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Friday Morning Quarterback

A weekly primer.

Let SMQ open this week with some profound insight from Thursday's important Georgia Tech-Virginia encounter:

Calvin Johnson is good.

That is all.


SMQ Will Be Watching
The first really Autumny Saturday of the season could be reasonably spent with enriching activities, children, families. Initially reviewing a schedule generally free of intrigue and must-see altercations, SMQ was going to take a long drive and do some important and neglected chores in the morning, take it easy, do laundry, check into laptop rehabilitation - except, except...there's a game worth getting up for for once in Michigan-Wisconsin at 11 a.m. Can this be avoided? The myriad distractions on other channels last week kept SMQ from getting a good look at the Wolverines, so the answer must be no. The tie binds. Minnesota-Purdue should be close, as usual, and fills in there as the backup unless the regional Colorado-Georgia game is a nip-and-tuck bog. The primary 2:30 attraction would seem to be Penn State at Ohio State to open, but an inevitably tight Arkansas-Alabama game's going to beckon once the Buckeyes get comfortable sometime in the third quarter. Most interesting may be Arizona State at California, somewhere in the hinterlands on a field too sunny for the lower-grade cameras to handle. Most anticipated, for reasons relayed below, may be Notre Dame-Michigan State, each potentially explosive on offense but also teetering on the brink of collapse (MSU is 3-0 but always, always on the brink of collapse). If that one gets out of hand, which SMQ does not foresee, he also projects Boston College at NC State to be closer than the experts think. Unless, you know, there's a party or something.

Finally, We'll Learn About
Michigan State's never a boring a team these days, though whether that's for offensive fireworks or horrific mental meltdowns depends on the time and place. In September, MSU's roughly stable, which bodes poorly for Notre Dame, but only until a field goal is blocked or a sure touchdown drive ends with a fumble out of the back of the end zone for a touchback. At some point Saturday, the Spartans will probably have to deal with some terrible bit of luck, momentum or other adversity, and their reaction can give us a good indication of what the rest of their season might look like.

Most to Gain
Hoping to rebound in very opposite senses are California and Kansas State, who played to open the season a few years ago and have flipped positions completely since. Cal's the hyped group now, just hoping to remain respectable, in the consciousness and alive for a longshot January game in its PAC Ten opener against Arizona State, which is hoping for much the same on the road. K-State is one of the shakiest 3-0 teams in the nation, but has improved game to game under Ron Prince so far; we'll see how far back they've come, if at all, against the mobile M.A.S.H. unit that is Louisville.

Most to Lose
Notre Dame remains a presumptive BCS favorite, especially given the lower standards for the Irish, but that's only the case as long as Drew Stanton's not wrecking whatever perception of competence remains surrounding the ND defense. If it's as bas as it could be, the Irish start looking for Insight Bowl tickets and escape clauses in Charlie Weis' mega pact.

Michigan, too, a week after electrifying America with interceptions and stuff and wide open receivers smashing into sideline bands, can drop all that cachet pretty quickly if it's flat against Wisconsin. Most of the Big Ten, and certainly Michigan, must be aware: never turn your back on the Badgers.

Inevitable Blowout of the Week
Tulane is the Worldwide Leader's hard luck sentimental favorite again, which is good for some strings and flashbulb pops over still photos of a flooded practice field on "GameDay," but serves them not at all at LSU following a tough Tiger loss. Nobody in Louisiana feels sorry for Tulane, SMQ can attest, especially in Baton Rouge.

Lame Game of the Week
Army almost beat Texas A&M last week, and Baylor almost beat TCU in its opener, neither of which even begins to make the "Almost Bowl" almost interesting.

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 17-point loss at Northern Illinois in which NIU averaged more than 10 yards per carry, are 41.5-point underdogs at Auburn.

Bouncing back...
Tennessee: Needs to really thrash Marshall to prevent a kind of malaise from creeping in as the memory of the Cal win fades in the light of less dominating recent play.
Oklahoma: Will have no excuses if Middle Tennessee is even in a position to win by recovering an onside kick.
Maryland: Florida International is the Terps' last sure win - maybe their last win, period.
Nebraska Troy generally falls in between Nebraska's first two patsies, Louisiana Tech and Nicholls State, who were each demolished in Lincoln, so the Trojans are a team to watch or something if they're as competitive against the Huskers as they were at Florida State.

Projecting ...

Game of the Century of the Week
PENN STATE at know, let's skip this one for once. Nothing this week quite rises to SMQ's `Game of the Century of the Week' standards, which shall not be tainted by mediocrity.

If it were totally logical, it wouldn't be an upset
Do not jump the gun and do not underestimate the low, low level of its opposition (Pittsburgh, perhaps, not withstanding; this is pending), but Michigan State's early offense is the freakishly balanced outfit of nightmares: 258 per rushing, 248 passing, 39 points - Louisville stuff, but with a quarterback who can also fly. Is Drew Stanton (64 per game rushing) Matt Jones reincarnated with a modicum of accuracy and surrounding talent? This is one of the questions SMQ wants to see answered with the first good look at MSU Saturday night.

