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?
30 Oct 2008
by Bill Connelly
(Ed. Note: Unfortunately, we're still dealing with technical issues at Casa Levine, so no SDA podcast this week. Bill Connelly of "Varsity Numbers" is filling in with some previews of this weekend's biggest games. Russell was able to send along picks, which appear along with FEI picks in a table at the end of the article.)
We know what we're getting from Texas at this point. Colt "Cyborg" McCoy will make the right decisions (it's amazing how much better you become as a quarterback when you have a trusty offensive line and two telekinetic wide receivers), and the Longhorn defensive line will come in waves at Graham Harrell. What we don't know is how Texas Tech will respond playing in what is their biggest game since at least the mid-1970s, possibly ever. Pirate Mike Leach's team has a (mostly) direct route to the BCS Championship game, and the crowd in Lubbock will be three steps beyond insane. Will Tech be able to harness their inevitable emotions into something productive, or will Texas just do what they have done for the last month -- absorb the other team's shot and counter-punch mercilessly? It's worth noting that Tech hasn't held Texas under 35 points since 2000. Then again, nobody has held Tech under 35 this year either. This one could be crazy.
Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli has thrived recently, in an "Oregon quarterback" kind of way. During the Ducks' two-game recovery since getting their doors blown off by USC, Masoli has rushed for 255 yards and thrown for 189, doing just enough to keep defenses from keying on Oregon's bevy of running backs, leading the Ducks to a 4-1 Pacific 10 record, and most importantly, staying healthy. It seems no Oregon quarterback has managed to play more than three games in a row since Joey Harrington. Meanwhile, Jeff Tedford's Bears continue to take two steps forward and one step back. They sit at 5-2 despite inconsistency at the quarterback position (formerly Tedford's strength). Jahvid Best is one of the most exciting running backs around, not only averaging 7.0 yards per carry but also catching three passes per game and averaging 31.6 yards per kick return. Whatever the "over/under" is for big plays, pick the "over."
These two teams have looked fantastic for most of the season, but as of yet their respective seasons have been defined by their sole missteps. However, they both seem to be peaking just in time for the Cocktail Party. After scoring 40 or more points eight times in 2007, the Gators had managed to do so only once in their first five games; in their last two games, they have put up 114 points against LSU and Kentucky, two teams not commonly known for defensive deficiencies. Meanwhile, Georgia has responded to their devastating home loss to Alabama by improving incrementally each week. They have won three in a row, including a 52-38 thumping of LSU in Baton Rouge. Georgia cannot seem to escape the building "Florida wants revenge after being disrespected last year" narrative (after their first touchdown in last year's game, the entire Georgia team rushed the field and celebrated in the end zone), and the louder that gets, the more it probably favors the Gators.
The winner of this game takes a large step toward controlling the Big East. Connecticut's brand of football reminds you of good, old-fashioned Big East basketball. Led by Donald Brown (who is on pace for 350-plus carries, almost 2,000 rushing yards, and 20-plus touchdowns), they have a punishing, plodding, physical offense. They are not into flashy things like "big plays" or "a passing game." They will just punch you in the mouth repeatedly, and they have done this well enough to sit at 5-2. Meanwhile, West Virginia seems to be hitting its stride, to the dismay of the rest of the conference. Every time Noel Devine touches the ball, you think he's not only going to score, but he's going to pull a Tecmo Bo Jackson and run all the way back down the field and score again. Also, Pat White's passer rating has been almost 170 since back-to-back debacles against Colorado and East Carolina. They once again look like the Big East's team to beat if they leave Rentschler Field with a win.
