A weekly primer.
SMQ Will Be Watching
Tonight, barring unlikely but possible responsibilities, the tense, highly-anticipated C-USA championship showdown between Houston and SMQ's own beloved Southern Miss, a deep and meaningful prelude to a weekend of championships: Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, Arkansas and Florida, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Rutgers and West Virginia, in many ways, in a de facto Big East championship for the Knights, and for the Mountaineers with some unexpected assistance from UConn. Curse the scheduling gods, though (or whoever sets the kickoff times), for overlapping the start time of that game and the Big XII Championship with the end of the SEC Championship, on CBS. Weird move by CBS, the unprecedented (for this season) 6 p.m. Eastern kickoff of the SEC matchup. The second half of USC-UCLA will be a certain casualty to that game, though likely not a lamented one.
Finally, We'll Learn About...
Rutgers, in a way: was the fluke the second half defensive drubbing of Louisville? Or the four quarter egg immediately laid after it in Cincinnati? West Virginia comes at a convenient time, after a little confidence reconstruction against Syracuse, for the Knights to earn that convincing road win that will keep them in the top ten - and earn a Big East title, on top of it.
In case you forgot, Greg Schiano reminds the reader where Rutgers can still finish in the Big East
Most to Gain
Rematch hype aside, self-glorifying SEC groaning aside, if Southern Cal does what it's supposed to do against UCLA, it will play Ohio State for the mythical championship at some distant future date (OSU shorted the players' the ticket allotment for their grandchildren...).
But on the other side of that, if USC doesn't take care of its business, for whatever reason, Michigan can cash in its at-large chips for a ticket to Glendale its own self, earning the week's most potent shot in the arm without even playing a game. Florida would have to win by a massive, well, USC-like margin over Arkansas to seriously enter this discussion.
Most to Lose
Louisville and Rutgers, depending on what happens with one another, have direct BCS shots on the line, as do six other teams playing for conference championships, but only USC has the shot to play for the very official crystal ball directly on the line, in its own hands. It's entirely the Trojans' opportunity to fumble away.
HONEY, GRAB A BOOK FOR THE SECOND HALF
Inevitable Blowout of the Week
Stanford averages ten points per game and has been held to single digits or shut out in six of eleven games. Its run defense has improved over the course of the season, all the way up to the nation's 117th ranking, but Marshawn Lynch's presence Saturday might drive a stake into the heart of the drive to finish in the top 115.
Lame Game of the Week
The rock bottom of the Mountain West is at stake in San Diego, where the Aztecs (2-10, 1-7), losers of two straight in which they've been outscored 93-14, host Colorado State (4-7, 1-6), which must be endangering Sonny Lubick's once-lockboxed job (they named the field after him in Fort Collins) by losing six straight conference games following a 4-1 start to the season. The once powerhouse-oriented Rams are 113th nationally in rushing per game; typically high-flying SDSU averages a little shy of two touchdowns, 114th in the country, which is exactly what it averaged in a 16-14 October loss to I-AA Cal Poly.
Game of the Century of the Week
SEC CHAMPIONSHIP: Florida vs. Arkansas
What's at Stake: $$$. In this general region of our great American landmass, the SEC title is its own, inviolable reward, but the greenbacks on the BCS trees are much, um, appreciated. On that note, Florida may nominally be playing for mythical championship marbles, but SMQ says no Michigan-hopping occurs unless UF beats Arkansas like it's Western Carolina. The Catamounts, SMQ is pretty certain, had no Darren McFadden or Felix Jones - though their conventional passing game otherwise might rival Arkansas'. With LSU already angling for the Rose - presumptiously, SMQ thinks, in case of an Arkansas win, in which case Florida might get the league's at-large spot by virtue of its October defeat of the Tigers, though he also recognizes bowl types are disinclined to proceed along such rational, non-revenue-based lines - the SEC is assured of two at-large berths in any case. So, mainly, at heart, this is still just about the commemorative "SEC Champion" t-shirts.
Florida Wants: Defensively, the goal has to be to keep the ball in Casey Dick's hands as much as absolutely possible, which was not possible until LSU got the Hogs in a two minute drill situation last week. Florida's corners, Reggie Lewis and Ryan Smith are a good, opportunistic pair, but will probably need some degree of patented Reggie Nelson fear perpetuation to minimize the deep threat of Marcus Monk and allow the front seven/eight to keep its collective eyes on McFadden and Jones.
