Blowout week, but not for the Steelers. Do they play down to the competition? Also: bad Foles, Bridgewater's debut, and did J.J. Watt just end EJ Manuel's career in Buffalo?
06 Dec 2013
by Matt Hinton
After seven BCS champions in seven years, the alleged dominance of the SEC over the rest of college football isn't so much a point of view as it is a full-blown dogma. To the congregation of the Church of Ess Ee See Superiority (Est. 2006), the notion of a championship game that somehow fails to include the best team in the best conference isn't merely misguided. It's heresy. As Auburn's athletic director suggested after the Tigers' miraculous, come-from-behind upset over Alabama, denying the SEC champion of its inalienable right to play for the national crown might even qualify as treason.
And yet: Here we are, less than 36 hours from the end of the 2013 regular season, and the dystopian reality of a title game between the champions of the Big Ten and ACC. In the South, cognitive dissonance is exceeded only by false hope: Despite the reflexive politicking of SEC commissioner Mike Slive, among others, the odds of a one-loss Auburn or Missouri leaping No. 2 Ohio State if the Buckeyes close out a perfect season in the Big Ten title game are remote. (The odds of a flop by No. 1 Florida State in the ACC title game are so infinitesimal even the most delusional optimists don't dare dream.) True, it may be a close call: In the current standings, Ohio State is clinging to the all-important No. 2 spot over No. 3 Auburn by just .027 points on a 1.000 scale. But it's a solid lead – OSU is in front of Auburn in both relevant human polls and five of the six computer polls – and voters will find it hard to justify dropping the Buckeyes if they pick up their best win of the season against Michigan State. In 16 years, the only team that's fallen from No. 1 or No. 2 in the standings following a season-ending victory is USC in 2003, and the Trojans weren't undefeated. When the question comes down to one loss vs. zero losses, there is no precedent for the polls opting for the former.
Which is how, in addition to the annual spectacle in Georgia Dome, the liturgy on Saturday has come to include the Michigan State fight song. We are not talking about the Rose Bowl here. This is serious: For one night, and one night only, the Spartans are honorary members of the SEC, and will be expected to conduct themselves accordingly. The very fabric of a fragile nation depends on it.
Given its reputation for up-tempo, point-a-minute shootouts, readers who haven't kept close tabs on the Big 12 this season might be taken aback by the defensive slant in the tale of the tape, especially in a rivalry decided by final scores of 61–41 in 2008, 47–41 in 2010 and 51–48 last year, when both sides combined for 1,108 yards of total offense. But 2013 has been a rough year for Big 12 offenses, particularly at quarterback – only Baylor has started the same QB in every game – and the Sooners and Cowboys have both looked adrift at times in the transition away from the hardcore spread passing philosophy that prevailed for most of the past decade. It was well into November before either side settled on something resembling a coherent identity, and it's still subject to change on a week-to-week basis.
For Oklahoma, the new normal is a grinding, old-school ground game built around a pair of senior running backs, Brennan Clay and Roy Finch, and a redshirt freshman quarterback, Trevor Knight, who has regained his grip on the starting job he lost in September to the more pocket-oriented Blake Bell. In their last game, a 41–31 win over Kansas State, the Sooners ground out 300 yards rushing against the Wildcats despite missing their most versatile back (fullback Trey Millard, out for the season with an injury) and their second-leading rusher, Damien Williams, who was suspended and subsequently booted from the team. Instead, they put most of the load on Clay, who finished with career-highs for carries (31) and yards (200), with Knight adding 82 yards on the read option. Still, assuming the offensive line is going to find Oklahoma State's front seven more difficult to shove around than Kansas State's, the jury is very much out on Knight's ability to challenge the Cowboys with his arm if safeties start creeping into the box. If you watched OSU's 49–17 romp over Baylor, you'll recall that Bryce Petty could not.
For Oklahoma State, the transformation has come under senior Clint Chelf, who is 5–0 since displacing J.W. Walsh at the top of the depth chart – much to the delight of his brother, I'm sure – and was virtually flawless in the course of passing for 370 yards and three touchdowns against Baylor. But the OSU passing game is a very different animal than it's been in the past, designed around play-action and Pistol looks rather than "Air Raid" volume. For that reason, establishing Desmond Roland between the tackles remains a priority, and given the frozen forecast for this game, Chelf can expect a busy day as a runner, as well.
