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Crow: Three takeaways from Week 4 in College Football

The Big 12 is officially up for grabs

Through four weeks of the college football season, we are at the stage where conference hierarchies typically begin to emerge and pecking orders come into focus. At the very least, it should now be clear which teams are legitimate conference championship contenders and which are not. Even that cannot be said for this year’s Big 12, which feels more wide open than ever after Saturday’s results.

The presumptive favorite in the conference had previously been No. 6 Oklahoma, winners of six of the last seven Big 12 championships. That presumption came crashing down on Saturday, as the Sooners were upset by Kansas State in Norman, Oklahoma behind a dominant five-touchdown performance from Wildcats quarterback Taylor Martinez, a Nebraska transfer. Likewise, No. 22 Texas had a strong start to the season with a near-victory against Alabama, but it was ultimately defeated in overtime by rival Texas Tech. Suddenly, Kansas State and Texas Tech are both 1-0 in Big 12 play with head-to-head advantages over Oklahoma and Texas, respectively, leaving the Sooners and Longhorns with a significant amount of ground to make up.

No. 9 Oklahoma State and No. 16 Baylor are likely the current Big 12 favorites, but they face off next Saturday, and a Baylor loss would saddle them with an 0-2 conference record while teams like Kansas (who can usually be penciled in for last place prior to the start of the season) and TCU remain undefeated. The conference’s “worst” teams may be Iowa State and West Virginia, yet it would be no great shock to see either string together a few wins and find themselves in the hunt for a Big 12 title. Iowa State’s resume includes a win over a solid Iowa team, and the Cyclones’ only loss was by one-possession against Baylor. West Virginia started 0-2 with close losses against a ranked Pitt team and a should-be-ranked Kansas team. The Mountaineers have since turned their season around with a pair of victories that includes Thursday’s 33-10 win over Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

All of this is to say that it is anyone’s guess who will win the Big 12. Maybe December’s championship game will pit Oklahoma against Oklahoma State, or Baylor against Kansas State, or Kansas against TCU. There is certainly an element of excitement that comes from conferences having one or two clear favorites. The season-long buildup to a single game that could alter the entire playoff race, like Alabama-Georgia or Ohio State-Michigan, creates a special sense of heightened drama unique to a sport in which the regular season carries so much weight. If chaos is what you seek, though, look no further than the Big 12, which is sure to deliver it in abundance throughout the rest of the season.

Mixed bag for ‘basketball schools

One of the off-season’s strangest stories was the feud between two Kentucky head coaches, men’s basketball’s John Calipari and football’s Mark Stoops, that arose after Calipari referred to Kentucky as a “basketball school.” While the comment was not without validity, given the school’s illustrious history on the hardwood and comparatively dismal track record on the gridiron, taking a jab at another program within the Kentucky athletics umbrella felt unnecessary and in poor taste. Stoops quickly came to his team’s defense, noting that the football program is on the rise while its basketball counterpart has struggled as of late. Notably, Kentucky football has won ten games twice in four seasons after last doing so in 1977, while the two most recent men’s basketball seasons ended with a missed NCAA Tournament and a first-round tournament loss to Saint Peter’s.

Kentucky has taken care of business through the early stages of the football season, currently sitting at 4-0 and ranked No. 7 as Stoops has made good on his word. Ironically, given the unusually high amount of discourse about what qualifies as a basketball school, the six schools widely considered to be college basketball’s “blue bloods” all entered week four with a 3-0 record. While some, like Kentucky, stayed hot, others saw their perfect start to the season come crashing down.

The Wildcats played host to Northern Illinois on Saturday and used 17 consecutive second-half points to break open a game that was tied at halftime. Kentucky star quarterback Will Levis threw four touchdown passes in a 31-23 win that did not earn any style points but kept the Wildcats in lockstep with a red-hot Tennessee team in the battle to be Georgia’s biggest SEC East challenger.

Further west, a pair of 2022 Final Four participants squared off as Kansas hosted Duke in front of a sold-out crowd in Lawrence. The Jayhawks continued their surprising resurgence in a 35-27 victory as quarterback Jalon Daniels continued to build his Heisman case, compiling over 400 yards and five touchdowns. Even further west, UCLA remained perfect with a dominant 45-17 win on the road against Colorado. The Bruins have benefited from a forgiving non-conference schedule and will have their first true test when they host No. 15 Washington in a critical Pac-12 battle next Friday.

