What do you call a fifth-round rookie WR with real expectations? Tajae Sharpe, and there may not be another player like him in NFL history. Tennessee's poor history of developing wideouts has led to a rare opportunity that Sharpe can seize this season.
31 Dec 2004
By Vinny Gauri and Russell Levine
Russell: Well Vin, one more week of lousy picks is all that separates us from the offseason.
Vinny: Ugh, don't remind me. Let's get to it.
Russell: There's nothing that says "Bowl Season" quite like a pair of 6-5 teams playing on a weekday afternoon. That'll be the case when Alabama takes on Minnesota in Nashville. Some people consider reaching this game a triumph for Alabama, but I'm guessing the players preferred it when the Tide was on probation the last two years and the school just scheduled season-ending games at Hawaii.
Vinny: Come on, I hear Nashvegas is a great town!
Russell: Okay, so that's an exaggeration. I'm sure the Alabama players are thrilled to be there. They have the nation's second-ranked defense (and it's No. 91 offense), which will attempt to slow down Minnesota's two-headed rushing attack of Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney. Those two were tearing it up on the ground as Minnesota began the season 5-0 before another loss to Michigan sent the Gophers into a 1-5 tailspin.
Vinny: â€˜Bama did lose three of its last four, but those losses came at Tennesee, at LSU and against undefeated Auburn. And it's not easy to face those kinds of defenses when you're down to your third-string quarterback. We'll see if coach Mike Shula trusts Spencer Pennington a little more after his solid game against Auburn and a couple weeks of bowl practices. Shula may have to, with tailback Kenneth Darby probably a game-time decision with an abdominal pull. If Darby can't go, true freshman Aaron Johns (47 carries, 185 yards on the season) gets the call.
Russell: Alabama's offense and Minnesota's defense are both terrible, but Alabama's defense is better than Minnesota's offense. I like the Tide to cover.
Vinny: Sophomore quarterback Bryan Cupito looked good in the Gophers' perennially soft early season schedule, but he's regressed of late with his accuracy. Meanwhile, Vegas has set the over-under at 17 for the number of times the cameras catch Gophers coach Glen Mason doing his Dick Vermeil "squint-and-grin" routine. I like the Tide as well.
Russell: Didn't we just run down a Big Ten team whose season fell apart after a crushing loss to Michigan? Well, there's another one, although, to be fair, Purdue's demise began with a heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin the week before a loss to Michigan. The Boilers were 5-0 and ranked No. 5 before losing to the Wisconsin, Michigan, Northwestern and Iowa in successive weeks by a total of 11 points. Somehow, Purdue and Kyle Orton rallied to win their final two games. They come into the Sun Bowl a touchdown favorite over an Arizona State team whose season followed a similar path.
Vinny: Arizona State will be without senior quarterback Andrew Walter (shoulder surgery), senior safety Riccardo Stewart (neck/shoulder surgery), and sophomore running back Loren Wade (suspension). Sophomore Sam Keller will get the start in Walter's place.
Russell: For the Sun Devils, this game will probably rest on Keller's shoulders, as Purdue is stout against the run but vulnerable to the pass. I like the way Purdue closed out the regular season. I'll lay the points on Orton and the Boilers.
Vinny: Agreed again. The Devils are just too banged up. I'll take Purdue.
Russell: TiVo alert! If you have to work on New Year's Eve, make sure to fire up the TiVo for this game (better pad that three-hour time window by a couple of hours, too). When was the last time you saw an over/under in the 80s? As wacky as that number is, I'm betting the house on the over. Both of these teams have scored 55 or more points in four straight games. This could well be the most entertaining game of the entire bowl season.
Vinny: Stefan LeFors isn't mentioned with the Rodgers, Leinarts and Walters when it comes to NFL quarterback prospects, and that's because he's barely six feet tall. But LeFors is completing an amazing 74% of his passes and has an 18-to-2 touchdown to interception ratio. He's also shifty enough to elude the pass rush and scramble for a first down. For Boise State, sophomore quarterback Jared Zabranksy is no slouch -- he even has 12 rushing touchdowns to some impressive passing stats -- although he has thrown 11 picks. And any time you've got the kind of offensive stats these teams put up (including a combined 90 rushing touchdowns), you're obviously dealing with some great offensive lines. Neither defensive coordinator is getting any sleep this week.