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Oklahoma State 34, Oklahoma 20
By kickoff, both sides here should know exactly what they're playing for: Regardless of what happens in Stillwater, the winner in Waco will clinch a share of the Big 12 crown with an 8–1 record in conference play, and if Oklahoma springs the upset there will be no sharing. In that case, the later game will decide who goes on to the Fiesta Bowl as the outright champion. In Texas' case, the opportunity comes amid ongoing, season-long buzz over the fate of coach Mack Brown, who remains the subject of nonstop rumor-mongering even as his team is on the verge of a conference championship and a possible BCS bid. Despite the media scrum surrounding their coach, and their relatively disappointing ranking nationally, the Longhorns have won seven of their last eight following a 1–2 start, and just turned in their best performance of the season in a 41–16 blowout over Texas Tech. In that game, UT finished with nine sacks, held the Tech offense out of the end zone for three quarters and produced two 100-yard rushers (Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron) with its leading rusher on the season watching from the sideline.
At the same time, Baylor has looked like a team running on fumes. Against Oklahoma State, the Bears were out of sync from the start, managing a single field goal through the first three quarters and turning in season lows for points (17) and total offense (453) in a sobering flop that vindicated critics of their early schedule. Against TCU, they were just as bad, finishing with 370 yards in a narrow, 41–38 escape that hinged on four Horned Frog turnovers. Against Texas, the good news is a) The offense is as healthy as it's been in weeks, and b) The game is at home, where the Bears were last seen trouncing Oklahoma by 29 points in one of the biggest wins in school history. (That also marked their narrowest margin of victory in Waco this year.) A month later, though, it's hard to gauge how much of the team that manhandled the Sooners can still be summoned.
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Baylor 32, Texas 24
True, Auburn would not be here without winning the lottery on two breathtaking, one-in-a-million plays to beat Georgia and Alabama in consecutive games. But chalking up the Tigers' run to a couple lucky breaks ignores how effective they've been at ramming the ball down opposing defenses' throats. Against Alabama, Auburn racked up more yards (296) and first downs (17) on the ground, on more yards per carry (5.7), than any FBS offense has managed against the Crimson Tide since Nick Saban's third game on the job in 2007. (In the intervening 89 games, Bama had only allowed 200 yards rushing in two of them, against LSU in 2008 and 2010, and then just barely.) Almost all of those yards were generated out of the same basic option package, which forced the defense to account for Tre Mason between the tackles, quarterback Nick Marshall on the perimeter and occasionally a wide receiver as a downfield outlet, over and over, against the No. 1 defense in the nation.
But before they did it to Alabama, they did the same thing to Texas A&M (379 yards on 6.3 per carry), Tennessee (444 on 8.4 per carry) and Georgia (323 on 5.7), all since midseason. From day one, the only defense to kind of stop Auburn on the ground is Mississippi State's, which held the Tigers to 120 yards on 3.3 per carry back on September 14. Everyone else has fared about as well as Alabama, or worse.
As with most teams against Missouri, the bigger concern for Auburn (literally) is matching up with Mizzou's lanky, athletic wide receivers: L'Damian Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham and Marcus Lucas are all future pros with at least 44 catches apiece, and all three tower above Auburn's cornerbacks at 6'4" or taller. Certain pundits have made the mistake of calling Mizzou a "finesse offense," which couldn't be further from the truth for an attack averaging well over 200 yards per game on the ground against SEC defenses. (Anyway, if Henry Josey's game-winning, division-clinching, 57-yard touchdown run against Texas A&M was "finesse," they'll take it.) But if Auburn's pass rush can't generate consistent pressure on James Franklin, the secondary may be in over it head.
