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?
30 Nov 2006
by Vinny Gauri and Russell Levine
Russell: I tried. I really tried. To root for Notre Dame on Saturday night that is. But my attempts at "Go Irish!" came out sounding more like "could you please @#^%ing cover somebody you scrubs!" In the end, I think I was happier that Notre Dame got exposed. Again. And that people don't seem to be buying into Musburger's three-hour Irish love-in.
Vinny: Gushburger can develop some serious man-crushes with players or teams, whether it's Brady Quinn, the "A-Train" (seems like he often went into commercial breaks with "And the A-Train, keeps right on rollin' here on CB ... er, ABC!!!") or even "The Big Kat!!!" (which I'm sure was your favorite, Russ).
Russell: Ugh, don't remind me. It'll be a little easier for me to pull for UCLA this week. And I actually think they have a better chance against USC than Notre Dame did. But more on that in a bit. Even if USC wins to go to Glendale, it looks like sanity will prevail and put LSU, and not Notre Dame, opposite Michigan in the Rose Bowl. We can all be thankful for that.
Vinny: Nobody, not Michigan, not Notre Dame, nor their fan bases, wanted those teams to play three times in a one-year period.
Russell: After this edition of SDA, we'll take a two-week break before returning to pick every one of the 31 bowl games. So be sure to hold off on that Micron PC/International Bowl parlay until we give you the skinny.
Russell: It's the first of two straight at Ford Field for the Chippewas, who have already accepted a bid to the Motor City Bowl. Must ... resist ... urge ... to make ... Detroit ... jokes ... here. First Central Michigan gets a crack at Ohio and coach Frank Solich. Anyone have a GHB joke?
Vinny: I'm trying to quit. The jokes, that is.
Russell: You can bet Ohio alum Peter King will watch this one with interest as the Bobcats seek their first MAC title since 1968. The Bobcats have won seven straight behind the rushing of Kalvin McRae, who has gone past 100 yards in all seven games. That's good, since Ohio doesn't really throw the ball (pass offense rank: 114).
Vinny: I'm sure PK will make mention of this tilt in his next MMQB, if he has space to squeeze it in between his reviews of various baristas' servings of pumpkin spice lattes around the country. This will definitely be a clash in styles between Solich's old fashioned slobberknocker approach and the Chippewas' five-wide spreads.
Russell: CMU coach Brian Kelly is a rumored candidate for a number of bigger jobs, including the Michigan State opening that went to former Cincinnati coach Mark Dantonio. Nothing against Kelly, but Spartans fans should be happy he didn't get the gig. If there's a carbon copy of John L. Smith in the coaching world, it's Kelly, who's strategic decisions sometimes border on the criminally insane. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't (such as when a failed trick play ended the Chips' upset hopes against Boston College). Look for Kelly to pull out all the stops in this one, but I'm going with Ohio, on the strength of Solich's defense.
Vinny: Interesting how Kelly turned around CMU after Mike Debord failed miserably in that job and was welcomed back to the Michigan coaching staff. I guess you could say these are Debord's players, but that begs the question why he couldn't get more out of them. Kind of like Charlie Weis winning with Ty Willingham's players. I'll take the Chips.
Russell: Credit goes to C-USA for ignoring the neutral site and giving the team with the better record home field in its championship game. It should make for a much better atmosphere at Houston's Robertson Stadium, which will be sold out or nearly so, whereas there were about 25,000 at Ford Field for the MAC game.
Vinny: Freshman running back Damion Fletcher has been the MVP for Southern Miss, racking up 1,240 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. He even ran for 89 yards on 18 carries in the Golden Eagles' opener against Florida (a 34-7 shellacking by the Gators).
Russell: Southern Miss won the regular-season meeting between the teams, 31-27, in Hattiesburg. Since then, Houston has won five straight, scoring 172 points in the process behind the unorthodox passing attack of coach Art Briles and quarterback Kevin Kolb. Briles loves motion and rollouts -- sometimes you'll even see Kolb take the snap on the move and throw immediately to the sidelines. Kolb ran the same offense in high school, where Briles was his coach as a freshman before departing for the college ranks.
