The fact that a significant majority of the teams we expect to be vying for a playoff spot have already played at least one FCS team this season is: (a) bad for the fans (b) detracts from the opening weeks of the season for schools, networks and conferences and (c) something that desperately needs to be removed from the sport. For today’s column, we are going to look to reward the teams who have actually managed to beat two FBS teams in their first two weeks and discount teams who decided they needed an early FCS opponent on the schedule. Also in today’s edition of the Playoff Picture, I’m going to get real for a minute on something that needs to be changed about college football and why it hasn’t changed.
Cotton Bowl (#1 vs. #4)- Stanford vs. Notre Dame
For any of you out there who also listen to the Spread Offense podcast with Brian Hall and yours truly, you’ll already know that for over a year now I’ve been dying alone on Stanford’s hill. That’s finally paying off with Stanford coming up big against USC last weekend in one of the top games of week two, even though I’m still not 100% positive if this game is more indicative of what we should expect from Stanford going forward or USC. The Cardinal augmented that big win with a three-touchdown victory over a decent Mountain West team in San Diego State, which is a significantly better second win than most teams can boast at this point so they vault themselves to the number one spot for now. Granted, Stanford will almost certainly be dropping from this spot next week despite the fact that we can essentially go ahead and mark them down for 3-0 with a home date against UC Davis on Saturday.
Notre Dame followed up their impressive week one win over Michigan, with an almost equally impressive 8-point win over MAC powerhouse Ball State. For those of you who missed the sarcasm in the first line, I’ll go ahead and point out that the “Ball” in Ball State isn’t short for “Ball So Hard”. Alas, it’s actually named for the brothers who founded the company that makes the “Mason jars” that will surely be gracing any “classy” tailgate below the Mason-Dixon line this weekend. The Fighting Irish do get credit for having two FBS wins so far, and have a chance to make it three this weekend with Vanderbilt coming to town.
Orange Bowl (#2 vs. #3)- Oklahoma vs. Arizona State
Oklahoma has arguably been the most impressive team of the season so far with monster wins over Florida Atlantic and UCLA, but the Sooners unfortunately scored a Pyrrhic victory on Saturday with stud running back Rodney Anderson going down for the season with a knee injury. The Sooners still have a vast arsenal of offensive weapons and Kyler Murray’s quarterback play has been superb so far this season, but losing a talent like Anderson will be felt regardless. Oklahoma travels to Ames this weekend to take on an Iowa State team that upset them a year ago.
Herm Edwards was one of the most ridiculed and scoffed at hires in recent CFB history this offseason, but Edwards and the Sun Devils are laughing at the #h8rs now. Arizona State is off to a 2-0 start after beating a previously 15th-ranked Michigan state team that the stat guys like Bill Connelly from SB Nation have been warning us may be due to regression. Arizona State’s hot start is further amplified by the fact that the other two new coaches in the division, who happened to be much more highly touted hires, are a combined 0-4. Edwards and co. travel to San Diego State Saturday.
Rose Bowl- Cal vs. Maryland
Raise your hand if you can’t wait for the traditional powerhouse Rose Bowl matchup of Cal vs. Maryland! (Insert lady raising hand emoji). Admittedly, this probably won’t be what we see in the Rose Bowl at the end of the season, but for now it’s what we’ve got to work with with two Pac-12 teams in my current playoff and the Big Ten playing the lowest propensity of FCS teams of the Power 5 conferences, but also having the lowest propensity of “signature wins”. Cal gets this spot after beating a North Carolina team that admittedly may be worse than some FCS teams and a BYU team that was so bad last year that they inspired a whole segment of “The Spread Offense” titled “Sam’s Doghouse”.
Maryland parlayed their completion of the home-and-home sweep of Texas on opening week with a thrashing of a Bowling Green team that unfortunately is no longer “Falcon Fast”. I really don’t feel great about rewarding the Terps given the circumstances of their off-field issues, but at the same time I’m not going to punish the players for enduring a maniac of a strength and conditioning coach. Cal and Maryland will most likely both bow out of this spot by next week with Cal getting in their obligatory FCS non-conference game this weekend against Idaho State and Maryland playing host to a Temple team that may or may not have lost to an FCS team earlier this season.
Sugar Bowl- Alabama vs. West Virginia
Alabama doesn’t have the same caliber wins that Auburn, Georgia or LSU have yet this season, but I’m giving them the nod here since a) they have been dominant in both performances thus far and b) their SEC-SOCON challenge game doesn’t take place until later in the season. I would say that we will finally see what this offense can do against an SEC defense this weekend, but calling Ole Miss’s defense an “SEC defense” is kind of like calling a hot dog a sandwich (don’t @ me).
West Virginia is the first team on this list to have an FCS win under the belt, but beyond Oklahoma there isn’t a single undefeated Big XII team that hasn’t had at least one of their wins come against an FCS opponent. It didn’t seem right to punish Oklahoma just to prove a point so I looked for best wins among the remaining undefeated teams. Tennessee actually may not be better than UTSA, South Alabama or SMU; but on paper they get the nod so I’ll give it to West Virginia for now. Unfortunately, the Mountaineers weekend showdown with N.C. State has been cancelled due to Hurricane Florence, which will deprive us of what could have been one of the best quarterback duels of the season.
