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?
20 Sep 2007
by Russell Levine
It's road-trip week here at SDA headquarters, as I am preparing to head to Mississippi for the Florida-Ole Miss game on Saturday. As mentioned on last week's podcast, this will be my inaugural journey into SEC territory and I'm looking forward to gauging the experience against the tailgating and stadium atmospheres that I'm used to in the Big Ten.
This might just be my only true roadie of the year. My wife and I have a longstanding "national championship implications" proviso under which I can justify an extra trip to Ann Arbor. She claims not to remember any such stipulation, but it won't matter this fall. With Michigan off to an, ahem, slow start I'll have a hard time telling her with a straight face that I need to travel 600 miles to see a team that could be fighting for a berth in the Motor City Bowl.
Of course, if the Wolverines beat Penn State this week, all bets are off. But that's a debate for down the road. Right now, my attentions are focused on "The Grove," the central area of an Ole Miss campus that is said to be among the most beautiful in the nation. For the first time in my life, I am trying to figure out what to wear to a football game. Such is the case when you're a Yankee with Big Ten roots headed to mingle with some southern gentry, a group that favors a shirt-and-tie dress code on game days.
I discuss all of that on this week's podcast with John Griffith, who is the reason for this trip. John, a former co-worker of mine, is a long-time SDA reader who posts to the comment threads under the name of "GatorGriff." He will be getting married next month to a woman whom I can only assume has no idea what she's getting into. This weekend is his last blast, his bachelor party. A man after my own heart, John has chosen to spend it at a football game.
In my mind, I've set the bar for this experience very high. I've always accepted that football in the South was on a different level from what I'm used to. Different is one thing, but is the experience better, more intense? I'll find out this weekend.
If any readers are familiar with Oxford and have suggestions for our traveling party, drop me an e-mail at Russell-at-footballoutsiders-dot-com.
With or without a Florida fan aboard, this week's slate was going to be SEC-heavy with several key league games on Saturday. Here are the contests we'll be discussing in this week's podcast:
Miami and Texas A&M kick off the weekend in what could be the last "big" game at the Orange Bowl. With the Hurricanes set to face both Florida State and Virginia Tech on the road later this season, this contest represents one last chance for some magic at the ol' O.B. before the Miami program moves up the road to Dolphins Stadium next season.
The question is whether the 'Canes can do anything to work the crowd into a lather. Randy Shannon has gone back to Kyle Wright at quarterback, but Miami's pass offense remains a work in progress.
This is either going to be a get-well game for Wright or for the A&M defense, which hasn't slowed down anyone as the team has gotten off to one the nation's sketchiest 3-0 starts. A&M needed triple overtime to survive at home against Fresno State, the only team with a pulse it has played.
Granted, this isn't much of a matchup, but warrants inclusion as the site of this week's SDA road trip.
Florida looks scary-good on offense, with Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin and company averaging 500 yards and 55 points a game. None of that is good news for an Ole Miss secondary that has been torched routinely in its first three outings.
Tebow will begin to earn some Heisman pub with another huge outing, which looks unavoidable unless the Gators are still hung over from their trouncing of Tennessee last week.
Ole Miss may have upgraded in the coaching personality department when it cashiered David Cutcliffe just one year after a 10-win season in favor of Cajun madman Ed Orgeron, but the program appears to be headed in the wrong direction.
Florida, meanwhile, looks for another romp on the way to its biggest game of the season, at LSU on October 6.
Steve Spurrier is generating some positive buzz in Columbia courtesy of a 3-0 start that includes a win at Georgia, but the Gamecocks still have plenty of question marks. They don't need to win at LSU this week in order to make believers of their skeptics, they just have to prove they can play with the Tigers.
LSU looks like the conference heavyweight after destroying Virginia Tech at home two weeks ago and should be up for this game with a functional bye against Tulane up next before Florida pays a visit.
