A weekly primer...
In service of severely limiting time purposes to-day, pleasantries dispensed:
GAME OF THE CENTURY OF THE WEEK
Notre Dame at Southern Cal
What's at Stake: Much big money finagling; more cash is involved here than in a power struggle at the top of a massive Fortune 500. Both teams are still likely to come out of this bearing the stink of BCS moolah, but SC, of course, would like to bypass the cosmetic cover-up of the Rose Bowl for another bottle of the sweetest scent on the shelf, eau de parfum de mythical championship. The Irish, credit mangled against Michigan in September, probably can't afford that, but it's theoretically in reach, at least.
Notre Dame Wants: In a two month stretch that's included one somewhat credible opponent/competitive game (UCLA), Notre Dame has managed to make itself look more than respectable running and stopping the run, but against defenses roughly approximating USC's, statistically - Georgia Tech, Penn State, Michigan and UCLA - ball control has been primarily achieved by short passing rather than running. The effect, when Brady Quinn is on, is the same as ball control via handoff: in the three wins against those teams, the Irish had possession advantages of about nine minutes in each (Michigan, for obvious reasons, was the exception).
Not to be overlooked in that advantage is the abundance of drive-extending fourth down conversions: Notre Dame has converted 65 percent of its 26 fourth down tries all season, most significantly in the four above games, when ND made up for converting just 18 of 73 third down attempts by making good on 10 of 12 fourth downs and scoring after eight of them (one of the other two was a decisive clock-killer in the waning moments at Georgia Tech). This is a key component of Notre Dame's offense, especially with a merely serviceable-at-best running game, its ability to use all four downs - a major part of being successful on fourth down so often is being in position so often, both in distance and field position - and that look didn't even include games against the lesser defenses of Michigan State, Purdue and Navy, when ND collectively converted 7 of 10 fourth downs. It could be argued UCLA and Michigan State for certain and possibly Georgia Tech and Penn State, circumstantially, would have all been lost with a more conservative approach. Against USC, where the running game again figures to be mainly a keep-em-honest compliment to the safe passing game - if the game can remain close enough long enough for it to be even that - a couple conversions to keep chains moving and the iffy Irish defense on the sideline will probably be necessary.
USC Wants: Notre Dame's offensive line is not great, and defenses that pressure Brady Quinn - Georgia Tech, Michigan, UCLA - seem to have quite a bit more success than those that don't (i.e., Penn State). Pete Carroll, accordingly, will be sending folks from all over the field, if the Trojans' stud ends can't get to Quinn their own selves, a la LaMarr Woodley and Justin Hickman. This assault is aided the more the iffy Irish running game is an obvious non-factor, which itself is aided by a lead of the Michigan variety (seeing as Michigan State is Michigan State, SMQ will let that game stand alone). So, again, B-E aggressive with Jarrett and Smith - still, questions about the athleticism of Notre Dame's defense, and its corners in particular against this caliber of receiver (see: Michigan, as well as State University thereof), must be satisfactorily dispelled. Make ND dispel them early. Then pound the hell out them, with whichever awesome freshman tailback you wish - SMQ likes sleek C.J. Gable himself, but if Chauncey Washington is the guy, he can be the guy against an Irish front seven that hasn't been able to stop good backs without sacrificing the big play over the top in the name of safety run support. There's no reason more balanced USC shouldn't be able to score gobs here, if it's reasonably in sync, unless its defense can't get Notre Dame off the field.
Variables: What kind of pass rush will USC be able to mount? This depends on how effective Darius Walker can be...How long can Notre Dame keep it within a score? This will dictate how effective Darius Walker can be, and what kind of pass rush USC will be able to mount, etc...Does SC have to rely on a third string safety to kick field goals, or what? Kicking gaffes are always significant in close games.
The Pick: When your assessment of the game includes questions like, "How long can Team A keep it close?" as a requisite for Team A having a chance to emerge with a win, it's probably not a good idea to go with Team A. Unless USC goes all Georgia Tech and forgets its pair of receiver talents, SMQ doesn't think Notre Dame's secondary will be able to keep up.
SOUTHERN CAL 31, NOTRE DAME 22
LSU at Arkansas
Mississippi State significantly disturbed the hum of Arkansas' offense last week by effectively selling out to stop the run (McFadden/Jones averaged 3.4 per carry) and giving Marcus Monk his (4 catches, 80 yards, 1 TD) while only allowing two touchdowns by the formidable Razorback offense, a total even the MSU offense could match without allowing an interception and a kick return for scores. Casey Dick didn't respond spectacularly on the road to having to make plays with the running game off its tracks. If there's one element where LSU has been consistently great, it's run defense.
