The Great Eight: Reassessing college football’s unbeatens

2014_BCS_Championship_logoA month ago, I wrote about the 20 undefeated teams remaining on the FBS landscape. They included heavyweights like Alabama and Ohio State, lesser knowns such as Houston and Fresno State and everything in between. Four short weeks later, the list is pared to eight.

My original breakdown had six teams I felt had no chance of finishing the regular season unbeaten. In the last month, all six of them lost. My list also included seven in the category of teams I felt could keep the goose egg in the right hand column. Of course, I knew at least two of those would lose because of head-to-head match ups (Florida State-Clemson, Stanford-Oregon). What I didn’t see coming was for Stanford to lose to Utah or Louisville to fall at home against UCF. Those are my two biggest surprises.

I also had a list called “Reply Hazy, Ask Again.” These were teams I just wasn’t sure about either because the meat of their schedule was still to come or I just didn’t know much about them. With only a month left, that category goes away, and it’s time for me to have definitive answers of which teams will finish the regular season unblemished and which don’t quite have what it takes.

Signs Point to Yes

AlabamaAlabama (8-0, 5-0): The Crimson Tide looked downright pedestrian on defense when they survived Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M back in September. Since then, they’ve been the Alabama defense everyone expects. The Tide allowed 42 points and 628 yards of offense against the Aggies. In the six games since, they’ve given up 26 points and 1,407 yards TOTAL. That’s 4.3 points and 234.5 yards per game. Anyone doubting Bama right now?  Road Blocks: Nov. 9 vs. (13) LSU, Nov. 30 @ (11) Auburn; Alabama has four games left, two of them against top 15 rivals. LSU will test how much that defense has actually improved before the Tigers wait at home for the Iron Bowl. Auburn’s resurgence has definitely added a measure of excitement to the end of the season.

Florida StateFlorida State (7-0, 5-0): There’s always room to speculate how far a team can go when a freshman is under center, but guys like Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota have silenced those critics to an extent and paved the way for new stars, specifically Jameis Winston. I liked the Seminoles early on because of the young quarterback’s spark, but what we all saw against Clemson was his ability to take over. Under the prime time lights in a hostile environment Winston threw for 444 yards and 3 touchdowns and cemented himself in the Heisman race and his team in the national title picture. Road Blocks: Nov. 2 vs. (7) Miami, Nov. 30 @ Florida; The Seminoles have five games left, headlined by Saturday’s match up with Miami. From what we’ve seen out of the Canes recently, this shouldn’t be that great of a game. The only other stepping stone is a Florida team that isn’t really that good.

Northern Illinois

Northern Illinois (8-0, 4-0): The Huskies just keep lining ’em up and knocking ’em down thanks to their otherworldly Quarterback Jordan Lynch. Take just the last two games, for example. Against Central Michigan, Lynch ran for an FBS record 316 yards in a 21 point win. A week later, he became the second quarterback in 10 years to throw 4 touchdown passes, run for one and receive another. The guy is unstoppable right now, and I can’t imagine anyone will slow him down too much. Road Blocks: Nov. 13 vs. Ball State, Nov. 20 @ Toledo; Four conference games remain on the schedule, two tough ones bookended by a pair of cupcakes. The back-to-back contests against 7-1 Ball State and 5-3 Toledo will decide the MAC West and will reveal if Northern stays in the hunt for a second straight BCS appearance.

Ohio StateOhio State (8-0, 4-0): Everyone knows the Buckeyes can score points if they need to. The playmaking ability of Braxton Miller (or even Kenny Guiton) along with the bruising running of Carlos Hyde is a lethal combo. The concern all year has been the defense. That’s why last week’s 63-14 win against Penn State was so important. It starts to show people that Ohio State is putting it together on both sides of the ball and that, if given the chance, they could exorcise some of the demons of the 2007 and 2008 national championship games. Road Blocks: Nov. 30 @ (21) Michigan; With Purdue, Illinois and Indiana leading up to Michigan, Ohio State really has no excuse not to run the table. The Buckeyes never seem to make it that easy, but if they want anyone in their corner at the end of the year they’ll need to kick it up a notch.

OregonOregon (8-0, 5-0): Last Saturday’s game was a microcosm of what Oregon is so successful at doing against quality opponents. After struggling in the first half against UCLA and escaping to a 14-all tie at the break, the Ducks turned it up on both sides of the ball. The offense scored touchdowns on its final four possessions, and the D forced all punts in the 2nd half. When the Ducks are rolling, it’s fun to watch, and with Marcus Mariota (0 INT in 225 attempts) at the helm anything is possible. Road Blocks: Nov. 7 @ (5) Stanford, Nov. 29 vs. Oregon State; It’s not smooth sailing to the finish line. Oregon travels for a Thursday night top five battle at Stanford, and the Cardinal defense will hope to shut them down just like in last year’s 17-14 Stanford win. Then, after getting through match ups with Utah and at Arizona, the Civil War ends the regular season. Oregon State nearly upset the Cardinal last week, and they’d like nothing more than to keep Oregon out of the BCS title game.

My Reply Is No

BaylorBaylor (7-0, 4-0): I love most things about this team: the frenetic pace they pile up touchdowns, their seeming inability to slow down even if they tried and their race to a 7-0 record. What I don’t love is the remaining schedule. Can the Bears win out and go undefeated? I have no doubt. I just find it very hard to believe it’s actually going to happen given the week-after-week tests they’ll face down the stretch. Road Blocks: the five straight weeks from Nov. 7 to Dec. 7; In that span, the Bears host  7-1 Oklahoma and 7-1 Texas Tech, travel to 6-1 Oklahoma State and 3-5 TCU, then host 5-2 Texas. The Sooners, Raiders and Cowboys are all ranked in the top 20, and all but TCU control their own destiny in the conference title chase.

Fresno StateFresno State (7-0, 4-0): The Bulldogs nearly left the list last week, getting a battle from San Diego State before coming out on top in overtime. That’s kind of how they do it, though. Four of Fresno State’s seven wins have come by a touchdown or less, and you have to wonder if walking the tightrope so often won’t come back to bite them in the end. Road Blocks: Nov. 29 @ San Jose State; No one should really challenge them until the regular season finale against San Jose State. Both teams should be playing for the division title, and with it being on the road you never know what will happen.

MiamiMiami (7-0, 3-0): Miami is still undefeated, but of the eight teams with that distinction they’ve been the least convincing recently. It took last minute touchdowns to win in two straight weeks, first at 2-5 North Carolina, then at 4-4 Wake Forest. Stephen Morris has thrown one touchdown pass against four interceptions in those two games. If Florida State can force Clemson’s Tajh Boyd into three turnovers, what will they do to these guys? Road Blocks: Nov. 2 @ (3) Florida State, Nov. 9 vs. Virginia Tech; I don’t see the Hurricanes making it through this weekend undefeated, but if they do it’s an immediate turnaround against Virginia Tech to all but lock up the ACC Coastal Division title.