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The Preseason Slate of Games Made Only for True College Football Fans

College football season doesn’t truly begin until that first full Saturday of games.  This year, that’s September 1.  Some of us refuse to wait that long, though.  The good news for us is that we don’t have to wait.  It doesn’t matter that it’s Wyoming battling New Mexico State.  College football is college football (at least when it’s still August and we’re starved for it.)

So, I’m here with some reasons to dig into the seemingly unappealing and unimportant, appetite-whetting menu of taste-tester games taking place a week ahead of that most glorious of Saturdays.  While there’s not much to get overly excited about on August 25, when you’re this hungry, you’ll make do with just about anything.  At some point, you’re sure to be asking yourself, “What the hell am I watching right now?”  Well, here’s what: Continue reading The Preseason Slate of Games Made Only for True College Football Fans

Realigning into 16-Team Power Conferences

So much has been said about conference realignment in the last few years that we’ve become numb to it.  We recognize that the motive behind all of it is money, and that, understandably, turns many of us off to the whole idea.

I haven’t seen anybody try to turn this sensitive issue into something fun though.  Obviously, this is a complicated case with a lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous.  We don’t need to get into all of that.  It’s been done before.  It’ll be done again.  So, forget all that and proceed with an open mind.

Let’s just stuff 16 teams into each of the Power 5 conferences and see what that looks like.

First of all, logistically speaking, adding teams gives us an opportunity to level the playing field a bit.  16-team conferences break down nicely into four divisions of four and that allows me to mandate schedule changes.

Every team will play 12 games in a regular season, three non-conference contests against other Power 5 teams and nine within the conference.  Teams will play their three divisional foes every season.  They’ll also annually rotate playing one entire division within their conference.  This leaves two more games, filled by one team from each of the remaining divisions in the conference.  Those, too, will rotate yearly.

From there, division winners will be pitted against each other in a two-week long playoff to determine a conference champion.  The five conference champs will receive automatic bids to the College Football Playoff with three more bids going to the most deserving at-large teams.  Oh yeah, we’re expanding the Playoff too, but that’s another column for a different time.

Enough introduction, let’s realign.

ACC

We’ll start out with the easy one.  The Atlantic Coast Conference already has 14 teams and it’s a basketball league anyway.  It shouldn’t be hard to add two schools that’ll make the East Coasters happy.

Additions: Memphis and Temple

The Tigers and the Owls both had surprisingly solid seasons in the American Athletic Conference in 2015.  Timing might have a lot to do with this but it seems like they’d be the best fits for right now.

Div. 1                          Div. 2                          Div. 3                          Div. 4

Clemson                    Florida State            Louisville                    Boston College

North Carolina         Miami                       Virginia Tech              Pittsburgh

NC State                    Georgia Tech            Virginia                       Syracuse

Wake Forest              Duke                          Memphis                     Temple

The problem with the ACC is there aren’t many schools you know you can count on to field a solid football team every year.  That made splitting them up evenly a bit more challenging and I think these combinations are as fair as you’re going to get.

To clarify the schedule reconstruction from earlier, let’s use Clemson as an example.  The Tigers would play UNC, NC State and Wake Forest every year going forward.  In 2016, they’d play every team in “Div. 2” and one team from “Div. 3” and “Div. 4”.  I think that shakes out to be a much better schedule than anything we see under the current system.

Of course, you’d rotate home and away to prevent Clemson from rarely leaving Death Valley, but breaking all that down would be delving into details that are not the aim of this column.  Again, we can do that some other time.

Big 12

Yee-haw!  Here’s where the real fun is to be had.  The Big 12 needs six teams to get itself up to code.  There’s been a whole lot of talk coming out of the Wild West, but it seems everyone is too afraid to pull the trigger on any real moves.  Let’s make it easy for them.

Additions: Houston, Cincinnati, BYU, Boise State, Arkansas State, North Dakota State

With so many spots to fill, this was the toughest conference to add to.  Houston, Cincinnati, BYU and Boise State all belong in the Big 12 for real and I figured why not throw in Arkansas State and FCS-powerhouse North Dakota State for fun.  All of these teams would run the Kansas Jayhawks out of the building so I’m not worried about having to dig a deeper basement.

Div. 1                          Div. 2                         Div. 3                          Div. 4

Oklahoma                  Texas                        Houston                    West Virginia

Oklahoma State        Baylor                      Boise State                Iowa State

Kansas State              TCU                         BYU                             Cincinnati

Kansas                        Texas Tech            North Dakota State   Arkansas State

Look, I know this isn’t perfect, but like the ACC, the Big 12 isn’t giving me much to work with.  It’s a conference dominated by its haves and embarrassed of its have nots.  I’ve almost made it into a coast-to-coast league by adding Boise State (that’s a long way from Morgantown, West Virginia) but the conference itself didn’t seem too bothered by that when it added the Mountaineers in the first place.

I tried to keep as many rivalries alive as I could without severely crippling any one of the divisions.  Who knows what to expect from “Div. 3” with all newcomers, or “Div. 4” with West Virginia at the top.  There’s a lot going on in the Big 12 and frankly, I’m glad I don’t have to deal with it on a regular basis.  Sorry, Courtney McCrary.

Big Ten

Welcome to Big Ten country, where football is just better.  Sure, we’ve recently added a couple ridiculous East Coast members in Maryland and Rutgers, but they do serve nicely as automatic wins for our real teams.  Just two additions needed here.

Additions: Notre Dame and Ohio

Now that I know I’ve scared away all the Golden Domers, I can just come right out and say that it’s utterly ridiculous for Notre Dame to be playing half of an ACC schedule.  The Irish belong in the Big Ten.  We all know it.  They all know it.  The only reason they’re not, you guessed it: money.

