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?
14 Sep 2006
by Russell Levine and Vin Gauri
Russell: So, we have seven games between ranked teams, plus the Bowden Bowl this week. ESPN has already dubbed it "Showdown Saturday," but I think we need our own nickname. How about "Smorgasbord Saturday?"
Vinny: Does Chris Fowler come up with these silly alliterative slogans for Saturdays in the off-season too? Like "Sacred Saturday" for his wedding day?
Russell: My typical living room setup includes monitoring two games on the main TV (on the sixth day, God invented dual tuner TiVo) plus a third on a smaller, second set that doubles as my PC. But that's not going to cut it this week, not with four key games all starting at 3:30 p.m. ET.
Vinny: What day did God invent zubaz? And couldn't he have rested on that day, too?
Russell: I don't know, but the Jets must have been playing the Dolphins. As for Saturday, there's the small matter of my son's birthday party in the morning. He rejected my suggestion of a "sports bar party." Kids these days, I swear.
Vinny: A morning birthday party? On a huge college football Saturday? Nicely done, Russ.
Russell: I thought so.
Russell: I have not been impressed with Oklahoma at all. Despite a great start from Adrian Peterson and decent quarterback play from Paul Thompson, the Sooners sweated one out against UAB, then struggled into the second half against Washington. Now they get their first road test in the hornet's nest that is Autzen Stadium.
Vinny: Ah yes, I have fond memories of Autzen. Wait, no I don't...
Russell: Oregon, meanwhile is off to an excellent start after dismantling Stanford and surviving a tough road test at Fresno State last week thanks to a late-game fake field goal call from Mike Bellotti. I don't know about you Vin, but I think Bellotti was more intimidating with the mustache.
Vinny: I guess Bellotti has ceded the "Cheesiest Mustache in the West" mantle to Fresno State's Pat Hill. Of course, we all know who wears the belt in the East. The Ducks yielded over 200 yards on the ground to the Bulldogs last week. How much will OU roll up on them?
Russell: Peterson has the potential for a big day here, but I can't trust the untested quarterback -- this will be Thompson's fourth career start -- in a hostile environment against a good team. Jonathan Stewart does enough on the ground and Dennis Dixon enough through the air for the Ducks to cover.
Vinny: Bellotti usually has his team primed for these marquee non-conference matchups in Autzen. He has a way of getting his players to play above their heads in these situations. And as we saw last week, he's pretty fearless when it comes to using the trickeration. I like the Ducks also.
Russell: If it weren't for a certain other 3:30 p.m. start on the Peacock network, my eyes would be firmly on this critical SEC game on the Plains. Both these teams could win the national title.
Vinny: Auburn's Kenny Irons was held to less than 70 yards rushing by Mississippi State last week, but Auburn still waltzed to a 34-0 rout. That's nothing to brag about, obviously.
Russell: LSU was scary good in taking Arizona and its Mike Stoops defense behind the woodshed last week, 45-3. JaMarcus Russell continues to silence any of the doubters who wanted to see him replaced as LSU's starting quarterback.
Vinny: Sometimes a position battle brings out the best in a quarterback. And LSU arguably has the best quarterback depth in the country with Matt Flynn and Ryan Perrilloux waiting in the wings. At least none of them resorted to stabbing each other to move ahead on the depth chart.
Russell: Vin, you obviously have no idea the prestige that being the starting punter at Northern Colorado carries. As for LSU-Auburn, I see these teams on basically even footing -- as do the oddsmakers, since three points is basically the home-field edge. In a situation like this, I'm going to go with the team that has more big-game experience, and to me that's LSU. Russell throws a late TD pass as LSU escapes Jordan-Hare with a win.
Vinny: Junior cornerback Jonathan Zenon was the least experienced starter in the secondary when the season began, but he's had a pick-six in each of LSU's first two games. He may extend the streak this week. Auburn's Brandon Cox has yet to come through in a big game like this, and he really struggled against LSU in an overtime loss at Baton Rouge last year. LSU wins outright.
Russell: I have no idea what to make of this game. It's not like we learned much about either team in their glorified scrimmages last week. Louisville is still plenty potent without Michael Bush, but the Cardinals probably haven't faced a defense of this caliber since the last time they played Miami -- losing a 41-38 Thursday-night classic a few years ago.
Vinny: That's when we got a glimpse of quarterback Brian Brohm, when he relieved a woozy Stefan Lefors late in the game. And it was pretty obvious that Brohm could play.
Russell: True. As for Miami, how much do we really know about its defense? Sure, the unit looked pretty terrific against Florida State, but it's possible that FSU's offense is just that bad.
Vinny: That's a strong possibility. Especially after the Noles' near debacle against Troy last Saturday. But then maybe that narrow win still qualifies as a debacle.
