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?
10 Sep 2009
by Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau, and Rob Weintraub
It was a unique first week in college football. After all the hype about the three-headed Heisman race, one head (Sam Bradford) got lopped off in the first half of the first game. After Varsity Numbers figures propped up LeGarrette Blount as one of the best (if not the best) running backs in the country, he imploded for negative yards and one postgame Falcon Punch, and he's done for the season. Teams like Oregon and Illinois severely disappointed, while preseason darling Oklahoma State came to play. We live in a world where Baylor is ahead of Oklahoma in the standings, Toby Gerhart might be the second-best running back in the Pacific-10 Conference, Notre Dame and Michigan are actually playing in an important game again ... and, as they do for summer blockbuster movies, everybody has cleared the schedule this weekend for USC-Ohio State. Seriously, when Wake-Stanford really is one of the ten biggest games of the week, you know things have been watered down a bit.
Head coach Paul Johnson was livid with his team after the Jackets comfortable but sloppy 37-17 win over minnow Jacksonville State. With good reason -- Tech’s triple option may be tough to stop, but it also causes too many turnovers. Tech fumbled five times, losing three, and the hittin’ and strippin’ will be ratcheted up with their orange rivals to the north making the short drive down I-85. The Tech game was Dabo Swinney’s first as Clemson interim head coach a year ago, and the Tigers’ strong effort in a 21-17 loss was a key step in Dabo getting to keep the gig full-time. Dynamic running back C.J. Spiller tweaked a hamstring last week after returning a kickoff for a score. He needs to be at full strength for Clemson to stay with the Jackets, as the Thursday night kickoff makes practicing for GT’s option that much tougher.
The Picks -- Rob: Clemson | FEI: GT | S&P+: Clemson
After surviving a tricky trip to Ohio in the first week of the season, the next step in Connecticut’s “Don’t Forget About Us Just Because We Lost Four Players in the First Two Rounds of the Draft” tour is quite a bit trickier. The Huskies welcome a ranked and ready North Carolina Tar Heels team to town early on Saturday. UNC easily beat The Citadel, 40-6, last Saturday, but their passing game looked iffy. Quarterback T.J. Yates struggled in his first game since losing fouro of his top targets (including first-rounder Hakeem Nicks) to April’s NFL Draft. The Heels’ defense could be stout, but they’ll need to get the ball out of the hands of Husky running backs Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon, who combined for 257 yards on 44 carries against Ohio.
The Picks -- Rob: UNC | FEI: UConn | S&P+: UConn (LOCK)
Stanford endured a third-quarter slump and pulled away to beat lowly Washington State to start the season. Now they must travel cross-country to take on a Wake Forest team that made uncharacteristic mistakes in a home loss to Baylor Saturday. With LeGarrette Blount’s Thursday night implosion in Boise, Toby Gerhart became potentially the Pac-10's second-best back, and he helped hold carry Stanford over Wazzu with 121 yards and two touchdowns. He will take the pressure off of freshman quarterback Andrew Luck, who was mistake free (193 yards, 8.4 yards per pass, one touchdown, no interceptions) in his first start. Wake Forest hopes to avoid its second 0-2 start in three seasons and clean up the turnovers -- they committed four, including three Riley Skinner interceptions, and let Baylor take control of the game.
The Picks -- Rob: Wake | FEI: Wake | S&P+: Wake
Central Michigan quarterback Dan LeFevour is an under-the-radar star, but his senior season at Central Michigan got off to a lousy start Saturday. Arizona’s defense was quick and used exceptional penetration to jar CMU’s attack en route to a 19-6 win (a long delay due to lightening didn’t help). Expect the Spartans defense, led by one of the best linebackers in the nation, Greg Jones, to similarly create havoc. CMU’s defense wasn’t great in the desert, but they held a potent Arizona team to 19 points. The Spartans offense is as green as the team's jerseys: The backs are all freshmen, and the quarterback platoon of Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol is a work in progress. For any chance of an upset, the Chippewas defense will have to keep this one low scoring and ugly.
