Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
04 Nov 2004
By Vinny Gauri and Russell Levine
Russell: Now that the election is behind us, it's time to start talking about the polls that really matter. I'd like to see Tim Russert put his grease board to work to project the BCS standings, wouldn't you?
Vinny: Actually, no. But I hear that Larry King will be calling a BCS game this year: "Utah! Hello!"
Russell: Speaking of Mr. Suspenders, when I'm 90 and drooling on myself, I'm sure I'll still be hearing from Susan about her 2-0-1 record against me the last three weeks. Alas, she has decided to retire unbeaten, so it's just you and I. Let's get started.
Russell: Talk about packing it in. Minnesota lost a tough game to Michigan last month and completely went into the tank. That's the second straight year that scenario has played out for Glen Mason's Gophers. Mason might want to consider whether the annual slew of 50-point non-conference blowouts against patsies are really preparing his team well for the Big Ten grind.
Vinny: In Minnesota's three losses -- all on the road -- quarterback Bryan Cupito has completed only 35.2 percent of his throws. You would think he would have an easy time against defenses stacked to stop the potent Gopher ground game. But then, he's only a redshirt sophomore and a first-year starter. On the other hand, so is Wisconsin's John Stocco.
Russell: Wisconsin has the inside track to the Rose Bowl based on the Big Ten's idiotic tie-breaking procedure. Since the Badgers went undefeated in non-conference play against a Minnesota-like collection of stiffs, Wisconsin stands to grab the conference's automatic BCS bid over Michigan, which lost at Notre Dame the second week of the season. Not that I'm biased or anything.
Vinny: Not at all.
Russell: The Badgers are getting it done with defense, and with or without Erasmus James, I can't see Wisconsin suffering a letdown at home against a Minnesota crew that has been rolling over and playing dead for a month now. Based on this line, I think Badger fans have some legitimate gripes about a lack of respect. Wisconsin covers. In fact, this is my Fred Edelstein Lock.
Vinny: The Gophers gained only 6 yards in the fourth quarter last week against an Indiana defense ranked 106th out of 117 teams in the nation. Frankly, Mason's troubles are probably the result of all the bad karma he racked up by running up the score against Northwestern back in September. This is Wisconson's final home game, and I think the usually raucous Camp Randall crowd will get into the Gopher's heads. They can do that -- they don't even need a reason. The Badgers win in a rout.
Russell: The key to this game is which Michigan State team shows up. Losses don't get any tougher than the one the Spartans suffered last week to -- who was it again? Oh, right, they lost to Michigan in triple overtime after blowing a 17-point lead in the final seven minutes. MSU's track record after tough losses doesn't bode well for Sparty against an Ohio State squad that may just be rounding into form.
Vinny: Does "rounding into form" mean gaining a total of 178 yards on offense last week?
Russell: I was trying to pay the Buckeyes a compliment. It's not easy for me.
Vinny: Quarterback Troy Smith threw just eight passes against Penn State, but the Buckeyes scored on defense and another Ted Ginn punt return in a 21-10 win. Smith (replacing the ineffective and nicked up Justin Zwick) will get his third straight start this week. And senior running back Lydell Ross is expected back in the lineup after a two-week suspension. Ross allegedly used stolen currency to pay for nearly $2,000 in lap dances at a Columbus strip club. For that much cash, you're going to hear "Welcome to the Jungle" about 50 times.
Russell: It's a sad state of affairs when Ohio State's starting tailback has to pay for his own lap dances. Isn't that what boosters are for? Dynamic pass/run threat Drew Stanton is out at quarterback for Michigan State after injuring his shoulder against the Wolverines. Senior Damon Dowdell played admirably in his absence and gets the start against the Buckeyes. Put it this way -- if Michigan State bounces back to win this one, John L. Smith is a better coach than I'm giving him credit for. He had a masterful gameplan against the Wolverines, but this is a whole different kind of coaching job -- he has to manage his team's psyche this week. I don't think they're up to the task. Ohio State wins by a touchdown.
