A look back at New England's worst games this year shows which matchups will be critical in Super Bowl XLIX.
17 Nov 2005
by Vinny Gauri and Russell Levine
Russell: Gosh, is it rivalry week already? Where has the season gone? Maybe I'm confused because it's still 65 degrees here in New Jersey in mid-November (no global warming jokes this time around).
Vinny: Well, it's 15 degrees with the dreaded wind chill in Chicago today, and it's sleeting horizontally as we speak. Rivalry weekend time sounds right to me.
Russell: This is the best Saturday of the college season, with tradition-steeped games all over the dial. You've got the Apple Cup, the Iron Bowl, the Civil War, and a little game up in Ann Arbor as well.
Vinny: And don't forget a bunch of University of Miami football players recording a not-so-demure rap song. Now that's a proper nod to tradition. Somewhere, Luther Campbell is smiling ... if he's even alive at this point.
Russell: Ah, you gotta love "Da U." Somewhere, Dennis Erickson is raising a beer (hopefully not while driving). This is a family website and all, so you'll have to do your own Googling to find that tune.
Russell: Trivia time -- what's Texas Tech's best win this season? Would you believe a three-point squeaker over Nebraska? I'm not sold on Mike Leach's club at all, especially not after the offense was shut down by Oklahoma State last week.
Vinny: The Red Raiders were somehow held scoreless in the first half -- and only scored 10 offensive points -- against Oklahoma State. Tech quarterback Cody Hodges said the Raiders were confused by the Cowboys' Cover-2 defense and disguised coverages. I'm confused how Hodges is still in college -- he looks like 41-year old car salesman.
Russell: Oklahoma, meanwhile has played pretty well since getting off to a difficult 1-2 start. The Sooners are 5-1 since, with the only loss coming to Texas. People forget how much talent Bob Stoops lost to the NFL off last year's team (11 draftees, plus quarterback Jason White). I think he's done an excellent job keeping this team competitive after it stumbled out of the gate.
Vinny: The Sooners defense has nearly squandered a big lead in each of the last three weeks. Texas A&M almost rallied from 21 points down in Norman last week on Dad's Day. (What the hell is that? Moms don't get a day? These are Red State values?) Regardless, I'm casting my lot with the Sooners against Tech. Oklahoma covers.
Russell: Adrian Peterson has been dinged up all year, but even without him to pound the ball, Oklahoma is a far more physical team. Getting more than a touchdown against a team that hasn't beaten anybody decent all year is too much to pass up. I'll take the Sooners and the points.
Russell: Does Senator Tressel really own Lloyd Carr? He's won three of four against Michigan, winning in years when he appeared to have the better team (2002) and also in years (2001, 2004) when Michigan appeared to have the edge.
Vinny: On the flipside, he coaches on a campus where students still aspire to take part in the world's biggest pillow fight. Get a life, people! I've seen many predictions of a double-digit Buckeye win. A.J. Hawk will have a haul of post-season awards, but I have to admit to being a Nate Salley fan. The senior safety is absolutely fearless. If there's one thing that surprises me about the stellar Sweatervest defense, it's that they've only forced 12 turnovers all year. Meanwhile, Santonio Holmes and Ted Ginn Jr. terrify me in the return game.
Russell: I think Lloyd's coming into this game relaxed. After the year got off to a miserable 3-3 start, he seemed to just tune out the critics and do things his way, and Michigan has responded with four straight wins. Ohio State, meanwhile, comes in on a huge roll, scoring points in bushels and shutting opponents down with abandon.
Vinny: After the high standards he set as a true freshman, Chad Henne has been disappointing this year. And it would have been far worse if not for Jason "Plastic Man" Avant bailing Henne out with sick catches all season. The Michigan brain trust has been understandably reluctant to let Henne throw the ball over the middle. But you can't make a living throwing to the boundaries on Ohio State -- they're just too fast. Avant and tight ends Tim Massaquoi and Tyler Ecker have to get behind the Buckeyes linebackers on Saturday, and Henne has to be on his game.
