Our offseason Four Downs series continues with a division-by-division look at each team's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. In the NFC North, quality wide receivers and defensive backs are in short supply.
06 Nov 2008
by Russell Levine
It's a good thing nothing much happened while I was away.
Let's see ... down for a week with home networking problems, I sat by idly as Texas Tech moved into position to play for the national championship behind Alabama, a statement that would have sounded ridiculous at the beginning of September; as Georgia failed to show up -- again -- in a big game and was embarrassed by Florida in the Cocktail party; as Michigan scored 42 points AND LOST to a team starting a quarterback who was a running back a few weeks ago; oh, there was something about a power transfer in the most powerful nation on earth too, I don't know, I wasn't paying attention.
I also learned that I cannot function without broadband Internet. You have no idea how entwined in your life something has become until it's gone. For the better part of a week, my ISP functioned at no better than dial-up speed. I could barely get online, meaning no research to do any writing, no bandwidth for Skype to record a podcast, no watching a second game during Sunday Ticket on my laptop, no home phone (I use VOIP), no printing (I use a print server), no streaming music throughout my house, no online Guitar Hero battles (OK, I really don't do much of that, just an example) and perhaps worst of all, no Dora the Explorer games for my daughter. You try explaining that to a six-year-old every day for a week.
But I'm happy to report that all is well, one router, one cable modem, one VOIP adapter and about 15 customer-service phone calls later. This Michigan football season is less painful than that process was.
Bill Connelly authors the Varsity Numbers college football column every Friday on FO (and he also capably filled in for me on SDA last week). He also authors the Missouri Blog Rock M Nation and is a former contributor to the brilliant Sunday Morning QB site.
As a Missouri guy, he's a close observer of the Big 12, and we spent some time chatting about the rise of Texas Tech, the Red Raiders' game against Oklahoma State, and how Missouri might fare against the eventual South champ in the Big 12 title game. Also, Bill offers some thoughts on the Big 12-SEC comparison, plus which Big 12 coaches might be on the move following the season.
I hope you'll listen in.
Somewhat lost among the early BCS discussion is that there are currently three schools from non-BCS conferences in the top 12 of the standings -- the position at which a BCS berth becomes automatic. That number will drop to two after TCU faces Utah Thursday night in one of the more important games in Mountain West Conference history. Non-BCS league schools in position to qualify for a BCS bowl have been the norm since the series added a fifth game two years ago -- but having a team potentially qualify without going undefeated is something entirely new. It helps, of course, that TCU's only loss came to then-No. 1 Oklahoma. The Horned Frogs were largely forgotten after losing to the Sooners, but re-emerged on the national scene after thumping then-unbeaten BYU. TCU's stout defense will be tested by the Utah run game and the play of spread-option quarterback Brian Johnson.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Utah | RUSSELL: TCU
It certainly hasn't been the best conference, but the ACC has been among the most interesting. Clemson went from preseason favorite to firing its coach at midseason, and in the interim, no fewer than half of the conference's schools have shown the potential to win the league title. North Carolina is the conference's highest-ranked team in the BCS standings, yet sits in a tie for fourth place in the Coastal Division. There is a five-way tie in the loss column in the Coastal (with the caveat that there are only six teams) with Georgia Tech currently atop the list by virtue of its four conference wins. It is an understatement to say that every game down the stretch is pivotal. The winner of this game remains very much alive for the conference title game, while the loser drops to last place in the division. Georgia Tech could be in trouble if quarterback Josh Nesbitt can't go with an ankle injury. North Carolina possesses one of the ACC's better run defenses, and there is a large drop-off from Nesbitt to his back-up, freshman Jaybo Shaw.
