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Friday Morning Quarterback

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A weekly primer.

Thursday Night Thoughts
First, Mississippi State possibly will not score all season. Its one legit chance, after terrorizing linebacker Quentin Culberson's out-of-nowhere pick to open the game, ended in an erratic field goal attempt, and MSU didn't challenge again. This against an extremely inexperienced defense at USC. The big freshman running back was impressive, but Trey Rutland looks like another future convert to wide receiver, if the Bulldogs ever plan to throw beyond twelve yards again. That one-dimensionality, obviously, is not going to fly in the SEC. Especially when the one dimension's not really that great to begin with.

But MSU is going to be in most every game anyway, if the defense is any indication. That was a hard-hitting, aggressive effort, and SMQ thinks it would have held on for longer if the offense hadn't blown its best chance by failing miserably on fourth-and-one the play before the tricky screen throwback. The virtual certainty at that point that the offense wasn't going to come through contributed to the mental breakdown that iced it.

Also, the difference due to the new clock rules seemed fairly minimal overall. But take a look this weekend after kickoffs: nearly 30 seconds was gone before the first snap from center last night, following a touchback, when zero seconds would have elapsed last year. Because there was an immediate change of possession (Culberson's interception), almost two minutes elapsed from the clock between the kickoff and the game's third snap.

Before the MSU-Carolina game, SMQ wondered if Iowa State-Toledo was on anywhere, and wished it was. What happened in that game? A triple overtime win for the Cyclones. Did viewers anywhere see a second of this great game live? They did not. Judging from the shocked reactions of Rece Davis and Chris Fowler during and following updates of Toledo matching ISU score for score, the leader apparently had no idea the Rockets are a very good mid-major program, the Cyclones are a very middling major conference program, and these two distinctions are roughly equivalent. Hence, no cut-in to the finish on any of the three regular cable networks, even when the designated Game of the Night was devolving into a pitiful sackfest. SMQ should pick the TV schedule!

Speaking of Fowler: he seemed out of place in the booth, without a script. He was behind a lot of the action, wasvery late in recognizing multiple fumbles, and maybe - it's too early to really judge on this, since he has a whole season to get used to the very different rhythms and requirements of play-by-play - revealed himself to just not be all that knowledgable about the intricacies of the game. You can get by on the stats and schedules when you're in the studio, but Herbstreit was far superior on that level (that's his job, SMQ supposes). Fowler does have time to improve before a fair judgment is passed. He seemed a little nervous, which may be the case.


SMQ Will Be Watching
Nevada at Fresno State will briefly occupy him tonight (hopefully as well as the surprisingly engaging Army-Iowa State Friday nighter did last September), but if SMQ could charter a quick flight to Atlanta for the raucous EDSBS tailgate Saturday morning and be back before 4:30 Central for kickoff of Tennessee-Cal, he would: the Saturday morning schedule is about as brutal as it could possibly be. The marquee 11 a.m. game, for example, is Vanderbilt at Michigan on ESPN, followed at 2:30 by, if SMQ's lucky, Northern Illinois at Ohio State. The other option on ABC, the dreaded "regional" selection, could be Rutgers at North Carolina (technically, North Carolina is in the South, you see, and is therefore frequently broadcast being pummeled from the Atlantic to the Texas prairie). Fortunately, about the time those games ought to be getting out of hand, Cal and Tennessee will come to the rescue on the WWL, with possible Hi-Def Southern Miss-Florida pay-per-view action at a colleague's place; the latter is TBD. The end of either of those games will pre-empt kickoff of Notre Dame at Georgia Tech and its primetime backup, USC at Arkansas. Ted Turner's coming through late night, if SMQ is still coherent, with a potential under-the-radar gem, BYU at Arizona, on TBS.

Finally, We'll Learn About
Technically, everybody. But specifically, preseason conjecture will yield to some pretty good ideas regarding:

Tennessee/California - Cal: Up to mythical title snuff, or still a Holiday Bowl-bound wannabe? Tennessee: Gunning for the division, or just to get back over .500? One of the most intriguing, anyting-can-happen early barometer games of the past few seasons.

Notre Dame - Can put a lot of doubts to bed against Georgia Tech, or just amp the backlash with a close win. A loss brings out the big, red "FRAUD" branding iron.

Arkansas/Southern Cal - Another colossal blowout leaves the rest of the country shaking in its boots at SC's unstoppable athleticism, but a more likely cmpetitive game - at least for a while - will stoke doubt over the Trojans' prospects for further dominance and enthusiasm for the scrappy Razorbacks' half-expected bid to challenge for an SEC West crown.

Most to Gain
In three hours, Tennessee can erase the "5-6" magic-markered on its forehead the past nine months, which is worth its weight in gold in confidence.

Most to Lose
Depending on your perspective, Notre Dame's mythical championship projections are riding on firm assessments of talent, coaching and opportunity, or on a slippery cache and hype. Neither survives a loss at dangerous, dangerous Georgia Tech.

Inevitable Blowout of the Week
If Colt McCoy is looking to build a little confidence before Ohio State comes to town, North Texas is a pretty ideal opening opponent. The Mean Green, SMQ hears, are actually quite nice on defense, although the 'green' part was right, too.

Lame Game of the Week
Please Lord, for its own sake, let Duke at least beat Richmond.

Bouncing back this week
Everybody's undefeated! Come back next week.

