football-fbs flag | November 7, 2014

Playoff sleepers

Third and Long primary 11-7 No. 9 Arizona State and No. 7 Kansas State are sleepers currently on the outside of the CFP picture.

1. Which team has a better chance of making the CFP -- Arizona State or Kansas State?

♦ I'm taking Kansas State here. Yes, I know the Wildcats have TCU this week and still have West Virginia and Baylor to go before it's all said and done, but the fact of the matter is that either of these teams is most likely going to have to win out to make the playoff. And I'll say Arizona State's road to make it there is tougher, because they have an extra game -- a potential Pac-12 championship against Oregon. This Kansas State team, though, is for real. The only other team in the top 15 in both scoring offense and scoring defense is Marshall, but Kansas State has actually played tough competition. The Cats held Auburn to almost 20 points below its average and dismantled a solid Oklahoma State team.

♦ If I had to pick one, I'd go Kansas State -- but I don't think either survives Saturday's games. K-State gets a trip to TCU and Arizona State hosts Notre Dame. I don't quite understand how Arizona State is up to No. 9 in the latest CFB Playoff Top 25. Did everyone forget about the UCLA game earlier this season when the Sun Devils made the Bruins look like the greatest offense the sport has ever seen? Kansas State should've beat Auburn if not for some costly turnovers, and it won at Oklahoma. With their remaining games at TCU, West Virginia and at Baylor -- they will CERTAINLY earn it.

♦ Kansas State, although that answer relies more on division and remaining schedules more than anything else. If there’s any lesson to glean from early College Football Playoff rankings, it’s that the committee will only reward one conference with multiple candidates: the SEC. Arizona State, no matter what, has to face Oregon, who should be the Pac-12 North Champion in the Pac-12 Championship. The Ducks are too good right now and I don't see see Arizona State beating them. But if Kansas State wins out, with a team or two of Alabama, Auburn, and Mississippi State having to lose a game as they face one another, the Wildcats should sneak in to the playoffs. 

Eric Vander Voort: See, I think Kansas State does get it done this week. TCU relies on the big play, something Kansas State has been very effective at stopping. The Wildcats have given up the second-fewest plays of more than 20 yards in the nation with 22 all season. Not to mention that they seem to have the Horned Frogs' number, with wins in the past two years.

Doug Kroll: I'm just not big on the Pac-12. I think Arizona and Arizona State were a product of Pac-12 parity more than being top-10 teams.

Eric Vander Voort: Right, those were the teams without a bad loss yet, so they filled in the role left vacant by UCLA as the team most likely to take down Oregon and claim the Pac-12 crown. But I really don't see anyone taking it from the Ducks this season.

Brendan Bures: See Eric, Kansas State certainly can get it done this week with that defense, but like with Auburn, that wall will fall to TCU's offense. A castle can only withstand so many rocket-launcher attacks. TCU also has a defense capable of containing K-State enough for the Horned Frogs' offensive output. Actually, when you think about it, that's all TCU's defense is really asked to do.

Doug Kroll: It is pretty crazy that TCU vs. Kansas State is an elimination game for the first College Football Playoff. Who had that in August?

Brendan Bures: Also, to Doug's earlier point, Arizona State's inflation to No. 9 only happened because voters and pundits thought the Pac-12 was going to be crazy competitive this year. "Who would win with all these great teams?" Turns out most of them were just average, some above-average, and only one Oregon.

Doug Kroll: Yep, not much difference between the Pac-12 and ACC this year in my eyes.

Brendan Bures: Yeah, if we're being honest, the Power 5 probably goes something like SEC, Big 12, Pac-12/ACC, Big Ten this year.

Eric Vander Voort: The Big 12 has definitely surpassed my expectations, but I wonder if its lack of a conference championship game could hurt. I don't think it will, especially with the résumé Kansas State could have, but it's still something to consider.

2. Better chance for an upset: Utah vs. Oregon or LSU vs. Alabama?

LSU 11-7LSU has won three in a row.
Doug Kroll: That's a really tough question, but I'll go with LSU beating Alabama. The Tide's offense hasn't looked as prolific on the road as it has in Tuscaloosa. And I just love what LSU has done to figure things out after a rough start. Should we ever doubt Les Miles? Turning to Anthony Jennings at QB has worked nicely for the Mad Hatter and freshman RB Leonard Fournette has been a bruiser at 230 pounds. I don't see Bama making enough stops -- as weird as that is to say -- and LSU wins it.

Brendan Bures: No question: LSU beating Alabama. How the Tigers have transformed into a legitimate team again, after looking like a South Carolina-level disappointment, can only be explained by the Mad Hatter’s presence. (Spoiler alert: This is about to be a very nerdy joke.) At this point, we need to revive Lewis Carroll to explain Les Miles’ talents. (His secret is the grass, isn’t it?) Plus, LSU always has Alabama’s number. Also, in no way do I see Utah upsetting Oregon this week.

