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?
28 Sep 2006
by Vinny Gauri and Russell Levine
Russell: Well Vin, missed you in Ann Arbor last week. You missed a lot of rain, one kinda-dull football game, some unbelievable BBQ off the smoker at the postgame party, and the priceless looks on the faces of the Michigan State fans watching their team implode against Notre Dame Saturday night at the sports bar.
Vinny: What about the tribute to Michael Jackson by the Michigan Marching Band, complete with simulated moonwalks? Have they no shame? It's really just a matter of time before the Ode to The Human League...
Russell: Well I guess that's not all you missed ... there was couple months of liver damage packed into a single weekend, and a Sunday morning recovery sandwich from the Maize and Blue. My choice: the "Where's Bo?" Fried egg and pastrami. Mmmm.
Vinny: Way to twist the knife, Russ. As I've mentioned before in this space, I never liked you.
Russell: Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks are back on Thursday Night Football, where they opened their season with a road shutout of Mississippi State. The competition's a little tougher this time around.
Vinny: Columbia should be rocking this evening. I actually spent a good deal of time there this summer for work, and while it's a fairly dumpy town (especially for a state capital), you can get a great Southern-style meal at Mr. Friendly's.
Russell: Do you get a free side of grits with that plug, Vin? Auburn hammered South Carolina last season, 48-7, so you figure Spurrier should have no trouble getting his troops fired up for this one. I'm not sure it's going to matter. Auburn is coming off a "meh" 38-7 win over Buffalo and knows it could use a woodshed job on national TV to make its case to hold onto its no. 2 ranking.
Vinny: It's been strange to watch the Ol' Ball Coach become Lou Holtz. The cockiness he had in Gainesville is long gone. You can set your watch to his weekly presser quotes about how his Gamecocks are overmatched.
Russell: Kenny Irons should be back at tailback for the Tigers. He'll have a big night and Auburn's defense will throw a blanket over quarterback Syvelle Newton and receiver Sidney Rice, who hooked up for five scoring passes last week. The Tigers win big.
Vinny: Irons -- who transferred from South Carolina -- is the only Auburn player to have played in Williams-Brice Stadium, which is underrated as far as home field advantages (and noise) go. Auburn's other Irons, cornerback David, will draw the duties of shadowing Rice around the field. This is a tough call, but I'm not sold on Brandon Cox in tough road environments. I'll take South Carolina and the points.
Russell: Boise State is venturing away from the blue turf of Bronco Stadium to take on Utah of the Mountain West, a league Boise State has never lost to (11-0 all-time). I'm not sure this Boise team is as strong as some recent editions, especially not after struggling with Hawaii at home last week.
Vinny: Boise State back Ian Johnson kept right on rolling against the Warriors though, with 178 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries.
Russell: Utah was pretty much forgotten in the mid-major BCS bowl conversation after opening with a loss to UCLA, but the Utes are on a roll since then, posting three straight routs. Believe it or not, some people think with the new rules, Utah could still sneak into a BCS game at 11-1. Either way, this game is critical for both teams.
Vinny: Yep, with Utah taking on TCU next Saturday night, this is kind of the start of an elimination round-robin for the mid-majors hoping to make a BCS game. And we can't talk about Utah without mentioning cornerback Eric Weddle, who had three interceptions, three touchdowns, and half a sack in the Utes' 38-7 rout of San Diego State. I know that's the equivalent of going up against Chico's Bail Bonds, but still...
Russell: I saw a bit of Boise on the road against Wyoming a few weeks ago, and I was not impressed. Quarterback Jared Zabransky is probably good for a few turnovers in Salt Lake City. I'm taking the Utes.
Vinny: I know the Broncos are a different (read: noticeably worse) team on the road, but I think it will be close, so I'll take the points. Boise State covers.
Russell: There are plenty of hard feelings leftover from Alabama's 31-3 humbling of the Gators last year in Tuscaloosa. One need look further than the college football blogosphere for many examples. In the interests of equal time, and of plugging a couple of great blogs, we've invited Warren St. John, diehard Alabama fan and author of the fantastic Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer and the blog of the same name, and Orson Swindle, Florida fan and author of the hilarious Every Day Should Be Saturday for their opinions on this one.
Warren St. John: Should Florida beat Alabama this weekend? Considering the much improved Florida defensive line and the very much improved play of Chris Leak and the Gators running game, the answer is a resounding yes. Will Florida beat Alabama this weekend? Nope.
