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?
24 Nov 2005
by Vinny Gauri and Russell Levine
Russell: Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Here's some college picks to aid your (or more likely, give you) indigestion.
Russell: This is another of those rivalry games that doesn't get the same publicity as Michigan-Ohio State or Auburn-Alabama, but the "Backyard Brawl" is as nasty as they come.
Vinny: I've heard that before, but I still don't believe it.
Russell: There are plenty of compelling storylines this year, as West Virginia tries to keep its BCS hopes alive, and at the same time, pay back Pitt for costing the Mountaineers a BCS bid last season.
Vinny: The Mountaineers are averaging 43 points per game in their last three wins over Louisville, Connecticut and Cincinnati. Most of the firepower has been provided by the ground game, namely freshman tailback Steve Slaton and quarterback Pat White.
Russell: It's been a rough year for Wanny back at his alma mater, but at least he has things pointed in the right direction after a miserable start. I'm tempted to take the points, but I don't trust Tyler Palko on the road after he has regressed this season. Plus, you know West Virginia will get every close call because the Big East simply can't afford a Mountaineer loss. I'll take West Virginia.
Vinny: Come on Russ, do you honestly believe that's true? I never figured you for a conspiracy guy. Pitt hasn't exactly faced a murderers' row of opponents (to the extent there are even any jaywalking offenders in the Big East), but I'm impressed Wanny got the ship righted somewhat. I thought they were headed for something like a 2-9 record at one point. Still, West Virginia should dispatch Pitt rather easily.
Russell: Vin, those things happen! Just ask Mark Mangino.
Russell: Wow, what has happened to A&M this season? This was supposed to be the year Dennis Franchione put things together in his third season in College Station. Instead, the Aggies have fallen apart and Alabama fans are laughing at him for ditching the Tide.
Vinny: The Aggie defense has been a disappointment, especially lately (yielding 134 points to Iowa State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma the last three weeks). And with Reggie McNeal possibly nursing a bad ankle behind a young offensive line, this game could get ugly very quickly.
Russell: You have to think that Texas quarterback Vince Young will be geeked up for this one. Everyone pretty much declared Reggie Bush the Heisman winner after his ridiculous performance against Fresno State, but I have a feeling Mr. Young would still like to have a say in the race.
Vinny: Young has done everything you could ask of a Heisman winner. I thought he was steadily gaining on Bush in recent weeks, but it really is all but over after Bush ran amok last Saturday night.
Russell: This is an awful big number to lay on the road in a rivalry game, but I view this contest much like last week's Virginia Tech smackdown of Virginia. Texas will put the pedal don't and won't let up until there's a 50 on the scoreboard. Hook 'em Horns!.
Vinny: Texas has been an absolute steamroller this season, with an average margin of victory of 35.8 points. After the close call in Columbus, the only team to get within 25 points of the Horns has been Colorado. I still think the best thing that happened to Texas coming into the season was defensive coordinator Greg Robinson somehow landing the Syracuse job. I'm still trying to figure that one out (but "welcome to exciting, hard-hitting football, Orangemen fans!"). Texas cruises to a cover.
Russell: Arizona State, to me, provides an interesting study in how schedule strength is evaluated, and why some merit should be given to a team's ranking at the time a given game is played. The Sun Devils all but beat LSU back in September and had USC on the ropes, but absolutely fell apart after USC came back to beat them. Does that mean they were a mediocre team at the time they played those two games? I don't think so.
Vinny: You can't blame Rudy Carpenter for the Devils' problems. Carpenter has been superb (13 TDs, 2 INTs) since taking over for the injured Sam Keller a month ago. It will be tough for Keller to win his job back next year, especially if he misses spring practice, as expected.
Russell: Things have gotten so bad for the Sun Devils this season that there's talk of coach Dirk Koetter being fired if he loses this game. Arizona coach Mike Stoops, meanwhile, didn't appear to be making all that much progress in year two in Tucson until his Wildcats walloped then-unbeaten UCLA a few weeks back.
Vinny: But then the Wildcats turned around and got hammered 38-14 at home by ...Washington.