THE PICKS (all rankings are SMQ's own)

Game of the Century of the Week

What's at Stake: Dignity, or, at least, sanity. Barring a one-point heart attacker, one of these teams is going to leave with momentum and the subsequent hype to launch a mythical title campaign. Cal must justify its existence at these levels; Tennessee must reassert it.
Cal Wants: Conventional wisdom holds the high-flying PAC Ten boys want to come out firing, get on top and pour it on, and SMQ is sure the Bears would take that. But with a young quarterback, a stable of killer backs and an unproven front seven replacing the insane version that kept Tennessee in game after game in 2005 on the other side, Jeff Tedford has to be planning a smashmouth effort. This is best for all where Nate Longshore is concerned, to allow him room to breathe later on; otherwise, new or not, the Vols are hellacious pass rushers and Longshore, knocked out for the season in last year's opener, is toast again. This is also the description the Bears are hoping to see applied to Erik Ainge, who was, um, not so composed against the blitz as a sophomore.
Tennessee Wants: UT is likely sunk if it doesn't get Arian Foster or another upcoming young back of improbable power rolling at a fairly stable clip against an underrated, veteran Cal front. The receivers must be chomping at the bit to get their hands on more passes, which can only happen if the partly very young line can open up running lanes, force Cal to commit and keep Ainge clean and unmolested. Early success will mean a lot to his performance. The Bears' running game topped five yards per carry in 10 games in '05, and was "stopped" only once (2.2 ypc against Oregon State); Tennessee's almost all-new line and linebackers may not be up to a shut down effort, but if it cuts off the big play and pressures Longshore when required, it should keep the offense in the game.
Variables: Erik Ainge's psychological state; Nate Longshore's physical state; the adaptation time for Tennessee's defensive line.
The Pick: Southerners think PAC Ten schools are soft and shrink if you "hit 'em in the mouth," or some such euphemism, but will be surprised if they think Cal's success running and stopping the run is the result of facing West Coast powder puffs. The Bears are almost certainly going to gain yards on the ground. Given the track record of the conference against the SEC in openers this decade (UCLA over Alabama in 2000 and 2001, USC over Auburn in 2002 and 2003, Oregon State and Arizona State against LSU in 2004 and last year, respectively, both sure PAC Ten upset wins save repeated, unpredictable special teams meltdowns), that shouldn't come as any surprise. It also shouldn't come as a surprise that SMQ's touting his mythical title sleeper in its biggest early game.

If it were totally logical, it wouldn't be an upset
The Utes have been gaining ground for entertainment purposes only since the game opened at -4.5, and this is wise, as SMQ's Mountain West favorite is in good position to hand the Bruins their first karmically-required defeat of the season, likely in dramatic, painful fashion. The Utes improved late last season, starting seriously badgering quarterbacks over the final five games and Saturday will debut Darryl Poston, a former USC transfer and long-time injury victim who gets first crack at 2005's 117th-ranked run defense.
UTAH 37, UCLA 31

For a game between two teams at the opposite ends of his and just about everyone else's preseason poll, SMQ views this as somewhat of a toss-up. Because Georgia Tech is utterly unpredictable, capable of anything at any time, and Notre Dame has been continually trashed for being, well, Notre Dame, and therefore being indistinguishable from its hype. There is no certainty the Irish can deal with Calvin Johnson or Tech's very fast, very unpleasant and very frequent blitzers of all varieties, from all points. Pat Nix calling plays could lead to very different results from Reggie Ball than the up-and-down mediocrity we've seen the last three years.
The Pick: Or Notre Dame could actually be really good. This is possible. The Irish are as experienced on both sides as Tech, and far more capable offensively. As noted above, it will be the defense under the heat-focusing magnifying glass, but SMQ will assume improvement with experience - and against a conservative offensive philosophy - until proven otherwise. We can gather from ND's perfect record on other people's fields last year that aspect, at least, won't be in play.

Dear Houston Nutt: Your team is getting some attention. Y'all played some folks close last year. You have some good, young talent. Your untenably young team is now a collection of battle-tested vets. You have a good home record. Some people believe your team will compete for the SEC championship. Your opponent is weakened by attrition. So please, Coach, SMQ is asking, for the future sake of your team and the viewing pleasure of fans everywhere, don't put in Mitch Mustain to be psychologically scarred for the rest of his career when Robert Johnson is planted and picked for the third time to seal a Razorback defeat. No one needs to see that.

The above list of recent PAC Ten experience in the South is enough for the high octane Cougars to scare the pants off the Tigers, and this is a pretty likely outcome. But WSU has given no indication it can stop a back even approaching the quality of Kenny Irons, or that it can pull out a close game it ought to win. This is not one it ought to win.

The Bulldogs are fairly comfortable favorites against a Wolfpack squad that stunned Fresno in the wake of its Bush-whacking at USC last year and went on to share the WAC championship, a line the newly-quarterbacked Bulldogs may have difficulty reaching. Straight-up, though, Phil Steele reveals FSU is 30-5 at home the past seven years, and Nevada - even last year's much-improved version of the Pack - noticeably struggles on the road, and the typically fast-starting Dogs get the nod in an early conference elimination game.

SMQ Homerism
SMQ expressed some confidence of USM's ability to keep this close in his exchange with Florida fan Orson Swindle earlier this week, but finds when actually faced with the Eagles' inexperience on defense and especially at quarterback, any optimism comes from living in the past. A reasonable definition of 'flawless game' for Jeremy Young, making his second career start and first on the road, includes no turnovers, maybe two decent sustained drives and one big, big play. In itself, that's probably not going to be enough to win, and, SMQ fears, it's asking too much for Young to accomplish without a running game behind a veteran but certain-to-be overwhelmed line. If the defense stops the run and mounts an OK rush - against a very young Florida offensive line, SMQ believes it can - it can create a turnover and some frustration and keep it close. But a perfect mental game from the offense, with its severe limitations, still merely keeps it close. And 'perfect' is pretty far off the charts in terms of probability.
The Pick: This one may take a while to get to 'ugly,' but it will get there.