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?
18 Nov 2004
By Vinny Gauri and Russell Levine
Vinny: Russ, as you know, I'm going to be in Vegas this weekend. So for the first time this season, I'll actually be betting on these games.
Russell: Vin, you have seen your record this season, right?
Vinny: The one question that will definitely be settled this weekend is whether I can secure a home equity loan to cover my losses from the Bally's sports book on Saturday afternoon.
Russell: Just double down on all the NFL games Sunday. I hear that always works.
Vinny: I've got some spare plasma I can sell.
Vinny: The Terps have to win out (with the Hokies and Wake Forest remaining) or they'll be home for the holidays for the first time under Ralph Friedgen's watch. The Terps have lost four of their last five thanks to their impotent offense -- averaging only 6.8 points per game during the skid. Friedgen is considered an offensive genius, and since he coordinated an offense quarterbacked by Stan Humphries to the Super Bowl, I'm not going to argue with that label. But he hasn't been able to get Joel Statham going, and it will be interesting to see if true freshman Jordan Steffy gets a long look in this one.
Russell: Virginia Tech has had a strange year, very quietly compiling an 8-2 mark while not making much noise in its first season of ACC play. The Hokies' only losses came to No. 1 USC in the season-opener and a one-point upset by N.C. State in late September. Thanks to a five-game winning streak and developments in conference play, the Hokies can grab the ACC's BCS bid by winning their last three games against Maryland, Virginia, and Miami.
Vinny: This spread is too big for my liking given Maryland's stout defense, but since the Terps have been putrid away from College Park, I'm going with the Hokies.
Russell: You have to think the Hokies will be primed for this contest. They might lose the BCS bid by falling at Miami, but I can't see them slipping up against an offensively challenged Maryland squad. Frank Beamer's team will win the way it always does, with big plays from all three units, particularly the special teams. The Hokies win by two touchdowns to stay in the hunt for a BCS berth.
Russell: Left for dead after back-to-back losses by everybody but you, Vin, Miami responded with a 10-point win at Virginia last week to get right back into the ACC race. Granted, Virginia is this year's "biggest fraud on the public since One Hour Martinizing," to borrow one of your favorite lines, but Miami sure looked like it had some swagger back.
Vinny: Frank Gore ran roughshod over a solid Virginia defense last week for 195 yards. I'd say he has fully recovered from his knee injuries. Meanwhile, when will teams realize you can't kick to Devin Hester OR Roscoe Parrish? Parrish had a 62-yard punt return for a score in the Virginia game.
Russell: It's hard to believe, but despite the mountain of criticism, Miami QB Brock Berlin has actually had a pretty good season. It hasn't always been pretty, but for the most part, when the 'Canes have needed him, Berlin has been able to produce. You're right about Gore being back -- is it a rule that every Miami running back has to shred an ACL at some point during their stay in Coral Gables?
Vinny: For Wake, whether it's Cory Randolph or Ben Mauk at the controls of the offense, the results have been mixed. Wake coach Jim Grobe likes to run the ball, but the offensive line's inexperience has shown. The Deacons have played everyone close, and the Miami defense hasn't lived up to its high standards. Still, I think Miami will finish the season strong, as it did last year. I'll take the 'Canes.
Russell: The Miami defense has been porous at times this season, but I don't know if Wake has the weapons to exploit that weakness. I'm not comfortable with the size of the spread, but I can't pick against Miami with so much on the line. The 'Canes will find a way to get it done and cover.
Russell: I wonder if the Gators and Seminoles studied tapes of that Steelers-Browns pregame brawl to prepare for this week's meeting. There's certainly no love lost between these teams and I would expect the Gators in particular to be at an emotional pick, given that popular players' coach Ron Zook will be working his final regular-season game.
Vinny: Zook has admirably kept the wheels on this Florida team, and with six wins, they're already bowl eligible. Whether he will coach them in a bowl remains to be seen. He got a standing ovation from the Swamp crowd after last week's 48-14 win over South Carolina. I'm not sure if that was a tribute to Zook in his last home game or whether the crowd enjoyed seeing the Gators run up the score like they did in the Spurrier Era. Zook said he just wanted sophomore Chris Leak to get as much game action as possible.
Russell: I have no idea what to expect out of Florida State anymore. Its offense is a joke, as anyone who watched that Thursday-nighter against North Carolina State last week would attest. Neither Chris Rix nor Wyatt Sexton has shown the ability to consistently move the ball.
