Critical games this weekend in the Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC could go a long way in determining conference championships -- and maybe even playoff berths.
06 Oct 2006
by Vinny Gauri and Russell Levine
Russell: So Vin, 8-0. How does it feel?
Vinny: Fleeting. It's like when you were in seventh grade, and the prettiest girl in school decided to eat lunch next to you in the cafeteria. You knew you should relish it, because you knew the next day you'd be back to eating lunch with one of the burn-outs from auto shop and the girl with the head gear. I'm speaking hypothetically, of course.
Russell: Of course. Well, I can tell you how 2-6 feels: familiar. After such a promising start to the season, I'm barely hanging on to a .500 record after that stinker.
Vinny: I can empathize. After all, I went 1-7 just one week earlier. I think the fact that it always seems like fall here in the Bay Area is really messing with my usual 4-4 or 3-5 mediocrity. Instead, I'm tending to the extremes. That's my theory anyway. Meanwhile, it rained here for the first time in six months yesterday. I have no idea what that means for my record this week, but it's probably not good.
Russell: This week's eight-game slate has a full six home underdogs. I'm hoping that will help me get back on track. You know how I love those home 'dogs.
Vinny: Speaking of which...
Russell: With Syracuse actually playing like a living, breathing football team and Illinois having knocked off Michigan State, I think that leaves Indiana and Duke to fight for the title of "Worst BCS Conference Team in America." I'm sure all the Syracuse alums are proud to be off the list.
Vinny: After the last few years, I don't think there is much pride left for the alums. Still, Syracuse freshman tailback Delone Carter was impressive last week with 129 yards and four touchdowns in only 20 carries in the double overtime win over Wyoming.
Russell: Syracuse might actually be garnering some national attention if not for its failure to score in seven consecutive snaps from the Iowa two-yard line in OT a couple weeks ago. Who was calling those plays, Pop Warner?
Vinny: It sure wasn't Norm Chow, whom Syracuse Athletic Director Darryl Gross interviewed a few years ago. Instead, Gross hired Robinson, the same guy who was canned by Mike Shanahan and Dick Vermeil, and whom Mack Brown was happy to replace with Gene Chizik. Easy to second guess (that's why I'm doing it), but then Chow hasn't worked wonders with the Tennessee Titans' offense yet either.
Russell: It's been an up-and-down year for the Wannstache and Pitt already. They were waxed by Michigan State three weeks ago but coming back to spank a decent Toledo team, 45-3, last week. Tyler @#$%ing Palko has only thrown five incomplete passes the last two weeks and has been taking care of the ball all season. I think Pitt has enough offense to beat Syracuse on the road. I'll take the Panthers.
Vinny: What happened to the home 'dog? Not that I disagree. Pitt seems to have a ground game coming together and that has taken some pressure off Palko. Pitt covers in the dome.
Russell: Oh those missed extra points. Clemson might be getting some serious national-title run if not for a flubbed PAT in overtime against Boston College. Instead, the Tigers are trying to fight their way through the loser's bracket, not an easy task in a down year for the ACC.
Vinny: Clemson probably has the ACC's best offensive line, led by Roman and Dustin Fry (no relation) and left tackle Barry Richardson, who shut down NC State's Mario Williams last season -- okay, that doesn't sound as impressive anymore.
Russell: Wake Forest, meanwhile, has inherited from Purdue the title of team with the sketchiest undefeated record. The Deacons' 5-0 mark includes a 14-13 win over Duke -- at home no less. Can they hang with Clemson, which has put 103 points on the board the past two weeks?
Vinny: Probably not. It's unlikely that any of Wake's victims thus far this year will end up with even a .500 record. This is a big step up for redshirt freshman quarterback Riley Skinner and his teammates. He'll be getting a steady dose of Clemson senior defensive end Gaines Adams.
Russell: Clemson had three 100-yard rushers in its 51-0 laugher over Louisiana Tech last week. Things won't be quite that easy, but they won't have much trouble with Wake, either. I like the Tigers to cover the big number.
Vinny: So far, Russ, you've passed on two road 'dogs. It is hard to go against Clemson here, but I think Jim Grobe will get the most out of his players, as usual, and that Wake finds a way to make it close enough.
Russell: Is either of these teams any good? Are they fighting for the Citrus Bowl or the Sun Bowl? This game will help us find out. Penn State and Minnesota are a combined 0-4 against teams with an actual pulse, so both remain somewhat of a mystery at this point. Penn State especially has looked shaky, leading to lots of those "I knew JoePa should have gone out on top last year" feelings.
Vinny: To be fair to the ol' coot, this was going to be something of a rebuilding year with all of the youth on this team. The only position groups with significant experience are running back, wide receiver, and linebacker. Paterno seems to have the Nitts built for a title run every few years, e.g., 1994, 1997, 1999,
2003, 2002, 2005. This isn't one of those years.
Russell: I was actually fairly impressed with Minnesota's approach against Michigan last week. Though clearly outmatched, Glen Mason came up with a smart gameplan, going with lots of quick passes to avoid the Michigan pass rush. The Gophers also managed to do something no other opponent has done against Michigan this year: run the ball, as Amir Pinnix had a solid night.
