Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
22 Oct 2009
by Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau, and Rob Weintraub
Injuries, suspensions, and iffy officiating have dominated the conversation in the 2009 season. That did not change after a Week 7 in which Sam Bradford re-injured his shoulder less than 15 minutes into the Oklahoma-Texas game, and an Arkansas-Florida game that featured four curious calls (or no-calls) all going against the underdog Hogs in the fourth quarter. One call was bad enough to get the game's crew suspended. This week, the nation's eye turns to the cradle of mid-majordom for excitement and intrigue and the biggest game of the week -- No. 8 TCU's trip to Provo to face No. 16 BYU. It is this week's only game pitting two ranked teams against each other in a Saturday otherwise dominated by road favorites and curious conference battles.
(Teams are listed according to BCS ranking.)
It’s a primetime battle of injury-ravaged units. FSU’s defense has been an ultra-permeable membrane this season, ranking near the bottom in total defense and points allowed. The Seminoles, the alma mater of Deion Sanders, Myron Rolle, and a never-ending stream of great defensive backs, is allowing more than 18 yards per pass completion -- easily the most in the nation. Unfortunately, the Heels are ill-equipped to take advantage. Their offensive line has likewise been wracked with injuries, leading to a complete shutdown of the running game. In two ACC contests thus far, the Heels have managed a total of 56 running yards. On the other hand, both FSU’s offense and UNC’s defense are at the top of the league, so this part of the game should be entertaining, at least.
The Picks -- Rob: FSU | FEI: FSU | S&P+: FSU
After giving up 75 points in road wins over Mississippi State and Florida State, questions arose about Georgia Tech's ability to defend Virginia Tech. Consider that a test passed. The Yellow Jackets did give up 23 points and 334 yards to the Hokies, but they more than got the job done, taking a 21-10 lead into the fourth quarter and running out the clock for a huge conference win. Now Paul Johnson's squad is as likely as any in the country to win out. They travel to Charlottesville to take on a Virginia team learning to win without moving the ball. After an 0-3 start, the Cavaliers have won three in a row with defense, giving up a combined 16 points to North Carolina, Indiana and Maryland, and once again looking like they may save Al Groh's job. Believe it or not, this is a battle for first place in the ACC Coastal Division, and if the Cavs can make Josh Nesbitt throw the ball as much as possible, they might become the least likely division champion ever.
The Picks -- Rob: Ga. Tech (LOCK) | FEI: Ga. Tech | S&P+: Virginia (LOCK)
The South Florida Bulls didn’t perform in the spotlight of last week’s nationally-televised showdown with Cincinnati, turning the ball over and marching themselves backward 12 times on penalties. Freshman quarterback B. J. Daniels ran himself ragged -- and too often in his own backfield -- trying to escape pressure both in passing situations and when calling his own number in the spread option. Next up? Pittsburgh, and its nation-leading 29 sacks. Offensively, the Panthers have shown good balance in the passing attack led by Bill Stull and the rushing spark provided by freshman Dion Lewis. Balance has been sufficient, but Pittsburgh is still searching for a breakthrough offensive game. It isn’t likely to arrive this week, though -- South Florida boasts the No. 5 defense according to Defensive FEI and has held pedestrian offensive opposition largely in check.
The Picks -- Rob: Pitt | FEI: USF | S&P+: USF
In one of Wilco's best songs, Jeff Tweedy wails, "Happenstance has changed my plans." That lyric probably hits a lot closer to home for Bob Stoops than it did about two months ago, as happenstance has taken away both Heisman quarterback Sam Bradford and Mackey Award favorite Jermaine Gresham, and Oklahoma has dragged its shoulder to a 3-3 start. Granted, they have only lost by a total of five points to three ranked teams (BYU, Miami, and Texas, all away from Norman), but Sooners fans' plans have changed from hoping for a return trip to the BCS Championship Game to checking out rates for late-December flights to San Diego and San Antonio. Meanwhile, Kansas, with their two best receivers ever (Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier) and a supposed dark-horse Heisman contender in quarterback Todd Reesing have just played their two most winnable Big 12 games ... and finished 1-1. Last week's turnover-riddled loss at Colorado leaves the Jayhawks facing a murderous closing stretch -- Oklahoma, at Texas Tech, at Kansas State, Nebraska, at Texas, Missouri in Kansas City -- needing about four wins to have a shot at their first Big 12 North title. In the "I Have No Idea How This Happens Bowl," both teams need wins in the most desperate of ways.
