A weekly primer.
SMQ pretty much entirely ignored North Carolina's pillow fight-worthy effort against almost equally awful Virginia Thursday night, but did catch one mildly interesting shot during the UVA's drive at the end of the first half: one of the Cavs' signals in the hurry-up is an unambiguous throat-slash gesture, raking the thumb in front of the neck, which quarterback Jameel Sewell demonstrated repeatedly. This gesture was firmly banned in the NFL several years ago, with authoriteh, and made a 15-yard penalty by the NCAA in 2004. So it's OK to use the slash as a silent hand signal?
SMQ warned that that was only slightly interesting.
SMQ Will Be Watching
Early on, Wisconsin and Purdue may not be terrible [Quite an endorsement - ed. I expect a job offer from ESPNMarketing directly], but Texas at Nebraska takes clear precedence, with dangerous "Arkansas at Texas 2003" vibes looming over it for the Longhorns. UCLA and Notre Dame is on tap only in the case of a blowout in Lincoln. SMQ expects to get Boston College at Florida State rather than Iowa at Michigan, but either way will probably wind up tuning in more intently to Alabama-Tennessee; that likelihood is directly proportional to the competitiveness of the two games. And curse the awkward start time of Pittsburgh-Rutgers! That should be an interesting game, but its first half overlaps with the end of the afternoon games, one of which will have a tense finish, and its second with the start of the de facto marquee game, Georgia Tech at Clemson, which is the one SMQ wants to see above all else Saturday. Radio action on the Southern Miss-Virginia Tech massacre (it's set to be carried by ESPNU, whatever that's supposed to mean, which could lead to some late-night "bonus" coverage in the unlikely case of a G-Tech-Clemson snoozer).
Likely viewed only with rabbit ears and a little luck, because we Mississippians sure can't wait to see that great "regional" ACC battle between teams from Florida and Massachusetts!
Finally, We'll Learn About
Either Rutgers or Pittsburgh, consumers of mostly empty calories to date, moves on to the second round against the West Virginia-Louisville winner. Yes, Rutgers was here last week, prior to which only South Florida had represented any kind of worthy challenge, but that's what happens when your opponent's starting quarterback goes down in the first quarter. Pittsburgh, too, needs a little redemption for the Michigan State game against a team SMQ guesses it would ream now, a month after being reamed its own self.
Most to Gain
Clemson and Georgia Tech have spent so long around the ACC's second tier, it's a little strange to think of either as a virtual top ten lock with a smooth road ahead towards the conference championship with a win. That's a little simplistic for such a muddied league, but it will be the general perception for voters whose attention will be pretty much undivided and squarely on Death Valley (A) Saturday night (unless they're watching the stupid World Series instead, in which case, take away their voting privileges in favor of the maniacally obsessed).
Also, Indiana doesn't necessarily have to win at Ohio State to continue its momentum from beating Iowa, but it would earn some props by playing the Buckeyes tough, on a Penn State-worthy level at minimum.
Most to Lose
Texas, Tennessee and Notre Dame are all top ten teams on cruise control for the next few weeks, in good position to make lots of mythical title racket if there's bloodshed in front of them in the opinion polls. Each also plays a tough opponent it should beat Saturday, but which is a far from automatic out; a slip a this point could be worth millions.
Inevitable Blowout of the Week
Stanford and anybody right now (Arizona State this week). Also, pity the poor Tulane Green Wave, rolling meekly into rejuvenated Auburn to get Kenny Irons' Heisman campaign rebooted all over its trickle of a defense.
Lame Game of the Week
Utah State has finally gotten around to scoring the last three weeks after opening without an offensive touchdown in any of its first four games, and actually managed to win one, against Fresno State, of all teams, a couple of weeks ago. Their opponent Saturday is Louisiana Tech, impotent punching bag for margin-of-victory-boosting victories for four teams in SMQ's top 25 this week, games the Bulldogs lost by an average of 50-9, and most recently losers to Idaho.
Weird Line(s) of the Week
For entertainment purposes only, of course...
Non-gambler SMQ checks the lines on ESPN, which lists current numbers for four different agencies. One of them, BetUS.com, is significantly lower than the other three, which are identical or comparable, on every game this week. No exceptions - The difference is as high as 8.5 points. So why would anybody go with Oklahoma at -14 everywhere else when he can get the Sooners at -7 on BetUS? What is the deal here? This is not typical. What does SMQ not know?
Buffalo Line Watch
Since joining Division I-A football in 1999, Buffalo has been favored to win only once, against Temple to open this season. This week, the Bulls, coming off a 38-31 loss to previously winless Miami, Ohio, in which it intercepted four passes on five Miami drives in the second half, only to blow a fourth quarter lead with two minutes remaining, is a 17.5-point underdog at 4-3 Ohio U.
WE CAN REBUILD. WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY...
Penn State: It's either the Lions or Illini rebounding, and god help PSU if it needs Anthony Morelli to beat Illinois.