Vinny: Briles wasn't too happy with the officiating when these teams met in October. He was rankled by what he thought was a fumble by Southern Miss receiver Josh Barnes before the Golden Eagles' final touchdown. Officials called the play dead because of an early whistle and wouldn't permit an instant replay review.
Russell: Ah, yes, one of the joys of replay. Southern Miss is also coming in hot, having won four straight. But the Eagles' 24th-ranked pass defense will have its hands full with Houston's 12th-ranked passing attack. I like the home field in this one. The Cougars win in a shootout and cover the spread.
Vinny: Golden Eagles quarterback Jeremy Young stole the show from Kolb in their earlier matchup, throwing for two scores and running for another. I don't like picking a team to beat an evenly-matched opponent twice in one season (coughing for effect), but I'll go with Southern Miss to cover in another entertaining game.
Russell: Vin, I've got a prop bet for you. Which attendance figure will be higher -- the ACC crowd in Jacksonville or the combined crowds in Detroit and Houston for the MAC and C-USA games? I think I'm going with the latter, a result of this surprising matchup.
Vinny: You've got yourself a wager. Anyone who knows anything about college football knows the Demon Deacons travel well. I'm so confident about this bet that I'll set the stakes at two beers. Pints, even. And none of that cheap stuff you like.
Russell: Hey, let's not forget you owned eight CDs and drank Bud Light when I met you.
Vinny: Yes, but one of them was GTR.
Russell: I love Wake Forest. Early in the year, they were doing it with smoke and mirrors, getting out-gained in most of their wins. But you can see their confidence growing from week to week to the point where they've developed into a pretty good football team. They absolutely mauled Maryland in the trenches last week, rushing 57 times for 296 yards and getting some opportunistic throws from Riley Skinner to clinch this spot.
Vinny: I'm still a doubter about a quarterback with two last names. Maybe it's the advice from Coach Bobby Finstock that's stuck with me. But then, Reggie Ball is on the other sideline.
Russell: The oddsmakers still don't believe in Wake, but how can anyone believe in Georgia Tech after the egg they laid against a very average Georgia team last week? The mercurial Ball, a four-year starter, had one of his worst-ever outings, throwing for just 42 yards, with two interceptions and a lost fumble that was returned for a score. He also failed to get the ball to all-world receiver Calvin Johnson (13 receiving yards?!?!), whose talents have been largely wasted for three years. I wouldn't lay points with Georgia Tech with your money. Give me the Deacons (Fred Edelstein lock).
Vinny: When you're getting outplayed by Georgia's quarterback du jour, you're in trouble. It's been easy to rip Ball this week (we certainly couldn't pass up the opportunity), but I'm going out on a very shaky limb and saying he bounces back with a decent performance. Maybe Chan Gailey brought in Bill Walsh and Tony Robbins this week on a retainer. Johnson gets involved in the offense and Tech fans are teased with what could have been this season. The Yellow Jackets win by a field goal.
Russell: Navy is a huge favorite as it looks to equal its longest-ever wining streak in the 107-year series -- five games. Still, this Army team may be better equipped to end the streak than recent editions.
Vinny: Army defensive end Brandon Thompson has worked his way back from a nerve injury in his shoulder. He's considered one of the more talented players on the Black Knights' defense, and they'll need him to slow down the Navy ground attack.
Russell: Navy's season appeared to go down the tubes when quarterback and leading rusher Brian Hampton was lost for the year with a dislocated knee against Rutgers. But coach Paul Johnson reached down the depth chart to find the best name in college football, Kaipo-Noa Keheaku-Enhada, to run his option attack. Go figure. Navy has a native Hawaiian running its offense, while Hawaii has a guy with a cowboy name straight out of central casting -- Colt Brennan -- running its. Hooray for the melting pot!
Vinny: Kaipo-Noa Keheaku-Enhada. Wasn't that Pat Morita's advice to Nick Cage in Honeymoon in Vegas?