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Auburn 31, Missouri 26
This marks the only rematch of the weekend, a reprise of Stanford's 42–28 win in Palo Alto on September 21, which was not nearly as close as the box score suggests. (Stanford led 29–0 at the half, 39–7 after three quarters and pulled its starters before a late ASU rally.) In fact, though, the final numbers there may be a better indication of where these teams stand now, more than two months later, than how they played in that particular game. Since that night, Arizona State has been on a tear, demolishing the better part of the Pac-12 schedule (wins over USC, Colorado, Washington, Washington State and Arizona all came by at least 28 points) and dispatching UCLA to clinch the South Division. F/+ pegs the Devils as the only team besides Florida State among the top dozen nationally on both offense and defense, and ranks them fourth overall. Even without its most productive player on offense, tailback Marion Grice, ASU has a pair of all-conference targets in WR Jaelen Strong and TE Chris Coyle and a pair of versatile tailbacks (D.J. Foster and Deantre Lewis) who are equally comfortable as rushers and receivers.
Stanford is on the opposite end of the spectrum stylistically, both in terms of its tortoise-like pace offensively and its methodical, old-school M.O., good in the first meeting for 240 yards rushing and an eleven-minute advantage in time of possession. (After that game, NFL scouts declared Stanford guard David Yankey the undisputed winner over ASU defensive tackle Will Sutton, who was just voted by Pac-12 coaches as the league's defensive player of the year for the second year in a row.) The downside of that approach is the Cardinal's apparent lack of firepower on the rare occasions that they can't keep the sticks moving on the ground. Ultimately, that may fall more on the quarterback, Kevin Hogan, than on his receivers – especially Ty Montgomery, who has clearly established himself as the go-to option on offense and proven invaluable in the return game – but at any rate the offense is not designed to match volleys in a shootout if the defense has a bad night. Which is precisely what Arizona State is designed to exploit.
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Stanford 27, Arizona State 24
As of Thursday afternoon, Jameis Winston is officially in good standing with Tallahassee police, and any sliver of drama that might have accompanied this game is quickly circling the drain. Even if Winston didn't play another down, though, Florida State has a lot more going for it than just its phenom quarterback: The Seminoles also lead the nation in scoring defense, having held eleven of twelve opponents to 17 points or less – including blue-chip attacks from Clemson and Miami – and boast the No. 1 overall defense in our S/P+ ratings. When the offense keeps the ball on the ground, it ranks in the top ten in both yards per carry and touchdowns, boasting a three-man tailback rotation (Devonta Freeman, Karlos Williams and James Wilder Jr.) that has combined for 2,019 yards and 32 touchdowns. Again, that's aside from the soon-to-be Heisman winner.
So yes, the Blue Devils' ascendency to the top of the ACC Coastal is a very nice story, and David Cutcliffe deserves the largest possible raise for producing the best season at Duke since the Kennedy administration, at least. It is not a smoke-and-mirrors triumph. But as far as this specific matchup is concerned, where is the silver lining? The tale of the tape doesn't lie: The only area in which the Devils are even in the same zip code as Florida State is special teams, and even there FSU boasts one of the most automatic kickers in the nation in redshirt freshman Roberto Aguayo. The Seminoles have forced more turnovers and committed fewer. They're significantly better on third down, offensively and defensively .Their average margin of victory, 42 points, is more than Duke has scored in all but two games against FBS opponents, and one of those was a loss. They're not missing a single starter due to injury, suspension or otherwise. Against almost anyone else, this would be the biggest game for the Blue Devils in generations. Against the most complete, dominant team in America in 2013, the only realistic goal is keeping the carnage to a minimum.
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Florida State 48, Duke 16
The Irresistible Force: Ohio State's rushing offense. Since a mid-October bye week, the Buckeyes are averaging just shy of 380 yards per game on the ground over the last five, on 8.7 yards per carry. (Against the two best defenses in that span, Penn State and Michigan, they churned out 408 and 393 yards, respectively, more three times the average yield against both.) Prior to the bye week, with quarterback Braxton Miller still feeling the effects of a September knee injury, OSU put up season-highs on the ground against Wisconsin (192 yards on 4.5 per carry) and Iowa (273 on 5.2 per carry). With Miller and Carlos Hyde at full speed, it has the two most dynamic backs in the Big Ten, and after rolling the Wolverines ranks No. 1 nationally in Offensive Rushing S&P+.
