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Saturday's Slate: The November Home Stretch Begins!

Posted: Nov 08, 2008

College football remains the Footprint's most compelling and spectacular sport.  The 2008 season has delivered us yet again a roller coaster ride of sporting goodness. 

The stakes have been high all season.  So far, at least two key programs (Tennessee and Clemson) will have new coaches in 2009 due to high expectations with a few more openings likely to follow.

The SEC and the Big 12 South have done the Swampland Footprint proud all season.

As it sits right now, Alabama and Texas Tech would be playing for the BCS Championship in January.  The only issue here is that both teams have a few tough games left on their schedule.  If things follow the way they have all season, both teams will lose at least one of those games.

With November representing the stretch run, our focus narrows to the big prizes - conference championships and the BCS.


Alabama @ LSU - Alabama has led the SEC brilliantly in Nick Saban's second year at the helm.  Now comes his greatest task so far - winning in Baton Rouge. 

Nick Saban is the architect of the modern LSU program turning them around, dominating recruiting in Louisiana, and winning a BCS Title.  Les Miles knows that he owes a lot to the condition of the program he inherited from Saban, although Miles also deserves credit for winning LSU's second BCS Title in this era.

For all that Saban has done for LSU, he is hated there today.  Why?  It's pretty simple.   His choices to first leave for the NFL and then go to Alabama set a pecking order that cuts Tiger fans to the core - Alabama #1, NFL #2, LSU #3 or lower.  LSU fans have a chip on their shoulder, and Saban reinforces perceptions of inferiority that they want to overcome.

For LSU fans a win that would derail Saban's #1 Alabama team would be almost as good as last season's title.

Saban has proven a lot at Alabama.  He raised the bar for the entire conference.  He is probably the single factor most responsible for ousting both Tommy Bowden and Phil Fulmer from Clemson and Tennessee, respectively.  He has every program in the Footprint who expects to be a contender asking itself, "Can my coach compete and win against Nick Saban?"

Right now, only LSU's Les Miles and Florida's Urban Meyer have been spared that kind of questioning.  Miles beat Alabama last year, but everyone is quickly recognizing that last year was not the measuring stick for Saban's Alabama squad.  Miles must either win today or at least give Alabama the fight of its life to keep his reputation as an elite coach amongst the LSU faithful.  They are out for blood, and they don't want to witness an afternoon of self-inflicted wounds.

Florida @ Vanderbilt - As for the rest of the SEC, Alabama and Florida have momentarily rendered the rest of the conference moot.  Florida should have little trouble at Vandy.  We're sure that the Dores will keep it close for a little while, but Florida's offensive revival makes them a very dangerous team.   Urban Meyer has been here before, and he knows that he must keep winning and winning big to stay in the BCS picture.

What's left after Alabama and Florida are a lot of teams fighting for bowl postion (Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky), fighting to get eligible (Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Auburn), and wondering who will be their coach come 2009 (Tennessee).

The distance between winners and losers has never been so stark as in this year's SEC.  Only one program will feel the glory of 2008 (unless Vandy finds a way to go to a bowl for the first time in over two decades.)


Much like the BCS has been a huge factor in helping the SEC achieve its dominant position, the formation of the Big 12 out of the ashes of the Big 8 and the SWC has solidified Texas's and Oklahoma's position as homes of elite college football.  The battles between Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Texas' Mack Brown, both of whom have won BCS Titles, have forced their in state rivals to up their games.

Today the Big 12 South is a true gauntlet of epic proportions.  Amongst the division's top teams (Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State), none have lost to anyone but each other. 

Oklahoma State @ Texas Tech - The Red Raiders passed test one of the gauntlet by beating #1 Texas in Lubbock.  Now, they face fellow Big 12 South party-crasher, Oklahoma State.

The Cowboys won't be an easy out even though Texas Tech is playing at home.  Texas showed incredible mettle in winning three straight games against previously undefeated teams before falling in the final seconds to Tech last Saturday night.  The Cowboys will test the Red Raiders early and often.

OSU's Mike Gundy and Tech's Mike Leach are two fine coaches.  One of them will be moving up a level of respect (and pay grade) if he can win.

In other games, Texas and Oklahoma should have easy wins against Baylor and Texas A&M, respectively.  Missouri have been the only legit challenger from the Big 12 North, but they have also lost their only games that they played against the Big 12 South's best.

Missouri needs to win out and put up a big time fight in the Big 12 Championship against whoever comes out on top.  Expect Washington to try to raid Mizzou's fine staff after the season because of Gary Pinkel's ties to that program.  Winning the Big 12 North is key to keeping him in the Show Me State.

The ACC won't play a role in the BCS picture beyond its automatic bid, but the conference has made huge strides this year towards finally realizing its goal of becoming an elite football conference.

2008 marked the beginning of resurgences at three critical ACC programs, FSU, Georgia Tech, and Miami.  The states of Georgia and Florida combined kick out a great deal of high school football talent.  These three schools shold be in the mix for that talent rather than conceding it to the SEC in state Gator/Bulldog rivals.

In addition to those three schools, both Virginia schools which lie in another talent-rich state showed that they can still play.

The ACC is still wide open with at least 7 teams holding out BCS hopes.  November will quickly clear this logjam up.