Fiesta Bowl- Houston vs. Ohio State
Houston beat the devil out of Arizona on Saturday and made Kevin Sumlin the fastest coach since Mike Price to go from “hired” to “hot seat” in the process. The Cougars opened up the season with a win against Rice that was closer than it should have been for a significant portion of the game. Houston gets another opportunity to show out against a Power Five opponent this weekend with a trip to Texas Tech on the docket. Look for Ed Oliver to wreak havoc this weekend against a mediocre Red Raider offensive line.
Ohio State’s first two games are an indictment against the “team x’s schedule is harder than team y’s schedule because they play more Power 5 teams” camp. The Buckeyes have taken care of business against Oregon State and Rutgers teams that I feel confident wouldn’t compete for a title in any of the Group of Five conferences. However, Ohio State was dominant enough in those two appearances to snag the at-large Fiesta Bowl spot. The Buckeyes current margin of victory, which allegedly the Playoff Committee doesn’t consider (cough cough wink wink), is 47.5 points per game and good enough to earn them this spot despite not having a “good” win yet. They will have every opportunity this weekend though with a trip to TCU on the schedule.
Peach Bowl- Auburn vs. Duke
This spot was ultimately going to go to either Auburn, LSU or Georgia. Of the three, Auburn’s win over Washington feels like the most impressive currently and the most likely to still look impressive two months from now so they get the nod over their conference counterparts here. Granted, Auburn and LSU will get things sorted out sooner rather than later with the two squaring off at Jordan-Hare this Saturday. I still don’t believe in LSU, so if I’m a betting man I’m picking Auburn to prevail at home.
No one has really talked about Duke yet on a national stage and maybe they haven’t given us a reason to yet, but there are certainly worse ways to start a season than by beating Army and Northwestern both by double digits. Unfortunately, the Blue Devils did lose starting quarterback Daniel Jones to a broken collarbone last Saturday, so he obviously will be unavailable for this weekend’s game against Baylor. If Duke can pull off another Power Five win, this time on the road and with a backup quarterback, then they should start garnering at least a few top 25 votes.
Ok here’s the part in our program where I’ll let you go if you don’t want to stick around for my quick soapbox rant.
Can we please get rid of these FBS vs. FCS games? No one wants to watch them. They aren’t fun to go to in person. They aren’t doing the players of either schools any favors. There is literally no good reason to have them except for the bottomline of the FCS athletic department and a few bucks in gate revenue for the FBS program. Someone inevitably gets hurt seriously a minimum of once a year in an FBS vs. FCS, and yeah I know players can get hurt in any game that’s part of football, and life quite frankly, but the fact that guys are getting hurt in meaningless games is dumb. With all the talk of wanting to expand the playoff (looking at you Jim Harbaugh), we need to be talking about shortening the regular season before we even consider expanding the playoff. College athletes are already being asked to play too many games and put their bodies and careers on the line too many times. There’s no reason why we couldn’t just eliminate the FBS vs. FCS games and drop things back to 11 regular season games right? Right?…
Oh wait, there’s one massive reason why we can’t do that. That hurts the pocketbooks of the NCAA, individual conferences, program athletic departments and media stations a.k.a. the only entities with voices that actually matter in major collegiate athletics apparently. There’s been a lot of talk over the last several years about paying college football players, but honestly the topic that probably needs to be discussed more is representing college football players. Presently, the way student athletes get their voices heard are via SAACs (Student Athlete Advisory Committees) which are essentially a collection of student athletes under the direction of NCAA employees. As far as my, admittedly shallow, internet research shows, there is no actual legal representation for the student athletes as a whole. Even if there is and I just missed it, then the representation they have is completely ineffectual.
How could I possibly know that? Just look at the landscape of sports generally. Over the last decade, the players’ unions of the three biggest professional sports in the United States (the NFL, the NBA and MLB) have been pushing relentlessly for shorter regular seasons and more rest. So why is it that in college athletics all we have heard about is even longer playoffs and longer seasons and more work from the student athletes? It’s because they either have no representation or terrible representation. It’s always the people who don’t have a seat at the negotiating table who get screwed, for example just look at the rookie wage scale in the NFL. When the NFL gets together to negotiate its collective bargaining agreement, everyone has a seat at the table including the league office, the teams and the players. The one party who doesn’t? Future players who aren’t in the league yet. Who lost money with the implementation of the rookie wage scale? Future players who aren’t in the league yet.
I love college football at least as much as anybody else, and consume as much of it as I possibly can as anyone who knows me will tell you, but at some point in time we have to consider the well-being of the student athletes. The players deserve to have a legitimate voice that actually gets heard and responded to when it comes time to deciding on things that directly affect their safety and their future. Surely we can give them that right? Right??? And for goodness sake, can we please get rid of the SEC-SOCON challenge?