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Friday Morning Quarterback

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A weekly primer.

Well, now, is a mythical championship game berth in the Cards for the U of Hell after its roughshod romp over flailing, fumbling West Virginian bodies in front of a riveted nation Thursday night? Louisville's remaining slate consists of undefeated Rutgers, two-loss Pittsburgh and surely bowl-bound South Florida before concluding with UConn, dramatically upping a strength of schedule that already includes double-digit wins over Miami and now darling West Virginia. So SMQ sees no reason why not.

He also sees no reason to refrain from gloating, his most consistent and outspoken preseason prediction - that trendy pick WVU will not win the Big East, much less the mythical championship - having all but assured itself of coming true with the Mountaineers' comedy of errors to open the second half. But he is reminded that patience and restraint are virtues, that he liked WVU just fine entering Thursday, and that Rutgers and Pittsburgh still have the opportunity to weigh in heavily on the league championship.

And also that Louisville, it don't like so much the defense. West Virginia not only ran all over the Cards (318 yards, five touchdowns), it passed all over them, too (222 yards, much of it simple screeny stuff). If not for the fumbles and the SMQ-predicted punt team disaster, it could be easily argued the Mountaineers were the better team. SMQ is pretty sure no one will argue that entering Louisville's games with Rutgers and Pitt, but those are forbidding facts for an allegedly championship-quality defense and can't continue if it is to be so - the Knights, especially, will not be shy about exploiting the forgiving run D, and are certain to be less generous with the ball, too.

Not that they or anyone else this side of Ann Arbor will be able to do anything about Brian Brohm. He's a nudge ahead of Chad Henne as the best of the 2004 quarterback class - and may get to play him for that title in two months.


SMQ Will Be Watching
Early priority is likely to go to Maryland at Clemson on el duce, as this game is actually of consequence to the ACC Atlantic standings, until the Terps prove to be as meek and cupcake-inflated as SMQ suspects and he switches to a likely more competitive Penn State-Wisconsin throwdown on ABC. LSU and Tennessee had better put on some kind of show, as they are the lone watchable option at 2:30 (why no ABC game here? Please don't say the Breeder's Cup, for god's sake). Texas fans are freaking about another night game against rising Oklahoma State on TBS, but SMQ will see no more than the `Horns inevitable second half comeback, and that only if whichever of the national ABC games he gets - UCLA-Cal, Oklahoma-Texas A&M or, most likely, Miami-Virginia Tech - is out of hand. Actually, good options also exist here on both WWL channels, with Arkansas visiting South Carolina and Boston College hitting Wake Forest in the same slot in which it fell at NC State last month. So many late options, and so few early - what gives?

Finally, We'll Learn About...
We know plenty about pretty much everyone at this point, but a few teams can take their seasons in entirely different directions, or justify their poll existence, Saturday:

Maryland: The forgotten Terps are supposedly much improved or "a different team" or something since getting mashed up into little bits at West Virginia in September. Beating Virginia and even Florida State, at this point, does not prove this. Beating Clemson, at this point, would, especially with division-leading Boston College within reach in two weeks (following Duke), and Wake Forest immediately after. The conference race could change dramatically here. Again...

Wake Forest: Along the same lines, the Deacs get another shot at an Atlantic heavy at home after blowing their first against Clemson in the fourth quarter. Can move into sole possession or a tie for the division lead, depending on what Maryland does, or all but lock Boston College into the conference championship game.

Miami: And still in the ACC, on the other side, the `Canes get Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl just as the Hokies seem to be peaking. This could be true of Miami, too, unless it's really, really eager to go 7-5.

Not that the `Canes aren't itching to continue the "Coker Slide"

LSU: Mighty impressive victories over the weakest of possible competitors, and tough road losses against a couple of the strongest. Whither LSU? The Tigers get impossible road test No. 3 at Tennessee, with maybe its best chance to get the elusive "quality win" onto its ledger.

Arkansas: South Carolina has played Auburn and Tennessee in Columbia within an inch of their respective lives, which ought to put Arkansas on `alert' there. If the Hogs wish to be included with AUs and UTs in pretty much everybody's top ten/five, they redeem suspiciously close early escapes against Alabama and Vanderbilt and back up their Auburn-bashing with a decisive performance at USC; possible poll strides against Tennessee and LSU are moot otherwise.

Most to Gain
At two league losses apiece, the Missouri-Nebraska winner will have a long, hard road to hoe down the stretch if it wishes to continue the Big XII North's November tradition of "hot potato" with the division lead. Neither, though, seems to be quite the presumptive fodder for the South winner (i.e., Texas, though A&M has a say) that sacrificial lamb champ Colorado's been three of the last four years.

