The league's northern divisions pose a number of meaty questions, such as: "Is the Bears' offense due for a repeat performance?" "Why do the Lions have such pronounced splits?" and "Has Johnny Manziel made the Cleveland brass even crazier?"
31 Aug 2006
by Russell Levine and Vin Gauri
Russell: Vin, it's good to be back for another year of SDA. Clearly, actually being able to pick winners is not a prerequisite for this job.
Vinny: Yes, like Letterman used to say in his prime, these picks are for entertainment purposes only. Please ... no wagering ... Or at least go Costanza and do the opposite.
Russell: Although I would like to point out that I was 10-5-1 on my Fred Edelstein Locks last year. Just thought I'd mention that.
Vinny: Russ, you've failed to grasp the whole concept of the Fred Edelstein Lock; it's not supposed to be accurate. It's supposed to shake your confidence in the most dependable things in life (a cheese slice with grape soda ... stumbling across "A Few Good Men" on TNT ... Maurice Clarett found with automatic weapons, a hatchet, and an open bottle of vodka). Freddy would want it that way. Wherever he is.
Russell: Exactly. Vin, now that you're a left-coaster, perhaps you can help gives us more of a national perspective on things. I think our picks have been suffering from east coast media bias the past couple of years. Of course, you probably won't be able to make it to nine Michigan games this year, either.
Vinny: I'm not feeling much college football fever here in the Bay Area, even with the hype surrounding Cal this year. The West Coast can't compare to the South or Midwest when it comes to die-hards. There's a few sprinkled around, but it's mostly shoulder-shrugging transplants and the bandwagon types (hello, Trojan Nation). Maybe it's so pretty outside that sports seems less important. Inconceivable, I know.
Russell: Speaking of Michigan games, Vin and I are planning to be in State College for the Wolverines and Nittany Lions on Oct. 14. One small problem -- we're presently ticketless. If any SDA readers can help remedy that problem, drop us a line at russell-at-footballoutsiders-dot-com. The Peachy Paterno will be on us.
Vinny: Is Ernie still singing at The Phyrst? Arguably more importantly, is he still alive?
Russell: Alright, let's get to it.
Russell: I'm sure Pat Fitzgerald is thrilled to be a head coach, but I'm also sure this isn't how he wanted to get the job -- taking over after the sudden death of Randy Walker at Northwestern.
Vinny: When Walker was negotiating a contract extension earlier this year, he mentioned Fitzgerald as his choice as a successor. Fitzgerald was the linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator prior to getting the keys to the program.
Russell: Fitzgerald is just 31, and man do I feel old now. Vin, we were already out of school when he was leading the Northwestern defense during its Big Ten championship years under Gary Barnett. His first Northwestern team has a great running back in Tyrell Sutton and should be able to put up some yards and points on the Miami defense.
Vinny: The Miami defense is breaking in nine new starters alongside defensive end Craig Mester and free safety Joey Card. Little guys Ryne Robinson (75 receptions for 1,172 yards in 2005) and Brandon Murphy (1,058 rushing yards) should keep the RedHawks (why no space?) in games until the defense jells.
Russell: Both teams are sketchy against the run. Both are breaking in new QBs. Miami is at home, but Northwestern will be playing on emotion, which carries the day. I'll take the Wildcats
Vinny: I like the RedHawks in this one, and not just because Red Hawks was my high school's nickname (in a controversial student government vote, it carried the day over "Pegged Jeans").
Russell: Ah, the 1990s.
Russell: Steve Spurrier pulled off some remarkable feats in his first year with the Gamecocks, beating both Florida and Tennessee to get South Carolina to a Bowl. Spurrier believes his team can contend for the SEC championship, and it certainly can't afford a conference slip-up before the calendar turns to September.