Russell: I don't like the mentality of Arizona State right now. The players appear to have packed things in at midseason, and I'm not sure they can rally even for a rivalry game. Stoops will have his team fired up. I think Arizona can at least cover the number, if not win outright.
Vinny: Arizona doesn't do anything particularly well. The Wildcats mostly stick with a soft zone defense, and I think Carpenter will find receiver Derek Hagans roaming free all day long. I like the Devils to cover in a track meet.
Vinny: The Buffs are still smarting from a 30-16 loss to Iowa State two weeks ago. But Colorado can still secure its fourth appearance in the Big XII title game in five years with a win over the Huskers on Friday (or an Iowa State loss to Kansas).
Russell: There was a time when this was the best rivalry in the Big Eight/Big XII, but no more thanks to Nebraska's growing pains as it attempts to develop at least a 20th-century offense. Still, there's a healthy dislike between these clubs and some strange things have happened in their annual day-after-Thanksgiving showdown.
Vinny: Both Nebraska and Colorado are more effective through the air. I never thought I would live to see the day when Joel Klatt ends his career, and it's almost here. (But then I thought I would never live to hear of anything as awful as the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl.) Klatt has bounced back for a solid senior year (2437 yards, 14 TDs, 6 INTs).
Russell: At least the teams in that game get a trip to San Diego out of the deal. Nothing says "reward for a good season" like a holiday trip to Boise or Detroit.
Vinny: I don't expect Nebraska back Cory Ross to have much luck against the nation's No. 2 rushing defense. So it's up to Taylor to get it done for the Huskers. So I'm going with the Buffs.
Russell: I'll go with Bill Simmons on this one -- never back a shaky QB on the road. I'm pretty sure I've been burned every time I've picked the Huskers this year. If not for Bill Callahan, I might have a fighting shot at hitting 40% of my picks this season. You know what they say, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, can't get fooled again." I'll take Colorado.
Russell: There's some legitimate concern as to whether Wisconsin will be up for this game two weeks after the home letdown against Iowa in Barry Alvarez's final game at Camp Randall.
Vinny: Brian Calhoun was finally shut down in Wisconsin's final two Big Ten games (both losses) against Penn State and Iowa (a total of 56 yards on 35 carries). Hawaii will obviously try to make John Stocco beat them, like every other team that faced the Badgers this year.
Russell: I recall Michigan being in a similar situation out in the islands against a bad Hawaii team back in 1998 (yes, I made the roadie). The Wolverines were coming off a loss to Ohio State, but they still treated it as a business trip. I expect Alvarez's club to do the same.
Vinny: This trip should allow Wisconsin to get some positive vibes going into their bowl game (probably the Capital One Bowl in Orlando). The Badgers cover.
Russell: This hasn't been one of June Jones's better years in Honolulu, as his team tries to move on following the 17-year career of Timmy Chang. Unless Wisconsin is served up a bad batch of poi, the Badgers will run, run, and run some more on the Warriors with Calhoun and that big O-line. Expect some huge numbers from Calhoun as the Badgers roll. This is my Fred Edelstein lock.
Vinny: Is this the first time we've talked about a game between two teams that are a combined 5-15?
Russell: No doubt, but when those 5-15 teams play in a game called the "Egg Bowl," it's allowable.
Vinny: Both teams are downright anemic on offense, but the Ole Miss defense has kept it in a couple games, including a 13-10 loss to Alabama. Junior linebacker Patrick Willis leads the SEC with 12.7 tackles per game.
Russell: You know, I kind of thought Ole Miss made a little too big a deal of the Eli Manning era when he graduated, but given that the program has fallen apart since then, I guess they were right.
Vinny: The Rebels have outscored the Bulldogs 51-3 over the last two games in this series. I look for that trend to continue, as Ole Miss walks to its fourth straight over Mississippi State (my Fred Edelstein Lock).
Russell: I still think MSU's Sylvester Croom is a quality coach, but he's fighting an uphill battle in trying to get recruits, and he's dealing with NCAA sanctions from the Jackie Sherrill administration as well. I'm not sure if he can last long enough there to turn things around. This line does seem a little low, but I'm going to resist the temptation to take the Bulldogs. Ole Miss is the pick.
