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?
19 Nov 2009
by Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau, and Rob Weintraub
You know a college football season has gone sour when Ivan Maisel, official college football historian, is crying "Uncle" and asking for a redo. Despite the fact that there are still conference titles to be won and national title game tickets to be cashed, the season limps into Week 12 needing a little bit of spice to distract from the injuries, disappointments, and officiating that have marred 2009. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of spice this weekend. But we'll still be watching.
(Editor's Note: Teams are listed according to BCS ranking.)
After one of the more brutal collisions you'll ever see with Texas Tech's Jamar Wall last weekend (not that Wall is a stranger to big hits), Oklahoma State quarterback Zac Robinson's status is uncertain heading into tonight's game versus Colorado. Not that that really matters. With a running game featuring a recovering Kendall Hunter and ever steady Keith Toston, the Cowboys should produce more than enough yardage and points against a Colorado offense that has only been capable of scoring on Texas A&M in recent weeks. With other contenders falling by the wayside, Oklahoma State could play itself into a BCS at-large bid if they can beat Colorado and Oklahoma to end the season. All eyes in Boulder are on the athletic department as the folks in charge try to figure out if they have enough money to buy out poor Dan Hawkins.
The Picks -- Rob: Okla. St. | FEI: Okla. St. | S&P+: Okla. St.
Clenching roses in their teeth after reclaiming Big Ten alpha-dog status in an overtime win over Iowa last week, the Buckeyes head north to Ann Arbor for the final game of their regular season. Ohio State and Michigan claim to have the most antagonistic rivalry in college football, and though this one won’t have the usual kind of national intrigue, the hate is usually worth tuning in for. Michigan limps into their finale on a six-game Big Ten losing streak. The defense that has been hemorrhaging points (all but one conference opponent has hung at least 30 on the Wolverines), and the offense has turned it over 23 times on the season. The Buckeyes rank fourth nationally in positive turnover margin, a key to the uber-conservative Tressel-ball game plan. Expect more of the same -- unless the futuristic throwback uniforms (and apparently problematic cleats) force a rupture in the time-space continuum, Tressel is going to play it close to the sweater vest.
The Picks -- Rob: tOSU (LOCK) | FEI: Ohio St. | S&P+: Michigan
The last time Oklahoma visited Lubbock, its national title hopes ended when Sam Bradford was knocked out of the game with an injury and a last-second comeback with the backup fell short. Since BYU already took care of Oklahoma's hopes with the same method two months ago, and since Tech has gone through some of its own ups and downs (due in part to quarterback injuries of their own), this game has lost some of its cachet. But that doesn't mean the fans in West Texas won't be taking this game any less seriously. As Big 12 teams begin to sort out the bowl pecking order, Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones will try to duplicate last week's effort against Texas A&M, while the Red Raiders are looking to generate some momentum after losing two of three. This isn't the huge game it's been the last couple of years, but sometimes conference rivalries are fun to watch simply because they are conference rivalries.
The Picks -- Rob: Oklahoma | FEI: Texas Tech | S&P+: Texas Tech
The Irish sleepwalked through the first three quarters against Pittsburgh last week, then staged a furious fourth quarter rally that fell short. If that was meant to be the team’s statement in support of their embattled coach Charlie Weis, how will they perform now that his termination status appears to have flipped from "if" to "when"? There’s no question Notre Dame has the offensive talent to dominate, but quarterback Jimmy Clausen and wide receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd haven’t been firing on all cylinders all at the same time. Connecticut doesn’t have a win since mid-October, but their five losses this year have come by a total of only 15 points. Former Notre Dame quarterback Zach Frazer returns to campus to lead the Huskies. He’s been erratic this year, but plenty of quarterbacks (not to mention running backs and receivers) have had career days against the Irish defense.
