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Sunday Morning Quarterback Wishes A Happy New Year

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SMQ's not sure whether to feel bad for scrappy, disciplined Navy for fumbling away a certain, vindicating win, or feel uplifted for Boston College's Kicker Sid Vicious, a seemingly nice guy, if a little over-exposed, who delivered the best kick of his young career in its most pressure-filled moment. The Eagles' win advanced his straight-up postseason picks record to a respectable 12-6, which is more than conference mates Virginia Tech could do despite an 18-point halftime lead and a supposedly righteous defense against previously low-octane Georgia in the Peach Chick-Fil-A Bowl, so he'll focus on the positive.


Nice kick, dude!...Now back off a little...

Onwards:

Game of the Century of the Week

The Rose Bowl Game Michigan v. Southern Cal
What's at Stake: Perhaps not as much as either team, so recently on solid mythcial title tracks, would ultimately prefer, but even USC and Michigan can't act like accepting millions to play in the Rose Bowl is anything like slumming it. SMQ and Father of SMQ made a pilgrimage into the opulent Pasadena hills to check out the stadium during their SoCal visit at the beginning of the month, and pulling up with the giant "Rose Bowl" logo on the facade and mountains rising up all around is a worthy enough experience - as opposed to, say, the "Walk of Fame," which is (drumroll!) just a sidewalk - when the site is virtually deserted save a couple joggers and golfers; grandstands were going up all over town, completely blocking the front entrance to City Hall, in preparation for the gameday parade, and Keith Jackson on that afternoon New Year's kickoff drips annually with the best kind of nostalgic prestige. Winning the Rose Bowl against a worthy fellow powerhouse, whatever more tangible rewards may be gained from a victory, is as much as ever about just winning the Rose Bowl.

Where other benefits are concerned, Michigan's frustrated desires for a split mythical championship hover on the furthest fringes of the realistically conceivable, but as the odds of neither of these teams playing for a title were in the same position prior to their respective final games, it's worth speculating on the distant likelihood of AP voters being swayed enough by a Michigan blowout Monday, followed by an extremely narrow or suspect win by Florida next Monday (maybe Troy Smith goes down, or is whacked in the kneecap, Kerrigan style, before kickoff?), to vote the Wolverines in its top spot. This is a remotely possible best-case scenario requiring a Michigan win. And where SC forfeited its "dynasty" chips by losing for the second time to an unranked opponent, adding an eleventh victory to a belt that already includes convincing poundings of Arkansas, Nebraska, Notre Dame and California is validation of the cruelly flukey nature of actually dropping two conference games in one season (first time since 2001, Pete Carroll's first season) and a springboard for inevitably astronomical expectations entering the 2007 Hall of Speculation.

Michigan Wants: Trojan killers Oregon State and UCLA, besides being outgained by far and winning on a tipped late pass, have three lessons in common to teach their far more talented Midwestern counterpart from their respective victories:

• Make it Booty Time: USC's running backs right now, variously injured and uniformly VHTs though they may be, are not spectacular at this early career stage - no combination of Chauncey Washington, Emmanuel Moody and C.J. Gable yet quite measures up on the most handy barometer, the championship-sharing `03 freshman faction of Hershel Dennis, LenDale White and Reggie Bush, much less the latter pair's eventual roughshod dominance - but they have been strikingly consistent as a collective, in the 150-yard, 4.5-per carry range, give or take 20 yards and .25 a carry, against virtually everyone. This isn't great, certainly nothing in the Bush-White stratosphere, but it was enough to make first downs, keep pass rushes honest and open up the lethal play-action that is the passing game's bread and honey-tinged apple butter. Except against Oregon State and UCLA, games in which Trojan backs - primarily Washington at OSU, Gable against UCLA - were hemmed up, minus sack yardage, for 93 and 61 yards, respectively, and were kept below 3.5 per carry for the only times this season.

The offensive line, minus a couple dominant pieces from the `05 title run, must carry some of the responsibility on that front, and it only made things more difficult on itself: UCLA and Oregon State were already two of the top pass rushing defenses, as Kirk Herbstreit would say, in all of college football (LA and its sprinter ends finished the season 8th nationally in sacks, Oregon State 4th), and those units' ability to unleash that fury on a one-dimensional attack was a harbinger of doom for the immobile Booty - the fateful tips at the ends of those games, possibly, rather than random swats at the right time, were the result of quarterbacking impatience born of pressure? Only a (rather flimsy) theory, but certainly one in favor Michigan, which got to the quarterback  - even elusive, quick-releasing Troy Smith, sacked just once but regularly hit and forced into an awful interception - more often than any team this season except Western Michigan and dominated every running game it faced on an historic level until spread thin and gashed by the Buckeyes. Booty had ostensibly his "best game," statistically at Oregon State - three touchdowns on 406 passing yards, his only career game to date over 300 - but this was mostly the residue of an effective performance in franctic comeback mode after falling behind by two touchdowns, a situation to which the sack-happy Wolverines are more accustomed than the Beavers. As with any quarterback, the potential virtues of forcing him to make plays sans effective running game, and subsequently under maximum harrassment by LaMarr Woodley and Tim Jamison - and Shawn Crable, if necessary - seem pretty clear.

