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REALIGNMENT PUSH SLOWS, LEAGUE PLAY ARRIVES
September 23, 2011

SCS.com Although it appeared that realignment talk may persist throughout the entire season, we finally have some developments this week that slow or stop the chase for superconferences. When the Pac-12 made a final decision for now that they do want to expand to grab four power schools in Oklahoma and Texas, the demise of the Big 12 disappeared. Although Texas A&M is still out the door to the SEC, the other nine schools left in the Big 12 have committed to staying together contractually for the next six seasons. Although the same problems of unequal revenue sharing and the Longhorn Network are still on the table, at least the conference will survive poachings from three other major conferences. While the Pac-12 and Big 12 settle down, there remain questions on how the remainder of the expansion in the east will finish.

The Big East was raided once again by the ACC for Syracuse and Pittsburgh. This is ironic because Pittsburgh absolutely lambasted Boston College, Virginia Tech, and Miami for abandoning the league just seven years ago. Now when the shoe is on the other foot, Pittsburgh is proud of such a defection. This leaves the Big East with six football playing schools and seven next year when TCU joins Cincinnati, Louisville, USF, Connecticut, Rutgers, and West Virginia in a tough situation. If the ACC decides to jump to 16, then it will be surprising if the Big East can survive these blows. Even with Rutgers and Connecticut remaining, this league looks a lot like C-USA and may once again be at risk of losing a BCS berth. If that begins to happen, expect TCU to jump to the Big 12 or the SEC to keep their hands in the BCS conference pie. The most intriguing school left on the table without much of a home is West Virginia, but perhaps the Mountaineers would get an invite if it became clear the Big East football conference were falling apart. Notre Dame and the other non-football playing members of the Big East will keep the conference together, but perhaps not for football. On the other hand, the Big East may grab some service academies or more C-USA teams to try and stay viable for the BCS. Realignment is not done, but it will not revamp the world dramatically as was expected by many.

Conference play begins to fire up in some parts of the country this week, including in the SEC and in the Pac-12. The season has also reached the quarterpost for most teams after the first three weekends, and some contenders have finally come into focus in conference and national championship chases. In the conference with the last five national championships, LSU and Alabama have taken care of some early big tests and now jump right into the meat of their schedules against West Virginia and Arkansas. Meanwhile, an interesting battle of undefeated East division teams arises between South Carolina and Vanderbilt this week. Vanderbilt was not expected to have a chance this season, but new coach James Franklin has the Commodores playing well and perhaps well enough to upset the inconsistent Gamecocks. With Florida also being undefeated, the SEC has many possible title contenders coming into conference play. Assuming LSU or Alabama escapes with West division with no more than one loss, the winner of their head to head game will likely make an appearance for a sixth straight national title in the SEC.

Meanwhile in the Pac-12, only three teams enter full conference play with 3-0 records: Stanford, California, and USC. One of the more interesting storylines is whether anybody will actually step up in the South division other than USC. Arizona State and Utah stand at 2-1, but both have had a heartbreaking loss on the road already and both have weaknesses to exploit. Arizona, Colorado, and UCLA have much more serious issues and may not have enough juice to win a five team race for the division championship. Meanwhile, will Oregon be able to rehabilitate their season after the opening week blowout by LSU. It will be difficult to win on the road at Stanford, but Oregon has enough explosiveness to do so when November 12 rolls around with the conference game of the year. No matter who wins the North division, they should be heavily favored to win the conference championship and head to the Rose Bowl if not the National Championship.

The Big Ten race looks a bit different after the third week of football provided some serious perspective for a few teams. Ohio State failed to have any real passing offense and their defense came out flat, allowing Miami to dominate all game. Penn State was also in the same boat with no offense, but they escaped at Temple to avoid a 1-2 start. Meanwhile, the Nebraska defense and Michigan State have also not been terribly impressive thus far. Wisconsin and Illinois appear to be playing the best coming into conference play, but it is still difficult to ascertain if Wisconsin is truly better than all other Big Ten teams. More than likely, their numbers are artificially inflated by playing against weak competition to start the season. Michigan is also undefeated and has reason for optimism, especially considering the defense is starting to play better. Denard Robinson is still the most electric player in the league, and he may be able to lead his team to a league title much like similar talent Terrelle Pryor led OSU a season ago. With the return of Dan Persa, Northwestern could be a team to watch if they get by Illinois.

The Big 12 has been full of strife thus far this season, but on the field the teams just keep on winning. Only Kansas and Missouri have dropped a game, and both of them are 2-1. Unexpected wins by teams like Baylor against TCU and Iowa State against Iowa have this league looking even more formidible than was expected with the three solid top ten teams Oklahoma, A&M, and Oklahoma State. The Cowboys and the Aggies will take center stage in week one of conference play, a game that is previewed in further detail below. Whoever comes out of that battle at Kyle Field will be the frontrunner to compete with national title hopeful Oklahoma for the conference crown. However, the middling teams in the conference are more than capable of knocking off the big three on their home fields, so look out for any road games to be upset possibilities. One compelling storyline under the radar will be how well Texas can bounce back from a terrible season, at least by Longhorn standards. If Texas can compete for a conference title, then all the wounds from a season ago will be forgotten. If not, then Mack Brown may be starting to look for the exit door.

