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?
03 Nov 2005
by Vinny Gauri and Russell Levine
Russell: Well Vin, looks who's coming off a winning week? And just in time for a Vegas trip. Looks like I might be spending some time at the sports book after all.
Vinny: Russ, it was nice knowing you. I can already see your wife's expression when you tell her that your kids' college fund went down the tubes on a Temple/TCU/San Jose State parlay. And uh, she's not happy.
Russell: Call this the Michigan hangover bowl. Both schools are coming off disappointing losses to the Wolverines in recent weeks. And, no, that really doesn't have much to do with my pick, but I just felt like pointing it out.
Vinny: This game will arguably feature the two quickest running backs in the Big Ten, Albert Young (Iowa) and Tyrell Sutton (Northwestern). Of course, Wisconsin RB Brian Calhoun still gets my vote for Big Ten Player of the Year. Wait, I don't have a vote...
Russell: You'd have to call Iowa one of that nation's more disappointing teams this season, though the line for that distinction forms behind Tennessee. Northwestern wasn't expected to be a factor in the conference race, so I think they might handle the letdown from the Michigan loss a little better. Plus, they're playing at home where the offense is usually close to unstoppable.
Vinny: The Wildcats certainly helped stop themselves last week with all the holding penalties they racked up. Still, Northwestern's defense (ranked 117th nationally) can't stop anyone either. Iowa's defense (57th nationally) is at least serviceable.
Russell: Iowa doesn't really have the running game to pound the Northwestern front the way Michigan did on its way to a win last week. Instead, Kirk Ferentz will put this game in the hands of QB Drew Tate, not a bad option. Still, I think Brett Basanez will be the best QB on the field in this one. I'll take Northwestern and the points.
Vinny: I think Iowa will serve up a steady diet of Young and TE Scott Chandler to the Northwestern defense, which should be plenty effective. The Hawkeyes win this one going away.
Russell: Wow, things are getting ugly in a hurry for Tennessee, which comes in with a 3-4 record after a shocking home loss to Darth Visor and South Carolina last week. Late in the game, the TV cameras even caught some UT fans with bags over their heads.
Vinny: Tennessee offensive coordinator Randy Sanders took the fall this week, announcing that he will step down at the end of the season. With DB Jason Allen and now RB Gerald Riggs out for the season, and neither Rick Clausen nor Erik Ainge finding any rhythm at quarterback, the Volunteer Navy is taking on water. If Tennessee loses in South Bend, they'll have to win out against Memphis, Vanderbilt and Kentucky to go bowling. Not a sure thing with this team.
Russell: Notre Dame is coming off a bye during which Charlie Weis picked up $30-$40 million, guaranteed, over the next 10 years. Weis has done a great job at ND, and nobody's higher on the Irish than I am (I have them #4 in my BlogPoll ballot), but what exactly has Weis done to deserve being made the highest paid college coach by a good 50 percent?
Vinny: Well, it's not guaranteed money if he returns to the NFL, which I still think he will at some point (maybe after he wins a national title). In fact, I think the main motivation for the contract was to help quell the negative recruiting many coaches will be doing ("Aw, you don't want to go to Notre Dame -- Charlie Weis will be back in the NFL before you're a sophomore over there.") this winter. Still, you know Pete Carroll is happy, and not just because he's staging mock suicides by his star players.
Russell: Notre Dame shocked Tennessee late last season, so there's a potential revenge factor in play here, but I don't see the UT players rallying around Sanders and Phil Fulmer this week. I think they're ready to pack it in. I like Notre Dame, big. I'm making this my Fred Edelstein lock.
Vinny: This is definitely a Tennessee team backed against the proverbial wall. I would usually like their chances to come out swinging, as they did against LSU. But with the momentum going in opposite directions for both teams, I have to go with the Irish here.
Russell: Well, well, look who's in position to win the Big XII North -- the beleaguered Colorado Buffaloes, who sit at 6-2, one game ahead of Missouri in the race to be the sacrificial lamb for Texas in the title game in Houston Dec. 3. Personally, I'm shocked Gary Barnett kept his job after everything that's gone on at CU, but I have to give him credit for keeping his team playing hard despite some adverse circumstances.
Vinny: Maybe it's time the Big XII switched to East and West divisions, because lately the North-South draw in the conference title game has proven to be a bigger mismatch than the Falklands War.
Russell: Missouri is schizophrenic, which is an improvement over 2004, when the Tigers were just awful. Two weeks ago, they were unstoppable on offense in a rout of Nebraska, but last week managed just 180 yards in losing to Kansas.
Vinny: The Tigers will probably have to attack the Buffs through the air, as Colorado has one of the better run defenses in the country, allowing only 84 rushing yards per game. Colorado LBs Brian Iwuh and Thaddeus Washington can really lay the lumber on opposing ballcarriers.
