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?
03 Dec 2009
by Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau, and Rob Weintraub
After a rather disappointing college football season, fate has presented us with one hellacious regular season finale. Not only do we get the typical five conference title games (SEC, Big 12, ACC, MAC, Conference USA), but we also get two de facto conference title games -- Oregon State and Oregon meet tonight in Eugene to determine the Pac-10 champion, and Cincinnati and Pittsburgh face off Saturday in Pittsburgh to determine your Big East winner. TCU fans are rooting for Nebraska, Boise State fans are rooting for Texas and Cincinnati, and college football fans get the opportunity to forget about the season's disappointments and bask in the glow of conference title goodness and, of course, the Shula Bowl.
(Teams are listed according to BCS rankings.)
While the Pac-10 may not have the talent of the SEC or Big 12 (or, who knows, maybe they do?), the conference has offered something others have not: legitimate, on-the-field drama that is not in any way related to officials or injuries. Thanks to whippings at the hands of Oregon and Stanford, USC has officially been dethroned for the first time since roughly the Carter Administration, and in their stead we have seen a handful of teams jockeying for the title. We have already seen a dramatic elimination battle between Oregon and Arizona, and now we get the first ever winner-take-all Civil War -- a battle that was intense even when both teams were less than solid (Oregon fans were even giddy when their 1-8-1 Ducks beat the 1-8-1 Beavers, 7-6, in their epic 1982 battle). It could be a shootout. Last year's battle (a 65-38 Ducks win) saw 103 points and 1,157 yards, and Oregon State was playing without either of the Rodgers brothers, James and Jacquizz. With both offenses at full strength, look out. The game might last six hours, but you won't want to miss a minute of it.
The Picks -- Rob: Oregon St. | FEI: Oregon St. | S&P+: Oregon
The Ohio Bobcats haven't registered in the national consciousness lately, but they do return to the MAC championship game as East champs, the only team from their division to get there twice in the last five seasons. Quarterback Theo Scott single-handedly crushed Temple's worst-to-first dreams last weekend, throwing for 324 yards and three scores and chipping in 69 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Those are everyday stats for Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour, making his third MAC Championship start and capping an extraordinarily prolific career -- 145 career touchdowns (99 passing, 46 rushing), the most ever in NCAA history. MAC teams haven't garnered much mid-major attention, but both the Bobcats and Chippewas played valiantly against decent BCS conference teams in 2009 -- Ohio lost close games to Tennessee and Connecticut, and CMU beat Michigan State but lost to Arizona and Boston College.
The Picks -- Rob: CMU | FEI: Ohio | S&P+: Ohio
As opposed to the de facto Big East championship game in Pittsburgh, there isn't a tremendous amount of intrigue here. But with a victory and a Pitt loss, West Virginia can sneak into the No. 2 spot and a Gator Bowl berth. The Mountaineers defense rose up against the Panthers last weekend, holding Pitt to 2-of-13 third-down conversions, and Noel Devine streaked for an 88-yard touchdown to spark the offense. Rutgers senior stand-out wide receiver Tim Brown (20.7 yards per catch, 8 touchdowns) hasn't ever really got it going in games against the Mountaineers, but he will need to Saturday if Rutgers wants to end its 15-game losing streak to West Virginia. The Scarlet Knights rank first nationally in both turnover margin and field position advantage (FPA) -- Rutgers has started 22 drives this year in opponent territory but has only faced four such drives defensively.
The Picks -- Rob: West Virginia | FEI: West Virginia* | S&P+: West Virginia*
Cincinnati storms into Pittsburgh amidst a swirling cloud of intrigue and possibility. Is Brian Kelly coaching with one foot out the door and a U-Haul truck destined for South Bend idling in his driveway? If Texas stumbles, might the Bearcats actually be in position to claim a spot in the BCS championship game? Cincinnati under Kelly has climbed to new heights in every season since his hire, and this year's undefeated campaign is as remarkable as any. Kelly replaced 10 defensive starters and dealt with the temporary loss of once-Heisman-hopeful quarterback Tony Pike midseason without skipping a beat. Bearcats' receiver Mardy Gilyard has been turning it on in both the passing and kicking games lately, chipping in three touchdowns in the win over Illinois. Pitt had dreams of bigger things before dropping the Backyard Brawl but can still snatch the conference's BCS berth from Cincinnati's grip this weekend. Watch for receiver Jonathan Baldwin (six 100-plus-yard receiving games) to attack the Bearcats' suspect secondary.
