coastal by beating longtime nemesis Virginia Tech in November. First things first, though — Virginia has to announce its presence on defense against Duke’s offense in Durham.

Bart Doan:

The Coastal being a total cluster of chaos comes at you with all of the surprise of Taylor Swift earlier this year saying she was putting out a pop album. Which is great, because that means little to no Taylor Swift on actual country stations for a while.

Swift hasn’t put out anything remotely country since there was some version of a Vick still at Virginia Tech, I think. And we’ll start there, same as I personally did in August.

VT’s big thing is that it avoids both Florida State and Clemson. How it managed to do that without some sort of salty bribe is beyond me, but to the victors go the spoils.

How Duke managed to do it as well is the stuff of scheduling legend. I know, I know, there’s an actual rotational reason this happens, but with those two being far and away the seemingly most powerful teams in the conference for the last few years, it sure seems like a stroke of good luck.

So with all of that in mind, Virginia Tech at Duke is ostensibly for the Coastal title. Duke has an odd schedule overall, somehow finishing the season with three home games. You figure if the Blue Devils take care of business just enough … which means winning at Pitt and at Syracuse in back to back games … they’ll just need to beat mostly mediocre fare at home to clinch it again.

And then, it’ll be “Back to December” of 2013, Duke versus Florida State. See what I did there?

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