Vinny: Junior Blake Mitchell appears to have won the quarterback job, but with The Visor, you know you're going to see redshirt freshman Cade Thompson and probably even true freshman Chris Smelley sooner rather than later. Whoever gets the musical chair will be happy to have running back Cory Boyd back after a season-long suspension in 2005. He and sophomore Mike Davis will be running behind a young offensive line that can't be much worse than last year.
Russell: It has been a slow process for Sylvester Croom to get players to Mississippi State, but the recruiting efforts are starting to pay off. The defense is athletic and talented, and it should slow South Carolina's stud receiver Sidney Rice.
Vinny: Croom has enough problems; the last thing he needs is a disciplinary headache. But that's what he had to deal with in the spring, when six players (including two defensive starters) pled guilty to misdemeanor assault of an off-duty police officer at a club. At least they showed some teamwork.
Russell: Good point. Mississippi State's is putrid. Things got so bad that Croom actually suited up at one point during fall camp. If he had any eligibility remaining, he could probably start for these guys. The line's a little high for my liking, but I gotta go with the ol,' Ballcoach on this one. South Carolina gets the cover.
Vinny: I'd like to believe this is the year of the Bulldogs' resurgence. But I'd also like to believe that Stewart Mandel doesn't have a myspace page. (Shuddering). Gamecocks get an easy win.
Russell: Well look at that, Vin. We're discussing another Rutgers game, and it wasn't even my idea this time. Could it be you've gained a new appreciation for the men of Schiano?
Vinny: Naturally, the obligatory Peter King lingo when discussing your New Jersey brethren. Well, they took Arizona State to the wire in a great bowl game, but they didn't beat anyone of note last year. I realize it's hard to do that when you don't play many teams of note in the Big East. But now it's time to take the next step and at least give Louisville a game this year.
Russell: Clearly the odds makers aren't on the RU bandwagon either. This is precisely the type of game Rutgers should win if they want to be taken seriously, but I guess it takes more than a single Insight Bowl bid to impress the guys who take book. The Knights should be able to run the ball with Ray Rice and Brian Leonard -- who is a Heisman candidate according to the Rutgers SID staff.
Vinny: It is impressive how selfless and consistent -- you can pencil him in for 800 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards right now -- Leonard has been during his career. He'll never have eye-popping numbers, but he does everything well.
Russell: North Carolina's best option at QB is Joe Dailey, who in his previous incarnation was a human interception machine while trying to run the West Coast offense for Bill Callahan at Nebraska. No thanks. Give me Rutgers and the points.
Vinny: The Tar Heel defense improved dramatically against the run last year, but it's green up the middle this year. I'll take Rutgers also.
Russell: Well, well, well. Look who's number one. The Ohio State freaking Buckeyes. Sorry ... those things slip out from time to time. Let me put on my impartial prognosticator hat and start over.
Vinny: Come on, Russ, at least try to pretend you're not bothered by the Buckeyes' perch atop the preseason rankings.
Russell: Well, I do have them atop my own ballot. No reverse psychology working there. We all know Ohio State can score. Troy Smith, Ted Ginn, and Co. should have little trouble pouring on the points against Northern Illinois, but the real focus should be on the Ohio State defense, which is breaking in nine new starters. The Huskies have enough talent -- especially with everyone's favorite mini-running back Garrett Wolfe -- to make this a game for a half while all the new guys get their feet wet.
Vinny: Jim Tressel always seems to have a great defense, so many believe he'll just plug in the blue-chippers he's been pulling in (I'm restraining myself -- not so well, apparently -- from making a remark about car keys here), and there won't be much drop off. But the inexperienced secondary looks to be a concern, in the early season anyway. Huskies quarterback Phil Horvath reclaimed the starting job after an injury-shortened 2005. If he has any time to throw, he'll find anyone running free.
Russell: You always have the potential for Ohio State to get caught looking ahead to Texas next week, but I can't see it happening here. Senator Tressel wants to make a statement right out of the chute. The OSU hangs a 40 on the board and rolls to a cover in the second half.
