Never too early to look ahead
Even though it seems like the season just started, many teams are already at the halfway point of their conference schedules. With that in mind, here's an early look at what I envision for the matchups during the ever-exciting week of conference championship games after the regular season concludes.
Wisconsin vs. Nebraska: The Badgers will get into this game by default, with both Ohio State and Penn State ineligible … and the likes of Illinois, Indiana and Purdue all that's standing between them and a second straight trip to Indianapolis.
On the other side, the Leaders Division seems even more muddled than the Legends. Right now Iowa – yes, the same Iowa that lost to Central Michigan and almost lost to NIU – is tied with Michigan atop the division. But the Hawkeyes are inconsistent, and still have the Wolverines, Cornhuskers and Wildcats ahead of them.
The deciding factor in this half of the league will be the Michigan-Nebraska game next weekend – and unfortunately for the Wolverines, it's in Lincoln, which gives the Huskers a decided advantage.
Alabama vs. Florida: The Crimson Tide are proving to be head-and-shoulders better than any other team in the country right now (sorry, Oregon), with a consistent and balanced offensive attack to complement that smothering, impenetrable defense. After this week's game in Knoxville, the Tide's only remaining road game will be against LSU in Death Valley on Nov. 3 … and we all know (painfully so) what they did to LSU the last time the two teams met.
The other side of the conference is shaping up to be Florida's to lose. The Gators get South Carolina at home this week, and the annual tussle with Georgia the week after, but after seeing all three teams on TV the past couple of weeks, I think Florida is the best of the bunch.
Oregon vs. USC: The Ducks are back at it this year, with the nearly unmatchable speed of Chip Kelly's up-tempo offense having a surprisingly solid defense (they are in the Pac-12, after all) backing them up. While Stanford and Oregon State fill out the final 2 weeks of the schedule, Oregon's attack should overmatch those two ranked teams. A game at the Coliseum against USC on Nov. 3 will provide a sneak preview of the conference title game …
… Because USC has already had its stumble, and the Trojans usually only have one of those per year. I don't think Arizona State can handle them, nor can anyone else in their half of the league. Talent always rises to the top, and USC has more of that than anyone else in the conference, save Oregon.
Florida State vs. North Carolina: The Seminoles were an easy pick, even after stumbling against N.C. State. FSU is already a game ahead of the Wolfpack in the conference standings, and should have a powerful-enough offense and defense to pick up a few big road wins the next few weeks and solidify their spot atop the Atlantic Division.
In the Coastal, there are three legitimate contenders: Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. I'm going with the Tar Heels, simply because they've already handled the Hokies and the Hurricanes, and have the most favorable remaining schedule of those three. UNC has no top-25 teams ahead, and three of its final four games come at home.
Kansas State: With the loss of four teams and the addition of only two, the Big 12 will not have a title game this season. I'm sticking with the Wildcats to take the title – and not only because Bill Snyder is a former Iowa assistant and Hayden Fry disciple.
The reasons are a few-fold: the Wildcats win games by running the ball effectively and playing shutdown defense, which is a good formula for those late-season road wins. Also, after a trip to Morgantown this Saturday, K-State has three of its final four games at home, including high-powered offenses from Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.
Also, a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback plays a motivational factor on a team down the stretch; his teammates know that if they keep winning, Collin Klein's stock will keep rising.
Cincinnati: Like the Big 12, the Big East will not have a title game, as the conference is an eight-team league. That said, I believe the Bearcats have the best mix of offense (26th in FBS, with the 23rd-best rushing attack) and defense (10th in FBS) to earn the BCS berth. Cincy has to hit the road against Louisville, but the ground game and defense should be good enough to pull that one out.
No. 6 LSU at No. 18 Texas A&M
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Kyle Field
Line: LSU by 3½
What's up: The Tigers got back on track by knocking off then-No. 3 South Carolina last week, and the offense looked better, too. They'll need all that mojo to battle the A&M and its 12th Man.
My pick: LSU 24-14
Virginia Tech at No. 19 Clemson
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium
Line: Clemson by 8
What's up: If the Hokies are going to make their annual late-season run to the ACC title game, they need to start now. With the way the Tigers have been putting up points this year, it'll be an uphill climb for Virginia Tech.
My pick: Clemson 38-24
Michigan State at Michigan
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Michigan Stadium
TV: Big Ten Network
Line: Michigan by 9½
What's up: The Spartans lost one of the ugliest double-overtime games in history (19-16) to Iowa last week, probably looking past the Hawkeyes to their bitter rivals. The Wolverines warmed up with a blowout shutout of Illinois. Advantage: Michigan.
My pick: Michigan 31-20
No. 7 South Carolina at No. 2 Florida
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Line: Florida by 3½
What's up: The Gamecocks were knocked from their top-3 perch at Death Valley last week, and their reward is a trip to The Swamp … where the Gators handed LSU its lone regular-season loss since 2010 2 weeks ago. Florida will be sitting pretty in the SEC East race with a win.
My pick: Florida 27-21
No. 4 Kansas State at No. 13 West Virginia
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Milan Puskar Stadium
Line: West Virginia by 3
What's up: The Mountaineers came back to down to earth last week, and Geno Smith finally looked human. A bounce-back will be a tall order, as the Wildcats have controlled the clock and the tempo every game so far. A shootout will be in West Virginia's favor; a low(er)-scoring affair will play into Kansas State's hands.
My pick: Kansas State 28-24
No. 14 Florida State at Miami
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Sun Life Stadium
Line: Florida State by 21
What's up: The Seminoles still have BCS title-game hopes after stubbing their toe against N.C. State 2 weeks ago, and are far superior talent-wise than their hated rivals. The Hurricanes would love nothing more than to end FSU's 2012 title hopes once and for all.
My pick: Florida State 52-28
(All rankings will be taken from BCS standings for the rest of the season)