The Pick: So LSU takes it, eh? Not so fast, my friend! Mississippi State also managed to pound big freshman Anthony Dixon with success, and if there's one element where LSU has not been consistently great, it's pounding anyone to any gain - it's okay with Jacob Hester, but just okay, and that's at best. The Tigers are in better shape with JaMarcus Russell leading a one-dimensional attack on the road than Tennessee was with Jonathan Crompton leading a one-dimensional attack on the road - Russell's line is not appreciably better at all than Tennessee's, which Arkansas' front seven ate for lunch and dinner and leftovers the next day, but anyone who's watched the kid knows he's nigh untackleable even under stupendous pressure - but that could only serve to make the margin closer than three scores. At any rate, Arkansas remains in better shape with the combination of Darren McFadden and Marcus Monk than almost any team in any dimension. The Hogs have more on the line here.
ARKANSAS 27, LSU 23
Texas at Texas A&M
If this isn't posted before the game kicks off at 11 a.m. Central, swear to god it was written before, and no second of the game was been viewed by SMQ before the post went up. Not that that will help the Aggies move the ball any more effectively against the nation's best run-defense. Colt McCoy is back! Who would have considered that such a boost after the Ohio State game?
TEXAS 34, TEXAS A&M 18
Wake Forest at Maryland
Karma and the laws of average struck both these teams last week, but also Boston College Thursday night. And so we have a de facto ACC Atlantic championship between two offenses ranked 100th and 96th, respectively. Wake, at least, has a defense to hang its hat on (Maryland's is ranked 82nd) and a running game in the top half of the country. But otherwise, next week's conference championship against Georgia Tech couldn't look any uglier.
WAKE FOREST 17, MARYLAND 13
Boise State at Nevada
Nevada can't win much here besides respect and maybe a subsequent top 25 vote or two, whereas Boise has all that potential BCS hype behind it. Remember, though, the last time Boise went on the road, it struggled home against San Jose State - home field seems to make a difference in this league. The Broncos aren't exactly the same off the blue turf. The Wolfpack seem to be significantly better in Reno - remember the Fresno State upset last November. SMQ also likes what little he's seen of quarterback Jeff Rowe. But mainly, he just isn't interested in Boise State being among the big money crew. Nothing personal. But Nevada's won 8 of 9 against the same competition as BSU, and is 5-0 at home, so this is hardly crazy, wishful thinking.
NEVADA 35, BOISE STATE 31
South Florida at West Virginia
Seven-win USF was disappointing at Louisville last week, the third time on the road against a non-juggernaut defense the Bulls have been held to single digits (7 at Kansas, 6 at Cincinnati, 8 at U of Hell). They also allowed an average of 162 yards rushing in those losses. Matt Groethe can throw a little, but that, uh, that won't cut it at West Virginia. Over-under on Pat Slaton rushing total: 388, five touchdowns.
WEST VIRGINIA 45, SOUTH FLORIDA 17
Louisville at Pittsburgh
Maybe the Panthers can take solace from another huge block on a punt return. Otherwise, there's little more in the way of comfort against Brian Brohm than there was against WVU last Thursday. The once-promising Panthers are looking at 6-6 and a fifth straight loss.
LOUISVILLE 38, PITTSBURGH 23
Purdue at Hawaii
The Boilermakers give up more than 400 yards per game, 112th nationally. Hawaii considers throwing for 350 and scoring 42 embarassingly subpar. The Rainbows or whatever have not shown the same propensity for lighting up non-WAC defenses to the same degree in the past, but Purdue offers the opportunity to come pretty close. Those of us who voted for Hawaii last week expect some justification here.
HAWAII 41, PURDUE 31
It's Heated and Ultimately Meaningless Territorial Rivalry Time!
Georgia Tech at Georgia
The Yellow Jackets, in keeping with the ACC at large, have been mostly mediocre en route to nine wins, unless one is a fan of net punting, in which Tech leads the nation. Otherwise, Georgia, off an impressive all-around display at Auburn in which receivers stunningly did not drop 44 percent of catchable passes, has every intention of rejuvenating its New Year's Day hopes. All bets are off where possible discoveries of the existence of Calvin Johnson are concerned.
GEORGIA 23, GEORGIA TECH 17
Oregon at Oregon State
The nation's ugliest game, aesthetically, features one of the ugliest declines of the season's second half: the visiting Ducks, whom you might remember from an impressive 4-0 start, are 3-4 since. And two of the three were Portland State and Washington. Oregon State's headed in the other direction, odd 25-7 debacle at UCLA aside - the Beavers have won five of six, all against the PAC Ten. Plus, SMQ judges their uniforms to be slightly uglier than even Oregon's notorious amalgams, which apparently is the point of this dastardly "Civil War" that pits brother against brother, tears down the center the nation that is actually only a state. Plus [lame Beaver joke].
