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Friday Morning Quarterback

A weekly primer.

Thursday night, we must hope, was not a preview of the deservedly hyped weekend to come, or we, fans, are in for a long and disappointing day. It was interesting how the crew labored early in the third quarter, after a few fundamental West Virginia screwups and turnovers helped Maryland pull within three scores, to make the game sound interesting, and a comeback imminent; Chris Fowler invoked "the ghost of Frank Reich," architect of the greatest comeback in college football history against Miami (though Reich is, so far as SMQ knows, still among the living, defying the odds somewhere) and sideline babe talked about the "chatter" on the Maryland bench in a deflated stadium. And then Steve Slaton breaks off a huge run. And Pat White goes careening downfield for another 45 or so, and scores a couple plays later. And they can't even pretend Maryland is thinking of getting back into that game any more.

That kind of contest won't fly Saturday, though. Certainly not amidst the heroically-scheduled lineup circled on the calendar and wept upon in the mere presence of its splendor.


SMQ Will Be Watching
The morning will be spent doing deep breathing exercises and mentally preparing to partake of the glory for which SMQ doth yearn via the quality Iowa-Iowa State game on the Worldwide Leader. At 2:30 Central, Football Nirvana begins in earnest with a paradox wrapped inside a tripleheader: does bliss and enlightenment lay with LSU-Auburn, on CBS? With Notre Dame-Michigan, on NBC? Or with (presumably) Miami-Louisville on the Leader's paternal network doppelganger? Or does the true fulfillment come not with exclusionary choice, but inclusive balance of each element? If he has retained consciousness, SMQ - peacefully, in awareness of the beauty around him - will struggle with the answer, in preparation for maximally enjoying the evening's feast, consisting of Florida-Tennessee and Nebraska-Southern Cal, with a dollop of Clemson-Florida State.

Finally, We'll Learn About
Southern Cal, having proven most definitely against Arkansas it will not suck, faces an unknown Nebraska team back where it belongs in terms of hammering weaklings from swampy directional schools, but as yet is unsettled as to where it stands among the mythical title elite it would so love to rejoin. At USC seems like a fairly good initiation test.

Most to Gain
Nebraska and Louisville enter in justification mode, to legitimize their respective claims as mythical championship contenders against more traditional - or in Miami's case, at least, more recent - behemoths; they're also essentially eliminated with a loss, with just one major test apiece (Texas and West Virginia, respectively) left to climb back into the picture.

Most to Lose
It is dangerous to underestimate them, even on the road (see Tech, Virginia last year), but Miami could very conceivably drop to 1-2 at Louisville, which, depending on the outcome of the carnage, could boot the Canes right of the top 25 altogether for the first time in the Coker Era. And probably, should it come to pass, the last.

Inevitable Blowout of the Week

Lame Game of the Week
Maybe it's the colors, but there is something intangible linking Illinois and Syracuse, and probably that thing is horrific losing. Get stopped on seven straight plays inside the opponents' two-yard-line in overtime? Give up 30 points in one half to Rutgers? Unite, O Orange and Navy Brothers in Suck, for futility shall reign.

Weird Line(s) of the Week
For entertainment purposes only, natch
Winless Stanford, which allowed (seriously) more than 340 yards rushing in a loss to San Jose State and is allowing more than seven per carry through two games, is a one-point favorite over 2-0 Navy, the nation's fourth-leading rushing offense ...Boise State raged and smashed respectable PAC Ten opponent Oregon State 42-14 last Thursday, running BSU's margin over two opponents this year to 87-14, yet the Broncos are only seven-point favorites at 1-1 Wyoming...Mississippi State is an 11-point favorite over Tulane, a reach based on the strange assumption that MSU (outscored 49-0 to date) can make it to double digits in a single game at all.

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 triple overtime loss at Bowling Green, are 23-point underdogs to 0-2 Northern Illinois.

Bouncing back...

Iowa: Not a loser, but hard to feel good about that game with the `Cuse. Tate, of course, changes everything.
Texas: Obviously. Rice has no hope of matching up.
Fresno State: Washington was once considered a very tough place to play? Is this still the case? Why?
Tulsa: Held North Texas to a safety last year, and need a win after getting manhandled by BYU.


