Though the situation at the top is every bit as fluid as last year, college football is returning to normal. Look at the top three teams: Texas, Alabama and Penn State. It’s 1970 again.
By mid-December, it’s always 1970, even if the mix includes a slightly different group like Ohio State, Southern California, Louisiana State and Oklahoma. The traditional powers will always be there in the end.
The question is who will be there in the middle. And unlike last year, this year is likely to be 1970 all year. For the last couple of seasons, new blood has electrified college football as strangers like Kansas, Rutgers, South Florida, Louisville, Boston College and others took turns at or near the top of the BCS rankings. They never last, of course, nor would most fans want them to. After all, who really wants to see Boston College play South Florida for the national championship?
This year, that kind of game isn’t even on the radar. You can see it in the national rankings. Just looking at the coaches poll, which pretty closely tracks the Associated Press and the Harris polls, the Top 15 includes six teams from the Big 12, four from the Southeastern Conference, two from the Big Ten and one from the Pac-10, with those conferences occupying the top seven positions.
The two interlopers are mountain state teams that are among the eight remaining unbeatens across the country. Brigham Young weighs in at No. 8 with a 16-game winning streak, the nation’s longest, including a 59-0 win against UCLA this year. No. 13 Utah claimed a 31-28 win over Oregon State the week after Oregon State beat Southern Cal.
At least one of those teams won’t run the table, because Utah and Brigham Young will play at the end of this season, probably to decide the Mountain West Conference.
The less prestigious BCS leagues, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big East, don’t appear until Virginia Tech shows up at No. 18, Wake Forest at No. 19, South Florida at No. 20 and North Carolina at No. 21. It appears, then, that neither of those leagues will produce a national championship candidate and that the title game contestants will come from the other four BCS conferences.
It could happen, though it’s not entirely likely, that the Rose Bowl will suffer in the bargain, for Penn State and Southern Cal are the two highest ranked teams with the clearest paths through the rest of the season. Southern Cal just has to survive a weak Pac-10, which is 14-15 outside its confines this year. Of course the Trojans already have lost once in their league, to Oregon State.
Penn State will have to deal with Ohio State and Michigan State, which isn’t nothing, but it’s also nothing on the order of what awaits Texas and Alabama at the top of the rankings.
The Big 12 is unusually good this year, while the SEC is good as always, which is to say it’s probably still the toughest, deepest league in America and that any team surviving its buzz saw without a loss should be entered in the national championship game on that merit alone.
We might be looking at the best Texas team since about 1970, when the Longhorns could win the national title averaging about 200 pounds from tackle to tackle. They’ve ditched their brain trust of defensive coaches who never caught up to the spread, replacing them with former Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. Meanwhile, the Texas offense displays a killer instinct that’s been missing for years.
As a result, the Horns have heartened their fans by destroying teams they’re supposed to destroy rather than escaping those opponents by recovering onside kicks. Opponents still throw productively against the Longhorns, but now it’s because they’re down three touchdowns and can’t do anything else.
Texas has defeated only one opponent by as few as 10 points, and that was Oklahoma, then ranked No. 1, in their annual duel at the Texas State Fair Oct. 11. That game has become, during the 21st century, one of the signature moments of the college football season, as the winner is headed toward the national championship game and the loser is headed away from it.
Unlike previous seasons, though, the winner isn’t home free. The Longhorns play their next three games against, in order, No. 12 Missouri, No. 10 Oklahoma State and No. 5 Texas Tech. After a game against Baylor, which could be a trap this year, the Longhorns go to No. 15 Kansas, then close out their season against top rival Texas A&M. The task also will include a Big 12 Championship Game against the likes of Missouri or Kansas.
Alabama built its reputation this year with a 41-30 win against Georgia, one of the preseason favorites, at the end of September. The problem now facing Alabama is that even when its SEC West opponents aren’t their strongest, they’re still utterly brutal border rivals. In the coming weeks, Bama will line up against Mississippi, Tennessee, No. 14 Louisiana State, Mississippi State and in-state rival Auburn. At the end of all that, Alabama still has to survive the SEC Championship Game, possibly a Georgia grudge match.
Unlike last season, then, 2008 doesn’t figure to turn up strange guests high in the BCS rankings. And, unlike the three years before then, neither does the BCS figure to generate almost no suspense leading to the national title gam.
Look for a team like Georgia to rise from No. 9 or Ohio State to rise from No. 11. The season is ripe for suspense, if not surprises.
CONTACT BILL PETERSON: firstname.lastname@example.org