THE PICKS -- FEI: North Carolina | RUSSELL: Georgia Tech
Alabama moved atop the BCS standings last week thanks to Texas's loss, but questions about the Tide remain because of what has happened to some of its opponents. Alabama burst into the title picture by destroying Clemson on opening night, but that was when Clemson was considered a national-title contender. Today, the Tigers are 4-4 and have an interim coach. The Tide's next move came courtesy of a shocking road win at Georgia -- shocking in that Alabama piled up a 31-0 halftime lead and cruised after intermission. But Georgia was most recently seen being outclassed by Florida in the Cocktail Party last week, leading many to wonder just how good the Bulldogs really are. An impressive win over LSU would go a long way to proving Alabama's worth, and its ability to win the bigger tests ahead. The Tigers are the defending national champs, but they haven't exactly been world-beaters this year. LSU gave up 50-plus points in losses to Florida and Georgia and has struggled to play consistently. Alabama's formula is simple: Get an early lead, then use its punishing offensive and defensive lines to salt the game away. So far, so good, as the Tide has yet to trail in any game this year. Oh, there's also some small matter about the Alabama coach and a game in Baton Rouge. Whatever.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Alabama | RUSSELL: Alabama
Fret not, Penn State fans. Your Nittany Lions may be third in the BCS standings, but they have the easiest path to the title game. All Penn State needs to do is win its final three games, with Michigan State looking like the only realistic potential stumbling block, and get a single loss from either Texas Tech (with games against Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, and the Big 12 championship left) or Alabama (LSU and the SEC title game left). Still, it wouldn't hurt to get back to the blowouts that marked Penn State's 8-0 start and not the defensive nail-biter the Lions claimed over Ohio State two weeks ago. One thing to watch: Penn State struggled when Michigan went to a power-run game three weeks ago, recovering once they figured out the Wolverines had nothing else with which to threaten its defense. Iowa possesses one of the nation's most underrated backs in Shonn Greene, who has gone over 100 yards in nine straight contests, and he'll see the ball plenty against what is sure to be a loaded box. Penn State shut down Ohio State's Beanie Wells, so Iowa will have to do more than just pound the ball to have any hope of winning.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Penn State | RUSSELL: Penn State (Edelstein Lock)
Order has finally been restored in the Big East, with West Virginia comfortably back atop the conference standings at 3-0 in league play. After a sloppy start to the season, the Mountaineers seemed to find themselves in a come-from-behind win over Auburn two weeks ago and went on to crush Connecticut last week. Pat White is healthy and once again playing like the best running option quarterback in America. Cincinnati has been a bit of a giant-killer ever since Brian Kelley took over, but the Bearcats' offense has suffered along with the injuries to its quarterbacks this year. Tony Pike is back from a broken arm and coming off one of his better performances, but could struggle against the Mountaineers defense. The Big East needs West Virginia to keep winning in order to avoid the embarrassment of sending an unranked team to the BCS, a distinct possibility should West Virginia pick up one more loss.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Cincinnati | RUSSELL: West Virginia
I'm not sure we could create a metric to measure a team's performance the week after "the biggest win in program history," but recent college football seasons are rife with examples of letdowns. Oddly, the most prominent examples all involve the Big East, which might say more about that conference than it does about any particular theory. Still, just for fun, there was Louisville in 2006. The Cardinals beat West Virginia only to lose to Rutgers the following week. Rutgers trumped that win by falling at Cincinnati. Last year, South Florida beat West Virginia to get itself into the thick of the BCS chase, only to lose to Rutgers the next week. This week, it is Texas Tech, fresh off a stunning, last-second upset of Texas, that must guard against emotional letdown against a very good Oklahoma State. The Cowboys, too, gave Texas all it could handle a couple weeks ago and have an offense that is nearly as explosive as the Red Raiders'. The marquee players in this matchup are a pair of NFL-ready receivers, Tech's Michael Crabtree and Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant. An Oklahoma State win would throw the Big 12 South standings into chaos, and bring the specter of a tiebreaker that involves the BCS standings into play.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Texas Tech | RUSSELL: Oklahoma State
At least USC didn't let the disappointment of its shocking loss at Oregon State -- which still ranks as the upset of the college football season in my book -- linger. Five games since that contest have produced three shutouts and a composite score of 207-27. All those big scores are great, but the Trojans need to keep it up in order to have a prayer of getting back into the title-game mix. Cal is probably the best remaining team on the USC schedule (although Notre Dame will get more attention) so the Trojans need to keep the pedal down. Unfortunately, Texas Tech's upset last week has forced them to share this week's spotlight with a smaller regional audience. Cal has quietly won four out of five and could make this game competitive no matter whether Kevin Riley or Nate Longshore starts at quarterback. Riley, recovering from a concussion, may just want to pass on the assignment given the presence of probably eight high NFL draft picks on the Trojans' starting defense.
THE PICKS -- FEI: USC | RUSSELL: USC
If USC isn't the hottest team in the country, than Florida certainly is, as the Gators, too, have been killing flies with a sledgehammer ever since their lone loss, to Ole Miss. Four games since have been decided by an average of 39.5 points. Unlike USC, Florida's path to the title game is fairly straightforward. Win out, and get a little help from Texas Tech, and the Gators will be in Miami. The first step comes Saturday night in Nashville, where the Gators can clinch the SEC East with an 18th straight win over Vanderbilt. There have been close games between the teams in recent years, particularly in Nashville, but this has all the makings of a mismatch. Vandy has dropped three straight after opening 5-0 and remains one win away from clinching an elusive bowl berth. Don't look for it to come this week, not unless Florida suffers a massive letdown after its cathartic, rub-their-nose-in-it, bullying blowout of Georgia last week. Still, it's tough to imagine that scenario with a trip to the conference championship to be claimed.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Vanderbilt (Edelstein Lock) | RUSSELL: Florida
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|Visitor||Spread||Home||FEI Says||Russell Says|
|Georgia Tech||+4.5||North Carolina||North Carolina||Georgia Tech|
|Penn State||-7.5||Iowa||Penn State||Penn State*|
|Cincinnati||+8||West Virginia||Cincinnati||West Virginia|
|Oklahoma State||+3||Texas Tech||Texas Tech||Oklahoma State|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
46 comments, Last at 10 Nov 2008, 5:13pm by DragonFireKai