The Picks -- Rob: Kansas | FEI: Kansas | S&P+: Oklahoma
No matter who is playing quarterback for Oregon, no matter whether Washington is scoring 30 points in a loss or 16 points in a win, one thing seems rather certain: If a game involves the Huskies, you may want to stick around until the ending. Four of Washington's last five games have include heart-stopping endings, from a last-second field goal in a win over USC, to an overtime loss to Notre Dame, to a startling "15 points in 19 seconds" comeback win over Arizona, to a jaw-dropping loss to Arizona State, in which they gave up a 50-yard touchdown pass with five seconds left. Bowl chances for the Huskies potentially hinge on this weekend's home battle with the team 280 miles south on Interstate 5. Since the startling season-opening loss to Boise State, Oregon has done nothing but win. After knockout victories over Washington State and California, the Ducks settled for just getting by at UCLA. Backup Ducks quarterback Nate Costa was adequate in substituting for injured starter Jeremiah Masoli, who it appears is 50-50 for Saturday's game.
The Picks -- Rob: Oregon | FEI: Washington | S&P+: Washington
The Nittany Lions venture out of Happy Valley for only the second time this season on a trip to their personal house of horrors, Michigan Stadium. The Wolverines have won five straight home games against Penn State, and nine of the last 10 head-to-head matchups in the series. Penn State has become a rather forgotten team after losing to Iowa earlier this month, and their strength of schedule outside of that particular game has been especially forgettable. Strong performances against Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State down the stretch could really boost their BCS bowl resume. Michigan feasted on FCS cupcake Delaware State last Saturday, playing quarterback Denard Robinson significantly more than the ailing Tate Forcier and setting the stage for a likely dual quarterback effort this weekend. The Wolverines rank third nationally in rushing touchdowns; Penn State ranks fourth nationally in fewest rushing touchdowns surrendered.
The Picks -- Rob: PSU | FEI: Michigan | S&P+: PSU
Now that Lane Kiffin is officially getting paid like a top coach, he’s buttering up the opposition like one, too. Lane has seldom missed an opportunity to rip Florida, but he says Alabama is unquestionably No. 1 -- as they are ranked in the AP Poll. The defense certainly is worthy of a national champ. The Tide have allowed a sickly 11.6 points per game, and lead the SEC with 21 sacks, among other numbers. It adds up to a formidable challenge for Volunteers quarterback Jonathan Crompton, who finally showed a little ability in routing Georgia. The Vols have had two weeks to come up with some ways to move the ball. When Alabama has the rock, look out for some epic collisions between running back Mark Ingram and Tennessee safety Eric Berry, who might just be the nation’s two best players.
The Picks -- Rob: Tennessee | FEI: Alabama | S&P+: Tennessee
These two rivals have played some close, violent contests in the past few years, and while the defenses in Baton Rouge and Auburn aren’t of 2006 vintage (when the Bayou Tigers beat the Plains Tigers 7-3), this should still be a tight affair. Both teams are looking to regain their footing after hot starts, especially Auburn, who lost at home to Kentucky last Saturday. Quarterback Chris Todd was superb in the season’s first month, but has been inefficient of late, and last year’s benching in favor of Kodi Burns might have moved from the back to the front of his mind. LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson was horrendous against Florida two weeks ago, but he should find the going easier against Auburn. Also struggling for LSU is Charles Scott and the LSU ground game -- the team is averaging only 3.5 yards per carry this season.
The Picks -- Rob: LSU | FEI: LSU | S&P+: LSU
It’s the only match-up of Associated Press top-25 teams this weekend, and ESPN’s College Gameday has rubber-stamped it as the game of the week, sending their Big & Rich convoy up the freeway to put a little zang in Provo’s ying-yang. The Horned Frogs, Cougars and Utah Utes all stand undefeated in the Mountain West, so let the round-robin elimination games begin! TCU’s lockdown defense (fourth nationally in yards allowed per game) versus BYU’s high octane offense (seventh nationally in yards per game) is the unit match-up everyone will have their eyes on. TCU hasn’t yet faced an offense ranked in the top 60 according to FEI, though, and BYU’s sixth-ranked Offensive FEI unit was able to move the ball sufficiently against Oklahoma’s vaunted defense way back in September. Just as intriguing is TCU’s underrated offense -- nearly 500 yards of total offense last week against Colorado State -- versus the Cougars’ suspect defense.
