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?
02 Dec 2004
By Vinny Gauri and Russell Levine
Vinny: Russ, I'm back from Budapest, where the goulash is surprisingly tasty and the women are unexpectedly easy on the eyes. I picked up a few words in Hungarian, but not the word for "Heisman," which is what I was getting from the women over there. From that standpoint, it's like I never left.
Russell: The Heisman is what Ty Willingham got from Notre Dame on Tuesday. Hello, Urban Meyer. It will be interesting to watch the dominoes fall -- Butch Davis to Florida? Willingham to Washington? Jeff Tedford to the Browns? Norm Chow to Stanford?
Vinny: There's nothing quite like the college coaching silly season. It should be fun to observe. But first, there are still some things to settle on the field.
Russell: Overlooked in all the talk about the Big XII and SEC championships is that there is a third league title game this week -- the MAC title game at Detroit's Ford Field between Miami of Ohio and the Toledo Rockets. Granted, this game doesn't have any impact on the national title chase, but if you're just looking for an entertaining football game, the MAC is the league for you.
Vinny: This game is a rematch of the November 2 contest between these teams. Miami prevailed 23-16 after Toledo's Trinity Dawson fumbled at his own 27-yard line to set up Miami's winning score.
Russell: The player to watch in this one is Toledo quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, a pro prospect in the Ben Roethlisberger mold. Big Ben, of course, quarterbacked Miami to the MAC championship last season.
Vinny: These are two explosive offenses, but Miami has the superior defense. I think the RedHawks will do a better job of slowing down Toledo's running game this time, so it won't even come down to the fourth quarter. Miami wins going away.
Russell: Don't be surprised if Toledo falls way behind early before rallying to win. You see plenty of that in the MAC. I'll lay the points and take Gradkowski and the Rockets, who should end up back at Ford Field in the Motor City Bowl with the win. I can think of no better reward for a successful trip to Detroit than ... another trip to Detroit.
Vinny: Hey, I lived in Detroit ... and I really can't argue with that.
Russell: This is not officially a league championship game, but it might as well be. The winner of this contest between ACC newcomers gets the conference's BCS bid and a likely Sugar Bowl date with the SEC champ.
Vinny: The Hokies have lost four of their last six games in each of the last three seasons, if that makes any sense. But Frank Beamer has turned it around this season as Tech has rattled off seven straight wins down the stretch.
Russell: Miami has also rediscovered its Mojo after back-to-back midseason losses to North Carolina and Clemson and played itself back into league title contention. The Hurricanes have done it on the strength of quarterback Brock Berlin's right arm. Berlin struggled early in the season but is finally playing like the kid who was a major recruit when he landed at Florida before transferring to Miami.
Vinny: Both quarterbacks in this one have seemingly turned the corner. Neither Berlin nor Bryan Randall has thrown a pick since October. It will be fun to watch the Hokies' special teams match up against Roscoe Parrish and Devin Hester in the return game.
Russell: Agreed. The outcome of this one could be determined in the kicking game.
Vinny: I think the 'Canes will be out for payback after last year's embarrassing 31-7 rout in Blacksburg. Miami covers.
Russell: It's never easy to pick against "Da U" at the Orange Bowl, but I really like the way Virginia Tech and Randall have played lately. I'll take the Hokies and the points.
Russell: Thanks to Michigan State's predictable collapse following its upset of Wisconsin, Hawaii is the only team in this game playing for a bowl berth. The Warriors -- don't you dare call them "Rainbows" -- denied Northwestern a bowl bid at home last Saturday night in a 49-43 thriller.
Vinny: Michigan State coach John L. Smith isn't happy about making this trip. To prepare for the time change, Smith let his players sleep through class on Tuesday and Wednesday. I thought that was a regular practice in East Lansing. (Yes, I'm a Michigan grad.)
Russell: Nothing quite says "student-athlete" like 11 pm football practice to prepare for a trip to Hawaii. But the Spartans better get ready -- Hawaii is a different team at home. Teams fly forever to get there, spend a few days staring out their hotel rooms at Waikiki beach, then get to kickoff at 10 or 11 pm body time in 85% humidity. As home-field advantages go, that's a pretty significant one.
Vinny: The Spartans cost me big-time in Vegas two weeks ago. I just can't figure this team out. But since this game means nothing to the Sparties and Hawaii needs a win to stay bowl-eligible, I'm going with the Warriors.
Russell: I just can't see the Spartans being up for this game. I'll take the points and ride with Hawaii and quarterback Timmy Chang, who finally plays his final regular season game after a 17-year career. I'm pretty sure he was a junior when I took the roadie out there to see Michigan play in '98.
Russell: I long for the day when these teams played their home games at the L.A. Coliseum and would both wear their home uniforms when they faced each other. Alas, that's no longer the case now that the Bruins play at the Rose Bowl. USC knows that a win guarantees it a spot in the Orange Bowl, and quarterback Matt Leinart probably wins the Heisman Trophy with another big outing.