Vinny: Florida linebackers Channing Crowder and Travis Harris should be back in the lineup on Saturday -- bad news for either FSU QB. Meanwhile, Mickey Andrews' run defense should easily contain Ciatrick Fason, so it will all be on Leak's shoulders. I think Leak sends out Zook with a win in Tallahassee. Pass the peyote -- Florida wins outright.
Russell: I'm buyin' what you're sellin'. I'm not sure it matters who the Seminoles put under center. All the intangibles in this one favor Florida. The FSU defense presents a tough challenge, but Leak and Fason will make enough plays to keep Florida in it until the end. The Gators sneak out a cover, and may even come away with a win.
Vinny: As if there wasn't enough on the line in the Civil War -- considered by some as the nastiest rivalry in college football -- both teams are 5-5, so the loser won't qualify for a bowl game.
Russell: You're right -- this is one of the more underrated rivalry games in college football. There is a genuine dislike between the teams and the student bodies, which is the key to any good rivalry. Plus, any time you have accusations of one team's fans hurling cups of urine at the other, I mean, well, that's about as bad as it gets. It doesn't quite rise to the level of West Virginia's fans attempting to overturn an ambulance carrying an injured Miami player a few years ago, but it's close.
Vinny: Mike Riley's team has rallied from a rough start of the season against LSU and Boise State to win four of its last five, and its only loss in that stretch was a game effort against No. 1 USC. The Beavers really miss Steven Jackson in the backfield, ranking next to last in Division I-A in rushing offense. Derek Anderson is still heaving the ball all over the place, and will eclipse the 3,000-yard mark for the third consecutive season.
Russell: Both these teams have improved as the year has gone on. While Oregon State was battling USC in the fog, Oregon was giving Cal all it could handle in a one-point loss to the Bears. The Ducks have come a long way since their home loss to Indiana in September.
Vinny: This should be a fun one to watch. Frankly, I can't figure either of these teams out, so I'm going with the revenge factor. Oregon State will avenge its 34-20 loss in the Civil War last year (and cover).
Russell: I have to go with Kellen Clemens and the Ducks, even on the road. They should be able to cover the spread and grind out a win.
Russell: The Pac-10's other rivalry game of the weekend pits Stanford and Cal in the annual "Big Game." Imaginative title.
Vinny: The wheels are coming off Buddy Teevens' squad. Stanford has lost four straight coming into this game. And three consecutive seasons without a bowl game won't make people forget Ty Willingham.
Russell: For its part, Cal has actually played pretty poorly the last two weeks. Don't be fooled by the 42-20 score against hapless Washington last Saturday -- it was a close contest at halftime and the Bears did not play well. You have to wonder if the pressure of trying to hang on to its top ranking is getting to the Bears, who certainly have no experience with the kind of expectations that accompany their success this season.
Vinny: Maybe so, but with a young offensive line, Stanford hasn't been able to mount much of rushing attack (86.9 yards per game). Oh, and Stanford's pass defense is 102nd in the nation. Yeesh. Well, at least Stanford isn't dropping in the U.S. News rankings. Or are they? I'll lay the points and take Cal.
Russell: Cal has the best players on the field in quarterback Aaron Rodgers and tailback J.J. Arrington, who is probably the most overlooked player in the nation. But I'm wary of laying so many points in a rivalry game, especially with Cal showing some recent cracks. Teevens' Stanford squad put a scare into USC and hung tough with Notre Dame this season. Plus, the X factor: Cal's new athletic director, Sandy Barbour, fired Teevens when both were at Tulane in the 1996. Teevens will have the Cardinal fired up for this one and will make it a ballgame. Give me Stanford and the points.
Russell: This is what Utah has been building towards all season: barring some unforeseen development, a win over BYU will make Utah the first non-BCS league school to garner an at-large bid to a BCS bowl, most likely the Fiesta. While BCS speculations has followed the Utes all season, they've just gone about their business, blowing out one team after another. On paper, you have to figure BYU will be no different.
Vinny: I'm not expecting this to be another 3-0 affair like the game in Provo last year. The Cougars' offense was improving of late until last week's 21-14 home loss to New Mexico thanks to three turnovers and a measly 58 rushing yards. Gary Crowton needs this win to avoid another losing campaign and another off-season of BYU fans calling for his bald head.
Russell: Ouch! That's just mean. Alex Smith should at least get an invite to New York for the Heisman ceremony based on his effectiveness running Urban Meyer's spread-option attack this season. He's also working on a graduate degree in economics, having arrived at Utah with 64 advanced placement credits. Just think, at Ohio State, he'd have his PhD by now.
Vinny: That's "The Ohio State University" to you. BYU quarterback John Beck can't win this game by himself, but he can make it close enough. I'll take the Cougars and the points.
