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?
12 Oct 2006
by Vinny Gauri and Russell Levine
Russell: Well Vin, we've just about hit the midpoint of the season, and you're coming in red-hot, with a gaudy 14-2 record the past two weeks. And I reversed my 2-6 mark of two weeks ago with a 6-2 last week to put us both solidly over .500 after six weeks. In grand FO tradition, I've done a little Excel magic on our results and learned the following: When we agree on a game, we're 17-11 and 2-1 on our Edelstein locks. You've got the slight edge on me when we disagree, 11-9 vs. my 9-11.
Vinny: If that's not a kibosh, I don't know what is. Nice work, Russ. Hello, 0-8.
Russell: Now I realize it would be really bad karma to say something stupid like "so much for the Vinny/Russell Universe Altering Suck Curse" or whatever it was called by readers last year. Oops.
Vinny: This looks suspiciously like a cover story for when our picks go up in flames this week.
Russell: Maybe. But in an attempt to keep the good times rolling, I was doing a little extra prep work watching ESPNU's coaches show Tuesday night, when I saw this on the news crawl at the bottom of the screen "Bevo XIII, a champion steer and the longest serving Texas mascot (1988-2004) has died at age 22." I'm so glad I know that.
Vinny: I noticed that Lawrence Phillips was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon for driving his Honda Accord into a bunch of kids after his team lost a pickup football game near the L.A. Coliseum last year. What is it with tailbacks going postal in the shadow of the stadiums where they once starred? The Phillips story is sadder because his team somehow lost the game. Plus, you have to give Mo Clarett the nod for ditching the sweater vest in favor of the Kevlar.
Russell: Agreed. Alright, let's get this going so we can get to Happy Valley in time for some Saturday tailgating.
Russell: Virginia Tech is at The Heights Thursday night trying to reclaim some of its dignity after being de-pantsed at home in its last outing against Georgia Tech on Sept. 30. Both teams had a week off to prepare for this one.
Vinny: It was strange to watch the Hokies give up a blocked punt to Georgia Tech, since they're usually on the giving end of that kick to that groin. Meanwhile, Boston College managed to squeak by Maine 22-0 in its last contest. The Eagles have been licking their wounds after a last-second home loss to NC State a few weeks back. BC quarterback Matt Ryan has come up big in the track meets but had a rough day in an ugly game against the Wolfpack. BC linebacker/fullback Brian Toal should be back from his latest shoulder injury in a greater role this week.
Russell: Virginia Tech looked ill-prepared to play against the Yellow Jackets. Georgia Tech basically has one weapon -- receiver Calvin Johnson. This just in -- he's good. Yet the Hokies sorta kinda forgot to cover him on a couple of early plays and found themselves behind by three touchdowns before they'd even broken a sweat. Don't pay too much attention to quarterback Scott Glennon's numbers in that game, you could throw for 339 yards when you put the ball up 53 times.
Vinny: Well, Boston College has the ACC's worst pass defense, so that should help Glennon. Poor blitz pickups won't help though, and tailback Brandon Ore did that twice last time out, leading to Glennon getting blindsided and stripped of the ball each time. One was a complete whiff by Ore, the other was just a poor choice between two blitzers.
Russell: Boston College's kicker will be playing his first game. Not his first game at Boston College, his first football game. Ever. Doesn't exactly bode well for the Eagles in a close game. Still, I'm partial to BC as a home 'dog here. This team did beat Clemson after all, and the double-OT BYU win looks a little better after BYU's subsequent rout of TCU. I'm taking BC and the points.
Vinny: True, I have no idea why Virginia Tech is ranked and BC isn't. The Hokies have a silly-good record on Thursday nights under Frank Beamer, but that's not good enough for me. The Eagles are the pick.
Russell: If you're wondering why we're picking this game, blame me. I felt strongly that the Temple phenomenon must be addressed at some point. This may be the worst Division I-A team of all time. You have to wonder why they haven't disbanded the program. The Owls have been so non-competitive, the Vegas casinos are considering refusing to take bets on them. Instead, they just push the lines higher and higher to see if they can find any takers.
