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.
26 Nov 2009
by Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau, and Rob Weintraub
Turkey, beer, and (once those pesky pro games are out of the way) a long weekend of college football rivalry games. Does life get any better?
(Editor's Note: Teams are listed according to BCS ranking.)
In a week full of heavily favored teams playing lesser rivals, Texas A&M gets the first opportunity at an earth-shattering upset when they take on Texas tonight on ESPN. The Aggies have been at the top of the "Figure them out, I dare you" list for a while. They followed a blowout loss at Kansas State with an easy win at Texas Tech. They easily disposed of a salty Iowa State team, then lost to Colorado. Quarterback Jerrod Johnson has quietly put together gaudy numbers (2,875 yards, 59.4% completion rate, 24 TD, 5 INT), but they haven't faced a defense like Texas', which has given up over 20 points just once this season. Besides, can the Aggies slow down a Texas offense that has been in fifth gear most of the last month, having scored at least 35 points in every game since their 16-13 win over Oklahoma. After almost completely eliminating himself from consideration early in the season, Colt McCoy has re-entered the Heisman race with a bang, and it will take some unexpected heroics (and a jarring letdown) for A&M to pull a monumental upset.
The Picks -- Rob: Texas | FEI: Texas | S&P+: Texas
You can keep your Michigan-Ohio State and USC-Notre Dame—for 365-days-every-year intensity, nothing approaches Alabama-Auburn. And when one team is unbeaten, the Iron Bowl goes to eleven, like adding Red Bull to your Jolt Cola. Actually, the “Iron Bowl” label is passé since the game moved from Birmingham, but it’s too cool to die. ‘Bama’s defensive dominance and powerhouse running attack have made short work of the SEC, but don’t expect a beatdown similar to last year’s 36-0 debacle. The home team is third in the conference in total offense, and Gus Malzahn’s impact on the Tigers spread has been profound. While the Tide is still superior in almost every facet, this series has seen upsets with far more talent disparity, so Nick Saban will have his angry glare set to high beam at the first sign of slacking by his team. Look for Bama to wear down War Eagle and put the game away late, as has been its M.O. for much of the season.
The Picks -- Rob: Alabama | FEI: Alabama | S&P+: Alabama
It’s the “Backyard Brawl”, the rivalry with the highest couch-arson casualty rate in the nation. Pitt has had the upper hand the last couple of years, but hasn’t won three straight in the series since 1980-82 and hasn’t been favored in the game since Dave Wannstedt took over at Pitt. The Panthers have been lurking outside of the spotlight for most of this year, and win or lose this weekend, will still have a shot at the Big East championship against Cincinnati on December 5th. Pitt’s solid senior quarterback Bill Stull (No. 4 nationally in QB Rating) and stud freshman running back Dion Lewis (No. 4 nationally in yards/game) are shamefully unknown stars. West Virginia’s Noel Devine burst into everyone’s consciousness late in his freshman season, too, but is still seeking a breakout performance against Pitt. He’s rushed for only 28 yards on 19 carries in his first two opportunities in the rivalry.
The Picks -- Rob: Pitt | FEI: Pitt | S&P+: WVU
Rather quietly, Nevada has moved from being one of September's biggest disappointments to becoming the offense everybody thought they could be. After a turnover-plagued and defensively deficient 0-3 start, the Wolf Pack have been unbelievable during an eight-game winning streak that has seen them score over 60 points four times. They have rushed for at least 312 yards every game in the streak and have gone over 450 yards five times. Can Colin Kaepernick and his merry men find daylight all over the blue field in Boise, or will they crash to the Smurf Turf and die like birds are rumored to do there from time to time? As hot as Nevada is, it is usually a bad idea to bet against Boise's Broncos in their own backyard. Whether it is the disorienting turf or the insanely good product on the field, BSU finds ways to not only win, but dominate, and there is no evidence that they are likely to slip up any time soon.
The Picks -- Rob: Nevada | FEI: Boise St. (LOCK) | S&P+: Boise St.
