Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» Scramble Over/Unders: the Norths

The league's northern divisions pose a number of meaty questions, such as: "Is the Bears' offense due for a repeat performance?" "Why do the Lions have such pronounced splits?" and "Has Johnny Manziel made the Cleveland brass even crazier?"

08 Oct 2009

SDA: Conference Play in Full Swing

by Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau, and Rob Weintraub

This weekend marks the first full slate of Big 12 conference games, meaning every major conference is now off and rolling to decide who gets the BCS automatic bids. Nebraska-Missouri could go a long way in deciding the Big 12 North. Same with Alabama-Ole Miss in the SEC West. Meanwhile, Wisconsin-Ohio State and Iowa-Michigan will serve as miniature elimination games in the Big Ten race, and the Pitt-Connecticut winner will be well-positioned to make a run at current Big East favorite Cincinnati. Considering we are just dipping our toes into October, a lot is at stake this weekend.

This Week's Games

No. 21 Nebraska at No. 24 Missouri (Thursday, 9:00 p.m., ESPN)

Through the first month of the season, a clear divide has formed between the top half of the Big 12 North (Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska) and the bottom half (Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas State). In the first of the three-game round robin between the top teams, Nebraska visits Missouri for a typhoon of both intensity and ... rain. With a potentially major rainstorm looming, this game is an interesting matchup of strengths and weaknesses. Nebraska is vulnerable to big passing plays, and Missouri has completed more long passes than anybody in the country. Meanwhile, Mizzou has been shaky in the trenches, where Nebraska is stout. The Huskers have been outscored by a combined 123-54 in their last three trips to Columbia, and they will need to ride Roy Helu, Jr. (assuming he doesn't have the flu) as far as he will take them if they want to win this time around.

The Picks -- Rob: Mizzou | FEI: Nebraska | S&P+: Mizzou

Georgia at Tennessee (Saturday, 12:21 p.m., ESPN 360)

Last week's loss to LSU dropped Georgia from the AP Top 25. It marks the first time that neither Georgia nor Tennessee has been ranked since Dec. 6, 1994. A combined 5-5, the loser of this game in Knoxville will face an uphill battle toward one of the SEC's better bowl bids. This game pits one of the game's best receivers, Georgia's A.J. Green, versus one of the game's best defensive backs, Tennessee safety Eric Berry. They are each the best player on almost any field they grace, and while they might face each other much, everyone -- especially NFL scouts -- is hoping to see at least a couple of one-on-one battles through the game's 60 minutes.

The Picks -- Rob: Georgia | FEI: Georgia | S&P+: Tennessee

No. 3 Alabama at No. 20 Mississippi (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS)

Before the season, most prognosticators circled this game as the SEC West decider. FEI and S+P disagreed, saying Ole Miss was overvalued, and the numbers look prescient. The Rebels have some good players but greatly miss graduated NFL talent on the offensive and defensive lines. Hyped quarterback Jevan Snead has been erratic, throwing for three three touchdowns and as many picks last week against Vandy. He faces a giant leap up in class against Alabama. Florida remains the consensus No. 1, but a strong case could be made that Alabama has been the nation’s most impressive squad. The season-ending injury to linebacker Dont’a Hightower hurts, but the Tide’s defense still swarms. Quarterback Greg McElroy has quickly made Rammer Hammer Nation forget J.P. Wilson, and a win in the Grove would make for his first quality win on the road.

The Picks -- Rob: Alabama | FEI: Alabama | S&P+: Alabama

Connecticut at Pittsburgh (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC)

With Cincinnati and West Virginia leading the way in the conference race, this game likely will determine secondary Big East bowl bids. The Huskies and Panthers were each bitten by double-digit comeback victories in non-conference play by ACC teams from North Carolina. Connecticut's win at Baylor is the most notable notch in either team's belt. Both teams love to run: Connecticut's Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon have each topped 100 yards in multiple games this year, and Pittsburgh has found a youthful spark from Dion Lewis and Ray Graham. The Huskies have the edge defensively, but special teams play will be truly critical. Each has enjoyed a healthy field position advantage this year, and a long field may mean a long day for the loser.

The Picks -- Rob: Pitt | FEI: Pitt | S&P+: UConn (LOCK)

No. 13 Oregon at UCLA (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC)

Did Chip Kelly just throw LeGarrette Blount's name out there just to distract everybody from how good Oregon has looked the last few weeks? Kelly's hint that Blount could find his way back to the team in another month or so after having been suspended for the season actually does not reek of desperation by any means because ... well, the Ducks might not even need him. Their offensive output has improved from 31 points, to 42, to 52, during the last three weeks. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli is absolutely on fire (35-for-43 passing with four touchdowns and no interceptions the last two weeks), and Oregon travels to the City of Angels with a defense that only gave up a combined 22 points to Boise State and California. If they can go 3-1 over the next month (road trips to UCLA, Washington, and Stanford, with a home game against USC sandwiched in between), they could be the Rose Bowl favorites heading into November. Of course, a loss to a salty 3-1 UCLA team could kick-start a pretty big tumble as well.