Silly homer, you're probably thinking. Okay, guilty as charged. But before you dismiss my optimism out of hand, consider: Alabama leads the nation in the not insignificant statistic of time of possession. The Tide held the ball for 40 minutes against the Hogs in last Saturday's loss. The last time Bama held such commanding leads in TOP was in 1999, when they beat the Gators twice and won the SEC championship.
But about Arkansas, you say: you guys lost. Sad but true. You can't miss three field goals and an extra point on the road in the S.E.C. and hope to win. But look for the recovering Christensen to kick this weekend; the same Christensen who beat Tennessee, Ole Miss and Texas Tech last year on last-second kicks. And look for the Tide to patiently chew up the clock with Kenneth Darby and Jimmy Johns, while unleashing the heave to Keith Brown and DJ Hall on the inevitable 3rd-and -7s, which so far this year haven't caused QB John Parker Wilson to flinch.
Last year in this space, I think I remarked on the purported supernatural powers of Urban Meyer. Perhaps this is the year Urban Meyer gets the circuit board in his magic wand working properly -- his second year is historically his best, as I recall. But methinks he wants this one too badly. If his Gators fall behind early, and then can't get on the field to get their spread-groove on, look for Alabama Man to have a swell time in Gainesville.
Orson Swindle: If you're dwelling in the murky mythos-filled world of message board as a Florida fan right now, you're likely entertaining visions of massive, total, and bloody revenge. Pits of fire ... serpents ... kind of like that really badass Marines recruiting commercial from a few years ago. The difference is in this fantasy scenario, the CGI dragon is Florida, and the hapless recruit (Alabama) is eaten alive in quick but gory snaps of our mighty jaws. In fantasy terms, a reversal of 31-3, just with the good guys walking away covered in glory and the entrails of the vanquished team.
That would be fiction. Florida has not blown a good team out without the benefit of shameless turnovers, special teams miracles, or other bolts of circumstantial lighting in years. Alabama is built to play close games, running the ball even when it doesn't work, passing effectively when they have to, and wrestling the game to the mat and making it a grappling bout of field position, turnovers, and grinding drives. In other words, what every NFL team seeks to do, which is exactly where Shula nabbed his philosophy whole sale form -- that's modern-day Alabama football, and looks and sounds a whole lot like what Bear Bryant preached.
Meyer has no problem with this, having won a similar game against a very similar team with an almost identical philosophy in the Tennessee game. The chief threat to Florida from Alabama will be the passing game, where they will get the majority of their scoring. Florida's corners aren't weak, but playing man-to-man they will give up a few plays. (Though if they give up another 70-yard slant, we will eat a whole plastic souvenir Swamp cup in two bites. Don't make us do that, Coach Strong. It won't be pretty.)
Florida will contain defensively in a close game that will satisfy only on the scoreboard, 24-20, with Leak slipping into managerial mode behind plenty of two-TE sets just as Florida did in the UT game. They'll misfire, they'll stutter, they'll make us scream oaths in strange tongues against Leak ... but in the end they'll win by attrition in a 24-20 kind of bout.
One absolute certainty: both teams will go for it on fourth down, since the kickers of both teams seem to have contracted simultaneous neuromuscular infections. The team that leans on their kicker falls in the mythic pit of fire we were talking about earlier.
Russell: If you're scoring at home, that's two picks for Alabama, plus the 13.5.
Vinny: Wow, how am I supposed to compete with that? I'll try. Umm, the Gators are supposed to don some 1966 throwback jerseys for this one. For their sake, I hope it works better than when Notre Dame breaks out their green unis.
Russell: You know Florida is still smarting from the beat-down it took last year. This season, the Gators appear to have the superior team, but they can't afford to take the Tide lightly with the meat of the SEC schedule yet to come. This will by far the toughest test for 'Bama on the season, and I'm not sure I believe the Tide can move the ball consistently against the Florida defense, ranked eighth overall in the nation.
Vinny: The Swamp crowd has been pretty hard on Leak, who leads the nation with 12 touchdown tosses. Leak was even getting booed during the Kentucky game last week. That is, unless the crowd was saying "Boo-urns."
Russell: I like Florida in this game, but the spread's too rich for me. Alabama's defense will slow down the Gators enough. I'm taking 'Bama and the points.
Vinny: John Parker Wilson -- sounds like he should be a general in the Confederate Army or a molasses mogul from Memphis -- had a very solid game last week throwing to Hall and Keith Brown (arguably the best receiving tandem in the SEC). Still, I'm betting the Arkansas game took a lot out of the Tide. Last year's beatdown by 'Bama was the first time these schools had played each other since 1999, but I think this becomes more of a rivalry after Florida returns the favor with a home rout.