Also, welcome the Ohio Bobcats whose campus is absolutely beautiful (and great fun on Saturday nights).  Maybe now people will realize there is, after all, another school besides THE one in Columbus.

Div. 1                          Div. 2                          Div. 3                          Div. 4

Ohio State                Michigan                    Nortre Dame            Wisconsin

Penn State                Michigan State         Iowa                            Minnesota

Maryland                  Indiana                      Northwestern            Nebraska

Ohio                           Rutgers                       Purdue                        Illinois

Truthfully, I would love to boot Maryland and Rutgers, make them go play in the ACC and add a couple more MAC schools.  Northern Illinois, Toledo, Central and Western Michigan would all suffice, but for the purpose of this column I’m simply working with what’s already there.

Notre Dame gets to play schools it can start, or continue, a legitimate rivalry with.  They’ll have to play those fake rivalries they’ve got on both coasts on their own time.  The Buckeyes will have to play the Bobcats every year because I know that scares them.  As far as “The Game” is concerned, like our own Damien Bowman says, Michigan vs. Ohio State would be an even bigger game if it wasn’t played annually.

SEC

I know I angered many of you from the Southland with that wise crack about football being better up north.  We all know where the best football is played.  It’s just that people are tired of hearing about it.  The best conference in college football also needs just two teams to fill itself out.

Additions: Western Kentucky and Southern Mississippi

You’re the best, right?  Well, then you shouldn’t need any more help proving it.  Take these two C-USA teams (last year’s division winners), and consider them replacements for those mid-season walk-throughs y’all like to schedule against FCS schools.

Div. 1                          Div. 2                          Div. 3                          Div. 4

Alabama                    Florida                       LSU                             Ole Miss

Auburn                      Georgia                      Arkansas                     Tennessee

Texas A&M               Kentucky                    Missouri                     Mississippi State

South Carolina        Western Kentucky    Vanderbilt                  Southern Mississippi

There are so many rivalries down south it’s impossible to keep them all intact.  This divisional split preserves many of the big games while setting up some intriguing new ones.  This shakeup seems perfect to me, particularly for this coming season, but I’m sure some of you have one or two issues with it.  I’m curious what our SEC guys (and gals), Bird LeCroy, Seth Merenbloom and Kristen Botica, think about this.

Pac-12

Fifth and finally, that wacky conference out west that loves to put up points.  Unfortunately, picking last and being on the West Coast severely limits the options here.  With four spots to fill, this is going to be a tough one.

Additions: Utah State, Colorado State, San Diego State, Nevada

Basically, the Pac-12 absorbed the best available teams from the Mountain West and banished the rest of them to whatever level we’re setting up underneath the Power 5.

Div. 1                          Div. 2                          Div. 3                          Div. 4

USC                            Stanford                    Oregon                         Utah

Arizona                      UCLA                         Washington                Colorado

Arizona State            California                  Washington State      Colorado State

San Diego State       Nevada                      Oregon State               Utah State

Dividing this group of teams was even more difficult than finding which ones to add to it.  I wanted to keep USC and UCLA together, but doing so makes all the other divisions look much less formidable.  The door does seem wide open for Oregon and Utah in this setup.  I tried to put the Ducks and the Utes together but, again, the repercussions make things worse than they stand now.  What say you, Mike Wilson?

Reminder

Sports are supposed to be fun.  If they’re not, then what’s the point?  And while I understand this is a serious topic with a lot of money involved, I have a hard time taking it seriously since all anyone wants to do is talk.  Until something real happens, I’ll just keep serving up far-fetched proposals to stir the conversational pot.

I hope you enjoyed reading and I look forward to many of you telling me what I already know, why this won’t work, in the comments section below and on Twitter @GreatGatzke.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Colorado State and Nevada Meet Up in the Arizona Bowl

The Arizona Bowl game is in its first year of existence and bowl officials have created a bit of an oddity. The strangeness of this bowl game is not that it is going to be played in Tucson, Arizona, a sleepy college town that is home to the University of Arizona, but rather that the game is going to be played between Colorado State and Nevada, who are from the same conference.

Will this weirdness of the game create some interest? Bowl officials hope so, but in reality it probably will have a difficult time getting ratings for television. Many fans, writers, and other pundits believe that the bowl season is out of control with the number of bowls available and when you take a look at the Arizona Bowl, it’s hard to disagree with that point. However, there is a game to be played regardless of records, so let’s take a look at what these teams need to do to come out with the win.

Colorado State, like any other team, has to limit its turnovers. That’s not a groundbreaking thought when it comes to football, but the Rams have had a difficult time holding onto the ball in 2015. In 12 games this season Colorado State has 26 turnovers. The Ram quarterback, Nick Stevens, has thrown 15 interceptions as a freshman, but they have also lost 11 fumbles. By losing the ball this much it is has sunk the Rams to 113th in turnover ratio. Anybody that knows anything about football will know that Nevada is supremely aware of this statistic and will try and create as much pressure up front from their defensive line as possible. Any tackle being made by the Wolfpack will most certainly be one being made with their players trying to strip the ball from the Rams’ running backs and receivers.

Another aspect of this game to be on the lookout for is the ground game for the Nevada Wolfpack. Nevada likes to pound the rock all game and it’s become the bread and butter in their offense. The Wolfpack has a couple of 1,000 yard rushers in James Butler and Don Jackson. Butler leads the team with 1,153 and Jackson isn’t much further behind him with 1,029 yards. It will certainly be up to the Colorado State front seven to stop these runners. Obviously, if that can’t be done, the Rams are in for a very long game.

Nevada likes to run the ball, but Colorado State likes to strike through the air. Nick Stevens, as a freshman led the conference in touchdown passes with 21 while also passing for 2,369 yards. With an air attack like this Stevens has weapons on the outside. Stevens big weapon on the outside is junior Rashard Higgins, who just happens to own some school records in total receptions and touchdowns. For 2015, Higgins has battled some injuries, but still has managed to grab 66 receptions, eight touchdowns, and 933 total receiving yards. This combo of Stevens to Higgins will be one to look for during the course of the game.