Eric Vander Voort: Sorry, but I can't disagree and make it interesting here. How can the answer not be LSU vs. Alabama? LSU is 46-3 in Saturday night games at home under Les Miles, with the three losses all coming to the current or eventual No. 1. Granted, one of those was earlier this season, but the Tigers are playing way better now than they were then. Oregon-Utah is an interesting matchup -- the Utes have great special teams, which so far this year has done a lot to make up for a so-so offense. But I don't think they can keep up with Mariota and company, who are averaging 47.75 points in their past four games. Utah hasn't scored above 30 since Week 2. Do I think either will actually happen? No. But LSU absolutely has the better chance of pulling off the upset.

Brendan Bures: Look at Mr. Statitudes himself with all these numbers!

Doug Kroll: We documented in Under Center how Utah leads the nation in sacks per game, but I think the Oregon offensive line got back on track after a really, really ugly start because of injuries and I don't see Mariota on the ground as much as he would need to be in order for the Utes to win.

Eric Vander Voort: The numbers tell a story, and especially in this case, I think it's pretty revealing. Oregon is a much better team than Utah. As for Les Miles, whatever his secret his, I would love to know. His Tigers have a winning record when trailing after three quarters. How crazy is that?

Brendan Bures: That, and Mariota's in a zone right now. He's a statistical freak leading the Heisman race at this point and as wild and crazy as Utah's offense has shown itself capable of being this season, I don't see the Utes keeping up with Oregon. For Nick Saban, on a scale of 1-last year's Iron Bowl, how explosive will his head kabloom if LSU defeats Alabama? 

Doug Kroll: I just want absolute chaos in the SEC West. And with chaos would come a massive Saban head explosion.

Brendan Bures: I think it's Michael Bay-level insanity. Plus, as always, Les Miles probably has something he's been saving just for this game. Can't wait to see what it is.

3. Mississippi State survived a dog fight at home against Arkansas last week. Are the Bulldogs primed for a fall from grace or are they still the favorite in the SEC West?

Brendan Bures: I don’t think a favorite exists in the SEC West at this point. Mississippi State has been impressive, and deserving to be ranked higher than Auburn/Alabama, but I honestly don’t know. Dak Prescott looked a bit shaky against Arkansas, and makes you wonder how he’d fare against the Crimson Tide’s defense. Auburn, meanwhile, has been rolling, with whispers of Nick Marshall as a Heisman candidate. He’s not, but I wish I had a better answer than ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Eric Vander Voort: I think Mississippi State has shown to be a tiny bit vulnerable. If I had to pick it now, I'd say the Bulldogs lose to Alabama and at Ole Miss. I just think Alabama has gotten significantly better as the season has gone on, while I haven't seen much in terms of major improvements from Mississippi State. Like Doug said in the previous question, chaos in the SEC West -- it's possible. And it's perilous in terms of the playoff picture.

Doug Kroll: It's impossible to declare a favorite in the SEC West. Every team has a flaw -- some with more than others -- and on any given Saturday any of those teams can beat another. I don't expect any team to be undefeated at the end of the year coming out of that division. But at this point, it begs a question -- if Mississippi State does lose, they may have a one-loss buffer on everyone else, right?

Eric Vander Voort: Seriously, imagine for a second -- no team truly emerges as a top team in the SEC West. Whichever team makes the SEC championship gets upset by Missouri/Georgia/insert other mediocre SEC East team. Then the CFP committee is left in a pretty tough situation.

Brendan Bures: Eh, maybe? As we know, losing in September is always more beneficial than losing in November. Recency factor sways voters too much, I think. Especially if Alabama were the one to knock them off. 

Doug Kroll: True, it all depends which team knocks them off, but man -- this could get real ugly, real quick for the selection committee. I have no idea how you differentiate among all of those teams when they all beat up on one another. But, that's what is going to make this so great.

Brendan Bures: If your situation does happen, Eric, I propose returning to the BCS format. Those were much simpler, albeit frustrating times.

Doug Kroll: Yep -- that stupid computer did it!

Eric Vander Voort: And some people thought a playoff would make the regular season less interesting (I feel like I say that all the time...).

Brendan Bures: You do, but it's worth hitting home. This has been one of the craziest seasons in recent memory (although that's partly because not one great team exists like Florida State last year).

Eric Vander Voort: The more teams that have a claim, the more interesting this gets. While Mississippi State is on a tier above right now, it's no guarantee it stays there. And when it comes down and joins the rest of the one-loss teams, those rankings could be all over the place week-to-week.

Doug Kroll: Exactly. The playoff allows us to look down the rankings more than in years' past. And that, is awesome.