Twitter Picks for College Football Week 13

Game of the Week

#3 Oklahoma (10-1) at #11 Oklahoma State (10-1)
Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, ABC
Favorite:  Oklahoma by 7
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Oklahoma- 3rd, Oklahoma State- 10th

 

Big Game Guarantee(s)

#7 Baylor (9-1) at #19 TCU (9-2)
Friday, 7:30 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite:  Baylor by 1
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Baylor- 7th, TCU- 19th

 

#22 UCLA (8-3) at USC (7-4)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, ABC/ESPN2
Favorite: USC by 3
Stiles on Sports Ranking: UCLA- 20th, USC- unranked

 

#18 Ole Miss (8-3) at #21 Mississippi State (8-3)
Saturday, 7:15 pm ET, ESPN2
Favorite: Ole Miss by 1
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Ole Miss- 19th, Mississippi State- 22nd

 

#13 Florida State (9-2) at #12 Florida (10-1)
Saturday, 7:30 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite: Florida State by 3
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Florida State- 14th, Florida- 9th

 

#6 Notre Dame (10-1) at #9 Stanford (9-2)
Saturday, 7:30 pm ET, FOX
Favorite: Stanford by 4
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Notre Dame- 4th, Stanford- 12th

 

(Extremely Mild) Upset of the Week

#8 Ohio State (10-1) at #10 Michigan (9-2)
Saturday, 12:00 pm ET, ABC
Favorite: Ohio State by 1
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Ohio State- 8th, Michigan- 11th

 

NFL Game of the Week

New England Patriots (10-0) at Denver Broncos (8-2)
Sunday, 8:30 pm ET, NBC
Favorite: Patriots by 3

 

 

Season to Date
Overall Record: 55-42
Last Week: 6-6
College Overall Record: 46-36
Game of the Week: 7-5
Big Game Guarantee: 26-14
Upset of the Week: 6-12
Closer Than the Experts Think: 7-6
NFL Game of the Week: 8-6

College Football Power Rankings for Week 12

Going into the Thanksgiving holiday, there’s a lot of programs who have a lot to be thankful for.  Clemson and Iowa, for instance, enter the weekend undefeated, as they take on rivals in traditional Thanksgiving weekend matchups.  An additional 12 teams have just one loss, with nine of those as well as a pair of two loss teams having, at the very least, an outside chance at the College Football Playoff.  After losses by two of last week’s top five, and big wins by Oklahoma, Michigan State, Baylor, and others, the rankings have been shaken up a bit, heading into the final weekend of the regular season for a majority of the teams in CFP contention.

1. Clemson (11-0, Last Week: 1st, CFP Rankings: 1st)
The outcome was never in doubt as the Tigers defeated Wake Forest (3-8), 33-13, although Deshaun Watson may have hurt his Heisman chances with two interceptions.  After eating turkey on Thursday, the Tigers are hoping to swallow up some chickens in their rivalry game on Saturday at the South Carolina Gamecocks (3-8), ahead of an already-sold out ACC Championship Game matchup against North Carolina (10-1) on December 5.

2. Alabama (10-1, LW: 2nd, CFP: 2nd)
The Crimson Tide took care of business against FCS playoff-bound foe Charleston Southern (9-2), 56-6.  Heisman contender Derrick Henry scored twice, although he only got 68 yards as Nick Saban allowed several other backs to get some carries in the one-sided affair.  The Iron Bowl against Auburn (6-5) is next, and while the Tide are big favorites, the game is at Auburn and rivalry games like this one can be hard to predict.

3. Oklahoma (10-1, LW: 6th, CFP: 3rd)
Honestly, the Sooners’ win over TCU (9-2) wasn’t the prettiest victory of the season.  Quarterback Baker Mayfield, who entered the game as a Heisman contender, left with a head injury after a lackluster first half, and replacement Trevor Knight played even worse.  TCU was without both quarterback Trevone Boykin and wide receiver Josh Doctson.  Oklahoma led, however, 30-13 in the fourth before holding on for a 30-29 win when a TCU two-point conversion attempt failed in the final minute.  It’s a win over a very quality opponent, and it puts the Sooners in third in the committee’s rankings, heading into the “Bedlam” rivalry against Oklahoma State (10-1) most likely one win away from the Playoff.

4. Notre Dame (10-1, LW: 4th, CFP: 6th)
Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer threw three interceptions and the Irish were outrushed 214-127, but Notre Dame survived their bout with Boston College (3-8), 19-16, in an incredible atmosphere at Fenway Park.  While CFP committee chair Jeff Long said Notre Dame’s close game with the Eagles certainly wasn’t a resume builder, the main reason the Irish dropped to sixth in the rankings was the big wins by the teams who passed them.  Nonetheless, it puts the Irish in a situation where they will now likely need some help to reach the four-team Playoff field, as they play their regular season finale Saturday at Stanford (9-2).

5. Michigan State (10-1, LW: 10th, CFP: 5th)
Speaking of ugly wins, you could say the Spartans got one, although it was a beautiful mess for the fans in East Lansing.  Sparty defeated Ohio State (10-1), 17-14, despite throwing for only 91 yards and not having a player rush for more than 65.  As a unit, however, the team rushed for 203 yards, and defensively the Spartans held Ohio State to 132 total yards, as Michigan State won the game on a last-second field goal by Michael Geiger, improving to 6-1 in their last seven games against top 10 opponents.  There is currently a three-way tie in the Big Ten East between the Spartans, Ohio State, and Michigan, although the Buckeyes and Wolverines play each other Saturday.  With wins over both, the Spartans simply need to beat Penn State (7-4) at home to clinch the division.

6. Iowa (11-0, LW: 7th, CFP: 4th)
Should Michigan State clinch the Big Ten East, they would meet Iowa in the league’s title game on December 5.  The Hawkeyes defeated Purdue (2-9), 40-20.  While the game wasn’t statistically overwhelming, although Jordan Canzeri ran for 95 yards and a touchdown, the team has made it through 11 games undefeated by playing well enough as a group to score more than the opponent.  The Hawkeyes are now fourth in the CFP rankings, although I have them lower due to more close wins against lighter teams than other Playoff contenders.  This week, the Hawkeyes play Nebraska (5-6) in a border rivalry, before heading to Indianapolis next week for the Big Ten title game.

7. Baylor (9-1, LW: 9th, CFP: 7th)
The Bears entered their game with Oklahoma State (10-1) on their second quarterback, as Jarrett Stidham had previously replaced Seth Russell, and during the game lost Stidham as well.  They turned to Chris Johnson, who was third string just a few weeks ago, and he delivered down the stretch to secure Baylor’s 45-35 win over the Cowboys, as the Bears outgained the Cowboys 700-441.  Yes, that’s 700 yards of offense:  396 passing yards and 304 rushing yards.  Friday’s game against TCU (9-2) is still extremely important, as the Bears still have a legitimate Playoff shot, but it won’t be the matchup of two undefeated teams that many, including me, expected throughout much of the season.

8. Ohio State (10-1, LW: 3rd, CFP: 8th)
The Buckeyes streaks of 23 straight wins and 30 straight conference wins were snapped on Saturday, in a 17-14 loss to Michigan State (10-1).  The Buckeyes gained only 132 yards, with 86 on the ground and only 46 through the air.  Heisman contender Ezekiel Elliott rushing just 12 times for 33 yards, although he did score one of the Buckeyes two touchdowns, and criticized the Buckeyes’ play calling after the game (although he has since apologized).  A Big Ten title, and a CFP bid, are still possibilities, and while the Buckeyes need help to earn either, first they must beat Michigan (9-2), which will be no small task, in one of the biggest rivalries in all of sports.

9. Florida (10-1, LW: 8th, CFP: 12th)
After entering the game on a string of recent games in which they survived, but didn’t dominate, Florida Atlantic (2-9) stretched the Gators even further, as it took overtime to dispatch the Owls, 20-14.  Half the Gators 10 wins this season have come by seven points or less, and their loss to LSU looks worse now than it did at the time.  While the Playoff committee dropped the Gators down to 12th, I won’t go that far, but I have slipped them a spot to ninth.  However, the Gators can help a relatively weak resume the next two weeks, first hosting rival Florida State (9-2), before playing Alabama (10-1) in the SEC Championship Game on December 5.

10. Oklahoma State (10-1, LW: 5th, CFP: 11th)
The Cowboys offense, while it doesn’t necessarily have the high-scoring ability of other Big 12 teams (Baylor, for instance), is still pretty good.  We learned Saturday, however, that the defense may need some work, as they allowed 700 yards of offense to Baylor (9-1) in a 45-35 loss, their first of the season.  Oklahoma State can still win the Big 12 with a win Saturday over Oklahoma (10-1) in Bedlam, one of the best-named rivalries in sports, and a Baylor loss to TCU, but for the Pokes to do their half of that scenario and win Saturday in Stillwater against the Sooners, they will have to improve defensively, as they face another good offensive club.