The Picks -- Rob: UConn | FEI: UConn | S&P+: Notre Dame
If you were concerned about a fraudulent team like Iowa getting to the BCS, then you should be rooting all out for Sparty to ensure another imposter, Penn State, doesn’t slip into the big money bowls. A win would keep JoePa eligible for the BCS "draft," and given the bold face name of the program and it’s visible alumni, the Nittany Lions could well wind up with a totally undeserving berth in Miami or Tempe or New Orleans. It would behoove senior quarterback Daryll Clark to play well if the Lions are to win this one. Lately, his opposite number in green, Kirk Cousins, has been better. Captain Kirk tossed three touchdowns in a wild win over Purdue Saturday, and has a 10-1 touchdown-to-interception ration in his last five games. Michigan State is reversing its reputation as an awful finisher under Mark Dantonio -- the team is 6-2 in November with him at the helm.
The Picks -- Rob: Mich. St. | FEI: Penn St. | S&P+: Mich. St.
The late-season renaissance in Oxford is directly tied to the increased usage of running back/wide receiver/Wild Rebel artiste Dexter McCluster. A reasonable facsimile of Percy Harvin, McCluster serially killed Tennessee’s potent defense a week ago, scorching the Volunteerss for 282 yards and four scores. Next up is rival LSU, whose offense is injury-ravaged but whose defense can still run down and hit opposing backs with extreme prejudice. Jordan Jefferson returns from an ankle injury to start at quarterback, replacing the inept Jarrett Lee, but the Tigers still will need to force short fields for its offense. Something called the "Magnolia Trophy" will be force-fed upon the winner, but the victory is likely to carry a greater prize --- a Cotton Bowl berth on New Year’s Day.
The Picks -- Rob: LSU | FEI: LSU | S&P+: LSU
There’s a big three, little six mentality when it comes to the Mountain West conference. TCU, Utah, and BYU have shared the spotlight for the last few seasons, and everyone else might as well be an interchangeable stand-in. But Air Force lost to the big three last year and beat everyone else in league play. This year, they’re on track for the same, unless they can knock off a BYU team that has defeated them in five straight seasons. There will be a classic contrast in styles on the field in Provo: Air Force runs the ball 62 times per game; BYU airs it out with the 12th-most prolific passing unit in the country. Ball control will be critical. The Cougars have punted fewer times (28) than all but two other teams in college football; Air Force has turned it over fewer times (7) than all but one other team.
The Picks -- Rob: Air Force | FEI: Air Force (LOCK) | S&P+: BYU
Two major questions arise for this year's "Big Game": First, can the California team that vanquished a ranked Arizona team last weekend show up again in Palo Alto (instead of the one that got outscored 72-6 by Oregon and USC six weeks ago). Second, how much will karma punish Stanford and coach Jim Harbaugh for pulling a video game move of going for two to try to reach 50 points despite the fact that they had a huge lead at USC last weekend? California star Jahvid Best is still out after his gruesome concussion against Oregon State a couple of weeks ago, but backup Shane Vereen did a nice Best impression last week against Arizona, rushing for 159 yards. He'll have to match the effort of Stanford's Toby Gerhart, who has managed to earn both Jerome Bettis comparisons and a bit of Heisman hype in recent weeks.
The Picks -- Rob: Stanford | FEI: Stanford | S&P+: California
Despite Stanford’s recent excellence, the Ducks still control their own fate in the Pac-10. Wins against the Wildcats and arch-rival Oregon State would put the Ducks in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1995. But Arizona has incentive of its own -- a victory at home would give the Wildcats the inside track to Pasadena (they would need to beat Arizona State and USC in its last two games). Mike Stoops’ overachieving defense took a hit Saturday when it was gashed by a Cal team playing without Jahvid Best for 176 yards on the ground in a 24-16 loss. Into town comes the nation’s sixth-best rushing attack. Arizona is a home beast, 5-0 in Tucson, and should get running back Nic Grigsby back in the lineup after a shoulder injury. They’ll need full mojo from those factors and occasionally brilliant quarterback Nick Foles to beat Oregon and keep those California dreams alive.