This game will be a close game between the two schools. Nevada and Colorado State are teams that know each other very well, even though they did not play each other this past season and it doesn’t look like they are until 2017. The thing that both teams have to battle is the fact they are playing each other. Usually teams play teams from other conferences and that provides some spark to their preparation, but not this time. Both sides have to bring the intensity to win this game, otherwise, it’s a wasted trip to Tucson.

Plus, they have to consider themselves extremely lucky to be in a bowl game in the first place considering both of their records. When the final horn goes off, it’s going to be Colorado State who wins the game 30-24.

The Five You Must See: Week One

Ahh, week one of college football season has finally arrived.  We’ve got some big games on our plate this weekend.

Wasting no time, here are the five you must see in week one (chronological order, all times Eastern):

Michigan at Utah, 8:30pm, Thursday on Fox Sports 1

Courtesy of Fox Sports
Courtesy of Fox Sports

Michigan kicks off the Jim Harbaugh era with a tough road game against an experienced Utah team.  After winning nine games last season, the Utes return 16 starters for the 2015 campaign (7 on offense, 9 on defense).  The last game Utah played in was an emphatic 45-10 win over Colorado State in the Las Vegas Bowl.  While we have a pretty good idea who Utah is as a team, we really have no idea what this Michigan team will look like.  No one outside of the program knows exactly what style of play the Wolverines will employ.  Harbaugh has also saved us plenty of personnel surprises for game time by releasing an ambiguous depth chart earlier this week.  It’s unlikely, but if he and his team can emerge victorious it will provide an enormous confidence boost for them going forward.

#2 TCU at Minnesota, 9pm, Thursday on ESPN

Boykin has led TCU into the Playoff conversation.

The main event of the opening evening is TCU at Minnesota.  The last time we saw the Horned Frogs they were belittling Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl.  They’ve got a Heisman hopeful quarterback in Trevonne Boykin, who will be looking to follow up on his coming out party.  Some still argue that TCU was snubbed by the committee last season and there’s sure to be a whole heap of hype surrounding them this season because of it.  Minnesota is no slouch either.  The Gophers have been steadily improving for two seasons.  Boy, could they use a big win after all that’s come out about their former Director of Athletics this summer.  I can’t wait to see how this one plays out.

 

Louisville vs. #6 Auburn (at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta), 3:30pm, Saturday on CBS

Both of these teams are getting significant preseason votes from Gus Malzahn‘experts’ to be frontrunners in their conferences’ championships races.  The problem for Louisville is the disparity between the ACC and the SEC.  The Cardinals are getting some love because their conference is the weakest of the Power Five.  The Tigers are drawing some attention because they’re looking like a real good football team.  Gus Malzahn’s biggest worries this season have to be fixing a defense that was weak by SEC standards, and rolling the dice with a new quarterback in Jeremy Johnson.  Those are the two most important pieces in the puzzle of putting together a football team, but if they fall into place the Tigers will compete for a playoff spot.

#15 Arizona State vs. Texas A&M (at NRG Stadium in Houston), 7pm, Saturday on ESPN

Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN
Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN

Arizona State is a scary team to see on your schedule this fall.  They took a leap forward in 2014 while the Aggies were shoved backwards.  The Sun Devils will be looking to make a statement right out of the gate, entering this season as a favorite in the crowded Pac-12 South.  A&M needs a defensive overhaul, having allowed an astounding 450.8 yards per game last year.  Redshirt senior quarterback Mike Bercovici will finally get to start after heroically backing up Taylor Kelly.  He and a Sun Devil offense which averaged 36.9 points per game last fall have a good chance at hanging up some big numbers in this one.  This is the only Pac-12- SEC matchup in week one so the outcome will hold extra weight as many have suggested the caliber of football out west is now comparable to the down south brand.

 

#20 Wisconsin vs. #3 Alabama (at AT&T Stadium in Arlington), 8pm, Saturday on ABC

The primetime fixture on Saturday night is Wisconsin vs. Alabama.  The SabanBadgers, suffering from unknown quarterback syndrome, lost a close game to LSU in the 2014 opener.  With Joel Stave firmly holding onto his spot they won’t have to worry about who their quarterback is, but rather who Alabama’s will be.  Nick Saban still has yet to announce who he will start under center.  The Tide was last seen being outclassed by Ohio State, who had spanked Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten championship to earn that last spot in the playoff.  Don’t expect Bama and Wisco to bond over their common enemy.  This one will be a big boy football game.

The ‘Better as a Basketball Game of the Week’

Photo: Reese Strickland/ USA Today Sports
Photo: Reese Strickland/ USA Today Sports

In the ‘Better as a Basketball Game of the Week,’ Iowa State hosts Northern Iowa.  Iowa State does not have a good football program.  They won only two games last year, neither of which were conference contests.  Northern Iowa, on the other hand, won nine games and finished tenth in the final FCS Coaches’ Poll.  This is a rare instance where an FBS team will be a significant underdog against an FCS opponent.  The game starts at eight, but there’s just way too much good football on to justify watching this unless you’re a diehard fan of the Cyclones or Panthers.

IT is almost here

Admittedly, the college football season snuck up on me this year.  Double check that calendar.  We’re now only a fortnight away from having our Saturdays booked for the foreseeable future.

The dog days are all that separate us from weekly 12-hour cycles of football.  All we’ve got to do is survive and we’ll be back to doing what we all love.  Here’s a little something to help you pull through:

Gone are the days of boring opening weekends.  Because of the playoff format, any college football team with championship aspirations needs to take full advantage of every opportunity to build their resume and impress the committee.

