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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

The Path to Perfection for the 13 Leaders

This won’t be the year for a one-loss team. All signs point towards there being at least two undefeated teams atop the B.C.S. at the end of the regular season and conference championship games, so the age of two-loss L.S.U. lifting the crystal ball are dead, at least until next year. There are 13 undefeated teams in the F.B.S., two of which play on the non-B.C.S. conference level – Boise State and Houston. The other 11, those that control their own destiny, for better or for worse, might try to avoid the damning defeat that could send them from the B.C.S. title game to the Fiesta Bowl, if not lower. Let’s take a peek at the lucky baker’s dozen, looking at each team’s road to perfection and the big games to watch.

The teams are listed by order of ranking on this week’s re-ranking, starting with Alabama and moving through Houston. Here we go:

Alabama, 6-0 (3-0) The Tide have already beaten three ranked teams: Penn State, Arkansas and Florida. And looked awful good doing so, if you can recall. The remaining schedule:

Oct. 15 at Mississippi
Oct. 22 Tennessee
Nov. 5 L.S.U.
Nov. 12 at Mississippi State
Nov. 19 Georgia Southern
Nov. 26 at Auburn
Conference title game (if applicable)

The big game L.S.U., of course. It’s not just the biggest game of Alabama’s season: it’s the biggest game of the entire year in the F.B.S., and look for the game to have a once-in-a-decade sort of feel. The last time I looked forward to an SEC game this much? That would be the 2009 conference title game, when the Tide dispatched of Tim Tebow and Florida with ease.

The potential upset Mississippi State. I want to say Auburn, but I don’t think there’s any way Alabama – especially at 11-0 – loses to the Tigers, even if the game comes on the road. The Bulldogs could be trouble, especially with the game coming after L.S.U.; perhaps the Tide let down their guard after a big win.

L.S.U., 6-0 (3-0) The Tigers, like Alabama, are in the driver’s seat. All either team has to do, more than likely, is beat the other. Good luck to both parties. The remaining schedule:

Oct. 15 at Tennessee
Oct. 22 Auburn
Nov. 5 at Alabama
Nov. 12 Western Kentucky
Nov. 19 at Mississippi
Nov. 26 Arkansas
Conference title game (if applicable)

The big game Alabama, for all the reasons listed above. The winner is going to play for the national title, barring an unpredictable collapse.

The potential upset Arkansas. The two have engaged in some memorable affairs over the years, such as the 2007 version which went into multiple overtimes before going the Razorbacks’ way. To be honest, however, recent history has shown us that L.S.U. is always prone to an upset, even if the Tigers often find a way to steal victory from the jaws of defeat. In that case, who’s to say that Tennessee can’t find a way to knock off the Tigers this Saturday?

Oklahoma, 5-0 (2-0) A few interesting tests are behind the Sooners, even if this year’s Red River Rivalry turns out to be a dud. Oklahoma also lacks a conference championship game, which may hurt the Sooners. The remaining schedule:

Oct. 15 at Kansas
Oct. 22 Texas Tech
Oct. 29 at Kansas State
Nov. 5 Texas A&M
Nov. 19 at Baylor
Nov. 26 Iowa State
Dec. 3 at Oklahoma State

The big game Oklahoma State. Bedlam. For all of the rivalry’s history, the two have never met with a national title berth on the line. That may be the case if one or two other undefeated teams stumble on the way to December. That would make Bedlam absolute and utter bedlam.

The potential upset Texas A&M. The Aggies match up well offensively with Oklahoma, though they have issues defensively. A&M beat Oklahoma a year ago with a simple philosophy: control the ball on the ground. Unfortunately, A&M has been prone to forgetting that its bread is buttered by the running game.

Boise State, 5-0 (0-0) The Broncos need some help. And they’ll get help through mere attrition, but Boise really needs every undefeated but one to lose at least once. The remaining schedule:

Oct. 15 at Colorado State
Oct. 22 Air Force
Nov. 5 at U.N.L.V.
Nov. 12 T.C.U.
Nov. 19 at San Diego State
Nov. 26 Wyoming
Dec. 3 New Mexico

The big game T.C.U., which seems like the only team that could hang with Boise. But the Horned Frogs aren’t quite the same, which bodes well for Boise’s hopes of 12-0.

The potential upset San Diego State? I can’t imagine any team knocking off the Broncos, but I suppose that outside of T.C.U., San Diego State has the best chance.

