10 Burning College Football Questions Halfway Through the Season
It's hard to believe, but many college football teams are now halfway through the regular season. Things had been fairly quiet up until two weeks ago, when a day that seemed fairly dull turned into Shootout Saturday thanks to touchdown after touchdown being scored in Morgantown, Athens and Stillwater.
Last week, three of the Top Five fell, and just 15 unbeaten teams remain, many of which face difficult games this weekend. We've learned a few things; primarily, USC does indeed have depth issues, the Big Ten is atrocious, and the national champion will either come from the Big 12, Pac-12, SEC or Notre Dame.
As we get ready for the second half of the season, here are 10 burning questions that must be answered in the coming weeks.
Who Is Alabama's Biggest Threat in the Regular Season?
The easiest answer, of course, is No. 8 LSU, who hosts Alabama on Nov. 3 under the bright lights of Tiger Stadium. However, don’t sleep on next Saturday’s trip to Tennessee for the annual Third Saturday in October clash. The Vols will be the first team the Tide has faced with a legitimate passing attack.
If you’re looking for a comparison to the top-ranked 2010 Alabama team’s stunning loss to South Carolina, it’s the trip to Knoxville. It’ll be the second consecutive road trip for the Crimson Tide, coming on the heels of a game at Missouri this week.
LSU is the most talented team remaining on Alabama’s schedule, but the Vols may match up better with the Tide, as Tyler Bray is more capable of a 2010 Stephen Garcia-esque performance than the Tigers' Zach Mettenberger.
How Far Can Notre Dame Go?
The Irish are 5-0, ranked No. 7 and still a legitimate national title in mid-October. The schedule remains daunting, but Notre Dame appears to be in prime position to at least return to a BCS bowl for the first time since 2006.
An undefeated 12-0 is likely asking too much for a team with an offense that’s still finding its footing, but 11-1 is a possibility, even with games against Stanford, Oklahoma and USC remaining. That probably won’t be enough to get to Miami, but with enough upsets the rest of the season, it at least puts them in the mix.
Because it’s Notre Dame, this will be one of the biggest storylines to watch over the next two months. The Fighting Irish are again relevant in the national title picture. Love them or hate them, that’s a good thing for college football.
Who Wins the 5-Way Battle in the Big 12?
Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State each stand a game behind the current leaders, West Virginia and Kansas State, but with a round-robin schedule, all still remain in title contention. Saturday’s renewal of the Red River Rivalry between the Longhorns and Sooners, however, is a de facto elimination game.
The Wildcats and Mountaineers are next to meet, as they’ll do battle in a prime-time showdown in Morgantown on Oct. 20. The Cowboys, meanwhile, are in a bit of a lull in their schedule before a difficult November.
The schedule favors West Virginia with home games against Kansas State and Oklahoma, but it will likely come down to tiebreakers to crown a champion. The depth of the league could cost the Big 12 a spot in the national title game, but it is almost certain to land two BCS bowl berths for the first time since 2008.
What Do We Make of USC?
The Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of the Trojans’ first month has left many of us scratching our heads. Their national title hopes are still alive despite the loss to Stanford, but it will likely take two wins over Oregon to even give themselves a chance at the crystal ball.
The offense is fantastic when it’s clicking, but it has proven vulnerable to a fierce pass rush. The schedule the rest of the way is arduous, with games against Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Notre Dame.
It’s hard to see Lane Kiffin’s team navigating that road plus a Pac-12 championship game. An at-large BCS berth appears to be the best bet for the preseason No. 1 team.
Who Is the Least Bad Bowl-Eligible Team in the Big Ten?
My answer last week was one team (Nebraska); this week it is another team (Michigan), and it could be an entirely different team next week. The bottom line: Ohio State is really kicking itself for not self-imposing a bowl ban last season.
Pretty much any team other than Illinois and Indiana (the only teams with two conference losses) can still make a run at Pasadena. Northwestern at Minnesota and Wisconsin at Purdue this weekend should knock two more teams out of the race.
Michigan appears to be the best of a mediocre bunch, as its two losses (Alabama and Notre Dame) are the most easily condoned. However, would anyone be shocked if Wisconsin quietly rights its ship to win the Leaders Division, pulls an upset in Indianapolis and goes to its third straight Rose Bowl?
