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ZeLO: Overlooking the college football landscape

Whoever, you are, wherever you are, breathe. Feel better?

After an insane four weeks of Notre Dame, there is a lull in the season courtesy of an early bye week. The Irish are at an unexpected 2-2 record, and with this bye comes a chance for both fans and the team to collect their breath and prepare for the following slate of games. 

Moreover, with the collective pause comes time for ZeLO to look forward to the rest of the season — a bigger-picture view. But first, a minor update on the performance of ZeLO thus far. 

In the past four weeks, ZeLO had fallen behind, trailing by FPI by 17 games. Granted, that is small in the scheme of nearly 300 games, but FPI is firmly in the lead. This weekend, however, that changed (a bit). 

On Saturday, ZeLO beat ESPN in a head-to-head pick ’em competition. ZeLO picked 54-12 (.818) to FPI’s 51-15 (.773).

Is that a minor victory? Absolutely, FPI is currently 14 whole games ahead of ZeLO and has an incredible Brier Points margin. But it is a good sign. ZeLO is learning and reacting to stats and results as they come in, and this week’s result shows that. 

And so, with that announcement, it is time to look at ZeLO’s projections for the rest of the season.

Notre Dame

Last week I wrote that ZeLO had picked UNC to beat Notre Dame by a thin margin, primarily because of the high-powered Carolina offense. I did add that UNC looked like a paper ram because of their weak strength of schedule. 

And that was precisely what happened: ND exploited a poor UNC defense and lit up the scoreboard on offense. 

That data point was a massive change for Notre Dame, and it took the Fighting Irish from a team that was at best .500 to a solid 7-win team. It is probably not what you are looking for if you are among the Irish faithful, but it is at the very least good news. ND is 2-2, so they still have plenty of time to prove me wrong, but they need to show their growth against UNC is sustainable and not a flash in the pan against a poor defense. 

SEC

In August, the four SEC East teams I highlighted were Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky, with the Wildcats more of a wildcard team with high upside. Kentucky seized on that upside and is now third in the SEC East as a high eight-win team and a few simulations where they even turn in nine wins. Tennessee has crossed the double-digit threshold, but Georgia is still expected to make it to the title game. 

Not a ton has changed in the West, though it is worth noting that Brian Kelly and the LSU Tigers are now a team to be reckoned with and are currently tracking as a high seven, low eight-win team. Otherwise, Roll Tide. 

B10

The B10 East has stayed relatively static, though Michigan has closed the gap with Ohio State and the two teams should decide who wins the division (and the conference) when they face off in November. Penn State is surging, though, and has an outside chance to be the East representative come conference championship week. 

ZeLO had initially picked the Wisconsin Badgers to win the West. But that prediction seems less likely by the day. Now, the Golden Gophers seem like the strongest candidate, thanks to their thrashing of Michigan State.

ACC

In the preseason, the Clemson Tigers seemed like a lock to win the Atlantic. And while the Tigers are still favored, the NC State Wolf Pack certainly have a chance to take the throne from them. We will find out this weekend if they can. The FSU Seminoles are considered a strong team, too. But they have yet to enter the same tier as NC State and Clemson.

The Coastal, the less clear division, now has a clear favorite. Because of North Carolina’s atrocious defense and Miami’s … overall play, Pitt is now the clear favorite to win the division and has a projected two-game lead on Miami and UNC.

Pac-12

I will go ahead and throw out the unique prediction of Arizona State being a contender for the Pac-12. Just a perk of beta testing a brand-new model, I suppose. But do not worry, because ZeLO is back with an even hotter take. Washington and USC will face off for the Conference Crown. At least the Huskies are ranked (unlike Arizona State in the preseason).

B12

As my colleague Joseph Tunney wrote earlier this week, Oklahoma State at Baylor has the potential to be one of the most critical games in the B12 conference schedule. Right now, ZeLO has Baylor and Oklahoma State as two of the three favorites to reach the conference championship, with the third being Oklahoma. This matchup can potentially shape the Conference Championship game later this season. 

G5

As of right now, the AAC Title game looks to be a showdown between Cincinnati and UCF. Though the Tulane Green Wave -— yes, Tulane -— has an outside chance to make it, too 

I am sure everyone reading this loves the Sun Belt Conference. But why would you not? Do you not just love a group of spunky underdogs? In the Sun Belt, the two strong contenders to come out of the East are Coastal Carolina and James Madison, who was recently promoted to the FFCS. In the West, it’s South Alabama.

Conference USA has a handful of teams with the potential to make the conference title game. However, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and the UAB Blazers are the leading contenders.

In the Mountain West, Air Force still looks like the team to win the Mountain Division, though Boise State has had quite the fallout. In the West division, it looks like it should be Fresno State or San Diego State (I have absolutely nothing on that one).

The only strong-seeming team in the MAC East is Miami (OH), so at least there should be one successful Miami team this season. Toledo seems like the surest bet in the West, with Central Michigan and NIU looking like potential outside threats.

Unlike last time, I am going to offer a CFP prediction (though it will be brief — covering ten conferences and ND is kind of tricky in 1,100 words). 

Conference Champs

Alabama beats Georgia

Ohio State beats Minnesota 

Clemson beats Pitt

Washington beats USC (yes, this is real, what can I say)

Baylor beats Oklahoma

College Football Playoff

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Clemson

No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Georgia

Contact Tom Zwiller at tzwiller@hcc-nd.edu.

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Sports

Week 2: Top 5 college football games to watch

Last weekend was a great weekend for college football. Besides Georgia’s annihilation of Oregon, most of the games that received media attention answered the bell. Week 2 presents an interesting slate of games, as some teams begin conference play. Many other Power 5 teams have tune-up games against lesser programs. Without further ado, here are my top 5 games to watch for week 2 of college football. (Lines are as of opening.)

