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LOOKING FOR THE BEST CONFERENCE IN AMERICA
October 4, 2011

SCS.com Five weeks into the season, the vast majority of non-conference games are complete and conference play has begun. Although conference play can continue to answer questions about conferences and their teams, the relative strength of the conferences is pretty much set by the non-conference (and later, the bowl) schedule. So now is a great time to see where the major conferences stand, and see how the top national title contenders in each will benefit or be burdened by the conference they are currently in. Of course the title may also be referring to the constant realignment talk that seems to have slowed this week, but the other 14th team show of the SEC will have to drop soon, and preferably before the buyouts are exacerbated further in the ACC or the Big East. Instead of four 16 team superconferences, we appear to be headed to six conferences having twelve or more teams and the Big East tries to regain relevance once more after another ACC raid.

The SEC leads the way in power conferences, which should come as no surprise to anybody watching college football in the past decade. The SEC only lost four games in non-conference play, of which two were to legitimate national championship contenders at a neutral site against Boise State and on the road at Clemson. In view of how poor Kentucky and Mississippi look this season, their sole losses are the only other losses out of the conference. The SEC also has two legitimate national title contenders in LSU and Alabama, who will play each other in perhaps the biggest regular season game of the year on November 5 in Tuscaloosa. The East division took two big lumps last weekend as Florida and South Carolina lost home games to Auburn and Alabama. With Auburn keeping the magic going from 2010 and Arkansas continuing to be formidible, whoever comes out of the SEC West will be a likely national championship game contender, even with one loss. The SEC has five straight national titles and has earned the benefit of the doubt. Moreover, the SEC continues to prove it on the field.

The only conference with a better overall non-conference record to date than the SEC is the Big 12, which has only racked up three losses so far. Texas A&M melted down against a solid Arkansas team, Missouri lost to a ranked Arizona State on the road, and Kansas got waxed by Georgia Tech on the road. Once again, three quality losses to three quality teams. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State may not have looked terribly impressive in their conference debuts, but both survived and remain on course for a de facto conference championship in the Bedlam game in early December. Kansas State and Texas notched impressive road wins against BCS conference teams, and even Baylor and Iowa State got into the mix by beating TCU and Iowa. Thanks to the strength of the Big 12 compared to other conferences and a big road win against Florida State, Oklahoma is in the driver's seat for the BCS championship along with the winner of the LSU-Alabama game, assuming the Sooners go undefeated. The Big 12 certainly look stronger despite the loss of Colorado and Nebraska.

Although the top two conferences are a clear cut decision, the next three are close and hard to pull apart. However, the Big Ten will take the third highest slot on the conference power rankings chart thanks to a dominant start by Wisconsin. Apparently falling short in the Rose Bowl is the ticket to success, as Oregon rode that train last year to the BCS championship and now Wisconsin looks poised to do the same. The only problem may be Wisconsin's schedule, which does not have a lot of star power after the Nebraska game last weekend. Road games later this month against Illinois and Ohio State could be tricky, but both of those teams look flawed, even on their home fields. Michigan and Illinois are off the solid starts at 5-0, but both have biggers tests coming quickly on the horizon. If Michigan can have a solid 10 win season or better, then that would be another potential feather in Wisconsin's cap come December and the inaugural Big Ten championship. With Ohio State out of the mix and Nebraska learning how to deal with new opponents, the field is wide open behind Wisconsin and may be stronger overall than a year ago, when MSU, Wisconsin, and OSU ran away from everyone else.

The fourth best conference in 2011 is the Pac 12. The conference may not have racked up four more teams from the Big 12, but they have racked up a substantial amount of non-conference losses. Of the three pre-season favorites to compete on a national level (not counting USC, which is still in postseason purgatory), only Stanford has escaped unscathed in non-conference play. Oregon was trounced by another SEC school for the second straight game to start the season, and Arizona State slipped due to their own mistakes at Illinois. However, both those teams will give Stanford chances at big victories if the Cardinal are to compete for one of the BCS Championship positions. Washington and Washington State have been pleasant surprises, but UCLA, Colorado, and Oregon State are significantly struggling. Thus, the lower third of the conference is so poor that the Pac 12 falls below the two truly elite college football conferences. There will be no benefit of the doubt for Stanford, although they did win a BCS bowl in impressive fashion in 2010.

Next up is the ACC, which ranks above the Big East because they continue to steal the best teams from that conference. The Big East actually has performed better in non-conference play and bowl games than the ACC over the past few years, but the ACC is showing some depth this year for the first time in a long time. Although everyone focused on Florida State and Virginia Tech to start the season, Clemson and Georgia Tech now stand as the only undefeated teams. This is a pleasant surprise, especially considering how good the Yellow Jackets look and the killer schedule Clemson has traversed so far (Auburn, Florida State, and Virginia Tech the last three weeks). Wake Forest and Duke are also undefeated in conference play so far, which is another surprise from the two rebuilding teams in the conference. On the other side, the surprising bad teams have been really disappointing. Florida State is still one of the best teams in the conference, but they went from a top five team to nationally irrelevant (and a game and a half behind in the division thanks to losses to Oklahoma and Clemson. NC State, Boston College, and Miami are also not impressive. The ACC has a lot of growing to do, and no real national title contenders to carry them.

The Big East feels like a sinking ship after South Florida losing their undefeated record in the first conference game at Pittsburgh. Every other team lost one or more non-conference games, of which only West Virginia has a solid loss against LSU. Pittsburgh is too inconsistent and Cincinnati showed the same old defensive weaknesses against Tennessee. Conference play is just beginning but what the Big East has lost is more than just security with Syracuse and Pittsburgh on the way out. The conference has lost any national relvance whatsoever, and will remain out of the spotlight until they add more teams for future seasons (which is not the right spotlight). There is unfortunately not much more to say about the conference. Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, West Virginia, and South Florida will probably put on a good race for the BCS berth, and one can only hope that the BCS berth goes to a better team than last year's Connecticut squad.