It’s that kind of year in the Midwest.
Can a Non-AQ Team Make a BCS Bowl?
One candidate, Louisiana Tech, has its last major test this week when they face No. 22 Texas A&M in Shreveport, La., a game moved from August due to Hurricane Isaac. The Bulldogs have only one legitimate challenger in the WAC (Utah State), so this could be the final hurdle en route to a 12-0 season.
The only other candidates for a non-AQ school to get a BCS bowl game are Ohio and Boise State. The Broncos have been less than impressive despite a 4-1 record, and they likely don’t have a strong enough schedule to earn a bid.
The Bobcats, meanwhile, narrowly avoided a horrible loss to Buffalo last week, but they do not have to play the top teams in the MAC West, at least until a potential MAC championship game.
They’re currently unranked but would only need to reach No. 16 in the BCS standings and be ranked higher than the Big East, ACC or Big Ten champion to give the league its first BCS berth.
Which One-Loss Team Has the Best Chance To Get to Miami?
Despite their miserable performance last Saturday night at South Carolina, it might be Georgia. The Bulldogs have only one major challenge the rest of the regular season: the annual clash with Florida in Jacksonville on Oct. 27. They will be coming off of a game at Kentucky, while the Gators must deal with the Gamecocks the week before. Advantage: Georgia.
Finishing 11-1 would likely be enough to get the ‘Dawgs to the SEC championship game as long as South Carolina drops a game. An upset of Alabama or LSU in the SEC championship game could send Georgia to Miami.
USC and LSU are also still in the mix but have much tougher roads than the Bulldogs. Georgia looks nothing like a national title team at the moment, but a lot can change over the coming weeks.
Can Anyone Catch Geno Smith in the Heisman Trophy Race?
Smith has been helped by Matt Barkley and E.J. Manuel losing games, as well as Braxton Miller’s team not being eligible for the postseason. Smith has also helped his own cause with 24 touchdowns, no interceptions and almost 2,000 passing yards in five games.
Unlike Robert Griffin III and Baylor last year, Smith can’t afford to have the Mountaineers lose a couple of games at midseason; expectations are so much higher than they were for Griffin's Bears. If West Virginia keeps winning, however, it’s a one-horse race.
Alabama’s style of play doesn’t lend itself to having a Heisman Trophy candidate in today’s world of eye-popping passing numbers, while Oregon’s best player, De'Anthony Thomas, doesn’t touch the ball enough to make a serious run.
If Smith can outduel Kansas State’s Collin Klein in two weeks, this could be decided by Halloween.
Which SEC Schools Will Have Coaching Vacancies?
Arkansas is a definite. Kentucky is extremely likely. Tennessee likely hinges on its trip to Starkville, Miss., on Saturday night, presuming the Vols don’t upset Alabama or South Carolina later this month. Auburn is the wild card at the moment, with Gene Chizik squarely under fire for the Tigers’ 1-4 start.
Auburn’s bowl hopes are likely gone, and Chizik is now 22-33 as a head coach without Cam Newton. It’s hard to fathom a coach being dismissed two years after winning a national title, but if it’s going to happen, it’ll happen in the SEC.
It’s hard to see an SEC coach leaving for a better job—Vanderbilt’s James Franklin is the only one who could potentially jump—but four appears to be the high watermark. If I were to rank the attractiveness of the potential openings, it would be: 1) Auburn; 2) Tennessee; 3) Arkansas; 4) Kentucky.
Who Will Play for the National Title?
Alabama and Oregon have fairly easy roads to Miami, but neither has been really tested to this point. They're coming soon, however, with each facing a rigorous four-week stretch.
Alabama’s begins on Oct. 20 with a game at Tennessee, followed by Mississippi State, LSU and Texas A&M. Oregon’s November close sees the Ducks hit the road three times in four weeks with games at USC, California and Oregon State, as well as a home date with Stanford.
The call here is for the current top two teams to flip-flop between now and Dec. 2. Oregon will run the table for the second time in three years. Alabama will stumble once over the next month, but with only one unbeaten team, the Tide will climb back up to No. 2 and play for its third national championship in four years.