Usually, unless you have Troy Smith or Colt Brennan or Dwayne Jarrett or are Mike Leach, SMQ expects an effort to establish the run in the name of setting up the pass, but Florida's depth at wide receiver is a multitude of mismatches waiting to happen. At various points, John David Booty, John Parker Wilson, JaMarcus Russell and, off the bench, Blake Mitchell have put on passing clinics against Arkansas' secondary; Chris Houston is somewhat of a "lockdown" guy at one corner, but Florida's bevy of options (Caldwell, Baker, Cornelius, Casey, Ingram, to say nothing of a potentially slowed but probable Percy Harvin) can be a collective nightmare to the rest of the defense, if Chris Leak stays clean. Well, the game's indoors, on synthetic stuff, so he'll be clean, but, you know, no more than a sack or two allowed, and no consistent pressure. Leak needs to be sharp. And score touchdowns. Don't let the kicker on the field.
Arkansas Wants: Florida's defense ranks fourth nationally against the run, but it hasn't been an inpenetrable fortress: Auburn and South Carolina runners had consistent success, and LSU, Alabama and Southern Miss made sporadic plays. All of these ground attacks are humbled not only by Arkansas' "Wildcat" look, but its conventional power game, too - the one that sprung McFadden for his scorching shot up the hashmarks last Friday (Lou Holth had SMQ's favorite line to date on the "Wildcat" Thursday: "Ith exactly what they uthed to do with Matt Jonth." Which is pretty much right, though McFadden is even more dangerous, and not alone in his lethality as Jones usually was. These days, scheme-wise, very little is as fresh or innovative as it's made out to be. It's always first and foremost about blocking and tackling).
Florida is fast on defense, fast enough and strong enough to get to its keys against the run, but LSU was fast and strong, too. The misdirection can create creases simply virtue of aggressive guys being too fast and overrunning the play. The looming presence of Monk, and the ability of a quarterback, any quarterback, to get him the ball might be the difference in facing eight or nine-man fronts and springing one of the backs for something huge. The Hogs probably need to be ahead or within immediate striking distance at all times, though, as evidenced when they significantly trailed for the first time since USC late last week, because - unless we see the highly, highly unlikely birth of the Myth of Mustain at some point - the passing game is only good for occasional, complimentary success.
The defense has proven its chops against Auburn and Tennessee, but was wrecked by LSU. A lights-out Olajabutu performance is a given, but it needs a return of the rage-filled Jamaal Anderson borg that smooshed Jonathan Crompton two weeks ago. Florida's most obvious advantage is in situations that allow the Tebow Effect to come into play, which has been a crucial element at some point or points in each of the Gators' most significant wins this season. For the Hogs, this means pressure to keep UF out of third-and-one or two, which for almost everyone all season has meant conceding the first down to a Tebow plunge. Hold those bitches to field goals, because they can't make one.
Variables: Do we get the Tennessee-Kentucky-Alabama Chris Leak (7 TDs, 2 INTs), or the Auburn-Georgia-Vanderbilt-South Carolina Chris Leak (4 TDs, 6 INTs)?...Can Arkansas's passing game force Florida to commit at least one safety to spying Marcus Monk? Will it even have to in order to run?...Will Florida attempt a field goal beyond 30 yards?...Will Arkansas bust another big kick return?
The Pick: It may have to actually make a kick to do it, but Florida's speed, proclivity for forcing turnovers and general badassitude defensively is good enough to contain McFadden - if not exactly shut him down - in the absence of a credible passing threat. Maybe Casey Dick surprises us, but the senior on the opposite side is the more reliable bet.
FLORIDA 19, ARKANSAS 17
Show Florida the money!
BIG XII CHAMPIONSHIP: Oklahoma vs. Nebraska
It's a surprising fact that Oklahoma is averaging more yards per game rushing since Adrian Peterson's unfortunate departure from the lineup than before, and the Sooner defense is on its own tear: since it was lit up in the more-or-less-depending-on-your-perspective-loss at Oregon, OU has allowed a single 100-yard rusher and just two 200-yard passers, both of them (Graham Harrell and Chase Daniel) in pass-heavy, interception-filled efforts from behind. And since his two-pick, zero-score performance against Texas, Paul Thompson has a TD-INT ratio of 10-2 in OU's last seven games.