Russell: (Soapbox Alert!) You have to wonder if Louisville will be distracted by its coaching situation, as Bobby Petrino is again sniffing around for a better job (LSU), just ONE WEEK after signing a contract extension at Louisville, which doubled his salary. Memo to Louisville A.D. Tom Jurich: Petrino has interviewed for every job opening there is in the last 14 months (and even one that wasn't open yet, at Auburn). He's not going to stay, so quit giving this carpet-bagger raises every time his agent calls an SEC school. It's ridiculous. I fault Jurich for allowing this to happen. At some point, you have to realize when a coach doesn't want to stick around and just let him go. It will be better for everyone involved. As for Petrino, he's an excellent coach and I realize he's just trying to further his career, but please stop with the "me and my family are happy in Louisville" speech. It's insulting. As for the other A.D.'s that are falling all over themselves to hire this guy -- doesn't his behavior give you any reservations about the man's character?
Okay, that's my two cents. You may consider the rant over.
Vinny: Didn't you forget to talk about your daughter's field hockey game, Mr. King?
Russell: I deserved that. By the way, I still like Louisville in this game, and I'll even make the Cards my Fred Edelstein Lock. Boise State is not a great team away from home. And there's a reason why so many schools are dying to give Petrino all that cash.
Vinny: Louisville has shown it can play with the big boys and on the road (nearly beating Miami in the Orange Bowl). Boise State ambushed a vulnerable Oregon State team on the Smurf Turf. I'm going with Louisville also.
Vinny: The last time these teams met back in September of last year, Brock Berlin stunk up the Orange Bowl for three quarters (hmmmâ€¦ sounds familiar) before Miami made a furious comeback to win 38-33. That's the game that really turned up the heat on Ron Zook at the start of his second season in Gainesville. Of course, Zook won't be around for this one, as defensive coordinator Charlie Strong dons the interim coach hat.
Russell: These 'Canes don't have their typical swagger, probably because Berlin doesn't have it. Tough to have a swagger when you're spraying interceptions all over the place, as he tends to do sometimes.
Vinny: I just don't think teams react well to firings and interim coaches (hello, Irish). And while I'm a big Chris Leak fan, I think the Gators are no different. The â€˜Canes will rout Florida here. Miami has too many seniors (Berlin, Antrel Rolle, Santonio Thomas, etc.) who are too proud to permit a four-loss season. I'm making Miami my Fred Edelstein Lock.
Russell: Well you have to admit that Florida reacted pretty well to the Zook firing, winning three of four at the end of the year, including in Tallahassee. Still, I think you're probably right about the Hurricane's pride being the difference in this one. I'll go with Miami as well.
Vinny: These teams last met in this bowl game after the 1997 season, when Georgia pummeled Wisconsin 33-6. It will be up to senior tailback Anthony Davis to shoulder the Badgers' offensive burden. If that doesn't work, I don't like sophomore John Stocco's chances against the Georgia defense. Stocco has completed only 53% of his passes and has thrown for over 200 yards only twice all season. Barry Alvarez could make things easier on both Davis and Stocco if he used the pass set up the run, but that doesn't jive with his old-school methods.
Russell: Call this the Disappointment Bowl. Georgia was a trendy preseason pick for the Orange Bowl but the Bulldogs scuffled all year long, with several narrow wins. Then, with the BCS still a possibility, they were handled easily by Auburn. Wisconsin managed to turn a 9-0 start and a probable Rose Bowl berth into a 9-2 finish.
Vinny: The Badgers really stumbled to the finish line, getting handled 79-21 in their last two losses, both on the road. I think they make it a hat trick. Georgia is the pick.
Russell: Both defenses are very strong, but Georgia's offense is far better. I'll go with the Bulldogs as well.
Vinny: The only reason that A&M is favored here is that Tennessee is starting third-string quarterback Rick Clausen with Erik Ainge (shoulder) and Brent Schaeffer (collarbone) still nursing injuries. The speedy Schaeffer was expected to get in on about 15 plays but, thanks to catching the flu, his status is uncertain. On defense, the Vols have given up a plethora of big plays in losses to Auburn (twice) and Notre Dame. Not good news when you're trying to contain Reggie McNeal.
Russell: Plethora? Are you getting academic on me? This game is tough to figure. A&M didn't exactly finish strong, but in McNeal that have the most dangerous player on the field. If the Vols have to go with Clausen, he at least played pretty well in the SEC title game loss to Auburn.