Vinny: The Huskies have 15 returning starters, but none of them on the interior of the offense or defense. Ohio State usually has a sluggish start each season before Tressel takes the wraps off the offense. But with the much-anticipated grudge match in Austin next week, this should be a focused group. I was tempted to pick Northern Illinois to make this a game, but I think the Buckeyes roll.
Russell: This might be the most intriguing game on the weekend slate. Tennessee is coming of a disastrous 5-6 campaign and has turned to David Cutcliffe to resurrect its offense. Cutlcliffe presided over both the Peyton Manning era at Tennessee (as offensive coordinator) and the Eli Manning era at Ole Miss (as head coach). Perhaps embattled Vols coach Phil Fulmer is hoping for a return to the mid-90's glory days of losing to Florida and playing in the Citrus Bowl.
Vinny: Of course, one of Spurrier's better known digs at Fulmer in the late 90's was that you can't spell Citrus without "UT."
Russell: OK, so that was a cheap shot at Tennessee (by me; Spurrier's was funny). Yes, I'm still bitter that they rolled over against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl after the 1997 season, giving away half of Michigan's national title in the process. Cutcliffe should help stabilize an offense that was a mess with Fulmer playing musical QBs last season. There's no Clausen around to look over Erik Ainge's shoulder this time around, and I think it will help his play.
Vinny: Both teams will be rebuilding their offensive lines -- Cal had three offensive linemen selected in the draft, while Tennessee will have four new starters. But both staffs seem confident in their newly-constituted groups.
Russell: Cal had a very un-Jeff Tedford-like season last year, solid on defense and in the running game, but getting little production from quarterback Joe Ayoob. He's been replaced by Nate Longshore, last year's opening day starter who was lost to injury. He's got great weapons in receiver DeSean Jackson and running back Marshawn Lynch. I'm not sold the Vols are back just because it's a new year. Cal pulls off the upset.
Vinny: Would that really be an upset? Cal looks much better on paper, but it will be interesting to watch Longshore react to the Neyland madness in his first start. I think he might wilt a bit, and I can't blame him. John Chavis, one of the few assistants Fulmer didn't sack in the off-season, is usually good for some interesting defensive looks (standing defensive tackles, etc.), and will probably throw the kitchen sink at Longshore. The Vols cover.
Russell: Count me among those who thought Dave Wannstedt's first Pitt team would be a lot better than it was. The Panthers got bombed by Notre Dame in the opener and never recovered. Vin, can the Wann-stache turn things around in Year 2?
Vinny: I doubt it, but I have to admit some guilty pleasure at watching him despair on the sidelines. He always looks like he's just been told that his daughter is dating Colin Farrell...
Russell: In other news, Tyler Palko is STILL the QB at Pitt. I swear he was handing off to Tony Dorsett.
Vinny: Palko could use a running game to help him out this year. The Panthers rushed for a woeful 117 yards per game in 2005. If running back LaRod Stephens-Howling stays healthy along with a returning (but thin) offensive line, this could be a decent offense.
Russell: I'm not really sure how Al Groh has kept his job at Virginia. Year in and year out, they tease you with their ability to hang with decent teams, but deliver very little. I'm not expecting things to be a whole lot different this season. Pitt wins an ugly one despite some Palko miscues. I'm taking the Panthers.
Vinny: Marques Hagens is finally gone, and it won't be easy for Virginia to replace everything he did for the offense. Christian Olsen is more of a standard drop-back passer. This is a team without any big names (star linebacker Ahmad Brooks was kicked off the team in the spring), but these ho-hum games are the ones Groh seems to win. The Cavs cover.
Russell: Strange line of the week here. I know that USC lost two Heisman winners from its backfield. But last year's game was 70-17, as the Trojans gained about six miles of offense. And yet USC is laying just eight points on the road.