• Keep 'em in front of you: Better for the Wolverines if pasting Booty comes with minimum blitzing, the better to keep under wraps Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, who are no less likely to find space - and perhaps require less of it, especially in the case of the acrobatic Jarrett - against Michigan's secondary than Ohio State's pass-catching fleet. Facing that pair means one or both will hurt you in some fashion: no exceptions exist to that rule, including SC's defeats. But in the process of stifling the run, the Bruins and Beavers were able to turn USC's possessions into marathon marches of controlled-passing, which served to increase the likelihood of gross error ending the threat: USC had drives of 65 and 75 yards at Oregon State that ended in an interception and a turnover on downs; against LA, the Trojans had drives of 36, 34 and 34 that resulted in naught - field position a factor in each - were twice stopped on fourth down and had the potentially game-winning possession end in a pick after 52 yards. Safely assuming Jarrett and Smith - and likely at least one of the athletic underlings, Patrick Turner, Fred Davis, etc. as well - are going to force some degree of bending, Michigan can give it right back by refusing to break.

• Kryptonite = Cartoon representations of regional woodland creatures: Beavers, Bruins...if Michigan actually deigned to outfit a mascot, the Wolverines would be a mortal lock. It wouldn't even have to match the majestic Traveller or anything (as if anything short of a live, rabid predator on the loose could), just a furry brown mass with an old Tom Brady jersey would probably suffice.

USC Wants: Take the inverse of the above: SC must establish it can run the ball or, failing that, consistently convert short, safe quick throws that accomplish the same thing. Not that this is much of a bubble screen sort of offense, and even with the return of Chris McFoy to the rotation the last couple games, the four and five-wide sets Ohio State employed to tremendous overall effect - not only in service of Smith's Most Outstanding-clinching afternoon, but also in spreading out the Wolverines to break big rushing gains where no one else had even come close - aren't very likely to make more than a cursory appearance here; besides being perpetually under center, Booty's statuesque, non-improv game will more often require a back or tight end, or both, in protection than Smith's. If SC's going to make its bread by short passing, small ball may be more Steve Smith's forte, but few players are more dangerous to a defense whose safeties have to keep an eye on play-action than Jarrett, whose box out, small forward-type skills with the ball in the air continue to make him a consistent mismatch against any college corner in man-to-man. Under any circumstances, the short-yardage trouble on display against UCLA needs to come to an end.

One scenario for which there is no precedent is the fate of Michigan's offense if Mike Hart is reasonably slowed, because no defense has achieved this effect all season; his worst game is 91 yards on 23 carries against Wisconsin. USC has been stingy in spots against the run (deep backfield from Nebraska and Cal had meager gains, 68 and 99 total yards, respectively) but on the whole, for all its front seven talent, the Trojans have been relatively average against opposing backs, which may account for both safeties residing along with the starting linebackers among the team's top five tacklers. Chad Henne and Mario Manningham would love to see Kevin Ellison and Taylor Mays inching towards the line after a couple Mike Hart first down runs. A key on that front will be first down gains: the Wolverines run on first down  about 75 percent of the time (that number will probably be a little lower in this case, but as a general trend should hold) and still average well over 4.6 yards per first down handoff, which is the definition of an "on schedule" attack; if USC can get that average closer to the three yards its front allows on first down runs, it will force Michigan into more predictable patterns (UM will have to throw more often) on later downs.

Variables: Who gets out front early? USC is capable of flying out of the gates and can make things awfully ugly awfully fast - as Arkansas, Nebraska, Oregon and Notre Dame, each down two scores in the first half, well know - but no team is designed to protect a lead better than Michigan and its time-of-possession-leading, yet-to-be-stopped running game...Turnovers, natch...Southern Cal's running game and the Michigan run defese, which would seem something of a no-brainer in the Wolverines' favor if they hadn't just been gouged for almost 200 out of nowhere the last time we saw them. If OSU can come up big, USC can come at least adequate.

