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?
18 Oct 2008
by Russell Levine
So much for crowing about my record last week.
I followed a 7-1 week by throwing a 1-6-1 mark on the board. I blame Rich Rodriguez.
This is the annual road-trip week at SDA headquarters, destination Happy Valley, Pa. More on the matchup in the podcast and below, but in case you're wondering I'm looking forward to the trip anyway. Penn State is my favorite road venue to watch Michigan. It offers the best mix of insane-level fan interest, miles of RV tailgating, and yet with enough reason thrown in that it's never a negative experience.
That said, Michigan has won three of the four games I've attended at Beaver Stadium, and I do have a sneaking suspicion that 12 years' worth of frustration might yet boil over if the Lions win in the expected rout on Saturday.
Nonetheless, my former SDA partner Vin and I shelled out $300 on the secondary market for a pair of lousy seats to the game. I guess I have faith in the Penn State fan base.
Brian Fremeau, creator of the Fremeau Efficiency Index weekly college football ratings (which are updated each Wednesday on Football Outsiders), has been kind enough to supply picks to run against mine in SDA each week.
I wanted to give him a chance to come on the podcast for several reasons. One, because he helped me break down all the bowl games last year and was an outstanding guest (despite being a holder of a Notre Dame degree). Two, to give him another outlet to explain his ratings and how they work for those in the SDA audience that may be statistically inclined but unaware of his work. And three, because what I've asked him to do -- pick eight cherry-picked games against the spread -- and put them out there for public consumption, is not the best way to represent his work.
Brian has some terrific insights into why his system likes some of the top teams far better than others, and also some thoughts on what to expect out of Penn State, Texas, and Alabama the rest of the way.
For being such a good solider, I threw him a softball and asked if Michigan 2008=Notre Dame 2007. There are actually a surprising number of similarities.
I hope you'll listen in.
Thursday night belongs to the mid-majors, as this Mountain West battle on Versus is far more attractive than the Florida-N.C. State ACC tilt on ESPN. BYU is this year's mid-major darling, holder of the nation's longest winning streak. Already ensconced in the top 10, the Cougars are very likely six wins away from a BCS bid. Whether they are in the mix for a spot in the national title game is a question for a few weeks from now. To even be in the mix, BYU needs to rout TCU and Utah at the end of the year, and root for chaos in Big 12, the SEC, and the Big Ten. Oh, and another USC loss certainly wouldn't hurt.
TCU hasn't received nearly the publicity that BYU has gotten this season, but the Horned Frogs aren't far behind the Cougars in terms of talent. Las Vegas sure doesn't think so, as the one-point spread would attest. TCU leads the nation in total defense, and its only loss came against then-No. 1 Oklahoma. The defense will be key against Max Hall and the high-powered BYU offense -- as will the home crowd. This is a definite danger spot for BYU.
THE PICKS -- FEI: TCU | RUSSELL: TCU
So maybe Vanderbilt-Georgia is a better game. But Alabama has been out of the spotlight since laying a first-half ambush for Georgia a few weeks back. With the recent carnage in the polls, Alabama is now within shouting distance of Texas for the top spot but the Tide could use a big performance this week. That's because Texas (against Missouri) will be in a far bigger spotlight Saturday. Ole Miss carries the street cred it earned with a road win at Florida a few weeks ago, but the Rebels were largely beneficiaries of the Gators' self-immolation. Ole Miss's offensive and defensive lines could pose some problem for Alabama, but I don't expect this to be the game the Tide have to finally start playing from behind.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Mississippi | RUSSELL: Alabama
Well, well, well. Look who leads the Big East. Why, that would be Pitt, courtesy of its upset win at South Florida a couple of weeks ago. But a trip to Navy is never an easy one, and the Middies have already beaten Wake Forest this year. The option offense has flustered better defenses than Pitt's. Navy will get its yards and more than a few points, but can it stop Pitt from scoring? The temptation for Dave Wannstedt will be to pound LeSean McCoy at Navy's undersized front, but the Middies' vulnerability is against the pass. Can quarterback Bill Stull exploit it without turning the ball over? Stull is just 85th in pass efficiency, with three interceptions and three touchdowns on the year.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Navy | RUSSELL: Navy
Big Ten observers may be looking ahead to the Penn State-Ohio State game next week, but the Buckeyes first must survive a tricky test at Michigan State for that game to matter. Ohio State has been little heard from since its humiliation at the hands of USC, but the Buckeyes have been busy winning ugly while new starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor learns to play the position as a true freshman. Pryor is an athletic marvel within unlimited potential, but he's also a true freshman, and hasn't exactly set the college football world on fire since pushing incumbent starter Todd Boeckman to the bench. Ohio State is just 94th in the nation in total offense (320 yards/game) and is relying on its senior-laden defense (12th nationally) to keep it in every game while the offense takes its lumps. Michigan State is off to a surprising 6-1 start, with its one loss coming to Cal in the opener. The Spartans haven't won seven straight in 30 years, but are one game away from stamping themselves as conference contenders. How many carries will Javon Ringer get in this game? Michigan State would probably like that number to be about 45, meaning the Spartans are playing from ahead.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Michigan State | RUSSELL: Ohio State
What's that you say? There are better games on the schedule, so why am I picking this one? If you've read this column for more than a week or two, you should know the answer to that one. Sure there are better games, but none of them involve my alma mater getting better than three touchdowns against a team it hasn't lost to since 1996. Not that I'm quibbling with the line, mind you; if anything it probably shows a little respect for the Michigan name and probably should be higher. Michigan is coming off a 10-point offensive outburst in a loss to mighty Toledo, which isn't even a mediocre MAC team. Penn State, meanwhile, is crushing everything in its path. This may be Joe Paterno's finest team since his 1994 squad finished undefeated with a Rose Bowl win over Oregon, the Lions' last visit to Pasadena. How bad has it gotten for Michigan during a 2-4 start? Two indicators -- FireRRod.com went online this week, and on the entire board there are only three bigger underdogs: Hawaii (at Boise State), Syracuse (at USF), and Washington State (vs. USC).