The Picks -- Rob: Mich. St. | FEI: CMU | S&P+: CMU
The two teams are the all-time leaders in winning percentage in college football history, and the frequent (though not annual) clashes have been hotly contested. From 1982-2002, 13 of 15 games between the Irish and Wolverines were decided by a single score, and often in that stretch, the winner was in the mix for the national championship. Four of the last six have been lopsided outcomes, however, and both programs have recently suffered humiliating seasons. But after each notched blowout victories Saturday, fans for both teams are thinking a renaissance is in the works. The victor on Saturday may well be on its way. The loser, and especially its beleaguered coach (Weis or Rodriguez), will be back answering the same old questions about the direction of program next week.
The Picks -- Rob: Notre Dame | FEI: Michigan | S&P+: Michigan
Last week, Oklahoma State overcame injuries, dismissals, arrests, Sports Illustrated jinxes, SEC Speed, and a multitude of other obstacles, and still managed to take out Georgia by 10 points and move to No. 5 in the AP Poll, the Cowboys' highest ranking since 1985 -- a year before quarterback Zac Robinson was born. What do they do for an encore? First, they take on the rare S.I. double jinx (wide receiver Dez Bryant is on this week’s cover), and second they battle with a team that is a near-opposite of Georgia. Houston quarterback Case Keenum threw for 5,020 yards and 44 touchdowns a year ago, and the Cougars will try to match Oklahoma State blow for blow on the scoreboard. OSU proved they could win a hard-hitting, grind-it-out slugfest, and now they face a first-team-to-50-wins situation. This should, at the very least, be one of the most entertaining games of the week.
The Picks -- Rob: OSU (LOCK) | FEI: OSU (LOCK) | S&P+: OSU
It’s Norm Chow versus Monte Kiffin in a battle of two of football’s most revered assistant coaches. That, or it’s Rick Neuheisel versus Lane Kiffin in a battle of former and current young hotshot head coaches. UCLA struggled early before blowing past San Diego State, 33-14, last weekend; meanwhile, Tennessee rushed for 380 yards (8.6 yards per carry) in a mauling Western Kentucky (63-7). The elder Kiffin, now his son’s defensive coordinator in Knoxville, was not at all challenged by WKU; a Volunteer defense led by All-Everything safety Eric Berry held the Hilltoppers to just 83 total yards and forced three turnovers. Can a Bruin offense led by freshman quarterback Kevin Prince (62 percent completion rate, 176 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) offer more of a challenge?
The Picks -- Rob: Tennessee | FEI: UCLA | S&P+: UCLA
All it took was a single uninspired effort in Stillwater, and the knives are out in Athens. The fans are panicked, quarterback Joe Cox is at war with the message boarders, and even some players are questioning the Mark Richt/Mike Bobo playcalling tandem. Thus, an early September game has become a must-win for the Bulldogs. Unfortunately, nothing ever comes easy for Georgia against South Carolina. Six of the last eight games between the border rivals have been decided by less than a touchdown. While the Cocks aren't Georgia's top rival, only Clemson is ahead of Georgia on South Carolina’s death list -- hence the usual mismatch in intensity. South Carolina's defense is once again miles ahead of the offense. The unit will need to create some short fields to put Georgia’s season into complete disarray after two games.
Also, late breaking news out of Athens -- Logan Gray took all the snaps with the first team this week, and Joe Cox has an arm problem that is worse than disclosed (not surprising if you saw his weak throws in Stillwater). Gray looks like the starter this week, and perhaps the foreseeable future, at least until super-frosh Aaron Murray is ready.
