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?
24 Sep 2009
by Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau, and Rob Weintraub
It was a tricky week of picks for these fearless columnists last week. As a group, the FO college writers went 9-21 against the spread. USC lost to a team that went 0-12 last year, Florida struggled (offensively, at least) against Tennessee, Florida State blew away supposed BCS-buster BYU, eight SEC teams scored 30 points or more, and an already-crazy college football season got even crazier. Do we have another 2007 on our hands, or will the season stabilize after this week?
With an easy early schedule and early losses from the likes of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and USC, here the Rebels stand, ranked fourth in late-September without having to break a sweat. Their season truly starts with a tricky trip to Columbia to face a team that might be putting things together. The Gamecocks have scored 75 points in the last two games, their highest two-game output since mid-2007. Their defense, featuring linebacker Eric Norwood, is solid. If the Rebels can survive this trip, along with one to Vanderbilt next week, then the Oct. 10 matchup versus Alabama could be the biggest Mississippi game since about 1963.
The Picks -- Rob: S.C. | FEI: S.C. | S&P+: Ole Miss
It’s the resounding question on the Flats -- has the competition figured out Paul Johnson’s triple option? Georgia Tech’s ground attack has looked less than lively in the last seven quarters against Clemson and Miami. Next up for the Jackets is North Carolina, a team that features a fearsome defensive front led by tackle Marvin Austin and an active linebacking corps, including Quan Sturdivant. The Heels held East Carolina to a piddling 55 rushing yards last Saturday. It’s the type of deep, athletic group that could force Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt into throwing situations, which has been a recipe for mediocrity. Junior Demaryius Thomas is the lone receiving threat wearing old gold and white. Running back Jonathan Dwyer, a preseason Heisman sleeper, has been held in check so far, and is nursing an injured shoulder. Tech may not need many points, however, as Heels quarterback T.J. Yates has struggled mightily to recapture his 2008 form.
The Picks -- Rob: Ga. Tech | FEI: Ga. Tech | S&P+: Ga. Tech
Feasting on a tray of cupcakes (Northern Colorado, UTEP, Duke) that would make even Penn State feel a bit hypoglycemic, Kansas has sleepwalked to a 3-0 record. The under-challenged Jayhawks started slow last week against Duke, but they probably cannot afford to do the same against a Southern Miss team favored by many to make the Conference USA title game. The Golden Eagles are 3-0 themselves after a comeback road win over Virginia. Kansas is comfortably and rightfully favored, but they will have to overcome both USM quarterback Austin Davis (149.9 passer rating) and their own basketball team, which has given them their best fight of the season.
The Picks -- Rob: USM | FEI: USM | S&P+: USM
And just like that, the SEC has another stud quarterback. Ryan Mallett, the 6-foot-7 Michigan transfer now ensconced in Fayetteville, threw for five touchdowns and 408 yards against Georgia, proving pigs can indeed fly. Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, their defense isn’t nearly as solid as the offense, and Alabama has been punishing opponents with a balanced attack. The Tide is averaging 268 yards per game on the ground and 245 through the air. The skill players get the ink, but the real story has been Alabama’s offensive line, which has replaced stars Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell without skipping a beat. Junior college transfer James Carpenter has been strong in Smith’s old left tackle spot, and senior guard Mike Johnson is the outstanding leader of the line. Alabama's speedy defense will provide a far stiffer test for Mallett than the Bulldogs did.
The Picks -- Rob: Alabama | FEI: Alabama | S&P+: Arkansas
What do you do when you feel your team is underachieving and might lose any serious chance it has at a Rose Bowl bid with a home loss this weekend? Throwback unis, of course! The Ducks will don the old-school green and yellow for their battle against Cal. Star running back Jahvid Best (the best in the country at his position) and stellar rushing defense will fight back in blue and gold. Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli has been awful this year, having completed just 45.3% of his passes (with no help from his receivers) for zero touchdowns, two interceptions and an 88.8 passer rating. He improved as the season wore on in 2008, but if he struggles Saturday, the calls for a new quarterback will grow louder.
The Picks -- Rob: Oregon | FEI: Oregon | S&P+: Oregon (LOCK)
Before the season began, the fear in Miami was that, while the Hurricanes had promise, the crucible of the opening four games was too much to ask a young team to overcome. Two games in, the Canes are unbeaten, and quarterback Jacory Harris has been Heismanesque. Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple has restored a striking power not seen in Coral Gables in years. Perhaps Miami will be this season’s Alabama, a traditional power returning to glory a year ahead of schedule. To continue the turnaround, The U will have to win at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg. It is a daunting venue for any opponent, as Nebraska discovered Saturday, losing despite controlling play for most of the day. The Hokies resemble Miami of the past few years, with an iffy passing quarterback, Tyrod Taylor. The hokies have also struggled to replace running back Darren Evans, who tore up a knee on the eve of the season.
The Picks -- Rob: Miami | FEI: Va. Tech | S&P+: Va. Tech
After losses by BYU and Utah last weekend, the Mountain West Conference needs TCU to carry the torch. This game features two of the most efficient defenses in college football. TCU hasn't given up a single non-garbage score this year, and Clemson's defensive box score against Boston College last week was absurd -- 54 total yards in 53 plays. Possessions will be at a premium, as both the Tigers and Horned Frogs rank among the national leaders in rushing attempts per game. Clemson's CJ Spiller has the most difference-maker potential, rushing, receiving and especially returning kicks. He already has a touchdown each from a kickoff and a punt return and has provided the Tigers with a big field position advantage.
