Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
28 Oct 2004
By Vinny Gauri and Russell Levine
Russell: Vin, I have no qualms about taking SBC's money, even if Michigan and Ohio State won't. Of course, they haven't offered us anything, but I still move to make this week's column sponsored by SBC.
Vinny: You sellout.
Russell: What can I say? The kids need new shoes. Speaking of which, it's about to get worse for us. After Susan beat me two weeks in a row -- and beat both of us last week -- she's taken up a reader on the suggestion to get the children involved. So not only will we be picking against her this week, but four-year old Trevor and two-year old Lindsay as well. They went with the time honored "who has the better nickname" method.
Vinny: It's a shame to exploit children that way.
Russell: Tell me about it.
Vinny: One thing is clear: I'm going to lose a lot of money in Vegas in a couple weeks. Can I pawn my car?
Russell: Vin, based on your performance this season, perhaps you should consider avoiding the sports book and taking in the sites instead. You know, I hear the Hoover Dam makes an excellent day trip.
Vinny: I better pack my Doug Christie jersey.
Russell: You know, there is a theory out there (pushed mainly by Pete Fiutak of collegefootballnews.com) that says the double-digit home underdog is as close a thing to a lock as there is in college football. A couple of weeks ago, the big home dogs went 9-0 against the spread. This week's slate of games will provide a good test of the theory, as there are four such instances among our 10 games, led by No. 1 USC, which is a huge 24-point favorite against Washington State up in the Paloose.
Vinny: Freshman quarterback Alex Brink has been forced into duty for the Cougars, who lost Josh Swogger for the season with a broken bone in his right foot. Brink struggled (understandably) in his first start last week, a loss to Oregon State in Corvallis. This week, he's facing an even quicker defense, and maybe the best defense he'll ever face. And as good as Shaun Cody & Co. are against the run, Brink won't get much help from Jerome Harrison and Chris Bruhn in the backfield.
Russell: The Men of Troy have been on cruise control the last two weeks, posting blowout wins over Arizona State and Washington after getting a huge scare from Cal. I don't think they'll struggle much in this one either, but Wazzu is not the pushover that the Huskies were. Bill Doba's Cougars will play hard and can score some points. The defense, led by my favorite undersized linebacker, "Good" Will Derting, has too much pride to let this game get out of hand. I think the Cougars cover.
Vinny: Looks like Wazzu will be home for the holidays this year. The Trojans will hand the Cougars their fourth straight loss. The oddsmakers think that guys like me think this will be a complete rout. And I think they're right -- USC covers.
Vinny: Sticking with the injury theme out West, Aztecs back Lynell Hamilton is out for the year. His absence has been noticeable, as the SDSU offense has managed only 46 points in their last four games, all losses. In last week's 19-9 loss to New Mexico, SDSU accumulated a grand total of 146 yards on offense, including a rushing total of -19 yards. Yeesh.
Russell: Here's chance No. 2 for the double-digit home dogs to prove the theory. Utah rose to No. 6 in the BCS rankings this week -- the critical spot that guarantees a BCS bid if the Utes can hold it. Utah has been cruising along, crushing opponents and quietly rising in the polls without getting much attention. All of a sudden, everyone is talking about the Utes going undefeated and playing in the Fiesta Bowl. Or they're talking about Utah coach Urban Meyer leaving for Florida. Can you say distractions?
Vinny: The Aztec defense has kept them in most of their games, thanks in part to stud linebackers Kirk Morrison and Matt McCoy. They can expect to be on the field for most of this one, but I think they keep it close enough. I'll take SDSU and the points.
Russell: San Diego State is a pretty athletic team, particularly on defense. You and I sweated out Michigan's three-point win over the Aztecs in September, when SDSU showed absolutely no fear playing in the Big House. Coach Tom Craft will have his troops pumped up for this one. I like the Aztecs to cover as well.