Russell: That really doesn't help me at all. Army has lost five straight and has been killed by the turnover -- they're minus-16 on the year. But Bobby Ross's club plays tough defense and you know their necks will be bowed out for this one. I just can't lay three touchdowns when, over the course of a century, the average margin of victory in this series has been two points. Navy wins, but Army keeps it close enough to cover.
Vinny: I don't think it's good for morale in the Department of Defense if everyone has to listen to the Squiddies crow about a five-year run. Maybe Robert Gates brings in the ghost of Arnold Rothstein on a retainer. I also like the Black Knights to cover.
Russell: The nation saw what USC can do at full strength Saturday night. Despite losing two Heisman Trophy winners, its offense can still be downright scary, with a developing John David Booty throwing to man-child Dwayne Jarrett. Of course, it helps to throw against the Irish secondary. Vin, you and I could start at corner and produce similar results for that club.
Vinny: True enough. They're already calling me "Toast" on my flag football team. Where have you gone, Elvis Patterson?
Russell: UCLA is the last hurdle standing between USC and a road to Glendale paved with Trojans, as Brent so eloquently put it during Saturday's telecast. Karl Dorrell, 0-3 against USC in his time in Westwood, played coy this week about announcing his starting quarterback. The safe guess was that he would go back to sophomore Ben Olson, who tore a knee ligament against Arizona in early October. But he's sticking with Patrick Cowan for another week. Cowan is the more mobile of the two, though I'm not sure it makes a big difference in this one.
Vinny: Sounds like Olson is ready, so look for him to be trotting in from the bullpen if and when Cowan struggles. On defense, the Bruins have had a great pass rush (fourth nationally) thanks to defensive ends Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis (24 sacks between them). USC tackles Sam Baker and Kyle Williams should be up to the task though.
Russell: UCLA has thorn-in-side potential here, especially if this guy is to be believed. Still, I have to think Pete Carroll won't let his team get caught flat-footed, which is probably the only thing that could cost them this game. UCLA will make it a game for a half, but the Trojans win going away (and cover).
Vinny: They've been through it before, so I don't think the stories about Carroll being approached by the Arizona Cardinals will affect the Trojans this week. Frankly, Snoop's latest arrest was bigger news in the USC locker room, especially since he was sporting Jarrett's No. 8 jersey after posting bail. More good pub for the program. I expected this line to be higher, but I guess the rivalry is getting its due. They got a scare a couple years ago in a similar situation against the Bruins, but I also like USC to win big here (my Freddy).
Russell: Last week was the first time I had the chance to watch an Arkansas game from start to finish this season. Their loss to LSU may not have been the season's best game, but it was probably the most entertaining. Houston Nutt's offense is everything I love about college football vs. the NFL. You can watch an entire weekend of NFL play and not see a single team whose approach stands out. But you watch a team like Arkansas play offense, and your reaction is "what the hell was that?"
Vinny: The Hogs seem to run all those trick plays you draw up in the dirt when you get together with high school buddies for a Turkey Bowl game over the holidays. But instead of "Lobes" and "Lil Riz," you're running the plays with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. Slightly more effective.
Russell: Slightly. Now Florida, you sort of have to know the Gators to love them. They aren't the most dynamic, but they tend to play close, exciting games for good (the thriller at Tennessee) and bad (hanging on at home against South Carolina). You've got steady Chris Leak and the guard-disguised-as-a-QB Tim Tebow on offense, and concussion-maker (and target of a professed man-crush of many a Florida fan) Reggie Nelson on defense.
Vinny: Hey, that's two man-crush references this week. Which is one too many in my book. What I also know is that I'm tired of Urban Meyer whining about voters relying on style points. Like that's something new this year?
Russell: Smells like bad karma for the Gators to me. Florida knows they need to win this game big, and I think they may press a bit trying to get there, and that could lead to mistakes. If Arkansas can run wild on LSU, I think McFadden and Co. can put up some yards on the Gators. I like Arkansas to win outright.