Vinny: Tennessee fans don't want to hear it, but this season may have been one of Phil Fulmer's finer coaching performances with the youth and injuries at quarterback. I have no idea why, but I like the Vols and the points here.
Russell: Finally we disagree on something -- although it's not on your opinion of Fulmer. I'm very impressed that he managed a 7-1 SEC mark with the two freshmen quarterbacks. But I'm guessing Tennessee is disappointed to be playing in this game, while A&M is thrilled to be there -- kind of like what happened in the Holiday Bowl. I like the Aggies.
Vinny: Has there ever been a more confounding player in college football than Chris Rix? This guy is just flush with talent but hasn't been able to produce (except in brief flashes) for the past four years. With all the talent the â€˜Noles have at so many positions, when they have a weakness, it's usually at quarterback. Rix gets the final start of his college career, but you can bet that sophomore Wyatt Sexton will see the field a fair amount.
Russell: Rix is the collegiate version of Jake Plummer in the NFL. The spectacular plays and the cover-your-eyes ones arrive in equal proportion.
Vinny: Combine Florida State's comical quarterback play with the way West Virginia's offense struggles against good teams, and this game could be more painful than a Mad About You marathon.
Russell: I don't think I've watched a minute of the Gator Bowl the last few years. It's always up against the two Big Ten-SEC games, and the matchup usually stinks. This year will be no different. I won't watch, but I will take Florida State. I simply don't trust West Virginia against a good team, which Florida State still is on occasion.
Vinny: Defensive tackle Travis Johnson (a likely high pick in the NFL draft) and the â€˜Noles' top-ranked run defense should make it tough going for Kay-Jay Harris. If you're going to move the ball against FSU, it's through the air. They struggle at times, but West Virginia quarterback Rasheed Marshall and receiver Chris Henry have shown they're capable of hitting a big play now and then. I don't think I could ever trust Rix in the gambling context, and certainly not with a spread like this. Cue the dueling banjoes -- I'm going with the Mountaineers and the points.
Russell: I promise, no Bobby Petrino talk this time. Mercifully, Nick Saban has finally announced his departure for the NFL after being a candidate for every NFL job that came open the last decade and a leading candidate has yet to emerge for LSU. Saban will be on the sidelines for this game, but will the coaching situation be a distraction for the Tigers? I think Iowa has to hope so.
Vinny: I hear Rick Neuheisel is available. Anyway, Iowa was dead last (117th) in rushing offense in all of Division I-A football. But this isn't a Texas Tech-type offense (41st in passing offense), so it's not like they're lining up in five-wide sets and chucking the ball around the field. So how are they playing on New Year's Day with a chance for a 10 win season? Well, they have a very good defense (10th in the nation) led by defensive end Matt Roth and linebacker Abdul Hodge. Oh, and Kirk Ferentz is the best football coach on the planet.
Russell: I don't know if I'd go quite that far on Ferentz, but he's without a doubt the Coach of the Year this season. With six weeks to prepare, I'm sure he'll have some creative schemes cooked up for LSU.
Vinny: Hawkeye quarterback Drew Tate is kind of a poor man's Doug Flutie, the way he scrambles around and improvises. And he's only a sophomore. I have never cared for LSU's quarterback rotation, and with Saban's mind on other things, I'll take Iowa and the touchdown.
Russell: Does that mean Tate will still be sporting a mullet and occupying an NFL roster spot somewhere in another 20 years? I think LSU will win, but the spread's too high against such a well-coached team. I'll take Iowa as well.
Russell: Shouldn't you be in Pasadena already? Or is this going to be one of your patented "surgical strike" road trips?
Vinny: Yep, I've got a 6 am flight on Saturday that should put me into LAX about five-and-a-half hours before kickoff. Is that enough time to navigate the brutal LA traffic?
Russell: As long as one of those http://members.fortunecity.com/thefletchpage/jackknife.wav " target="_blank">manure spreaders doesn't jackknife on the Santa Ana, you should be fine. You should know your way to the Arroyo Seco without a map by now.