Vinny: Slap-happy John L. Smith has his offense clicking since inserting the Drew Stanton into the lineup at quarterback. Stanton is actually fifth in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (75.7). The Spartans have had 2 weeks to prepare for this one. And unlike the Wolverines, Michigan State always views this game as the biggest on its schedule.
Russell: Did the Spartans view it as a big game when they lost 49-3 in Ann Arbor two years ago? I know, that was before Sir Edmund Smith arrived on the East Lansing scene. Last year, Lloyd Carr fed the MSU defense a steady diet of Chris Perry, who carried an inhumane 51 times in Michigan's 7-point win. Michigan tailback Mike Hart better eat his Wheaties this week -- he's going to need all his strength on Saturday. Historically, the team that runs the ball better has dominated this matchup, a fact Carr knows well.
Vinny: Running quarterbacks always give Michigan fits, but this might be the quickest defense the Wolverines have ever fielded, especially up front with Gabe Watson and LaMarr Woodley. As a Michigan guy, it's time for my superiority complex to rear its ugly head. I'm always nervous about this one, but I don't think the Spartans are up to the task in Ann Arbor, where they haven't won since 1990 (and don't get me started about that one -- Eddie Brown tripped Desmond Howard in the end zone!). I'll go with the Leaders and Best (Michigan), 28-13.
Russell: We were robbed! Michigan State always brings out the worst in my homer instincts. The Spartans and their faithful would have you believe this is a great rivalry, and it has produced some incredibly dramatic games in recent seasons, but not in Ann Arbor, where Michigan dominates. I don't see any reason to pick against the Maize and Blue this weekend. Michigan wins by two touchdowns.
Vinny: Bob Stoops has admitted to running up the score in recent weeks to impress voters, who have even more influence in the BCS rankings this year. It worked -- one coach switched his first-place vote to Oklahoma last week (and the Sooners jumped Miami in the BCS poll). Maybe it was Kansas' Mark Mangino, who watched his Jayhawks take a 41-10 beating in Norman last week. There wasn't much sportsmanship in the Bedlam Series last year, as the Sooners rolled 52-9 over Oklahoma State as they avenged two straight losses to the Cowboys.
Russell: Don't get me started on voting fraud. Not this week, anyway. As dominant as the Sooners have been since Stoops arrived on the scene, they're usually good for one stinker a year. Will this be the week, on the road against an in-state rival, and with Texas A&M looming on the horizon?
Vinny: Les Miles has Oklahoma State at 6-1 despite having a passing game ranked 111th in the nation. Don't look for Vernand Morency to have a big game on the ground this week as the Sooners stack up against the run. I'll take Oklahoma and lay the points.
Russell: I agree with you (oh, the horror!) that it will be tough sledding for Morency this week. Still, I think the Sooners are due for a letdown. I'll stick with the double-digit home dogs and say Oklahoma State keeps it close. Give me the Cowboys and the points.
Russell: Wow, it's a matchup of two of my least-favorite programs in America. On the one hand, you've got control-freak Bill Snyder -- I know we call him that every week. I've just entered it into my auto-text -- and his underachieving (this year at least) K-State squad against Mike Leach and his Cowboys, a team that loves to run it up on a bunch of pushovers (yes, that includes Nebraska), but routinely gets taken behind the woodshed when the big boys come calling.
Vinny: Russ, you mentioned last week that Wisconsin might be reading their press clippings. That's exactly what Mike thinks his players were doing before their 51-21 defeat in Austin. For K-State, quarterback Allen Webb didn't trip up while subbing for Dylan Meier against Nebraska, completing 60% of his passes and rushing for 147 yards in the 45-21 win in Manhattan.
Russell: They can read their clippings all they want. There's no way I trust a run-and-shoot team on the road in a big game, even if the Big 12 South has dominated the North division this season. K-State wins by a touchdown.
Vinny: Snyder won't reveal whether Meier -- who received a concussion courtesy of the Oklahoma defense two weeks ago -- will be back on the field. I think Leach will have his team primed for this one. I'll take the Raiders and the points.
