The Rooting Interests For Each League
Specific game results will help some conferences more than others. Pay attention to the possibilities in play for various conferences, and what they might mean for early January's BCS bowl matchups. The debates surrounding single-game outcomes form the centerpiece of this edition of Moving Parts.
By Matt Zemek
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SEC CARNAGE, PAC-12 SHOWDOWNS, AND THE "CONFERENCE BENEFIT" QUESTION
Read the Moving Parts series premiere/primer from last Wednesday.
No preamble this week. Now that you're familiar with "Moving Parts" and what this series attempts to do, let's dive right into the national picture, league by league.
ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE
This is a crucial point in time for the ACC. The league obviously wants Florida State to make the BCS National Championship Game, and it wants to generate momentum heading into the first season with 14-team competition next year. Seeing Stanford (or anyone else) take down Oregon is therefore a priority for the league, but that's not part of the theater of events within the ACC itself. Looking at games across the country, the question comes to mind: "What results serve the best interests of each conference?" This is a question worth asking in the ACC… and everywhere else.
Some games pose situations in which it's easy to identify the larger benefits that can be gained by a given conference, but other situations are far more ambiguous. Let's apply this test to the ACC and then do the same for other leagues as week nine approaches.
Boston College played Florida State close for a half, and it played Clemson close for a full game. The Eagles need to continue to do well in order to improve the ACC's image within the context of this season. Yes, it's not good that North Carolina – one of the league's core members – has crashed and burned this season, but given the present situation, the ACC needs Boston College to win in Chapel Hill this Saturday. Florida State and Clemson need to be seen as more attractive.
Elsewhere in the league, Virginia Tech and Miami need to avoid stumbling in week nine. Miami needs to look as good as possible before its two-game gauntlet of Florida State (week 10) and Virginia Tech (week 11).
BIG 12 CONFERENCE
Let's take the question mentioned above and apply it to the Big 12 this week: Does the Big 12 need its iconic programs, Oklahoma and Texas, to defeat Texas Tech and TCU? One could easily make the argument that since Oklahoma has already lost to Texas, the Sooners aren't a very attractive or (this is closer to the heart of the matter) likely candidate for an at-large spot in a BCS bowl. If Oklahoma had two losses and not one, it would surely be in the Big 12's best interests for Texas Tech to finish off the Sooners this Saturday. Under the present circumstances, though, it might be better for OU to win this game so that Baylor – which plays the Sooners in prime time on Thursday, Nov. 7 – can derive more of a benefit from a victory on that night. All in all, you could go either way on Sooners-Red Raiders.
Texas-TCU offers a much more clear-cut answer: The Big 12, as much as its other nine schools might hate Texas, needs the Longhorns to finish the season in style. If Texas loses to a banged-up (and not-very-good) TCU side this weekend, the league – already battered in the national conversation – would absorb a substantial added hit. Texas-Baylor comes at the end of the regular season, so if the Bears are to have any leverage in the BCS race at that point in time, they need Texas to be seen as a formidable adversary.
As you watch the Big 12 this weekend and in November, pay attention to the progression of various teams. We haven't yet seen high-level football in the conference this season. Perhaps the league is saving its best for last. No, don't count on that happening, but keep an open mind.
BIG TEN CONFERENCE
Ohio State has already taken care of the Leaders Division championship. The focus of this league and its level of strength in the coming weeks must be the Legends Division. Ohio State plays Michigan later this season and will obviously have to beat a Legends Division team in the Big Ten Championship Game, so the level of heft possessed by the Legends half of the conference will determine how much leverage Ohio State might have against, say, 12-0 Baylor or (hypothetically) a one-loss Alabama team in a BCS debate.
It should be clear to any Big Ten fan that Nebraska needs to beat Minnesota this weekend, and that Michigan State needs to avoid a stumble in Champaign against Illinois. Northwestern-Iowa is the tough puzzle for Big Ten watchers. Iowa played Ohio State well this past Saturday, so one could argue that the Hawkeyes won't hurt the league if they knock off the Wildcats. Yet, the Ohio State-Northwestern game was the source – and scene – of much excitement in the Big Ten this season. It would be hard for the league to see Northwestern collapse. The Wildcats' attempt at rescuing their 2013 campaign might be more valuable than a Kirk Ferentz restoration project on a national scale. It's a debate with more than one reasonable answer.
If you ask Pac-12 watchers what they think about the league's level of depth, you'll get different answers. It's reasonable to claim that UCLA didn't get blown off the field by Stanford last weekend, and that Arizona State announced itself as a really good team with a thumping of the Washington Huskies. Pac-12 observers might also contend – reasonably, it should be said – that Arizona's win over Utah shows that the Wildcats aren't the paper tigers they once appeared to be.
Yet, for all the ways in which the past weekend in the Pac-12 could have been spun in a positive direction, the negative critique is just as valid if not more so.
Stanford might have led UCLA by only one score for most of Saturday's game, but a seven-point lead for the Cardinal feels much like a six-point lead for Wisconsin basketball, i.e., much larger than it actually is. Stanford dictated at least 50 of the 60 minutes in that game, maybe 55. Arizona State did flourish, but Washington – a team that, based on previous weeks, had appeared to have reached a higher level of quality – bottomed out against Sparky. The Huskies cannot be seen as a substantially improved team, and that should detract from the quality of Oregon's and Stanford's resumes. Utah, given that it defeated Stanford, needed to back up its win over the Cardinal with a road triumph over Arizona. You could very easily say that the argument in favor of "Pac-12 depth" was undercut on numerous levels in week eight.
