The Vikings' quarterback seemed to regress in his second season. Did that tell us more about the player, or the Minnesota offensive scheme?
07 Jan 2007
by Vinny Gauri and Russell Levine
Russell: Well it comes down to this, Vin. The longest bowl season in history is finally at its conclusion. I don't know about this playing the title game on January 8. The lull since the Sugar Bowl has killed some of the excitement for me. But what a Sugar Bowl that was!
Vinny: Ah yes, good ol' schadenfreude. Come on, Russ -- you're better than that!
Russell: Clearly, I'm not. I don't pretend that it's healthy, but I might have taken more pleasure from Notre Dame's loss than I did disappointment from Michigan's. As Orson Swindle of Every Day Should Be Saturday told me, "the Sugar Bowl is definitely the foie gras for you." Speaking of Orson, be sure to check out this week's podcast as the Florida blogger and I discuss the title game, Nick Saban, the bowl season, and whether or not God cares about the point spread. Really.
Vinny: Well, I'm not sure if it hurts any less to be crushed by superior talent (as ND was by LSU) as opposed to being badly out-coached (as Michigan was by USC). Of course, Charlie Weis can never be out-coached, can he?
Russell: No, he makes his adjustments on the fly. Obviously the first game in Glendale, Monday's Fiesta Bowl, was the game of the bowl season thus far. What an unbelievable performance by Boise State, rallying from a crushing pick-six thrown by Jared Zabransky with three trick plays to beat Oklahoma in overtime. But does that game mean we need a playoff, or would a playoff ruin the story if Boise just went on to lose the following week? I think people may be overlooking the former.
Vinny: The Fiesta was the best finish to a college game in recent memory. It's not often I agree with Lou Holtz, but the Broncos were the best-prepared bowl team I have ever seen (making the Michigan staff's cluelessness in the second half of the Rose all the more painful). How much money did Chris Petersen make for himself last week? Whether it's next week or years from now, he can plunk down that game tape on any athletic director's desk and inspire Pavlov-like drooling.
Russell: We're going to try to do this in a somewhat orderly fashion, breaking down the matchups and then getting to our picks. Let's get to it.
Russell: This is the strength-on-strength matchup in this game. Can Florida contain the Buckeyes and Troy Smith, particularly when they go five-wide and spread the field as they did to great success against Michigan? That could be the key to the game.
Vinny: The secondary was a clear weakness for the Wolverines, whereas Florida is solid with Utah transfer Ryan Smith (eight picks) and the rest of its secondary. Florida's defense doesn't appear to have a real weakness (fifth in pass-efficiency defense, sixth in rushing defense). Defensive end Derrick Harvey and linebacker Brandon Siler have been all over the field. But Arkansas did have some success spreading the field and using misdirection out of their Wildcat formation against the Gators.
Russell: Looking back to the Ohio State-Michigan game one more time, the biggest concern for the Gators has to be that Ohio State neutralized a great Michigan pass rush not necessarily by stifling it with the offensive line, but by using a variety of three-step drops and relying on Smith to make the right read, which he did nearly every single time.
Vinny: Jim Tressel will try to mix in expert fundraisers Antonio Pittman and Chris "Beanie" Wells, hoping to hit a few big gains. Only Auburn was able to run the ball with effectiveness against Florida this year, and star defensive tackle Marcus Thomas played well in that loss. Florida hasn't missed a beat since Thomas was kicked off the team in early November.
Russell: You can argue that Florida's defense is faster than Michigan's, particularly at linebacker and safety (hello, Reggie Nelson!), and should have better success containing the spread. But if Smith is on his game as he always seems to be in big spots, I'm not sure how much Florida's speed matters. I don't expect Ohio State to score 42 points, but they'll have plenty of success and hit some big plays against the blitz to Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez.
Vinny: I think the Buckeyes' depth at wide receiver will again prove huge in this game. The Gators will be hard pressed to match up their nickel and dime packages against Brian Robiskie and Roy Hall in addition to the Buckeyes' headliners.
Russell: If Florida is going to win the national title, I think it will have to be because its offense outplays the Ohio State defense. I don't see this as a low-scoring game, so Chris Leak & Co. must produce points and take care of the football. Chris, please, no shovel passes intercepted and returned for TDs, OK?
Vinny: You hit on the wild card for the game: which Leak will show up? Every quarterback has an off day now and then, but Leak tends to the extremes. He can look like an accomplished surgeon or like Dr. Nick Riviera. And he might be the most scrutinized and embattled -- at least within his own fan base -- quarterback since Chrix Rix or John Navarre. Yes, he's had to adjust to different philosophies and coordinators through his career, but that hasn't pacified the Florida faithful.
Russell: We also know we're going to get some trickeration out of Urban Meyer. Maybe not as impressive as Boise State in overtime, but trickeration nonetheless. Receiver passes. Leak throwing the ball to Tim Tebow. Something along those lines. Ohio State's defense is very athletic and has played beyond expectations this year, but it can be fooled. The Buckeyes have the horses to slow down Dallas Baker and Andre Caldwell if Florida plays things straight-up.
Vinny: In the absence of a consistent running game, Meyer has used the razzle-dazzle maybe even more than he wanted. But for the first time in months, senior tailback DeShawn Wynn is reportedly healthy. That could take some of the pressure off of Leak. And the Buckeyes won't be able to key on the versatile Percy Harvin quite as much.