Most to Lose
Boston College has cleared Clemson, Florida State and Virginia Tech, and the final substantial hurdle to the ACC title game is at Wake Forest (Maryland's substance being debatable, and Miami's not making a difference if all goes according to plan). Win, and the path is relatively clear - lose, and the Deacs take over the driver's seat, with the Clemson/Maryland winner keeping its head above water.

Also: Tennessee probably has distant mythical title hopes, which are in rubble and smoke sans a home ripping of LSU; ditto Texas, on the road at comfortably at home against Oklahoma State, where even the seemingly secure Big XII South advantage could be in some peril.

And with only five Bowl Subdivision wins, and Auburn and Georgia Tech awaiting, struggling Georgia needs to hand it to Kentucky just to assure itself of a postseason stop of any variety. This is not a given, sadly.

Inevitable Blowout of the Week

Michigan and Auburn are prepping for mythical title pushes later this month, which makes the unseasonable visits from Ball State and Arkansas State, respectively, a welcome opportunity to hide some tricks, heal some wounds and get some much-needed freshman talent into the game mix. Even Ohio State, at Illinois, doesn't have it that easy.
Lame Game of the Week
With one conference win apiece, North Texas and Louisiana Tech aren't quite at the bottom of the Sun Belt and WAC standings, but they are close enough to make this intra-sectional, interleague matchup one of the least anticipated of the season. The Mean Green have fallen the last two weeks by a combined 27 points at Arkansas State and then Troy; Tech is coming off a five-touchdown defeat at San Jose State.

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 41-0 loss at Boston College, are getting 14.5 to 16 points at home against their only victim in 2005, Kent State. Buffalo has failed to hold an opponent under 31 points in any of its seven straight losses.

Bouncing back...

Clemson: SMQ does not believe in Maryland, and the Davis/Spiller thing was not a complete flash in the pan (no pun intended).
Florida State: Of course, SMQ didn't believe in the Terps last week, either, so here FSU is again with Virginia up. SMQ has now given the `Noles the nod over Clemson, Boston College and Maryland, and would have taken them over NC State, too, and still is yet to develop any sensible explanation for this faith.
Texas Tech: A&M beat the surge right out of Baylor.
Georgia: For its own sake. Third time here for the Bulldogs, who lost to Vanderbilt and almost slipped against Mississippi State following their other appearances.
Navy: `Cuz it's got Duke.
Michigan State: Getting up for John L. Smith's last few games would just epitomize the Spartans during his tenure. Purdue, somehow, is actually struggling on at least MSU's level right now.


Game of the Century of the Week

What's at Stake: Auburn and Florida have each beaten the Tigers at home already, which means the Vols will have to be at least impressive to keep pace, poll-wise, as well as the more conventional reward of staying alive for the league title game. For LSU, it's a matter of staying in the more well-informed polls, but otherwise only for the difference in a January date in the Citrus Capital One, Cotton or Outback bowls and another December game in the Peach, or, god forbid, Liberty. UT probably shouldn't be taking any of the former for granted, either. This also represents one of the Vols' toughest November games in ages.
LSU Wants: The Tigers fairly substantially outgained both Auburn and Florida, but netted 13 points combined because of five turnovers in The Swamp and big time of possession disadvantages in both venues (though the importance of the latter in either case is probably minimal). Both losses also featured multiple missed scoring opportunities at the ends of quality drives, and - not coincidentally - minimal rushing success. UT has struggled stopping the run in two instances, against Air Force and in the first half at Georgia, and needed all it had to rally from behind in both instances. So the Tigers, who were killed when they fell behind after a couple turnovers at Florida, have a run-based model to work with.
Tennessee Wants: Conversely, the Vols are probably in a better position if the game is put on the quarterbacks: Erik Ainge (three INTs against Alabama notwithstanding) has shown a lot of poise this season as a passer in big games that JaMarcus Russell has not, especially in hostile road environments (Russell's turnovers were daggers to the soul at Florida). B-E aggressive in your gigantic stadium. UT's passing game remains by far the best in the SEC, and has shown its big play and come-from-behind abilities a couple times already against pretty good defenses (Cal, Georgia, Alabama) - make LSU's lauded secondary cover big, fast guys like Robert Meachem and Bret Smith from the start, get LaRon Landry as far away from the line of scrimmage as possible, and things will soften up for LaMarcus Coker in the middle. Ignore all of this and hand off every play if Erik Ainge isn't on the field.
Variables: This is the SEC, which among equals plays the nearest to NFL-style games in terms of tempo, conservative strategy, scoring opportunities, margin of error and field position, so, as in the NFL, turnovers could not be more cardinal among the many gridiron sins...Neither team has its typical bruiser at tailback and neither is going to run all that well, but the one that manages a little bit of sporadic, chain-moving success will have a significant upper hand...In the kicking game, Tennessee has a probable all-American in James Wilhoit, who's hit 11 of 13 with a 51-yarder and has a history of game-winning kicks, where LSU has no idea what it has beyond 45 yards, from whence first-year starter Colt David has been sporadic.
The Pick: Headlines like "Fulmer vague on how much injured Ainge can play" do not instill confidence. Neither, though, does LSU's offense to date against good teams, especally good teams on the road. The Vols' consistency in the passing game gives them a better opportunity to establish some balance, make first down throws that lead to short yardage on later downs and keep the usually furious Tiger blitz off Ainge's aching back.