The Picks -- Rob: Cincinnati | FEI: Cincinnati | S&P+: Pittsburgh
Skip Holtz and the Pirates went into Tulsa and stole the Conference USA Championship last season, and they look to make it two in a row at home against Houston. ECU has very quietly built what may be the next breakthrough mid-major program because they've done it without much star power or flash. The Pirates rank in the bottom half of all FBS teams in total offense and total defense, but they keep themselves in position to win every week. They suffered competitive losses to Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and North Carolina this season. Houston had the best non-conference season of all non-BCS teams, dropping Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and Mississippi State. Unfocused losses to UTEP and Central Florida doomed what might have been a BCS bowl game run. When they've clicked in conference play, it's been nothing short of jaw-dropping. Witness the 73-14 beatdown of Rice last weekend, a game in which quarterback Case Keenum threw for 320 yards in a 59-0 first half.
The Picks -- Rob: Houston | FEI: Houston | S&P+: Houston
Doesn't it seem odd that these teams are playing a week after their bitter intrastate rivalry games? USC flexed some beer muscles with a rub-it-in touchdown bomb to humiliate the Bruins. A loss to Arizona in the desert would make a lot of people, and not just Rick Neuheisel, smile. USC could finish second in the Pac-10 and clinch a Holiday Bowl berth with a win and an Oregon win -- or it could tumble all the way to sixth with a loss. The Wildcats are still reveling in "The Muff," a dropped punt by Arizona State's Kyle Williams that allowed Arizona to kick the winning field goal last weekend. It was a tough win, however -- quarterback Nick Foles broke his non-throwing hand, and running back Nic Grigsby was reinjured and lost for the season. This is a more even matchup than one would first suspect, but USC's slightly better defense gives the Trojans the edge.
The Picks -- Rob: USC | FEI: Arizona | S&P+: Arizona
We've all been waiting with bated breath for this matchup since the season opener, also played in the Georgia Dome, when Alabama took care of Virginia Tech, proving the Tide was once again of championship caliber. Now, the showdown for a berth in the BCS title game. The Gators won last season in this fixture without wide receiver Percy Harvin. This year's missing star is defensive end Carlos Dunlap, a terror off the edge, who was charged with DUI after taking a nap behind the wheel. Dunlap's absence hinders but hardly breaks one of the two best defenses in the country. Snag is, the other top defense will be across the field. In 2008, the slight difference between the two teams was Tim Tebow -- he will be the difference once again.
The Picks -- Rob: Alabama | FEI: Alabama | S&P+: Florida
Why this game? Why not??
To steal a bit from Bill Simmons ... Van Camp! Hilton! It's the Sun Belt Conference on ESPN360!! You can throw out the records when Inter Florida and AC Florida battle, and thank goodness for that -- the teams have combined for a 7-15 record. The 4-7 Owls of Florida Atlantic have taken a step backward after bowl wins in 2007 and 2008, but they have fared well recently in The Shula Bowl, winning six of seven in the series (the lone loss: an inexplicable 52-6 implosion in 2005). Junior quarterback Jeff Van Camp has done well in taking over for the injured Rusty Smith, and offense certainly won't be much of a problem for the Fightin' Howard Schnellenbergers. Meanwhile, the 3-8 Golden Panthers of Florida International (if nothing else, you can say you learned a couple of team nicknames in today's SDA), known mostly for a certain brawl and losing streak, showed improvement in 2008 (they finished 5-7), and though their overall record has regressed, a win Saturday would give them a 4-4 conference record and further momentum. Panthers receiver T.Y. Hilton likely has the most star power on the field, though his numbers (54 catches, 604 yards) have only been good, not great, in 2009.
