Big Games at the Midway Point for Surprise (Good & Bad) Teams

10070980I’m not here to tell you that Georgia absolutely must win against Missouri to keep their hopes for the playoffs alive, and really, their hopes for the SEC East. Just as I’m not going to tell you the importance of the games in the SEC West. Everyone knows what’s on the line with the big games around the country. I’d rather talk about some of the other action across the country where there may be more riding on it than meets the eye.

ULM at Kentucky- I know that Kentucky is feeling real good about themselves after beating South Carolina. And considering they’ve gone 4-20 overall and 0-16 in the SEC over the past two years, their 4-1 start that includes a 2-1 SEC record is certainly worth celebrating. However, they better hope the celebration extends no further than the fanbase. Don’t forget Kentucky wasn’t overly impressive in their wins against Ohio and Vanderbilt, two teams arguably in the bottom 20% of the entire country. Todd Berry’s Louisiana-Monroe squad has struggled to score points this year, but they’ve been pretty solid on defense in getting off to a 3-2 start. Should they be able to go into Lexington and win? Of course not. But it doesn’t mean they can’t. They’re arguably better than both Ohio and Vanderbilt, and Kentucky, being a young team not used to being in this position, is ripe for a potential let down. The fact that LSU awaits next week only amplifies this possibility. It’s a let down Kentucky can ill afford to have as they try to return to the postseason. Tennessee, Missouri, and aforementioned LSU still await on the road. Mississippi State, Georgia, and Louisville still have to come to Lexington. None of those games are games you can just check a “W” beside if you’re Kentucky. And even if they do beat ULM, Kentucky will still need to win one of those six to make a bowl. Lose to ULM and the ‘Cats need to win at least two of those final six games, and that’s a tall order. It’s an order you dont want to put on a young program just now learning to compete and play in the SEC.

 

Penn State at Michigan- Making a bowl seems like a pretty big stretch for Big Blue at this point, but lose at home to Penn State, and that “big stretch” becomes pretty much an impossibility. The program is in flux as it is, so nobody is expecting anything from this season, but falling to 2-5 would just further smear the mud all over this once proud program. For Penn State, with postseason restrictions lifted, they’ve got something to play for, even if you couldn’t tell in that performance against Northwestern. The only two truly daunting games left on the schedule are Michigan State and Ohio State, and both are at home. So there’s a faction of Penn State that thinks this can still be a pretty special season. Lose to Michigan though, and that is all over.

 

Northwestern at Minnesota- The Wildcats victories over Wisconsin and Penn State have propelled the Wildcats back into the discussion in the Big 10 Western division, and Minnesota, at 4-1 isn’t out of it. Northwestern has Nebraska at home next week in a pivotal two game stretch for the Wildcats while Minnesota follows this battle up with Purdue and Illinois on their schedule. Both teams know they’re still a contender in the division, but both teams know they can’t afford to lose this one and hold to that belief. Northwestern particularly is on a slippery slope, two disheartening losses in non conference play to open the season still leave them just 3-2. Considering Nebraska still awaits, as well as trips to Iowa and Notre Dame, another slip up against a non elite team could start a downhill trek that ends with the Wildcats missing out on the postseason a second consecutive year.

 

Louisville at Clemson- Louisville is the only team left that has a remote chance at dethroning Florida State in the Atlantic division, but with a loss already in hand to Virginia, a second conference loss to Clemson would end those dreams before Florida State even steps foot in Papa John’s Stadium. Clemson meanwhile has gotten new life under freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson, and when looking at their remaining schedule sees an opportunity to finish the year at 10-2, and still make their way into a playoff rotation bowl. They know at 9-3, any hopes of crashing that party are over. The Cardinals easily represent the best defense the young Watson has faced this year, so this one could be interesting, and the flickering hopes of both teams getting into a marquee bowl rest on the outcome of this one on Saturday.

