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.
01 Oct 2009
by Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau, and Rob Weintraub
With the Big Ten starting its conference season this week and the Big 12 a week away from the same, this is an interesting transition week in college football. You've got plenty of solid rivalry games (Michigan-Michigan State, LSU-Georgia, USC-Cal, Air Force-Navy) with a few former rivalries added to the mix. Arkansas and Texas A&M meet at Jerry World, their first battle since 1991, which was the Razorbacks final year in the Southwest Conference. These teams had a series of stout, defensive battles in the 1980s, though it is unlikely defense will play much of a role this time around. Meanwhile, Miami and Oklahoma meet for just the second time since the mid-1980s. From 1985 to 1987, Oklahoma went 0-3 versus Miami ... and 33-0 against everyone else. Seeing these two teams playing in South Florida will likely give viewers flashbacks, but don't expect to see Dana Carvey and Jan Hooks on Saturday Night Live after the game.
Picked as a Big 12 North sleeper for seemingly the fourth consecutive season under Dan Hawkins, Colorado started this year as flat as could be, losing to Colorado State, then losing badly to Toledo (Aaron Opelt had 109 rushing yards?). They rebounded against Wyoming, shutting out the Cowboys 24-0, but they still have an infinite amount to prove. For that matter, so does West Virginia, a team that has put up ridiculous statistics in the backfield -- quarterback Jarrett Brown has 798 passing yards and a 151.2 passer rating, and Noel Devine is Noel Devine -- but fell in its only BCS conference game thus far, a 41-30 shootout loss to Auburn. Can Colorado's safeties and linebackers, burned so terribly against Toledo, keep up with the Mountaineers? Can West Virginia steal some of the attention directed Cincinnati's way?
The Picks -- Rob: WVU (LOCK) | FEI: WVU (LOCK) | S&P+: Colorado
Wolverines freshman quarterback Tate Forcier has spearheaded comeback victories over Notre Dame and Indiana this year, earning "legendary" praise from Michigan fans and broadcast announcers to go with his already very healthy self-image. He'll face a Michigan State team that has yet to record a victory over another FBS opponent, but has come excruciatingly close. Behind quarterback Kirk Cousins and a strong receiving corps, the Spartans boast the strongest passing offense in the Big Ten. Michigan's defensive backs have been picked on more than once this year and will be tested for the first time away from the Big House. The key to the game will be whether Forcier and, more importantly, running back Brandon Minor, can control the line of scrimmage against Michigan State.
The Picks -- Rob: Michigan | FEI: Michigan | S&P+: Michigan
A.J. Green might be the best receiver in the SEC, if not the country. His performance Saturday (8 catches for 153 yards and a touchdown, plus a critical blocked field goal) was so good it made you sorry Larry Munson, the longtime, just-retired radio voice of the Bulldogs, wasn’t around to call it. Though LSU brings in a more complete pair of wideouts, Brandon LaFell and Terrance Toliver, quarterback Jordan Jefferson has been erratic in getting his stud receivers the ball. LSU travels between the hedges as the No. 4 team in the nation, a distinction not a single Tiger fan will tell you is earned. Georgia is still recovering from its opening day beat down in Stillwater, but has shown serious huevos in gutting out tight wins against South Carolina, Arkansas, and ASU. Georgia fans will tell you its team is better than its national profile. So something has to give, perception-wise, in Athens.
The Picks -- Rob: Georgia | FEI: Georgia | S&P+: LSU
Notre Dame has been living on the edge lately, escaping the Big Ten portion of its schedule with two wins in three down-to-the-wire games. Jimmy Clausen's turf toe kept him on the sidelines for big stretches against Purdue, though he did rally and lead the game-winning drive. While he was out, the Irish rushing attack showed signs of life, a good sign for Irish partisans since Washington has been gashed on the ground by USC and Stanford in the past two weeks. On the other side of the ball, Huskies quarterback Jake Locker is experienced, gritty, talented, and, under the tutelage of head coach Steve Sarkisian, improving. Washington has never earned a win in seven matchups with Notre Dame, though each of the last three games have featured historically bad Huskies teams.
The Picks -- Rob: Washington | FEI: Notre Dame | S&P+: Washington
There won't be any television coverage for this one. Is that because nobody cares about the academies, or because the networks wouldn't be able to sell commercials for a 2.5 hour game? The Falcons and Midshipmen both rank among the top rushing teams in the country and are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in rushing attempts per game. Air Force is keeping it on the ground on average 66 times per game and might not surpass 66 total pass attempts on the season until November. Navy has owned the Commander-in-Chief trophy for several years and appears poised to turn in another eight-win bowl-bound season. The Falcons sit atop the Mountain West Conference standings, but have yet to face a formidable opponent.
The Picks -- Rob: Navy | FEI: Navy | S&P+: Navy (LOCK)
While USC, Oregon and California are seen as the main players in the race for the Pacific 10 title, the winner of this battle could be a dark horse. UCLA and Stanford are a combined 6-1. Stanford has ridden Toby Gerhart's 129 rushing yards per game to a 3-1 record, coming off of a 20-point win over USC conqueror, Washington. They have used a physical running game and a good offensive line (best in the country in sacks allowed) in breaking in redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck. Meanwhile, UCLA has controlled games with a conservative, efficient offense and a defense that is one of the best in the country on passing downs. They will come after Luck, and the winner of the battle in the trenches will start October with a big conference win.