Turning to the games of the week, there are two clear choices and a bunch of other games this weekend. Thus, the first game of the week will default to the Saturday night national TV showdown between two teams hoping to avoid an 0-2 start in the Big Ten as Ohio State visits Nebraska. After lifelss offensive performances in losses to Miami and Michigan State and the extension of suspensions for the best offensive talent on the team (Daniel Herron and DeVier Posey), the Buckeyes appear to have a lost season on their hands after domianting the conference for six straight seasons. Although Wisconsin showed some serious weaknesses in the Nebraska defense, Ohio State's offense is too one-dimensional to take advantage of those weaknesses. Meanwhile, Nebraska's offense gets another tough test against another rock solid defense. Taylor Martinez will need more time from his offensive line than he had last week, although it will help to have the friendly crowd behind the offense rather than racking up the decibel level. The Cornhuskers could actually afford to lose this game and still have a chance at the division, while it is clearly a must-win for the Buckeyes thanks to Wisconsin. Unfortunately, this is not the year for OSU. Nebraska wins their first Big Ten game by 13.

The second game of the week is the seemingly weekly SEC showdown, this time between Auburn and Arkansas. Gene Chizik has taken a team with pretty much nothing from last year's national championship team and molded it into another winner after a 4-1 start and a couple of dramatic comebacks. The best performance so far was last weekend in a defensive slugfest at South Carolina. Junior quarterback Barrett Trotter may not be as dynamic as Cam Newton, but he has been efficient in the passing game with 9 touchdowns so far. The Auburn offense is usually generated with the run first and Michael Dyer should be posied for a huge game against a porous Arkansas defense. As long as Auburn can keep Arkansas off the field for long stretches, the Tigers will be able to stay in this game. Arkansas will be looking to prevent that from happening by getting the wide open passing attack going right away. Junior Tyler Wilson has thrived in this system in his first year of starting, already throwing for over 1500 yards in 5 games. Jarius Wright is Wilson's favorite target and should find some holes in the Auburn defense as the game goes along. Neither of these teams may be able to keep with LSU and Alabama, but this game is critical to determining who will grab the third or fourth best bowl bid in the conference. Arkansas will recover on their home field from the opening loss and end the auburn magic for this week. Razorbacks win by 7.

The third and final game of the week is the Red River Rivalry, the battle between Oklahoma and Texas at the Texas State Fair. Texas surprisingly comes into this game ranked 11th in the nation after coming out to a fast 4-0 start. However, BYU is the only decent opponent Texas has beaten thus far and Oklahoma is a whole new level of competition. Landry Jones dominated the Texas defense a season ago, and he will be looking to continue that dominance by targeting Ryan Broyles early and often. Oklahoma's defense suffered some breakdowns against Missouri when the Sooners fell behind early at home; however, Oklahoma turned the offense on and never looked back against the Tigers. Oklahoma will pressure the young Texas quarterbacks to try and force mistakes that could put this game out of reach early. Case McCoy only has 335 yards passing and he leads the team. The younger versions of McCoy and Shipley are looking like future stars, but both are not quite up to the pedigree of their older brothers yet. Thus, the Longhorns look to be about a year away from national relevance. Oklahoma will gain an early lead and blow the game out with a couple McCoy interceptions. Oklahoma wins by 28.

OTHER GAMES OF THE WEEK - Week 6

(9) Oregon def. California
(5) Boise State def. Fresno State
(1) LSU def. (17) Florida
(2) Alabama def. Vanderbilt
(6) Oklahoma State def. Kansas
(7) Stanford def. Colorado
(8) Clemson def. Boston College
(12) Michigan def. Northwestern
(13) Georgia Tech def. Maryland
(18) South Carolina def. Kentucky
(19) Illinois def. Indiana
(20) Kansas State def. Missouri
(21) Virginia Tech def. Miami
Utah def. (22) Arizona State
(23) Florida State def. Wake Forest
Texas Tech def. (24) Texas A&M
(25) Baylor def. Iowa State

2011 GOTW Record: 8-4
Last Week: 3-0
2011 Overall Top 25 Record: 77-12
Last Week: 21-1

Fitz Top 10 - Week 5
1. LSU
2. Alabama
3. Oklahoma
4. Wisconsin
5. Boise State
6. Oklahoma State
7. Clemson
8. Stanford
9. Georgia Tech
10. Michigan

Just Missed: Texas, Illinois, Kansas State, Oregon, Auburn

So there is the story for Week 6, and there are many good games on the docket despite the lack of a top-heavy schedule. Had Florida not lost John Brantley to injury for this week, they might have given LSU a run. However, the Bayou Bengals are just too strong to fall to a team like Florida at home after knocking off the series of teams they have on the road. The list of undefeated teams has shrunk to 13 already, and surprise teams such as Clemson, Texas, and Michigan are starting to rise in the rankings thanks to the big zero in their loss column. The Red River Rivalry has somehoe once again become the biggest game in the country, and that is a testament to how strong the Big 12 is. It would have been major folly for that conference to fall apart, and it will be interesting to see if they add two more teams to go back to 12 after experiencing the intimacy of a nine game conference schedule in a ten team league. There's a ton of football left to be played, but the national title contenders have begun to separate themselves to make for an interesting race down the stretch. Until next week (and sorry for missing you last week), have a good one!

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