What was that, Oklahoma? Despite offensive struggles associated with youth up front and injuries to just about everybody, the Sooners' defense had held things together rather nicely. And then they traveled to Lubbock and got dismantled by Texas Tech's ... running game? A complete team letdown led to a 41-13 loss, OU's first truly inexcusable effort in a disappointing 6-5 season (their four other losses were to ranked teams, away from home, by a touchdown or less). So how do they respond? If history is any indication, they will be just fine welcoming Oklahoma State to Owen Field on Saturday. The Sooners have lost just two home games in Bob Stoops' tenure in Norman (hence why they are still almost a double-digit favorite), but the Cowboys represent a unique test. They are fighting for a BCS at-large bid, and a win over the still-reputable Sooners in hostile territory would be a nice boost; plus, their offense is balanced enough to give Oklahoma trouble. If the Cowboys play defense more like they did against Texas Tech (they gave up only 17 points to the potent Red Raiders) than against Colorado (28 points is unacceptably high, even if one of those touchdowns was on a kickoff return), they will give themselves a chance in this Bedlam battle.
The Picks -- Rob: Oklahoma | FEI: Okla. St. | S&P+: Oklahoma (LOCK)
The Gators have scored 90 points in the last two meetings with their fierce rivals to the northwest, and have won five straight against the ‘Noles. Even Bobby Bowden has said that FSU is unlikely to beat Florida until Tim Tebow passes through the campus gates for the final time. Mr. Touchdown has one more home game left, and it’s Senior Day, so expect the waterworks to appear on Tebow and Urban Meyer’s manly cheeks. The lone bright spot in Tallahassee this season has been QB Christian Ponder, but he’s done for the year with a separated shoulder. Redshirt freshman E.J. Manuel is similar to Virginia Tech’s Tyrod Taylor (both hail from the Tidewater region) in that he can make plays with his feet and throws well on the move. He may be running for his life from the fearsome Gators pass rush for much of the afternoon, but the learning experience will come in handy next year, when FSU may finally have a shot at taking down the Gators.
The Picks -- Rob: Florida | FEI: Fla. St. | S&P+: Florida
The Holy War has helped determine the Mountain West conference championship often lately, but this season BYU and Utah are fighting for second place. They’ll meet in Provo to share war stories of their beatings at the hands of TCU before getting down to business. Cougars quarterback Max Hall has been outstanding (70.3 percent completion, 294 yards per game) and has been spreading the wealth – ten BYU players have caught a touchdown pass this year. Utah’s nine wins have come almost anonymously. Running back Eddie Wide has six 100-yard rushing games. Freshman quarterback Jordan Wynn took over midseason. They’ll anchor the offense, but the defense will need to lead the way if the Utes are victorious. Utah has given up 17 points or fewer in every victory this year, and aside from TCU, has held its opponents on average under 300 yards of total offense.
The Picks -- Rob: Utah | FEI: Utah | S&P+: BYU
My, how the worm has turned in this arch-rivalry, and so quickly, too. As late as halftime of last year’s game, the Bulldogs were considered the state’s top, um, Dawg. But then Tech’s option attack trampled UGA in the second thirty en route to victory, and this season the Jackets have been far superior, losing only once and headed for the ACC title game. GT coach Paul Johnson gets plaudits for masterful in-game adjustments and outstanding motivational technique. Georgia coach Mark Richt is under fire for remaining loyal to underperforming assistants and not yelling enough at his team (seriously). Since the Bulldog defense has been atrocious this season, and Tech has pounded the rock on everyone but Miami and Clemson, the Dawgs will need to win a scoring duel, or face a cheesy bowl game and a long offseason of angry questions. Sorry, Dawg Nation—it’s off to the PapaJohns.com Bowl for you!
The Picks -- Rob: Ga. Tech (LOCK) | FEI: Ga. Tech | S&P+: Georgia
This has to be it, right? Following a three-game November skid against Navy, Pitt, and Connecticut, Notre Dame’s athletic director has pulled Charlie Weis from his usual post-season recruiting trip and an irate fan coldcocked quarterback Jimmy Clausen outside a South Bend bar. With a regime change imminent, will the Fighting Irish rally together to send their coach out a winner? We’re pretty sure Stanford couldn’t care less about the melodrama. Heisman-hopeful Toby Gerhart leads the nation in rushing touchdowns and ranks third in yards per game, and he’ll be looking for style points against a defense that has been gashed on the ground in each of its last three losses. The Cardinal has lost seven straight to Notre Dame, and eight of the last ten. But the Stanford teams that did win the annual match-up in that span were the only ones with winning records in the last decade.
