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Friday, October 26, 2012

Breaking Bad in the Big 10, why the CFB universe revolves around South Bend, and giving the aspiring Davids their due

How bad is the Big 10? The short answer: less bad than you probably think. The Big 10 is at the bottom of the big four (with the Pac-12, SEC and Big 12) but still ahead of the rest. According to the conference power rankings, the SEC and Big 12 are head and shoulders above the rest, then the Pac-12, Big 10, Big East and ACC are in the next pack with the Pac-12 and Big 10 holding a small lead on the other two. And there is a rumor going around that the best of the Big East are better than the best of the Big 10. Not true. The Big East is actually 6th by P-Top, a statistic that specifically evaluates the top of the conference. In the team power rankings, four Big 10 teams are ahead of Rutgers, the Big East's highest rated team. The reason we are down on the Big 10 has more to do with what the Big 10 is doing right than what they are doing wrong: the Big 10 has the third toughest non-conference schedule (behind C-USA and the Sun Belt).

This means that Michigan and Nebraska are probably better than you think they are. This week we get a little more insight into which of the two is better. If Michigan wins they will all but lock up the divisional title. If Nebraska wins they will still need to win out (which would include beating Penn State and Michigan State) or they will need Michigan to lose again (presumably to Ohio State). Both teams are in the bottom 25 nationally in turnovers per possession, so this game could hinge on a big fumble (for Nebraska - 121st in fumbles per play) or interception (for Michigan - 124th in INTs per pass), or a few of each.

Staying in the Big 10, Wisconsin is also better than we thought (a few weeks ago) but still worse that we thought (before the season started). The Badgers have effectively locked up a spot in the Big 10 championship game (largely because a third of their division didn't follow the rules). We weren't expecting this from Wisconsin after surviving UNI, UTEP and Utah State and getting shutdown by Oregon State (before we knew Oregon State was going to be one of the best teams in the country). But three straight wins in conference (against three teams that are winless in conference) and Wisconsin is master of its own fate. But Wisconsin's six wins have come against six of the seven softest defenses they will face this year and the three losses came against three of the four toughest defenses. Michigan State is the fourth team on that last; we'll find out of the Badgers have really turned a corner.

Oklahoma plays Notre Dame. Of course this game is big for both teams, but it doesn't stop there. I posted earlier in the season about Notre Dame being this season's Kevin Bacon, and their role as college football's kingmaker is bigger than I would have guessed. The Big 12 has a healthy advantage over the Pac-12 in non-conference play, so if the champions from the two conferences emerge with equal losses (zero or one) the Big 12 champion will probably get the nod. But Notre Dame could help Oregon (we presume) play catch-up. That begins with Notre Dame beating Oklahoma and ends with USC beating Notre Dame. The problem with that plan is that Oklahoma is a much better team than Notre Dame, miles ahead offensively and perhaps even better on defense.

The secondary plot line of the Notre Dame/Oklahoma game becomes less interesting, though, if Kansas State loses and Oregon stays unbeaten. Texas Tech is the biggest challenge left on the Wildcat's schedule. Texas Tech outscores its opponents by a whopping 1.5 points/possession (3.2 scored versus 1.7 allowed), 7th best in the country. Kansas State outscores opponents by 2.4 points (3.7-1.3), 2nd best behind only Alabama. Texas Tech can make up that gap if they play a clean game; Texas Tech is more than twice as likely to end a possession with a turnover and is penalized more than twice as many yards per game as Kansas State. That being said, there is no real reason to believe Texas Tech will win but, hey, we won't know until they play the game.

Florida and Georgia play on Saturday. The winner will have the inside track to the SEC championship game, and potentially a trip to the national championship game. Playing hypotheticals, if Georgia wins Saturday and wins out, the SEC champion could get passed over for the national championship game for Kansas State and Oregon State (if those two teams win out). That's a whole lot of ifs, and nothing against the SEC, but that would be awesome.

Louisville/Cincinnati was supposed to be a big game. Not BIG, just big, but definitely bigger than "meh". Now, its "meh". That is not to say that Toledo is a terrible team. They are a mediocre team that has won seven straight, including three in a row against directional Michigan, Coastal Carolina (as opposed to that meddlesome Inland Carolina), and the mighty Cowboys of Wyoming. But because Cincinnati lost to Toledo, Cincinnati has fallen from an undefeated team for whom anything is possible to a barely above average team that might go 9-3 with some nice breaks. Louisville is better, but they'd be the 9th best team in an 11 team Big 12. I'm not that excited.

Here's my position on Ohio, the Bobcats not the state. I like to cheer for the underdog, the non-AQ schools. But I want them to actually be good. Why? So they don't get embarrassed when they get their shot at the big boys (see Hawaii v. Georgia). Those losses undermine all the hard work Boise State, TCU, and Utah have put into raising the standing of non-AQ schools (which they have since cashed in on). Now, Ohio did beat Penn State, but that was a week before Penn State also lost to Virginia. Nobody takes either game serious. Ohio is not very good, but they keep winning. I want them to lose. I want them to lose to Miami. There's a 30% chance that happens.

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