 

North Carolina at Notre Dame- A fourth straight loss, with Georgia Tech, Virginia, and Miami in successive weeks to follow, would spell doom to the Tar Heels season. Even at 0-2 in the ACC, even with a home loss to Virginia Tech, North Carolina isn’t done in the ACC Coastal race. And while losing to Notre Dame wouldn’t impact their standing within the ACC at all, an already low-level of morale in the locker room would hit desperation levels of empty with another loss. The fortunate thing is that the three games that follow could still enable the Tar Heels to salvage the season, but when you start the season ranked, 2-4 at mid October just isn’t acceptable. Larry Fedora is feeling the heat, and beating a highly ranked Irish team who is in the thick of national title discussions would go a long, long way to cooling his seat down some. Speaking of being in the national title race, disappointing years by Stanford and Michigan have helped devalue the Notre Dame schedule, essentially turning this into a one game season for the Irish…in principle. The problem is, you can’t play 7 of the other 8 games on the schedule “in principle”. There was a thought that if the Irish went 11-1 with a loss to Florida State, that their schedule would be strong enough to still warrant playoff consideration. There was a thought that if the Irish beat Florida State, they could afford a slip somewhere else and still receive strong consideration for a playoff spot. Unfortunately the schedule doesn’t look as strong as it once did for Notre Dame, and what was supposed to be a schedule boosting game against ACC favorite North Carolina has now turned into a lose-lose situation for the Irish. If they win, they’ve simply defeated a 2-5 team. If they lose though….. they can kiss the playoffs goodbye.

 

Duke at Georgia Tech- A loss to Miami already in hand, Duke can’t afford to go 0-2 in the division by losing to Georgia Tech and still have a chance to head to Charlotte for a second straight year. Yes, it’s true they started 0-2 in the division last year, but the losses came to two teams who didn’t factor into the division race at season’s end. That’s not going to be the case this year. Miami is expected to be there, and right now Georgia Tech is in complete control. A third division win would put the Jackets even more firmly in the driver’s seat before two road division games await them. If Tech can enter that pair of games at 3-0 in the division, they can feel real, real good about their chances. But if they lose to Duke, they open the division back up to pretty much everybody, and give hope to teams who might be about to lose it.

 

Washington State at Stanford- Washington State is a lot better football team than people realize. Their losses to Rutgers and Cal could easily, easily have gone the other way, particular last week’s loss to Cal. They also played very well against Oregon. They’ve also been a better team away from home, than at home thus far this year, so the fact that this game is in Palo Alto isn’t overly concerning. Stanford is a very, very uninspiring 3-2. I thought from day one this year they were an overrated team, and their fledgling offense has shown no indication that they’re going to prove me wrong. It’s entirely possible that Washington State finds a way to win this game and Stanford finds themselves 3-3, with two conference losses, something that with the expectations that program now has, is unacceptable. The narrow misses have been adding up for Washington State, and another loss would be the fifth of the year, putting them well behind the eight ball in their quest to reach a second straight bowl for the first time in over a decade. When it comes to the goals each had coming into this season, this is a must win for both. And what’s surprising, is that it’s actually winnable for both.

 

West Virginia at Texas Tech- Texas Tech has had one losing season over the past 21 years, but if they want to keep that streak in tact, they’re going to need to find a way to beat a West Virginia team that is better than most thought at the outset of the year. The Red Raiders, simply put, cannot stop anyone. They have a defense that rivals that of the Atlanta Falcons and the North Carolina Tar Heels, and that’s not a comforting feeling hosting an offense that’s scored at least 33 points in each of its last four games. With TCU, Oklahoma, and Baylor still left on the Texas Tech schedule, suffering a fourth loss this early in the season could prove fatal to any post season hopes they may be fostering.

 

Toledo at Iowa State- The warmth of Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads’ seat was documented earlier this week, and losing at home to Toledo and dropping to 1-5 will probably make it too hot for him to withstand through the end of December.

 

Houston at Memphis- As mentioned last week, East Carolina and Central Florida are both conspicuously absent from Memphis’ schedule this season, and Houston represents the toughest opponent left on it. If Memphis can find a way to get past the Cougars, and in my opinion they should, not only would the Tigers be 4-2, they’d be in position to achieve the first double-digit win season since…. since… ever. Yes, that’s right, Memphis has never reached double-digit wins in a season. Beat Houston, and suddenly that becomes a very, very realistic goal. Not to mention, so does a conference championship.

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