N.C. State: Maryland is the nation's flimsiest 4-2 and can't stop a decent running game (see: West Virginia). Andre Brown is not Steve Slaton, but if the Pack will actually give it to him, it wins against the declining Terps.
Missouri: SMQ knows nothing about Kansas State, other than it's not very good. That's probably enough.
Georgia: SMQ does know a little about Mississippi State, but more than he'd like. After what happened with Vanderbilt last week, he vows for Kyle's sake to ban UGA from this section if it manages to lose to MSU.
Minnesota: The Gophers are struggling, but Minny always gets up for North Dakota State.
Texas Tech: SMQ likes Mike Leach for stuff like this too much to allow himself to believe the Raiders are bad enough right now to drop one to Iowa State.
Georgia Tech at Clemson
Gameday, it seems, is en route to the Carolinas and Clemson fans are more or less flipping out for, uh, let's just say "an important ACC game." Both teams just trying to stay out in front, or just on pace, in their respective divisions, both teams trying to redeem a tough loss and earn a quality win over what passes these days for a non-fading conference heavy, both teams trying to shed mediocrity for something qualifying as a championship aura.
The Pick: What's great for fans is that these two are contractually obliged to play heart-stopping thrillers year after year. Clemson put a licking on Tech in 2003, but otherwise this is the tightest series since [inappropriate metaphor redacted]. The difference in Tech's wins the past two season have been Calvin Johnson (8 catches, 3 scores in his second career game in GT's crazy 2004 comeback) and a slew of Clemson fumbles; the combined margin is five points. Johnson was quieter last year, a disappointing trend that's been relentlessly bucked this year under the playcalling of Pat Nix. The Tigers still have no answer, as no one on this level can, for No. 21, but they do have the backfield talent and depth and experienced offensive line to play the kind of grinding game Tommy Bowden's warmed up to with James Davis. They also have no non-generic receiving threat now that Chansi Stuckey is out with a broken foot. And at some point, the fact that Reggie Ball has started every game of his career has to pay off big, doesn't it? Why not here, with the aid of the best player on the field, on a stage that's much more familiar to him than to his senior counterpart, Will Proctor? Ball has shown his chops on the road before.
GEORGIA TECH 24, CLEMSON 20
Tech? In Death Valley?! Oh...right...
Texas at Nebraska
Don't be fooled by the `Huskers' 200-yard rushing average: when it ran into a directionally-named team that could play a little defense, at Southern Cal, Nebraska not only went gonzo conservative with the playcalling, but reverted to its dismal 2005 tendency to get its backs killed regularly at about the line of scrimmage. The Longhorns, for everyone short of the talents of Adrian Peterson (which is everyone), have been, as expected, among the toughest run defenses in the nation, which equals a slow death without a little throwin' more from Zac Taylor on first and second down than we saw in L.A.
The Pick: The homefield, a few injuries in the Texas secondary and UT's young quarterback in his first tough road start make the Big Red a tempting upset contender here, but a good measure for this game is the last Nebraska-Texas collision, in 2003, which pitted these teams in about the same places they are now: Texas breaking in a young quarterback and hovering just outside the elite mythical title contenders, Nebraska losing traction going down at about the same just-above-the-clouds spot it's setting up camp now on the way back up. And Texas completely dominated every facet of that game. UT has completely dominated Nebraska to various degrees in every rare meeting, in fact, since that James Brown fourth down pass in the '96 Big XII Championship, back even in the dark days of Mackovic, which with the `Horns' running game and overall offensive balance is a string SMQ sees no reason should end.
TEXAS 27, NEBRASKA 16
Rutgers at Pittsburgh
No telling how the Knights are going to hold up against laser-eyed RoboQB Tyler Palko, who's been operating the last four games like no opposing defense exists. Rutgers' defense (second in total defense and first in scoring defense) exists, certainly, but has not faced anything approaching Pitt's attack. Where the Panthers have really reached the next level - against bad teams, it should be noted, but that's all we have to go by here on either side - is the sudden burst from running back LaRod Stephens-Howlings the past two games. Rutgers, on the other hand, has been very one-dimensional on offense (16th rushing, but way down at 107th passing, with a quarterback who's still tossing more picks than scores), which will not fly against this improved quality of competition. Plus it's Rutgers, which SMQ is pretty sure was banned by Congress from reaching double digit wins during the Reagan Administration.
PITTSBURGH 23, RUTGERS 14
Iowa at Michigan
The Hawkeyes have big problems on defense, as evidenced by lusty, gluttonous carvings at the hands of Ohio State and then, disgracefully, Indiana; even the performances in wins over Purdue and Iowa State offered flashing warnings of weakness all over the place. The remedy is to play a little keep away, limiting possessions for a late move, but the running game necessary for that - present against Ohio State until made untenable by the generous defense - will find only pain in the Michigan front seven. Drew Tate is tougher to draw a bead on than the late Anthony Morelli and always an intriguing wildcard, but the relative security of Mike Hart is a significantly better bet.