11. Michigan (9-2, LW: 12th, CFP: 10th)
12. Stanford (9-2, LW: 14th, CFP: 9th)
13. North Carolina (10-1, LW: 16th, CFP: 14th)
14. Florida State (9-2, LW: 17th, CFP: 13th)
15. Northwestern (9-2, LW: 19th, CFP: 16th)
16. TCU (9-2, LW: 13th, CFP: 19th)
17. Navy (9-1, LW: 18th, CFP: 15th)
18. Oregon (8-3, LW: 20th, CFP: 17th)
19. Ole Miss (8-3, LW: unranked, CFP: 18th)
20. UCLA (8-3, LW: unranked, CFP: 22nd)
21. Houston (10-1, LW: 11th, CFP: unranked)
22. Mississippi State (8-3, LW: 24th, CFP: 21st)
23. Washington State (8-3, LW: 23rd, CFP: 20th)
24. Temple (9-2, LW: unranked, CFP: 25th)
25. Toledo (10-1, LW: unranked, CFP: 24th)

Also ranked in CFP Rankings: Utah (8-3, LW: 22nd, CFP: 23rd)

Fell from Rankings: LSU (7-3, LW: 15th), Wisconsin (8-3, LW: 21st), Utah, USC (7-4, LW: 25th)

NASCAR Championship Round Preview

After a choatic Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s version of the playoffs has reached its finale, the Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. are the four drivers competing for the title, and whoever finishes highest among them on Sunday will win the title.  All four have had exciting seasons, and they bring four excellent storylines to the event.

The biggest storyline is Jeff Gordon.  He is retiring after Sunday’s race, and will attempt to win the Cup championship for the fifth time in his storied career.  Gordon has won 93 races in his 23 year career, which started in the finale of the 1992 season, on a day with storylines similar to this year’s finale, with a frantic championship battle occurring alongside Richard Petty’s final start.  This time, however, the legend who is retiring is also one of the title contenders, and could become the first driver since Ned Jarrett to walk away from the sport as reigning champion (and the first to win a title in his final start).

While Gordon does have four titles, he has never won a championship since NASCAR established the Chase format in 2004, something he has said he would like to accomplish.  Gordon qualified for the Championship Round with a win at Martinsville, and Hendrick Motorsports has won each of the last three races.

The other three storylines are mildly overshadowed by Gordon, but are all still very compelling nonetheless.  Kevin Harvick won last year’s Sprint Cup title in the first year of the Chase Grid format (the Chase was previously the accumulation of points from the final 10 races), after finishing third in points on three previous occasions.  If Harvick could win the championship, he would be the first back-to-back titlist since  Jimmie Johnson’s five straight titles from 2006-10, and the first excluding Johnson’s historic run since Gordon in 1997-98.  Harvick won the title last year in his first year at Stewart-Haas, so if he wins another on Sunday, through two seasons Harvick will have not lost a title with the team.  He came to Stewart-Haas after 13 seasons at Richard Childress Racing, where his highest points finish was third, on three occasions.

Martin Truex Jr. has never finished higher than 10th in the final points standings, and yet he can win the championship on Sunday.  Truex is driving for Furniture Row Racing, a small, one-car team based in Denver, CO, far away from the metro Charlotte area where a majority of the teams are based.  While the team does have a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, they are still officially a one-car team, and would be the first such team to win a championship since, ironically, Childress in 1994 with Dale Earnhardt.  With three career wins, Truex would have the least career wins by any Cup champion in the modern era if he wins the title without winning the race, or would tie the mark if he wins the race (Terry Labonte had four in 1984).  Truex and the little team that could are certainly underdogs, although throughout his career Truex has performed well at Homestead (see below).  Truex and longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex are an inspirational story, as Pollex has been fighting a courageous public battle with ovarian cancer, giving Truex a unique perspective that, while this race is certainly important, it is, after all, just a race.

Kyle Busch entered 2015 as one of the title favorites, but his season came to an abrupt halt at Daytona.  In the XFinity Series event the day before the Daytona 500, Busch broke his right leg and his left foot in a vicious accident, and missed the first 11 races of the Sprint Cup Series season.  He received a waiver from NASCAR to allow him to be eligible for the Chase, and won four out of five races during a superb summer stretch.  Some have questioned why the one-time prodigy should be eligible for the championship after missing nearly a third of the season, but NASCAR’s current rules are written to allow such a scenario, which makes sense in such a dangerous sport.  Busch has never finished higher than fourth in points, and this is easily his best shot so far in his career to win the Sprint Cup title.

So, who is the favorite in this heavyweight fight?  To figure that out, let’s look at how these drivers have fared throughout their careers at Homestead, as well as on the intermediate-length tracks this season.

Looking back through each Homestead race since 2006 (Truex’s first full season in the Sprint Cup Series), if each Homestead race were hypothetically for the championship amongst these four, Harvick would have won the title four times, Truex three times, and Gordon twice, while Busch would not have won the title once.  Over that span, Harvick and Gordon have each won once, but the hypothetical title would have been won with a top four finish each year.  I will provide the disclaimer that the race may have been run differently if these four had been competing for the title, so this isn’t exactly the most scientific formula to pick the winner.

Since 2006, Harvick has an excellent average finish of 6.6 at Homestead, with a career average finish of 7.6 at the track, and has six top fives and 12 top 10s his 14 starts there, winning last year’s race to clinch the title.

Gordon’s numbers at the track are similar, although the average is a little lower at 10.6, and is 11.3 since 2006, with a win (in 2012), seven top fives, and 12 top 10s in 16 starts (NASCAR started racing at Homestead in 1999; otherwise Gordon might have 23 starts).

Homestead is one of Truex’s best tracks on the circuit, with an average of 7.6 since his first full-time season (and 10.0 when including his start there during a part-time 2004 season), and although he has never won at the speedway, he has a second, a third, and a fourth, and seven top 10s in 10 starts.  His only finish outside the top 11 was a 17th last season, during a horrible season in which his Furniture Row team led one lap all year, a stat which makes his run to Homestead that much more remarkable.

For Busch, Homestead is not one of his better tracks, as he has struggled to an average finish of 23.1 in 10 starts, with nearly as many DNF’s (2) as top 10 finished (3), and only three lead lap finishes in 10 starts.  The three top 10s for Busch at Homestead are fourth, seventh, and eighth, meaning he will likely need to have the best Homestead race of his career on Sunday to have a shot at the title.  However, all three of Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have all had success at the track, and with Busch being the only Gibbs driver in the championship fight, he can use the organization’s full resources (although each of the four can say the same thing).

At intermediate tracks this season, Harvick was the highest finisher in seven of the 11 races, with Busch the highest in three, Truex in one, and Gordon in none.  While that sounds one-sided favoring Harvick, remember that Busch missed nearly a third of the season with injury, during which time Harvick was the highest finisher at all four intermediate races.  After Busch came back at Charlotte, however, the two drivers were even with three such races as the highest finisher.

In these 11 races, Harvick and Busch each won one, although Harvick finished in second on four occasions, and third once.  Besides his win, Busch’s highest finish is fourth.  Truex has a second and a third, and eight total top 10s.  Gordon’s highest intermediate finish is a fourth, and his next highest is a seventh, with only five top 10s, showing this type of track isn’t Gordon’s strongest.  On the other hand, however, Gordon has improved throughout the year, both on intermediate tracks and overall, so these numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story.

Other than Gordon’s 13.5 average finish at intermediate tracks this year, the other three contenders have nearly identical averages, with Busch at 8.1, Harvick at 8.4, and Truex at 8.7.

It would not be surprising for any of these four to win the championship on Sunday, as all have earned the right to compete for the title in the finale.  As for making a pick, it’s nearly impossible to narrow even the small field of these four down to one favorite.

While Busch may be at a slight disadvantage with his less than stellar Homestead record, he has shown through his career he can be a threat anywhere, and that he can be successful at an intermediate track.

Truex is the definite underdog, but he’s a threat for a strong finish any time he cranks his engine at Homestead.

Harvick is, to many the clear favorite, and has earned that distinction with his strong season, particularly at similar circuits, as well as his Homestead record, and his experience in winning the title in this format a year ago.

The numbers don’t favor Gordon as much as the others, but he is the sentimental favorite, as he is trying to finish off the Hollywood ending to one of the greatest careers the sport has ever seen, and ride into the sunset as a five-time champion.  He also has the most recent race win of the four, three weeks ago at Martinsville, and posted the fastest 10-lap average in Saturday’s final practice.

While Sunday’s race will be unpredictable, one thing is for sure:  this crazy NASCAR season is going to have an incredible finish.

Twitter Picks for College Football Week 12

I found the following paragraph from a post from 2013 picking college football games, and it applies this week too, after last week I hit some picks while others didn’t make me look exceptionally bright.

“We learned last week that this weekly post of mine, or others like it, are just simple predictions that can be wrong in a heartbeat.  But, in the spirit of the game, and in preparation for another big week of college football, those like me who think they can predict the future continue.  That being said, here are my picks for Week 9.”