Vinny: Well Russ, I know how much you enjoy calling coaches on the carpet for hair-brained two-point conversions. So I'll let you tee off on Gary Barnett, who didn't heed your advice against Texas A&M last week.
Russell: Yep, Barnett went for two with a 12-point lead in the third quarter. The attempt failed, and the missed point came back to haunt CU, as the Aggies kicked a field goal to force overtime on the final play of regulation. Barnett might be the most overrated coach in America. Yes, he pulled off a miracle at Northwestern, than ran for the money to Boulder where his teams have been underwhelming, not to mention scandal-prone. Wow, I'm just full of venom this week. I can't help it -- MSU week always makes me want to talk trash.
Vinny: 'Horns quarterback Vincent Young answered his critics for one week at least. He completed 15 of 20 passes and racked up five scores (four rushing) against Texas Tech last week. Young also nearly outgained Cedric Benson with 158 yards on the ground. The Buffs' problems (aside from Barnett) are mainly in the defense (106th nationally, and 79th against the run) and turnover (85th in turnover margin) departments. Not good news when Texas team comes to town.
Russell: Now that the Longhorns have the annual loss to Oklahoma out of their system, they can resume beating up on the rest of the Big 12 on their way to the Holiday Bowl. Yes, I know this is yet another case of the double-digit home underdog, but I just don't trust Colorado. I'll lay the points with Texas.
Vinny: I've learned from my mistakes: never take Colorado and never mention to your girlfriend that the song coming over the jukebox is the theme from G-String Divas. Give me the Longhorns.
Russell: Smooth, Vin. Real smooth.
Russell: Ralph Friedgen's rep as an offensive guru is taking a severe beating this year, as his Terps have been nothing short of brutal on offense. His defense has done a pretty good job protecting the house, however.
Vinny: Wyatt Sexton looked awful in a close win over Wake Forest last week. Russ, will Bobby Bowden fall back on self-immolation specialist Chris Rix this week if Sexton scuffles again?
Russell: The old man had to be talked out of making the switch last week and Sexton rewarded his faith with a come-from-behind win.
Vinny: Friedgen would like to put Joel Statham in a transporter and bring back Scott McBrien at quarterback. Maryland's defense keeps them in every game -- at least until this week. Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker should run all over the Terps. I'll take the 'Noles to win by at least two touchdowns.
Russell: Enough with the double-digit home 'dogs. Florida State hasn't impressed me much this year, but I'm not sure Maryland can score at all against the Seminoles. I'll lay the points and roll with FSU.
Vinny: Cal offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach George Cortez will miss this game as he recovers from eye surgery. So Jeff Tedford, who calls the plays anyway, has taken on added responsibilities this week. And while Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Arrington, and Tedford get all the ink, it's been the Bears' defense (9th nationally in total defense) that has them alongside the big boys in the polls. Senior defensive end Ryan Riddle has amassed seven sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss.
Russell: The Bears are tough at home, and you have to wonder which ASU team will show up. This is a BCS at-large elimination game, as both these teams have a shot at the Rose Bowl (assuming USC plays in the Orange) by winning out.
Vinny: After getting manhandled by USC, the Devils are out to prove they're for real. I like Cal to win here, but this spread is too large. I'll take Arizona State and the points.
Russell: I agree with you that the spread is too high. ASU will perform much better than they did against SC in the Coliseum. Andrew Walter will hit a few big plays down the field and the Sun Devils will play opportunistic defense to put a huge scare into Cal. ASU covers.
Russell: You have to be concerned that the Vols, who have been plagued by inconsistency this season, won't be entirely focused on Lou Holtz's Gamecocks on Saturday.
Vinny: You're right about that. After facing South Carolina this week, the Vols host Notre Dame in Knoxville. After that, it's smooth sailing (i.e., Vanderbilt and Kentucky) to the SEC title game. Phil Fulmer has finally settled on Erik Ainge at quarterback, but Ainge, a true freshman, has been largely responsible for Tennessee's inconsistent play. The Gamecocks have a good running game and a sound defense, the hallmarks of any Holtz team. Holtz has done an impressive job in already matching his win total from last year, but this line does seem a little low, doesn't it?