The Picks -- Rob: Oregon | FEI: Oregon | S&P+: UCLA

Wisconsin at No. 9 Ohio State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC)

Contender or pretender? Undefeated Wisconsin is on the clock. The 5-0 Badgers haven't done enough yet to impress the pollsters (at least those in the AP poll) or Vegas (a three-score spread). This week's trip to the Horseshoe will be followed by a clash with Iowa back in Madison, so we'll all know where the Badgers stand soon enough. The Buckeyes appear to be following their usual script: dominate the Big Ten quietly and effectively en route to another BCS bid. Ohio State's defense has stepped into its starring role, holding USC, Toledo, Illinois, and Indiana to 25 total non-garbage points after giving up 27 points to Navy in the opener. No one has shut down the Wisconsin rushing attack yet, but Ohio State presents their most physical challenge to date.

The Picks -- Rob: Wisconsin (LOCK) | FEI: Wisconsin | S&P+: Wisconsin

No. 10 TCU at Air Force (Saturday, 7:30 p.m.)

One of the country's final two BCS-buster hopes, TCU faces a tricky road trip to Colorado Springs to face your standard, run-of-the-mill Air Force team that is prolific on the ground (291.8 rushing yards per game) and only throws when it has to (10.4 passes per game). TCU has already tamed two trips east -- they whipped Virginia, 30-14, then upset Clemson, 14-10, two weeks later. They stand at 4-0, and, if they emerge from their next two road trips unscathed (they play BYU in Provo on October 24), then they should be 12-0 for bowl selection time. The secret to the Horned Frogs' success this year has been as much offense as defense. Their underrated offense is the most efficient in the country, which is a pretty deadly weapon combined with the team's typical stout run defense and pass rush.

The Picks -- Rob: Air Force | FEI: TCU | S&P+: TCU

No. 1 Florida at No. 4 LSU (Saturday, 8:00 p.m., CBS)

Even before The Headache Heard 'Round The World, this had all the makings of the SEC game of the year. The Gators remain a strong favorite, but Tim Tebow’s concussion and LSU’s stirring win in Athens Saturday has tightened the perception gap. It took Tigers running back Charles Scott until the dying seconds to break off a big-time run, and he’ll need to pound away successfully to give the home team its best chance. Tennessee showed that old-fashioned slobber-knocking could be successful against Florida. Out on the perimeter, LSU’s fine receivers, Brandon LaFell and Terrence Toliver, will be a great matchup against Florida’s top corners, Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins. As for Tebow, few would dare bet against his efficiency, bruised brain or not. But one can’t help think that he will be tentative, especially against an LSU defense that is vulnerable to the big play but hits hard.

The Picks -- Rob: LSU | FEI: LSU | S&P+: Florida

No. 22 Georgia Tech at Florida State (Saturday, 8:00 p.m., ESPN2)

The buzzards had been circling over Bobby Bowden and his program for some time. This week, the hyenas, jackals, and every other carrion-feeder on the savannah smelled blood. FSU is 25-24 since October 2005, a stretch of mediocrity that would have ended with most coaches getting canned. Bowden remains, but when the Board of Trustees starts calling for your job, it might not be the best time to order that new throw rug for the office. FSU has the athletes on defense to slow Tech’s triple option as Miami did, but whether it still has the desire is another question. The Institute seems like the third-best team in the ACC -- unfortunately, the other two, Miami and Virginia Tech, are also in the Coastal Division, meaning the Jackets' participation in the conference title game seems a long shot. Beating the Seminoles is a priority. Helping the cause is Tech’s one-man receiver corps, DeMaryius Thomas, who has made the offense a bit more multi-dimensional through sheer brilliance.

The Picks -- Rob: Ga. Tech | FEI: FSU | S&P+: FSU

Michigan at No. 12 Iowa (Saturday, 8:05 p.m., ABC)

The Hawkeyes geared up and fiercely struck down Penn State, Arizona and Iowa State this year, but hold-your-breath escapes from disaster against Northern Iowa and Arkansas State have to make you wonder about their focus for the long haul. Focus shouldn't be an issue this week, though, with the Wolverines coming to Iowa City. Michigan's quarterback Tate Forcier tasted defeat for the first time this season in a nail-biter against Michigan State last week, and owned it. You have to believe there's a Tebow-style post-game podium tantrum in that kid's future. For now, Michigan's rushing attack (12 touchdowns on the year) faces an Iowa defense that hasn't surrendered a rushing touchdown since last November, eight straight games and counting.

