Mike Merrell’s Three-and-Out
Ordinarily, when a reputable football news source publishes bowl projections or preseason rankings, you’d say the predictions were “released.” This past week, Athlon Sports published its preseason Top-25 and final four lists, and there’s no way these things were released, not even with a locked-on ankle bracelet.
Athlon tabbed Ohio State, Auburn, Alabama and Baylor as its preseason picks for the final four, an announcement that had to have crept out and onto the Internet when nobody was looking.
Athlon’s preseason prediction for the final four is the subject of this week’s Three-and-Out.
1. Auburn and Alabama. Ohio State is hard to disagree with. The Buckeyes are kings until somebody proves them otherwise. But did we learn nothing from last year?
In 2014, the selection committee named three SEC West teams on its first ballot for the final four. Fortunately, by the time the ballots actually counted for anything, the committee had it down to one SEC team — Alabama — which of course lost to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.
But it wasn’t just Alabama that lost its bowl game. The top five teams in the SEC West went 0-5 in their bowl games and the myth of SEC West superiority was smashed to bits. Apparently, Athlon didn’t get the press release.
That’s not the only reason, though, that Alabama and Auburn won’t make the final four. Both have a tendency to schedule powder puffs the week before their rivalry Iron Bowl Game. This year, Alabama takes on FBS Charlston Southern while Auburn takes on the 1-11 Idaho Vandals, who — chances are — probably won’t have as good of a record in 2015 as they had in 2014.
So, either Alabama or Auburn will finish its season by: (1) beating up on a pansy, (2) losing its rivalry game, and (3) sitting on the sidelines while four of the five power conferences play championship games. It hardly sounds like a recipe for making the final four, especially coming out of a division whose top teams went 0-5 in their most important bowl games last year.
2. Baylor. Again, did we learn nothing from last year? The selection committee likes strength of schedule, and for the Big 12 it’s not just about not having a championship game. The entire conference is prone toward what ESPN’s Ted Miller rightfully labels as cowardly scheduling of nonconference games, and Baylor heads the list.
Last year the big, bad, mean Bears opened against SMU (1-11, and still recovering from the death penalty, if recovering from death is possible), Northwestern State and Buffalo. Not to be underdone by last year, this year the Bears open with SMU, Lamar and Rice.
There are teams in the Big 12 that have made token efforts to schedule nonconference teams with a pulse. Baylor isn’t one of them. In fact, word has it that the Bears have recently adopted a new fight song:
It might be possible for the selection committee to bypass as many as two Power Five conference champions for a Big 12 champion that starts its season with three patsies and finishes with a non-championship game against noted underachiever Texas, but it would be a travesty to reward a program that goes so blatantly far out of its way to pad stats.
If the Baylor Bears go undefeated, leaving them out of the playoffs would be a good pie to plant in their faces. Sorry, but if you want to play with the big boys, then schedule the big boys.
3. USC. Here, it’s not a matter of did we learn nothing from last year. It’s a matter of, “Did we learn nothing — ever?” Athlon leaves the Pac-12 out of its final four because it picks the conference to cannibalize itself, with the Trojans coming out on top, winning the conference championship game after picking up two losses along the way.
Yes, according to Athlon, Seven Win Steve — who has never gotten closer than 17 points to the Ducks in his entire coaching career and has never proven himself to be more than a mediocre D-1 head coach — is going to out-coach Mark Helfrich & Co. when the chips are down in a conference championship game, while going through a messy divorce.
To get a grip on this, you have to start with the source. Athlon had its writer/editor Steven Lassan do the Pac-12 Conference predictions. Steven Lassan went to Austin Peay State University. Austin Peay is in the Ohio Valley Conference and went 1-11 last year.
Steven Lassan now lives in Tennessee, where much of what happens in the Pac-12 is past night-night time. So, perhaps Steven Lassan isn’t the best choice of “expert” to impart his wisdom on the Pac-12. But then, Athlon seems to have a bit of a thing going about the Trojans. It recently named the “iconic” mustard-and-ketchup inspired Trojan uniforms — which haven’t changed since the days of O.J. Simpson — as the best in the Pac-12. Yes, Athlon actually cited wearing the same uniforms as O.J. as a positive.
So, go figure that Athlon places the Sarkisian-led Trojans on top of a cannibalized Pac-12 and leaves the entire conference out of the championships, so that a conference that tanked all of its important bowl games last year could have two representatives, and be joined by a team that scheduled SMU, Lamar and Rice to impress us with its inter-conference prowess.
This time of year, anything is possible. Some things just aren’t likely.
Top photo by John Sperry