We’re one week away from the midpoint of the college football season, one week away from completing seven of the 14 full-service football Saturdays allotted to us each year.
It’s a fascinating collection of points to ponder each October, as the newness, rust, and non-conference curiosities of September wear off: What have teams become? What are they becoming? Are teams finding comfort zones, or are they finding that conference play is a hellhole more than a haven?
October bridges the uncertainty of September and the late-stage, crunch-time confrontations of November. If golf tournaments have Saturday as “moving day,” college football seasons have October as “moving month.”
With two October Saturdays down and three to go, where does this football season stand?
For many reasons, the forecast is still very murky, with a few obvious exceptions.
It is plain to anyone that Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson are extremely good if not great teams. Depth, talent, physical prowess — the Tide, Buckeyes and Tigers possess these central qualities in spades.
It is plain to anyone that Vanderbilt, Syracuse, Boston College, Kansas, Rice, Illinois, Florida Atlantic, Marshall, UTEP, Massachusetts, Bowling Green, Miami (Ohio), Fresno State, San Jose State, and Louisiana-Monroe are very bad teams.
That leaves “only” 110 FBS teams which defy easy categorization.
Sure, Louisville and Houston and Michigan are above-average teams, but that’s a vague, bland and generalized description. Is Michigan 11-1 quality, or 9-3 quality? We all have our views — we’re entitled to them — but it’s still too early to see what UM is truly made of. First, the Wolverines have played only one game out of their home state or stadium, and it came against Rutgers, a team which won’t offer a clear or representative measuring stick for anyone in college football.
We can ask the same of Louisville and Houston. The Cards and Cougars might indeed go 11-1 (only one of them can), but given that Florida State looks a lot more mortal than many thought heading into the season, and given that Oklahoma — though 2-0 in the Big 12 — has regularly struggled through six weeks, it’s risky to be overly confident or final in one’s evaluations of UL and UH. Identity questions remain to be answered.
In the Pac-12, a measure of clarity exists: Washington or Washington State will win the Pac-12 North. Oregon and Stanford are immersed in failures and transitions. Arizona exists a notch below most of the Pac-12 South.
That’s all the clarity which can be found at this point.
Is Washington national title contender? It might have been easy to think so after a 38-point takedown of Stanford… but then Washington State beat Stanford by 26 on the road. How much is a win over Stanford worth in 2016? It’s hard to answer that question, in much the same way it’s hard to evaluate Michigan’s win over Wisconsin… due to Michigan State’s implosion this season. These domino effects — also in evidence when evaluating Notre Dame, Texas, and other such programs — stand in the way of clear and linear assessments of many FBS teams. Misleading results (Texas-Notre Dame and Michigan State-Notre Dame heading the list) represent one foremost reason for the lack of answers through six weeks of college football.
Another reason for the abundance of mystery in this sport on October 10 is a familiar one: backloaded schedules.
In the SEC West, Alabama is the bee’s knees and Mississippi State is immersed in misery. As for the other five teams in the broad and mushy middle of the division, they’ll knock antlers over the next month and a half. Right now, it’s very hard to line up Ole Miss here and Arkansas there and say with any conviction that Team A is clearly better than Team B. We’ll just have to wait.
This dynamic of backloaded schedules very much exists in the whole of the Big 12, and also in the ACC Coastal, where the fun’s just starting.
Speaking of the ACC, the conference gave rise to another reason why it’s hard to evaluate a number of teams after Week 6: Hurricane Matthew.
Imagine a world in which North Carolina State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Syracuse, and Duke didn’t have to play in such atrocious weather. It would be easier to get a feel for how those teams are evolving. Games played in severe weather count in the standings, and credit all the teams on the above list which did a better job of protecting the ball in wet conditions, but as a measure of true football aptitude, this past weekend in the Carolinas was a throwaway.
Yes, various conference and division races own a measure of clarity. Yes, we can also say that teams such as Colorado and Wake Forest are vastly improved from last season. That’s a degree of clear-cut understanding. However, it’s hard to say just how good or how average the Buffaloes and Demon Deacons will turn out to be.
Comparisons relative to 2015 represent a lower bar to hurdle. In terms of “absolute quality” — how good is Team A on its own terms? — the 2016 college football season has left us with few answers and so many more questions, one week short of the midpoint.
Use the little gray cells, mon ami… but don’t think answers will automatically emerge each Saturday. They’ve remained largely hidden through six Saturdays, and might stay hidden if the clouds don’t lift from this season.