The Picks -- Rob: Michigan | FEI: Iowa (LOCK) | S&P+: Iowa

Storylines of the Week

Rob Weintraub: Not that long ago, the East was the Beast of the SEC. Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee were annual Goliaths, and Steve Spurrier was going to restore South Carolina! Well, the Gators are still greater, but the West is best. Nick Saban’s hire has been the tide (pun intended) that has lifted the division’s boats. Auburn is back in the game, thanks to Gus Malzahn’s offensive wizardry. LSU always has the talent, and this year, a decent quarterback in Jordan Jefferson. Ole Miss was the preseason sexy choice, and remains dangerous, if untested, so far. Ryan Mallett’s big arm makes Arkansas tough, and even Mississippi State, under Dan Mullen’s guidance, has shown snarl. If Florida falls at LSU, the seesaw might toss the East straight up in the air.

Brian Fremeau: Have you taken a gander at the ACC standings lately? There are three undefeated teams in conference play, and two of them -- Maryland and Virginia -- are, by many accounts, objectively bad teams. The Miami Hurricanes boast the best resume in the conference, if not the nation, but will need Virginia Tech to lose twice in league play in order to even get to the ACC title game as the Coastal Division representative. Florida State has the league's most impressive non-conference victory -- a drubbing of BYU in Provo -- but is languishing at the bottom of the Atlantic Division standings. Maybe by handing off the usual Thursday primetime slot to the Big 12, the ACC will enjoy a week of stability, and the dominant teams, whoever they are, will play like dominant teams. Either that, or we're in for another race to 5-3, four-way tiebreakers, and a renewed debate over the meaning of parity.

Bill Connelly: Tim Tebow at Florida. Sam Bradford, Jermaine Gresham, and now Ryan Broyles at Oklahoma. Ronald Johnson at USC. Dont'a Hightower at Alabama. Kendall Hunter and Zac Robinson at Oklahoma State. Is it just me, or have more preseason top teams been waylaid by injuries this year than at any other time in recent memory? Granted, some of these have been worse than others -- Tebow has yet to miss a game, Robinson was back (though rusty) for the start of the season, and Alabama's defense is deep enough to absorb the loss of Hightower. But overall, combined with the suspensions of LeGarrette Blount and Dez Bryant, this season has been deprived of some serious star power.

The Picks
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
Visitor Spread Home Rob FEI S&P+
Nebraska -3 Missouri Missouri Nebraska Missouri
Georgia +2 Tennessee Georgia Georgia Tennessee
Alabama -6.5 Ole Miss Alabama Alabama Alabama
Connecticut +8 Pittsburgh UConn Pitt UConn*
Oregon -3.5 UCLA Oregon Oregon UCLA
Wisconsin +16.5 Ohio State Wisconsin* Wisconsin Wisconsin
TCU -10 Air Force Air Force TCU TCU
Florida -7.5 LSU LSU LSU Florida
Georgia Tech +2.5 Florida State Ga. Tech FSU FSU
Michigan +8 Iowa Michigan Iowa* Iowa
Season-long Results
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
  Last Week Season Total
S&P+: 6-4 0-1 30-19-1 (3-2-0)
FEI: 4-6 0-1 24-25-1 (2-3-0)
Rob: 4-6 0-1 18-31-1 (0-5-0)

Remember to discuss games all weekend long on our new college football discussion board.

Posted by: The Outsiders on 08 Oct 2009

17 comments, Last at 09 Oct 2009, 4:56pm by robwein

Comments

1
by Kevin from Philly :: Thu, 10/08/2009 - 3:14pm

Thanks guys! I went with S&P+ and against Rob last weekend and got two winners (fortunately, Navy was down to -2 1/2 by then). Too scared to take UConn at Pitt, but Ohio State looks intriguing. Can't remember Wisky playing well there recently, and who can argue with Rob's consistency (0-5)?

2
by vegaschick (not verified) :: Thu, 10/08/2009 - 3:50pm

I'm with Kevin from Philly...the S&P+ versus Rob Strategy is a real winner. I will use it this weekend on all 6 games the two camps have picked differently. It helps that 3 of the S&P picks I am in total agreement with, Tennessee, Florida and FSU.

3
by AnonymousA (not verified) :: Thu, 10/08/2009 - 3:52pm

While some might argue that predictions should be evaluated by how often they're correct, I much prefer the measure of information. Assuming that the spreads are set correctly, a .500 record would involve adding no information (e.g. FEI). Even more fascinating, however, is that Rob and S&P+ have fought their way into a statistical tie for most informative predictions, with Rob crushing S&P+ on tiebreakers.