Vinny: Well, they have a taker here. At least a figurative one. I know I'm not supposed to pick a team right away, and Temple puts the "b-r-u" in b-r-u-t-a-l, but I've made up my mind: there is absolutely no way I'm picking a team giving over seven touchdowns to the other team.
Russell: Having played a couple of years of high school football for a woefully bad team, I feel for the Temple players. Playing bad football isn't any easier on the body, you still work hard, get beat up in practice, then go out and get your head kicked in. Seems like something goes wrong early and things just snowball. I don't know why the players put themselves through it. The opposition certainly doesn't get any easier this week, as Clemson comes in on a roll.
Vinny: This is the kind of game that is always fun to bet in a sports book. Just sit back and root for the little guys.
Russell: Strategic analysis is really kind of pointless in a game like this. Clemson is going to crush Temple, the only question is by how much. Tommy Bowden doesn't exactly strike me as the most compassionate coach and I'm not sure he'll call off the dogs. I'll lay the huge number on the Tigers.
Vinny: I'm sticking with Temple.
Russell: Rutgers may be the ranked team in this matchup, but it's Navy that's the slight favorite. This is the most dangerous game on the Rutgers schedule before they get Louisville and West Virginia in the season's final month. It's good that the Scarlet Knights have had two full weeks to prepare for the Navy option game, which can make good defenses look bad. The Middies lead the nation in rushing, as usual.
Vinny: Navy completed one pass in five attempts last week against Air Force. It was good enough for a 24-17 win, but one completion. And it went for eight yards.
Russell: Rutgers can run the ball a little as well. Sophomore Ray Rice is the nation's second-leading rusher, about half a mile per game behind Garrett Wolfe of Northern Illinois. Fullback Brian Leonard was supposed to be the star in the Rutgers backfield, but he has accepted a secondary role blocking for Rice and catching screen passes. The Rutgers passing attack is limited, to be charitable, so the Knights need to continue pounding it on the ground.
Vinny: With Notre Dame next week, this is the toughest stretch of the season for Navy (no disrespect to Army intended). Whatever the results against Rutgers and the Irish, the Midshipmen can still improve on their 8-4 record from last year. And a 10-win season is still within reach. As always, a tip of the cap to coach Paul Johnson.
Russell: Rutgers's success has been building for a few years. The difference so far this season is that the Knights are learning how to win the close games they always used to lose and avoid the letdowns. I think the trend continues here, as Rutgers will grind out a low-scoring win to become bowl eligible two weeks before Halloween.
Vinny: Navy has a veteran defense led by senior linebackers Rob Caldwell and David Mahoney. But beating Rutgers proves too tough again this year for the Middies. Give me the Men of Schiano here.
Russell: Alright, I have to admit something. I took precious little joy from last week's Michigan-Michigan State game. And I usually revel in everything bad that happens to Michigan State. But watching that comedy of errors, I felt bad for John L. Smith. Deep down, he seems like a pretty nice guy. He's also refreshingly honest, way too much so for his own good. But the look on his face last week was one of resignation. A look that said he knows he's going to get fired. A look that said he was just hoping his team would limit the idiotic mistakes. It lasted as long as the opening kickoff, when MSU's return man hesitated way too long in the end zone, and was tackled inside his own 10. And it got worse from there.
Vinny: Well, at least it wasn't a choke job. John L. would secure some modicum of job security with an upset of the top-ranked Buckeyes on Saturday. And Ohio State fans remember the Spartans' 1998 upset of an undefeated, 28-point favorite John Cooper team. No, I'm not going out of my way just to mention Cooper in this space. Cooper.
Russell: I know Michigan State is usually good for one over-its-head performance per year (usually to be followed by a string of embarrassing blowout losses). I know they were dominating Ohio State in the 'shoe last year before the ill-fated "the coaches are screwing it up!" field goal just before halftime. I know I'm supposed to believe they can play with the Buckeyes. But I can't. I won't say the team has quit, but it's sure edging towards indifference.
