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?
17 Sep 2009
by Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau, and Rob Weintraub
A week ago, we were wondering how to find 10 worthy games. This week, we had a hard time settling on just 10. Ohio State at Toledo, Southern Cal at Washington, and Tulsa at Oklahoma are all upset-alert candidates, but none of them made the SDA cut. Several games we did take a look at involve both non-conference and conference clashes that might feature an entirely different outcome than a year ago. The Texas Longhorns are probably the most motivated by revenge this week, but Miami, Nebraska, Boston College, and Auburn are all looking to flip the script from last season as well. Tennessee? Not this year.
For the first time since Ken Dorsey graduated, Quarterback U. has a signal caller worthy of the lineage. Sophomore Jacory Harris came of age against Florida State, showing toughness, calm, and ability under exceptionally heated conditions. Does he have an encore in him? Avenging last season’s walloping at the hands of the Yellow Jackets would cement Harris’ standing in Coral Gables. Clemson provided a blueprint to slowing Tech’s triple option -- energetic and smart play from large defensive tackles. In defensive linemen Marcus Forston and Allen Bailey, the Canes have the horses to slow running back Jonathan Dwyer and the Tech option. They just need the discipline and stamina to do it for four quarters. Tech built a big lead last Thursday in a nationally televised prime time game using emotion and big plays on special teams. Now on the road under similar circumstances, they will have to guard against falling prey to a Miami team jacked up to return to the field after 10 days off.
The Picks -- Rob: GT | FEI: GT | S&P+: Miami
Know your obscure college football rivalry trophies: Boise State and Fresno State meet every season not just for WAC bragging rights and the inside track on the conference championship, but also for the Milk Can. The Battle of the Milk Can is a fiercely contested annual tradition dating all the way back to ... 2005. A Broncos win would certainly do their body (of work) good. Of all the non-BCS contenders, Boise State has the fewest obstacles in its path, and Chris Petersen's team has been exceptional in taking care of business against lesser opponents. Pat Hill’s Bulldogs are thirsty for a victory after having their way with Wisconsin for big stretches last weekend -- 179 yards rushing and 289 yards passing -- before falling in overtime. Three interceptions, including one in the second overtime, did them in. Boise State’s defense has been the sixth-most efficient in the nation to date, and will probably force a few turnovers in this one.
The Picks -- Rob: BSU | FEI: Fresno St. | S&P+: BSU
Boston College’s potential was shrouded in mystery before the season kicked off. With a new coach, big talent holes to fill in key spots on defense, and no experience at quarterback, could the Eagles really pick up where they left off and knock out another 8-to-9 win season as projected by FEI? Two big wins over two very weak opponents -- Northeastern and Kent State -- haven't provided an answer. Clemson’s swarming defense will. With the exception of a few big and somewhat fluky first-half plays, the Tigers dominated the line of scrimmage against Georgia Tech’s potent offense a week ago. A conference loss to the Yellow Jackets hurt a little bit, but Clemson can take charge of the ACC Atlantic by taking care of business against BC on Saturday.
The Picks -- Rob: BC | FEI: BC | S&P+: BC
Lane Kiffin’s vanity project, aka the Tennessee Volunteers football team, took one on the chin Saturday, getting outhustled and outhit by UCLA. Now comes the Day of Reckoning. Kiffin let the world know he out-recruited Urban Meyer in the offseason, even calling Meyer a cheater and getting taped doing it. Urban and the Gators are unlikely to show much mercy in explaining to Kiffin the error of his ways. Anyone who mistakenly boarded the Jonathan Crompton Belief Train after he lit up abysmal Western Kentucky in the opener deserved to be humiliated by his horrific play against the Bruins. Crompton simply isn’t a BCS-level quarterback, a fact that will only be highlighted against a bloodthirsty Florida defense, and the presence of Tim Tebow -- in stark contrast -- on the opposite sideline.
The Picks -- Rob: Florida (LOCK) | FEI: Florida | S&P+: Tennessee (LOCK)
The last time these two teams met, the results could not have been more uncharacteristic. Not only did Virginia Tech give up 30 points for the first of only two times all season, but they scored over 30 for the only time all season. The Hokies' 35-30 victory was accentuated by quarterback Tyrod Taylor's 171 yards passing and 87 yards rushing. While Taylor has only averaged 142 total yards per game in 2009, the difference makers could be the new guys in the backfield. Freshmen Ryan Williams and David Wilson combined for 329 yards rushing last week against Marshall, but they will face a stiffer test against a Nebraska line that is only average against the run but fantastic rushing the passer. These two defenses take advantage of miscues better than most in the country, so the onus will be on Taylor and Nebraska quarterback Zac Lee to play mistake-free ball.
The Picks -- Rob: VT | FEI: VT (LOCK) | S&P+: Nebraska
Few teams delivered a more shocking display of power than Cincinnati did a week and a half ago when they traveled to Big East favorite Rutgers' backyard and crushed the Scarlet Knights, 47-15. Predicted to drop off after losing 10 defensive starters, the Bearcats have not yet skipped a beat. Now they make a cross-country trip to the Pacific Northwest to take on last year's "replace an entire defense and don't miss a beat" team, Oregon State. The Beavers survived a tricky road trip to Vegas and took out UNLV, 23-21, last week. They will probably need to score more than 23 to beat Cincinnati, but they have the potential fire power to do so: Running back Jacquizz Rodgers (269 yards, 6.4 per carry) and quarterback Sean Canfield (173.3 passer rating, 78.6% completion rate) have been stellar so far. This is a battle of two of the stronger under-the-radar programs in the country, and one can take a definitive step forward Saturday evening.
The Picks -- Rob: Ore. St. | FEI: Ore. St. | S&P+: Ore. St.