After enduring more than a decade of suffering under the tyranny that was the BCS, where the ‘play it safe’ mentality rewarded powerhouse programs for beating up on the Little Sisters of the Poor, we’ve finally been enlightened.  Now we can expect to see many meaningful football games each and every week, including the first.

This season’s opening night, Thursday, September 3, won’t ease us back into the groove of a college football weekend.  It will catapult us headfirst into a brick wall of big games.

At six o’clock, North Carolina and South Carolina kick-off the season with a battle for bragging rights.  These two haven’t been meeting expectations in recent seasons.  You can bet they’ll both come out looking to begin with a bang.  I wouldn’t put it past the Head Ball Coach to dial up a deep shot on the Gamecocks’ first play from scrimmage.  Plus, things tend to get interesting when schools from neighboring states get together.

Oklahoma State has a strange road game scheduled at Central Michigan, which starts an hour later, at seven.  I say strange because MAC schools rarely host prominent out-of-state programs in week one.  The Chippewas were behind the wildest bowl game finish of the 2014 season.  Mike Gundy is still a man, although he’s now 47 (hard to believe this was so long ago).  Anyway, this should be a quality contest.

At eight, Vanderbilt hosts Western Kentucky.  Normally, Sun Belt teams don’t stand a chance against SEC foes, but we could see an ‘upset’ here.  This one will warrant some attention, especially if the first two games don’t hold your interest.

A half hour after that, Michigan kicks off the Jim Harbaugh era at Utah.  And the Wolverines had better watch out.  The Utes’ last game was a 45-10 win over Colorado State in the Las Vegas Bowl.  Talk about a tough task for Harbaugh as he begins his tenure at his alma mater.  If he and his team can emerge victorious it will provide an enormous confidence boost.

The main event of the opening evening is TCU at Minnesota, which starts at nine.  The last time we saw the Horned Frogs they were belittling Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl.  They’ve got a Heisman hopeful quarterback in Trevonne Boykin, who will be looking to follow up on his coming out party.  Some still argue that TCU was snubbed by the committee last season and there’s sure to be a whole heap of hype surrounding them this season because of it.  Minnesota is no slouch either.  The Gophers have been steadily improving for two seasons.  Boy, could they use a big win after all that’s come out about their former Director of Athletics this summer.  I can’t wait to see how this one plays out.

Friday night will not be a lull in the action as it usually is.

The participants from last season’s Sugar Bowl both hit the road to start their 2015 campaigns.  Baylor is at SMU, and Michigan State travels to Western Michigan.  Neither should have too much trouble with their opponent, but then again, you never know.  Both are scheduled for a seven o’clock kick.

For the night cap, Washington heads to the blue turf of Boise State.  These two programs have stagnated in recent years.  U-Dub continues to tread water in the depths of the crowded Pac-12.  Boise State now carries the Mountain West’s torch as opposed to the WAC’s.  Despite the switch, the Broncos remain the best team in their league, by far.  Stay up late and watch.  Chances are you won’t regret it.

Then, at long last, when you wake up on Saturday morning and turn on College Gameday, you’ll realize it’s officially football season.  Stock plenty of food and beverages, invite over some fellow college football junkies, and tell everyone else you’ll be busy for the day.

The most intriguing noon start is Stanford at Northwestern.  The Cardinal’s David Shaw and the Wildcats’ Pat Fitzgerald are two of the ‘good guys’ in college football.  They run tight ships, and you hardly ever hear about any internal problems.  If you like to watch smart kids play football then look no further.

Make sure your remote is ready for the 3:30 slate.  Virginia vs. UCLA, Louisville vs. Auburn, and BYU vs. Nebraska are all mid-afternoon starts.  With so much simultaneous action you can let your interests direct you.  There are plenty of reasons to get excited about all these contests, and you really can’t go wrong here.

If, for whatever reason, you’re not satisfied, you can flip over to Bowling Green at Tennessee, at four o’clock.  UT is entering a season unlike any it’s had in a long while.  This year, there are some actual expectations being put upon them.  The first quarter of this game will likely tell you all you need to know.  If the Vols start off hot, they should roll.  If they struggle at first, it could turn into a long day for them.

Both UL Lafayette vs. Kentucky and Arizona State vs. Texas A&M start at seven.  Kentucky, like Vanderbilt, runs the risk of discrediting the SEC every time they take the field against a team from a smaller conference.  Not to mention, UL Lafayette isn’t a bad team.  The Ragin’ Cajuns won nine games last year, including the New Orleans Bowl.

The Sun Devils are a scary team to see on your schedule this fall.  They took a leap forward in 2014, while the Aggies were shoved backwards.  This is the only Pac-12- SEC matchup in week one.  The outcome here will hold extra weight with many suggesting the caliber of football out west is now comparable to the down south brand.

Texas is at Notre Dame, at 7:30.  The Longhorns are still looking for answers after one bumpy season with Charlie Strong at the helm.  They struggled against good teams in 2014 with a 1-5 record versus ranked opponents.  Notre Dame, meanwhile, got off to a torrid 6-0 start, only to drop five of their last six regular season games.  Needless to say, neither of these two proud programs is where they’d like to be.  It’ll be fun to watch them battle for that first win of 2015.

In the ‘Better as a Basketball Game’ of the Week, Iowa State hosts Northern Iowa.  Iowa State does not have a good football program.  They won only two games last year, neither of which were conference contests.  Northern Iowa, on the other hand, won nine games and finished tenth in the final FCS Coaches’ Poll.  This is a rare instance where an FBS team will be a significant underdog against an FCS opponent.  The game starts at eight, but there’s just way too much good football on to justify watching this unless you’re a diehard Cyclones or Panthers fan.