Indiana and North Carolina joined Duke in suffering their first losses of the season, both of which could be primarily attributed to defensive struggles. Indiana surrendered 38 first-half points on the way to a 45-24 loss on the road against Cincinnati. The Tar Heels hosted Notre Dame in Chapel Hill and allowed a previously struggling Irish offense to gain 576 yards as they coasted to a 45-32 win. As the season kicks into high gear, the next few weeks will reveal if the rise of the blue bloods in football is just a flash in the pan, or if this really is, to the dismay of Coach Calipari, the year of the football school.

Top teams show signs of vulnerability

A common critique of college football is that it lacks parity, that the same handful of teams compete for the national championship every year. This notion mostly holds true, and this season, teams like Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State already appear to be closing in on playoff lock status. Beyond that trio, however, the next tier of contenders has provided more questions than answers, and several top-ten teams were put to the test in week four.

No. 4 Michigan began its season with three consecutive blowout wins, though the legitimacy of their dominance was questioned due to an extremely weak nonconference slate. There now appears to be some truth to those concerns after the Wolverines were played tight by Maryland in a 34-27 win in their conference opener. Similarly, No. 5 Clemson faced its toughest opponent to date in No. 21 Wake Forest and required two overtimes to escape Winston-Salem with a 51-45 win. Clemson’s first few games established its offense as a relative weakness, but it was the defense that struggled against Wake, as Deacon quarterback Sam Hartman torched the Tigers to the tune of 337 yards and six touchdowns. Clemson showed encouraging signs of offensive improvement but will need to sort its defensive issues out in a hurry as they prepare to face No. 10 NC State this week.

Elsewhere, No. 7 USC featured one of the nation’s best offenses during the season’s first three weeks but struggled to move the ball against a subpar defense as they clawed out a 17-14 win over Oregon State. Kentucky also picked up their fourth win, using a second-half surge to beat Northern Illinois, but Oklahoma, and No. 10 Arkansas, were not as lucky. The Sooners fell at the hands of Kansas State while a potential game-winning Razorback field goal that bounced off the top of the goalpost before falling short proved costly in a 23-21 loss to No. 23 Texas A&M. It is difficult to say that college football is moving toward greater parity when another Georgia-Alabama championship matchup looms; but this season promises a great deal of shakeups near the top as the race for the elusive fourth playoff spot continues.

Contact Matthew Crow at mcrow@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this sports authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.

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ZLO predictions week 3

College football was in rare form last weekend. With Texas being back (maybe), the Sun Belt Conference won three massive games (and got paid $4.5 million to do it) and there were countless overtimes. The weekend was a little more chaotic than usual, with FPI picking 67-15 (.817) and ZeLO going 62-20 (.757), but still good picking weekends all the same. 

Before getting to my picks, there is one crucial thing to note about this week’s column. Last week I said I would be running the first four weeks of the season off of my original projections. I lied. Well, sort of.

After last weekend, I decided to try and blend the stats I had projected with the actual stats that the teams have generated. The main reason for this was USC (though I suppose ND contributed to the change negatively, but let’s not talk about that). 

ZeLO had them as a mediocre team, but the Trojans are putting up some solid numbers, and deserve credit for them. So, from now until about Week 5, I will be operating with a mixed rating for each team, with the projections getting less weight as time goes on.  


Florida State @ Louisville

FSU is a -2.5 favorite as they head on the road to face Louisville, and I honestly really like that line. I think Louisville is a good team as they won a good game against UCF last week on Friday.

However, ZeLO has Florida State as the favorite, though Louisville is expected to cover.

Florida State gets the win (52%) in a nail-biter.

No. 13 Miami @ No. 24 Texas A&M

While this matchup was originally College Gameday’s game of the week, they are no longer following Texas A&M after they lost to Appalachian State. Suddenly, Miami is the higher-ranking team heading into College Station, but still the underdogs, though the line has shrunk by a few points down to 5.5. 