Vinny: Drew Stanton is still playing his guts out, but it would really help if tailback Javon Ringer wasn't lost for the season with a knee injury. Jehuu Caulcrick is a beast to tackle, but Ringer was much more effective on the counter draws that are a staple of the Spartan offense. Now receiver Matt Trannon is out and defensive tackle Clifton Ryan will play but has missed some practice. And the Sparties are still short-handed at tight end thanks to suspensions.
Russell: Ohio State meanwhile, is rolling. They have a formula: get up early, punish opposition mistakes, and shift into Tressell-ball mode. It's worked against every opponent thus far, and should continue to work until the final game against you-know-who. Personally, I'd love nothing better than for the Buckeyes to remain on cruise control until November 18. Maybe they can even get some of the USC tongue-bath treatment from the Worldwide Leader. Their challenge is coming. But not this week. The Buckeyes cruise, and this is my Freddy Lock.
Vinny: Yeah, I think Troy Smith racks up a few more highlights to add to his Heisman portfolio against the Sparties' porous defense. (Just a reminder: the November 17 deadline to have Smith accept your cash payment is fast approaching). OSU rolls (my Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week as well).
Russell: Nobody has snuck up on the field thus far this season, like Missouri which is off to a 6-0 start despite losing Brad Smith to graduation. Bigger tests remain, but a win over Texas A&M will put a few more believers in the Missouri corner.
Vinny: Missouri is probably the most anonymous undefeated team left, something that probably won't change until the Tigers beat one of the Big 12 heavyweights, a list that does not contain Texas A&M.
Russell: A&M is 5-1 but hasn't beaten anyone with a pulse. The record aside, I'm on record as saying Dennis Franchione is in trouble. They aren't paying him $2 million a year for a .500 career record in College Station. With Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas still to come, Franchione needs this one. To get it, the Aggies need to play some ball control, grinding the clock with Jorvorskie Lane. Jorvorski might just be my new favorite name in college football.
Vinny: What about Missouri defensive end Xzavie Jackson? He took an interception back for a touchdown against Texas Tech last week. Of course, both take a back seat to Jim Bob Cooter, but still, a couple of strong entries on the all-name team in this one.
Russell: Smith's replacement at Mizzou, Chase Daniel, has been terrific leading a balanced offense for the Tigers. Missouri should be able to run some on the Aggies, who have been gashed on the ground with regularity this year. If the safeties come up, Daniel has the ability to go over the top. Missouri is the better all-around team. The Tigers win going away. Then again, the Aggies do have this going for them:
Hat tip: Every Day Should be Saturday
Vinny: Uh, I was wavering, but on second thought, put me down for Mizzou
Russell: This line fascinates me. Miami, which doesn't appear to be able to score on anyone in Division I-A, is a four touchdown favorite over 0-6 Florida International.
Vinny: FIU is practically a I-AA team, don't forget that.
Russell: True, but the Panthers (betcha didn't know that) are coached by former Dolphins super-sub QB Don Strock. How much nostalgia is he going to feel strolling onto the Orange Bowl field. If FIU falls behind 24-0 in the first half, look for Strock to call the hook-and-ladder play.
Vinny: You're really reaching. FIU does have some talent, especially linebacker Keyonvis Bouie, who leads the Sun Belt in tackles. But the Panthers are no match for Miami's athleticism. The 'Canes should be able to score whether or not Kyle Wright struggles as usual.
Russell: I passed on Temple and the six TDs, but this one's too tempting. FIU has lost a bunch of close games, including a seven-OT affair to North Texas last week that featured four missed field goals in the extra sessions. FIU doesn't need a kicker to cover this spread though.
Vinny: I'm going to regret this but I'll take Miami. They have to wake up sooner or later, right?
Russell: Florida seems to have made believers of the pollsters this week, moving up to #2 in the AP poll after beating LSU at home last week. Not that it matters in the BCS; Florida is third in both the coaches poll and the Harris poll behind USC.
Vinny: Florida gets no love from the oddsmakers either, as they are a slight underdog at Auburn, despite the fact that the Gators just keep taking care of business in the SEC and Auburn got run out of the stadium by Arkansas last Saturday. I just don't get it.