Russell: It does seem low, but so have several other South Carolina lines this season. They managed to cover a low number against Georgia at home earlier this year. Maybe it's just that all the Notre Dame subway alums out there bet on Holtz every week, wishing he'd return to South Bend.
Vinny: It's probably too good to be true, but I'll take the Vols.
Russell: I just can't see Tennessee losing this one, not with the SEC title game berth all but wrapped up. It'll be close, but the Vols will win by at least a field goal.
Russell: The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party (and really, is there a better nickname for a sporting event than that?) has some added drama this week, thanks to Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley.
Vinny: I didn't like the move by Foley to fire Ron Zook this week. I know he wants to get a head start on other programs (Washington, Syracuse, North Carolina, Illinois, and maybe Nebraska, Clemson and Kentucky) that will be in the coaching market and to prevent other programs from negative recruiting. That said, you can't quit on your players, or give them an excuse to quit on their season with games like Georgia and Florida State still on the schedule. Maybe it's just that I feel bad for Zook, who is a likeable guy. But then, I'm not a Florida booster.
Russell: What's really sad is that Foley was terrified of Zook winning this game -- thereby making it tougher for Foley to fire him -- because the Gators have absolutely owned Georgia for more than a decade.
Vinny: Georgia has looked impressive only once this year -- that whipping of LSU in Athens. We may not find out if the Bulldogs are for real until they travel to Auburn in two weeks. Or we might find out Saturday. I'm betting on the latter. Call me crazy, but I think Chris Leak has the game of his life and the Gators win this one outright for the Zooker. Hopefully, Zook puts on the dark suit and fedora hat a la Earle Bruce in 1987.
Russell: I'm with you. Georgia is once again turning out to be a MacBeth team -- you know, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." The Gators, who were plenty miffed by Foley's move, will play with a gigantic chip on their shoulders. That's not a good sign for Georgia, which can't seem to be Florida under normal circumstances. I agree: Florida wins outright.
Vinny: Hey Billy Shakespeare, your picks are once again "a tale told by an idiot." I guess all that's left is my Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week. I'll take Florida State over Maryland.
Russell: When it comes to the Fred Edelstein locks, "I come to bury you, not to praise you." Give me Kansas State over Texas Tech.
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" in bold)
|#1 USC (-24) at Wash. St.||USC||Wash. St.||Wash. St.||Wash. St.||Wash. St.|
|#6 Utah (-18.5) at San Diego St.||SDSU||SDSU||SDSU||SDSU||SDSU|
|Michigan St. (+11) at #12 Michigan||Michigan||Michigan||Michigan||Michigan||MSU|
|#2 Oklahoma (+12) at #19 Oklahoma St.||Oklahoma||Ok. St.||Oklahoma||Oklahoma||Ok. St.|
|Texas Tech (+2.5) at Kansas St.||Texas Tech||KSU||KSU||Texas Tech||KSU|
|#10 Texas (-14) at Colorado||Texas||Texas||Texas||Colorado||Texas|
|#5 Florida St. (-10.5) at Maryland||FSU||FSU||FSU||Maryland||Maryland|
|#15 Arizona St. (+15.5) at #8 California||Ariz. St.||Ariz. St.||California||California||Ariz. St.|
|#11 Tennessee (pick 'em) at South Carolina||Tenn.||Tenn.||Tenn.||South Carolina||South Carolina|
|Florida (+7) vs. #9 Georgia||Florida||Florida||Florida||Florida||Georgia|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
|Vinny||2-7-1 (0-1)||33-45-2 (3-5)|
|Russell||5-4-1 (1-0)||35-43-2 (6-2)|
|Susan||6-3-1 (0-1)||11-8-1 (0-2)|