The Pick: So the Sooners, somewhat quietly, are arguably among the five or six "hottest" teams in the country. Combine the heat with Nebraska's so-so run defense - the Huskers are decent, at least, but several good backs (Emmanuel Moody, Jon Cornish, Dantrell Savage, Tony Temple, Mike Goodson) have made significant dents in NU's front seven. The Huskers have won three straight, but still feel backed-in on the mediocrity of the rest of their division; both conference losses (Oklahoma State and Texas) were to the Southern Division. Oklahoma's won seven straight, and lost one - besides the Oregon deal - deceptively competitive game to Texas. Nebraska has a shot with the big play threat of Maurice Purify, but, with SMQ giving OU's defense the advantage in stopping Brandon Jackson and Nebraska's efforts to run, if the gimmicky stuff it used to stay with the Longhorns is any indication, the man-to-man matchups don't come out in the Huskers' favor. It may not be close.
OKLAHOMA 26, NEBRASKA 16
Show Oklahoma the money!
ACC CHAMPIONSHIP: Wake Forest vs. Georgia Tech
Statistically, there's no reason to take Wake Forest's offense against Georgia Tech's defense: the Deacons are thoroughly mediocre across the board, starting reserves (Wake Forest reserves) at quarterback and running back, eking out the nation 110th-ranked passing offense with only a serviceable running game. The defense is above average, and fantastic where turnovers are concerned (+1 full takeaway per game, tied for sixth nationally), but it's nothing exactly special. Here you go, though: last week, Riley Skinner completed 10 of 13, for only 125 yards, with an interception, but a third-string white kid ran for 165 and the defense forced three interceptions to beat Maryland. The defense had four interceptions in shutting out Florida State and two in beating Boston College (in which yet another reserve back had 91 yards and a score).
The Pick: If any quarterback is ripe for the picking by way of, well, picking, it would seem to be Reggie Ball; logically, given his last performance and the general proximity of 9-5 to longstanding Chan Gailey Equilibrium, this is so. But, with no really compelling evidence of overwhelming strength or weakness on either side here, SMQ will call up some Herbstretian intangibles: redemption for Reggie Ball, an outgoing, much-maligned four-year starter with a chance to exit by doing something right, gloriously right for his school. And that thing is throw the ball to Calvin Johnson. CJ's had a quiet stretch - though the Jackets made every effort to get him the ball against Georgia, almost all unsuccessful - and he's prepared to crush the happy championship dreams of Wake without mercy (his stores of which were spent delivering clothing, medicine and etrnal hope to the impoverished children of Ashgabat in between studying for comps). Whatver wishy-washy numbers game can be applied to forecasting this one - like, the Terps last week were one of the first teams to run with some consistent success on Wake in a month, and Tashard Choice, etc. - it comes down to the fact that Calvin Johnson is a man among tiny little infant children on this field, and, whatever the "bite and hold" philosophy that typically dictates Tech's conservatism, should be deployed as such. Georgia had some cover guys, but SMQ suspects Wake, by comparison, does not.
GEORGIA TECH 23, WAKE FOREST 18
Show Geawgia Tech da money, dawg!
CONFERENCE USA CHAMPIONSHIP, in conjunction with SMQ Homerism: Southern Miss at Houston
In October, SMQ employed to great effect the "reverse jinx" for Southern Miss' game with Houston, in retrospect one of the Eagles' quality, satisfying wins of the season (along with stuffing Tulane's offense in a tube sock, pummeling Marshall last week and wiping out N.C. State...though the Pack, now, eh, not so impressive as after it upset Boston College and Florida State in succeeding weeks). That game with the Cougars remains one of just two wins over winning teams Southern's notched in the past three seasons. If it makes three tonight, the Eagles de facto earn an honorary spot on SMQ's next BlogPoll ballot.
But, come on, USM win at Houston? Where the Cougars dealt Southern its only loss in the series in nine games last year? Oddsmakers make UH and unstoppable star quarterback Kevin Kolb roughly five-point favorites, overlooking that three of four USM losses have been road debacles in which the Eagles were outscored by an average of 30-6, and that UH's severely underrated, misleading 63rd-ranked run defense is primed to stop freshman record-breaker Damion Fletcher and his three-game streak of at least 135 yards cold. SMQ shouldn't even have to mention the perils of wagering on first-year starter - against a solid, prolific four-year veteran of steely resolve! - Jeremy Young, who's never played in a postseason game, much less a championship. Any reasonable person with the slightest prespective will recognize Southern Miss has zero opportunity to beat Houston and capture its fifth conference championship in Conference USA's 11 year existence, even less than zero. This is an inevitable, awful blowout that should be ignored by the world.