The primetime fixture on Saturday night is Wisconsin vs. Alabama at eight.  The Badgers lost a close game to LSU in the 2014 opener.  Things only get tougher here with Alabama.  The Tide was last seen being outclassed by Ohio State, who had spanked Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten championship to earn that last spot in the playoff.  Don’t expect Bama and Wisky to bond over their common enemy.  This one will be a big boy football game.

The late game on Saturday night features Arkansas State and USC.  Basically, you should watch because you’re not ready to go to bed yet, and Arkansas State is decent enough to justify staying awake.

They’ve even scheduled us a game for Sunday afternoon.  Purdue at Marshall certainly doesn’t excite me, but I’ll watch if I don’t have anything to do at three.

Of course, we finish off the weekend with everyone’s favorite leftover: football on Monday night.  Ohio State has a lot to play for in this rematch against Virginia Tech.  This time it’s under the lights, at Tech.  That’s always been a key ingredient for an interesting game in the past.  The Buckeyes will have some key players sitting out due to suspensions.  Of course, they lost to the Hokies in week two last season and went on to win the national championship.  Something tells me they will not want to start off the same way this year.

So, how could you not be positively giddy about the opening weekend of the 2015 college football season?  We’ve got power conference showdowns, upset possibilities, and plenty of storylines to follow.  All we have to do is wait a couple more weeks.

Time to Flip the NCAA’s March Madness Switch!

The best month on the sports calendar is here.  The NCAA basketball tournament.  Opening Day. The Masters. Finally.  For those on the East Coast who are snow blind after this record-setting winter, Selection Sunday heralds both the promise of spring and the unmatched excitement that accompanies college basketball’s marquee event.

For a few days after Selection Sunday, each of the 68  teams has a chance.  For some teams that chance is infinitesimal, but that doesn’t keep everyone from dreaming about what, theoretically, is possible.   College basketball’s increasing parity has given rise to a higher number of upsets in recent years.  A 15 seed has beaten a 2 seed just seven times, but the pace of high seed upsets has increased dramatically in recent years. Last year 14 seed Mercer destroyed at least 99% of the nation’s brackets on the second day of the tournament when it stunned Duke 78-71.  Last year 11 seed Dayton made the Elite Eight. Virginia Commonwealth accomplished the same feat in 2011, losing to 8 seed Butler for a spot in the championship game!  There’s a reason that Warren Buffett can offer $1,000,000 for a perfect bracket. There has never been one and there never will be.  He should offer a grabazillion dollars.  It’s a safer bet than the sunrise.

That doesn’t mean that there is nothing certain about March Madness, however. Excitement is  certain. Heartbreak is certain. Heck, even uncertainty is certain. There certainly will be some mid-major or small conference school that beats the odds to win a game or three.  Or four. However, for the first time that I know of the odds makers have made one team the even-money favorite to win the title. That team of course is Kentucky. Even money.  Bet a buck to win a buck.  The sharps in Vegas have a better feel for Kentucky’s chances than just about anyone else, so this betting line tells you all you really need to know about the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats and their national title hopes. This team of teenaged marauders and future lottery picks has cold-cocked the rest of college basketball this year and now stands just six games away from immortality.  The Wildcats had a few close calls early but now are playing at a level that likely makes pretenders of every other tournament team.Even money might seem preposterous given the incalculable number of scenarios yet to play out, but the odds makers are signaling that only long shot lovers should bother to put any team but Kentucky on the champion’s line.

It’s unfortunate that newly-ascendant teams like Northern Iowa and Virginia are having great seasons in a year in which Kentucky is having a historically great one because when a team makes history by going undefeated, that’s all anyone remembers.  What else do we remember about Indiana’s undefeated 1976 season besides the Bicentennial and Elton John singing “Philadelphia Freedom” to honor his friend Billie Jean King? Okay, I might be the only person to remember that but does anyone remember that Rutgers also was undefeated going into the Final Four?  Maybe if you went to Rutgers. History, as they say, is written by the winners.

The selection committee’s job never is easy and always is subject to ridicule.  Geography mandates the placement of the higher seeds, with but one exception. Teams from the same conference that have already played twice in the regular season cannot be among the top four seeds in the same region. Larger schools from power conferences undoubtedly get the benefit of the doubt over smaller schools from lesser conferences, as is the case with UCLA this year. The Bruins posted a 2-8 record against teams in this year’s field, but passed the “eyeball test” according to selection committee chair Scott Barnes. Was UCLA more deserving than a Colorado State team that reeled off 15 straight wins to start the season and had a better record against the RPI top 100 than did the Bruins? The selection committee determined that it did.  With so much emphasis placed on quantifiable metrics, the eyeball test seems like a very unscientific methodology.

Despite that, the committee always manages to create some compelling matchups with interesting storylines.  Virginia opens the tournament against Belmont, which features Virginia transfer Taylor Barnette.  Belmont shoots the hell out of the three, which is a shot that Virginia grudgingly concedes in order to better defend the basket.  It is not unthinkable that Belmont could shoot Virginia right out of the tournament. Should Virginia prevail,  an even more stern test likely awaits the Cavaliers. Michigan State. The Spartans ended Virginia’s season last year in an epic tournament game at Madison Square Garden and this year are Dick Vitale’s sleeper pick to make the Final Four. Additionally, Tom Izzo is a great tournament coach and has the record to prove it. According to Jared Andrews, since becoming the Spartans’ coach in 1995, Izzo is 19-4 in the round of 32 game.   Michigan State looks horribly under seeded at the seven spot, but I am sure that the committee felt like a Virginia-Michigan State rematch would make for good television. Virginia fans are feeling hosed.