Young man, you are a key, young man

Boston College at Wake Forest
Two major teams with two losses between them despite not doing anything all that well: BC ranks 10th nationally in rushing defense, and Wake is successful in terms of net punting (15th). Otherwise, it's middle of the pack and worse - the Deacs, in fact, average less than 300 yards total offense - and are 7-1! The quality of competition should account for that. SMQ knows not whether Wake, which played BC so tough on the road last year, is a trendy upset pick at home this week, but he does know its one-dimensional offense (WF is 107th passing) is heading into the same black hole as Virginia Tech's low octane, run-only, throw short approach. BC may be vulnerable to the pass, but not Wake Forest's version.

Oklahoma at Texas A&M
In the same vein, the Aggies' weakness lies in the right place to deal with Oklahoma, even sans Peterson: TAMU struggled against Texas Tech's passing game, but is better suited to deal with strong running games, a la Missouri. Hate to keep going against the Sooners, who are paying the fates back all season for the 2000 mythical championship run. The "12th Man" thing is worth some consideration here, but not as much as the Aggie's running game and pretty versatile offense. Higher-scoring benefits A&M.

Virginia Tech at Miami
SMQ wonders if the sudden Tech burst against Clemson, after such atrocities as the Boston College game, was a mirage, and for now, against the No. 4 rushing defense nationally, he's going to say it was. Mainly because you don't come into the OB talking smack.

Penn State at Wisconsin
Teams have run on the Nittany Lions more successfully than expected, and the Badgers will do so with unsightly gusto via P.J. Hill. The Badgers' secondary, despite playing offenses coming from way, way behind in most games, is still ranked second in both passing yardage allowed and efficiency; the late Anthony Morelli seems unlikely to challenge that number, for some reason.

Maryland at Clemson
SMQ has already stated he has little to no faith in the Terps, and UMD's abysmal, 100th-ranked rushing defense does nothing in this context to cause any form of ripple in said confidence. Collective legs of DaviSpiller should be set to "wild."

Missouri at Nebraska
In the wake of its game against Texas in Lincoln two weeks ago, despite some worrisome inconsistency there, the Huskers have to get the nod here as the Tigers' star begins to wane. Oklahoma pounded Chase Daniel, forced turnovers and ran consistently on Mizzou last week; if it commits to do the same, Nebraska can get the leg up on a rematch with the `Horns in a month.

Oklahoma State at Texas
Some people may be under the impression Ohio State and/or Nebraska ran on Texas, but neither really did. Oklahoma State has balance nearly rivaling even the Buckeyes, without anything approximating the other OSU's defnse, but either way, Texas is not Nebraska. Cowboy running lanes will be few and far between.

Georgia Tech at NC State
Tech's already at six wins, which means...yep, time for the annual Gailey Loss of Inexplicability. NC State played the same role last year with aplomb.

The deadline to achieve Gailey Equilibrium draws nigh

Arkansas at South Carolina
USC is tempting because of the way it's played other tough SEC teams at home since losing to Georgia and this is about the time it started dropping highly-ranked folks last season, but frankly, the `Cocks aren't tough enough against the run (67th nationally, including good games against Wofford, Florida Atlantic, etc.) to deal with Arkansas' ground game. And certainly not to pay attention to Marcus Monk at the same time.

UCLA at California
Cal struggled against the last backup quarterback that rolled a merely OK team into Berkeley, but SMQ will chalk the overtime win over Washington up to a mulligan in an otherwise uninterrupted string of dominance since the opening loss. UCLA is showing plenty of fight, but nothing along the lines of winning a game like this; the Bruins' secondary, if it manages to handle Marshawn Lynch (unlikely), has been carved in very brutal, grisly fashion two straight weeks.

Sunday Morning Quarterback scheduled as usual, inlcuding highly-anticipated "SMQ Homerism" for Southern Miss' weird Sunday night battle with Memphis, only hours after SMQ's beloved Saints visit Tampa Bay for a crucial division game in the first half of an unprecedented and potentially emotionally devastating double header.