How good is the LSU defense? Statistically, it's the best in the nation and the margin is a mile wide. The Tigers give up a ridiculous 128 yards per game, 50 fewer than the second-ranked unit, Oklahoma.
The Head Ball Coach owned LSU during his time as Florida coach, going 11-1 against the Tigers, but that was a very different era of LSU football (Gerry DiNardo, anyone?).
Sure, Michigan beat Notre Dame, but what does that mean anymore?
Then again, the Wolverines looked more impressive in dominating the Irish than the Nittany Lions did the week before. So maybe it does mean something.
If nothing else, at least the Wolverines gained some confidence after getting kicked around for two weeks by anybody and everybody that pays attention to college football.
Penn State might be the class of the Big Ten (and that might not mean much, either, given some of last week's out of conference results), but this is the Lions' first true test. How will Anthony Morelli fare in a big road game?
Ryan Mallett is likely going to start again for the Wolverines. They were able to protect him against Notre Dame and only had him throw 15 times. Michigan will try a similar approach against Penn State -- putting the game in Mike Hart's hands. If he runs for 125 yards, Michigan probably wins. If Hart can't run, and Michigan has to play from behind, they're in trouble.
So, this isn't a big game. But the ongoing demise of Notre Dame is the biggest train wreck college football has seen in years. People will tune in just for the curiosity factor of seeing if the Irish can make a first down or, heaven forbid, score an offensive touchdown.
I received a lot of interesting responses to my question about the Charlie Weis/Ty Willingham debate in last week's Confessions of a Football Junkie. Here's what I gained from the discourse. Notre Dame is bad this year because Willingham had two lousy recruiting classes and Weis got a late start on his first class. Fine, most people suspected the Irish would be down. But the fact that they're completely non-competitive is 100 percent on Weis. Navy manages to compete with one-fifth of the talent Weis has right now.
If things don't improve to at least semi-respectability this year, and by that I mean the Irish have to at least be a threat to win every week, than I don't feel it's too early to label Weis an enormous failure.
Michigan State, meanwhile, is off to its standard hot start. Will Mark Dantonio be different than just about every other MSU coach and keep his kids playing hard all year? The Spartans have owned Notre Dame as much as any team has the last 10 years -- expect them to play with confidence and look for a little payback for last year's scuffle-marred loss in East Lansing.
Don't remember that game? Click here. You won't be sorry.
I'm wary of Kentucky having a letdown following the biggest win of Rich Brook's tenure. Playing a road game against an angry foe is probably not the best recipe for success for a team that hasn't had much experience handling success.
Still, if John Parker Wilson could light up the Arkansas secondary, Kentucky's Andre' Woodson should be in for a big day. The same can also be said of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, who will be facing one of the softest defenses they'll see in SEC play.
Like all Kentucky contests, this one threatens to be highly entertaining in an Arena Football kind of way.
Nick Saban for Governor! Nick Saban for President!
Saban is off to a fantastic start at Alabama, guiding a team that has been offensively challenged seemingly forever to a 3-0 start. Last week brought a stunning come-from-ahead, come-from-behind win over Arkansas that delighted the home crowd.
Despite his defensive pedigree, Saban is winning with offense. Georgia, meanwhile, cannot afford to drop this game and still contend in the SEC East, but you have to wonder which Matthew Stafford will show up in a very hostile road environment.
UCLA's loss to Utah last week, by a 44-6 count, may trail only "Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32" in the shocking results category this season.
UCLA was off to a hot start after seemingly carrying over the momentum from last year's upset of USC to the new season, but got ambushed in Salt Lake City. They need to get well mentally in a hurry because Washington is an improving team that was right in it against Ohio State last Saturday until a bounce or two went the Buckeyes' way.
Karl Dorrell has never been fully embraced by the UCLA fan base -- even after beating the Trojans -- and he can't afford to let this season get away from him and still hold on to his job.
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(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
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153 comments, Last at 24 Sep 2007, 2:01pm by Sid