Vinny: The Spartans have bounced with wins after their last four losses in Ann Arbor, but none of those losses were as heartbreaking as last week's triple overtime thriller. I'll take the Fighting Sweater Vests (OSU) and the points.
Russell: The Utes' express just keeps on rolling. Utah bombed its latest Mountain West foe, San Diego State, on the road last week and held onto the critical sixth spot in the BCS standings -- that's the position that would garner the Utes an automatic invite to a BCS bowl. Vin, I'll ask you, does an undefeated Utah team deserve a crack at the Fiesta Bowl, potentially bumping Michigan, Texas or another high-profile one-loss school?
Vinny: I have to admit that I would be interested in seeing Utah perform on the big stage. But not at the price of seeing Michigan or Texas play in the Citrus and Holiday Bowls, respectively.
Russell: As far as this game goes, it's no contest. Urban Meyer's spread-option attack has been baffling defenses with Heisman sleeper Alex Smth at the controls. I can't see anything different against Sunny Lubick's overmatched Rams this week. Utah covers. As for Meyer, he's got to be thrilled that the Steve Spurrier watch in Gainesville has kept the attention off of him in the Florida coaching watch. It's not like Urban won't get another high-profile gig if the Visor returns to the Swamp.
(Ed. note: Spurrier announed on Thursday he won't be returning to Florida after all. Perhaps Meyer does need to start worrying about the extra media attention.)
Vinny: CSU needs to win out or they'll be home for the holidays. With Bradlee Van Pelt gone, the Rams' offense has been sputtering -- they rank 111th in rushing offense and 105th in turnover margin. With freshman quarterback Caleb Hanie making this third start after Justin Holland broke his ankle, this looks like a blowout. I'll take the Utes to cover this awfully big spread.
Russell: College football fans have been looking forward to this Big 12 showdown for weeks -- they're not going to let a little detail like A&M's overtime loss to Baylor last week deter them, are they?
Vinny: Um, yes? A&M's Reggie McNeal committed his first two turnovers of the season in the overtime loss, including his first interception. He had been the only starting quarterback in Division I-A who hadn't thrown a pick. McNeal was also sacked four times by Baylor -- he had only been sacked a total of five times coming into the game.
Russell: Oklahoma had its own struggles last week against Oklahoma State. But Adrian Peterson had another huge day, perhaps grabbing the Heisman lead in the process, as the Sooners ultimately prevailed, 38-35. It's pick your poison with Oklahoma, which can pound it with Peterson or go over the top with last year's Heisman winner, quarterback Jason White. Still OU, is not without its weaknesses, particularly in the defensive secondary, which was exposed by Oklahoma State's normally anemic pass offense last week.
Vinny: A&M's pass defense is even worse than Oklahoma's though -- the Aggies are yielding nearly 250 yards per game. The Sooners got their wake-up call last week, and I think they'll prevail by a couple touchdowns in College Station.
Russell: This game comes down to whether McNeal can produce big plays in the passing game against the Sooner defense. The Aggies, suffered the worst loss in program history -- 77-0 -- to the Sooners last year. This year, I think A&M covers the spread.
Russell: Let me see if I have this straight. Maryland is coming off a stunning home upset of Florida State, a team that bombed then-undefeated Virginia by a 36-3 count three weeks ago, yet the Cavaliers are favored by two touchdowns this week? So much for common opponents.
Vinny: Everyone's favorite gym teacher Al Groh knows his Cavs are back in the ACC race after the losses by FSU and Miami last week. But will Virginia be looking past the Terps to their home matchup against the 'Canes next week? I don't think so. This game is evolving into something of f rivalry, with both teams pointing fingers about dirty plays in last year's contest. But the Terps haven't won in Charlottesville since 1990.
Russell: Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen finally found a way to generate some offense last week, as his much-maligned quarterback, Joel Statham, threw for 330 yards against the Seminoles. Friedgen has a justifiable reputation for offensive wizardry, even if it has been largely absent this year. But Maryland will take enough momentum out of the FSU win to keep this one close: the Terps cover.