What happened this past weekend sets up a fascinating set of possibilities for the upcoming weekend.
Is it better for the league to have UCLA beat Oregon? There is a case to be made for such an answer, given that a UCLA win would put three teams – not two – in the BCS bowl conversation. However, if the national championship is the goal, a UCLA win in Eugene would obviously hurt the Pac-12.
Stanford clearly needs to beat Oregon State in advance of the Nov. 7 battle against Oregon. As for the game between Utah and USC, perhaps the biggest key for the Pac-12 is that the winner of this game then flourishes in November. If the winner declines in the coming weeks, this Saturday's result in the Los Angeles Coliseum won't amount to much.
Who would have thought on Labor Day that THIS kind of discussion would ever take place near the end of October? Missouri and Auburn are the two leading contenders for a BCS at-large berth in the Sugar Bowl. South Carolina, Texas A&M, Georgia, and LSU all have two losses. There's no power conference in America where the "What result best helps the conference?" question is more urgent – or hard to pin down – than the SEC.
My sense of the SEC's needs are not the product of a native familiarity with the league. As a resident of Seattle who was born in Phoenix, I can't say that my mind is one with the Southern football mentality, a view rooted in the South's culture. I'm an outsider. Yet, when I interact with SEC fans and read the work of CFN's lead SEC columnist, Russ Mitchell, I am struck by the extent to which domination is not just desired, but seen as central to the league's identity. Being legitimately great – not merely being "not as bad as the other power conferences in the country" – is what matters to many SEC partisans.
Right now, the SEC is an average league that is down compared to last year. Yet, it might still be the best power conference in the country only because no other league has been able to eclipse it. The SEC might be the top league in the United States only because – as said above – it is merely "not as bad as the other power conferences in the country." That's not good enough for SEC fans, from what I see, read and hear each season.
With an eye toward the 2014 playoff plan and bowl system, remember that there won't be a two-team-per-conference limit for the major rotation of six (top-tier) bowls. The needs of each conference will change next season relative to the more restrictive BCS. Yet, even without the 2014 framework, it seems clear that the SEC is a league that wants to own the month of January, especially in prime time. Winning Gator Bowls and Music City Bowls doesn't really matter. If the SEC's at-large BCS team is winning the Sugar Bowl and its best team is lifting the crystal on the final night of the bowl season, that's what matters.
The translation: The SEC exists to create a 14-0 or 13-1 champion and two or three 12-1 teams that punk other big names in locales named New Orleans, Miami, Glendale, or Pasadena. The SEC does not exist to create six or seven 9-4 teams, with perhaps two of them being 11-2 teams that finish in the top six of the national rankings but not in the top two.
With all of this in mind, the verdict here is that the SEC needs Missouri to beat South Carolina this weekend. Steve Spurrier might be a hit at SEC Media Days, and Jadeveon Clowney might be more of a publicity magnet than Missouri might ever be, but the league needs Missouri to run the table and face unbeaten Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Auburn needs to finish 10-2, losing only to Alabama. How the rest of the SEC stacks up? That's a tougher question, one that will be gradually answered (and dealt with in this space) over the next few weeks.
THE OTHER FBS CONFERENCES
The American is clearly the conference with the biggest identity crisis right now… a "first-world problem" kind of crisis, but a crisis nonetheless. The American doesn't exactly want UCF to lose a second game, but Louisville – before heading to the ACC next year – can't bring Teddy Bridgewater into the BCS bowl spotlight unless UCF and Houston both lose one (and only one) conference game. UCF could also lose twice, but that's not a very likely scenario.
Louisville might be The American's best bet to win a BCS game, but if UCF wins the league and its BCS autobid, the AAC can say that a returning member will get to defend its championship next season, with Louisville likely to struggle in the first year of a post-Bridgewater existence. Let's keep in mind the above point that UCF and Houston will probably need to lose once – and only once – if Louisville is going to find its way into the BCS (and even then, it's not a guarantee).
The bottom line: The AAC needs Houston to win at Rutgers this weekend. (An added note: Look at the noon Eastern time window of games. Houston-Rutgers might be the most significant game on the board in that broadcast window, on ESPNEWS.) Louisville has to win out. UCF either needs to run the table or lose one – and only one – conference game, ideally to Houston. That's a debate worth tracking over the next month.
In the Mountain West Conference, league executives are holding their breath. Why? One has to realize that since the MWC now uses a split-division format, any BCS hopeful from the league will need to make (and win) the Mountain West Conference Championship Game to feel good about its chances. Fresno State is obviously the league's one great hope in the BCS arena. Yet, the Bulldogs are not free and clear in the MWC's West Division. If San Diego State – currently 2-0 in the MWC West – beats Fresno State this Saturday in San Diego, the Aztecs would have to lose twice (most likely at San Jose State and at home against Boise State) in order for Fresno State to make the league title game. Northern Illinois (from the Mid-American Conference) will be donning Aztec gear this Saturday night in support of Team Tenochtitlan.