Vinny: Wow. Bold call. There has been some history of teams making their case for the big game only to get upset during the final hurdle of a conference title game. Michael Bishop's Kansas State losing a classic to Texas A&M comes to mind. One thing to watch is Florida's body language in the first half, because USC-UCLA will be close to halftime. But the Gators are still my pick here.
Russell: For the second time in four weeks, it's the biggest game in Rutgers's history. And don't give me 1869 v. Princeton -- there was no $15 million bowl bid on the line that day. Win in Morgantown, and Rutgers goes to the Orange, perhaps to meet Wake Forest in an all-time Cinderella matchup.
Vinny: As a graduate of Princeton High School, I can't believe you would diss your hometown university. You were a Lil' Tiger! (I'm sure that struck fear in the hearts of your high school's opponents.)
Russell: Vin, I was 5-foot-9, 155 pounds. And I started at guard. I don't think the nickname was the problem. Rutgers rebounded from the stench of its performance at Cincinnati two weeks ago to hammer Syracuse at home on senior day, just as West Virginia was pretty much getting bounced from the BCS picture in a home loss to South Florida that also left standout QB Pat White limping with an injured foot/ankle. The Bulls won by capitalizing on turnovers and holding Steve Slaton in check. I think there's a serious potential for West Virginia to come in flat for this one, and Rutgers's emotion could carry the day.
Vinny: Speaking of bad karma, maybe White brought it on himself and his teammates for his comical mockery of Pitt's silly panther growl the week before the South Florida debacle. Frankly, providence aside, that was one of my favorite moments of the college football season. It had two great elements: (1) It was pretty damn funny -- although Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit were actually listening to Erin Andrews for some reason instead of making note of it; and (2) White directed his ridicule at my least favorite gimmick in college football, silly-piped in sound effects, especially ones involving the roar of a supposedly fearsome mascot in the kitten family (yes, that means you, Penn State and Northwestern).
Russell: Both coaches have been dealing with the distraction of rumored job offers this week (West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez to Alabama; Rutgers's Greg Schiano to Miami). Schiano has more reason to be focused. His asking price only goes up with a win here. I like the Scarlet Knights to keep it close throughout, and win on a Jeremy "Judge" Ito field goal at the end. I'm sure you're surprised by that pick, Vin.
Vinny: Uh, no. Sounds like White's wheels have improved during the week, and fullback Owen Schmitt has also been battling leg injuries. Schmitt has been a big key to the offense for the Mountaineers. Even with the walking wounded, I'm going to go with West Virginia over your beloved Bon Jovi-ites.
Russell: I for one am glad that Texas got upset by A&M last week, producing the first-ever Oklahoma-Nebraska matchup in the Big XII title game. It's been too long in coming.
Vinny: This matchup hasn't received much attention with the other games on the slate. But it should be an entertaining contest, even without a star attraction like Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson. It will feel like a road game for the Sooners since Nebraska fans snapped up most of the tickets for this game early in the season.
Russell: I have to give credit to the Husker fans. I'm not sure there's another major program in America with the pedigree of Nebraska where the fans would be as patient as they have been with Bill Callahan. But slowly but surely, they're starting to see real progress.
Vinny: Huskers ends Adam Carriker and Jay Moore lead a veteran defensive front. But Nebraska has been hurt by the ground game in their losses, especially by Oklahoma State (267 rushing yards). Allen Patrick should have a good day.
Russell: I think the Black Shirts will have a decent day against the run, but I'm worried about Zac Taylor turning it over for the Huskers. I think Nebraska will give a good account, but I like Oklahoma by a touchdown.
Vinny: I agree. This is going to be a game into the fourth quarter, but Oklahoma holds on by at least a touchdown.
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|Visitor||Spread||Home||Vinny Says||Russell Says|
|Central Michigan||-3||Ohio||Central Michigan||Ohio|
|Southern Miss||+4.5||Houston||Southern Miss||Houston|
|Wake Forest||+2.5||Georgia Tech||Georgia Tech||Wake Forest*|
|Rutgers||+8||West Virginia||West Virginia||Rutgers|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
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369 comments, Last at 04 Dec 2006, 1:20pm by Fourth