Game of the Century of the Week

What's at Stake: From some perspectives, a decisive confrontation in the ongoing cosmic struggle between good and evil. Mainly, though, the usual rival stuff, plus a unanimous top five ranking and a marquee win on the mythical title resume.
Michigan Wants: Brian was right about the experimental nature of two radically different approaches to defending the clockwork machinations of the ND offense, and about the conclusions to be drawn: Georgia Tech blitzed the fire out of Brady Quinn and pressed him into quick throws, resulting in 14 Irish points; Penn State played off in the secondary, rarely came after Quinn, and allowed 34 points (discounting Tom Zbikowski's defensive score). Michigan played a similar soft zone early last season and gave up a quick 14 points before the Irish got very conservative and the Wolverines started taking more chances to stay in the game; Ron English, it seems, is much more likely to attempt to apply pressure to Quinn than departed D-coordinator Jim Hermann, and certainly has the pieces in LaMarr Woodley, Alan Branch and Shawn Crable to do it. The secondary should play tight, perhaps even bump-and-run, and force ND's maddeningly patient controlled passing game to display some big play, quick strike fire it hasn't flashed to this point. Michigan has the opportunity to play patient itself, pounding Mike Hart - the missing link in the offense against the Irish last season - and an improved Kevin Grady against a defense allowing 4.5 yards per carry, and, amazingly, more than six on first down runs; Georgia Tech and Penn State, you'll observe at the same link, threw more on first and second down than they ran, despite the obvious success on the ground on those downs, and there's no reason Michigan - while keeping things reasonably honest with a veteran quarterback and talented receivers, of course - should play for the lower percentage pass nearly as much in those situations as long as the clock and score allow. Time of possession doesn't mean as much for every team, but in Notre Dame's case as much as anyone's, if you take away plays, you take away points.
Notre Dame Wants: To hang onto the ball for dear life. The cold, heartless precision of brainwashed assassin Brady Quinn and the Irish offense may have reached an apex last week, with a string of mini-marathon possessions and a relative litany of fourth down conversions on tricks and fakes resulting in six scoring drives of more than 7 plays, four of them featuring successful fourth down success, with a long play of 43 yards coming on a fake punt; i.e., the Irish remain ruthlessly on schedule (Quinn has converted 7 of 9 when throwing on 3rd and 6 yards or less to go for a first down, but only 2 of 9 with seven or more yards to go) and dominate time of possession (more than 16 minutes up through just two games). The defense has not been great, but has been opportunistic and does have the ability pressure Henne if Victor Abiamiri is left alone with Reuben Riley and not sufficiently slowed by early-down run success or screens. And Michigan, like anybody else, can't score if it doesn't have the ball.
Variables: Much depends on whether Michigan actually attempts to blitz and jam, or whether English decides (or is, um, persuaded) that it's not worth the risk...Darius Walker's involvement for Notre Dame - in any facet - and ability to keep third downs out of balls-out pass rush territory...Michigan fans have a couple of unlikely but persisting trends to fear: Mike Hart's ankle, Chad Henne's accuracy and, in the superstitious nonsense category, the Wolverines' odd losing streak in road openers, now at six games.
The Pick: Notre Dame seems to skate by on a margin of error that threatens to crack and give way to the icy, numbing reality any minute: statistically, it can't run consistently, it can't stop the run and its offense needs eight or nine-play, three-first down drives, the type where one negative can be fatal and a half dozen plays must break the right way, to keep its suspect defense on the sideline as long as possible. And though ND does all of those things well, and though the Irish seem like a suspiciously intelligent and consistent team, and though SMQ specifically warned against concluding "but they ain't that good!" based on Notre Dame's steady accumulation of slight stat sheet success, Michigan is in excellent position to exploit what Georgia Tech could not - by leveling possession time via a consistently effective power running game, and not forgetting the big play ability at receiver - and what Penn State could not, by blitzing regularly (though as unpredictably as possible) and forcing the Irish to make plays under heat; either way, it gets Quinn and Co. off the field more quickly. All bets are off if the Manchurian Candidate has time to take aim and snipe away, but Hart and Woodley are the right players in the right positions to undermine the machine.

BONUS Game of the Century of the Week!

What's at Stake: As usual, the early bead on the SEC West, and continued hope for possibly greater rewards - the winners of this game the past three years have finished with a combined three losses, three division titles, two conference titles, one half of a mythical championship and an undefeated mythical championship snub. Basically, if you have to pick one, the SEC game of the year.
LSU Wants: The symmetry of two consecutive 45-3 wins over hapless UL-Lafayette and Arizona - and of the eight carries collected in each game by each member of the running back triad - yields little useful information, but it appears JaMarcus Russell's days as a "within the system" quarterback may be giving way to "overwhelming talent." Given the bit of overwhelming talent at wide receiver, it will be difficult to resist giving the young Auburn DBs all they can handle. But not so fast, my friend! Auburn's blitzing fool Will Muschamp, fondly remembered for aggressive pass rushes is his stint as coordinator at LSU, has a front seven built for devouring quarterbacks without the aid of a consistent running game, and not as designed, heft-wise, for a straight-ahead pounding from the likes of Alley Broussard; LSU's young line is less likely to be able to deal with the blitzing, too. So, uh, balance, really, with an early emphasis on running the ball in the name of giving Russell time to do some damage without being a sitting duck on third and long.
Auburn Wants: Ditto, as Al Borges' passing game is heavily reliant on play-action, and the obvious key is Kenny Irons. LSU's front seven, so tough to handle last year, was nevertheless ripped up by Irons in his breakout game, and is almost entirely new this time around. Its performance thus far not withstanding, LSU's line can be had if it can't seem to hem in Irons without committing too many extra resources
Variables: Skill guys are all vets here, but all four of the lines are mostly young: who's the winner in that battle?...Which junior, second-year starter avoids the killer mistake? This could include something along the lines of a fumbled snap at some critical point, or possibly relaxing in the end zone due to phantom whistles from the crowd.
The Pick: This is an unpredictable game between two pretty much indistinguishable teams, but SMQ's going to have to go with the Tigers. Hey-o! OK, let's get serious here: who's at home? Who's got the best player on the field? Auburn and Auburn? Auburn it is.