The Immovable Object: Michigan State's rushing defense. Through 12 games, the Spartans are allowing fewer yards per game (64.8) and per carry (2.2) than any FBS defense since 2006, having held half of the offenses on their schedule to season lows in both categories. Since mid-October, five of the last six opponents have failed to score a touchdown of any variety. Six defensive starters were voted first or second-team All-Big Ten by conference coaches, after spending virtually all season ranked No. 1 nationally in Defensive Rushing S&P+.
Where that collision is concerned, the only hint of a blemish on either resumé is Michigan State's uncharacteristic, 41–17 win at Nebraska on November 16, where the Cornhuskers racked up 182 yards rushing on 5.7 per carry. (They also lost four fumbles, leading directly to 24 points for MSU on "drives" that began inside the Nebraska 25-yard line.) Unlike Braxton Miller on Saturday, Nebraska's quarterbacks in that game were no threat as runners – dual-threat starter Taylor Martinez did not play – and Miller is far and away the most efficient passer the Spartans have seen, as well: With defenses preoccupied by the run, he's connected on at least one pass covering 35 yards or longer in all eight conference games, with multiple touchdown passes in all but one. Michigan State's secondary can run with anyone, but opposite the unreliable Spartan offense, one big strike to Devin Smith or Corey Brown may be all it takes.
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Ohio State 24, Michigan State 17
(Click on the final score prediction for head-to-head comparisons.)
MAC Championship: BOWLING GREEN (+4) vs. NORTHERN ILLINOIS • 8 pm Friday (ESPN2) from Detroit
Ostensibly, Northern Illinois is a top-20 team with a Heisman-caliber quarterback and an automatic BCS bid at stake for the second year in a row. Our numbers are not so impressed. In F/+ terms, the Huskies rank just 53rd – Bowling Green actually fares better, at No. 48 – due mainly to a below-average defense and a rock-bottom schedule, even by MAC standards. (Eight of NIU's twelve wins have come against teams that rank 100th or worse in the F/+ ratings. Eight.) On the other hand, while Bowling Green doesn't have any kind of national rep to live up or down to, there is a similar chasm between the Falcons' performance in the conventional numbers, where they rank seventh nationally in total defense, and the advanced numbers, where F/+ ranks the defense seventy-sixth. When all else fails, it's never a bad idea to go with the team that's won 25 conference games in a row.
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Northern Illinois 36, Bowling Green 28
Conference USA Championship: MARSHALL (–5) at RICE • Noon (ESPN2)
Marshall hasn't sniffed a championship of any kind since a hobbled Byron Letfwich was being carried downfield by his linemen more than a decade ago, which may be the last time many national fans have acknowledged the Thundering Herd's existence. But the 2013 edition has quietly lit up C-USA on the same scale, especially down the stretch, racking up at least 45 points in six consecutive games. Yes, as with NIU, a couple of those outbursts came at the expense of the worst of the worst. In the process, though, the offense shed its pass-happy persona in that stretch for a far more balanced approach (324 yards/game passing, 277 rushing in the month of November), and last week's 59–28 upset over East Division favorite East Carolina solidified the Herd as the class of the conference.
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Marshall 41, Rice 29
Mountain West Championship: UTAH STATE (+3.5) at FRESNO STATE • 10 pm (CBS)
On a weekend that involves Duke playing for an automatic BCS bid – Duke, which is Duke – the darkhorse curve is pretty well wrecked for everyone else. But Utah State didn't exactly ride a wave of inevitability to the Mountain Division crown, either: Besides breaking in a new head coach, Matt Wells the starting quarterback over the course of a five-game winning streak has been a true freshman, Darell Garretson, whoe was forced into the lineup at midseason to replace injured starter Chuckie Keeton. In the absence of their MVP, the Aggies have relied increasingly on the ground game (leading rusher Joey DeMartino has four 100-yard games in the last five) and the league's best defense, which has held four of five opponents in the winning streak to ten points or less. Meanwhile, Fresno State is playing for its first outright conference championship since 1989, as a member of the Big West, but still has to feel a little disappointed that the Mountain West crown is all that's at stake after blowing a perfect record and a shot at a BCS game in a 62–52 loss at San Jose State. When they're on, no MWC defense has a prayer of stopping quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Davante Adams, one of the most prolific pass-catch combos in the nation. But they have to be on, because the Bulldog D can't be relied on to make many stops itself.
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Fresno State 33, Utah State 24
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