Russell: Only a wacky back-door cover prevented Utah from covering yet another enormous line last week at Wyoming. Utah has been as reliable as they come as a big favorite this season, and I see no reason to jump off the bandwagon now. Utah destroys the Cougars (and covers) and whoops it up on the set of College Gameday afterwards.
Vinny: I was certainly surprised by Wisconsin's collapse in East Lansing last week. Russ, did you see that coming?
Russell: Considering the Badgers were my Fred Edelstein lock last week, I'd have to say no. This is a tough spot for Wisconsin. Have they recovered from the Michigan State freight train that ran over them?
Vinny: The Spartans shredded the vaunted Badger defense for 430 rushing yards. So much for defensive coordinator Brett Bielema's phone ringing off the hook with job offers. Because of all the injuries it has suffered in the backfield, Iowa relies on quarterback Drew Tate to make its offense go. Tate can move around and has really improved over the course of the season, but he'll be chased by an angry defense all day.
Russell: Kirk Ferentz has done some excellent coaching jobs at Iowa, but this year may be his best. With yet another new starting quarterback in Tate and something like their 17th-string tailback, the Hawkeyes have put together a six-game winning streak to remain in contention for a New Year's Day bowl bid.
Vinny: Wisconsin can still make plans for Pasadena with a win in Iowa City and a Michigan loss. I'm taking the Badgers and the points.
Russell: The momentum factor is everything in this game. I just can't see Wisconsin recovering from the humiliation and disappointment of the Michigan State disaster in time to beat a quality opponent on the road. Iowa will take the Badgers down another peg -- the Hawkeyes win by a touchdown. This is my Fred Edelstein Lock.
Vinny: Ah yes, the greatest rivalry in sports (at least arguably). This 101st meeting between these teams has plenty of similarities to the 2001 game played in Ann Arbor. You had a 6-4 Ohio State squad to hoping spoil the BCS plans of a Michigan team led by a young quarterback. Same thing this time around, except The Game is in Columbus this time.
Russell: It's nice of the struggling Buckeyes to at least bring a decent storyline into this game. NCAA investigators are in Columbus this week checking into the Maurice Clarett allegations, and ESPN Gameday was dis-invited after the Clarett story broke in ESPN the Magazine. The way Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger and coach/educator Jim Tressel are talking about this story, they're either supremely confident that there's nothing to it, or they're supremely stupid. The NCAA does not take kindly to institutions that break the rules, but refuse to fall on their swords.
Vinny: I'm taking the high road -- no Maurice Clarett talk from me. The Michigan defense has given up some big plays in the running game. The Buckeyes haven't run the ball effectively all year, but you know Senator Tressel and his staff spent the week devising ways to get the ball into Ted Ginn's hands as much as possible. And quarterback Troy Smith can make some plays with his legs as well. Wideout Santonio Holmes hasn't been very involved in the offense lately, but he had a big game last year in Ann Arbor.
Russell: Senator Tressel? Some high road. For Michigan, the stakes are enormous. A win means a second-straight undisputed conference title and Rose Bowl bid. An Ohio State win would be its third in four tries against the Wolverines and would make the Buckeyes' season. Michigan was sluggish in the opening half against Northwestern last week, but turned it on after intermission to win going away, 42-10, showing the kind of offensive balance that has keyed its resurgence since the early loss to Notre Dame.
Vinny: The keys to this game are how Henne responds in his first trip to the Snakepit, and special teams. Steve Breaston appears to be healthy and have his jitterbug moves again, but Michigan punter Adam Finley and place-kicker Garret Rivas have had kicks blocked with alarming frequency. Factor in Ginn and Holmes in the return game, plus Mike Nugent's leg, and Buckeye fans have to be hopeful. This will come down to the wire. If I weren't going to be in Vegas, I would go with the Fighting Sweater Vests and the points. But I can't bring myself to actually bet against my alma mater. I'm laying the points and taking the Wolverines.
Russell: This is the greatest rivalry in college football, maybe the greatest in sports, because there's always so much on the line. It's full of underdogs rising up to ruin the favorite's season, most notably when Michigan derailed a series of very good Ohio State teams in the mid 1990s. Will that be the storyline this time around? I don't think so. This will be the toughest test since Notre Dame for Henne, but he's not the same player he was back in September. Outside of Ginn and Holmes, Ohio State doesn't have the firepower to hang with the Wolverines. Michigan wins by a touchdown in the 'shoe.
