In six weeks, college basketball will tip off with four of its best programs — Michigan State, Duke, Kentucky and Kansas — meeting in a doubleheader at Madison Square Garden. Later in November, the nation’s best will meet in a series of top non-conference tournaments. There will be premier games everywhere you look before December hits.
Compare that to college football’s first month. You can’t — because there is no comparison.
The first four weeks of college football have included four showcase non-conference games: Oregon-Auburn, Clemson-Texas A&M, Texas-LSU and Georgia-Notre Dame. That’s it. That’s the list.
Alabama’s non-conference schedule: Duke, New Mexico State, Southern Mississippi and Western Carolina.
Ohio State’s non-conference schedule: Florida Atlantic, Cincinnati and Miami (Ohio).
Wisconsin’s non-conference schedule: South Florida, Central Michigan and Kent State.
On Saturday, you had Clemson destroying Charlotte, 52-10, Alabama smoking Southern Mississippi, 49-7, and Ohio State crushing Miami (Ohio), 76-5.
These games can’t have any value, for the winners or losers. Backups are in by halftime. The crowds leave early.
That’s not to say the first month of the season hasn’t had drama. There have been big upsets and surprising results. But there have been too many predictable walkovers, the nation’s premier programs merely throwing their jerseys on the field to prevail.
I’m not advocating Clemson and Alabama start scheduling each other — they meet in January every year anyway — or even a major conference challenge against one another, but there needs to be a happy medium. This is no way to generate interest in the sport.
Andrew Elsass had an interesting suggestion at athleticdirectoru.com, suggesting a lottery system for non-conference schedules. You choose one of several different ranking systems for all 130 teams and break them into four tiers. A tier one team would face a tier four team one week, then a tier three team, a tier two team and a fellow tier one team. You can select the opponents randomly, even with a made-for-television show in the spring that would undoubtedly do fantastic ratings.
If the schools are unwilling to schedule tougher, take it out of their hands. This suggestion would work.
This is a problem the sport has to address, especially when it has become so top-heavy, so many of the same teams reaching the playoff every year.
If college basketball can create so many exciting early-season games, why can’t college football?
It’s easy to hammer Jim Harbaugh and Michigan. It’s easy to rip the Wolverines in the aftermath of another ugly loss to a highly ranked opponent, this time a 35-14 blowout to Wisconsin. It’s easy to say Harbaugh has been a failure.
Except, he hasn’t been. He hasn’t restored Michigan to elite status. The Wolverines aren’t title contenders. But this program is in far better shape now than when Harbaugh arrived. It won 10 games in three of his first four seasons. It has recruited exceedingly well and sent players to the NFL.
Just remember where Michigan was before Harbaugh returned to his alma-mater. The Wolverines had one double-digit-winning season in eight years. There is progress, albeit maybe not as much as fans would like.
Bad was getting worse. After three straight losses, UCLA was getting torched by Washington State, trailing by 32 points in the third quarter. Then, something clicked. Chip Kelly’s team awoke, reeling off three touchdowns to close the quarter and knocking off the Cougars, 67-63. The Bruins somehow exploded after failing to score more than 14 points in any of their previous defeats, showing flashes of Kelly’s explosive Oregon teams.
The victory doesn’t mean Kelly will turn UCLA around. It doesn’t indicate the Bruins will get enough wins to be bowl eligible. But it is a start. UCLA and Kelly desperately needed one. That it came against a team ranked 19th in the country at the time adds to its significance.
Clemson (4-0) (Last week: 1)
May as well write the Tigers into the playoff now. There isn’t a team on their schedule, and that includes whomever they play in the ACC championship game, that will make them sweat.
2. Alabama (4-0) (2)
One of these weeks, Alabama will find itself in a game in the fourth quarter. It won’t be next Saturday against SEC West also-ran Ole Miss.
3. Georgia (4-0) (3)
There isn’t a team better up front on both sides of the ball. Just ask Notre Dame, which was held to 46 yards rushing and allowed 187 in a hard-fought 23-17 defeat.
4. Ohio State (4-0) (4)
An upset seemed possible. Then the second quarter began, and Ohio State hung 42 points on Miami (Ohio) in the span of 13:44 of game action — yes, 42. Goodbye, upset.
5. LSU (4-0) (5)
The gauntlet is coming, games against Florida, Auburn and Alabama in the span of a month. For now, LSU can revel in its new explosive offense that is averaging 57.7 points per game.
6. Oklahoma (3-0) (6)
We’re only three weeks away from the Big 12 game of the year, when Texas faces Oklahoma. The scoreboard better be fully charged.
7. Auburn (4-0) (7)
Nobody has two wins more impressive than Auburn’s over Oregon in Arlington, Texas, and at Texas A&M. Nobody has a tougher remaining schedule, either. The Tigers still have to face LSU, Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
8. Wisconsin (3-0) (NR)
It wasn’t just that Wisconsin beat Michigan, it was the way in which it happened, the thorough dismantling of the Wolverines. The Badgers are serious playoff contenders.
9. Texas (3-1) (8)
The good news: Texas won its Big 12 opener and quarterback Sam Ehlinger was again brilliant. The bad news: The defense kept Oklahoma State in the game, causing future concerns.
10. Notre Dame (2-1) (9)
If the Fighting Irish perform as they did in Athens on Saturday night, falling by just a score against loaded Georgia, running the table is realistic.
Dropped out: Michigan (2-1)
(in alphabetical order)
QB Joe Burrow, LSU
It’s hard to believe this is the same player as last year. The numbers sure aren’t similar. Burrow now has more touchdown passes (17) in four games than he had all last season (16), and more than half as many yards through the air.
QB Justin Fields, Ohio State
Six more touchdowns, 223 yards passing and another easy win. Not even the biggest Ohio State fans could’ve expected so much so fast from the talented but previously unproven Fields.
QB Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma
Conference play won’t change much for Hurts. His first opponent is Texas Tech, which comes off a two-touchdown defeat to mediocre-at-best Arizona.
QB Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
Five touchdown passes, four incompletions and the fourth quarter off. Just another typical Saturday afternoon for the junior.
RB Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin
This was an early Heisman statement, a 202-yard, two-touchdown destruction of Michigan. The junior is now averaging a whopping 7.6 yards per carry through three games and has scored 10 touchdowns.