Russell: I know this much, Brohm is better than FSU's Drew Weatherford, and Weatherford was able to do just enough for the 'Noles to escape the Orange Bowl with a win. Sure, Louisville doesn't have FSU's defense, but I'm not sure they need it against Kyle Wright, another quarterback who has done nothing to earn trust in a big game. Bobby Petrino's agent can start lining up his next contract extension after this one: Louisville rocks Papa John's (ahh, tradition) with a win over the 'Canes.
Vinny: My head tells me to take the Cardinals, but my gut says the Miami defense will be hell-bent on keeping their anemic offense in the game. (My liver has no comment). With Brohm probably taking more five-step drops than Miami's first two opponents, defensive end Calais Campbell will have his opportunities to knock Brohm to the deck. I'll take the 'Canes and the five points.
Russell: It's about time we had a chance to discuss our Wolverines, Vin. Tell me, what are your impressions of the new coordinators after two weeks and two solid but sometimes ragged wins?
Vinny: Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord (who also had that title at Michigan from 1997-99) has been intent on keeping the ball on the ground to get as many repetitions as possible in the Wolverines' new zone blocking schemes. But this has been at the expense of Chad Henne and the receiving corps, who have looked out of sync in their limited opportunities in the passing game. On the other side of the ball, Ron English definitely has a more aggressive mindset than the dearly departed Jim Hermann.
Russell: I like the more aggressive defensive scheme, but Shawn Crable & Co. better get to Brady Quinn when they blitz. The thought of him passing against man coverage in the Michigan secondary keeps me up at night.
Vinny: Darius Walker has gashed Michigan on the edge the last few years, like a lot of other players. It will be interesting (or terrifying) to see if English's schemes can keep containment. Michigan is lighter and quicker along both lines this year, but the Irish defense is also quicker than the oft-skewered 2005 version. To that end, Charlie Weis asked captain Travis Thomas to help out on defense. By the way, the Weis press conferences are fascinating when compared to those of Lloyd Carr, who provides all the insight of Hans Moleman.
Russell: To me, the key to this game is Michael Hart. He got hurt and was a non-factor in last year's loss, and was an as-yet undiscovered freshman mired on the bench two years ago. He's healthy this time around. I haven't been impressed with Notre Dame's run defense at all. Hart will break a couple of long runs, Henne takes care of the ball, and Michigan pulls off the upset. You know the rule on the Wolverines: horrible as a big favorite, tremendous as a big 'dog.
Vinny: You know Irish defensive coordinator Rick Minter will clamp down with some safety help after Penn State had some success with the run last week. So I think the game is won or lost with the untested Michigan passing game. Frankly, with my 0-3 record as a Michigan fan in South Bend, I like the Wolverines' chances with me 2,000 miles away. Michigan wins outright.
Russell: Poor Texas Tech. Last week they pulled out an OT win at UTEP, but it's not like anybody saw it thanks to the Ohio State-Texas game going on at the same time. This week, they have another good matchup that nobody will watch because of all the other great games going on. Congratulations to Mike Leach, though, for finally graduating from the Bill Snyder school of scheduling.
Vinny: Seriously. Texas Tech scheduled two Division I-AA opponents last year. We'll see if the step up works better for Leach than it has for Glen Mason. With Texas falling at home to Ohio State last week, TCU owns the nation's longest winning streak at 12. The Horned Frogs have faced a couple of pass-heavy attacks already this year, but then the opponents were Baylor and UC-Davis, whom everyone knows as "The Other Aggies ... No ... Not Them Either..."
Russell: Texas Tech will be so much better served when it comes time to play Texas and Oklahoma for having scheduled these last two games. TCU may be the best non-BCS conference team in the nation, and will greatly boost its BCS bid chances with a win here.
Vinny: Sophomore tailback Aaron Brown leads the TCU offense (144 all-purpose yards per game) running behind preseason All-American tackle Herb Taylor.
Russell: The Red Raiders were supposed to have a legitimate defense to go along with their pass-happy offense, but I'm not sure I saw that against UTEP. If this game was in Lubbock, I'd have to go with Tech, but I can't overlook the Horned Frogs getting a field goal at home. TCU is the pick.
Vinny: The Red Raiders clobbered TCU by a count of 70-35 in Lubbock two years ago. It won't be that bad, but I think the Red Raiders cover.
Russell: Don't look now, but it's time for another edition of the Bowden Bowl in Tallahassee, where the 'Noles are reeling after very nearly losing to Troy on their home field a week ago.
Vinny: Ugh. Once again, I don't think the nation has much interest in this game. At least it's not getting hyped much with all the other marquee matchups on Saturday's slate.