What was a game that ZeLO had been projecting Texas A&M to win comfortably is now a game that ZeLO has Miami winning by a razor-thin margin of .0073%. The spread ZeLO gave the game is -.5 Miami, so Miami should win the contest and, of course, beat the spread.

No. 12 BYU @ No. 25 Oregon

Last weekend BYU played one of the more exciting games against Baylor. A battle of top-25 teams that needed overtime to find a winner. BYU was able to get the narrow win at home but now faces what is arguably a tougher task, go on the road and beat another top-25 team. 

BYU’s new ranking is due primarily to their win over Baylor (not to mention Oregon’s thrashing at the hands of Georgia).

BYU is favored to win their third game of the season (60.3%). Oregon will be a 3.5 dog at home, which certainly feels crazy, but their poor performance against Georgia hurt their rating. It will be up to the Ducks to prove they deserve a better ranking. 

Toledo @ No. 3 Ohio State

This feels like a random add, but Toledo has been one of ZeLO’s favorite teams all preseason and off-season. Now, as the Rockets head to the horseshoe, 31.5 underdogs against the Ohio State juggernaut, all hope seems lost for Toledo.  Or does it?

Do not get me wrong; this is the perfect storm for all the model’s biases, its tendency to pick underdog covers, G5 teams being more potent than they should and the model just randomly liking Toledo. 

ZeLO currently has Ohio State as the favorite, with a 67.5% chance to win the game. Now Ohio State is still an 18.5-point favorite (the difference between the percentage and the spread is likely because I changed the spread formula). 

Ohio State should undoubtedly win, but Toledo has a solid chance to cover, and as we saw last weekend, all the little Group of 5 teams has to do to have a chance is play the game.

No. 11 Michigan State @ Washington

I picked this game not just because I am a Michigander and, by proxy, a Michigan sports fan but because MSU is the underdog in this game.  The Huskies are a 3.5 favorite against the Spartans, boasting two wins against Kent State and Portland State. I have no idea what these two wins tell us about Washington, but Vegas thinks they are significant enough to merit points on a highly ranked team.

Currently, ZeLO has MSU with a 50.8% favorite with a -.5 spread. I think that MSU should be able to take care of this game convincingly, but both ZeLO and Vegas are seeing something I am not, which might make the result worth keeping an eye on.

  
California @ Notre Dame

Last weekend I made a joke about ZeLO taking Notre Dame to lose against Marshall. Evidently, that joke aged about as well as an egg salad-tuna fish sandwich left out in the ND Stadium parking lot because, lo and behold, ND lost.


And yes, I made a joke about Notre Dame’s performance being so bad that it generated a change in the models operating procedure, but, jokes aside, that was a legitimate reason I made the change.
Originally Notre Dame was classified as a heavy favorite to beat California; it’s a home game for ND, they were a top-20 team and their opponent was a west coast team. Those are great reasons
for ND to easily win any game, especially California.


But given the uncertainty surrounding the team, acting like the team is living up expectations (which were already lower than average) was not an option. 


So now, ND is currently averaging a 6-6 record. Luckily, California is one of those wins; ND has a 65.4% chance of winning this weekend’s matchup. And while that victory might be good news, Cal is currently expected to cover the 10.5 spread, with an expected ND margin of victory at 4.

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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

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Herko: The era of superconferences

On June 30, college football fans thought the biggest announcement of the day was Notre Dame Head Coach Marcus Freeman telling Irish fans to wear green against the September 17th game against Cal. They were wrong.

Later that night, news broke that would change not only the distribution of power in the Power 5 Conferences but college sports as we know them. But what exactly are the ramifications and lingering questions around UCLA and USC’s decision to leave the Pac-12 and join the Big 10?

What does this mean for the Power 5 Conferences?

With Oklahoma and Texas leaving the Big 12 for the SEC last year, and the sudden lack of Pac-12 teams in Los Angeles, the Power 5 is now the Superpower 2. Both abandoned conferences are without any real star programs and without any teams that someone could seriously consider for a national championship.

The ACC is a little different. They still have Clemson, UNC and Pitt, but no one who has been both historically and currently exceptional. The good news for them is that all of their schools are tied up in a deal with ESPN that runs until 2036. The bad news is that they are
playing catch-up. Before the recent migrations, the ACC could at least have Clemson win a ton of games, bring in revenue and everyone else would do okay.