MICHIGAN 30, IOWA 13
Alabama at Tennessee
This was 6-3 last year and the SEC synapses still fire "defensive slog" into the cortex, but there's no precedent to draw on suggesting Alabama will do much good against Tennessee's stunning passing attack, which currently is easily the best in the conference, and probably the best the conference has seen since Steve Spurrier left Rex Grossman to the dogs at Florida. Alabama has no identity to date, other than inopportune turnovers and allowing wins to slip into the chaos of overtime - not a good combo at Neyland.
TENNESSEE 24, ALABAMA 14
Boston College at Florida State
One continued semblance of the old Florida State has persisted in the run defense, which has struggled against good backs (James Davis, Andre Brown), but won't face anyone of that caliber Saturday. The Eagles' surprising ground struggles are stark in light of backup quarterback Chris Crane taking the reigns for injured Matt Ryan in a chanting, blacked-out environment; even if Jeff Bowden is the kind of coordinator opposing teams welcome in basically all situations, Mickey Andrews is not. Those are, by the way - even considering the enigmatic presence of the word "unconquered" on the thigh - pretty good-looking bizarro uniforms, if used sparsely.
FLORIDA STATE 17, BOSTON COLLEGE 12
Shameless marketing, natch, but they're not at least they're not Oregon's unis
Wisconsin at Purdue
The Boilermakers have some real, real serious issues with their run defense, and Wisconsin is far from a salve. Purdue's done for opposing running backs what it did for quarterbacks last year, obliging, consecutively, career games to Amir Pinnix, Darius Walker and Damien Sims and an eight-plus per carry average to Tyrell Sutton. Wisconsin will get the first heavy-passing test to its superbly-rated pass defense (second nationally in efficiency, third in yards), but Curtis Painter remains erratic enough to make up in big mistakes for whatever yardage he collects.
WISCONSIN 33, PURDUE 21
UCLA at Notre Dame
The Bruins' defense carried the "much improved" tag for a month before it got slapped around at Oregon last week, and now "slightly improved" at Notre Dame, with a backup quarterback who may or may not have been coughing up blood in his last appearance is a poor substitution heading into South Bend. If Brady Quinn's going to position himself for the Maxwell Pundit's stretch run entering the USC game, it starts aquí. Karl Dorrell's losing streak against winning teams on the road is at ten.
NOTRE DAME 38, UCLA 18
Washington at California
The Huskies do the whole "resurgent" thing, win three straight, stay competitive enough to get possibly jobbed by the clock operator at USC, and then get real revved up and lose to Oregon State. At home. The ignominy does not bode well for a trip to Cal, riding its wave in the complete opposite direction. Washington, frankly, can't stop the pass; Nate Longshore's been one of the country's best-protected quarterbacks since the opener and had thrown 17 touchdowns in five games before the relatively quiet, defensive-driven win at Washington State. The Huskies, sans Isaiah Stanback, may be playing just to keep this close enough to stave off a total reversion to 04-05 ineptitude.
CALIFORNIA 34, WASHINGTON 10
Oregon at Washington State
SMQ mulled a wild upset pick here, but the Ducks showed no post-blowout hangover against UCLA last week, and Washington State's two previous encounters with backs of Jonathan Stewart's caliber (against Kenny Irons and Marshawn Lynch) have ended very, very badly for the Cougars. Oregon also is giving up very few sacks (.67 per game, 3rd nationally) for a team that throws pretty often, which - along with the omnipresence of the aforementioned running game - might neutralize WSU's Dumervilian rusher Mkristo Bruce. So this is closer than the experts think at best.
OREGON 31, WASHINGTON STATE 23
Southern Miss at Virginia Tech
Whatever's up with the Hokies - two straight losses, getting called out on national TV, players being booted, etc. - certainly they're not concerned with little ol' Southern Miss, a team that's been waxed by Florida and Tulsa in its only two visits this season to play winning teams. In fact, the Eagles haven't beaten a team with a winning record on the road since they dropped 1-0 Nebraska in 2004. And those Huskers finished 5-6. The only bright spot USM has had in either of its trips against a quality opponent is Damion Fletcher, the freshman tailback who's out against Tech after minor knee surgery; behind him, a third backup this week followed last year's mediocre starters in quitting the team for lack of playing time. So the Eagles are left with two backs on the entire depth chart: a 5-foot-9-inch white guy and a true freshman who's never set foot on a college field for live action in a game. And Tech's defense was going to devour Jeremy Young alive anyway.
So whatever the lines are saying, it's wrong. Take Tech with any spread. Find the highest spread you can find, and put every dime you own and your children on Virginia Tech. Big. There is no chance ailing, flailing, Conference USA nobody Southern Miss can go into that hornet's nest in Blacksburg and deal with the big, bad Hokies, not even with their star player, certainly not without him, and anyone who spies the slightest upset potential in this game is a person straining against every semblance of history, logic and prophecy.
VIRGINIA TECH 73, SOUTHERN MISS 2