College football's messy reality: Bad teams are going to win Power Five divisions this season
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (party supplies sold separately at UTEP, which finally won a game for the first time since 2016):
[More Dash: 8 games to decide CFP | ‘Bama vs. best ever | 5 disappearing acts]
WHEN BAD TEAMS WIN POWER FIVE DIVISIONS
As is often the case, division imbalance will lead to some really sketchy teams winning their half of a conference and going on to a likely beatdown in the league championship game. There are three crazily out-of-whack conferences right now presenting exactly that scenario.
ACC Coastal: Are we really ready for Pittsburgh (21) in the ACC title game? The Panthers are 5-4 overall, 4-1 in the league, and have given up more points (274) than they’ve scored (245). They’ve also been outgained on the season by more than 400 yards. They’re 1-3 in non-league games, including a gentle 51-6 nudging from Penn State and a 45-14 love tap from Central Florida. Their lone league loss is to North Carolina — and that happens to be the Tar Heels’ lone win of the year.
Yet if Pitt wins at home against Virginia Tech on Saturday, it will be on the verge of locking up the division. At that point, the Panthers’ magic number would be one — win either of their last two games, against Wake Forest or Miami, or have Virginia lose either of its last two.
It seems entirely possible that the Coastal champion will be no better than 7-5, and possibly 6-6.
Are we really ready for Northwestern (22) in the Big Ten title game? The Wildcats are 5-1 in the conference but 5-4 overall, and surely there must be some obscure Big Ten bylaw that says if you lose to Akron you are ineligible to play for the championship in Indianapolis. (The Zips scored 36 points in the second half of their win over Northwestern; they haven’t scored more than 26 in an entire game since.)
Despite that, the Wildcats are sitting pretty within the division. They simply have to win two of their final three games: at Iowa, at Minnesota or home against Illinois. Northwestern has beaten Iowa the past two seasons; Minnesota is in the tank; and the purple has beaten in-state rival Illinois three straight times. Or it could take even less than that. It’s possible that the Wildcats can go 1-2 over the final three and still win the division at 6-6. Yeehaw.
Are we really ready for Arizona (23) or Arizona State (24) in the Pac-12 title game? Or Utah (25) without its starting quarterback? Or the worst USC (26) team since 2001? All those things are possible in the Pac-12’s Tub of Live Bait Division, also known as the South. Those four all are tied for the lead in the loss column.
But really, all six teams in the South are within one game of the lead in the loss column. Yes, even Colorado, which blew a 28-point lead at home to conference doormat Oregon State, is still alive. And, yes, even UCLA, which started 0-5 and currently is a regal 2-7.
(Clearly, the scenario to root for is the one in which the Bruins win their final three games and advance to the Pac-12 title game with a 5-7 record. It doesn’t require anything crazy happening — other than UCLA winning three straight for the first time since 2015. There also is the possibility of a six-way divisional tie, which might be even better.)
The Utes were the hot team, having won four in a row by wide margins, but QB Tyler Huntley broke his collarbone at Arizona State on Saturday, and what had been a stout Utah pass defense was shredded by star Sun Devils wideout N’Keal Harry (nine catches, 161 yards, three touchdowns).
The most likely scenario is USC winning its final two conference games (California and at UCLA) and taking the South. Combine that with a loss to Notre Dame in the regular-season finale and the Trojans would be 7-5, with fans screaming to fire Clay Helton, as they advance to a third Pac-12 title game in four years.
With the news Sunday that Kansas is moving on from its third consecutive very bad hire — that’s Turner Gill to Charlie Weis to David Beaty, officially — the school has launched another Hail Mary in search of a quality coach who actually wants to be in Lawrence. Whoever takes the job will be walking into a program working on a streak of 10 straight losing seasons, the longest active streak among Power Five programs.
New athletic director Jeff Long is respected, the school made a facility commitment, and there are tougher leagues to be in — but the Kansas job remains one of the worst in the country. A brief list of the bottom five among the Power Five:
Anything in the state of Kansas (27). Unless your name is Bill Snyder, the Sunflower State is no place for football coaches to thrive.
Kansas last won an outright conference title in 1930 (the league was the Big Six). The few football fans the school has get wistful thinking about the Mark Mangino Era, but in point of fact the big man went 23-41 in Big 12 play and had just one winning season within the league. The last time the Jayhawks had three consecutive winning seasons was 1962-64.
And yet, despite the historic ineptitude in Lawrence, Kansas easily leads the all-time football series with Kansas State, 64-45-5. K-State has even won 21 of the last 25, which tells you how utterly miserable the Wildcats were in the decades before Snyder. Only five programs in history have had more defeats than Kansas State’s 644.
(Kansas plays Kansas State on Saturday. Avert your eyes.)
Rutgers (28). This is one of the five programs with more all-time losses than K-State. The Scarlet Knights’ lone claim to college football fame is having played in the first game, in 1869, against Princeton. Since then, through the Reconstruction and the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars and the Space Age and the Computer Age and the Great Schiano Chopping of Wood: nothing. Rutgers has never once finished a season ranked in the top 10, not even by accident. And what has happened since joining the Big Ten has been gruesome, like throwing a seal into a shark tank. The record under current coach Chris Ash: 7-26, with the current team on a collision course with 1-11.
Oregon State (29). Any program that can have 28 straight losing seasons, as the Beavers did from 1971-97, deserves to be on this list. (That includes one breathtaking four-year stretch of 3-40-1, which even Hue Jackson thinks is bad.) There was a burst of glory at the beginning of this century, with eight winning seasons in a 10-year stretch, but that has been replaced by the current slump. This will be Oregon State’s fifth straight losing season. Getting good players is doubly hard with Nike University offering manifestly better facilities just down I-5 in Eugene.
Vanderbilt (30). No Power Five school has less in common with its peers than Vandy. It is the only private school in the Southeastern Conference. It has roughly 10,000 fewer students than the next-smallest SEC school. It ranks 20 spots higher than the second-highest SEC school (Florida) in the U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of the best universities in the country. It is the one place in the league where winning is secondary — and while that means the coach won’t get fired after his first bad season, it also means that there’s a high likelihood for a lot of bad seasons. And, thus, a firing anyway.
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