Russell: I think Florida would be wise to pass to set up the run, much as Michigan did in the second half to great success against the Buckeyes. I hate to keep going back to that game, but it's one of two Ohio State played against (ahem) elite teams this year and is a valuable comparison tool. If Leak avoids those one or two killer mistakes that always seem to plague him, and Harvin gets off for a big score or two, Florida has a chance.
Vinny: Linebacker James Laurinaitis got most of the ink (and the Nagurski Award) for the Ohio State defense. There's no question he's a great athlete, but he's much better in pursuit than coming off play-side blocks. The Buckeyes defensive front (Vernon Gholston, Quinn Pitcock, Jay Richardson) is much better than advertised, especially in the pass rush. Wynn needs to have a good day for the Gators to have a chance.
Russell: I've been impressed with the job Meyer has done this year. It's not easy to work a freshman quarterback (Tebow) into the lineup at the expense of a senior and not fracture the team, but he's done it. It seemed like a year ago, Meyer was determined to prove his offense could work in the SEC, but this season he has made the adjustments without scrapping his philosophy. The Gators aren't explosive by any means, but they don't look like an outmanned team running a gimmick attack, either.
Vinny: It took him a while, but Meyer seems to have realized that Leak isn't comfortable with the speed option plays that Alex Smith ran so well at Utah. His best move may have been keeping on Charlie Strong as defensive coordinator after [NAME REDACTED] was shown the door.
Russell: And don't forget about co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, a name that should ring a bell for Michigan fans. Senator Tressel, of course, has nothing to prove here. He's got the national title that Meyer wants, and he's won five of six against Michigan. He's also won three Fiesta Bowls. Even though this isn't the Fiesta, and it's at a new stadium, he'll feel right at home in the desert.
Vinny: His record in big games is ridiculous. And nobody is better at tailoring a game plan to his team's strengths and his opponent's weaknesses.
Russell: Meyer coaches with a chip on his shoulder, and I think you see that in his decision-making at times. I'm thinking specifically of the fake punt deep in his own territory against Arkansas. I don't think he'd be wise to make another call like that against Ohio State. Florida is good enough to win this game without taking huge chances.
Russell: Considering the overall strength of the two teams, it's surprising that neither excels in special teams. Both excel in kick coverage and neither has explosive return games overall. Ohio State kicker Aaron Pettrey has attempted just 11 field goals on the year, making eight, but that's a dream season compared to Florida's Chris Hetland, who was a miserable 4-of-13 this season.
Vinny: Things will definitely get interesting if it comes down to placekicking. Florida was good enough to survive against Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida State while Hetland struggled (0-for-6 combined in those games), but probably not this time.
Russell: One area where Florida needs to show some more discipline is penalties. The Gators were the second-most penalized team in America and lost 65 yards per game to yellow flags -- 22 yards more than Ohio State's average. The underdog can't afford to be undisciplined as well.
Vinny: In the return game, Ginn has remained a threat while playing through a foot injury. Freshman Brandon James has flashed big-play ability on returns for the Gators.
Russell: Ohio State is better in both converting third downs and in preventing third-down conversions. If that holds, it means added snaps for the Ohio State offense. Florida is going to have to come up with a turnover or two to stay in the game -- much as Michigan's plus-three turnover margin in the second half allowed it to fight back in a game in which it was being dominated.
Vinny: Dominated? I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that.
Russell: Consider it a make-good for the Sugar Bowl remark.
Russell: I've backed off my anger-driven "Ohio State is going to destroy Florida" pick of December 3, but I still don't see where much in this game favors Florida. Nothing that has happened in the bowl season thus far tells me that Ohio State's results vs. a Big Ten schedule mean less than Florida's vs. the SEC. The Big Ten's best teams are just as good as the SEC's.
Vinny: No argument on that front. Some are making comparisons between Florida and Tressel's 2002 squad that was counted out against defending champ Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. But this Florida team has even more talent (and fewer psychopaths) on offense.
Russell: Florida may be more battle-tested, but I don't think it matters. Ohio State played in plenty of big games in calendar 2006 -- including last year's Fiesta Bowl -- and always gave a good account of itself. This will be a game for a half, but Ohio State will capitalize on turnovers in the second half to win it going away. I like the Buckeyes to cover.
Vinny: I've come around to thinking Florida will make this a game. This is the best defense Troy Smith will have ever faced. As great (and robotic) as he is, the Gators secondary can pose some problems. I think Wynn is the key -- the Buckeye defense can be had if they're kept off-balance. I'll take the Gators and the points.
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(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
Picks of other BCS games included for reference
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||Vinny Says||Russell Says|
|Rose Bowl (Pasadena), Monday, January 2|
|Fiesta Bowl (Glendale), Monday, January 1|
|Oklahoma||-7||Boise State||Boise State||Oklahoma|
|Orange Bowl (Miami), Tuesday, January 2|
|Sugar Bowl (New Orleans), Wednesday, January 3|
|BCS National Championship (Glendale)
Monday, January 8, 8 p.m. ET FOX
|Ohio State||-7.5||Florida||Florida||Ohio State|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
NOTE: "Last Week" refers to the Non-BCS bowls picks column.
|Last Week*||Season Total|
312 comments, Last at 12 Jan 2007, 12:57pm by SGT Ben