Russell: Mizzou QB Brad Smith is just five yards rushing away from becoming the all-time leading runner among college QBs (passing Antwaan Randle El). He'll get the record, but I don't think he can do enough to keep Missouri in the game on the road. The line's a little high, but I'm still going to take my chances with Colorado.
Vinny: Missouri hasn't proven that it can hang with a quality opponent, but then neither has Colorado. Still, I think Joel Klatt and Colorado's offense will prove too much for the Tigers' mediocre defense. The Buffs are the pick.
Russell: We'll take a look at an all-academy battle for the Regional Special this week as Army visits an Air Force team that is reeling both on and off the field.
Vinny: Russ, I'll let you handle the Air Force controversy.
Russell: I don't even have a Fisher DeBerry joke, but I will say this. The debate over whether what he said about "Afro-American" players is racist, insensitive, or deadly accurate is a waste of time. Whether or not DeBerry is a victim of the PC police, any coach should know that to make a statement like that is at best going to invite negative attention and at worst, colossally stupid.
Vinny: As for Army, they notched their first win at not-so-awful Akron two weeks ago. In fact, the Knights beat the Zips 20-0 for Army's first shutout over a Division I-A team since 1991. Army's extra week of preparation can only help against the Air Force wishbone attack.
Russell: Air Force turns to former starter Adam Fitch at QB this week. He came off the bench to toss a school-record five TD passes in a loss to BYU last week. I think he'll put some points on the board, but the line's too high for my taste. Bobby Ross will have Army ready to play, and the Black Knights will cover the number.
Vinny: I think Air Force will rally around DeBerry and take Army to the woodshed. The Falcons roll.
Russell: Oregon is quietly having an excellent season, but suffered a tough break when QB Kellen Clemens and his 19 TDs were lost for the season in a win over Arizona two weeks ago. Dennis Dixon gets the call in this game, and he'll be backed up by Brady Leaf, who happens to be Ryan's little brother. So I know I join all Oregon fans in hoping Dixon can stay healthy.
Vinny: Come on, Ryan was unstoppable in college -- still the best college QB I've ever seen live. I was convinced he was better than Peyton Manning and I was ... uh ... wrong. Dixon is a much greater running threat than Clemens, and has shown some accuracy in limited action this year.
Russell: At least you didn't have that Ryan Leaf prediction published, as I did, in the Wall Street Journal no less. Cal has its own issues at QB, where Joe Ayoob has really struggled with his accuracy. The Bears are averaging 38 points per game, but a lot of that has to do with a pathetic non-conference schedule.
Vinny: Cal's best performance to date this year was a 47-40 loss at UCLA last month. Maybe Ayoob can get untracked against a bad Oregon pass defense. Otherwise, RBs Justin Forsett and Marshawn Lynch will have to carry the load against the Ducks and DE Devan Long and DT Haloti Ngata.
Russell: Cal comes in to this game having lost two straight, and hasn't won at Autzen stadium since 1987. Yet the line, which opened with Cal as the favorite, has moved three points to give Oregon the slight edge. Does somebody know something? I know I don't -- but I'm still picking Oregon.
Vinny: It's been raining in Eugene for the past week or two, and it should be wet again on Saturday. I have no idea why that matters. Give me the Ducks as well.
Russell: Raise your hand if you knew that this would be the game of the year in the Big Ten ... Bueller? Bueller? Anyone? Both teams control their own destiny in the conference race.
Vinny: There is no question Michael Robinson is vastly improved as a passer for JoePa this year. And when everything breaks down, or Galen Hall wants to call a quarterback draw or even a sweep, Robinson can still do his thing with his feet. That, combined with the impact of the freshmen receiving corps, has breathed life into Penn State this year.
Russell: The formula for stopping Wisconsin isn't rocket science -- load up against the run and Brian Calhoun, and try to force John Stocco to beat you through the air. The Nits' defense would seem to be up to the task, as it is one of the nation's best against the run.
Vinny: Calhoun is solid receiver too. And Stocco has improved just as much as Robinson has. We'll see how much he can take advantage of Calhoun, Brandon Williams, Jonathan Orr, and Owen Daniels in the passing game.
Russell: Calhoun is too good a back to be shut down completely, but Penn State will eliminate the big plays. Can Stocco do enough to keep Wisconsin in it? I don't think so. Penn State's offense hasn't exactly withered on the vine since losing freshman receiver Derrick Williams to injury. I like the Lions at home.