So, that being said, here are this week’s Twitter picks.

Game of the Week

#9 Michigan State (9-1) at #3 Ohio State (10-0)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, ABC
Favorite: Ohio State by 14
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Michigan State- 10th, Ohio State- 3rd

 

Big Game Guarantee(s)

#10 Baylor (8-1) at #6 Oklahoma State (10-0)
Saturday, 7:30 pm ET, FOX
Favorite: even
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Baylor- 9th, Oklahoma State- 5th

 

#18 TCU (9-1) at #7 Oklahoma (9-1)
Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, ABC
Favorite: Oklahoma by 11
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  TCU- 13th, Oklahoma- 6th

 

#20 Northwestern (8-2) at #25 Wisconsin (8-2)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, BTN
Favorite: Wisconsin by 10
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Northwestern- 19th, Wisconsin- 21st

 

#24 USC (7-3) at #23 Oregon (7-3)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite: Oregon by 4
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  USC- 25th, Oregon- 20th

 

California (6-4) at #11 Stanford (8-2)
Saturday, 10:30 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite: Stanford by 11
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  California- unranked, Stanford- 14th

 

#21 Memphis (8-2) at Temple (8-2)
Saturday, 12:00 pm ET, ESPNU
Favorite: Memphis by 1
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Upset(s) of the Week

#15 LSU (7-2) at #24 Ole Miss (7-3)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, CBS
Favorite: Ole Miss by 7
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  LSU- 15th, Ole Miss- unranked

 

UCLA (7-3) at #13 Utah (8-2)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, FOX
Favorite: Utah by 1
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  UCLA- unranked, Utah- 22nd

 

Closer Than the Experts Think

Purdue (2-8) at #5 Iowa (10-0)
Saturday, 12:00 pm ET, ESPN2
Favorite: Iowa by 22
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Purdue- unranked, Iowa- 7th

 

NFL Game(s) of the Week

Green Bay Packers (6-3) at Minnesota Vikings (7-2)
Sunday, 4:25 pm ET, FOX
Favorite: Vikings by 1

 

Cincinnati Bengals (8-1) at Arizona Cardinals (7-2)
Sunday, 8:30 pm ET, NBC
Favorite: Cardinals by 5

 

 

Season to Date
Overall Record: 49-36
Last Week: 7-5
College Overall Record: 41-31
Game of the Week: 7-4
Big Game Guarantee: 23-11
Upset of the Week: 5-11
Closer Than the Experts Think: 6-6
NFL Game of the Week: 7-5

 

The Day Modern NASCAR Was Born

November 15, 1992 was a historic day on multiple levels for NASCAR, as a race in Atlanta marked the end of the closest points battle at the time in the sport’s history, the end of the career of Richard Petty, and the career debut of Jeff Gordon.

As fondly as the day is remembered by NASCAR fans, the statement that it was one of the greatest races the sport has ever seen doesn’t do justice to the day and its impact.

No, the date of November 15, 1992, should be remembered as a birthday, because the NASCAR in its modern form was born that afternoon in Georgia.

An Assortment of Storylines

The race was the perfect storm of events, as while Richard Petty, “The King”, was making his final Cup Series start, that arguably wasn’t the biggest storyline.

Six drivers entered the race with a mathematical shot to win the Cup title, with the threesome of Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, and Bill Elliott all having realistic chances at the title.  Of course, the storyline surrounding Gordon’s first start wasn’t a big deal until later, as Gordon went on to become one of the best drivers in NASCAR history.

Petty, who won a record 200 races in his illustrious 35-year career, along with a record seven Cup championships (Dale Earnhardt would tie this record in 1994), was 55 years old in 1992, and had not won a race since 1984.  His best finish in his final season had been a modest 15th, and he would finish 26th in the series point standings, but that didn’t stop the fans from adoring him at each track along his “Fan Appreciation Tour,” as they wanted a glimpse of The King’s final season.

In addition to the three main title contenders, Petty’s son Kyle, along with Harry Gant and Mark Martin, had mathematical chances at the title, marking the only time in NASCAR history that six drivers had a chance to win the championship in the season’s final race.  However, unless Allison, Kulwicki, and Elliott all had problems or did poorly in the race, Kyle Petty, Gant, and Martin had no realistic shot.

The three main contenders for the title got to where they were in 1992 in three different ways.

Davey Allison was the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer and 84-time race winner Bobby Allison.  Davey had a rapid rise to NASCAR stardom, winning Rookie of the Year in 1987 after becoming the first rookie to win multiple races, and finishing second to his father at the Daytona 500 the following year.

While the road was made easier by Allison having a father among the sport’s greats, he had still gotten to the point of title contention in 1992 through hard work, and had had a rough season.

The humble Alabaman had several vicious crashes causing injuries which he continued to drive through in subsequent races, and also suffered the death of his brother, Clifford, in a racing accident at Michigan International Speedway.  Despite all this, Allison led the points entering Atlanta, on the strength of five wins.

Elliott had come up through the ranks of racing as part of a family operation based in small-town Dawsonville, Georgia, and had won the Winston Million bonus in 1985, winning three of the sport’s four biggest races to do so, before winning the Cup Series title in 1988.

He was with a new team in 1992, with owner Junior Johnson, which was at the time one of the top rides in the sport.  Elliott entered the finale in Atlanta with four wins on the season.

Kulwicki was the underdog (so much so that during the Atlanta race, his Ford Thunderbird had a sticker over the “Th” so it simply read “Underbird”).  He had moved south in 1985 to pursue a full-time NASCAR career, beginning with very little money and resources.

By the start of 1992, as a driver-owner with his own team, Kulwicki had won three races, and had grabbed the attention of big-name team owners, including Junior Johnson, but was determined to do it his own way, and continued racing for his own team.

The Wisconsinite won two races in ’92, which was less than both Allison and Elliott, but was consistent enough to be in the thick of the points battle heading into the final battle, and had overcome nearly all of a 278-point deficit with six races remaining (in the old points format, with each position worth 3-5 points) with some excellent runs in the weeks prior to Atlanta.

Allison entered the race leading the standings by 30 points, and could clinch the Cup title with a finish of sixth or better.  Kulwicki was second, 10 points ahead of third place Elliott.

An Action-Filled Afternoon

A crowd of 160,000, the largest attendance for any sporting event in Georgia, converged at Atlanta Motor Speedway for this historic afternoon, and they saw action early.

Pole-sitter Rick Mast was involved in a crash on the opening lap, forcing the whole field to scramble to avoid him.  All of the title contenders got through except for Allison, who was rear-ended as he checked up to avoid the crash, and had some minor fender damage.

But it wasn’t too big of a setback, as by the 90-lap mark of the 328-lap event, Allison had gained the race lead.

Petty, who hadn’t been a threat to win for all of the 1992 season, simply wanted to run the entire race.  But on lap 95, The King was caught up in an accident that started in front of him, as he rear-ended Rich Bickle, causing heavy front-end damage and breaking the oil cooler, causing the car to catch on fire.

Petty’s car would not appear back on the track until the very end of the race, when he drove the car, without a front end, for the final two laps, but The King was able to avoid a dreaded DNF in his final start.

As the race went on, Kyle Petty, Gant, and Martin all fell out of contention, leaving the top three to battle it out for the championship.

With the race’s many storylines, Gordon’s debut was, as most debuts are, an afterthought — although on another day it may have gotten a small amount of attention, considering Gordon had finished fourth in the 1992 NASCAR Busch Series (now XFinity Series) standings.

However, after Gordon’s novice pit crew left a roll of duct tape on the hood, and it fell out on the track, Gordon became part of the championship storyline, as Allison ran over the tape, causing a moderate amount of damage.

Allison’s car didn’t handle as well from that point forward.  He fell backward after running over the debris but, as the race entered the closing stages, had worked his way back up into the sixth position, the very spot where he could clinch the title no matter what Kulwicki or Elliott did.

Then, disaster struck.

With 74 to go, Ernie Irvan blew a tire exiting turn four and spun right into Allison’s path, leaving him with no way to avoid hitting Irvan.

Allison tried to drive the car away, but the crash had ruined both his steering and his championship hopes.  He would finish 43 laps down in 27th, and after his misfortune, the championship battle was down to Kulwicki and Elliott.

Allison, who was known for his contagiously positive attitude, responded afterward to a reporter’s statement that the outcome was “almost cruel” by saying, “Nah, it just wasn’t meant to be.”

Allison was known for saying, “Whatever life throws at me, there’s nothing me and the Lord can’t handle together.”  Life had thrown plenty at Allison, both on this November day and throughout all of 1992, and yet Allison showed tremendous grace in defeat, finishing third in the final standings.

Chasing the Battle — And the War

Kulwicki had taken the lead with 118 laps to go over Elliott, who was running second.  As the final pit stop of the race approached, Kulwicki’s crew determined that if he stayed in the lead until lap 309 he would clinch, at minimum, a tie with Elliott for leading the most laps — and five bonus points.