Georgia Tech @ UNC - Butch Davis has UNC emerging as a potential national power by continuing the same strategies he used to bring Miami back to its elite ways - out-recruiting everyone.  His success is crucial to the ACC.  UNC remains one of this conference's defining teams and the state in which it lies represents 1/3 of the conference membership.  As much as Wake and Duke make for nice stories, neither of these teams should be the ACC's best representatives from the "Tar Heel" State.

Paul Johnson has made a quick and substantial impact on the Yellow Jackets in his first year.  He would like to show the nation that his team is still a step ahead of most of the ACC.  Winning in Chapel Hill would go a long way towards proving that.

Butch Davis wants to show the same.  Besides Nick Saban, Butch Davis has been the biggest Tribal Fever success story of 2008.  Despite his denials, lots of Volunteer cash could sway him to Knoxville which makes an ACC title in 2008 extremely important and timely.

Both these teams were beaten on Virginia's unexpected win streak.  One of them will show who is for real for 2008.

Clemson @ Florida State - Perhaps the biggest ACC story is, of course, the Clemson opening.  Mark Clemson down as the first non-SEC program who is refusing to play second fiddle to Nick Saban.  For an SEC team like Tennessee, it's expected.  For an ACC team, it's a sign that the Saban effect resonates throughout our Footprint.

Tommy Bowden left a load of talent.  Now, this hungry team must find someone who can coach them into the BCS mix.  Florida State's talent base is growing, but it's young.

An FSU win would set them in the right direction for 2009 and beyond.  They need this one more.

Both Virginia and NC State imagine themselves competing at the top of the ACC.  That's why they both need to win their respective games against Wake and Duke.  As we said earlier, Wake and Duke make for nice stories, but they can't be the best teams in your conference if the ACC expects to enter the same discussions as the SEC and Big 12.

The Big East remains a total conundrum and frustration for TF Nation.  Four solid programs (West Virginia, Louisville, South Florida, and Cincinnati) remain trapped with a slew of basketball schools slumming it on the gridiron.

Beyond the geographical issues, the Big East also only has 8 football teams forcing too many bad out of conference games for Big East members.

Additionally, too many TF programs trapped in the Big East have lost dumb games.  USF, in particular, has underwhelmed in a season that seemed poised to further their entry into the national spotlight.

The sad fact is when Louisville loses to Syracuse no one says, "wow, the Big East is deep."  They think, "wow, the Big East is mediocre at best."

We continue our call for conference realignment.

Cincinnati @ West Virginia - This is the marquee game for the Big East.  West Virginia looks to have righted itself this season after dropping two early season games.  (That OT loss to Colorado really is stinging right now.  They would be part of a much larger BCS discussion if they had but one loss right now considering the way they beat Oklahoma in last season's Fiesta Bowl.)

WVU begins their version of the Big East gauntlet with this week's game against Cincy followed by road games at Louisville and Pittsburgh before ending the season at home against USF.

Conference USA's 2008 season has been a sad, "close, but no cigar" season.  It has been a season of watching conferences that we firmly believe are inferior conferences (the WAC and the Mountain West) ascend over C-USA merely because of sparkling records against lesser competition.

The problem is that no C-USA has gone out and beaten teams from bigger conferences except for East Carolina's early season wins against Virginia Tech and West Virginia.  Unfortunately, all of that progress was undone by East Carolina's three game losing streak which featured losses to the ACC's NC State and Virginia sandwiching a conference loss to Houston.

In the meantime, many of C-USA teams came up short in what could have been defining games for the conference.  These losses include UCF losing at home to then #17 USF in OT, and Memphis losing at home to a vulnerable Louisville team 35-28.  Had both of these games gone the other way, it would have solidified the idea that C-USA is on a level playing field with the Big East.  Instead, these losses reinforced the opposite perception.

When Tulsa, C-USA's last hope, lost a heartbreaker to a rebuilding Arkansas squad last week, it sent C-USA back into the static as one of many non-BCS conferences fighting for attention.

Marshall @ East Carolina - Both of these teams have 3-1 conference records giving the winner an inside track on the C-USA East title.  Considering East Carolina is the only team with wins against the ACC and the Big East, TF hopes that the Pirates win out so that they can likely face Tulsa in the C-USA championship.

The Sun Belt suffers from the worst of the ACC, the Big East, and Conference USA.  Like the ACC, the Sun Belt features too much parity which hinders one team's rise into the national scene.  Like the Big East, the Sun Belt has too few teams until Western Kentucky (joing next year) and South Alabama (joining in 2013) give the conference ten football teams.  Like Conference USA, the Sun Belt has failed to register any defining wins outside of MTSU's early win against Maryland.

After last season, it looked like Troy and FAU would perpetually stand at the top of the conference.  Instead, FAU has swooned, and Troy has failed to repeat the 2007 magic when they beat Oklahoma State.

Until LA-Lafayette plays Troy on 11/22, the Sun Belt will continue to play games that have little meaning. 

Somewhere amidst the Big East, C-USA, and the Sun Belt, there is a better answer.  For now, each conference will have to stumble along as relative afterthoughts on the passionate Tribal Fever landscape.

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