Vinny: Minnesota's Logan Payne is a very good receiver, but he is hands-down the biggest whiner in the Big Ten (insert your own retort involving Lloyd Carr here!) and has to be in the top five in the country. He seems to constantly have that pained, incredulous expression on his face while trying to get a call from an official. It's reminiscent of former Duke shooting guard (and current assistant coach) Chris Collins.
Russell: Either him, or Brian Davis. Who could forget his face after the Kentucky game in 1991? And how is that guy buying an NBA team? I must be doing something wrong. Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli seems OK against the patsies, but he's been awful against better competition. I think part of the problem is that Penn State hasn't taken the wraps off him enough, but regardless, there's no way I'm going to trust a shaky quarterback as a road favorite in a conference game. Prices for Oct. 14 Michigan-Penn State tickets will fall a little further after this one (Have any to sell? Contact me: Russell-at-footballoutsiders-dot-com). Minnesota wins outright.
Vinny: We can only hope. The Gophers always seem to give Penn State problems, especially in Happy Valley. I know this is in the Hefty Dome, but the rule still applies. I like Minnesota as my Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week.
Russell: This should be a fun one. Nobody runs the option anymore except the academies, and it's always fun to watch them try to win without ever putting the ball in the air.
Vinny: It's definitely a novelty of sorts, although it's remarkable to watch the execution. And when you watch major programs butcher the option play in short-yardage situations, it's all the more impressive.
Russell: Navy is in its standard place atop the nation's rushing leaders, grinding out 357 yards a game behind quarterback Brian Hampton. Air Force ranks third, and also relies on its quarterback, Shaun Carney, to be the triggerman for its offense. Given that these teams face the option almost exclusively in practice, you'd think they'd be pretty good at stopping it -- but they're not. I expect both squads to run wild in this game.
Vinny: Falcons free safety Julian Madrid was a one-man wrecking crew in Air Force's 24-7 over New Mexico last week. He had eight tackles (five solo), two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble.
Russell: It's great to see all three academies on the upswing. Navy has had a hammer lock on the Commander in Chief's Trophy in recent seasons, thanks in part to three straight wins over the Zoomies. Tempting to go with the home squad here, but I'll take Navy's slightly superior run game and the field goal.
Vinny: Zoomies? Listen to you, it's like you're hanging out with the Joint Chiefs. Navy wins outright.
Russell: The game of the day is in Gainesville, where the Gators are a rare home 'dog to LSU. Florida should probably stick with those throwback unis they wore last week against Alabama. Those things were gorgeous. But it's back to the script "Gators" and the garish orange helmets this week. Florida won a grind-it-out type game with Alabama, but I wouldn't read too much into that. Alabama is the type of team that's built to play close, ball-possession games. Florida was able to play Alabama's style and win, salting the game away on a late interception return (oh those back-door covers).
Vinny: Florida waited until Thursday night to announce the reinstatement of senior defensive tackle Marcus Thomas, who was suspended for three weeks for a violation of the school's substance abuse policy. Thomas is considered by many to be Florida's best defensive player and a top pick in April's NFL draft.
Russell: This game kicks off a killer three-week stretch that will make or break Florida's season. After LSU, Florida visits Auburn before playing Georgia in Jacksonville. LSU, meanwhile, already needs help to win the SEC thanks to its 7-3 loss at Auburn a few weeks back. I wouldn't expect a whole lot more offense in this one as both teams have outstanding defenses and struggle to run the ball.
Vinny: Yep, this could be another 7-3 battle. LSU's stellar defensive line, led by defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, might be the best in the country. Meanwhile, the Tigers are shuffling their offensive line somewhat this week with left guard Will Arnold sidelined with a knee injury.
Russell: JaMarcus Russell is off to a terrific start at quarterback for LSU, though he struggled to generate any offense against Auburn. I picked the Tigers in that road tilt and I'm going to try and learn from that mistake. I'll take the home 'dog, Florida, and its QB combo of Chris Leak/fullback-under-center Tim Tebow, to knock off LSU.
Vinny: I've been to the Swamp and despite its reputation for deafening noise, if the visiting team can get out to an early lead, the crowd can be neutralized. Hey, they're human (insert SEC crowd joke here!). This will be close enough that the Florida fans will be involved throughout. I like the Gators as well.
Russell: The Red River Rivalry doesn't matter quite as much as it has the last five years or so, as both teams come in with a loss (or in Oklahoma's case, a loss*). Still, when it's all said and done, this game could have something to do with who plays in the BCS title game. The loser, meanwhile, is probably all but eliminated from BCS contention, as it will very tough for the Big 12 to get two bids in a down year.
Vinny: I don't think either of these teams belongs in the national title conversation this year. Still, this game gets the blood boiling like few rivalry games in the country. And Adrian Peterson will be back returning kickoffs, like he did against Oregon. There are some great return men in this game already though, with OU's Reggie Smith and Texas's Selvin Young and Jammal Charles.