Just goes to show that human intuition still has something that statistics don't.

13
by vcn (not verified) :: Thu, 10/08/2009 - 11:35pm

The only danger, of course, is that Rob will start taking this theory into account. Please, Rob, trust your instincts!

4
by mm (not verified) :: Thu, 10/08/2009 - 4:09pm

The Miami Hurricanes boast the best resume in the conference, if not the nation, but will need Virginia Tech to lose twice in league play in order to even get to the ACC title game as the Coastal Division representative

Georgia Tech could win out to produce a 3 way with VT & Miami that replicates last year Big 12 South 3 way tie (everyone goes 1-1 versus the other 2). Virginia could also end up in such a tie, but it seems less likely.

I'm not going to bother to look up tie-breaking procedures in the ACC, but Miami would seem to have a chance if Georgia Tech wins out.

10
by peachy (not verified) :: Thu, 10/08/2009 - 5:30pm

If the tie does get down to the BCS deciding things - after navigating six levels of common opponents without being resolved or reduced to only two teams - then Miami would need to be not only first among the tied group in the standings but at least six spots ahead of VaTech, or with a team it beat between them.

5
by Tom Gower :: Thu, 10/08/2009 - 4:24pm

7-3 (1-0) last week, as the "pick against the consensus" Edelstein of the Cardinal came through for me. 25-24-1 (2-3) on the year wouldn't earn me a good living, though.

This week, I'll take Missouri, Georgia, Alabama, UConn, Oregon, Ohio State, TCU, Florida, Free Shoes, and Iowa, with the Buckeyes an easy anti-consensus pick for the Edelstein lock.

8
by Will :: Thu, 10/08/2009 - 5:16pm

The only thing that concerns me is that the Ohio State line appears to be factoring in the way Ohio State has been finishing games in Big Ten play (i.e. throwing until the very end). It's one thing to do that with a 20+ point lead on Illinois and Indiana, but I can't see tOSU doing that against Wisconsin.

The Buckeyes are a superior team and can cover this line, but if they are not up by 20 at halftime, I would really get worried about that lock :) If they are only up 21 - 10 or something along those lines, you are going to see more Saine and less Posey. 24 - 7 and I can see the Bucks continue to work on the passing game.

Will

6
by John Geer (not verified) :: Thu, 10/08/2009 - 4:39pm

Summary says Rob favors Ole Miss, but table indicates Alabama across the board, including Rob.

Which is correct?

7
by Bill Connelly :: Thu, 10/08/2009 - 4:50pm

That's my bad. He picked 'Bama. Will make the change.

9
by Joseph :: Thu, 10/08/2009 - 5:26pm

Both--that's how Rob figures to get back in contention--he can claim he made the right pick no matter what the outcome.

17
by robwein (not verified) :: Fri, 10/09/2009 - 4:56pm

Thanks, way to blow my master plan...
RW

11
by Kal :: Thu, 10/08/2009 - 7:54pm

Surprised y'all didn't mention Oregon's injury to Masoli in the blurb. That's gotta scare some people (including Vegas).

16
by aster (not verified) :: Fri, 10/09/2009 - 2:18pm

Yeah... I know you guys have a lot of games to cover, but that hints at lazy research.

Oregon's starting QB Masoli is probably out with a knee injury. His backup, Nate Costa, has just a few quarters of mop-up experience and has blown out his knee multiple times (not ideal for any QB, let alone one running the spread-option). This would seem worth mentioning in a preview. It's not like it'd take a lot of digging to find that angle.

12
by Tom Gower :: Thu, 10/08/2009 - 11:30pm

I hate "rain games" like this, because they really seem to deprive us of useful information about how good these teams are. After Mizzou "scored" the TD at the end of the first half to negate the possibility of a 2-0 final, I stopped caring as much.

14
by Packerpalooza (not verified) :: Fri, 10/09/2009 - 5:27am

Word out of Columbus is that a half dozen kids will miss the game due to flu including the starting left tackle and his backup. O'Brien Schofield, last week's Big Ten Defensive Player of the week and DE for Wisconsin, might find that interesting.

Wisconsin typically plays Ohio State tough and Tressel is 3-3 versus Wisconsin.

The Wisco disco flaw is a scatterbrained secondary. The positives are a solid overall offense that can both run and pass, a rarity at WI and a front seven that can defend run/pass.

15
by Will :: Fri, 10/09/2009 - 1:57pm

Last I checked, tOSU is still a 16 point favorite (after opening +14.0), so it appears that Vegas isn't buying it.

The official word is that Andrew Miller will miss because of the flu for the second week in a row. His more talented backup Mike Adams will start in his place. Guard Justin Boren and tight end Jake Ballard also have flus, but have not been ruled out.

Will