(Ed. note: In full disclosure I should point out that our writers are both Michigan grads. Having lived in Florida for a year, I can tell you there is some disagreement on which is the greatest rivalry in college football...)
Russell: I'm starting to get concerned about Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. I think he sees dead people. First it was last week's bush-league effort to tack on a score against Nebraska -- and OU apologists, I realize plenty of teams run up the score, but there is a line and Stoops crossed it. You don't run the hurry-up offense with all your starters in and a 30-point lead against your archrival. ESPN's Gameday gang led the complaints about Stoops' tactics on the air Saturday night, and it may have cost OU in the polls, where No. 3 Auburn closed the gap significantly. Now Stoops believes ESPN is pulling for Auburn because it has a contract to televise the SEC and not the Big XII. Bob needs to quit hanging out with Mark Mangino.
Vinny: Stoops, Mangino and Ohio State's Geiger should stop taking Oliver Stone's calls, or lay off the peyote, or both. Of the major undefeated teams remaining, the Sooners have the easiest path, with Baylor and then the Big XII North champ, which right now is looking like Colorado, in the conference title game. Adrian Peterson was held to a mortal 59 yards by Nebraska last week, opening things up for Jason White.
Russell: I'm guessing Stoops feels like his team is under siege and is itching to hang a 70 on the board against Baylor. But he's also mindful of the perception that came out of last week's game, so I think he'll be very careful about how he handles a rout if it occurs. On paper, Baylor is completely overmatched in this game.
Vinny: Baylor is awful, but the Bears did find a way to beat Texas A&M at home. No, I'm not on peyote. I don't think Baylor will win, not even close. But I do think they can cover the big number, despite Stoops' weekly Great Santini routine, so long as Kenny Webb can boot a few field goals. Give me the Bears and the points.
Russell: I'm going to employ the "big home dogs" theory in this one. The rule that says double-digit home underdogs nearly always cover has been all but unstoppable in recent weeks (thanks Pete Fiutak of collegefootballnews.com) and I'm going to ride it in this one. I'll also take Baylor and all those points.
Russell: There are several reasons why this matchup is setting off alarm bells for me as far as Auburn is concerned. For one, the Tigers spent the week basking in the glory of their mugging of Georgia and their move up in the polls. For another, they're facing their archrivals in Alabama, a team that knows it can make its season a successful one with a win. Need another reason? Auburn still has the SEC title game to go in two weeks and has spent a lot of time fretting over its standing in the BCS, which could detract from the preparation for the Iron Bowl.
Vinny: Two of the nation's top five defenses match up in this one. But the offensive side of the ball, the quarterback comparison is a mismatch. The Tide's Spencer Pennington was third on the quarterback depth chart when the season began, and it has shown with his seven picks to only two touchdowns. He'll be relying on the SEC's top rushing offense (215 yards per game) and sophomore tailback Kenneth Darby. Meanwhile, Jason Campbell has been almost robotic in his senior season, ranking No. 4 nationally in pass efficiency. And everyone should know Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown by now.
Russell: I've taken a few shots at Alabama coach Mike Shula this year, and let's be honest, his offense was horrible and unimaginative even before starting QB Brody Croyle was lost for the year with a knee injury. But this might be the best defense Auburn has faced all season. I agree with ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit, that this game, not Georgia, will be the tougher test for Auburn.
Vinny: This is a big rivalry game, but Auburn has looked absolutely dominant since their 10-9 cliffhanger win over LSU back in September. I like the Tigers to cover (my Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week).
Russell: I was all set to pick Auburn, but then the line on this game moved to 10, making Alabama a double-digit home 'dog. I can't buck the trend now. Alabama puts a major scare in Auburn before losing late, but covers the spread in the process. Roll Tide!
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" in bold)
|Game||Vinny says||Russell says|
|Maryland (+9.5) at Virginia Tech||Virginia Tech||Virginia Tech|
|Wake Forest (+18.5) at Miami Fla.||Miami Fla.||Miami Fla.|
|Florida (+7) at Florida State||Florida||Florida|
|Oregon (+3.5) at Oregon State||Oregon State||Oregon|
|Stanford (+24) at California||California||Stanford|
|BYU (+21.5) at Utah||BYU||Utah|
|Wisconsin (+3) at Iowa||Wisconsin||Iowa|
|Michigan (-5) at Ohio State||Michigan||Michigan|
|Oklahoma (-34.5) at Baylor||Baylor||Baylor|
|Auburn (-10) at Alabama||Auburn||Alabama|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
|Vinny||4-6 (1-0)||46-61-3 (4-7)|
|Russell||4-6 (0-1)||47-60-3 (7-4)|