Monday, October 10, 2011

Collision Course

By Ross Lancaster

October is a time of sorting in college football. Teams have largely ceased to play non-conference opposition for the balance of the season, and have now moved into the meat of the season, conference play, whereby seasons will largely be judged. The remaining three Saturdays will order conference races to a greater degree, culminating in conference titles and divisions being clinched in November and December.

Yet, at the upper echelon of college football, the grand prize of the national title should be decided on November 5 when LSU plays Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

In reality, neither school can lay claim to the BCS title for more than another two months after that game. However, the dominance the Tigers and Crimson Tide have displayed makes a triumph in Tuscaloosa nearly equivalent with raising the crystal football on January 9.

Yes, every team in the country still has half or more of its 2011 schedule remaining. Yes, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Stanford, and Clemson have all been impressive and could all wind up undefeated. But from that group, only Wisconsin has been nearly as impressive all-around as LSU and Alabama.

In a conference that often takes flack for not scheduling challenging non-conference games away from home, LSU played and handled two possible BCS bowl participants in Oregon and West Virginia outside of the SEC. On Saturday, a Florida team starting its third-string QB was no match for a Tigers team giving up a smidge over 250 yards a contest. And somehow, LSU has managed to hit 6-0 without any Les Miles fourth-quarter magic, as had been on display at this time last year in LSU's then-perfect campaign.

The one game where LSU may struggle outside of the November showdown against Alabama is against Arkansas, in a series in which the Hogs have won three of the last four meetings. Based on all of the SEC teams' resumes, Arkansas appears to be the third best team in the conference, and better than anyone in the East. Amazingly, on that side of the conference, previously left-for-dead Georgia may be the East favorite, given Florida and South Carolina's quarterback issues. The West-East comparison in the conference is not unlike a year ago, and means that whichever team wins in four weeks time in Tuscaloosa is a near shoe-in to take the conference crown.

Alabama hasn't had the amount of tests LSU has, but excelled at home against Arkansas and against a then-slightly healthier Florida team in Gainesville. Outside of LSU, Alabama doesn't really have another great test left on the schedule. One could count playing at Auburn as a hurdle due to the rivalry, especially due to the tree-related events of the past year, but eastern Alabama's Tigers are lucky to not have four losses to this point in the season.

In several ways, LSU and Alabama are mirror images of each other. Top-ranked defenses by talent and statistics anchor both teams. Offensively, excellent running attacks led by LSU's Spencer Ware and Alabama's Trent Richardson set up the pass for quarterbacks that appear to be improving in the Tigers' Jarrett Lee and the Tide's Alex McCarron.

LSU and Alabama have been the two best teams in the country so far, but the national significance of their upcoming head-to-head clash speaks to the other national title contenders, as well. Oklahoma unleashed a dominant display against Texas, and the Sooners' passing game is unparalleled in the nation. However, Oklahoma struggles to run the ball. As Oregon showed last year, you can be unbelievably good in one offensive area, but at some point, a strong defense will be able to counter that strength. Furthermore, the Big 12 is tougher than many currently realize, and Oklahoma still has road tests at Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State.

Wisconsin looks the part as contender and might pose the biggest challenge to a 14-0 SEC Champion national title. Russell Wilson has made an offense once synonymous with between-the-tackles power running and conservative passing into a multi-chromatic beast. Looking at the Badgers' remaining schedule, it's tough to see a loss (color me a non-believer in Illinois' 6-0 start), but it has to be noted that Wisconsin hasn't played away from Camp Randall yet. Bret Bielema's squad will also have to contend with the new Big Ten championship game. However, in recent history, SEC teams have gone against seemingly unstoppable attacks in national title games before finding a way to scheme against what the offense does best combined with exceptional athletic talent. See the BCS title games of 2006, 2008 and 2010 for evidence.

Stanford is 5-0 and ranked highly, but the Cardinal's best win is against middling UCLA. Oregon is the toughest test remaining. The Pac-12 now also has a championship game, but the South Division is a collection of average and below-average clubs. With that conference down to an extent, one wonders if undefeated Stanford would even have a chance of making the BCS title game in a scenario where LSU/Alabama, Wisconsin, and/or Oklahoma are unbeaten.

Clemson and Georgia Tech are each unblemished in 2011 and meet in less than three weeks. Even if both teams get to October 29 without a loss, each faces difficult contests thereafter, South Carolina for Clemson; and Virginia Tech and Georgia for Georgia Tech. The Tigers and Yellow Jackets may have to face off again in the ACC title game.

Finally, we come to Boise State. It may not be fair, but an undefeated Broncos team would surely fall behind every major-conference unbeaten, and might even be behind a one-loss Oregon or LSU/Alabama (whichever loses on November 5). With TCU playing as bad as it has defensively in years, and Air Force playing at an inconsistent level, the Mountain West is just not in a position of strength. If Georgia were to somehow finish with two losses going into the bowls, it would help Boise greatly. But even then, it's nearly impossible to see them jump a 13-0 Wisconsin or 12-0 Oklahoma.

Other teams have looked stellar after six weeks of college football, but none have done it in the fashion that LSU and Alabama have. Given the respect the SEC commands after winning five BCS titles in a row, the winner of the head-to-head game should stay No. 1 the rest of the regular season. No matter who comes out of that game, each team will have played its fiercest contest against the best opposition. In a season where the big games haven't lived up to the billing or have been no contests, an LSU/Alabama clash should be worth the wait.

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