Like “Last Christmas” by Wham! hitting the airwaves Friday right after Thanksgiving, we transition from what I feel is the best regular season in sports to the worst-handled postseason this weekend, with the final college football games of the 2021 schedule on the docket.
Michigan-Ohio State, Alabama-Auburn, Florida-Florida State, Washington-Washington State and even Ole Miss-Mississippi State (cue dog urination imitation) are great, even when the teams aren’t. Meanwhile, the jockeying for the “fortunate four” is in full swing with the ongoing drama of Cincinnati, Notre Dame and others awaiting Alabama’s next move. But that’s what you get with a four-team playoff field derived from five conferences.
We have to realize that the College Football Playoff, while aggravating in its current state, is a major improvement over the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), which was an improvement over the jigsaw-puzzle of New Year’s Day Bowls. But we also have to understand that four is too few and 12 is too many. I’m amazed by the combination of recent reluctance to increase the field from four to eight and the current enthusiasm for bumping the field up to 12 (adding in effect two rounds).
What happened with the “too many games argument?”
There are five Power Conferences (SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Big 12, Pac 12) and each league’s champion — the survivor of a season-long stretch of home and away games plus a title tilt — should have an automatic berth into the playoff. If you do that, a November Oregon-Utah game goes from a curiosity to a conversation piece.
The other three spots should be at-large, so an 11-1 team that had the misfortune of being in the same division as a Georgia, Alabama or Ohio State can be rewarded for a great year. Or perhaps a 12-0 University of Central Florida or Cincinnati is allowed to play for a title. And while there have been one-loss teams ranked fifth that have gone on to win it all after the bowls (Notre Dame in 1977, Miami in 1983), the ninth-ranked team is usually a two-loss club that’s given us enough evidence to exclude them from consideration.
What makes men’s and women’s basketball great is that any team, if it plays well enough, can be on the big stage. Let’s give college football teams the same opportunity.
Maryland (5-6, 2-6 Big Ten) at Rutgers (5-6, 2-6), noon, Big Ten Network.
Terrapins coach Mike Locksley likened this matchup to a “wildcard playoff,” and the winner gets to go bowling while the loser is home for the holidays. Maryland needed a victory over the Rutgers Scarlet Knights to punch its last postseason ticket in 2016, while Rutgers is looking for its first bowl appearance since 2014 (when they beat the Terps 41-38 to end the regular season).
Exhibit A for “figures do not lie, but liars do figure”: The Scarlet Knights defense rank second in the Big Ten on third down (getting stops 70.5% of the time). But their performance on the money down can’t make one forget a pass rush that produces the second-fewest sacks in the conference, nor can it jumpstart an offense that’s ninth on the ground and 11th in the air.
The Terps rank 13th or 14th in most defensive categories (they are 12th in yards allowed) but have to contain an offense that averages under 14 points per game against conference foes. Despite the lack of downfield targets or a productive running game to keep foes honest, Taulia Tagovailoa has had one heck of a season (3,283 yards passing with 21 touchdowns). He’s also going to be the first Maryland quarterback to start every game of the regular season since C.J. Brown in 2014. Brown led the Terps to a bowl that fall.
Presto’s Pick: Terrapins triumph, 37-30.
Navy (2-8, 2-5 AAC) at Temple (3-8, 1-6), noon, ESPNU.
The Navy Midshipmen will have a week off after facing the Owls before their showdown with Army. Even though they came up short against East Carolina last week, there are plenty of things to be positive about regarding how much this team has improved this fall. The Owls are offensively challenged to say the least, ranking last in the AAC in rushing and scoring and second to last in passing and total offense — right ahead of Navy in both categories. But there’s one thing this Midshipman team does well and it’s run the ball (their 229.1 yards per game leads the conference), and Temple allows a league-high 220.7 yards per game on the ground.
Presto’s Pick: Midshipmen make it happen, 34-15.
Virginia Tech (5-6, 3-4 ACC) at Virginia (6-5, 4-3), 3:45 p.m., ACC Network.
The Hokies are playing for their postseason lives while the Cavaliers are dealing with a three-game losing streak, where they’ve coughed up a total of 142 points (I’d do the math but it would be even more depressing). The tale of two programs doesn’t deliver a “best of times, worst of times” this fall as much as the most stable of times and most unstable of times (pardon my Dickens, but “stablest” is still not yet recognized by Webster).
The Hokies are in the middle of a coaching search and a quarterback carousel that smacks of the Mike London era in Charlottesville. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers, despite their three-game slide, have their quarterback situation set with Brennan Armstrong wrapping up his second year as a starter (Tech has played five QBs since Armstrong became the starter for UVa).
The Hokies will play with plenty of emotion for coach J.C. Price, but they are also a team that’s had issues on offense all season, ranking last in the ACC in rushing and total yards. And while the Cavaliers cough up over 30 points per game, they’ve got a healthy Armstrong (404 yards per game) with a ton of weapons at his disposal.
Kippy & Buffy wrap up another great year of tailgating with a Bordeaux at their disposal, feeling that their choice of Château Lynch-Bages two years ago was a factor in the Cavaliers ending a 15-game losing streak in the series.
Last year’s Château Beychevelle backfired so they’re going to go with a 2015 Chateau Léoville-Poyferré. It’s a blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc and “displays a bright, limpid garnet color with purple highlights,” according to the winery’s website. “Enticing notes of black fruit burst from the glass, expressing beautiful concentration of youthfulness.” But like any Bordeaux, there’s more: “Plump and dense on the palate, the tannins possess a generous, creamy structure. Hints of gingerbread and nutmeg complement the intense fruit. A remarkable finish emerges with elegance and freshness.”
Presto’s Pick: A remarkable finish has the Cavaliers coming through 35-24.
Last Week: 5-3