In waiting until lap 309, however, Kulwicki nearly ran out of fuel.  When he did pit with 19 to go, Elliott, who still had to pit, inherited the lead.  Kulwicki couldn’t get off of pit road quickly due to a transmission issue, so when Elliott pitted at lap 314, he stayed in front of Kulwicki.

Terry Labonte stayed on the track to lead the following lap, before Elliott retook the lead with 12 to go.  That lap led by Labonte ensured that Kulwicki would lead the most laps outright, meaning he would, in fact, get the five bonus points (and Elliott would not; had they tied for the most laps led, both would have received five points).

Kulwicki’s crew wasn’t sure if they got enough fuel in the car, meaning that for the final laps, Kulwicki had to save fuel, and couldn’t try to run down Elliott for the win.

However, Kulwicki’s crew knew that if their driver could just stay in second behind Elliott, he would still gain enough points to win the title, because he was assured of the laps led bonus.

Elliott took the checkered flag as the race winner, for his fifth win of the year.  Ironically enough, the next driver to cross the finish line behind Elliott was Richard Petty, 233 laps down in 35th.

Eight seconds behind Elliott, Kulwicki crossed the line to finish the race in second, and clinched his first Cup series championship.

Three Celebrations

Elliott went to victory lane, where he called the win a hollow victory, as he won the battle but lost the war to Kulwicki.

Kulwicki celebrated the title by doing a backwards victory lap, which he called the “Polish victory lap”.

He had celebrated with the Polish victory lap after his first Cup win at Phoenix in 1988, but NASCAR wasn’t particularly fond of this celebration so Kulwicki agreed not to perform it again until he won a championship.

So that afternoon in Atlanta, Kulwicki, who was the first owner-driver to win a title since Petty in 1979, got to celebrate just like he ran his team — his way.

After Elliott and Kulwicki were interviewed on ESPN’s race broadcast, the stage was set for Petty’s farewell.  He drove his battered car around the 1.522-mile track one last time, at a much slower pace to allow everyone a final glimpse of The King as he waved out the window to the throngs of his adoring fans.

Gordon’s debut wasn’t a memorable one.  After the pit road gaffe which subsequently affected Allison, Gordon, while battling a loose racecar, spun out and hit the wall on lap 164.  He was unable to continue, and finished 31st, a finish that was not at all indicative of the incredible career that had just begun.

A Chase is Born

The impact of this race on the history of NASCAR is matched by very few individual races, ranking alongside the 1979 Daytona 500 (the first live flag-to-flag telecast, ending in a classic finish, and an infamous fight) and the 2001 Daytona 500 (the first race of NASCAR’s lucrative new FOX/NBC television deal, ending with the death of Dale Earnhardt), among others.

Such a close championship battle was unusual in 1992 — the 10-point margin was the closest in the history of NASCAR at the time, beating the 11-point margin in 1979 when Richard Petty beat Darrell Waltrip — and in many years the championship had already been decided before the final race.

It is certainly possible, however, that after the 1992 finale, the wheels started turning among the suits at NASCAR to try to figure out a way to have the same level of drama each and every year.

It was another 12 years before the Chase for the Cup was born in 2004, but in the interim there were very few close championship battles, and none nearly as tight or intense as the battle between Kulwicki, Elliott, and Allison that afternoon in Atlanta.

Once the first Chase was established, using the final 10 races of the season as a form of playoffs for the sport, the first edition in 2004 was very similar to 1992, with five drivers (including both Martin and Gordon) entering the final race at Homestead-Miami with a mathematical shot at the title, and three with a realistic chance.  The record for the closest championship battle was broken, as Kurt Busch won the title by a mere eight points over Jimmie Johnson, with Gordon 16 points back in third.

Over each of the first 10 editions of the Chase, the championship came down to the final race, although some years the battle was closer than others.  In 2011, in the first year of a simpler points system in which the basis is that each position is worth one point, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards ended the Chase exactly tied, with Stewart winning the title based on the tiebreaker of most wins.

Beginning last year, in NASCAR’s new Chase Grid format, the title fight comes down to a winner-take-all finale with the top four championship contenders.  In the first finale of this new system, with drama to match the championship fight from 1992, Kevin Harvick won the race and the championship, with title contender Ryan Newman finishing in second, and three of the four Chase drivers having a shot to win the title on the final restart.

Sunday, as the latest installment of the Chase comes to a dramatic close, Gordon will be the only driver in the field who was on the track in the 1992 finale, and will also be one of the four drivers competing for a championship, alongside Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr.

As Gordon competes for a title in his final start before retirement, perhaps he should reflect on the historic championship battle in his first start 23 years ago as a big part of the reason he is trying to win a title in this format, and be thankful for the Chase.  Without the playoff-style series of races, Gordon would have had no shot at a series-long points championship this year, as he struggled for much of the season before running well enough in the Chase to qualify for the Championship Round.  (On the other hand, without the Chase Gordon would have theoretically won championships in 2007, 2010, and 2014.)

Changing of the Guard

Another impact the 1992 finale had on the sport is that it was a changing of the guard, with Gordon starting his career just as Petty ended his.

Petty wasn’t the only time to retire around this time, as Cale Yarborough, Benny Parsons, and David Pearson had all retired within the six years before Petty’s farewell, and Buddy Baker had run his final race earlier in the 1992 season.  Bobby Allison’s career also ended, albeit by injury and not retirement, four years before Petty retired.

Just as these stars were all leaving the sport, it created space for the stardom that Gordon would enjoy over the rest of the 1990’s, and through the rest of his career until his swan song season this year.

But Gordon’s entry wasn’t the only one during this time, as Bobby Labonte, who had debuted in 1991, moved up to the Cup series in 1993, and within ten years of that fateful Atlanta afternoon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Jimmie Johnson had all entered the Cup Series ranks.

The stars being phased out during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s were all from the South, and the statement that NASCAR was simply a regional sport based in the South still had some resonance.  Only five of the top 15 finishers in Atlanta in ’92 were from outside the South.

Gordon, on the other hand, was originally from California, and grew up in Indiana, giving the sport a national star to take into a new era and an explosion in popularity from coast to coast.  This continued with the rest of the drivers who came to the Cup ranks shortly after Gordon, with every driver mentioned above except Earnhardt Jr. coming from outside the South.

Kulwicki and Allison might would have been stars through the rest of the 90’s too — both were entering their prime with the 1992 championship battle — but within eight months of the 1992 finale, both were gone.

Kulwicki died on April 1, 1993, when a plane taking him and sponsor representatives for Hooters to a race at Bristol crashed on approach to the Tri-Cities Regional Airport, killing all five on board.

Allison died on July 13, 1993, while attempting to land a helicopter he was piloting in the infield during a test session at Talladega Superspeedway.

Kulwicki was 38, and Allison was 32, robbing the sport of the remaining careers of two of its best drivers.

While Elliott didn’t suffer an untimely death like his fellow ’92 title contenders, his career did go downhill after that day in Atlanta.  He only won one more race over the following two seasons with Junior Johnson, before racing as an owner-driver for the following six seasons, going winless, then winning four races in a three year stint with owner Ray Evernham (who was Gordon’s crew chief from his debut at Atlanta in ’92 through 2000).  Elliott’s final full-time season was 2003, although he ran occasional races until 2012.

While his career did extend into the new millennium, Elliott’s prime ended with his win at Atlanta and his near miss in the championship.

Full Circle

This weekend, as Gordon has shot at a career-ending title, the thought of such an ending is quite remarkable when compared to how all of the aforementioned stars ended their careers.  Those drivers didn’t so much finish with a flourish, but instead faded into the sunset.

Although Gordon is 11 years younger than Petty was in 1992, the emotions of the final season are similar, yet Gordon has a chance to end with a championship, something that has never been done (although Ned Jarrett retired midway through 1966 as the reigning champion), whereas Petty struggled through a mediocre farewell.

The storylines of this Sunday are similar to that of 1992, except this time the legend that is retiring doubles as one of the championship contenders.

Looking through the prism of this weekend’s championship battle in the Sprint Cup Series, it is important to look at 1992 as the first suspenseful and dramatic championship battle.

The finale in Atlanta that afternoon laid the groundwork for the sport’s future in more ways than one, making November 15, 1992 the day that NASCAR, in its modern form, was born.