Vinny: Michigan defensive coordinator Jim Hermann may be auditioning to keep his job. The way Michigan State, Northwestern and Ohio State sliced and diced Michigan's defense down the stretch out of spread formations, this could get ugly for the Wolverines. Texas quarterback Vincent Young and tailback Cedric Benson have already provided bulletin board material with the perfunctory quotes about plodding Big Ten teams. I'm not sure who needs this game more. Texas needs to show it can finally win a big game with the nation watching. The Wolverines need to erase that 37-21 nightmare in Columbus from their heads. And both teams need to show they belong in the BCS.
Russell: Yeah, Ohio State looked real slow against Oklahoma State the other day. When are guys going to learn how stupid that myth is? But back to this game, Vin, has Michigan ever had success against a mobile quarterback? Guys like Young have killed the Wolverines seemingly forever. On paper, I don't like the matchups, not with Young scrambling and the power back in Benson. Michigan safety Ernest Shazor will have have to be all over the field against those two.
Vinny: I'm stoked for this game. Frankly, I haven't been this excited since they installed T.G.I. Friday's Cheddar & Bacon Potato Skins in the vending machine across from my office. Most of the match-ups seem to favor Texas, but to paraphrase Bobby Knight (who was talking about former LSU coach Dale Brown), no matter how bad it looks for your team, when you see Mack Brown pacing the other sideline, you know everything is going to be alright. Give me the Wolverines and the touchdown.
Russell: You should see our vending machine -- Andy Capp's Hot Fries. Did Michigan over- or under-achieve this season? Tough to underachieve when you make the Rose Bowl with true freshmen at QB (Chad Henne) and RB (Mike Hart). Then again, tough to over-achieve when you have four first-team All Americans (Shazor, CB Marlin Jackson, C David Baas and WR Braylon Edwards), yet are never in the mix for the Orange Bowl. I guess we'll learn the answer during this game. Show me Michigan as a big underdog, and I'll take the points every time. Carr outcoaches Brown and Michigan pulls off the upset. The Texas fans start whining about Brown's new 10-year contract extension about 8 pm Saturday night.
Vinny: Wow, if you had told me at the start of the season that Utah would be a 16-point favorite in the Fiesta Bowl, I would have accused you of belonging to some sort of David Blaine-following cult.
Russell: You're more likely to find me in the crowd shining laser pointers at that tool in his glass coffin above the River Thames. Utah, the first team from outside the BCS leagues to crash the party, is in kind of a tough spot in this game. Anything short of a blowout of Pitt will cast a negative spotlight on mid-major teams for years to come. After all, nobody thinks Pitt should be in this game.
Vinny: Pitt's pass defense was ranked 98th nationally, allowing 18 touchdowns and nearly 250 yards per game. And while Utah's defense has been largely ignored, the Utes have forced 29 turnovers and are 2nd in the country in turnover margin. Senior safety Morgan Scalley (6 interceptions, 2.5 sacks) leads the way.
Russell: If you haven't seen Utah play this year, this game is worth watching just to see them execute the spread-option. Expect lots of shotgun traps, counters, options, and draws, about 10 shovel passes. Oh, and about 500 yards of offense and 40 points as well.
Vinny: Well, since both coaches are leaving their respective teams for greener pastures, I can't use my "pick against the leaving coach" theory. So I'm picking against the coach who wears sunglasses any time of day (my "Corey Hart Rule"): Utah covers the sizable spread.
Russell: I thought that was the Corey Haim rule? I'm with you. Urban Meyer may be leaving for Florida, but he knows his Utah legacy is on the line and he'll want to destroy Pitt. I think the Utes get it done.
Vinny: These are two of the nation's best defenses, but Auburn has more playmakers on offense with Jason Campbell, Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams. The Tiger receiving corps doesn't get much mention thanks to their all-star backfield, but Campbell has spread the ball nicely between Brown and receivers Courtney Taylor, Devin Aromashodu and Ben Obomanu. (No wonder everyone prefers talking about the easier names in the Tiger backfield.) The Auburn offense is averaging 430 yards per game -- that's right up there with USC.
Russell: If they ever run a double-reverse with those two for a game-winning touchdown, headline writers everywhere will quit in protest. There's no question that Auburn has NFL-caliber talent all over the field, particularly in the offensive and defensive backfields.
Vinny: For the Hokies, Frank Beamer doesn't like doing it, but he'll have to test the Tiger defense deep a few times to keep them honest. His best bet is with freshman receiver/returner Eddie Royal (25 receptions, 433 yards). If Royal can match up with Auburn corner Montavis Pitts (and stay away from Thorpe Award winner Carlos Rogers), the Hokies may go for the big play.
