Halfway along the road to the mythical championship, polls and pundits declare Ohio State strides ahead, burning rubber, its hapless followers eating dust, but the reality is that a half dozen teams remain very much alive to be popularly voted into the official, corporately-interested title game. SMQ, for one, views the odds differently - opposing, it may seem, even his own pending BlogPoll ballot, which is likely to place OSU number one based exclusively on its "resume," with no regard to its future chances - in approximate order:
Ticket to Inevitable Greatness: SMQ highly values dominant run defense, perhaps overvalues, and don't nobody run the ball on the Michigan. Not no way, not no how. Alan Branch is the irresistible force in the middle of the ludicrously stacked front seven, national leaders in run defense for more than a month running, by more than ten yards per game over number two UCLA (number two UCLA, the worst run defense in the nation last year). Defenses can slow Mike Hart - by stacking the line and allowing death to rain down from the arm of Chad Henne to increasingly uncoverable Mario Manningham.
Achilles Heel Ensuring One-loss Doom: Possible Achilles a) is Manningham's meniscus, which could make things several degrees tighter at Penn State. Otherwise, none apparent, though there is the very specific issue of one Troy Smith, a quarterback who's made his name largely on carving up Wolverine defenses: 723 total yards, five total touchdowns in two games. Other mobile quarterbacks - and this is excepting the extreme outlier that was Vince Young in the 2005 Rose Bowl - have also had some running success; most recently, Drew Stanton and Chris Nickson were pressured and sometimes sacked, but also sometimes made some proverbial hay with their legs (94 combined yards, excluding sacks). Ted Ginn Jr., too, can list each of his two dates with Michigan among the half dozen best in his career to date.
Manningham's knee=Michigan's achilles?
Impending Nemesis: Well, see above, in reference to both Manningham's knee and the Buckeyes' stupendous offensive skill talent. Crystal ball-gazing SMQ foretells an apocalyptic 1-2 cage match Nov. 18.
Ticket to Inevitable Greatness: Antonio Pittman was not great at Texas, but Troy Smith and his receivers were lethal downfield. Smith and the wideouts were inconsistent in the muck against Penn State, but Pittman carried the day. Everyone, frighteningly, was prominently involved at Iowa, and the somewhat successful Hawkeye offense barely touched the ball in the second and third quarters. So pick your poison.
Achilles Heel Ensuring One-loss Doom: It hasn't mattered because nobody's slowed down the offense enough to be in position to take advantage, but the still-young front seven has had some running lanes opened against it: competent attacks from Northern Illinois, Texas, Penn State and Iowa each collectively or with individual backs went well over 100 yards; taking away 137 yards on 20 sacks (not to be done lightly - 20 sacks in six games is a lot), OSU is giving up five yards per carry on the season, including games they relatively hammered backs from Cincinnati and Bowling Green. Good teams can move the ball here, and against someone with a defense good enough to prevent falling two scores back in a hurry, and the patience to play a little keep-away, pick-your-spots ball on offense, this is a problem.
Impending Nemesis: If "competent...patience" and a willingness to pick spots for big play opportunities doesn't describe Michigan, then who?
Ticket to Inevitable Greatness: In terms of talent and speed, the Trojans remain second to none - Dwayne Jarrett comes back healthy soon, probably this week. The defense is at least as good, and maybe better, than the ones from the last three dominant seasons. The toughest opponent, Nebraska, which has been explosive elsewhere this season, was stifled completely in L.A.
Achilles Heel Ensuring One-loss Doom: No Leinart/Bush/White has meant a more traditional committee approach to running that's lacked explosiveness against a series of "whatever" defenses. No Jarrett the last two and a half games has meant a similarly pedestrian passing game that's more about moving the chains and eating the clock that basking in the glow of SportsCenter. A tougher defense than USC's faced to date, if it prevents steady drives, is less likely to be seared by a sudden burst or random big play by this bunch than by its predecessors.
Impending Nemesis: Inviolable Laws of an Indifferent Universe. That type of defense may not actually be left on the schedule, but Cal could give it a go. At any rate, the Bears, along with Oregon and Notre Dame, have offenses capable of keeping up with the less-explosive Trojans.
Ticket to Inevitable Greatness: Reeee-diculous offenses, Nos. 1 and 2 in both yardage and points per game right now. Louisville, especially, has obscene balance, in the top ten rushing and passing. No one's dreamt of slowing the West Virginia running game since White and Slaton took over against U of Hell last year; Louisville's rolling like a freight train, Brohm and Bush or no Brohm and Bush.
Louisville's new boss, same as its old boss
Achilles Heel Ensuring One-loss Doom: Defenses that can hammer lowly offenses, but have yet to face anything like what they'll be seeing from one another's attacks - or even, it should be noted, from those of Pittsburgh and Rutgers.
Impending Nemesis: Dangerously assuming Pittsburgh and Rutgers aren't exactly up to snuff yet, the schedule: Virginia Tech made it to the title game from the Big East in 1999 without a marquee victory, but even the winner Nov. 2 will have to deal with the issue of beating, mainly, one another. Both teams tried to have some meat out-of-conference, but couldn't foresee the demise of Miami, Maryland, Kansas State and Mississippi State. For West Virginia, its one-dimensionality with the ball - especially if anyone should manage to get ahead, as only Louisville last year has on them - is an omnipresent doubt (yes, yes, WVU came back then, but that seems unlikely to repeat if the Cards or anyone else goes up three touchdowns again).
Ticket to Inevitable Greatness: Defense, baby: talk about the spread all you want, but this team is old school, turnovers and special teams, front seven dominance in
Achilles Heel Ensuring One-loss Doom: The running game is inconsistent and often overly Tebow-based, which is OK for the occasional Incredibly Surprising Quarterback Draw or more rare Incredibly Surprising Pass Off the Fake Quarterback Draw, but less for consistently converting short yardage or running out the clock with a late lead. Other than the platoon thing, the offense lacks an identity it can hang its hat on and regularly hits the doldrums - can the Tebow Effect possibly create more excitement than it has already? Diminishing returns seem inevitable.
Impending Nemesis: The sleepless, unrelenting nights of SEC Hell Month continues unabated, at vengeance-hungry Auburn and against Georgia. Steve Spurrier, having recently restored "unpredictable" and "always dangerous" adjectives to his name - even where assistant coaches are involved - also looms. All of which is just a stumbling block for the SEC championship game.