The Pick: A month ago, all cards in the arena of public opinion were coming up USC, survivor and in fact dominator of an overbearing schedule that had left it inevitably blemished, but ultimately served to reinforce this program's ongoing superiority re: every other school everywhere, even in a "rebuilding" year. After UCLA and the flood of close midseason wins whose memories came rushing back in its wake, only the "rebuilding" part, because the team did capture a PAC Ten championship, still applies. But that loss did not take away the facts of outstanding, decisive efforts against  all of the toughest offerings on the young Trojans' plates. So, jilted or justified: which USC team shows up for the Rose Bowl? That SMQ knows not. But he does know he doesn't have such persistent questions about the psyche of consistency of that team's opponent.
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Michigan 23, Southern Cal 21


Fiesta Bowl Oklahoma v. Boise State

What's at Stake: For Boise State, obviously, the short-term respectability of the most successful (in terms of winning percentage) program of the decade and its future viability as a national presence. Its few previous engagements in and around the big leagues have gone OK (four-point loss to Louisville in 2004 Liberty Bowl) and awful (five-touchdown loss in its next game, the `05 opener at Georgia), and the all-important validation remains elusive. There are still people who refuse to rank the Broncos at all, and, less ludicrously, those who refuse to consider BSU a candidate for any serious rewards outside of the WAC. The Broncos want to reverse each of those courses.

It's hardly gravy for Oklahoma, though, because the book on the ill fate of drawing Boise here remains: blow `em out and it's business as usual (Boise should be blown out by any self-respecting Big XII champion), beat them in a competitive game and it's fishy (you only beat Boise by a touchdown?) and to lose is a disastrous embarrassment (who loses to Boise freakin' State?, though, so far, the answer is 'Everybody who's played them.' That's why this particular fate is so ill). Nothing could sully the Sooners' re-assertion of their elite status than faster than a loss to a team from the WAC, and that holds, fair or not, for any team from the WAC.

Also, for the all-powerful marketing demographic, sustaining the wide public perception that, yes, this is the Fiesta Bowl sponsored by delicious Tostitos, and a completely separate contest from the Do Not Dispute National Championship Game sponsored by delicious Tostitos in the exact same location next week.

Oklahoma Wants: The Broncos have a stout ranking against the run, but that is skewed by turns against very WAC-ky passing games like Hawaii, Idaho and New Mexico State, and there are only two relevant opponents as far as Oklahoma should be concerned, anyway: Fresno State's powerful Dwayne Wright, who gained 86 yards against BSU on 5.1 per carry, and Oregon State's Yvenson Bernard, who was less successful in September (89 yards on 3.7 per rush). Neither, obviously, is Adrian Peterson, but Wright especially in Fresno State's very one-dimensional offense gives a good indication of what AP might be facing in terms of men stacking the box. Boise State's defensive line is more of the `small and quick' variety, giving up about 50 pounds per man to OU's offensive front, which bodes well for the Sooners. SMQ sees no reason to believe Boise can regularly slow down Peterson or any other Oklahoma back.

The most prolific rusher on the field, though, will be Ian Johnson, not Peterson, and here Oklahoma has some legitimate concerns: the sophomore's run for 1,600 yards in 11 games and torched Oregon State, against whom the Broncos had 302 yards rushing; watch touchdown No. 3 of his 24 for evidence of Johnson's very relevant speed and acceleration in the open field against a non-pushover opponent. If it can keep him out of the open field, though, Oklahoma has a much better chance of forcing very efficient Jared Zabransky into some very inefficient throws; his passing numbers are significantly average - maybe below average - in passing situations (3rd and more than three to go, for example) as on first and second down or third and very short.

Stop Johnson, stop the Broncos.

Boise State Wants: Mostly, really, to just hang in there, baby! Also: since nobody this side of his own ankle has put the brakes to Johnson yet, it may be dangerous to assume Oklahoma's defense is so athletically superior it will pound him with no problem. From Boise's perspective, Johnson is the horse to ride all the way to the bank or to the poorhouse, and his success if the basis for opening up the rest of the offense: half of the Broncos' big passing plays (25 yards or more) came against presumably run-oriented defensive schemes on first down, whereas, again, the success in obvious passing situations isn't nearly up to the same par. Washington, Oregon and Texas A&M all ran successfully on the Sooner D.

But Oklahoma, too, relies on its run game to keep the pressure off its own within-the-offense, which means it can expect to see eight and possibly nine blue-clad defenders up around the line, daring Paul Thompson to do something about it.  

Variables: Johnson's success is the starting point for everything Boise does on offense, and there's no precedent yet for it being shut down in the fashion to which OU's defense has become accustomed...Peterson: full strength? How many carries can he be counted on for?...Boise State's allowed one kick and one punt return for scores; Oklahoma's brought back one punt and one kick return for scores. BSU almost definitely cannot afford to give away points that come from anything other than Oklahoma's offensive success.