The Picks -- Rob: S.C. | FEI: Georgia | S&P+: Georgia
It probably isn't fair to saddle the Buckeyes with the burden, but Ohio State's success or failure in this game will be inextricably linked to the perceived dwindling strength of the Big Ten Conference as a whole. Then again, USC has been carrying a similar torch for the Pac-10 for most of the last decade, and with few exceptions, they have left nothing but smoldering ashes in their wake. Nevertheless, there are question marks for the Trojans in 2009. Notably, will true freshman quarterback Matt Barkley be able to handle the pressure of his first road test in the hostile environment of the Horseshoe? Ohio State's narrow escape versus Navy last week may be a red flag for the home team, especially the lack of production from quarterback Terrelle Pryor and the offense, playing with a significant field position advantage. But if given the green light, Pryor has demonstrated an ability to take over game stretches. He'll want to keep at least one eye on USC safety/head-hunter Taylor Mays who has demonstrated an ability to neutralize game-changers from the opposing sideline with one cataclysmic collision.
The Picks -- Rob: USC | FEI: Ohio State | S&P+: Ohio State
Ducks head coach Chip Kelly has had better weeks than this one -- running back LaGarrette Blount's punch-out, the suspension, and whispers of disrespect on the sidelines, all with athletic director/helicopter Mike Belotti hovering overhead. Oh yes, and Oregon's formerly prolific spread offense was completely dismantled by Boise State along with the Ducks' national contender aspirations. Purdue's Danny Hope is a new coach too, and his 52-31 opening week victory over Toledo went a little better than expected -- particularly the offensive explosion with new talent all over the field. Big Ten west coast trips aren't traditionally successful, though, and unless Kelly has lost the team, Oregon is expected to quackdown and return to form.
The Picks -- Rob: Oregon | FEI: Oregon | S&P+: Oregon
Rob Weintraub: Teams with returning starters at quarterback are usually at an advantage, but several experienced signal callers turned in clunkers in Week 1, including Russell Wilson (N.C. State) and Stephen Garcia (South Carolina) in Raleigh, Jeremiah Masoli (Oregon), Tyrod Taylor (Virginia Tech), Riley Skinner (Wake Forest), and others. Others who started enough times a year ago to make the alumni wince at their returns showed marked improvement, most notably Jacory Harris (Miam), Christian Ponder (Florida State), and, albeit against weak competition, Jonathan Crompton (Tennessee). Now that everyone has a fresh performance on tape, and the butterflies and adrenaline of the opener have worn off, it will be interesting to see whose opening day outing was for real and whose was merely a blip.
Brian Fremeau: Boise State, BYU and Oklahoma State each won what may be considered the biggest victory in the history of each program last week. Can they carry the momentum forward? Each is favored by at least two touchdowns, and the Broncos host Miami of Ohio -- losers to Kentucky last week by 42 points -- which should be a blue turf bloodbath. BYU makes its next NFL stadium tour stop in the Superdome against outmatched Tulane, though its worth noting that last year's Cougars barely edged a terrible Washington team in Week 2. Oklahoma State may be most in danger of a letdown game against a Houston team that can light up the scoreboard and will be in the mix for the Conference USA championship. On the quest for BCS glory, winning -- and dominating -- the games that aren't circled on the schedule will be critical.
Bill Connelly: Stay in school, kids. Or not. Injuries at Oklahoma aren't going to sway future underclassmen toward staying in school for one more season instead of jumping into the draft. Both tight end Jermaine Gresham and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Sam Bradford elected to stay at OU for another run at the national title despite high draft projections (in Bradford's case, he might have been the first overall pick), and now both are hurt. Bradford may only be out a few weeks after being pile-drived into Jerry Jones' new turf and spraining his shoulder, but Gresham is out for the season with knee troubles. While his Heisman hopes are all but dead, Bradford's draft stock probably will not fall tremendously. Gresham's situation is a little more interesting and unpredictable. Are two knee injuries in five years (he got hurt in high school too) enough to make NFL teams queasy, or will his top-end tight end speed and likely return to 100-percent health keep him in the first couple of rounds?
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|Central Michigan||+14||Michigan State||Mich. St.||CMU||CMU|
|Notre Dame||-3.5||Michigan||Notre Dame||Michigan||Michigan|
|South Carolina||-7.5||Georgia||South Caro.||Georgia||Georgia|
|USC||-6.5||Ohio State||USC||Ohio State||Ohio State|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
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8 comments, Last at 12 Sep 2009, 1:24pm by Tom Gower