Why?  Because Duke. In filling our my own brackets and doing my research, Duke’s path to Elite Eight seems absurdly easy.  Of course, that’s what we thought last year before Mercer messed everything up. However, Duke’s path most likely looks like this: San Diego State, S.F. Austin.  Yes, I am picking  S.F. Austin  to win two games.  They are the trendy 12 pick in the first round against  Utah and should they triumph, they most likely will get a game against an overseeded Georgetown squad that has gone 7-5 in its last 12 games and got knocked out of the Big East semifinals by Xavier, the 6 seed over in the West bracket. Prior to the ACC Tournament, both Virginia and Duke looked good for 1 seeds. Then both teams lost in the tournament semifinals, Virginia to a UNC team that played its best game of the year and Duke to a Notre Dame team that had already beaten the Blue Devils earlier in conference play. Duke’s loss had no apparent effect on its seeding while Virginia, getting a marginal contribution from vital cog and twice-injured Justin Anderson, was bumped to the 2 line for its loss. And people wonder why it seems like Duke gets preferential treatment? Selection Committee chairman Scott Barnes said Duke got the higher seed by virtue of its win at Virginia in January, ignoring that Duke had some inexplicable losses and Virginia didn’t.  Splitting hairs, I know.

Having now lost two of its last three, Virginia does appear wobbly.  A healthy Justin Anderson may be just what Virginia needs to go along with the motivation provided by the perceived seeding slight.  Virginia coach Tony Bennett, diplomatic as ever, waved it off, stating that every team will need to win six games to be national champion and that his team will play whoever is on the schedule. Tony Bennett, unflappable as always.

Some paths to the Final Four undoubtedly look easier than others, but then a funny thing happens. The refs throw the ball up and the players play, often with unexpected–but never boring–results. March Madness baby!

Oh, and I still hate Christian Laettner, even if he is resting in a hammock made of his own laurels.

Top 10 Non-Playoff Bowl Games

As a college football fan, conference championship weekend is both the best and the worst weekend of the year. It usually has a handful of the best games you’ll see all year and this year that included playoff implications. On the other hand, it signals the end of regular college football action for nine months. But at least we have bowl season as a send-off, a two week flurry of action where you can find multiple games to watch almost every single day. We know the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl will be huge and exciting because they are the playoff games and you have the best teams involved. What other games are there to look forward to during bowl season? I rank the Top 10 non-playoff bowl games to watch.

1. Cotton Bowl: Michigan State vs. Baylor
This game is almost up to par with the two playoff games that will be played later on New Year’s Day. Two teams that had playoff aspirations coming into the year and had good seasons but fell just short. Both teams have NFL talent on each side of the ball. Each squad has a potent offense that can beat you through the air or on the ground. Baylor’s defense certainly wasn’t a huge strength this year and Michigan State’s defense got rolled in its two games against top competition (Oregon and Ohio State) so I expect a shootout.

2. Peach Bowl: Ole Miss vs. TCU
Ole Miss spent time at number one this year and even though they faltered in the last month, ended the year on a high note by ending rival Mississippi State’s playoff chances and finishing in the Top 10. TCU thought it had a playoff spot locked up right up until the selection show. They have an exciting offense led by Trevone Boykin to go with a stout defense and will be out to prove they should have been one of the playoff committee’s selections.

3. Russell Athletic Bowl: Oklahoma vs. Clemson
This game loses some luster because of Clemson QB Deshaun Watson being out but there’s still plenty to look forward to. It will be a defensive battle with two of the best defenses in the country. Oklahoma’s defense didn’t always play up to its potential this year, but I have a feeling it will look more like the unit most thought we’d see this year going up against Cole Stoudt. It will also be interesting to see if Trevor Knight can have the kind of bowl game he had last year against Alabama.

4. Fiesta Bowl: Boise State vs. Arizona
Boise State is no stranger to the Fiesta Bowl and comes in on an eight game win streak. Arizona comes in having been trounced in the Pac-12 championship game against Oregon after flirting with an outside chance at a playoff spot for parts of the year. The extra practice time should do wonders for Wildcat freshman QB Anu Solomon and will be opposed on the other side by one of the best running backs in the country, Boise State’s Jay Ajayi.

5. Orange Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Georgia Tech
This Orange Bowl will be hard-pressed to live up to last year’s shootout between Clemson and Ohio State but it still pits a Mississippi State team which was in the playoff hunt the whole year against a Georgia Tech team that was an onside kick away from potentially knocking off Florida State. Dak Prescott was a Heisman contender the first half of the year and should find success against the Yellow Jacket defense. On the flip side, can Georgia Tech mix in enough passes to take advantage of the Bulldogs’ pass defense which was one of the worst in the nation?

6. Boca Raton Bowl: Marshall vs. Northern Illinois
This game has two of the best offenses many people don’t know about. Marshall was 5th in the country at 45 points per game and has a balanced attack which averaged over 200 yards on the ground and in the air each game. At 12-1, their loss against Western Kentucky two weeks ago prevented them from a potential Fiesta Bowl appearance. Northern Illinois comes in as the 11-2 MAC champion and led by their run game, 15th best in the country, should be able to put up points against a Marshall defense that gave up 67 of them in their lone loss.

7. Sun Bowl: Arizona State vs. Duke
This could be a shootout between two teams who both average over 30 points per game on the year but have also had their share of games getting lit up on defense. Both teams will be looking to cap off the year by getting to double digit wins and will feature two extremely talented wide receivers in Jaelen Strong and Jamison Crowder.

8. Las Vegas Bowl: Utah vs. Colorado State
Coach Jim McElwain’s departure to Florida puts a bit of a damper on Colorado State’s 10-2 year, but I’m sure the players will be out to prove they can win without him there. Colorado State is led by their offense which finished just outside the Top 10 nationally in yards per game and will try to defeat a Utah team that finished 8-4 after a 6-1 start.

9. Liberty Bowl: West Virginia vs. Texas A&M
If this list is any indication, it appears I have a thing for high-scoring affairs. West Virginia and Texas A&M could be another one. Neither team could crack the Top 70 in scoring defense this year and we’ll get to see two different types of offense. Texas A&M’s spread air attack and West Virginia’s spread option should both have success in this game. Potential first round WR Kevin White of the Mountaineers and the young Aggie receivers who could be future high draft picks could all run wild.