The Pick: It's hard to know what to expect from Boise State, outside of defeat. What's left is a matter of degree: will the Broncos put up a serious fight? For how long? Undefeated teams are tough to put away, so SMQ sees BSU making an early move and kicking well into the second half before Peterson applies the pillow.
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Oklahoma 31, Boise State 20

The Cotton Bowl Nebraska v. Auburn
SMQ was wondering, wither Kenny Irons? The preseason all-everything has been mostly silenced by nagging injuries since the Tigers' loss to Arkansas, popping in with a good - never great - game every other week or so over the second half of the season. Most recently, he had a healthy 19 carries for 86 yards at Alabama. If Irons is in fighting trim Monday, there's every indication Auburn can run here: before showing up in the Big XII Championship loss, Nebraska's run defense had allowed a series of good - in the case of Oklahoma State, great - rushing totals since mid-October. God knows from the end of his second full season as a starter (under 50 percent completion rate, six interceptions in three games in November, one of them against Arkansas State) the Tigers don't want to put the game in Brandon Cox's hands. Nebraska, on the other hand, might be able to throw if Zac Taylor has any time in his final game. AU also is in line for redemption after beng handled on New Year's Day as a favorite by another red-and-white-clad Midwestern underdog, Wisconsin, a repeat of which will brand a reputation for January futility.
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Auburn 27, Nebraska 20


The Citrus Capital One Bowl Arkansas v. Wisconsin
Moreso than in the Outback Bowl (see below), this is all about ultimately irrelevant but highly impassioned symbolism: if the SEC was seen as "tougher" in getting Florida into the mythical championship ahead of Michigan, the Big Ten's "other" team can defend the league's honor by finally beating a team with a pulse - and a Heisman finalist of questionable health - and run its Capital One/SEC win streak to two. Much as SMQ loves Darren McFadden and Arkansas' unpredictable Offense of the Future From the Past!, it should be noted that Wisconsin runs the ball effectively, too, if in more conventional (that is, boring) fashion, which stands out as one area the Razorback defense has lost its way over its last three games - two losses and a special teams/turnover-inspired clunker of a win at Mississippi State - and boasts a senior quarterback it is not afraid to allow to actually participate in a non-lob-based passing game; if Marcus Monk is to do any good over the top, it will have to be against the best statistical pass defense in all of college football and all-Big Ten cornerburglar Jack Ikegwuono. The Badgers have nothing like a star on McFadden's level, but Wisconsin has been effective against the toughest rushing offenses it's faced (111 yards to Michigan, 36 to Penn State) and has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to an attack even far more one-dimensional than its own.
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Wisconsin 24, Arkansas 22

The Outback Bowl Tennessee v. Penn State
Big Ten types are far less likely to hold the Nittany Lions, whose best win - and only win over a winning team - was against Purdue, as an appropriate standard for judgment against the likes of Tennessee, which SEC fans might point out, in a No. 4 vs. No. 4 matchup, is sort of the point. SMQ would consider it unwise to take Anthony Morelli over a healthy-ish Erik Ainge, but expect Penn State to at least run effectively on the nation's 70th-ranked run defense, one that without Justin Harrell in the middle since September has been rocked to various degrees by Georgia, LSU, South Carolina, Arkansas and Kentucky; of that group, Penn State with its shaky passing attack probably most resembles Georgia, which ran effectively until its lead eroded under attack by Ainge, who has rebounded from his sophomore benching by becoming the SEC's most money quarterback, one who would have his team in a BCS game if he hadn't missed the trips to LSU and Arkansas. Big game from Tony Hunt, but in defeat against Ainge's big play ability to Robert Meachem.
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Tennessee 26, Penn State 17

The Gator Bowl West Virginia v. Georgia Tech
Tempting though it may be to joke otherwise, SMQ will proceed under the assumption that Taylor Bennett, in his second career start, is a downgrade from the academically-ineligible Reggie Ball. The decisive match-up will be on the other side, though, where the Jacket defense has been nigh impenetrable on the ground, with the glaring exception of the Night of the Living Purple in Clemson, when it allowed 321 yards to the best set of backs it saw all season. The only other offense to run for 100 on Tech was Troy, but the point is that, in the Jackets' case, there is a precedent for mounting a successful running game, however rare; across the aisle, there's no such case study for busting up West Virginia's spread, which has run for 300 yards eight times (including Maryland, Louisville, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh) and in reality has shown significant big play ability in the passing game when necessary, which is rarely - the Mountaineers have been "stopped" only via turnover. To the extent Georgia Tech, certainly the best defense WVU has faced, can limit the option's gains, SMQ doubts it will be enough to account for its already-pedestrian offense's shift to the new signal-caller.

Subplot: Calvin Johnson's final college game? Interesting to see how much Bennett is able to keep him involved for an appropriate send-off; a big day by Johnson would be almost sad for the ramifications on hindsight and what might have been had Ball been jerked off-stage with more than one game to go.
West Virginia 31, Georgia Tech 18