The Picks -- Rob: Clemson | FEI: Clemson | S&P+: Clemson
There isn't an official preseason in college football, but Penn State scheduled the next best thing over the first three games this year. The Nittany Lions have defeated not-so-mighty Akron, Syracuse, and Temple by a combined score of 90-20, victories that fell somewhere between a yawn and a shrug in terms of national attention, and performances that haven't provided much useful information statistically. Iowa escaped a nightmare opener against Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) Northern Iowa, but have since been modestly impressive -- especially on defense -- in victories over Iowa State and Arizona. Unlike last year's late-season upset by the Hawkeyes, this one probably doesn't have the same kind of BCS title game implications. But impact Big Ten games may be few and far between this fall, and this one should at least be identity-defining.
The Picks -- Rob: Penn State (LOCK) | FEI: Iowa (LOCK) | S&P+: PSU
Quarterback Jimmy Clausen ranks second nationally in passer rating, running back Armando Allen is already closing in on his rushing totals from the last two seasons, and Notre Dame is No. 1 in the country in unadjusted offensive efficiency. So why aren't Notre Dame fans doing cartwheels? Star receiver Michael Floyd broke his collarbone last week, Clausen and Allen are limping around, and the defense has been gashed in consecutive weeks by Michigan and Michigan State. Purdue is nursing a bruised ego, suffering a head-scratching letdown to Northern Illinois after a valiant defeat to Oregon a week earlier. This is precisely the kind of game the Irish should win easily if they are truly on the path to a return to glory -- and this is precisely the kind of game that has impeded that journey under Weis.
The Picks -- Rob: Purdue | FEI: Notre Dame | S&P+: Purdue
Despite lacking nearly all of their defensive ends due to injury and suspension, and despite getting next to nothing from their offense in the first half, the Texas Tech defense kept the Red Raiders in the game against Texas Saturday. They will need to play equally well to avoid back-to-back losses. Ask Oklahoma State how efficiently quarterback Case Keenum runs the Houston offense. Also ask them how strong and steady running back Bryce Beall is, or how dangerous receiver Tyron Carrier can be. Houston needed some good breaks to beat Oklahoma State -- they recovered three Cowboy fumbles and scored the go-ahead touchdown on a deflected pass -- but they will happily take down Tech if the Red Raiders are slow to recover from last week's tough loss.
The Picks -- Rob: Houston | FEI: Tex. Tech | S&P+: Tex. Tech
Rob Weintraub: Three weeks into the college football season, and we are in an unusual position -- no team has been particularly impressive. Florida, thought to be in the company of the great teams of all time, struggled with Tennessee and clearly miss Percy Harvin’s explosiveness. Most other top squads either haven’t been tested yet, like Ole Miss and Penn State; have struggled to find an identity, like Ohio State; or have lost to inferior competition, most infamously USC. Only Miami has performed to universal acclaim, and even the Canes are a dropped touchdown pass away from underachieving. The games have been impossible to pick for your average Joe too, which is why I’ve let my wife do the picking this week. There are few chances for the elite to impress Saturday, but plenty of places for pratfalls (watch out, Cal, Autzen Stadium is a tough place to play).
Brian Fremeau: If you haven't been paying attention, successful onside kick numbers are up. Some kick return teams haven't been paying attention: Michigan State dribbled an onside kick that could have been recovered by the student manager running out to grab the kicking tee last week against Notre Dame. Others have been picture perfect one-two-three hoppers that have set the stage for several dramatic finishes. Combine the onside kicks with fumbles on kickoff and punt returns, and 43 offensive non-garbage possessions have been forfeited by teams on special teams receiving miscues to date. That's almost one for every three games played and a 22-percent bump from the first three weeks last season. Statistical aberration or trend?
Bill Connelly: As the evening games moved toward halftime Saturday night, Georgia led Arkansas 27-21, West Virginia led Auburn 21-20, and Texas led Texas Tech ... 10-3, in a half that saw no offensive touchdowns (this after Nebraska almost beat Virginia Tech earlier in the day without scoring a touchdown at all). What in the name of Tommy Tuberville is going on around here? SEC teams can't stop scoring, and Big 12 teams are starting to figure out this whole "defense" thing? Luckily Mississippi State and Vanderbilt were still around to guide the punt parade, or else the country might have truly lost its bearings, its offensive and defensive equilibrium.
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|Ole Miss||-3||South Carolina||South Carolina||South Carolina||Ole Miss|
|North Carolina||+2.5||Georgia Tech||Georgia Tech||Georgia Tech||Georgia Tech|
|Southern Miss||+14||Kansas||Southern Miss||Southern Miss||Southern Miss|
|Miami-FL||-2.5||Virginia Tech||Miami||Virginia Tech||Virginia Tech|
|Iowa||+10||Penn State||Penn State*||Iowa*||Penn State|
|Notre Dame||-7.5||Purdue||Purdue||Notre Dame||Purdue|
|Texas Tech||+1||Houston||Houston||Texas Tech||Texas Tech|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
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18 comments, Last at 25 Sep 2009, 5:03pm by Todd S.