Vinny: Against everyone but the 'Noles, Virginia has rolled up plenty of yards (and points) behind its stellar offensive line. But Maryland's defense is tougher than Akron's. I'll also take the Terps and the points.
Russell: I'm not the biggest fan of Phillip Fulmer, but you have to admire the job the Vols coach has done this season. He's coaxed a 7-1 start out of a team led by a pair of true freshman quarterbacks and bounced back from a home rout by Auburn to upset Georgia on the road the very next week. It may not always be pretty, but the Vols are finding a way to win, week after week. Dare I say, they look an awful lot like this year's Michigan team.
Vinny: The similarities are hard to ignore.
Russell: Of course, this year's Michigan team was beaten by Notre Dame, but that game was in South Bend in mid-September. Since that victory, Notre Dame has had another uneven season, suffering home losses to Purdue and Boston College. I think the Irish are getting too much respect from the oddsmakers here, even if Tennessee has had trouble covering the spread this year. I like the Vols by 10.
Vinny: Notre Dame has to win one of its last three games to assure itself of a bowl game, but that's not a gimme with the Vols, Pitt, and USC remaining. Some pretty tall orders for the Irish defense, which suffered a second half collapse against Boston College. Still, with Mike Goolsby back at middle linebacker, the Irish have been tough against the run this year, ranking 12th nationally. If they can slow Cedric Houston and Gerald Riggs Jr., Vols quarterback Erik Ainge might get to know Irish defensive end Justin Tuck pretty well. And with the injuries along the Tennessee offensive line, that's a distinct possibility. Maybe I'm sniffing too much glue, but think Ty Willingham will have the Irish well prepared. Notre Dame is 24-2 since 1984 after the bye week. I'll take ND and the points.
Russell: It's a battle of the blue states! Look for "more of the same" from California, which suffered its only defeat at the hands of No. 1 USC in a game statistically dominated by the Bears. Cal appears to be sitting pretty for an at-large BCS berth -- most likely against the Big Ten champ in the Rose Bowl. To get there, it needs to win out, but that hasn't looked like a problem as the Bears have posted a string of blowout wins since falling to the Trojans. Last week's victim was Arizona State.
Vinny: Cal's Aaron Rodgers is being touted as the top pick in April's NFL Draft -- even by our own Michael David Smith -- and it's hard to argue with that given his gaudy stats: he's completing 71.4% of his passes and his quarterback rating is 167.8. I still think he might come back if Jeff Tedford stays in Berkeley though.
Russell: The Ducks and quarterback Kellen Clemens are capable of putting up, huge points on the scoreboard, but Cal's defense is a much stiffer test than the Ducks have faced. Tedford's Bears have shown the ability to put the hammer down and crush inferior opponents. Now that they're this close to smelling roses, I can't see them letting up this week. Cal will put up at least 45 points and cover easily.
Vinny: The offense in this one should be fun to watch. After a 1-3 start, the Ducks have won four in a row, including two narrow victories at The Palouse and The Farm. Maybe Oregon is developing some toughness on the road after going 2-4 away from Eugene last year. The Ducks have owned the Bears, winning the last seven contests, but Cal is in a different stratosphere from Oregon this season. I like Cal to cover.
Russell: Speaking of teams that are rolling, nobody has even come close to putting a scare into USC since its close call against California. Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush & Co. appear destined for the national championship game berth they missed out on last season.
Vinny: USC's defense has been just as fast and dominant as its offense lately. Last week, Kyle Basler's 17-yard run off a fake punt led all Washington State rushers against the Trojans. This defense may already be better than last year's version, and it all starts up front with Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson.
Russell: Oregon State has never emotionally recovered from its brutal opening-game loss to LSU, when freshman kicker Alexis Serna missed three extra points in an overtime loss. Serna has returned to the lineup, but the Beavers have hardly been competitive against a good team since his rough night in Baton Rouge. Something tells me their fortunes aren't going to change this week. I see another Pac-10 romp by the favored Trojans.