The Picks -- Rob: TCU | FEI: TCU (LOCK) | S&P+: TCU
You remember last season’s meetup between these two squads, I’m guessing? The Beavers shocked then-No. 1 USC on a Thursday night to alter the BCS landscape permanently. For the Trojans to have any shot at the title, they must get a little payback. Oklahoma hasn’t walked off the Coliseum grass victorious since President Kennedy was still in office -- 1963, to be exact -- a spell of 21 games. That said, the Beavers ended a 16-game winless streak at Arizona State earlier this season, and with the Rodgers Brothers doin’ work, Oregon State has a shot. Running back Jacquizz Rodgers has been sensational, building on his coming out on that Thursday night last year when the Trojans couldn’t tackle him. Wide receiver James Rodgers has been merely excellent. USC’s usually-mighty defense has been shaky in spots, and it will need to corral the siblings to exact revenge. OSU quarterback Sean Canfield may have a bit of vengeance on his mind too -- he was knocked out of the 2007 USC game by a late hit, a blow that cost him the job in 2008 when sub Lyle Moevao took over. Canfield is back at the helm and has been solid when not on his back -- he’s been sacked 19 times in six games, a number the Trojans hope to increase.
The Picks -- Rob: OSU | FEI: OSU | S&P+: OSU
Rob Weintraub: The SEC is no doubt sending a large fruit basket to umpire Tim McClelland, whose brutal gaffes in Game 4 of the ALCS has taken the spotlight off the dubious maximus officiating seen in Gainesville on Saturday. Naturally, all the talk in these parts is about a conspiracy to ensure Florida meets Alabama in the SEC Championship Game as No. 1 and No. 2. Leaving aside the nonsense (they are sure to meet regardless, and the winner will be in the title game even with a loss), the contretemps does raise an important point. The SEC is raking in an unholy amount of money, a pile that reached Everest heights with the ESPN deal this past winter. But the league officials make boopkus -- around $750-800 per game. Now that's nothing to sneeze at in this economy, but given the huge cash surrounding the league, the programs, and the boosters -- it’s peanuts. Until there is more of a financial incentive to up the quality for the refs, we’ll continue to see games and seasons turn on shoddy calls like the ones last Saturday.
Brian Fremeau: It has been a recurring theme in the weekly SDA “Storylines” section, but when are the nation’s elite teams going to step up and dominate? Florida and Texas have conspicuously flirted with narrow escapes after pummeling most of their opponents last year by healthy margins. Even the games that have concluded comfortably in favor of undefeated Alabama, Iowa or Cincinnati haven’t really been the kind of behind-the-woodshed beatdowns that make everyone sit up and marvel at the aura of invincibility on display. If we’re supposed to be on a trajectory for a pre-destined BCS national championship, I want to know what the Crimson Tide, Gators and Longhorns are truly capable of first. I don’t think we’ve seen it yet. If we have, I don’t expect those three teams to remain unblemished.
Bill Connelly: This week, nine of the top 15 teams (according to BCS standings) play on the road, eight against unranked opponents. In 2007, road losses claimed top-ranked team after top-ranked team, and though the remaining contenders seem to have stabilized things the last couple of weeks, with this many road trips, there is no way we're heading into Week 9 without at least one major upset. Who will it be? Urban Meyer's former offensive coordinator finding the magic to lead Mississippi State over No. 1 Florida? Boise State tripping up after a 4,000 mile trip to Honolulu? Iowa's run ending in East Lansing against an improving Michigan State team? Washington over Oregon? Virginia over Georgia Tech? So many upset candidates, so few upset predictions.
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|Florida State||+2.5||North Carolina||FSU||FSU||FSU|
|Georgia Tech||-5.5||Virginia||Ga. Tech*||Ga. Tech||Virginia*|
|Oregon State||+20.5||USC||Ore. St.||Ore. St.||Ore. St.|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
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24 comments, Last at 24 Oct 2009, 1:15am by bird jam