Russell: Auburn gave up a bunch of big plays to Tennessee in a 38-28 win in the SEC title game. I don't know if the Tigers were just pressing because they felt their only chance at the Orange Bowl was to win in a rout, but that game was closer than it should have been.
Vinny: Well, I've maintained for the past half of the season that Auburn looks like the best team in the country. Kudos to Tommy Tuberville and most of his team for taking the high road through all of this BCS nonsense. I don't think they'll pull a Cal and show up flat for this one. I like the Tigers to complete their undefeated season and cover here.
Russell: I agree with you that Auburn will complete the undefeated season, but I think it will be by a field goal -- VaTech covers -- as the Orange Bowl disappointment factor plays a role.
Vinny: Reputation-wise, the Sooners are still paying for last year's stumbles against Kansas State and LSU in the Big 12 title game and Sugar Bowl, respectively. But this year's team is a much better. Quarterback Jason White is healthy and freshman Adrian Peterson now gives White a running threat to set up the play action pass. I thought OU was flying under the radar a little coming into this game until defensive end Larry Burdine called USC "an average team." The bulletin board effect does get over-rated, but that had to chafe Sooners coach Bob Stoops.
Russell: I was very impressed with Oklahoma all season. Yes, they played some close games at midseason, when their secondary was banged up and they gave up a bunch of points in close wins over Texas A&M and Oklahoma State, but they found a way to win those games, as all well-coached teams do. At the end of the season, and with standout corner Antonio Perkins back in the lineup, they were positively rolling. Combined score of their last three games: 107-6. I'd call that hot.
Vinny: While the USC defense may have lost a step without Kenechi Udeze and Will Poole moving on to the NFL, the USC offense may be better than last year's version, even without Mike Williams and Keary Colbert. Besides Reggie Bush and LenDale White, Leinart can get the ball to receivers Dwayne Jarrett (734 yards, 12 touchdowns as a true freshman) and Steve Smith (returning from a late-season leg injury), and tight ends Alex Holmes and Dominique Byrd, who have combined for 50 catches.
Russell: Oklahoma hasn't seen a team with those kind of weapons, but I think they can do enough to slow down USC -- I'm sure they've been studying the UCLA game film very closely. The Bruins held Leinart without a touchdown pass for the only time in his career in a hard-fought, 29-24 loss.
Vinny: I liked the Sooners when this line opened around 5 points, but now that it's down to less than a field goal, I don't think I can go with OU. I'll believe that Norm Chow's offense can be stopped (or even slowed) when it happens. The Trojans cover.
Russell: I'm sort of looking at this game like the 2000 Orange Bowl when the Sooners were heavy underdogs against an explosive Florida State team, but pulled off the shocker. This year's OU defense isn't as good as the 2000 unit, but their offense is much better with the balance that Peterson provides. Oklahoma wins another national title as Leinart throws three interceptions.
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Weekâ€? in bold)
|Game||Vinny says||Russell says|
|Alabama (-1.5) vs. Minnesota||Alabama||Alabama|
|Purdue (-7) vs. #24 Arizona State||Purdue||Purdue|
|#8 Louisville (-11) vs. #10 Boise State||Louisville||Louisville|
|#14 Miami (-3.5) vs. #19 Florida||Miami||Miami|
|#7 Georgia (-8) vs. #16 Wisconsin||Georgia||Georgia|
|#25 Texas A&M (-3.5) vs. #17 Tennessee||Tennessee||Texas A&M|
|#15 Florida State (-9) vs. #23 West Virginia||West Virginia||Florida State|
|#11 LSU (-7) vs. #13 Iowa||Iowa||Iowa|
|#5 Texas (-7) vs. #12 Michigan||Michigan||Michigan|
|#6 Utah (-16) vs. #20 Pittsburgh||Utah||Utah|
|#3 Auburn (-6) vs. #9 Virginia Tech||Auburn||Virginia Tech|
|#1 USC (-2.5) vs. #2 Oklahoma||USC||Oklahoma|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Weekâ€? record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
|Vinny||5-8 (1-0)||67-86-3 (6-9)|
|Russell||5-8 (0-1)||71-82-3 (9-6)|