The Picks -- Rob: Stanford | FEI: Stanford | S&P+: Notre Dame
Southern Cal controls its own Holiday Bowl destiny. Looking up at other Pac-10 teams for the first time in recent memory is a bitter pill for the Trojans. They can take out some of the frustration on their rivals from up the I-10, UCLA. The Bruins have been epically streaky—winning three, losing five, winning three more—but are playing their best ball of the season, especially on defense. The Bruins lead the conference in scoring defense, and lead the vaunted Men of Troy in most statistical categories on that side of the ball. They’ll be coming after freshman no-longer-a-sensation Matt Barkley, who has been exposed to the harsh realities of college ball after a hot start. USC is still a little better, but injuries and a zap to their confidence after recent pummellings tightens this one up. It may not approach the 1967 classic featuring O.J. and Gary Beban, but it should be close in the final fifteen.
The Picks -- Rob: USC | FEI: USC | S&P+: UCLA
Rob Weintraub: If the rumors are true (and as Sydney Pollack informed Tim Robbins in “The Player,” the rumors are always true), we are about to lose roughly 1,000 pounds of coach in Mark Mangino of Kansas, Notre Dame’s Charlie Weis, and Maryland’s Ralph Friedgen. Leaving aside the aesthetic realities the head coach of a BCS program now faces, it’s a sudden, surprising fall for all three men, especially the Fridge. Not long ago, Maryland was ascendant, Ralph was 31-8 in his first three seasons in College Park, and Athletic Director Debbie Yow raced to give Friedgen a lucrative extension before he could be snagged by another program. Now, the Terps are 2-9, and are struggling to recruit in a pro-sports dominated region, just as every Maryland coach has, including Bear Bryant and Bobby Ross. All three fat bastard coaches will find work again, but unless one drops about a hundred EllBees, none will hold a major head job again.
Brian Fremeau: FEI loves the ACC for the second straight year, and for those paying attention, the reasons aren’t too difficult to understand. FEI rewards competitive, narrow losses, and top-to-bottom, ACC games are more competitive than other conferences. On top of that, the league has posted strong performances in non-conference games. Florida State romped over BYU, North Carolina State posted the only victory over Pittsburgh, Clemson gave TCU its closest game of the year, and even Virginia Tech hung with Alabama in terms of possession efficiency way back in September. This weekend, Georgia Tech (hosting Georgia), Clemson (at South Carolina) and Miami (at South Florida) are all favored in non-conference games, while Florida State is a heavy underdog at Florida. These are the kinds of weeks when fan base bragging rights are claimed, and these are the kinds of weeks that college ratings systems feast on valuable cross-connected data.
Bill Connelly: Speaking of cross-connected data, hopefully whatever happens will finally convince the S&P+ ratings to bump Oklahoma down a few notches. The Sooners fell to just seventh in this week's S&P+ rankings despite a blowout loss in Lubbock, and while the rest of their record is rather excusable, they are simply ranked too high. As a bitter Missouri fan who watched Oklahoma get in Mizzou's way for most of the Chase Daniel era, they are now making me doubly bitter for messing with my numbers, and they need to cut it out. Thanksgiving is about happiness, not petty bitterness.
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|Nevada||+13.5||Boise State||Nevada||Boise State*||Boise State|
|Oklahoma State||+9.5||Oklahoma||Oklahoma||Okla. St.||Oklahoma*|
|Georgia||+7.5||Georgia Tech||Ga. Tech*||Ga. Tech||Georgia|
|Notre Dame||+10||Stanford||Stanford||Stanford||Notre Dame|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
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13 comments, Last at 30 Nov 2009, 3:58pm by Jeff Fogle