10. Texas Bowl: Texas vs. Arkansas
This might be the most hyped game ever between teams 6-6 teams. Arkansas comes in riding high after scoring their first two conference wins in forever in shutouts against LSU and Ole Miss and then barely losing on the road to SEC East champ Missouri. Then there’s Texas, who won three straight Big 12 games before ending the year by losing to playoff-caliber TCU. Both teams showed improvement throughout the year and will look to continue that momentum into the off-season with a bowl victory.

Top 25: What is the playoff about?

Last week was a rough one if you’re a fan of Top 25 upheaval. Only Ole Miss at 8 lost out of the Top 15 teams. Besides some shuffling towards the bottom there wasn’t a lot of excitement, unless you are keyed in on the one spot of the New Year’s Six bowls that will go to the best Group of 5 conference team. And by best I mean whichever team will provide the most ticket sales and TV viewers. Louisville, Minnesota, and Colorado State are new-comers to my Top 25 this week, but they’ve been bouncing in and out around the bottom for a decent part of the year.

Arkansas however is making their first appearance; one I feel is warranted considering they’ve been playing pretty good football for two months. Even their losses were close (Texas A&M in OT, Alabama by 1, Georgia by 13, at Mississippi State by 7). The last two weeks they have shutout LSU and Ole Miss. Do I hear a “Nobody wants to play them right now”?

Since there isn’t a lot of changes this week it brings me to my, almost becoming weekly, Florida State bashing. It’s not that I hate Florida State. (Alright maybe I do, I am a Miami Hurricanes fan after all). But I think I’m pretty objective when it comes to sports. I can set my emotions aside to rationally assess teams. Another Florida State nail-biter on Saturday made me wonder, what is the college football playoff about? Is it about the four best teams? The four most deserving? Or a combination of both?

This made me look into Florida State’s resume further. None of the following includes their win against The Citadel, because well, it’s The Citadel. My apologies to any Bulldogs out there. The combined record of the Seminoles’ opponents is 57-53. Their best wins are against Notre Dame, Louisville, and Clemson. All other wins are against teams no better than 6-5. But are any of those three teams really that good? Notre Dame’s best win is against an average Stanford team by 3. They’ve lost to FSU, Arizona State, Northwestern, and Louisville. Louisville’s best win is against that Notre Dame team and they have lost to Virginia, Clemson, and Florida State. Clemson’s best win is against Louisville. They’ve lost to Georgia, Florida State, and Georgia Tech.

So if you throw out the games against each other where somebody had to win, the best wins of Florida State’s best three opponents are Stanford, Miami (Fl.), and North Carolina. It’s a bit to wrap your head around but basically those three teams have lost to every above average team they’ve played unless they played each other when one team had to win.

The point is we all realize Florida State’s schedule is below average, but if you dig deeper you realize it is even worse than it seems. This brings me back to my original question. I have Florida State at 5 so I obviously don’t think they are one of the Top 4 teams in the country. Particularly with their schedule, I refuse to believe they are one of the top couple teams in the country just because they’re undefeated. But if they go 13-0 they would obviously deserve to be in the playoff. So I, like the playoff committee, would be hoping things worked out these last couple weeks that made the decisions easy for them. Chances are that won’t happen. The four best teams and four most deserving aren’t always the same. How would you choose?

Top 25 (Last Week’s Rank in Parenthesis)

1. Alabama (1)
2. Oregon (2)
3. Baylor (3)
4. Mississippi State (4)
5. Florida State (5)
6. TCU (6)
7. Ohio State (7)
8. Michigan State (8)
9. Georgia (9)
10. Auburn (11)
11. Wisconsin (12)
12. UCLA (14)
13. Arizona State (13)
14. Kansas State (15)
15. Arizona (18)
16. Oklahoma (16)
17. Georgia Tech (21)
18. Ole Miss (10)
19. Missouri (24)
20. Marshall (17)
21. Boise State (25)
22. Louisville (UR)
23. Minnesota (UR)
24. Colorado State (UR)
25. Arkansas (UR)

Explaining My Bracket

 

Before the incredible creator and organizer of this blog, Mr. Josh Flagner (@RailbirdJ), has anything to say, yes, I am a HUGE Ohio State homer. I am a student at The Ohio State University and I love my school and my team an incredible amount. Now, does that have anything to do with the Buckeyes winning the National Championship in my bracket? Maybe, but I am going to try to defend my choice to the best of my abilities.

First of all, here is my bracket:

Hayden's Bracket

As you can see, it’s not too risky because I really don’t believe in picking upsets just for the sake of picking upsets. Any team can upset any team, but unless there is solid evidence as to why they will do so, I am not going to pick a random upset just “because”. For some people it works, and they get lucky. I’d rather be good than get lucky.

My first round upsets go as follows:

Cincy over Creighton, Minnesota over UCLA, Mizzou over Colorado State, and Villanova over UNC.

Why? Well, I guess I’m going by conferences. UCLA plays in an incredibly weak Pac 12 while Minnesota has been ok in the Big Ten, by far the best conference in college basketball. Cincinnati plays in the Big East, a great basketball conference, while Creighton plays in the Missouri Valley Conference. Missouri plays in the weak SEC, but plays Colorado State from a weaker Mountain West. The Villanova over UNC upset doesn’t follow this criteria quite as closely as the others do, but I truly believe that UNC is uninspired and plays in a much weaker ACC than we are accustomed to. While it may not be the most sound logic in the world, I just think that teams with tougher competition know how to beat teams that haven’t played anybody.

My round two upsets are as follows:

Wisconsin over Kansas State, VCU over Michigan, Minnesota over Florida.