 

 

1992 Hooters 500, Results
(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Run, Laps Led, Points)

1. Bill Elliott, 11, Junior Johnson & Associates, Ford, 328, 102, 180
2. Alan Kulwicki, 14, AK Racing, Ford, 328, 103, 180
3. Geoffrey Bodine, 8, Bud Moore Engineering, Ford, 328, 1, 170
4. Jimmy Spencer, 18, Bobby Allison Racing, Ford, 328, 0, 160
5. Terry Labonte, 6, Hagan Racing, Chevrolet, 328, 1, 160
6. Rusty Wallace, 15, Penske Racing, Pontiac, 328, 0, 150
7. Sterling Marlin, 12, Junior Johnson & Associates, Ford, 327, 0, 146
8. Jimmy Hensley, 34, Cale Yarborough Motorsports, Ford, 326, 0, 142
9. Ted Musgrave, 22, RaDiUs Motorsports, Ford, 326, 0, 138
10. Dale Jarrett, 32, Joe Gibbs Racing, Chevrolet, 326, 0, 134
Notables:
13. Harry Gant, 29, Leo Jackson Motorsports, Oldsmobile, 324, 0, 124
16. Kyle Petty, 20, SABCO Racing, Pontiac, 320, 0, 115
23. Darrell Waltrip, 24, Darrell Waltrip Motorsports, Chevrolet, 307, 0, 94
26. Dale Earnhardt, 3, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 299, 44, 90
27. Davey Allison, 17, Robert Yates Racing, Ford, 285, 5, 87
31. Jeff Gordon, 21, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 164, 0, 70
32. Mark Martin, 4, Roush Racing, Ford, 160, 47, 72
35. Richard Petty, 39, Petty Enterprises, Pontiac, 95, 0, 58

 

1992 Winston Cup, Final Standings
1. Alan Kulwicki, AK Racing, 4078

2. Bill Elliott, Junior Johnson & Associates, 4068, -10
3. Davey Allison, Robert Yates Racing, 4015, -63
4. Harry Gant, Leo Jackson Motorsports, 3955, -123
5. Kyle Petty, SABCO Racing, 3945, -133
6. Mark Martin, Roush Racing, 3887, -191
7. Ricky Rudd, Hendrick Motorsports, 3735, -343
8. Terry Labonte, Hagan Racing, 3674, -404
9. Darrell Waltrip, Darrell Waltrip Motorsports, 3659, -419
10. Sterling Marlin, Junior Johnson & Associates, 3603, -475
Notables:
12. Dale Earnhardt, Richard Childress Racing, 3574, -504
13. Rusty Wallace, Penske Racing, 3556, -522
19. Dale Jarrett, Joe Gibbs Racing, 3251, -827
26. Richard Petty, Petty Enterprises, 2731, -1347
79. Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports, 70, -4008

College Football Power Rankings for Week 11

There are just two weeks left in the college football regular season, and we are in the midst of an incredible race to reach College Football Playoff.  In my estimation, there are 19 teams that still have a chance to make the four-team tournament, if things fall their way, and as many as 12 have a realistic shot if they win out, particularly since several of these teams still have games left against each other.  That being said, here’s how the contenders stack up in this week’s power rankings:

1. Clemson (10-0, Last Week: 1st, College Football Playoff Ranking: 1st)
It wasn’t necessarily the prettiest win, but the Tigers got out of the Carrier Dome at Syracuse (3-7) still undefeated, on the strength of Deshaun Watson throwing for 368 yards and rushing for 105 yards, accounting for three touchdowns.  This week, the Tigers host Wake Forest (3-7), who hasn’t won in Death Valley since 1998, a week before their rivalry game against South Carolina (3-7).

2. Alabama (9-1, LW: 3rd, CFP: 2nd)
The Crimson Tide faced a road test Saturday at Mississippi State (7-3), and passed it with flying colors, beating the Bulldogs, 31-6.  Derrick Henry, who according to some analysts has now become the Heisman frontrunner, ran for 204 yards and two touchdowns in Starkville, and now totals 1,458 yards for the season.  This week the Tide host Charleston Southern (9-1), a top 10 team in FCS, before traveling to Auburn (5-5) for the Iron Bowl next week.

3. Ohio State (10-0, LW: 2nd, CFP: 3rd)
The Buckeyes extended their record Big Ten winning streak on Saturday, winning their 30th straight conference game, 28-3, over Illinois (5-5).  Ezekiel Elliott, who is a Heisman contender, rushed for 181 yards and two touchdowns in the win.  This week, the Buckeyes (finally) play a ranked opponent, beginning a stretch of potentially three straight such games, as they host Michigan State (9-1) in a huge game for both Big Ten and CFP implications.

4. Notre Dame (9-1, LW: 6th, CFP: 4th)
While the Irish did win Saturday’s game against Wake Forest (3-7), 28-7, they certainly could have played better against such a struggling team.  The Demon Deacons outgained the Irish 340-282, and if not for a couple breaks that went Notre Dame’s way, this game could have been much closer.  One bright spot for Notre Dame was running back Josh Adams, who in the absence of starter C.J. Prosise fan for 141 yards and a touchdown.  This week the Irish play Boston College (3-7) at Fenway Park, before traveling to Stanford (8-2) for a huge game next week.

5. Oklahoma State (10-0, LW: 5th, CFP: 6th)
History nearly repeated itself Saturday, as Iowa State (3-7), who ended the Cowboys’ chance at a national title in 2011 in a monumental upset, nearly did it again.  But this time, the Cowboys survived, 35-31, led by sophomore quarterback Mason Rudolph, who threw for 327 yards and a touchdown, and is somewhat quietly having a solid season.  There are two regular season games left for the Cowboys, and both are huge, but both are at home, as they will face Baylor (9-1) on Saturday and Oklahoma (9-1) next week in the “Bedlam” rivalry.  If the Cowboys win both, or even lose one and get some help, they will win the Big 12.

6. Oklahoma (9-1, LW: 13th, CFP: 7th)
The Sooners looked dead after an October 10 loss to Texas, but have rebounded nicely since then to get back into the Playoff race, and made big strides towards that goal Saturday by beating Baylor (9-1) in Waco, 44-34.  Quarterback Baker Mayfield may have thrust himself into Heisman contention with an excellent performance, one in which the statline of 270 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception don’t tell the full story of how well he played.  The Sooners now have a tough two weeks ahead which will define their season, starting this week at home against TCU (9-1), before traveling next week to rival Oklahoma State (10-0).

7. Iowa (10-0, LW: 9th, CFP: 5th)
While Iowa fans are probably concerned their team only won 40-35 against Minnesota (4-6), keep in mind that the Gophers have played a close game this year against not just the Hawkeyes, but also Ohio State, Michigan, and TCU.  In the meantime, the Iowa offense had one of their best performances, scoring 40 points and gaining 506 yards, including 195 yards and three touchdowns on the ground from LeShun Daniels.  The Hawkeyes, who need one win to clinch the Big Ten West, host Purdue (2-8) on Saturday, and travel to Nebraska (5-6) the day after Thanksgiving, before likely playing Ohio State, Michigan State, or Michigan in the Big Ten title game.

8. Florida (9-1, LW: 10th, CFP: 8th)
The Gators didn’t necessarily play their best offensive game Saturday at South Carolina (3-7), but held the struggling Gamecocks offense scoreless for three quarters in a 24-14 win.  It was the second straight week the Gators haven’t looked good offensively, as although Treon Harris did throw for 256 yards and a touchdown, he also threw two interceptions.  A tune-up game against Florida Atlantic (2-8) is next, before a rivalry game against Florida State (8-2), and the SEC Championship Game, likely against Alabama (9-1).

9. Baylor (8-1, LW: 4th, CFP: 10th)
The Bears suffered their first loss of the season on Saturday, at the hands of Oklahoma (9-1), 44-34.  The Sooners held the Bears to their second lowest offensive output of the season at 34 points (they scored “only” 31 against Kansas State), and Jarrett Stidham didn’t play as well in his second game as a starter as he did in his first, as he threw two interceptions.  There’s still plenty for the Bears to play for, as they could still win the Big 12 and, if things fall right, make the Playoff, but they must win out to do so.  The next two weeks won’t be easy though, as they travel to Oklahoma State (10-0) and TCU (9-1).

10. Michigan State (9-1, LW: 11th, CFP: 9th)
The Spartans defeated Maryland (2-8), 24-7, on Saturday, despite being outgained by the Terrapins, 289-262.  Quarterback Connor Cook suffered a shoulder injury in the game, causing the Spartans to lean on their run game, which gained 141 of their yards in the game, but Cook says he’ll be ready to play this Saturday.  That certainly is good news for Sparty, as they head into a huge game at Ohio State (10-0).