Inducing Seizures: DOUBLE BONUS Game of the Century of the Week!!

What's at Stake: All the stuff above about LSU-Auburn was true of Tennessee-Florida about ten, even five years ago, and though Georgia's added a third team to this division mix, this is still the must-win en route to any significant reward in the SEC East. Both teams are also in a state of uncertainty: resurgence under Urban Meyer? With the win over Cal? The top five and a bright future is waiting for the winner, just like the old days.  
Florida Wants: The Gator offense is clicking - against the presumed best and brightest of top-light Conference USA, granted, but still, this is not the conservative, glorified cloud of dust affair it was in Meyer's debut - and is running especially well at more than 5.3 per carry despite the absence of a clear bellweather back; UF is absolutely dominating third and short plays, at an unsustainable 14.6 per carry with 1-3 yards to go, and Tennessee's defensive front is both stunned, by Air Force's 281-yard triple option clinic, and injured, in the form of lynchpin tackle Justin Harrell, making continued success (on a smaller scale) a good likelihood. Chris Leak's early hot streak should ensure a good mix, hopefully featuring some of Meyer's vaunted X-O creativity. As for Erik Ainge: he must go down, and he must go down hard. [oooh, retro SportsCenter, I like it - ed. Those were the days, right?]
Tennessee Wants: To establish the defensive reality as the Cal game, not Air Force. Ainge no longer appears to be a fragile little boy at heart, but must be protected nonetheless from the savage Gator front. As big play as the offense has been, though, both rushing and passing, the assumption is that Florida's going to keep up or speed ahead without someone consistently in Leak's grill; this is more difficult than last year because a) UT's hellacious line mostly graduated, and what didn't is now hurt, and b) UF has basically scrapped the "kill my quarterback, please" option. Dangerous blitzing could be required, and effective against Florida's even greener offensive line.
Variables: The effect of Harrell's absence in the middle of UT's defense...Will the real Erik Ainge please stand up? Please stand up?...Will the real Tennessee run defense please stand up?...Early productivity for Florida meets much tougher resistance.
The Pick: Give SMQ a good senior quarterback on one side and key injuries to a thus far schizo defense on the other, and he's taking his chances with relative stability. Scoring here, over-under-wise, will revert to mid-late-nineties levels.

If it were totally logical, it wouldn't be an upset
The low, low octane Cavs, coming off a terrible blowout loss to Pittsburgh and a measly one-point win off a botched Wyoming field goal attempt, are somewhat inexplicable nine-point favorites at home against the Broncos, who stunned MAC East favorite Toledo by three touchdowns last week. WMU is allowing less than 2.5 yards per carry, a benchmark that would actually represent a nice step up for UVA at this point (seriously). SMQ has never seen either play, but also likes the general statistical concept of Western Michigan's quarterbacks, sophomore Thomas Peregrin, who led the entire win over Toledo, and senior Ryan Cubit, who may gut his way through a gruesome hand injury to play Saturday. But even a one-handed walk-on could put up more points right now than Virginia.

History and marketing have ensured this game is marinated in pomp and myth as could only be produced by a battle of wits between a pair of NFL castoffs, but we will know, at least, if Bill Callahan is replicating Pete Carroll's feat in Lincoln, or if Carroll is replicating his own feat of 2003 with a new, inexperienced bunch of blue chips. Nebraska's otherwise satisfying demolition jobs on Louisiana Tech and Nicholls State aren't of much use in this context, but it's an extremely positive sign that the Huskers have apparently committed to running the ball again, without sacrificing the increasingly efficient passing aspect of the offense, and their new crop of backs comes with a pedigree to match that of their SC counterparts. USC, too, having faced off against a quarterback who's now playing wide receiver in its only game, can't be entirely certain what it's going to get Saturday from its defense against the suddenly balanced and formidable NU offense.
The Pick: A competent, veteran quarterback and surrounding talent beginning to gel around him makes Nebraska an attractive upset bid here, but still too far beyond reasonable probability until it proves otherwise; we're all ready to see SC fail, become a more or less ordinary power again, rather than a hulking giant gravitationally sucking in top recruits, but is this realistic? Is Zack Taylor demonstrably better than John David Booty? The Nebraska running backs? Certainly not the receivers; how are the Huskers going to account for Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith? And unless there's a dimension to Callahan's attack or his team's talent as yet revealed, they're still another year (or at least a few months) from a win like this on the road.