Russell: Clemson also comes in licking its wounds, having lost at BC in overtime on a missed extra point last week. This year was supposed to be different for Clemson, but after two weeks, the Tigers are up to their old tricks. They look like a team that can play with anybody, but will also lose their share of those close games.
Vinny: Will Proctor played well in the loss at the Heights, going 25-of-40 for 343 yards and two TDs. And freshman phenon C.J. Spiller continued to impress, racking up over 110 yards and a touchdown on 11 touches. As you noted, the Tigers lost that game on special teams. Boston College's Jeff Smith had four long returns, including a 96-yard touchdown return.
Russell: I think the psyche of the two teams could have a huge effect on the outcome of this game. Florida State has to be breathing a sigh of relief and feeling pretty euphoric after avoiding home humiliation; Clemson is probably saying "here we go again." Plus, Papa Bowden wants a little revenge after being smacked around by son Tommy last year. I like Florida State, and I'm even making this my Fred Edelstein Lock.
Vinny: The 'Noles are nicked up on the defensive line (transfer noseguard Paul Griffin is out), so some freshmen will see time there starting this week. I don't think it matters. Florida State covers, and this is my Lock also.
Russell: This might be a good time for me to mention to all the doubters that we are 7-2 when we agree on games so far this year, including 1-0 in Edelstein Locks.
Russell: Two weeks ago, Tennessee thrashed an overrated Cal team and David Cutcliffe was hailed as the second coming for resurrecting the Vols' offense from the depths of last year's 5-6 season. "Tennessee is back" was the leading headline from Week 1. So what the heck happened last week when the Vols barely survived against Air Force at home?
Vinny: Well, I'm heartened that the Tennessee staff couldn't crack Air Force's signals. Score one for our national defense.
Russell: Florida, meanwhile, has looked very strong in its first two outings. Maybe being pushed by uber-recruit Tim Tebow is a good thing for quarterback Chris Leak, who's off to a terrific start. He looks far more comfortable in his second year in Urban Meyer's offense, and the team overall is more balanced on offense.
Vinny: Erik Ainge is putting up some eye-popping numbers at the controls of the Volunteer offense. But the Tennessee defense yielded nearly 300 yards rushing to the Falcons. Not shocking, since there's a reason nobody wants to play against Air Force's disciplined option attack. But still -- not good. Makes you wonder if Meyer will use Tebow a bit more to run some option and draw plays.
Russell: Is either of these teams for real? My money's on the Gators, who will find a way to get it done, and put Phil Fulmer right back on the hot seat he appeared to get off with the win over Cal.
Vinny: I think Florida is for real. Tennessee, though, is somewhere in between the 5-6 team from last year and the 10+ win teams of a few years ago. Ainge's numbers should tumble against what is potentially a great Florida defense led by linebacker Brandon Siler. Florida gets the big road win.
Russell: This is Nebraska's first measuring-stick game since the Alamo Bowl win over somebody I can't recall last year. The Huskers are averaging over 50 points per game after pasting Louisiana Tech and Nicholls State to open the year. Clearly, the oddsmakers agree that USC represents a significant step up in competition.
Vinny: Huskers' junior corner Andre Jones made a guarantee of sorts for this game that has been splashed across newspapers and featured on ESPN. Ballsy. Stupid, but ballsy.
Russell: The Huskers held Nicholls without a pass completion in a 56-7 game last week. I'm not sure that's the best way to prepare for USC, which may not be as explosive as the Bush-Leinart version, but which still has plenty of firepower.
Vinny: Nebraska got some bad news, especially against a Pete Carroll-schemed defense, when it learned that senior center Kurt Mann is out with a viral infection. But USC will be without nose tackle Sedrick Ellis and free safety John Pinkard, the only returning starter in the secondary. True freshman Taylor Mays will be in the starting lineup for Pinkard.
Russell: Just hanging with USC would represent a major milestone for Bill Callahan's program. USC has played just once, crushing Arkansas two weeks ago, though the game was competitive well into the second half. A near three-touchdown spread looks enormous, even on the road. But I'm not falling for the trap. I'm going to invoke the first "line that looks too good to be true" ruling of the year and lay the points with John David Booty and USC.
Vinny: So let's see: Bill Callahan's offensive approach against Pete Carroll's defensive tactics. Oh yeah, and the massive talent disparity between the teams ... Yep, USC romps.
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|Visitor||Spread||Home||Vinny Says||Russell Says|
|Texas Tech||-2.5||TCU||Texas Tech||TCU|
|Clemson||+4.5||Florida State||Florida State*||Florida State*|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
337 comments, Last at 17 Sep 2006, 3:45pm by NewsToTom