Russell: Dennis Franchione is off to a good start as he tries to hang onto his job as head coach of Texas A&M. The Aggies are 4-0 in the creampuff portion of their schedule -- their best win coming over Army two weeks ago -- but close with Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas. After this game, they should have a better idea if they can actually compete in the Big 12.
Vinny: The Citadel, Army, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana Tech ... is there anyone other than the military and Katrina sufferers that Franchione would like to kick while they're down? Did he turn down the offer of a home-and-home with the Des Moines School for the Deaf??
Russell: You know it's bad when Texas Tech has a tougher non-conference slate than you do. For A&M, Stephen McGee has been a pleasant surprise, taking over for longtime starting quarterback Reggie McNeal. McGee has yet to throw an interception (against six touchdown passes) and is also capable of a big day running the ball.
Russell: On paper, A&M is much improved against the pass, but it's hard to judge what that means when the opposition so far has been the Citadel, Louisiana-Lafayette, Army, and Louisiana Tech. In other words, Texas Tech's spread offense will be their first real test. Tech failed its first tough test this year, falling at TCU. I don't like their chances in College Station. Franchione keeps the alums happy for another week. A&M wins.
Vinny: I don't know why I'm casting my lot with the Red Raiders after they were shut down and field-goaled to death by TCU a couple weeks back. Maybe because I look forward to hail, too.
Russell: This game isn't getting nearly the attention of this weekend's other matchup of ranked teams (Ohio State-Iowa), but perhaps it should. Georgia Tech has hung tough since letting Notre Dame escape from Atlanta with a narrow win in the season opener. More importantly, the coaching staff has remembered to just throw the ball to Calvin Johnson, perhaps the nation's best player, period. If you haven't seen this guy play, make sure you tune in to watch #21 in white. He's big, fast, strong, and has amazing hands. He's also probably going to be a top-three pick in the next NFL draft if he comes out following his junior season.
Vinny: And he really should, although I'll agree to stop saying that if people stop saying that to Alan Branch...
Russell: I think college coaches are guilty of forgetting sometimes just how dominant a superstar can be at the college ranks. In the NFL, even the worst players were among the best collegiate athletes. But for Johnson, most weeks he's lining up across from guys who have no prayer of covering him. If I'm Georgia Tech, I'm throwing him the ball about 15 times a game, minimum.
Vinny: Reggie Ball still isn't the most accurate passer around (51 percent in 2006, about his career average), but he's cutting down on his picks so far this year (3 interceptions against 7 touchdowns). Of course, the Hokies will have the best defense he's played thus far, by far. On the other side, redshirt sophomore Sean Glennon's numbers are decent but he hasn't faced anything resembling John Tenuta's blitzkrieg defense yet. As you would expect, the Hokies would like to hand off to tailback Branden Ore early and often.
Russell: Virginia Tech, meanwhile is a quiet No. 11 in the polls. But disciplinary matters have reappeared in Hokie-ville, as coach Frank Beamer has suspended starting defensive end Chris Ellis and wide receiver Josh Morgan for this game. I don't think it'll matter, I simply don't trust Ball on the road. I'm taking VaTech.
Vinny: Morgan was reportedly punching a truck at around 2 a.m. Who does he think he is, Mongo? Ball is a senior, and I think he'll step up in the tough Blacksburg environment. Georgia Tech covers.
Russell: This is the most interesting line of the week, as all signs point to a comfortable Oregon victory. What do the sports books know that I don't (not that it's a short list)? Oregon has had a week off to rest and recover from its emotional, referee-aided win over Oklahoma, while Arizona State got waxed at Cal, 49-21.
Vinny: Oregon is 11-1 after bye weeks under Mike Bellotti. Meanwhile, junior weakside linebacker A.J. Tuitele, who's been all over the field in reserve duty, will get his first start for the Ducks. He's stepping in for senior Brent Haberly, who broke his arm in the first half against the Sooners.
Russell: Oregon's offense appears to be hitting its stride with quarterback Dennis Dixon and tailback Jonathan Stewart each enjoying big days against the Sooners. Arizona State's Dirk Koetter, meanwhile, has to be wondering if he picked the wrong quarterback in naming Rudy Carpenter the starter over the since-transferred Sam Keller. Carpenter was awful last week against Cal.
Vinny: It hasn't helped that the Sun Devils graduated (I hope) three experienced receivers in the prolific Derek Hagan, Matt Miller and Moey Mutz (no, I didn't make that up). It's not easy to throw some inexperienced receivers in there and expect Carpenter to have the same success this year. Still, Koetter has noted that Carpenter's mechanics are a bit off from last year (throwing off his back foot, etc.).