Russell: Home underdogs are rare in this series and it's tough to ignore Michigan getting a field goal in the Big House. The Wolverines have done a much better job against scrambling quarterbacks this year, and I'm still not sold on the Troy Smith Experience. On offense, Michigan emptied the playbook last week to give Ohio State plenty to think about. Steve Breaston also remembered that he's Steve Breaston. If he can do another passable impression this week and Mike Hart -- expected to return from an ankle sprain -- is a factor, I like Michigan to win outright.
Vinny: If right tackle Jake Long, Michigan's best offensive lineman, isn't healthy, Hart probably won't find much daylight. The Michigan defense is coming on strong behind defensive lineman Alan Branch. They've actually defended mobile quarterbacks well this season. We'll see if they can do it against Smith, who looked like Steve Young against the Wolverines last year. Literally. (OK, not literally.) This is the first time Michigan has been a home underdog since it hosted Penn State in 1998 (a 27-0 Michigan win). Curses be damned (famous last words), I'm also going with the Wolverines at home.
Russell: There you have it, Ohio State fans, you can't accuse us of trying to put the reverse hex on our squad. Of course, I'm presuming that you people know how to use a computer, which is a bigger stretch than both of us picking Michigan. (I kid! I kid! Well, sort of.)
Russell: Rivalry line alert. On paper, Washington State is more than a field goal better than Washington, which got its first conference win only last week. But the game's in Seattle, and the Apple Cup is always hotly contested, hence the narrow line.
Vinny: A rough year for both of these teams. The Huskies haven't mounted much of a ground attack until lately -- tailback James Sims ran wild (200 yards) in the win over Arizona last week. Wazzu, however, boasts the No. 1 rusher in the land, senior Jerome Harrison (169.3 yards per game). Granted, that's against Pac-10 defenses, which are generally as impotent as any Nevada boxing commissioner.
Russell: Washington State can score points in bunches, but the Cougars can't seem to put anyone away, blowing late leads against Oregon State, UCLA, and Cal on their way to a seven-game losing streak. The Huskies, meanwhile, have played well in stretches, but haven't been able to put full games together. They hung with Notre Dame for a while, and should have beaten UCLA, but ended up fading in both contests. Ty Willingham has a lot of work to do to get this program back to the status it used to enjoy.
Vinny: What is it about the Palouse that breeds good quarterbacks? Must be some good recruiting and a great offensive staff led by coordinator Mike Levenseller. Quarterback Alex Brink (who got out from under Mike Bellotti's nose after growing up in Eugene, Oregon) is having a fine sophomore season for the Cougars.
Russell: I'm wary of overlooking the home dog in any rivalry game, but I just don't know that Washington has what it takes mentally to put a complete game together. I'll take the Cougs.
Vinny: Yep, Wazzu is the pick.
Russell: Wow, talk about one injury changing the course of a season. With Tyrone Prothro, Alabama bombed Florida, 31-3. Without him, the Tide is allergic to the end zone, coming off its first loss of the season, and finds itself a full touchdown underdog against archrival Auburn. 'Bama gets no love from Vegas -- last week the Tide were three-point underdogs to LSU at home, despite being 9-0.
Vinny: Brodie Croyle was running for his life most of the game against LSU, getting sacked five times. And even when he bought some time, the Tide receivers couldn't make any plays. I didn't like the third-and-2 pass call by Mike Shula in overtime. Kenneth Darby was having a good day (104 yards on 21 carries) -- you have to trust him to get two yards in that situation.
Russell: For sheer hatred, it's tough to top the Iron Bowl, especially when both teams are good as they are this year. Auburn proved something to the doubters -- people like me -- who questioned its soft schedule by winning between the hedges at Georgia last week. The Tigers are really rounding into form after dropping off the national radar by dropping their opener.
Vinny: The Tigers are going for their fourth straight win in this series, and Auburn is 5-2 against Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Tommy Tuberville's team leads the SEC in scoring and total offense, despite losing his entire offensive backfield from last year in the first round of the draft.
Russell: Auburn looked good last week, but I still think this team is a year away. Brandon Cox and Kenny Irons won't find much success against Alabama's awesome defense. Seven points is way too many in a rivalry game. I like Alabama.
Vinny: I just don't see how Alabama will solve its offensive woes. I still don't like Cox's long, slow release -- it's like watching Will Clark swing a bat. But there's no denying he's improved over the course of the season. Give me Auburn.