5. USC @ Stanford, 7:30 p.m., ABC (USC -9.5)

After the Irish get done with Marshall this weekend, Notre Dame fans should turn to this game. This game will provide the first real look of the new USC under head coach Lincoln Riley. Riley was a home-run hire for the Trojans, after going 55-10 at Oklahoma and making the College Football Playoff three times. Joining him at USC via the transfer portal is quarterback Caleb Williams, also from Oklahoma, and star wide receiver Jordan Addison from Pittsburgh. In their first game, the Trojans dispatched a hapless Rice squad to the tune of 66-14.

Stanford should pose a greater challenge. Head coach David Shaw has a 94-45 record with the Cardinal but has struggled in recent years. Stanford is just 12-19 since the start of 2019. Leading the charge for the Cardinal is running back E.J. Smith, son of NFL rushing yards leader Emmitt Smith. The younger Smith ran for 118 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-10 rout of Colgate last week. A win for Stanford would put them back into a potential conference championship discussion. A win for USC keeps their hype train rolling as they pursue a return to greatness.

4. Iowa State @ Iowa, 4 p.m., Big Ten Network (Iowa -3.5)

The intrastate rivalry for the Cy-Hawk trophy kicks off for the 69th time this weekend in Kinnick Stadium. Head coach Matt Campbell has built the program from the ground up since his arrival in 2016, leading what was a perennial doormat in the Big 12 to five straight bowl games. Quarterback Hunter Dekkers threw four touchdowns in his debut as Iowa State’s starting QB, a 42-10 win against Southeast Missouri State last Saturday. Running back Jirehl Brock looks to continue to fill big shoes left for him by NFL second-round draft pick Breece Hall.

Iowa is coming off of a game that would be atypical for any other program but is relatively par for the course for them. The Hawkeyes won an absolute slugfest with South Dakota State by a score of 7-3 last week. However, they did not score a touchdown. That’s right, the Hawkeyes scored a field goal and two safeties. Big Ten football. Linebacker Jack Campbell recorded 11 tackles and a safety to lead the Hawkeye defense. Punter Tory Taylor had seven punts downed inside of the 20-yard line. Can Iowa’s offense wake up and get the job done? Or will Matt Campbell record his first win in the rivalry? 

3. Kentucky @ Florida, 7 p.m., ESPN (Florida -4.5)

After a phenomenal upset win over then No. 7 Utah in Week 1, the Gators welcome another ranked foe into the Swamp. QB Anthony Richardson proved to everyone that he was not only capable of starting last weekend but that he could be a potential star in the making. Richardson rushed for three touchdowns and 106 yards in addition to completing 17 passes for 168 more. WR Ricky Pearsall, transferring in from Arizona State, made a great first impression by hauling in four catches for 67 yards. The Gator defense came up with crucial stops in their win over Utah last week, capped by Amari Burney’s game-sealing pick in the end zone.

They’ll have to keep the momentum going against Kentucky this week. The Wildcats are coming off of a 10-win season, tied for the second-best win total in school history. Last weekend, they trounced Miami (Ohio) by a score of 37-13. Quarterback Will Levis has been receiving NFL attention. Wide Receiver Tayvion Robinson impressed in his first game since transferring from Virginia Tech, catching six passes for 136 yards. Both teams desperately need the win in order to keep chase with Georgia for status as the top dog in the SEC East.

2. Baylor @ BYU, 10:15 p.m., ESPN (BYU -3.5)

A top-25 matchup in the late-night Saturday viewing window. What’s not to love? Baylor is coming off of a highly successful season, going 12-2, winning the Big 12, and finishing fifth in the country last year. Quarterback Blake Shapen has been on point ever since taking over the job in the conference championship game last year. The Bears opened their season with a 69-10 shellacking of Albany, extending their winning streak to six games since last season. Last year, Baylor beat BYU by a score of 38-24, but the Cougars are back with a vengeance this season.

BYU returns 97 percent of its offensive production from last season. Quarterback Jaren Hall looked great in a 50-21 win against South Florida, going 25/32 for 261 yards and two touchdowns. The offense looks explosive, and the defense can get it done. The Cougars are looking for a New Year’s Six bowl this year, loading up their schedule with the likes of Baylor, Oregon, Notre Dame, Arkansas and Stanford to appeal to the pollsters. This is the last year of independence for the Cougars, who are slated to join the Big 12 next season. Could this be a preview of future battles for Big 12 supremacy?

1. Alabama @ Texas, noon, FOX, (Alabama -20)

A giant clash in the heart of the Lone Star State. The Longhorns are coming off of a 52-10 win over Louisiana-Monroe in week 1 as quarterback Quinn Ewers gets used to the college game. Highly recruited out of high school, Ewers transferred to Texas after one year as a backup at Ohio State. He has the help of running back Bijan Robinson, who is one of the best running backs in college football this season. Head Coach Steve Sarkisian is looking to overcome the odds to bring home a massive win against his former boss, Nick Saban. 

Alabama is the class of college football. Quarterback Bryce Young is coming off of a Heisman-winning season. Linebacker Will Anderson is coming for blood this season after a ridiculous 17.5 sacks in 2021. The Crimson Tide destroyed their sacrificial lamb (Utah State) in a 55-0 game that might’ve been somehow more lopsided than the score indicated. There is no doubt that Saban, who is arguably the greatest coach in college football history, will have his team ready. The game is a noon kickoff, and weather forecasts predict a temperature of 95 degrees, which could feel even hotter on the field. College Gameday and Fox are bringing their pregame shows. Everything is bigger in Texas, and this game is no different.

Joseph Tunney

Contact Joseph at jtunney@nd.edu