First, a few words about Rodriguez. Sure, I'm frustrated this year hasn't gone better, but I'm not disappointed in the coach. There are too many holes on offense. The line is horrendous. It barely has five players who are even qualified to play at this level. Steven Threet has actually been OK at times at quarterback, but the offense can't get started half the time because Threet and the tailbacks are getting pummeled in the backfield.
Second, it's not the end of the world. So, Michigan is going to take its lumps this year. The nation's longest bowl streak is going to end. But Michigan is going to be fine in another year or two, once Rodriguez gets his players some more experience and beefs up the line. They're still going to be Michigan -- a name brand playing in the nation's largest stadium (which it will be once again after upgrades are complete). The facilities will finally be second to none after the stadium and practice building are finished. They're on TV more than Leave it to Beaver reruns. (OK, so that was Duke. It's still a great quote.) And yeah, yeah, yeah, I know -- Nebraska. I'm not worried.
Oh, and as for this game, against any and all rationale, I'm taking Michigan and the points. The Wolverines are backed into a corner and everyone is kicking them while they're down. I think they'll play with fire and emotion and at least make it competitive. I'm expecting their best game of the season.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Penn State | RUSSELL: Michigan
It's a bad news-good news week for Missouri. The bad news? They have to rally from a tough home loss to Oklahoma State in time to face Texas on the road Saturday night. The good news? Win this game, and last week is all but forgotten. That includes quarterback Chase Daniel, who threw three interceptions against the Cowboys when he had a chance to grab hold of the Heisman race. If he outplays Colt McCoy on national TV, he'll be right back at the head of the line. Missouri may need him to, as one has to wonder if its defense can do much to slow McCoy and the Longhorns. These are two of the top offenses in the nation, but Texas has the edge on defense, which is where this game should be decided. If Texas gets to Daniel with the front four, it'll be game over. Mack Brown must guard against a letdown after Texas surged from No. 5 to No. 1 in the polls following its win over Oklahoma.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Missouri | RUSSELL: Texas
Don't look know, but Virginia Tech, buried and forgotten after losing its opener to East Carolina, has won five straight to once again emerge as an ACC contender. This is a rematch of last season's ACC title game, but only Virginia Tech was expected to contend this year after Boston College lost Matt Ryan off last year's team. Instead, the Eagles' fifth-ranked defense has kept Boston College in every game. Expect a low-scoring affair as the defenses dominate, but Virginia Tech should have enough of an offensive edge with quarterback Tyrod Taylor to make the difference on the road.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Virginia Tech (Edelstein Lock) | RUSSELL: Virginia Tech
Cal would like you to know that there is more to the Pac-10 than USC, thank you. The Bears are 5-1, with the only loss coming at Maryland in an early-starting game in which Cal looked like it hit the snooze button one too many times. Arizona would also like to announce that its more than a pushover, but the Wildcats are coming off a loss to Stanford in which the Cardinal ran all over their defense (286 rushing yards allowed). That has to be music to the ears of Cal, which can run the ball even if Jahvid Best isn't yet at full health. His backup, Shane Vereen, is more than capable of gashing Arizona's smallish defense as Cal plays ball control. Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama can move the ball against the Cal defense -- when he has it. Time of possession will be key as Cal grinds out a win.
THE PICKS -- FEI: California | RUSSELL: California (Edelstein Lock)
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|Visitor||Spread||Home||FEI Says||Russell Says|
|Ohio State||-3.5||Michigan State||Michigan State||Ohio State|
|Michigan||+23.5||Penn State||Penn State||Michigan|
|Virginia Tech||+2.5||Boston College||Virginia Tech*||Virginia Tech|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
36 comments, Last at 20 Oct 2008, 11:28am by Yinka Double Dare