Wisconsin, 5-0 (1-0) Smooth sailing so far. And it may stay smooth the rest of the way: Ohio State’s taken a slide, for starters, and Indiana, Purdue and the like aren’t sniffing the Badgers. The remaining schedule:

Oct. 15 Indiana
Oct. 22 at Michigan State
Oct. 29 at Ohio State
Nov. 5 Purdue
Nov. 12 at Minnesota
Nov. 19 at Illinois
Nov. 26 Penn State
Conference title game (if applicable)

The big game Penn State. The Nittany Lions can play a little defense. Prior to the bottom dropping out, you probably would have pointed towards Ohio State being the game of the year for the Badgers; so much for that. For now, Penn State seems to have the defense to limit Wisconsin’s damage on the ground.

The potential upset Michigan State. The Spartans are flying in under the radar. Maybe – and it’s a big maybe – M.S.U. sneaks up and bites a Wisconsin team looking all the way ahead to a perfect regular season.

Oklahoma State, 5-0 (2-0) The Cowboys got a bit of luck at A&M a few weeks ago, but all national title teams seem to get lucky at least once on the road to a perfect season. The remaining schedule:

Oct. 15 at Texas
Oct. 22 at Missouri
Oct. 29 Baylor
Nov. 5 Kansas State
Nov. 12 at Texas Tech
Nov. 18 at Iowa State
Dec. 3 Oklahoma

The big game Oklahoma, for all the reasons listed above.

The potential upset Texas, this Saturday. The Longhorns were embarrassed against the Sooners; here’s betting they come with a supreme effort against the Cowboys. Will it be enough? Probably not. If the Longhorns don’t upset O.S.U., maybe Texas Tech will.

Stanford, 5-0 (3-0) Stanford has rolled right to 5-0 without any difficulty. The Cardinal are looking so good that they’ve been easy to overlook, in a strange way. The remaining schedule:

Oct. 15 at Washington State
Oct. 22 Washington
Oct. 29 at U.S.C.
Nov. 5 at Oregon State
Nov. 12 Oregon
Nov. 19 California
Nov. 26 Notre Dame
Conference title game (if applicable)

The big game Oregon. It’s the biggest game of the year on the West Coast – and there’s absolutely not comparison. For the Ducks, notching an upset over the Cardinal may vault them back into the national title mix. For Stanford, a loss means Rose Bowl or worse.

The potential upset Notre Dame. If the Irish keep improving as they have, there may not be a team in the country who could beat them in late November. For Stanford, a date with Notre Dame provides the opportunity to make another impression on the national voting bloc.

Clemson, 6-0 (3-0) Has there been a bigger surprise in the country through the first half of the year? The Tigers have knocked off Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech en route to a 6-0 start, but the road stays tough over the second half. The remaining schedule:

Oct. 15 at Maryland
Oct. 22 North Carolina
Oct. 29 at Georgia Tech
Nov. 12 Wake Forest
Nov. 19 at N.C. State
Nov. 26 at South Carolina
Conference title game (if applicable)

The big games Georgia Tech and South Carolina. A tie for first. The Yellow Jackets are Clemson’s biggest test in the A.C.C; the Gamecocks are its biggest test in non-conference play. Each will provide a huge barometer for where Clemson stands in 2011.

The potential upset Wake Forest. If Clemson does knock off Georgia Tech on the road, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a bit of a lull the following Saturday. Wake loves it when teams come out flat; that’s when Jim Grobe and his team take advantage.

Georgia Tech, 6-0 (3-0) The other surprising team from the A.C.C., Tech has reversed last year’s disappointment with a strong start to 2011. But the Jackets have slowed a bit in recent weeks, toying with N.C. State before putting the Wolfpack away and struggling at times with Maryland a week ago. The remaining schedule:

Oct. 15 at Virginia
Oct. 22 at Miami (Fla.)
Oct. 29 Clemson
Nov. 10 Virginia Tech
Nov. 19 at Duke
Nov. 26 Georgia
Conference title game (if applicable)

The big game Virginia Tech. Not to say Clemson isn’t huge, but the Jackets won’t even win the division should it lose to the Hokies. So that makes the date with Virginia Tech a tad more important the game a week and change earlier against the Tigers.

The potential upset Georgia. Remember that Mark Richt has owned his in-state rivals; 2008 is the lone exception. And like Notre Dame, Georgia is getting better each week.