Russell: I've been biting my tongue on Michigan State all season. As a Michigan fan, I didn't want to pile on. But now that the Spartans sit 5-5 and are UM's only hope of getting into the BCS, I can't hold back. Memo to Michigan State players, coaches and fans -- this is why you get no national respect! You pull this crap every year, beating some good team (this year it was Notre Dame) before folding up like a cheap suit, yapping all the while about how you're an elite program. You're not an elite program. You're a dog of a program, probably the most underachieving program in the nation.
Vinny: Harsh, Russ. But well-deserved. The Spartans are clear winners of the Biggest Fraud on the Public Since One-Hour Martinizing Award this year (not Texas, like I called at the start of the season -- oops). I'm not sure who threw in the proverbial towel more convincingly last week, Michigan State's football team (in a 41-18 pasting by Minnesota) or their Sports Information Department, which put out a measly half-page of game notes afterwards.
Russell: I'm full of venom this week -- must be rivalry week. But there's no excuse for MSU to continue stinking up the state the way they do. The facilities are top notch. They get plenty of TV exposure. The school sits in fertile recruiting territory. And still, all they achieve is mediocrity. Vin, any chance MSU will be inspired by my comments this week?
Vinny: Doubtful. John L. Smith has to be coaching for his job Saturday. I don't see how he's still slapping players on the sideline next year if he fails to take the Spartans to a bowl game for the second straight year with the talent at his disposal.
Russell: I don't think there's much chance of a letdown by Penn State here. They're one win away from an unlikely BCS bid and total validation of JoePa's decision to hang around. They won't slip up here, not against a team that does not play defense. Penn State rolls. I'm even making this my Fred Edelstein Lock. Vin, I really feel you should do likewise.
Vinny: The "Double Freddy"? The last time I disrespected JoePa like that, a girl half the size of Mary Lou Retton hurled a pitcher of Yuengling Lager at me at the Shandygaff. (The year was 1993). The Nittany Lions thrash the Spartans, but I won't make it my lock.
Russell: Vin, as I recall it, I hurled the insult at JoePa, and she hurled the pitcher at me. You have my cat-like reflexes to thank for the fact you got doused.
Russell: Oregon-Oregon State is another very underrated rivalry game. Any time the fans of one school (Oregon) are accused of throwing bags of urine at fans of the other, you know you have something. For a bunch of Nike-wearing, dope-smoking, peace-loving hippies, those Oregonians sure know how to get after it come football season (sorry, rivalry week again!).
Vinny: Uh ... I don't have anything to add to that.
Russell: Oregon has to be the quietest one-loss team in the country. Everyone, it seems, who didn't write the Ducks off after they lost to USC at home surely did so after they lost quarterback Kellen Clemens. But Dennis Dixon and Brady Leaf have led Oregon to several come-from-behind victories.
Vinny: The Ducks may be quiet, but Oregon is still ranked 10th in all the major polls. I know they might sneak into a BCS bowl, but I'm not buying any Ducks stock. Their best win to date may be over Fresno State, whom they edged 37-34 at home.
Russell: It looks like Oregon State will turn to Ryan Gunderson, who will be making his first career start, at quarterback. Gunderson does have the best receiver you've never heard of -- Mike Hass -- to throw to. Hass, a scrappy receiver in the Sean LaChapelle/Chris Doering mode, is the first wideout in Pac-10 history to have three 1,000-yard seasons. He's a great player, but I don't like the green QB going against the Autzen crowd. The number's high for a rivalry game, but I have to go with Oregon.
Vinny: I thought Mike Riley's team turned the corner with a 23-20 win at Cal, but they've lost three of four since, with their only win coming in Seattle. Home field has carried the day the last nine times in the Civil War. The Ducks will be testy after getting hammered 50-21 in Corvallis last year. Whether it's Gunderson or a gimpy Matt Moore, I don't like the Beavers' chances here. The Ducks paddle to an easy win.