11. Houston (10-0, LW: 16th, CFP: 19th)
12. Michigan (8-2, LW: 12th, CFP: 12th)
13. TCU (9-1, LW: 14th, CFP: 18th)
14. Stanford (8-2, LW: 7th, CFP: 11th)
15. LSU (7-2, LW: 8th, CFP: 15th)
16. North Carolina (9-1, LW: 18th, CFP: 17th)
17. Florida State (8-2, LW: 21st, CFP: 14th)
18. Navy (8-1, LW: 22nd, CFP: 16th)
19. Northwestern (8-2, LW: 23rd, CFP: 20th)
20. Oregon (7-3, LW: unranked, CFP: 23rd)
21. Wisconsin (8-2, LW: 25th, CFP: 25th)
22. Utah (8-2, LW: 15th, CFP: 13th)
23. Washington State (7-3, LW: unranked, CFP: unranked)
24. Mississippi State (7-3, LW: 20th, CFP: unranked)
25. USC (7-3, LW: unranked, CFP: 24th)

Fell from Rankings:  Temple (8-2, LW: 17th), UCLA (7-3, LW: 19th), Memphis (8-2, LW: 24th)

Also ranked in CFP rankings:  Memphis (8-2, LW: 24th, CFP: 21st), Ole Miss (7-3, CFP: 22nd)

Twitter Picks for College Football Week 11

Game of the Week

#12 Oklahoma (8-1) at #6 Baylor (8-0)
Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, ABC
Favorite:  Baylor by 3
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Oklahoma- 13th, Baylor- 4th

 

Big Game Guarantee(s)

#2 Alabama (8-1) at #17 Mississippi State (7-2)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, CBS
Favorite:  Alabama by 8
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Alabama- 3rd, Mississippi State- 20th

 

#21 Memphis (8-1) at #24 Houston (9-0)
Saturday, 7:00 pm ET, ESPN2
Favorite:  Houston by 7
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Memphis- 24th, Houston- 16th

 

Arkansas (5-4) at #9 LSU (7-1)
Saturday, 7:15 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite:  LSU by 8
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Arkansas- unranked, LSU- 8th

 

#8 Oklahoma State (9-0) at Iowa State (3-6)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite:  Oklahoma State by 14
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Oklahoma State- 5th, Iowa State- unranked

 

Upset(s) of the Week

#11 Florida (8-1) at South Carolina (3-6)
Saturday, 12:00 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite:  Florida by 8
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Florida- 10th, South Carolina- unranked

 

Oregon (6-3) at #7 Stanford (8-1)
Saturday, 7:30 pm ET, FOX
Favorite:  Stanford by 10
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Oregon- unranked, Stanford- 7th

 

Washington State (6-3) at #18 UCLA (7-2)
Saturday, 10:45 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite:  UCLA by 10
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Washington State- unranked, UCLA- 19th

 

Closer Than the Experts Think

Minnesota (4-5) at #5 Iowa (9-0)
Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, BTN
Favorite:  Iowa by 10
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Minnesota- unranked, Iowa- 9th

 

NFL Game(s) of the Week

New England Patriots (8-0) at New York Giants (5-4)
Sunday, 4:25 pm ET, CBS
Favorite:  Patriots by 8

 

Arizona Cardinals (6-2) at Seattle Seahawks (4-4)
Sunday, 8:30 pm ET, NBC
Favorite:  Seahawks by 3

 

Minnesota Vikings (6-2) at Oakland Raiders (4-4)
Sunday, 4:05 pm ET, FOX
Favorite:  Raiders by 3

 

Season to Date
Overall Record: 42-31
Last Week: 4-5
College Overall Record: 36-27
Game of the Week: 7-3
Big Game Guarantee: 21-9
Upset of the Week: 3-10
Closer Than the Experts Think: 5-6
NFL Game of the Week: 5-4

ACC Basketball Preseason Power Rankings

Believe it or not, college basketball season begins tonight, with 12 of the ACC’s 15 teams in action, and all 15 making their season debut at some point this weekend.  The opening of college basketball season always seems to sneak up on us, as it comes while college and pro football seasons are in full swing.

Many experts say the ACC has improved since last year, and could have as many as eight or nine teams make the NCAA Tournament.  I’m not ready to make that assertion, but I do have seven teams reaching the Big Dance.  The opening day of the season, however, is exactly four months from Selection Sunday, meaning a lot is going to change between now and then.

That being said, here’s my best guess as to the season each ACC team will have this winter.

(All player statistics are from last season unless otherwise noted; projected records are through the regular season and do not include the postseason)

1. North Carolina (1st in the AP Poll)
Projected:  27-4, 15-3 ACC, Final Four
Last Year:  26-12, 11-7 ACC, Sweet 16
After runs to the ACC Tournament final and the Sweet 16 last year, the Tar Heels did lose J.P. Tokoto to the NBA Draft, as well as role players Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons, but not much in terms of production.  As a result, 88.1% of the Tar Heels’ scoring from last year is back, led by senior guard and Naismith Player of the Year candidate Marcus Paige (14.7 ppg, 4.5 apg), although Paige will start the season sidelined with a hand injury, and nightly double-double threat Brice Johnson (12.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg).  This is the deepest North Carolina team since the Heels’ last national title in 2009, and this team could very well have a shot to win Roy Williams’ third national title in Chapel Hill.  Unlike some of Carolina’s teams in recent years that have been ranked high in November based only on talent, while they had little experience, this team has a lot of both, and is the best team in the league, plain and simple.

2. Virginia (6th in the AP Poll)
Projected:  25-5, 14-4 ACC, Elite Eight
Last Year:  30-4, 16-2 ACC, NCAA Round of 32
The back-to-back defending ACC regular season champions are here to stay in the top tier of the ACC, and although they have lost Justin Anderson to the NBA and Darion Atkins to graduation, this will still be a good team with a shot to repeat as the ACC’s best.  Guard Malcolm Brogdon (14.0 ppg) returns as the team’s undisputed leader (those stats don’t fully measure what he means to this club), and pairs up with assist specialist London Perrantes (4.6 apg), and Anthony Gill (11.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg) to produce a very efficient on-court product.  While Anderson’s loss will hurt on the offensive end, Tony Bennett-coached teams always defend well, and in doing so give themselves a chance to win nearly every game.  On top of depth and experience, this team has a favorable schedule in which the toughest ACC team they play twice is Miami, as the Cavaliers look for a deeper NCAA run than last year’s first weekend exit.

3. Duke (5th in the AP Poll)
Projected:  25-6, 13-5 ACC, Elite Eight
Last Year:  35-4, 15-3 ACC, National Champions
This time last year, Duke had a team that everyone knew would be predominantly driven by a ridiculously good recruiting class, and that team went on to win Mike Krzyzewski’s fifth national championship, with Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones all moving on to the NBA, and Quinn Cook graduating (and turning pro as well).  While this year’s recruiting class to replace those outstanding players is also deep, it would be nearly impossible to replicate the strength, and success, of that class.  Guards Derryck Thornton and Luke Kennard, center Chase Jeter, and forward Brandon Ingram will all contribute, but it’s hard to say how much success such a young team will have.  A lot of that will depend on leading returner Amile Jefferson (6.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg) at forward.  The Blue Devils can out-talent anyone, but replicating last year’s national title will be tough, although they certainly could win their first ACC Tournament title since 2011 (yes, that’s a “drought” at Duke).

4. NC State
Projected:  22-9, 11-7 ACC, NCAA Round of 32
Last Year:  22-14, 10-8 ACC, Sweet 16
Mark Gottfried enters his fifth year in Raleigh, and while he isn’t necessarily in the league’s top tier of coaches (the ACC has four Hall of Fame coaches, after all), he has yet to miss the NCAA Tournament with the Wolfpack.  The losses of Draft entry Trevor Lacey and graduate Ralston Turner certainly will be felt, although that hole will somewhat be filled by junior transfer guard Terry Henderson (11.7 ppg in 2013-14 at West Virginia), whose numbers in his sophomore season were better than Lacey’s at the same point in his career.  Anthony “Cat” Barber (12.1 ppg, 3.7 apg), one of the quickest point guards in the country, will set the pace, while BeeJay Anya (led ACC with 2.5 blocks per game) and Abdul-Malik Abu (6.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg) should be a dominant team inside.  This team may not be in the upper tier of the league with the three above them, but they certainly have the talent to be dancing in March yet again.

5. Florida State
Projected:  22-8, 11-7 ACC, NCAA Round of 32
Last Year:  17-16, 8-10 ACC
The Seminoles were more competitive at times last year than their record would indicate, and that should only improve this season, as Leonard Hamilton has 87.2% of last year’s scoring returning for this campaign.  That returning productivity is led by Xavier Rathan-Mayes (14.9 ppg, 4.3 apg), who is one of just two of last year’s ACC All-Freshman team to return, and is one of the best and most explosive players in the ACC.  Rathan-Mayes will be supplemented by guards Montay Brandon (11.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg), and Devon Bookert (10.1 ppg), both of whom are coming off of quietly solid campaigns.  The Noles are looking for their first NCAA appearance since a Sweet 16 run in 2012, and they should have the talent and experience to get there this season.