The Picks -- Rob: FIU | FEI: FIU | S&P+: FAU
This has to be the best week James Brown (this one, not that one ... or that one) has had in quite a while, what with all the references to the 1996 Big 12 title game. The narrative has been making the rounds all week: Is this where Nebraska gets revenge on Texas for '96, when an underdog Texas squad upset a Nebraska team that seemed destined for the national title game? Do the Cornhuskers have enough offense to turn the tables 13 years later? Probably not. The Longhorns' defense may have struggled against their rivals in College Station last week, but Nebraska does not have the skill-position speed that Texas A&M has. That said, if the Huskers win the turnover and special teams battles, they will give themselves a chance. Of Texas' opponents, only Oklahoma has a defensive line comparable to Nebraska's, and the Sooners held Texas in check offensively. If defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (in his last opportunity to steal some Heisman votes here and there) wreaks havoc, this could be a game. And if Nebraska faces a fourth-and-short while nursing a late lead, watch the play fake.
The Picks -- Rob: Texas* | FEI: Texas | S&P+: Nebraska
A week ago, this game had the makings of becoming the first memorable ACC Championship game. But after both Tech and Clemson were whacked by mediocre SEC rivals Saturday, major luster has worn off this one. The Jackets knocked off Clemson in Atlanta earlier this year, blowing a big lead but kicking a late field goal to win a thriller. The chances for another close one depend on the health of running back C.J. Spiller. The Heisman candidate was sick before the game, although he looked fit on the game-opening kickoff return, which he brought to the house. If Spiller is over the stomach flu, the Tigers should match Tech score for score. Without Spiller at 100 percent, holding serve will be tough. Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt, also critical to his team's fortune, is dinged up (ankle sprain) as well.
The Picks -- Rob: Georgia Tech | FEI: Georgia Tech | S&P+: Clemson
Rob Weintraub: The college football season has been a disappointment. Yeah, I said it. But that was the regular season. Now that we are in the "postseason," the season can be salvaged with some good "playoff" games, starting with the national semifinal in Atlanta between Florida and Alabama. Last year's epic did much to carry fans through the long spring and summer months. After the blah fall, the Meyerites and Sabanistas are under pressure to provide us fans with a memorable thriller that will help sustain us and cast aside the mediocre last three months.
Brian Fremeau: Bill did a great job breaking down defensive keys to the game of the week/month/year in yesterday's ESPN piece. I'll only piggyback on his last key regarding field position in the SEC championship game. As Bill mentioned, both teams have strong FPA ratings in 2009, with Florida holding the modest edge. As Urban Meyer preaches, the Gators are at their throat-chomping best when they flip turnovers and the like in their favor. But I think Florida also knows how to win when they find themselves at a field position disadvantage better than most. They had a severe field position deficit against Oklahoma in the BCS championship last year and still managed to shut down one of the most prolific offenses in memory. Alabama rarely throttles anyone and only barely escaped Tennessee this season in their worst field position game of the year. It's the biggest part of the game that rarely gets discussed by the guys in the booth, and it's what I'll be paying attention to most during this and the other big games this weekend.
Bill Connelly: How interesting is it that Gary Patterson, the person one would assume is the single biggest playoff proponent right about now, came out this week against the idea of a college football playoff? His logic is decent ("If you have a playoff, you practice and get on a plane and play. And if you lose, it's over. If you go to a bowl game, you're there seven days and the kids can enjoy a place and get rewarded."), though I should mention that my Perfect Playoff would give teams the benefit of both playoffs and bowls. That said, it certainly does show you that the case for a playoff is not quite as clear and accepted as we might have begun to think. We knew that university higher-ups and bowl officials (and the purveyors of this amazing Web site) love the current system, but the support goes beyond that, to the people who would seemingly stand to benefit from a change to the system, and I find that rather interesting.
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|Florida Atlantic||+1.5||Florida International||FIU||FIU||FAU|
|Georgia Tech||-1||Clemson||Ga. Tech||Ga. Tech||Clemson|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
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29 comments, Last at 06 Dec 2009, 12:48pm by Tampa Bay Mike