It might not have had quite the same appeal at the start of the season, but with two programs heading in opposite directions to start off the year, a victory in Provo would be huge for both BYU and Florida State. The Seminoles dropped their Labor Day opener in dramatic fashion to Miami, then sputtered and flirted with catastrophe in a come-from-behind victory over Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division II) school Jacksonville State last weekend. Meanwhile, after downing Oklahoma and obliterating Tulane, “BYU” and “BCS Title Game” are already being discussed in the same sentence. Cougars quarterback Max Hall has to be licking his chops about the Seminoles vacant pass defense against the Hurricanes, and the BYU defense has already proved their mettle against Oklahoma. They shouldn’t have to knock out a starting quarterback to control the game this time.
The Picks -- Rob: BYU | FEI: BYU | S&P+: FSU
Here’s a couple of more teams that FEI projections love, but who still haven’t proven a whole lot in starting the season 2-0. Auburn’s Gene Chizik and West Virginia’s Bill Stewart are the most suspect undefeated coaches in America. Coming into the season, the nation was waiting for the bottoms to drop out on the Tigers and Mountaineers programs, and it was hard to tell which way the respective fan bases wanted to see things go. Neither coach will have a statue erected in his honor for a win Saturday night, but the victorious coach will be able to defer questions about the direction of the program. Both teams feature newly remodeled offenses led by senior quarterbacks -- Chris Todd for Auburn and Jarrett Brown for West Virginia -- who have looked perfectly comfortable and capable against weaker competition. Bring on a real test.
The Picks -- Rob: Auburn | FEI: W. Va. | S&P+: W. Va.
Bobby Petrino lasted less than a year in the state of Georgia, yet you would be hard-pressed to find a more hated figure in the Peach State -- at least since General Sherman burned the place to a crisp. The Bulldogs would dearly love to exact some Petrino Payback, but after allowing South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia to look like John Elway Saturday, there is cause for concern. Razorbacks quarterback Ryan Mallett looks like a perfect fit for Petrino’s system, and there is plenty of talent around him on offense, at least. This could be the game Georgia expected the Oklahoma State game to be -- one against a great offensive squad that is suspect on defense. Meanwhile, Arkansas’ killer schedule has the Hogs traveling to Tuscaloosa, Ala., Baton Rouge, La., Gainesville, Fla., and Oxford, Miss., this season (and a game against Texas A&M in Dallas). If Bobby Petrino is hoping for a gift bag from bowl game organizers, his team had best make hay in Fayetteville. Petrino freely admits his staff has been prepping for this game all offseason, while Georgia has had two toughies already.
The Picks -- Rob: Arkansas | FEI: Georgia | S&P+: Arkansas
The last time these teams met, Harrell-to-Crabtree sank the Longhorns, eventually ruining Texas' conference and national title hopes by dragging them into the most epic three-way tie ever. It was the one 2008 blemish for Texas, and they will be looking for payback in the Big 12's only early-season conference battle. This time around, two pretty different teams will face off. The Red Raiders have actually shown a stellar defense (albeit against North Dakota and Rice) while struggling significantly to run the football -- their 2.04 line yards per carry ranks better than only four BCS conference teams (Duke, Arkansas, Virginia, UCLA). They will need to keep Texas off balance somehow if they want to have a chance, and they will need their defense to do whatever it was that Wyoming did to keep Texas grounded for much of the first half last week in Laramie. The Longhorn offense hasn't yet started firing on all cylinders.
The Picks -- Rob: Tech | FEI: Texas | S&P+: Texas
Rob Weintraub: Outside of Austin, the dominant memory of last year’s epic Texas-Texas Tech clash was the last-second pass from Harrell to Crabtree -- the play that changed the landscape of college football. In the Cap City, most fans will hasten to remember the agonizing dropped interception that immediately preceded The Play. Longhorns safety Blake Gideon let the ball slip through his wickets. To their credit, Burnt Orange Nation didn’t run the freshman safety out of town on a rail, and they have been rewarded with an active, solid player in an excellent secondary. But staring over Gideon’s shoulder is a bigger, faster player -- Christian Scott -- who wants more playing time. It would behoove young master Gideon not to make another epochal gaffe Saturday night. This time, the Hook ‘Em crowd might not be so forgiving, and neither will coach Mack Brown.
Brian Fremeau: Emotions. They can make an impact in almost every endeavor, but college football seems to be their favorite sport. A rabid home crowd can appear to tilt close calls, momentum, fumbles, and more in favor of the team they're rooting for. Last season's failures can boil and stew for 12 months, and press conference bulletin board material can be uttered in 12 seconds, but both can conjure up a passionate, vengeful performance on the field in equal parts. And afterwards? Emotional letdowns have already vanquished one top-5 opponent this year. Who might be next?
Bill Connelly: While the "underrated/overrated" fascination is probably a little too prevalent nowadays (pretty sure the Big 12 went from underrated to overrated in just one weekend), this weekend provides us with what will end up being some pretty good "conference superiority" fodder. Virginia Tech-Nebraska, Cincinnati-Oregon State, West Virginia-Auburn, and Florida State-BYU could be pretty telling, along with other potentially decent matchups like Utah-Oregon, California-Minnesota, Arizona-Iowa, and Louisville-Kentucky. A good data nerd will tell you that much more matters than just head-to-head results, but this weekend will go a long way toward defining the conference narratives we will hear the rest of the season.
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|Boise State||-7.5||Fresno State||BSU||Fresno St.||BSU|
|Cincinnati||+1.5||Oregon State||Ore. St.||Ore. St.||Ore. St.|
|West Virginia||+7||Auburn||Auburn||W. Va.||W. Va|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
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18 comments, Last at 21 Sep 2009, 8:06am by Bill Connelly