Louisville understandably enters Saturday pegged with the "chip on its shoulder, something to prove" angle because of the Cards' dramatic implosion in the Orange Bowl two years ago, but SMQ thinks Miami's got some serious `splaining to do about its offense in the aftermath of Florida State's troubles against Troy. If that transposition doesn't suit you, the pall that's still hanging around from the 40-3 Peach Bowl rout at the hands of LSU's backup quarterback is more evidence of the program's big game disposition at the moment.
The Pick: Like the SC-Nebraska pick above, "feeling" is about as dicey a concept as they come in assessing anything, but this has a bit of the atmosphere of an ambush waiting to happen, a bludgeoning by one team that means business against another that merely coasted in on its past charms. Louisville is better than Miami on offense, even without Michael Bush - man to man, collectively and, by far, in scheme - and will proceed to put up points on the Cane defense in a way Florida State's one-dimensional, shell-shocked unit could not; Brian Brohm has looked far more like a top-rated quarterback prospect to date than has Kyle Wright, and who, exactly, are the `Canes' go-to stars? For its part, the UM offense has not shown the firepower or consistency, regardless the alleged mediocrity of a potentially decent UL defense, to keep up with its counterparts.

Adrian Peterson you know, but Oregon's own burly No. 28, Jonathan Stewart, was a top-ranked running back coming out of high school, too, and even comes in with his ownnagging ankle injury, the only thing preventing him from an inevitable breakout game against a vaunted OU defense that's somehow allowed fair (UAB) and huge (Washington) rushing performances from much lesser attacks.
The Pick: Big, blue chip No. 28s aside, these teams share athletic, competent quarterbacks, newly installed as starters, but with extensive previous experience; good but not great receivers; and an oddly forgiving run defense that can turn the screws much of the time. But they don't share a dominant record at Autzen Stadium.

The Tigers must have this game, for obvious reasons if they plan to stay alive for the ACC Atlantic title, but again, it's Florida State still with something to prove after the uproar over its dreadful running game against Troy, of all teams, which cast all sorts of dispersions on the Miami win. Clemson's defense has been very good against the run, almost to the same extent as Florida State's been bad at running, which probably means, in the utterly nonsensical way these things typically work, the `Noles will run for at least 150 at home.

Texas Tech escaped one in-state road trap in overtime at UTEP last week, which makes the Raiders an enticing target visiting a potentially tougher venue. The last time these two played, though, Tech turned a quick three-touchdown deficit into a 70-point explosion in about two minutes. So let's say TCU improves on that, but not quite by enough.

Iowa's struggles at Syracuse come with a huge asterisk in the absence of Drew Tate, whose return means the Hawkeyes' problems are dwarfed by ISU's pair of nailbiting, controversial wins over powerhouses Toledo and UNLV, for which there are no ready excuses.

Both impressive home winners last week, but SMQ will take a win over Clemson - any kind of win - over even a surprisingly large margin over Tulsa. BYU lost this game 20-3 last year in Provo.

A couple good, underexposed senior quarterbacks on middling teams, probably one of which could crack into the top 25 (at least SMQ's top 25) with a win. It's not time for Michigan State to lose its grip yet; Pittsburgh's troubles running the ball hold the Panthers back here.

SMQ Homerism

Lost in the weekend's incredible mix is USM's best home draw of the season (unless Houston does something really rockin' in the next two weeks), against the reeling Wolfpack. This is a game that could go either of two directions based on how NCSU is handling its loss to Akron last week: furious fury, "we're not gonna let this happen again' ethos of vengeance, or head-hanging in shame and existential questioning of the meaning (or lack thereof) at the heart of the game.

There is a chance neither team will score, and the contest will continue forever in alternating overtime formats. This is a small chance. SMQ fears Wolfpack quarterback Marcus Stone for esoteric, "he's a winner" reasons more than any numbers he might theoretically put up, but the newfound confidence in the Southern Miss running game behind surprising true freshman Damion Fletcher should provide the Eagles enough conservative success to field-position their way to a much-needed win at the start of the toughest month-and-a-half string of games in years.