The Picks -- Rob: UCLA | FEI: UCLA | S&P+: UCLA
The line for this game has wung back and forth a couple points each way this week, and justifiably so. Who can make heads or tails out of either one of these teams right now? Arkansas has faced only an FBS team (Missouri State) and two top SEC teams (Georgia, Alabama). Texas A&M, meanwhile, has proved nothing in routs of New Mexico (0-4) and UAB (1-3) and a tight, eight-point victory over Utah State (1-2). A&M has averaged 45 points per game, but can they score on a real defense, especially without leading wide receiver Jeff Fuller? And does Arkansas have a real defense when not facing receivers like A.J. Green and Julio Jones? After last week's retro-SWC battle of Texas Tech and Houston produced undying levels of yards and entertainment, this sequel, pitting two of the former conference's prouder programs, has pretty big shoes to fill.
The Picks -- Rob: Arkansas | FEI: Arkansas | S&P+: Arkansas
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that there is another new coach in the SEC, one that is having considerably more success than media black hole Lane Kiffin is in Knoxville. Gene Chizik was hardly a popular choice to replace Tommy Tuberville, but he and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn have the Tigers offense churning like the good old days, when Cadillac and Ronnie were rolling up the points. Both the Tigers and Vols feature a dynamite veteran/freshman running combo. Ben Tate and Onterio McCaleb of Auburn have been better than Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown of Tennessee, but have played weaker defenses, too. Whichever pair can better establish themselves Saturday will determine the outcome. The Malzahn-Monte Kiffin battle of “genius” coordinators is worth the price of admission -- which is zero when you watch on TV.
The Picks -- Rob: Auburn | FEI: Auburn | S&P+: Tennessee
Will he or won’t he? Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford’s presence under center is the key element to this clash in Land Shark Stadium. If the defending Heisman holder, last seen getting squashed by a BYU defender in the opener, can go, the Sooners will get a major boost. Fill-in Landry Jones performed admirably against weak competition (even tossing six touchdowns in a game, something Bradford has never done), but the difference will be noticeable, especially if both play, as has been rumored. Miami’s defense is still prone to over-aggression, leaving itself vulnerable to Sooners' cutback runners Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray. Hurricanes quarterback Jacory Harris was fantastic for two games in Florida, but suffered a nightmarish business trip to Virginia last week. Back in sunny climes, he’ll have to be back at his best for Miami to outscore the Sooners.
The Picks -- Rob: Miami | FEI: Miami | S&P+: Miami
A few weeks ago, this clash was earmarked as a de facto Pac-10 championship game. And now, after both USC and California stumbled out of the gate in league play? The loser is probably out of the running for the conference crown altogether. Even in victory last week against Washington State, the Trojans looked disinterested and uninspired. And after power running back Stafon Johnson suffered a freak weight-lifting accident this week, will USC be distracted or focused Saturday? The Bears are still licking their wounds after a nightmarish trip to Oregon last week. They couldn't run or stop the run -- two areas USC has the potential to exploit.
The Picks -- Rob: California | FEI: USC | S&P+: USC
Rob Weintraub: Last week in this space I noted the absence of any really good teams, a plotline that has only gained velocity since last weekend’s top-10 bloodbath. This week, let’s dig deeper, and go after the players. Here we are, in what was supposed to be the most fantastic Heisman race ever assembled, and no one has stood out. You know the big three -- Tebow, McCoy, Bradford -- have either been hurt, good but not great, or both. (Is Tim OK? Please Jesus make it so!) But what’s amazing is how few have stepped up to challenge for the stiff-armer. Jacory Harris let his chances slip down the storm drain in Blacksburg. Jahvid Best is probably wondering when the Oregon game starts. Darryl Clark, Max Hall, Zac Robinson -- one preseason favorite after another has been feh. Hopefully, this is the season for a non-quarterback or non-running back to slip and take the big prize. Cincinnati wide receiver Mardy Gilyard, anyone? ... Anyone?
Brian Fremeau: We're already one third of the way through the 2009 season, and some teams still haven't played a road game. Two in particular -- Auburn and Michigan -- have kicked off somewhat surprising undefeated campaigns in dynamic fashion, but each will be tested in a hostile environment for the first time Saturday. In the current Associated Press top 25, nine of top 13 ranked teams who have lost went down on the road. Tennessee (hosting the Tigers) and Michigan State (hosting the Wolverines) have taken their lumps, but will both be dangerous foes. If Auburn and Michigan pass these tests with flying colors, conference championship contention (or more) will be well within reach.
Bill Connelly: Moment of silence, please. While most of the country was focusing on one particular quarterback's harrowing injury, a small portion of Big 12 country was mourning the loss (for the season) of a quarterback/athlete every bit as unique as Tim Tebow. Robert Griffin III tore his ACL in the first drive of Baylor's 68-13 embarrassment of Northwestern State. He says he is thinking about trying to play through it, but ... no. He'll have surgery and be ready to scare the daylights out of these twelve teams next fall. One other thing bears mentioning, however: Griffin completed 11 of 14 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns after his injury Saturday. And he carried three times for 16 yards. With a torn ACL. See you next year, Mr. Griffin.
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|Colorado||+17.5||West Virginia||W. Va.*||W. Va.*||Colorado|
|Washington||+13.5||Notre Dame||Washington||Notre Dame||Washington|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
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