Russell: Unless there's cosmic-payback in store for the Ducks coming off the gift from the Pac-10 refs in the Oklahoma game, I can't see them losing here. I'm taking Oregon, and making this my Fred Edelstein Lock.
Vinny: Yeah, things are definitely going in opposite directions for these teams. The Ducks cover (also my Freddy of the Week).
Russell: Having finally seen our Wolverines up close and in person last week, I can firmly say that I'm a believer in the new defense. Granted, nobody's going to confuse Wisconsin's offense with Louisville anytime soon, but Michigan didn't let the Badgers breathe in the second half, completing dominating the game until garbage time. Michigan is getting tremendous push up front, led by Alan Branch, is swarming to the ball, and appears to have cured the tackling woes of the past few years.
Vinny: Rumors that cornerback Morgan Trent broke his hand last week have been debunked, which is good for Michigan considering the Gophers come into this game more pass-happy than usual. Tight end Matt Spaeth and wideout Logan Payne are very capable targets for Bryan Cupito.
Russell: Michigan's run defense, which leads the nation at a ridiculous 18.5 yards per game (remember, in college, yards lost on sacks are counted in the rushing totals), will get a good test in the Metrodome. Minnesota no longer has a pair of NFL tailbacks, but they still have a good offensive line paving the way for Amir Pinnix.
Vinny: Michigan State's flag-planting in South Bend last year got a lot of play, but the Gophers did the same thing in Ann Arbor after reclaiming the Brown Jug for the first time in about 20 years. Apparently, the Jug has made its way around Minneapolis like the Stanley Cup, with people getting their picture taken with it and everything. I'm not sure if I'm annoyed or amused by this.
Russell: I'll go with (b) Amused. You have to like the Chad Henne/Mario Manningham combo going against the soft Minnesota pass defense, which was bombed by Cal. Manningham has 11 catches for 240 yards and five touchdowns the past two weeks. Those numbers will look even better after this one. Michigan gets a rare easy game against the Gophers and covers.
Vinny: Cal and Purdue also had big days on the ground against the Minnesota defense, which bodes well for Mike Hart. The Wolverines reclaim the Jug with a big win.
Russell: Even though I just warned against it, you have to assume the Buckeyes will be 11-0 facing Michigan if they get by this game. Yes, there's the matter of a trip to Michigan State in a few weeks, but for all we know the Spartans will be well into their typical fetal position by then.
Vinny:. Like Williams-Brice, Kinnick Stadium is another underrated home field advantage. I was there last year for the first time and that's about as loud as I've ever heard a home crowd. And this is a night game against the top-ranked team in the country, the same team that crushed Iowa 31-6 last year. I think Hawkeye players and fans alike will be sufficiently motivated (and in the latter case, lubricated). Of course, the Buckeyes still remember the beating they took at Kinnick in 2004.
Russell: I haven't been overly impressed by Iowa this season. I only put them back on my BlogPoll ballot this week, and I still don't know if they're good enough to challenge a team like Ohio State. The answer to that question might have something to do with Drew Tate, who will give Ohio State a harder time than Texas's Colt McCoy or Penn State's Anthony Morelli.
Vinny: Tate seems to have shown no ill effects after missing the Syracuse game with an abdominal strain. Regardless, I don't think Iowa's defense can slow down Antonio Pittman, who racked up over 170 yards in Ohio State's rout in Columbus last year.
Russell: Don't let the final score of the Penn State game fool you. Ohio State was in a battle late into the game last week before Morelli started passing out interceptions and handed the Buckeyes, and their fans, the ultimate back-door cover. The Buckeyes need to play much better this week, and that includes Troy Smith who was pedestrian other than one highlight-reel touchdown against Penn State. I think Iowa puts together a complete game Saturday night. I'm not saying the Hawkeyes win, but I'll take Iowa and the touchdown.
Vinny: This is right about the time of the year when the Buckeye offense usually gets untracked. Ohio State covers.
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|Visitor||Spread||Home||Vinny Says||Russell Says|
|Auburn||-13.5||South Carolina||South Carolina||Auburn|
|Boise State||+4||Utah||Boise State||Utah|
|Texas Tech||+1.5||Texas A&M||Texas Tech||Texas A&M|
|Georgia Tech||+9||Virginia Tech||Georgia Tech||Virginia Tech|
|Ohio State||-7||Iowa||Ohio State||Iowa|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
154 comments, Last at 04 Oct 2006, 5:08pm by Travis