Wrapping up with the two conferences interlinked by destiny and realignment scuffles, the ACC and the Big East both have interesting conference title races to watch. In the ACC, Florida State was unable to defeat Oklahoma but cannot let that get them down this week at Clemson, which is a game that could decide the division. Maryland will also be tough, at least at home. The Coastal Division is loaded with solid teams and some differentiation will be clear when unexpected undefeateds North Carolina and Georgia Tech meet this weekend. Miami has a new attitude under coach Al Golden, and all of these teams are true threats to the prohibitive favorite Virginia Tech. The ACC might be adding two more teams, but the twelve they have are making for some interesting football, even if these teams are clunkers in bowl games. The Big East looks like it will come down to West Virginia and South Florida, although Cincinnati also has a favorable schedule and an offense that could give WVU fits. If the Mountaineers win at home against LSU, then the conference title will not be the only title that the fans in Morgantown desire this year. It could be 2007 all over again, if that happens.

Week 4 finally brings some blockbusters thanks to some heavier conference play beginning. The first game of the week is a huge battle in the SEC West as Arkansas visits Alabama. Arkansas finally broke through with a Sugar Bowl appearance last season, but late season losses to Alabama and Auburn proved that the Razorbacks are not quite over the hump yet to being a true national title contender. This year, Arkansas has to go to Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge, but these games are at opposite ends of a relatively easy SEC schedule. Thus, Arkansas could be in the national title mix all year with a win this week. Look for Arkansas to try and establish the run against the Tide defense because Alabama's secondary is going to outclass the wounded Hogs receiver corps. An important deciding factor may be how well Jarius Wright and Greg Childs play coming back from injury (if Wright even plays). The temptation may still be too great to throw the ball and make Alabama's secondary prove themselves, as Arkansas can win this game easily if they get ahead by a couple of scores. Unlike last year's Crimson Tide offense, this group cannot rely solely on Trent Richardson to come back from a big deficit. Look for Arkansas to bring a lot of pressure to force quarterbacks AJ McCarron and Philip Sims into some tough situations. Despite all the intangibles heading Arkansas's way, this game is in Tuscaloosa, and there is simply no way this defense will allow the Razorbacks to grow too big of a lead. Alabama wins a close relatively low-scoring affair by 4.

The second game of the week is Oklahoma State at Texas A&M, which should determine the biggest threat to Oklahoma in the Big 12. Now that Texas A&M is leaving the conference, the Aggies will one to take their last good shots to dominate, especially with one of the best teams in the last two decades. Mike Sherman has quarterback Ryan Tannehill off to a great start and two running backs that rack up the yards in Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael. Gray and Michael will be relied upon to wear out the Oklahoma State defense, which is prone to giving up some big plays. However, the Oklahoma State offense has kept the good vibes going even without offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen. Cowboys quarterback Brandon Weeden has put up over 370 yards each week so far and could perform much better than he did against A&M a season ago. Weeden is a true pocket passer though, so look for the Aggies to throw a lot of different pass rushes at Oklahoma State to try and force a mistake. No lead will be safe in this game, as both teams should score well into the 30's and perhaps even the 40's. In those types of shootouts, the better offense usually wins. In this case, that would be Oklahoma State. The Cowboys steal a big road win with a 3 point victory.

The third game of the week is yet another huge game for LSU, this time at Morgantown. For the first time, College Gameday and Saturday Night Football will be in Morgantown for this massive game, at least for the Mountaineers. LSU already has two big wins away from home against Mississippi State and Oregon, and adding a prime time win in Morgantown would cement LSU as one of the best two teams in the country heading into conference play. West Virginia has struggled to get any running game going, and this will not be the week to look for improvement agaisnt the stiff LSU defense front. As a result, the key battle of the game will be quarterback Geno Smith and his receivers against the LSU secondary. If LSU can know that West Virginia cannot run the ball, then they can load up in coverage and make a couple big plays that could blow the game open. However, if Smith manages to find some openings in the LSU defense, then this game may stay interesting. Jarrett Lee has been moderately successful so far, but he may need to step it up against a Mountaineer defense that has not generated much pass rush yet this season. As long as Lee limits the turnovers, this will be another surprising easy win for LSU. Tigers win by 17.

Other Games of the Week - Week 4

(1) Oklahoma def. Missouri
(4) Boise State def. Tulsa
(6) Wisconsin def. South Dakota
(9) Nebraska def. Wyoming
(10) Oregon def. Arizona
(11) Florida State def. (21) Clemson
(12) South Carolina def. Vanderbilt
(13) Virginia Tech def. Marshall
(15) Florida def. Kentucky
(17) Baylor def. Rice
(18) South Florida def. UTEP
(20) TCU def. Portland State
(22) Michigan def. San Diego State
Arizona State def. (23) USC
(24) Illinois def. Western Michigan
(25) Georgia Tech def. North Carolina

2011 GOTW Record: 5-4
Last Week: 2-1
2011 Overall Top 25 Record: 56-11
Last Week: 20-3

Fitz Top 10 - Week 3

1. Oklahoma
2. LSU
3. Alabama
4. Boise State
5. Wisconsin
6. Oklahoma State
7. Texas A&M
8. Nebraska
9. Virginia Tech
10. Florida State

Just Missed: South Carolina, Stanford, Arkansas, Oregon, Florida

With the trio of top games on the docket this weekend, there is no excuse for not kicking back and enjoying the start of conference play in most parts of the country. Although the Big East and the Big Ten will mainly join the party next week, now is the time when teams have to have their act together to win a conference title and go to the BCS. As strange as it sounds, we could be talking about a huge national championship elimination game between Arkansas and Texas A&M if they both win this weekend. It seems unlikely, but the future conference rivals could be playign for all the marbles next week. If nothing else, the heavier focus on real games is a welcome change, although I'm sure there will be more Big East fallout to discuss next week. Until then, have a great week!

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