OREGON STATE 28, OREGON 24
Florida at Florida State
Hey! When you talk about Florida State, you're talking about a team that's logged four of six wins this season against Troy, Rice, Duke and Western Michigan. BOOM! That's terrible. Against a Florida defense ranked fifth against the run, Jeff Bowden's swan song should personify the stated running game/blocking scheme apathy that has the `Noles stuck at 100 - as in yards per game rushing, and national rank of said total. SMQ thinks FSU has run out of whatever stores of fight or surprise it ever had.
FLORIDA 27, FLORIDA STATE 14
Seminole fans mourn the end of an era
Virginia at Virginia Tech
Hokies fell apart at Boston College, now have won five straight, all over winning teams. It would be nice to have Branden Ore back, but against UVA's 107th-ranked scoring offense, one just shut out by Florida State two weeks ago, he hardly seems necessary.
VIRGINIA TECH 24, VIRGINIA 9
South Carolina at Clemson
USC hasn't been able to break through against a winning team all season, close as its come (unless you're going to go out on a limb to include Kentucky), and much better as the Cocks have played of late with Blake Mitchell's return to the lineup, Carolina has continued to struggle against the run. Not a fortuitous sign against Clemson's backfield twins, regardless James Davis' status.
CLEMSON 21, SOUTH CAROLINA 16
Oklahoma at Oklahoma State
The Sooners are on a nice little tear, especially where their defense is concerned, and Mike Gundy can't own OU in nearly the same fashion Les Miles did. OSU is in no position to slow down Oklahoma's stunning post-Peterson rushing success.
OKLAHOMA 34, OKLAHOMA STATE 18
Kansas at Missouri
The "Border War" once meant tension and agony in the bloody struggle over the expansion of slavery. These days, it means take the team that's won three straight (Kansas) over the one that's lost three straight (Mizzou).
KANSAS 22, MISSOURI 17
Colorado at Nebraska
Once friends, this was quite an annual struggle, but Colorado limps in with two wins to its name. It would be nice to give CU some credit for heart and courage and fight and Dan Hawkins mantra pixie dust, but reality is not so nice to the worst passing game in the country.
NEBRASKA 28, COLORADO 12
BYU at Utah
The Cougars are six points against two bowl-bound teams from BCS conferences, both on the road, from an undefeated season - two field goals! No one else has played BYU within two touchdowns. It'll have to take solace in carrying the Mormon torch into the Las Vegas Bowl, again, with an unblemished Mountain West record.
BYU 39, UTAH 20
Arizona State at Arizona
El presidente Rudy Carpenter's glorious reform program has secured the inevitable trip to the postseason, but faces a much hotter band of rebels in the Wildcats. UA's offense appears dreadful, but has emerged as a viable threat with Willie Tuitama's return from injury the last three weeks - all three big Wildcat upsets.
ARIZONA 25, ARIZONA STATE 21
Kentucky at Tennessee
The Wildcats are almost definitely in a bowl now, with a chance at a stunning seventh win for the first time since the Couch-Mumme Era. When is the last time UK's upended Tennessee, though? The Vols need to reinforce their own chances of a January game.
TENNESSEE 30, KENTUCKY 14
North Carolina at Duke
SMQ thought Jon Bunting's last game was against NC State. Anyway, if UNC can't beat Duke, the deposed coach doesn't even deserve a send off. Just, like, a catapult or something.
NORTH CAROLINA 27, DUKE 18
Marshall at Southern Miss
Seriously, you guys: USM can wrap up the East division and a bid in next week's C-USA Championship Game in Houston. No help with a loss: tiebreakers all favor East Carolina, so Southern must win here.
Ahmad Bradshaw is not an ideal opponent in that case, but once-pass-happy Marshall is currently in a state of one-dimensional quarterback searching. So are the Eagles, of course, but with a better defense and a homefield advantage (hopefully, if a few people come back from Thanksgiving break a day early) that's only broken once this year, in overtime. Damion Fletcher should find some room here. And one thing we know by now is: when Southern Miss runs, it wins. It will have to Saturday to keep the possibility of the Liberty Bowl alive (our goals here are modest, but nonetheless hard-sought).
SOUTHERN MISS 20, MARSHALL 16
Sunday Morning Quarterback as regularly scheduled.