Russell: This might be the nastiest rivalry on the slate Saturday. These teams engaged in an ugly post-game brawl after Clemson's win last season, and both schools ended up declining bowl bids as a result. This year, South Carolina is one of the feel-good stories in America after the OBC (Ol' Ball Coach) knocked off Florida and Tennessee in recent weeks, while Clemson righted a shaky season as Tommy Bowden beat Papa's Florida State team last week.
Vinny: I'm wondering if Big & Rich will play the halftime show of this one. How did they get so big? They're brutal.
Russell: Memo to ESPN: Bring back Bubba Sparxxx! Clemson has owned the Gamecocks of late, winning seven of eight in the series. Spurrier's team doesn't wow you, but they are finding a way to win games, a sure sign that Spurrier is working his magic.
Vinny: I gave Lou Holtz credit last week for bringing in his buddy Spurrier to replace him. This week, I have to rip Holtz for getting the Gamecocks three years of probation for 10 violations committed during his watch in Columbia. I wonder if he'll have any comment during ESPN's College Football Scoreboard. And memo to the ESPN folks: it's not a good sign when your host (Rece Davis) provides far more insight than your analysts (Holtz and Mark May).
Russell: Holtz can still come up with a gem now and then though, like last week's line that beating a big rival is "like your mother-in-law forgetting your address." (Hat tip: Pete Fiutak.) I learned my lesson last week. I realize Clemson probably has better personnel, especially if quarterback Charlie Whitehurst can take care of the football. But no way I'm overlooking the Gamecocks as a home underdog for the second straight Saturday. The OBC will carve another notch in his visor after beating the Tigers outright. I'll take SC and the points.
Vinny: I think the Gamecocks come back down to Earth a bit this week. Clemson covers.
Russell: You have to love the attitude Pat Hill brings to the Fresno State program: any team, any time, anywhere. By taking all comers, and beating most of them, Hill his built a very successful mid-major program. Plus, he has the best sideline 'stache in America. If Dave Wannstedt would go with the Hill Fu Manchu, Pitt might not be getting waxed by the likes of Rutgers.
Vinny: No, they'd probably still get waxed by Rutgers. Poor Wanny.
Russell: There's not a whole lot more to say about USC that hasn't already been said: unbelievable offense, with NFL talent all over the field. Spotty defense mostly due to injuries and inexperience. I don't expect USC to have too much trouble dispatching the Bulldogs.
Vinny: This is the list of Fresno State's opponents since losing to Oregon: Toledo, New Mexico State, Utah State, Idaho, Hawaii, San Jose State and Boise State. Now they play USC. As Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn learned in Major League, it's a big step up from the California Penal League to the Show.
Russell: Despite all the blowouts this season, USC is just 5-5 against the spread, while Fresno is 8-1. Still, I can't see Carroll letting off the gas in this one, not with two weeks to prepare for the season-ender against UCLA. There's a huge gap in athletic ability between these clubs. Fresno will keep it respectable for a while, but USC pulls away late. It's a tough call, but I'll lay the big number.
Vinny: LenDale White seems to have taken on a bigger role in the Trojans offense after his mock suicide. I guess it worked. Reggie Bush will need at least one more big performance this year, as Vince Young continues to gain in Bush's rear view Heisman mirror. USC in a cakewalk.
Russell: Vin, you still need a Fred Edelstein Lock. Who's the unlucky team this week?
Vinny: Hmmm ... I'm going with Washington State.
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" in bold)
|Game||Vinny says||Russell says|
|#25 Oklahoma (+7.5) at #19 Texas Tech||Oklahoma||Oklahoma|
|#7 Ohio State (-3) at #15 Michigan||Michigan||Michigan|
|Washington State (-3) at Washington||Washington State||Washington State|
|#8 Alabama (+7) at #13 Auburn||Auburn||Alabama|
|#4 Penn State (-7.5) at Michigan State||Penn State||Penn State|
|Oregon State (+13.5) at #10 Oregon||Oregon||Oregon|
|Clemson (-2) at #23 South Carolina||Clemson||South Carolina|
|#17 Fresno State (+23) at #1 USC||USC||USC|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
|Vinny||2-5-1 (1-0)||34-49-4 (4-7)|
|Russell||2-5-1 (0-1)||31-52-4 (6-5)|
81 comments, Last at 22 Nov 2005, 2:21am by Erasmus