6. Miami
Projected:  21-9, 11-7 ACC, NCAA Round of 64
Last Year:  25-13, 10-8 ACC, NIT Runner-up
Last year, just two years removed from winning the ACC regular season and tournament titles, the Hurricanes’ roster seemed like an island of misfit toys, yet they still managed to win over half their conference games and reach the championship game of the NIT.  This year, Jim Larranaga’s team is led by a terrific trio of seniors who should have the ‘Canes even more competitive.  In the backcourt, Angel Rodriguez (11.9 ppg, 3.9 apg) and Sheldon McClellan (14.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg) work very well together, and down low center Tonye Jekiri (8.6 ppg, 9.9 rpg) may be the league’s best returning big man, yet he isn’t getting much attention outside of South Florida.  As solid as the Hurricanes program has become over the last decade, only two of their seven postseason appearances were in the NCAA Tournament, but that can change this year, as this roster is good enough, especially at the top, to make the field of 68.

7. Notre Dame (19th in the AP Poll)
Projected:  18-12, 9-9 ACC, NCAA First Four
Last Year:  32-6, 14-4 ACC, Elite Eight (ACC Tournament Champions)
The Irish won their first conference championship (in any league) last year, in just their second season in the ACC, beating North Carolina in the final in Greensboro for the title before nearly upsetting Kentucky in the Elite Eight.  This team that finished last year eighth in the AP Poll is ranked way too high at 19th going into this season, however, because very few programs can rebound that well from the loss of Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton to graduation.  The Irish clearly still have a talented roster, led by guard Demetrius Jackson (12.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.1 apg), forward Zach Auguste (12.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg), and Steve Vasturia (10.1 ppg).  However, the depth that was evident last year isn’t as strong now, and in the tough ACC, that will show.  The Irish can still make the NCAA Tournament, but I’m expecting if they do it will be as a bubble team.

8. Louisville
Projected:  19-12, 9-9 ACC, NIT
Last Year:  27-9, 12-6 ACC, Elite Eight
This season was going to be hard enough for Rick Pitino’s team, after losing Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier to the NBA, Anton Gill to transfer, and Wayne Blackshear to graduation.  On top of that, this year’s Cardinals team is now dealing with the program’s recent scandal, a distraction hovering over them as the season gets underway.  The Cardinals’ leading returning players are guard Quentin Snider (4.1 ppg) and center Mangok Mathiang (2.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg).  While Pitino did sign a decent recruiting class, freshman are generally an unknown variable, meaning a big key for how well the Cardinals season goes will be how well transfer guard Damion Lee (21.4 ppg last year at Drexel) transitions to the ACC.  If Pitino can coach his team to play at their best and avoid the distractions, they could finish better than mid-pack, but it will be tough.

9. Syracuse
Projected:  17-14, 8-10 ACC, NIT
Last Year:  18-13, 9-9 ACC
Speaking of a team dealing with distractions, the Orange didn’t do the best job of that last year, which may be a problem entering this season.  As the result of NCAA violations, coach Jim Boeheim is suspended for the first nine conference games, and announced in the offseason he will coach three more years before retiring, as this year is his 40th season at the helm of the Orange.  On the court, the Orange have to deal with the loss of forwards Rakeem Christmas and Chris McCullough, although they are solid in the backcourt with returning guards Trevor Cooney (13.4 ppg, 2.2 apg) and Kaleb Joseph (5.9 ppg, 3.8 apg).  Forward Michael Gbinije (12.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.6 apg), who is one of the league’s best all-around players, is a bright spot in an otherwise depleted frontcourt.  A lack of depth, along with the continual distractions, doesn’t spell much better of a season for the Orange.

10. Pittsburgh
Projected:  19-12, 8-10 ACC, NIT
Last Year: 19-15, 8-10 ACC, NIT
Jamie Dixon’s team was squarely on the NCAA bubble for much of the season, but crumbled down the stretch before losing in the first round of the NIT.  Departures include guard Cameron Wright, one of the more underrated players in the conference last year, along with role players Derrick Randall and Josh Newkirk.  The returning group is led by inside threats Jamel Artis (13.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and Michael Young (13.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg), and skillful guard James Robinson (8.9 ppg, 5.1 apg).  This team isn’t necessarily going to take a step back, as 76.5% of its scoring from last year returns, but I don’t think its ready to take a big step forward, and as a result the Panthers could once again end up in the NIT instead of the NCAA Tournament.

11. Wake Forest
Projected:  14-16, 7-11 ACC
Last Year:  13-19, 5-13 ACC
Year two of Danny Manning’s rebuild at Tulsa was huge, as the Golden Hurricanes made huge strides and landed in the NCAA Tournament, landing Manning the Wake Forest job.  Year two in Winston-Salem may be a bit more difficult.  On the positive, 79.8% of the team’s scoring from last year is back, with the only significant losses coming from role players Aaron Rountree III and Darius Leonard.  Two senior leaders stand out for the Demon Deacons in guard Codi Miller-McIntyre (14.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.3 apg), who is among the deep list of big-time guards in the ACC, but will miss some early-season time with a foot injury, and double-double machine Devin Thomas (12.0 ppg, 8.8 rpg).  They’re supplemented by a nice set of sophomores who have now been through the ACC once, plus the school’s best recruiting class in a while.  This team is going to be improved, and could even be a sleeper in this league and make the NIT, but the hole that was dug during the Jeff Bzdelik era will take time to dig completely out of.  That being said, even at their worst they’ve always been competitive at home, so visiting teams at the Joel need to look out.

12. Georgia Tech
Projected:  14-17, 6-12 ACC
Last Year:  12-19, 3-15 ACC
Coach Brian Gregory is still at Georgia Tech, much to the dismay of much of the Yellow Jackets fan base, after Tech has won a third or less of its conference games in Gregory’s three years.  However, the Yellow Jackets’ rebuilding effort could potentially turn a corner this year, with five seniors on the team, which is actually one of the more experienced teams in the conference.  The effort will be led by guard/forward Marcus Georges-Hunt (13.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and forward Charles Mitchell (9.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg), and the team also got a talent boost from the transfer of former Virginia Tech guard Adam Smith (13.4 ppg in 2013-14).  10 of the Jackets’ 15 conference losses last year were by five points or less or in overtime, so with the experience of this team, they should be able to win a few more of the close ones, and potentially save Gregory’s job.

13. Virginia Tech
Projected:  15-16, 6-12 ACC
Last Year:  11-22, 2-16 ACC
Another ACC coach in the second year of a rebuild is Buzz Williams at Virginia Tech.  Last year the Hokies won just two conference games, but took games against North Carolina, Duke, and Virginia down to the wire, showing how competitive they can be as they garner more experience.  Justin Bibbs (11.4 ppg), Ahmed Hill (8.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg), and Jalen Hudson (6.9 ppg) should all be improved as sophomores in their second trip through the ACC, and Devin Wilson (6.5 ppg, 4.2 apg), whose numbers actually dipped as a sophomore, should have a better junior year after Malik Muller left to play professionally in Europe.  This team should be much better and more competitive, although with three straight last-place finishes, an improvement will still have them most likely finish in the bottom third of the conference.

14. Clemson
Projected:  14-17, 5-13 ACC
Last Year:  16-15, 8-10 ACC
This team is a tough one to project.  On one hand, Brad Brownell’s teams always play good defense, and the team does have a decent returning core of forwards Jaron Blossomgame (13.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and Donte Grantham (8.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg), along with center Landry Nnoko (7.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, was second in ACC with 2.0 blocks per game).  On the other hand, the loss of guards Rod Hall and Demarcus Harrison really hurt, as backcourt depth is going to be an issue.  On one hand, I’ve picked Clemson in a similar spot the last two seasons, yet they’ve combined to win half their conference games over the last two years (18-18).  On the other hand, I still don’t see them continuing that moderate level of success this season.

15. Boston College
Projected:  9-21, 2-16 ACC
Last Year:  13-19, 4-14 ACC
Last year, in Jim Christian’s first year in Chestnut Hill, I thought the Eagles could be sleepers in the ACC, with eight seniors, plus excellent guard Olivier Hanlan, on the roster.  Instead, they struggled to only four conference wins, although they did play better at the end of the season.  Now Hanlan, Lonnie Jackson, Patrick Heckmann, Alex Dragicevich, Aaron Brown, and Eddie Odio, among others, are all gone, and the team’s leading returner in the three major stat categories is center Dennis Clifford (yes, even in assists: 6.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 0.9 apg).  Florida transfer Eli Carter (8.8 ppg, 2.0 rpg) will help, but this team is going to have to do a lot of learning on the job, without a lot of depth.  This roster would struggle in any Power Five league but in the ACC, it’s going to be an especially tough road for the Eagles.

College Football Power Rankings for Week 10

When all is said and done in deciding the College Football Playoff field and bowl bids in December, this past Saturday may be looked at as a big turning point for a lot of teams.  Three of my top six (and three of the Playoff committee’s top eight) lost on Saturday.  While LSU losing to Alabama wasn’t necessarily a surprise, Michigan State being upset by a Nebraska team that entered the game 3-6 certainly was.