These upsets weren’t really based on any formula, just the simple “this team is going to beat this one” logic. Wisconsin has beaten some of the top teams in the NCAA tournament including Indiana twice, Ohio State, and Michigan. While I cannot stand their slow style of play, Bo Ryan’s boys will handle Kansas State rather easily. We’ve all seen what Shaka Smart is capable of and while he should be in Los Angeles soon coaching the UCLA Bruins, Smart is going to take his Rams to victory over a struggling Michigan team. Michigan looked like Final Four contenders at a certain point, but since have failed to amount to much of anything. Some say they peaked at the wrong time and I’d definitely agree with that statement. Florida looked awful yesterday and has looked awful at various points throughout the year. Unable to win a SEC Championship in a terrible down year for the SEC, the Gators are going to be shocked when a hungry Golden Gophers team comes around and beats them up.

Round Three looks a little something like this:

No Upsets.

I know it’s shocking, but I just don’t see any upsets happening in the Sweet Sixteen. Oklahoma State could take down St. Louis, but the Billikens have come on EXTREMELY strong as of late. Wisky could definitely beat Gonzaga, but again, I just think they have too much firepower for the big, slow Badgers. The game I am very wary of is Kansas beating VCU. I honestly think that Bill Self’s team could be headed back home after this game, but I could also be very wrong. The Jayhawks have laid low in terms of media hype for quite a while after a losing skid, but surprisingly jumped back on the bandwagon and were able to secure a number one seed. That streaky Kansas squad could make an immediate comeback and get blown out of the water early on. Watch out for that upset, one that I just wasn’t sure enough about to put on my bracket.

Round Four upsets:

Ohio State over Gonzaga and Georgetown over Kansas.

I wouldn’t really call Ohio State over Gonzaga an upset, but in terms of the Bracket, Gonzaga is a one seed while Ohio State is a two. Ohio State may be the dark horse to win it all after an atrocious start to the season. They haven’t lost since a drubbing in Madison, Wisconsin, have beaten Michigan State twice in that time, and took down Indiana in Bloomington on Senior Night. Aaron Craft is finally playing up to his potential and the Gonzaga Zags may not know what is coming their way. Kansas will not make the Final Four no matter what. That team we saw in the midway point of the season is going to comeback, it’s just a matter of when. Otto Porter and Georgetown, from the rough and tough Big East, are going to take down the Jayhawks on the way to Atlanta. If it’s not Georgetown, it will be somebody else, but again, Kansas is not cutting down the nets on their way to the Final Four.

My Final Four:

Louisville, Ohio State, Indiana, Georgetown.

How we got here:

Many people picked Miami to beat Indiana, that’s not going to happen. Miami is a decent basketball team in a down year for the ACC. Sure they beat Duke, but they also lost to Boston College. Outside of Duke, Miami hasn’t played great competition and when the Hoosiers come a-callin’, the Canes won’t be ready to answer. Louisville has shown their might, winning the Big East Championship, and may be the best team in this tournament. Duke has shown their flaws and Rick Pitino’s group is certainly going to  expose them. Georgetown just got the luck of the draw in terms of an easy road to the Final Four. Trashing Florida Gulf Coast, San Diego State, Minnesota, and Kansas, the Hoyas really were never challenged on the way to Atlanta. Ohio State had tough match-ups with New Mexico and Gonzaga, but they found a way to overcome both opponents. Aaron Craft, Shannon Scott, and Sam Thompson have certainly found their way at just the right time, and the Buckeyes are primed and ready for a showdown against the Louisville Cardinals.

In the National Championship Game will be…

The Ohio State Buckeyes and the Indiana Hoosiers.

When I said the Big Ten was by far the best conference in college basketball, I meant it. There will be two Big Ten teams in the Final Four, and they’re going to be the best two teams in the Final Four. Ohio State could very well be beaten by Louisville, but if I didn’t have faith in my Buckeyes, what would I have? They won’t lose in the Semi-Final two years in a row. They’ll find a way to beat the mighty Cardinals and make it to their first National Championship since Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. lead the Buckeyes to the Title Game in 2007. As for Indiana, they should take down Georgetown pretty easily. Their size will be too much, their stars will be too much, and their experience will be too much for the Hoyas.

In the National Championship Game, the Ohio State Buckeyes will beat the Indiana Hoosiers 75-74. Ohio State knows Indiana like the back of their hand. They’ve played these guys twice, and they’re going to know exactly how to handle the mighty Hoosiers. In their last matchup, Ohio State used Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott to rattle Indiana into 14 turnovers. They’re going to use that same tactic and regardless of Tom Crean’s gameplan to stop it, the best on-ball defender in the nation, Aaron Craft, is going to take down the Hoosiers almost single handedly.

So there you have it folks.

The Ohio State Buckeyes are your 2013 National Champions.

We all know that March Madness is named as such for a reason. It truly is a coin flip, pick out of a hat, tournament that anyone can win for any reason. I have reason to believe that my Buckeyes can get it done, but I also have reason to believe that Indiana, Louisville, or even VCU could take home the title as well. If I was completely unbiased, however, I would still pick Ohio State to win it all. They hit their stride at the right time and have played the toughest competition in America.

Of course, I am probably going to lose all of my bracket challenges, but it’s all in good fun. Some people have different methods to the “Madness”, and as you can see I went with conference supremacy. No method is truly accurate. Some who flip a coin see better results than those who research the teams and the games through and through. Regardless of who you pick, it’s all so much fun. Whether your bracket bleeds with red ink or is perfectly green, we can all enjoy this amazing little thing they call the NCAA Tournament.

I would really LOVE to see some of your thoughts on my picks as well as your own picks for March Madness. Let me know in the comments section of this page or on Twitter @H_Grove if you think I’m a genius or a basketball buffoon!