Vinny: Derek Anderson is a good quarterback, but you wouldn't know it from the numbers this year -- he's completing only 52.4% of his passes and he's tossed 10 picks. Losing Stephen Jackson to the NFL hasn't helped, as the Beavers' rushing offense is last in the Pac-10 (and 110th nationally). And having only one reliable target (Mike Hass) makes things worse. Anderson can expect to find himself in a lot of 3rd-and-forever situations this week. I'm surprised this line isn't larger. USC rolls (my Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week).
Vinny: Russ, it looks like Vegas doesn't have much respect for the Tar Heels after their big upset of Miami last week. The oddsmakers must know that North Carolina hasn't had back-to-back wins since the 2001 season.
Russell: The posting of this line had to set off alarm bells. All North Carolina did last week was run up and down the field on the No. 3 Hurricanes. Now they're back on their home field -- with new goalposts at either end -- and they're getting 10 points against one of the weaker Virginia Tech teams of the decade?
Vinny: The Hokies are back in the ACC race after last Saturday. It's been classic Beamer Ball for Tech again this year, with a strong defense and special teams leading the way. They're only allowing 12.6 points per game, but this will be the best offense they've faced since USC in the opener.
Russell: It should be fun to watch the quarterbacks in this one. North Carolina's Darian Durant and Virginia Tech's Bryan Randall play similar styles and are both dangerous throwing and running.
Vinny: I still think coach John Bunting needs to get the Heels to a bowl game to save his job. With games remaining against Wake Forest and Duke, that's doable. I think Virginia Tech wins this game in Chapel Hill, but Carolina keeps it close enough to cover.
Russell: Logic tells me to pick the Tar Heels. That's why I'm laying the 10 and going with Virginia Tech. It's the proverbial "too good to be true" line.
Russell: Texas is another of the one-loss teams hanging around on the periphery of the BCS. Mack Brown needs help to get to his first BCS game as Longhorns coach, however.
Vinny: Texas QB Vince Young struggled again last week against Colorado, throwing two interceptions in only 15 attempts. But who needs to throw when you outrush your opponent 326-2? That's still not good enough for the Longhorn faithful, who are demanding the head of offensive coordinator Greg Davis on a platter (I guess Alfredo Garcia was unavailable).
Russell: Texas fans are unreasonable? In other news, water is wet and the sky is blue. Actually, I've been impressed with the way the Longhorns have played since their bitter disappointment against Oklahoma. It's not always pretty, but they find a way to get the job done.
Vinny: Texas stomped the Cowboys in Stillwater 55-16 last year. Even after the emotional Bedlam Series game last week, I think Les Miles will have his team ready for payback. I'll take the Cowboys and the points.
Russell: I'm going to have to differ. Oklahoma State poured everything it had into the OU game last week and came up just short. I think they'll be flat on the road in Austin. Texas wins by two touchdowns.
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" in bold)
|Game||Vinny says||Russell says|
|Minnesota (+6) at #5 Wisconsin||Wisconsin||Wisconsin|
|Ohio State (+1.5) at Michigan State||Ohio State||Ohio State|
|Colorado State (+26.5) at #6 Utah||Utah||Utah|
|#2 Oklahoma (-12) at #22 Texas A&M||Oklahoma||Texas A&M|
|Maryland (+14) at #14 Virginia||Maryland||Maryland|
|Notre Dame (+7) at #8 Tennessee||Notre Dame||Tennessee|
|Oregon (+21) at #4 California||California||California|
|#1 USC (-18) at Oregon State||USC||USC|
|#20 Virginia Tech (-10) at North Carolina||North Carolina||Virginia Tech|
|#19 Oklahoma State (+13) at #7 Texas||Oklahoma State||Texas|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
|Vinny||4-5-1 (0-1)||37-50-3 (3-6)|
|Russell||3-6-1 (0-1)||38-49-3 (6-3)|
|*Susan||3-6-1 (0-1)||14-14-2 (0-3)|
|* Susan has elected to retire with a .500 record and a
2-0-1 mark against her husband. For the record, Trevor
went 4-5-1 and Lindsay 3-6-1 in their one week of picks.