Vinny: Not to mention that Hogs quarterback Casey Dick and running back Darren McFadden (SEC Freshman of the Year and a first-team All-SEC selection) are both doubtful with injuries. Felix Jones, already an All-American kick returner, can be a suitable substitute for McFadden. And there isn't much of a drop-off from Dick to Robert Johnson (again, I'm passing on the opportunity for a joke -- more restraint).
Russell: John David Booty finally gets his chance to start for the Trojans, three years after he memorably skipped his senior season -- of high school -- to enroll early. No, there's no Reggie Bush or LenDale White to hand off to, but there is Dwayne Jarrett to catch passes. I don't think USC's offense will suffer as much from the losses as everyone thinks.
Vinny: But there's just no way it's the juggernaut it was the past few seasons. You can't replace that kind of talent and experience with a snap of the fingers. Even in the watered-down Pac-10, USC has to lose at least two games this year ... don't they? Come on, seriously?
Russell: I'll give you one. This is a make or break year for Arkansas's Huston Nutt. Right about five minutes into last year's USC game, he was probably wondering why exactly he turned down $2 million a year from Nebraska. The Hogs will be improved, but not enough to hang with SC for four quarters. I like the Trojans, and I'm making this my Fred Edelstein Lock.
Vinny: The Trojans' excellent front four will crowd the line of scrimmage and shut down the Arkansas running game. After that, it's lights out. I like USC as well as my Lock.
Russell: I guess we're going to see if this is a new year after all.
Russell: I'm guessing that when ABC and the ACC decided to make this the showcase game of Labor Day weekend a few years ago, they were counting on something a little more entertaining than last year's mistake-filled, offense-free Florida State win. Yes, the defenses were good, but that was one butt-ugly football game.
Vinny: It was painful to watch Drew Weatherford and Kyle Wright trade brutal series for brutal series. And then the flubbed snap and slippery hold on that last kick (costing Miami the game) -- I'm glad I only had the game on in the background while my fantasy draft was going on.
Russell: Florida State finished 8-5 last year, falling to Penn State in the Geezer Bowl after shocking Virginia Tech to win the ACC title. I have a sneaking suspicion Papa Bowden has one more, JoePa in 2005-type year in him, but I'm not sure it's this season. Weatherford should be a lot better than he was early last year, but he'll need some help from the running game to make a dent in the 'Canes defense.
Vinny: But take a look at FSU's schedule. After this tilt, it's a virtual cakewalk. Eight home games, with trips to Duke, NC State and Maryland. It sets up awfully nice for a title run. With the 'Noles and Hokies missing each other this year, they both might as well be in the Big East. OK, that's an overstatement, but you get the idea.
Russell: Vin, you're going to have to work a little harder on your Miami material now that Willie Williams and his rap sheet are off at some community college somewhere. Larry Coker is feeling the heat, canning most of his assistants after the embarrassing loss to LSU in the Peach Bowl to end last season. The 'Canes need to be in national title contention for anyone in Miami to care about college football. I don't see it happening this year, but I think Wright and the boys have enough to beat the 'Noles at home -- even without suspended playmakers Ryan Moore and Tyrone Moss.
Vinny: I've always thought Wright has the tools to be a first-round choice, but he has been frustrating to watch. Then again, I'm the same guy who was singing the praises of Marcus Vick the last few years, so what do I know? Don't answer that. Anyway, distractions like the ones going on at Miami are nothing new. They should still have a great defense, even with the personnel hits they've taken lately. This is a toss-up, but in a rivalry always seeming to hang on a last-second kick, I'll take the 'Noles plus three.
(* -- "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Weekâ€?)
|Visitor||Spread||Home||Vinny Says||Russell Says|
|Northwestern||-3.5||Miami (Ohio)||Miami (Ohio)||Northwestern|
|South Carolina||-6.5||Mississippi State||South Carolina||South Carolina|
|Northern Illinois||+17||Ohio State||Ohio State||Ohio State|
|Florida State||+3||Miami||Florida State||Miami|
69 comments, Last at 04 Sep 2006, 10:14am by Scott de B.