HOUSTON 57, SOUTHERN MISS 5
Southern Cal at UCLA
The Bruins may have figured out who their quarterback will be Saturday, but likely not how to match up with nothing resembling a go-to receiver against an increasingly terrifying Trojan defense. It will probably benefit USC to get its running game together to slow down an outstandng UCLA pass rush, but this is only related to winning very comfortably. If it has to be competitive, so be it, but SC's been down this road enough by now to ward off the chaos-inducing upset demons.
SOUTHERN CAL 36, UCLA 17
USC's desert journey will be long, and harsh, but the potential rewards great...
Connecticut at Louisville
On this end, it's mostly scoreboard-watchin' - Louisville is outright Big East champion with a West Virginia win against Rutgers, only another at-large hopeful if the Scarlet Knights make another successful stab at rehabilitation and enduring respectability in Morgantown. Expect UConn to do more or less what Pitt did to the Cardinals last week, making a few plays, hanging tough early on, before UL turns on the burners and gets out of this one comfortably.
LOUISVILLE 42, CONNECTICUT 23
Rutgers at West Virginia
The Knights can cause a requisite amount of chaos by winning the Big East here, along with proving the game at Cincinnati was really the fluke, rather than the one against Louisville. If Greg Schiano's the guy in Miami, he earns himself - not to mention his school and conference - a little revenue boost. Bad time for so much to be at stake, though, on the road against a team that probably isn't so happy about getting thrown out on its Sun Bowl-bound ass at home last week. Assuming Slaton and White are going to return at least somewhat to form and make their plays, Rutgers' opportunity to hang in this one depends on being able to run the ball, control the clock, limit WVU possessions and come up with a way to force the Mountaineers - rather than its own not-so-explosive passing game - into becoming a pass-first team by the fourth quarter. But, as demonstrated by South Florida and especially Louisville last month, WVU is vulnerable mainly through the air; it's seventh nationally against the run. Rutgers may make a play here or there throwing it, but Mike Teel's not going to win the game without Ray Rice and at least one tide-turning turnover of the variety both Louisville and USF managed in their respective wins. The pick based on circumstance and fortunate bounces is probably not the wise one.
WEST VIRGINIA 34, RUTGERS 20
Show Louisville the money!
Oregon State at Hawaii
The Rainbows or whatever, always dangerous in these late season "holiday gmaes" against middle-of-the-pack mainlanders, stormed from behind to take down eight-win Purdue last week and can turn the same trick on eight-win Oregon State, a winner last week but generally up-and-down since it upset Southern Cal in October. The rare national audience, against its toughest opponent outside of Boise State, can be a boost for UH's poll prospects and Colt Brennan's Heisman campaign - especially if he throws four touchdowns, breaking David Klingler's single-season record of 56 scoring tosses. Four touchdowns, of course, for Brennan, is par for the course - he had at least four in nine straight games before being contained by the Boilermakers last week, against whom he only connected for three.
HAWAII 38, OREGON STATE 34
Army vs. Navy
SMQ hasn't actually watched this rivalry for years, and sees no reason to reverse the trend against more compelling conference championship games Saturday. But Army-Navy is an enduring tradition, so it deserves a tip of the Friday Morning cap. The ol' triple option is always fun and educational, if only they'd show the angles involved using the SkyCam or end zone views.
NAVY 33, ARMY 17
Stanford at California
Another balleyhooed rivalry included for the sake of inclusion, but perhaps in store for the most lopsided pounding in series history. Without actually deigning to look up the series history, SMQ declares Stanford's 2006 team - outscored by a little more than three touchdowns per game, ranked 100th or worse in 12 of the 17 team statistical catgories tracked by the NCAA - among the very, very worst ever to stagger into the Big Game. Holiday Bowl-bound Cal has dropped two straight, but its the Cardinal who meets its grisly end Saturdaywith a whimper.
CALIFORNIA 48, STANFORD 6
The bottom just seems sort of appropriate for Stanford