Russell: Tough to figure the SEC. I was debating this with our buddy GatorGriff earlier in the week. I think Florida is the class of the conference, with Tennessee a shade below. To me, there's another step down to Auburn (who have they beaten?), LSU (same question) and Georgia (no offense).
Vinny: I'm in agreement. Florida can certainly run the table and reach the BCS championship. This is probably the toughest remaining test, coming off back-to-back big home games and taking on an Auburn defense that matches up better against the Gators than it did the Razorbacks.
Russell: I like the way Urban Meyer is using his two quarterbacks. He spent five weeks duping everyone into thinking the only thing Tim Tebow can do is run up the middle on short yardage. Then last week, he pulls up twice to throw TD passes. He also ran for a score. I didn't like the look of the Auburn effort last week. Not much fight while Arkansas was running the ball down the Tigers' throats. I'm sticking with the team on a roll: Florida.
Vinny: You have to like the way Chris Leak has handled sharing time with Tebow. Leak has always struck me as a pretty class act, and it's clear he's buying into Meyer's system. That's key to keeping the peace. I like Florida here, even though Jordan-Hare Stadium has been a personal house of horrors for the Gators (8-24-1 all-time).
Russell: The Wolverines return to Happy Valley for the first time since 2001, when they handed JoePa the only home shutout of his career. More importantly, you and I return to Happy Valley for the first time since witnessing an amazing, Tom Brady-led comeback in 1999. I don't know about you Vin, but this is my favorite road trip in the Big Ten. Penn State fans are good folks, class acts all the way and State College is great place to spend a weekend. And now that tickets have been procured, I don't have to resort to begging in this space. But anyone's whose going to be tailgating, drop us an email at adventure-at-footballoutsiders-dot-com. Penn State fans, we promise to behave ourselves.
Vinny: Of course. I plan to bring a giant Publisher's Clearinghouse-type check for Dave Parry, the Big Ten's supervisor of officials. After all, buying off the refs is the only way Michigan beats Penn State every year, right? Just kidding, well sort of.
Russell: OK, I take that back. I promise to behave myself. The big news of course is that Michigan's Mario Manningham, who leads the nation with nine touchdown receptions, is out with a knee injury. The news sent Michigan fans into panic mode on Monday, not just for this game, but for the rest of the season. FO injury expert Will Carroll feels Manningham will not only be back in time for Ohio State, but should be close to 100%.
Vinny: I couldn't believe the hype on the Manningham news. I even saw "Michigan WR Manningham Out for Penn State" flashing above the electronic billboard of a taxicab on my way home from work this week. I think Adrian Arrington can make the same plays Manningham has been making. But that's only if PSU secondary coach Tom Bradley gets out of the deep zones he's been employing. Chad Henne has been en fuego with the deep ball lately.
Russell: Manningham's absence definitely takes some sting out of the Michigan attack, but I still like the matchups here. Anthony Morrelli will make a few plays down the field against man coverage, but he'll also throw several balls up grabs. Michigan contains Tony Hunt and the Penn State ground game and gets enough out of Steve Breaston and Adrian Arrington to win by at least a touchdown. The Wolverines are the pick.
Vinny: Michigan and Penn State have two of the best linebacking groups in the country. Both secondaries are vulnerable, but Michigan has a decided edge with their defensive front four. I think Michigan kickers Garret Rivas and Zoltan Mesko plus Breaston in the return game will give Michigan the edge in a down-to-the-wire affair. So I like Michigan to win, but Penn State to cover.
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|Visitor||Spread||Home||Vinny Says||Russell Says|
|Virginia Tech||-2.5||Boston College||Boston College||Boston College|
|Ohio State||-15||Michigan State||Ohio State*||Ohio State*|
|Florida International||+28.5||Miami (Fla.)||Miami (Fla.)||Florida International|
|Michigan||-6.5||Penn State||Penn State||Michigan|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
153 comments, Last at 16 Oct 2006, 7:09pm by Kevin11