Vinny: UCLA has dropped from 18th nationally in total defense last season to 105th this year. Karl Dorrell knew he was losing his top five defensive linemen, a high-energy linebacker (Brandon Chillar), and his star cornerback (Matt Ware, who left early for the NFL). So Dorrell went the junior college route to pick up defensive ends Kyle Morgan and Justin Hickman. That move, along with the development of the Bruins' young defensive tackles, hasn't paid off yet.
Russell: After watching what USC did to Notre Dame once it finally got interested in the game last week, there's pretty much no spread big enough for me to take UCLA in this game. I'll lay the points with the Trojans, and gladly make this my Fred Edelstein lock.
Vinny: USC had an easier time with Notre Dame than I (and Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White) expected. I think USC will have an even easier time with the Bruins than they did last year. To quote Pete Carroll, the Trojans jack UCLA by four touchdowns.
Russell: It would be fitting for the hapless Big East to have Pittsburgh lose this game and have to send either 7-4 Pitt or 6-5 Syracuse to the BCS. Wouldn't that be poetic for a conference that had more champions (four) than non-champions (three)?
Vinny: I'm still trying to understand Pitt's head-scratching loss in the Carrier Dome a few weeks ago, but then I shouldn't try to think rationally about this conference. Meanwhile, Pitt players are singing the praises of quarterback Tyler Palko, saying he earned his stripes as the team's leader after the come-from-behind win against West Virginia last Saturday.
Russell: As much fun as a Pitt loss would be for the BCS, I just can't see it happening. I know there are plenty of people in and around the Panthers' program that want to see coach Walt Harris canned but can you fire a coach that delivers a $14 million bowl berth? I don't think so. #*&%@ Palko and Pitt roll.
Vinny: South Florida has been slipping since it joined Conference-USA. Maybe coach Jim Leavitt shouldn't have shot his mouth off about jumping to the Big East a couple years ago. I like Pitt to cover as well.
Russell: Too bad for the Big East they couldn't manage to steal Louisville out of Conference USA in time for this season. It might have saved the league from hearing all season that it doesn't deserve a BCS bid. In fact, Louisville would be favored against every Big East team on a neutral field right now.
Vinny: Weakside linebacker Anthony Cannon is the leader of an improving Green Wave defense. But this will be the most potent offense that Tulane has faced since they fell 63-18 to Texas last year. Louisville ranks first in the nation at 49.8 points and 538.2 yards per game. That's preposterous, isn't it?
Russell: Some might even call it ridiculous. The Cardinals have 50 or more points in four straight games, making them one of five teams to accomplish that feat in the last 59 years. This will not be an enjoyable 60 minutes for Tulane as Stefan LeFors and Louisville take the Green Wave behind the woodshed and cover the big spread.
Vinny: With a bowl bid on the line for the Green Wave, I think they can stay within a couple touchdowns of Louisville at home. I'll take Tulane.
Russell: Vin, you attended this game last year in Philadelphia and I went the year before at the Meadowlands. Every college football fan should get to experience an Army-Navy game in person at least once -- it rates very high on the goose bumps-per-minute meter, no matter the score.
Vinny: Agreed. I got goose bumps from the game and the pageantry, not to mention the -30 degree wind-chill factor at the Linc. That place is like a wind tunnel.
Russell: Bobby Ross has injected some new life into the Army program this year. The Knights' 2-8 record represents a significant improvement over the previous two seasons, when they managed just 1 win. Army has shown the ability to score points in bunches at times during the season.
Vinny: True, but Army is ranked last in Division I-A in total defense. That doesn't bode well for shutting down Aaron Polanco and Navy's triple-option attack. I think Navy is still at least two touchdowns better than Army this year. I'm making the Middies my Fred Edelstein lock.
Russell: Navy is really the class of Academy football these days, but Army has improved enough to keep it competitive. I'll take Army and the points. And readers, even if you don't watch the game, make sure you tune in around 5 p.m. to see both teams stand at attention for the other's school song. It might be the best three minutes in college sports.
Russell: All that's standing between Cal and its first Rose Bowl bid since 1948 is this hurricane makeup date against Southern Miss, which the Golden Bears have had two weeks to prepare for with the full knowledge of what's at stake. I'm not expecting a letdown.
Vinny: Southern Miss is penciled in for the Wyndham New Orleans Bowl on December 14 against North Texas. Jeff Bower's squad has had only two quality performances (an opening win at Nebraska -- and that's not too impressive even for a middling Conference-USA team -- and a close loss to Memphis), and Cal's average scoring margin is 25.3. This looks too good to be true. What would Pete Fiutak say?
Russell: He'd probably tell you to go with the double-digit home dog, but this is one time I'm not listening. Cal will pour it on early and often, just in case any of the poll voters were listening to Mack Brown's postgame pleading for BCS consideration last week. The margin between No. 4 Cal and No. 5 Texas is thin, so the Bears want to do everything possible to make sure this one is over early. I think Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Arrington & Co. are up to the task. With so much at stake, I'm not afraid to lay the big number on the road with Cal.
Vinny: Agreed. I don't think Tedford lets his staff or players get distracted with the coaching carousel talk. They have Pasadena in their sights and they'll be focused. I'll take the Bears and lay the points as well.