The Picks -- Rob: Oregon | FEI: Arizona | S&P+: Oregon (LOCK)
Just three days ago, the storyline for this one seemed pretty obvious: Texas is three wins away from the national title game, while Kansas is desperate for one more win so they can become bowl-eligible after losing five in a row. And technically, all of that is true. But now the more dominant story has nothing to do with the game and a lot more to do with whether Kansas coach Mark Mangino's fiery temper is going to cost him his job. Whether these allegations would have come about if the team weren't in the middle of a five-game losing streak, nobody knows, but amid allegations of grabbing and screaming at his players, and rumors of worse, Mangino will (we assume) lead his team to Texas with a shaken mind set. Quarterback Todd Reesing is still trying to get over a nagging groin injury, and we'll have to wait and see whether he and his teammates rally behind their suddenly embattled coach, or whether Reesing's career will end with a whimper, and a 5-7 record.
The Picks -- Rob: Texas | FEI: Texas | S&P+: Kansas
Rob Weintraub: If you thought Notre Dame and Charlie Weis were facing rough patches, imagine if the Irish had to play Nevada this week, instead of catching them in the opener. Back in September, we experts liked the Wolf Pack to run the Irish ragged, but their vaunted Pistol attack fizzled on the big stage. Nevada was asked kindly to remove itself from any further national discussion, and they obliged by losing two more. Since then, however, the Nevada running game has gone berserk. Led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running backs Vai Taua and Luke Lippincott, the Pack is averaging 353 rushing yards per game to lead the nation. That’s considerably more than nationally beloved option teams like Georgia Tech and Navy. Nevada has reeled off seven straight wins, and is nine days away from a WAC showdown with Boise State on the blue turf. Don’t be shocked if TCU is the last unbeaten mid-major when that one is over.
Brian Fremeau: Here’s an experiment I’ve been entertaining myself with lately: If the best a conference has to offer is the strongest argument to be made for its power, then the top of the SEC wins hands down. At the same time, it would be inaccurate to say that Florida and Alabama play in the best conference in the nation. They obviously don’t have to play against themselves, and they don’t have to play each other until the championship game. Mississippi State plays in the "tough" SEC, with regular season games against Alabama, Florida, LSU, Auburn, and Ole Miss. Arkansas plays in the "tough" SEC, with games against Alabama, Florida, LSU, Auburn, Ole Miss, and Georgia. This week, the Gators tackle Florida International of the Sun Belt and Alabama tussles with FCS Chattanooga. When the SEC conference plays as many games or more against the FCS Southern Conference than the Big Ten (0), Big East (2) Big 12 (2), and Mountain West (0), do we have enough information to determine that the SEC is truly the best?
Bill Connelly: In the words of Ron Burgundy (speaking of already outdated references), boy, that escalated quickly! On Monday, we were making fun of a "Mangino must go" column. Then allegations came out that suggested that, well, Mangino really might go. As mentioned in the preview above, it's hard to imagine allegations like, "He poked a finger in a player's chest," really getting too much traction as a fire-worthy offense if Kansas weren't on a big losing streak right now (if they were 8-2 or 9-1, it would be "tough love"), but it does bring up interesting questions about hard-nosed styles and fiery coaches. Mangino has always had a temper, (allegedly) screaming at refs during his son's high school games, (allegedly) berating a parking attendant for giving him a ticket, and (absolutely) lighting into players on the sidelines (I've linked to that video a thousand times, and it's still fun to watch). Now he's in trouble, not only because he might lose his job, but because even if he doesn't lose his job, this whole situation will be used against him mightily in recruiting. You think Gary Pinkel, Bill Snyder, Paul Rhoads, Bo Pelini, etc., aren't going to bring up temper tantrums every time they're in a local recruit's house? Or the fact that they have full support from their athletic department, and he doesn't?
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|Colorado||+17.5||Oklahoma State||Okla. St.||Okla. St.||Okla. St.|
|Ohio State||-12||Michigan||Ohio St.*||Ohio St.||Michigan|
|Oklahoma||-6.5||Texas Tech||Oklahoma||Texas Tech||Texas Tech|
|Connecticut||+6||Notre Dame||UConn||UConn||Notre Dame|
|Penn State||-3.5||Michigan State||Mich. St.||Penn St.||Mich. St.|
|Air Force||+10.5||BYU||Air Force||Air Force*||BYU|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
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12 comments, Last at 22 Nov 2009, 7:22am by Angelo is so fired