However, the Big 10 and SEC are positioning themselves to be the only relevant conferences. In the long run, this will be really bad for the ACC, especially if they cannot convince a few major programs to join. And since they cannot compete with the financial incentives of the other two conferences, their significant schools will leave at the end of their contract, if not sooner because of a talent drain to schools with more funding.

What does this mean for independents, specifically Notre Dame?

Obviously, there are other schools that are independent besides the Irish, but they’re the only program that everyone really, really wants. For the ACC, Notre Dame is its only shot at survival. For the Big 10 and SEC, it’s the best program that’s potentially up for grabs. Basically,
whoever wins this battle wins the war.

Here’s the problem: Notre Dame prefers to be independent. Not only does the NBC deal actively prevent them from joining a conference (which expires in 2025), but the Irish like being on their own.

Here’s the bigger problem: Notre Dame prefers winning championships even more. If the two Super Conferences eventually take over college football, this means that they will also be in
control of the college football playoffs. Thus, making it almost impossible to be considered for a spot without having an advocate at the table.

If the Irish did decide to pick a side, they would be greatly compensated for it. Big 10 schools, for example, are expected to make between $80-$100 million next year. And if the Irish did join a conference, the Big 10 is the most likely landing spot.

Not only does the hockey program already compete in the Big 10, but it is a better values match for Notre Dame. All of the schools in the Big 10 are AAU (Association of American Universities) members, which pride themselves on strong academics and research. Notre Dame also has extreme rivalries with Big 10 schools that college football fans would want to protect.

Unless the SEC let Notre Dame pick their price, there really isn’t any match or connection between the two. Other independent schools just don’t have the market of Notre Dame and are going to really struggle to not be left behind in the reshuffle.

Ok so you’re the Big 10 or SEC, what now?

Before the Notre Dame question even gets answered, each conference has to decide how many is enough. Both conferences are sitting pretty with 16 teams in or on their way. When do they stop? At 24? 30? What is the right number of programs that maximizes profits while also
minimizing the power of the other?

Well, that really depends on where you want to expand to. The Big 10 now controls the three largest markets in the United States: Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. (Oh, that’s why Rutgers is important.) The SEC controls the South, which may be less lucrative, but is way more passionate about football than other parts of the country. So what else is left? Philly is already controlled by the Big 10. They could look to Dallas, but TCU isn’t all that exciting. And finally San Francisco, for Stanford and Cal, but the Bay Area isn’t a great football market. And if those schools go anywhere they’d probably follow USC and UCLA because the University of California Trustees want Cal and UCLA to stay together.

That’s not a very friendly market for the SEC. Especially if other Pac-12 schools, like Washington and Oregon, want to follow Southern California to the Big 10 to preserve rivalries. Therefore, the SEC is probably looking to keep control of the South by going after schools like Missouri and Oklahoma State, or poaching from the ACC.

The poaching could be particularly difficult for the SEC because many of the ACC schools would probably be more interested in the Big 10 because of the AAU membership as well as higher academic standards that fall more closely in line with their universities’ standards.

What does this mean for smaller schools and non-football programs?

As much as both the SEC and Big 10 want to expand, they will eventually reach a limit. As they decide who they want to invite, they will really only be considering football and basketball, even though it will most definitely impact every sport. This could spell disaster for programs that relied on funding from the rest of the Power 5 or were in smaller conferences.

It is probable that when the dust settles in a few years that new, less influential conferences will form, but they will have way less revenue to divide between members. Football helps provide funding for other sports at all universities, no matter the size (assuming they have
a football team). If football programs everywhere suddenly have way less money, then that’s going to have a really negative impact on less lucrative sports.

The financial burden is going to be felt by basically all athletes at less successful division 1, 2 and 3 programs, and especially women’s sports. Additionally, schools in places that are expensive and/or difficult to travel to, like Hawaii, will be left out.

So while all this movement from conference to conference will make for some really exciting football games, it could spell trouble for the rest of college athletics.

The views in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Annika Herko

Contact Annika Herko at aherko@nd.edu.