Russell: The reality of the situation for coach Tommy Tuberville and Auburn is that they have no shot at the Orange Bowl unless either USC or Oklahoma gets upset. At least Oklahoma kicks off two hours later, so the Tigers won't be scoreboard watching at the beginning of this game. The Tigers are still playing for the SEC Championship and a Sugar Bowl berth, probably against the ACC winner. It's not like they get an SEC ring every year at Auburn.
Vinny: After losing at home to Notre Dame, the Tennessee has survived some close shaves against Vanderbilt (38-33) and Kentucky (37-31) -- two pretty awful teams.
Russell: The Vols are down to third string QB Rick "Don't Call Me Casey" Clausen, who has been forced into duty after injuries to freshmen Erik Ainge (shoulder) and Brent Schaeffer (collarbone), and are probably a weaker team than the one that got blown out 34-10 by Auburn in Knoxville in September.
Vinny: It's the same old question for the Vols this week: Can the banged-up UT offensive line pave the way for Gerald Riggs and Cedric Houston? If not, the Auburn defense will make life miserable for Clausen. Auburn linebacker Antarrious Williams, who is superb against the run, is out with a broken wrist.
Russell: I think the Tennessee injury factor trumps the Auburn disappointment factor in this one. I'll take Auburn and lay the points. Let the BCS controversy run wild.
Vinny: I still think Auburn is the best (and most complete) team in the country. If Ainge was calling the signals, I would like the Vols to make this rematch competitive. But I don't think Clausen is ready for the bright lights and this kind of pressure. Even if Schaeffer gets in for a couple plays as a change of pace, as Phil Fulmer has hinted, I don't think the Tennessee offense will get much going. Auburn is the pick.
Vinny: The Buffs have played spoiler in the Big XII title game before, knocking off Texas 39-37 in 2001. But not many folks predicted that the Sooners would get thrashed 35-7 by Kansas State in last year's conference title game.
Russell: Last year at this time, Oklahoma was hearing talk that it was one of the greatest college teams of all-time. After losing to K-State, everybody was complaining that the Sooners didn't deserve to play in the Sugar Bowl (oh, by the way, they were right). Call me crazy, but I don't think Bob Stoops has had to break out the Gipper speech to get his team fired up this week, especially since a loss this year would keep the Sooners out of the Orange Bowl.
Vinny: The Big XII North is a joke this season -- Colorado received a bid to this game with a 4-4 conference record. That was good enough for Gary Barnett to be named conference coach of the year. Yeesh.
Russell: The conference caught a break when Iowa State choked last Saturday, sending Colorado to its title game. The Buffs are much more likely to give OU a decent game. Tell Barnett his team has no chance, and give him two weeks to prepare, and CU just might put a scare into Oklahoma.
Vinny: Corner Antonio Perkins has returned from injury and should improve the Sooners' secondary and special teams. Kicker Mason Crosby has been a weapon for Colorado, making five kicks of over 50 yards. On the other side, Stoops took the redshirt off kicker Garrett Hartley a few weeks ago after tiring of Trey DiCarlo's inconsistency. Apparently, your son is destined to be a kicker if you give him a fancy name like Mason, Garrett or Trey. Russ, I hope you have Trevor working on his leg presses.
Russell: I'll have to check with Marv Marinovich on that one -- he handles all of Trevor's fitness regimens.
Vinny: This game shouldn't come down to the kickers, as Oklahoma has an advantage at almost every position. Mobile quarterbacks like Reggie McNeal and Donovan Woods have given the Sooners some problems, but CU quarterback Joel Klatt is more ... how do you say? ... statuesque. I think Stoops will have the Sooners foaming at the mouth (not that it's a rare condition in Oklahoma). The BCS folks usually get bailed out by an upset in the conference championships to avoid three or more undefeated teams, but not this year: Oklahoma covers.
Russell: Oklahoma doesn't need to worry about style points in this game -- only a loss can keep them out of the Orange Bowl, according to the BCS experts. Colorado will make it a game -- for a while at least. Oklahoma wins, but it won't be that easy. I'll take Colorado and the points.
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" in bold)
|Game||Vinny says||Russell says|
|Miami, Ohio (+2) vs. Toledo||Miami||Toledo|
|#12 Virginia Tech (+7) at #10 Miami, Florida||Miami||Virginia Tech|
|Michigan State (-6.5) at Hawaii||Hawaii||Hawaii|
|USC (-22) at UCLA||USC||USC|
|Pittsburgh (-7) at South Florida||Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh|
|Louisville (-29) at Tulane||Tulane||Louisville|
|Navy (-13) vs. Army||Navy||Army|
|California (-24) at Southern Miss||California||California|
|Auburn (-13) vs. Tennessee||Auburn||Auburn|
|Oklahoma (-22) vs. Colorado||Oklahoma||Colorado|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
|Vinny||5-5 (0-1)||56-71-3 (4-9)|
|Russell||7-3 (1-0)||60-67-3 (9-4)|