But to me, the most surprising game at all was TCU’s loss to Oklahoma State.  The Cowboys winning wasn’t the surprise, as they are an excellent football team, and their big win is reflected in the below rankings.  The stunning part of that game was that TCU was utterly dominated by the Cowboys after being #1 in my rankings for the last five weeks.  The committee’s impressions of the Horned Frogs were a little more accurate than mine, as they had TCU at #8 last week, and after the loss dropped them seven spots to 15th.  As a result of my erroneous understanding of TCU’s abilities, and the fact I now realize I’ve been overrating them, I have dropped them further in this week’s rankings than I normally would drop a team after a loss to a very quality Oklahoma State team.

And TCU’s loss allows there to be a new top-ranked team, and with this selection I’m thinking half my home state will pat me on the back, and the other half (which I more often identify with, I might add) will wonder what in the world I’m thinking.

1. Clemson (9-0, Last Week: 2nd, CFP Rankings: 1st)
The Tigers played their first game as a top-ranked team (according to the committee’s rankings) this past week, facing a formidable opponent in Florida State (7-2), and passing the test with a 23-13 victory, clinching the ACC Atlantic Division.  Quarterback Deshaun Watson threw for 297 yards and a touchdown, and ran for another 107 yards, as his Heisman stock continues to rise.  I’ve known all year that this team had a shot at a College Football Playoff run, as I had them fifth in my preseason rankings (while the AP had them at 12th), but they continue to show they are real contenders, not only to reach the Playoff, but to win it, as the Tigers are now first in both the Playoff rankings and the AP Poll.  To get there they must take care of business, as this week they will travel to Syracuse (3-6), the easiest matchup they’ve had in a month.

2. Ohio State (9-0, LW: 3rd, CFP: 3rd)
The Buckeyes went back to on-again, off-again quarterback Cardale Jones on Saturday due to the one-game suspension of J.T. Barrett, and Jones didn’t have his best night, but the Buckeyes did enough for their 22nd straight win, beating Minnesota (4-5), 28-14.  A big key in that win was Ezekiel Elliott, who ran for 114 yards and a touchdown in his 14th consecutive game of 100 yards or more on the ground.  The Buckeyes look for their 30th straight Big Ten win on Saturday when they travel to play Illinois (5-4), who hasn’t beaten a top 10 opponent since their last win over the Buckeyes in 2007.

3. Alabama (8-1, LW: 7th, CFP: 2nd)
The Crimson Tide entered their biggest game of the year against #2 LSU (7-1) hearing a lot of conversation about Tigers running back Leonard Fournette, but it was the Tide’s Derrick Henry who stole the show.  Henry ran for 210 yards and three touchdowns, as the Tide rolled to a 30-16 win to knock their rivals from the ranks of the unbeaten.  Some analysts say that Henry’s performance has made him the new Heisman frontrunner, although the back will certainly still have to earn the reward as the Tide play out their schedule, controlling their destiny in the SEC West.  That stretch run begins Saturday, as Alabama travels for a formidable test at Mississippi State (7-2).

4. Baylor (8-0, LW: 5th, CFP: 6th)
While the score of Baylor’s win over Kansas State (3-5) may have been closer than the Bears wanted against a team that is winless in conference play, there was no shortage of positives to take away from the victory in hostile Manhattan.  Quarterback Jarrett Stidham was nearly perfect, throwing for 419 yards and three touchdowns in his first collegiate start in place of the injured Seth Russell.  Wide receiver Corey Coleman caught two of those touchdowns, totaling 216 receiving yards in the contest, propelling the junior to 1,178 yards and 20 touchdowns for the season.  While Stidham had a nice debut, he’ll face a much stiffer test this week, as the Bears host Oklahoma (8-1).

5. Oklahoma State (9-0, LW: 12th, CFP: 8th)
The Cowboys entered the weekend as the second-lowest ranked undefeated team, and the lowest from a Power Five league, after several staying undefeated in a few near misses.  Their respect level took a big leap forward, however, in a 49-29 domination of TCU (8-1).  Quarterback Mason Rudolph (out of Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, SC, I might add) threw for 352 yards and five touchdowns, as the Cowboys intercepted TCU’s Trevone Boykin four times.  The game was even more of a one-sided affair than the score would indicate, as the Cowboys jumped out to a 35-9 lead before leading 42-16 after the third quarter.  Oklahoma State’s game this week at Iowa State (3-6) seems easy enough, but remember, the Cyclones were just as bad the last time they beat Oklahoma State, when they ended the Cowboys shot at a national title in 2011.

6. Notre Dame (8-1, LW: 9th, CFP: 4th)
The Irish were in control Saturday, on the road at Pittsburgh (6-3), on their way to a 42-30 win, which was only that close because of two late Panther touchdowns.  Quarterback DeShone Kizer accounted for six touchdowns, including five in the air, as the Irish never trailed, and led for 58:49 of the 60-minute contest.  Now the Irish will get a lighter two-week stretch ahead of a potentially season-defining game at Stanford (8-1) on November 28, with Wake Forest (3-6) coming to South Bend this week.

7. Stanford (8-1, LW: 8th, CFP: 7th)
Speaking of the Cardinal, they also asserted their dominance Saturday, as they defeated Colorado (4-6), 42-10, in Boulder.  While running back Christian McCaffrey did not score any of the Cardinal’s six touchdowns, he was the driving force behind Stanford’s ball movement as he ran for 147 yards, as Stanford outgained Colorado, 472-231.  McCaffrey is now over 1,500 yards of total offense on the season, totaling 1,532, including 1,208 rushing yards.  This week Stanford hosts Oregon (6-3) in a game that isn’t as glamorous as was expected before the season, but is still a decent test for the Cardinal as the Ducks have won four out of five (with the loss in overtime) since falling out of the top 25.

8. LSU (7-1, LW: 4th, CFP: 9th)
The Tigers were trying to beat Alabama (8-1) on Saturday for the first time since a 9-6 overtime win in Tuscaloosa in 2011, but instead they were overtaken by the Crimson Tide, 30-16.  LSU was held to just 182 yards of total offense, and just 54 rushing yards, while Alabama gained 434, including 250 on the ground.  Running back Leonard Fournette entered the game with 1,352 rushing yards for the year, and was the consensus Heisman Trophy favorite, but was held to just 31 yards on 19 carries, although he did score one touchdown.  While LSU now needs help to win the SEC West, even if they win out, they still have a lot to play for, as they remain in the Playoff race as they host Arkansas (5-4), who just upset Ole Miss, on Saturday.

9. Iowa (9-0, LW: 10th, CFP: 5th)
Iowa struggled against a mediocre Indiana (4-5) team on Saturday, eventually beating the Hoosiers 35-27, yet they moved up four spots in the CFP rankings this week (for reference on how big a jump that is, Oklahoma State throttled TCU and jumped six spots).  While the Hawkeyes do have a pretty decent resume, including road wins against Wisconsin and Northwestern, they shouldn’t make such a jump after such an even game with Indiana.  Here’s how level it was:  Iowa only outgained Indiana 467-407, and first downs were equal at 26.  Iowa can be complimented on a balanced offensive attack, as they gained 233 yards passing and 234 yards rushing.  Saturday the Hawkeyes host Minnesota (4-5), who has given both Ohio State and Michigan good games this year.

10. Florida (8-1, LW: 11th, CFP: 11th)
To say the Gators game against Vanderbilt (3-6) Saturday wasn’t pretty would be an understatement, as Florida scored just seven points, turned the ball over four times, and only gained 258 yards and 12 first downs, but won 9-7 over the Commodores to clinch the SEC East.  The Gators won the game by holding Vanderbilt to just 175 total yards, including only 30 through the air, as Commodores quarterback Johnny McCrary completed just 3 of his 14 passes.  This week’s game isn’t necessarily meaningful in the SEC East race, but if the Gators win out they have a shot at the College Football Playoff, making their contest at South Carolina (3-6) all the more important in a series that historically produces close games, even when one team is a large favorite.

11. Michigan State (8-1, LW: 6th, CFP: 13th)
12. Michigan (7-2, LW: 13th, CFP: 14th)
13. Oklahoma (8-1, LW: 14th, CFP: 12th)
14. TCU (8-1, LW: 1st, CFP: 15th)
15. Utah (8-1, LW: 18th, CFP: 10th)
16. Houston (9-0, LW: 20th, CFP: 24th)
17. Temple (8-1, LW: 21st, CFP: 22nd)
18. North Carolina (8-1, LW: 25th, CFP: 23rd)
19. UCLA (7-2, LW: 23rd, CFP: 19th)
20. Mississippi State (7-2, LW: 24th, CFP: 17th)
21. Florida State (7-2, LW: 17th, CFP: 16th)
22. Navy (7-1, LW: unranked, CFP: 20th)
23. Northwestern (7-2, LW: unranked, CFP: 18th)
24. Memphis (8-1, LW: 15th, CFP: 21st)
25. Wisconsin (8-2, LW: unranked, CFP: 25th)

Fell from Rankings:  Ole Miss (7-3, LW: 16th), Toledo (7-1, LW: 19th), Duke (6-3, LW: 22nd)