Michigan, 6-0 (2-0) The Wolverines needed a late run to knock off Notre Dame at home, but every other win has come without the late-game heroics. It won’t be easy to run the table, but Michigan can be excited about the fact that it should only grow stronger with each week of practice and game under its new staff. The remaining schedule:

Oct. 15 at Michigan State
Oct. 29 Purdue
Nov. 5 at Iowa
Nov. 12 at Illinois
Nov. 19 Nebraska
Nov. 26 Ohio State
Conference title game (if applicable)

The big game Nebraska, if we’re looking at things logically. The Cornhuskers and Wolverines may be neck-and-neck for the division crown by Nov. 19, and that should trump any emotions connected with regular season finale against Ohio State. It should, but it won’t.

The potential upset Michigan State. Or Iowa. Both fit the bill: both come on the road against a rival that’s given Michigan fits in recent years. Both will try to dictate the tempo by being physical, and no team has done that as yet against the Wolverines.

Illinois, 6-0 (2-0) So maybe Illinois is the most surprising undefeated team still on the board. This is a team still coached by Ron Zook, after all. But don’t look now: with the schedule ahead, the Illini may very well be 8-0 heading into the final Saturday of October. The remaining schedule:

Oct. 15 Ohio State
Oct. 22 at Purdue
Oct. 29 at Penn State
Nov. 12 Michigan
Nov. 19 Wisconsin
Nov. 26 at Minnesota
Conference title game (if applicable)

The big game Wisconsin. The Badgers are the team to beat in the Leaders division, even if both teams are undefeated. Illinois probably won’t get to 10-0, but even if they did I doubt that the Illini could knock off the Badgers – even at home.

The potential upset All of them. Well, maybe not Purdue or Minnesota. The rest? Illinois could lose them all. Or they could win them all, I suppose.

Kansas State, 5-0 (2-0) Bill Snyder, a solid running game, a good-enough defense and a dedication to the little things. That’s how Kansas State got to 5-0. Can those things carry the Wildcats to 12-0? I sincerely doubt it. The remaining schedule:

Oct. 15 at Texas Tech
Oct. 22 at Kansas
Oct. 29 Oklahoma
Nov. 5 at Oklahoma State
Nov. 12 Texas A&M
Nov. 19 at Texas
Nov. 26 Iowa State

The big game Oklahoma. Or Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and the rest of the ranked foes on the slate. It is going to be very, very difficult to win two of the four games against the meat of the schedule. All four? That would be a miracle. Those happen in Manhattan, however.

The potential upset Texas Tech. The well has to run dry at some point. It may happen this weekend, when the Wildcats take on the offensively-potent Red Raiders.

Houston, 6-0 (2-0) It took an unbelievable comeback against Louisiana Tech, four tough quarters against U.C.L.A. and a seesaw affair with UTEP, but Houston survived the first half of the 2011 regular season without a loss. It’s not going to last. The remaining schedule:

Oct. 22 Marshall
Oct. 27 Rice
Nov. 5 at U.A.B.
Nov. 10 at Tulane
Nov. 19 S.M.U.
Nov. 26 at Tulsa

The big game S.M.U. seems to be Houston’s stiffest challenger to the Conference USA West title. The Cougars get the Mustangs, the defending division champs, at home. Even if S.M.U. has one loss, it’s not a stretch to say the Mustangs have looked like the better team through mid-October.

The potential upset Houston could lose them all. Who knows? We can’t take the Cougars seriously until they play with some consistency, which has largely been missing through the first half of the season. Remember: Houston always loses a game it shouldn’t.

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  1. Woodysc says:

    Note on Clemson’s potential upset: The Wake game is two weeks after the Ga Tech game. The first weekend in november Clemson gets a bye.

  2. Parker says:

    Hi Paul

    Don’t forget that to go undefeated, Houston will also have to win a conference title game.

  3. Dave says:

    I know it’s early in the season to bring up the annual playoff debate, but if, say, an undefeated Stanford or Clemson is denied a title shot, is there ANYONE out there who will continue to defend the BCS in its present form?

  4. Paul says:

    Well, you have to like the winner of LSU/Alabama. And whoever prevails in Oklahoma/OkSU. And Wisconsin. That’s the cream of the crop.

  5. 4.0 Point Stance says:

    “I know it’s early in the season to bring up the annual playoff debate, ”

    Apparently not.

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