A triple crown is a rare thing in the sports world, so this college football column will honor the recent feat by the Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera – who led the American League in batting average (.330), home runs (44) and RBIs (139) when the season ended Wednesday – as he became the first big-leaguer to accomplish it since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.
Instead of stats, though, my college football triple crown will consist of the three biggest impressions left on me at the halfway point of the regular season.
1. The Big Ten is down this year. It seems the days of bullying all the other, smaller conferences is over. On more than one occasion already this season, Big Ten teams have found themselves in dogfights with – and even ended up losing to – teams from the MAC, the WAC, the Mountain West, and even a few FCS schools.
Some of the Big Ten teams have taken on pre-conference season opponents from the other BCS leagues, but that hasn't gone too well. The Big Ten is 5-9 against other automatic qualifying teams, with Northwestern claiming three of those wins. Two came over Syracuse (a Big East doormat) and two more were against Cal and Boston College, two programs that haven't had a lot of success the past few seasons. Even Northwestern's win over an SEC team came against Vanderbilt, like Syracuse a perennial bottom-feeder in the best conference in college football.
The losses came to the likes of Virginia, Iowa State, Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona State – all solid programs, but none at peak form just now. One came to Alabama, which (as hard as it is for an LSU fan to say) has shown itself to be the team to beat this season, and the other three came to Notre Dame … which leads to my next observation:
2. The Fighting Irish may just in fact be back. After a season-opening rout of Navy in Dublin, Ireland, Notre Dame has taken down Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan – the latter two of the best teams the Big Ten Legends Division has to offer this year – in impressive style.
The difference between this Notre Dame BCS contender and some of those in the recent past: defense. This Irish team seems to be built more to shut down opposing offenses than to outscore them. We'll find out over the next few weeks if they're the real deal – games loom against Miami, Stanford, Oklahoma and USC. But in the long run, as always seems to bear out, good defenses will win games over good offenses more often than not, so this Notre Dame team may be one for the BCS conferences to watch out for … which segues into my next point:
3. The BCS race is wide open. After Alabama, there are several contenders who have thrown their name into the ring as potential national champs. LSU has looked far from infallible the past 2 weeks, while Oregon is up to its old tricks out west. Florida State looks like it's the real deal, and West Virginia may be looking at a magical run behind the Heisman front-runner (by far) Geno Smith in its first season in the Big 12. There's also Florida and Georgia – and possibly Steve Spurrier-led South Carolina – in the SEC East, and Stanford and USC will still have something to say about the Pac-12 title.
All in all, there are at least three teams from each AQ conference (besides the Big Ten) which will make the BCS picture pretty muddled over the next few weeks. Could be another year those oft-criticized BCS formulas and computers have a meltdown before all is said and done.
Here's hoping the rest of the season – and the conference championships and bowl games – are as entertaining as the first 5 weeks.
I can't wait.
Arizona at No. 18 Stanford
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Stanford Stadium
Line: Stanford by 9
What's up: The Cardinal are trying to stay within a game of Oregon in the Pac-12 North, while the Wildcats are trying to snap a two-game losing streak since starting conference play.
My pick: Stanford 24-10
No. 4 LSU at No. 10 Florida
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Line: LSU by 2½
What's up: The Tigers haven't looked great the last 2 weeks, but that may be because they were looking ahead to their trip to The Swamp. The Gators have already won two road games in the SEC, and hope LSU doesn't get its second at their house.
My pick: LSU 24-20
Georgia Tech at No. 15 Clemson
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium
Line: Clemson by 10
What's up: The Tigers have put up big offensive numbers in every game so far, but the Yellow Jackets have the ball-control run game that could keep Tajh Boyd and Co. off the field.
My pick: Clemson 38-27
No. 5 Georgia at No. 6 South Carolina
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium
Line: South Carolina by 1
What's up: Both the Bulldogs and the Gamecocks are undefeated, both are tied atop the SEC East standings … and both still have Florida left to play. The winner here could be in the catbird seat for a possible trip to the conference championship game.
My pick: Georgia 17-14
No. 8 West Virginia at No. 11 Texas
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Royal-Memorial Stadium
Line: Texas by 6½
What's up: The Longhorns are still looking to prove they're back, and the Mountaineers finally hope to quell the talk of them not really playing anybody yet. Texas' defense against Geno Smith and the explosive West Virginia offense will be the key matchup here.
My pick: West Virginia 38-35
Miami vs. No. 9 Notre Dame
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Soldier Field, Chicago
Line: Notre Dame by 14
What's up: The Fighting Irish have been winning again, this time with defense. The Hurricanes still aren't what they were back when the "Catholics vs. Criminals" was a key matchup every year in the national title picture, but they are still a scrappy, prideful bunch.
My pick: Notre Dame 21-10
No. 21 Nebraska at No. 12 Ohio State
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Ohio Stadium
Line: Ohio State by 3½
What's up: The Buckeyes and Cornhuskers have been the most consistent Big Ten teams – along with Northwestern – so far this year. Both will likely win their divisions, but will look to take advantage of this lone face-to-face meeting, as probation will keep OSU out of the Big Ten title game.
My pick: Ohio State 20-17