In one week, Pittsburgh went from "destined for a BCS bowl" right back to "Fire Dave Wannstedt!!" That's what happens when you give up 54 points at home to Rutgers, a team that had managed just 57 points in their first four games against FBS competition this year. Panther quarterback Bill Stull is uncertain for Saturday's game after suffering both a stinger and a concussion in the loss to Rutgers. Luckily, Pittsburgh still has LeSean McCoy and his 23 carries (and 119 yards) per game, so they have a fighting chance. Meanwhile, does anybody know what to do with Notre Dame yet? They have victories over San Diego State (1-7), Michigan (2-6), Purdue (2-6), Stanford (4-4), and Washington (0-7). They have faced two teams with winning records -- Michigan State (7-2) and North Carolina (6-2) -- and have lost both games. Jimmy Clausen has put together solid stats (1,832 passing yards, 15 touchdowns, 9 interceptions), but at some point the Irish still need to beat a decent team. Does it start on Saturday?
Virginia is leading the ACC Coastal Division? Really? The same Virginia Cavaliers who lost to Duke, 31-3, a month ago? Such is life in the ACC. The Cavs have unearthed a productive running back in Cedric Peerman (445 yards and six touchdowns in the last four games) and a stingy defense, and they own back-to-back upsets over North Carolina and Georgia Tech. Now, to hold onto their division lead, they must hold back a Miami team that has won three in a row themselves. The Hurricanes are six points from being 7-1 right now, though at the same time they are averaging only 23 more yards per game than their opponents. They are playing better and better defense (No. 15 in total defense) and have ridden third-quarter offensive surges to victories against Duke and Wake Forest. In a division where the top and bottom team are separated by 1.5 games, this game will do as much as any in establishing a favorite to meet the Atlantic Division champion on December 6.
A year ago, Michigan State was the "almost" team, losing six games by a touchdown or less. They started 2008 with another such loss (38-31 at California). Since the Cal loss, they have won seven of eight games, and all that stand between Michigan State and a November 22 date with Penn State for possible Big Ten supremacy are home games against Wisconsin and Purdue. Javon Ringer is averaging an astounding 33 carries and 153 yards per game. Seriously, his 300 carries are more than those of 83 FBS teams. Meanwhile, Wisconsin began the bounce-back process after a four-game losing streak by beating Illinois in Madison last week. New Badger quarterback David Gilreath was competent and steady against the Illini, and while his season numbers are no better than those of the vanquished Allan Evridge (who could have possibly known that a guy who was beaten out for the starting job at Kansas State by Dylan Meier wouldn't work out?), last week might have been a sign of good things to come. Ringer and the Wisconsin running back du jour (P.J. Hill and John Clay are both gimpy) might combine for 80 carries on Saturday, but hey, that means the game will only last about 2 hours, right?
Don't tell anybody, but Florida State might actually be good again. Since a 12-3 loss to Wake Forest on September 20, the Seminoles have averaged 34 points per game (against decent defensive teams like Miami and Virginia Tech). Meanwhile, they are third in the country in total defense, seventh in rushing defense, seventh in sacks, and ninth in tackles for loss. They're as athletic as ever defensively, and quarterback Christian Ponder might (MIGHT) be Bobby Bowden's first consistently good quarterback since Chris Weinke. Of course, I might also be jumping to conclusions. The always crafty Georgia Tech defense (second in tackles for loss, seventh in scoring defense) will be a nice test. Ahh, Georgia Tech. I love that the flexbone is back in my life. Yellow Jacket running back Jonathan Dwyer was made for Paul Johnson's offense, and quarterbacks Josh Nesbitt and Jaybo Shaw have adapted nicely, but the Tech offense is still a work in progress. They haven't scored more than 30 points since September's 38-7 win over Mississippi State. Points will be at a premium in this one. Consider it the anti-Texas/Texas Tech.
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|Visitor||Spread||Home||FEI Says||Russell Says|
|West Virginia||-4||UConn||UConn*||West Virginia|
|Pittsburgh||+4.5||Notre Dame||Pittsburgh||Notre Dame|
|Wisconsin||+4.5||Michigan State||Michigan State||Wisconsin|
|Florida State||+2||Georgia Tech||Georgia Tech||Florida State|
Season-long results table will return next week.
42 comments, Last at 03 Nov 2008, 11:23pm by MC2