Russell: OK, I know Oklahoma got screwed at Oregon. No getting around that. However, I remain rather unimpressed with the Sooners. Where is the dominating Stoops defense? Paul Thompson has been just fine, thank you, at QB. Peterson looks as good as ever. So why don't the Sooners look like a dominant team? Check that Oregon game tape again. In between a couple of gifts from the officials, Oregon shredded the Oklahoma D. Washington put up some big plays on the Sooners. UAB made them play a full 60 minutes.
Vinny: Folks in Norman are wondering if Mike Stoops was really the architect of those great Sooner defenses. Meanwhile, Texas is coming off scrimmages with Sam Houston State, Iowa State, and Rice. And they opened the season with North Texas State. Why are the Longhorns in the top 10 again? Another good case for starting the polls in October.
Russell: Agreed, Texas is also tough to get a read on. As long as your name's not Ohio State, the Longhorns look great. But they were fairly well outclassed against the Buckeyes on their home field, so it's tough to make the case that they're a title-contending team. Still, I like the matchup against Oklahoma's defense. Texas will run the ball all day and cruise to the cover, as Colt McCoy isn't asked to do too much.
Vinny: I like the Sooners and the points here. I'm just not sold on a youngster like McCoy, a redshirt freshman, in this type of game.
Russell: The other half of the SEC's Contender-style round robin on Saturday pits Tennessee and Georgia in Athens. Georgia may be the nation's most unbalanced team. Its defense is good as anyone's, but its offense is cover-your-eyes awful. Who knows who's even playing QB for the Bulldogs anymore, does it really matter?
Vinny: The Sausage King of Athens, Joe Tereshinski III, is back at the controls for Mark Richt, who has tried everything short of summoning the ghost of John Lastinger, although he's probably still alive. Georgia can attack the middle of the usually stout Tennessee defense (yielding 128 rushing yards per game), with defensive end Turk McBride moving to tackle to after losing Justin Harrell for the season.
Russell: Tennessee is probably not quite as good as the SEC's alpha dogs, Auburn, Florida, and LSU, but the Vols are clearly much improved over last season. Their Week 1 destruction of Cal grows more impressive with each passing Cal rout, and they hung with Florida for 60 minutes. Erik Ainge is playing very well under the tutelage of David Cutcliffe.
Vinny: Brandon Coutu, Georgia's standout kicker, is now out for the season with an injury to his kicking leg. But the Bulldogs are fortunate to have Andy Bailey step in. Bailey was 36-of-37 in PATs and 14-of-20 in field goals for Georgia in 2004 before losing the job to Coutu last season. How many teams have this kind of depth in their kicking game?
Russell: Good point. Is Georgia any good, or have the Bulldogs benefited from the soft early schedule and the SEC's reputation? We'll know by the time this one is over. My guess is the Vols will exit this game SEC title hopes still intact, while Georgia is going to get exposed as a team that's too one-dimensional to contend for much of anything. I like Tennessee on the road.
Vinny: Yep, Georgia's offensive struggles against some sketchy foes don't inspire confidence. The line is small enough for me to go with the Vols.
Russell: With LSU-Florida potentially turning into a tug of war, this could be the most entertaining game of the day, if not the best one. You have to wonder why nobody seems to be on the Oregon bandwagon -- the Ducks were only narrow favorites before trouncing Arizona State last week, and this week they're getting 5.5 points against a Cal team that at best appears to be an even match.
Vinny: Hey, for some crazy reason, I put Oregon in my BCS title game. Sure they got a huge break at home against the Sooners. But what national-title contender doesn't have a controversial call or lucky play go its way during the season? Colorado's fifth down at Missouri, Nebraska's Shevin Wiggins kicking the ball to teammate Matt Davison (again against Missouri), Clint Stoerner of Arkansas tripping over himself against Tennessee, etc. The list is long, but distinguished.
Russell: Cal seems to have put its Tennessee disaster firmly in the rear-view mirror, turning out four straight wins as Nate Longshore is beginning to look like the next Jeff Tedford bust at the NFL level (OK, that was a cheap shot, Aaron Rodgers isn't a bust yet). But Oregon's Dennis Dixon has been better, and while Jonathan Stewart isn't as good as Cal's Marshawn Lynch, the difference isn't that wide.
Vinny: Bears senior defensive tackle Brandon Mebane (is it just me, or will there be a lot of depth at defensive tackle in the 2007 draft?) has lived up to expectations this year. In Cal's secondary, senior corner Daymeion Hughes has to be the leading Thorpe Award candidate with five interceptions, two of which he has returned for scores.
Russell: Cal has the edge on defense, but I don't trust Longshore yet in a big game. Dixon's already proven himself in that spot (again, see the Oklahoma tape -- the officiating stuff takes nothing away from his performance). Besides Oregon's Mike Bellotti owns Cal: the Ducks have won eight of nine in the series. Make it nine of 10. The Ducks win as my Freddy Lock for the second straight week.
Vinny: This has Pac-10 shootout written all over it. And it's hard to go against the Ducks in those kinds of games. I'll also take Oregon and the points.
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
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184 comments, Last at 10 Oct 2006, 11:49am by Pat