Russell: It's been an up-and-down year for first-year Florida coach Urban Meyer, but he still has a shot at a three-game sweep of Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida State, which would at least keep him from getting run out of town on a rail.
Vinny: The Gators shot themselves in the foot in the loss at South Carolina last week, racking up 11 penalties for 86 yards and the game's only turnover. Florida is second only to LSU with nearly 70 penalty yards per game.
Russell: Florida State looked really flat against Clemson two weeks ago. Former Seminoles' great Derrick Brooks said he was shocked by the lack of effort and focus he saw from FSU while watching the game on TV. Has Papa Bowden lost his touch? Maybe it's time to give him the JoePa treatment. It's a good thing Penn State heeded all the fan complaints and got the old man out of there. Oh, wait, that didn't happen.
Vinny: The Seminoles are coming off a bye week and that should help heal some injuries, as well as some psyches. Tailback Leon Washington should be ready to compliment Lorenzo Booker on Saturday.
Russell: This rivalry is not what it was in the mid- to late-90s, but it's still plenty intense. Florida's at home, and I think Meyer really needs this one, whereas Florida State looks like it's mailing things in a little bit (the 'Noles are going to the ACC title game despite three conference losses). I like Florida to win in the Swamp by at least a touchdown.
Vinny: I don't know if Drew Weatherford can come through in the clutch, but I like the 'Noles to at least cover.
Russell: This could be the most interesting game of the weekend as the Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets tee it up in Atlanta for the Governor's Cup. (Not every rivalry game can have a cool title like the "Egg Bowl.") Georgia Tech is a tough team to figure. They won at Auburn to open the year and knocked off Miami at the Orange Bowl last Saturday, but dropped three games in between, in part because QB Reggie Ball went down with a serious illness.
Vinny: Tech defensive coordinator John Tenuta likes to bring the blitz with safety Chris Reis and linebackers Gerris Wilkinson and Phillip Wheeler. And defensive end Eric Henderson has forced four fumbles in his six sacks.
Russell: I know this is a rivalry game, but I question how much Georgia has to play for here. The Bulldogs have already locked up a berth in the SEC title game next week, and they know their only shot to reach a BCS game is to win that contest, not this one.
Vinny: I beg to differ. I think Georgia will be focused on this contest, especially after Tech's upset of Miami. David Pollack, Thomas Davis, Odell Thurman and former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder are all in the NFL now. But Georgia's defense hasn't had much of a drop-off thanks in part to defensive end Quentin Moses (nine sacks), safety Greg Blue and first-year coordinator Willie Martinez.
Russell: Georgia has won four straight in the series, but I think the streak ends here. The defensive line will get after Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley the same way they got after Miami's Kyle Wright last week (seven sacks). Ball hits Calvin Johnson -- who just might be the best receiver in America -- for a touchdown and the Jackets win it outright at home.
Vinny: Except Shockley is very elusive, unlike Wright, and is the top-rated passer in the SEC to boot. I think Shockley will stand up to the pressure. Georgia covers on the road.
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" in bold)
|Game||Vinny says||Russell says|
|Pittsburgh (+13) at #11 West Virginia||West Virginia||West Virginia|
|#2 Texas (-26) at Texas A&M||Texas||Texas|
|Arizona (+9) at Arizona State||Arizona State||Arizona|
|Nebraska (+14) at Colorado||Colorado||Colorado|
|#17 Wisconsin (-6) at Hawaii||Wisconsin||Wisconsin|
|Ole Miss (-3) at Mississippi State||Ole Miss||Ole Miss|
|#24 Florida State (+6) at #23 Florida||Florida State||Florida|
|#15 Georgia (-3) at #21 Georgia Tech||Georgia||Georgia Tech|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
|Vinny||6-2 (1-0)||40-51-4 (5-7)|
|Russell||4-4 (1-0)||35-56-4 (7-5)|
42 comments, Last at 02 Dec 2005, 12:27am by young curmudgeon