Vinny: You know the Beaver Stadium crowd will be a factor, even with that cheesy Lion roar that Northwestern has ripped off in recent years. And don't get me started on the most obvious cheer in all of college sports ("We are Penn State" -- no, really?). Still, there's no better road trip in the Big Ten than State College, and no better bar on the planet than the Phyrst (is Ernie still alive?). But I am surprised to see the line this high against a solid Badger club. I think Wisconsin will at least cover here.
Russell: Vin, you and I like to complain about the coronary-inducing nature of your average Michigan game. The Wolverines did have four straight pretty much decided on the final play, but they've got nothing on UCLA, which has won after trailing by double digits in the fourth quarter four times in the past five weeks. Will the trend continue this week?
Vinny: No. Arizona just isn't any good. Until last week, their only win was against the Northern Arizona Hitchhikers, or whatever they're called (fine, I'll look it up: Lumberjacks).
Russell: Mike Stoops has brought some defensive attitude to Tucson, but the Wildcats don't have the offense to match. But they're coming off a road win at Oregon State, their first conference win of the season, in which freshman QB Willie Tuitama passed for 336 yards and the defense picked off six passes. UCLA is as careful as any team in America with the ball, however. I don't think Drew Olson will turn it over this week -- he's only thrown three INTs all year (to go along with 23 TD passes).
Vinny: Arizona stinks. If I'm Karl Dorrell, I'm already turning my attention to hosting the Sun Devils next week. The Bruins then wait three weeks before the much anticipated trip to the Coliseum to face USC.
Russell: This line seems a little low to me. Arizona doesn't have the offensive firepower to exploit the UCLA defense. I think this is the week the Bruins come out and take care of business from the opening kick. I like UCLA to win big.
Vinny: The Bruins win in a rout. I'm even going to make this my Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week. In lieu of flowers, donations should be made to the UCLA Athletic Scholarship Fund.
Russell: I'm going to try and get through these comments without talking about the uniforms, though as a service to our readers, I feel compelled to mention that Miami is slated to wear the court-jester unis in an upcoming game.
Vinny: I loved the old-school uniforms Miami was sporting last Saturday, especially the helmets. I could almost hear an old NFL Films disco soundtrack from the 70's playing in the background while I watched their 34-16 win over North Carolina.
Russell: The Hokies certainly know what's at stake this week. They've had a few weeks to digest the state of the BCS standings, and everything points towards a Texas-USC Rose Bowl unless Virginia Tech can make a major statement this week. The Hokies must blow out Miami. A narrow win is unlikely to help their case against Texas with the polls or the computers.
Vinny: First team to 20 points should win this contest. Miami is 1st and 3rd nationally in total defense and scoring defense, respectively. Virginia Tech is 1st and 2nd nationally in scoring defense and total defense, respectively. But Virginia Tech is the team with the big defensive names in DE Darryl Tapp and CB Jimmy Williams.
Russell: It's going to be crazy in Blacksburg Saturday. Miami has experience playing in hostile environments -- they opened in Tallahassee against FSU this year -- but the noise is still likely to cause some problems, especially with a young QB in Kyle Wright. For Virginia Tech, Marcus Vick is really coming into his own as a pocket passer, but I worry about his mental state in this game. He's a very hyper guy, and if he can't control his emotions, he'll make some early mistakes. Over/under for number of personal fouls in this game is around 11.
Vinny: With a virtual offensive stalemate, I have to assume the Hokies will make their usual play or two in special teams to pull this out. And while I think Wright will develop into at least Ken Dorsey's equal by the time he's done, he may get rattled by a good pass rush like he was in the opener against FSU. The Hokies are the pick.
Russell: Virginia Tech will start pressing if it doesn't get off to a fast start. That could keep things close, but I see the Hokies pulling away late to win by a touchdown.
(â€?Fred Edelstein Lock of the Weekâ€? in bold)
|Game||Vinny says||Russell says|
|Iowa (-2.5) at Northwestern||Iowa||Northwestern|
|Tennessee (+8.5) at #14 Notre Dame||Notre Dame||Notre Dame|
|Missouri (+11.5) at #22 Colorado||Colorado||Colorado|
|Army (+11.5) at Air Force||Air Force||Army|
|#12 Wisconsin (+10.5) at #7 Penn State||Wisconsin||Penn State|
|#23 California (+1.5) at #13 Oregon||Oregon||Oregon|
|#5 UCLA (-9) at Arizona||UCLA||UCLA|
|#6 Miami (Florida) (+6.5) at #3 Virginia Tech||Virginia Tech||Virginia Tech|
(â€?Fred Edelstein Lock of the Weekâ€? record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
|Vinny||4-4 (1-0)||29-40-2 (3-6)|
|Russell||5-3 (1-0)||24-45-2 (5-4)|
172 comments, Last at 09 Nov 2005, 3:07pm by Vinny