The gazelle returns?

Another, though, is the resiliency and psyche of both of these teams - Michigan State because it's begun to go schizo week-to-week at about this point the past two or three seasons, and has a way of losing games like this in traumatic fashions that send entire seasons careening off the tracks; Notre Dame because, on paper at least, it's outmatched, and finds itself in the same ball-control, very low margin-of-error mindset that went up in flames so quickly at home last week because its defense has even less chance of defending the very multidimensional Michigan State attack than it did Michigan's. The run defense has clearly not shown up for ND unless it sells out with safety help, as it did last week, and MSU is every bit as likely to burn swamp-ankled corners - on top of which, the Irish have only struggled in the rare instances they've had to account for the added weapon of targets who do not stay anchored the pocket (against D.S. last year, for instance, when he ran for 48 yards in a huge overall game, plus Troy Smith in the Fiesta Bowl and Reggie Ball in this year's opener).

When SMQ picked Notre Dame No. 1, he was projecting some improvement from the veteran defense and a steady if unspectacular running game, for neither of which there has been much evidence to date. Lines on both sides are shaky. Presumably Quinn and Co. will be able to throw and score, but the Irish defense now is in about the same place as Michigan State's - that is, very, very average, susceptible to any competent attempts at running and passing, and not adept at pass rushing from standard sets without exposing vulnerability to big plays - and in that case, SMQ is not going to pick against the more explosive offense at home. Not valid where field goals are involved.

One of the things Ohio State has not yet proven is that it can stop the run, and in fact has suggested very much the opposite: Northern Illinois, we know, ran little Garrett Wolfe for more than six yards a pop in Columbus, and Texas' odd affection for ineffectual passing by a young quarterback when it was lighting up the Buckeyes' front seven with Selvin Young and Jamaal Charles was borderline maddening. Cincinnati's ground, um, attack, was officially held to negative four yards, but this is misleading because it - aside from being Cincinnati - lost more on eight sacks than it gained on 14 other runs; the Bearcats' dozen non-quarterback carries, which takes away a 23-yard run by Dustin Grutza, averaged closer to three yards a pop. This was an improvement for the young OSU front, for sure, but less likely than against Cincy to hold up against a Penn State running game that has held its own to date with a spate of new linemen.

PSU, of course, has not been West Virginia, but opposing run defenses haven't been much better - and that includes Notre Dame, whose front seven has been its weak link again, and yielded about seven per carry to Lion running backs. The question is whether OSU's run-stopping will show more than that, because it hasn't yet. Penn State figures to learn from Texas, and refrain from giving its inexperienced passer a chance to make a killer mistake only until absolutely necessary.
The Pick: Ohio State, of course, is more successful in other regards. And if Penn State plays blitz-wary, zone-freebie defense in the fashion it employed to great disaster at Notre Dame against the faster, more dangerous - and more balanced - Buckeyes, the time to play grind-it-out ball will have quickly passed. The lack of pass rush against Notre Dame, combined with the lack of pass rush on Troy Smith by anyone, means PSU has to blitz to create pressure, and also that Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez are probably going to be left alone in those situations. With Ohio State's talent, it's just damned if you do, damned if you don't; neither of the two biggest lessons Penn State can take from the first three weeks - commit to the run on offense, play generally aggressively on defense - will help against a Ted Ginn fly route.

Possibly the game of the day, a game SMQ would have pegged for the Holiday Bowl berth if not for Oregon's resurgence. But of course all involved - even Cal, after that devastation at Tennessee - still have higher goals than that.

Cal has had significantly improved quarterbacking since that debacle, which has partially been due to the competition and the better establishment of the run game (Marshawn Lynch, after quietly averaging six-plus in limited play against UT and ripping up Minnesota, had 112 yards against Portland State last week on six carries) and partially due to just better quarterbacking; Nate Longshore was hammered on the road in his first start, then came back and threw for 300 and four touchdowns with no picks at home against Minnesota and was league offensive player of the week. On the other side, El Presidente Rudy Carpenter, in a ruthless drive to be named "Starter for Life," is similarly on a steady pace towards solidifying the power he gained in a mostly bloodless coup that deposed Sam Keller last month - five interceptions notwithstanding (he had two in a half-season as a freshman). The Devils are averaging a more Devilish 36 per game.
The Pick: No team has been better than Arizona State at getting into opposing backfields: ASU is tops nationally with 18 collective sacks, and 14.5 tackles for loss on top of that. Keeping Longshore clean enough to deal with that pressure requires a ground game, of which the Bears are in no short supply, and both Colorado and Nevada sent lesser backs than Cal's terrible twosome well over five yards per carry against the Devils. Cal won't be able to much stop ASU, either, depending on whether the defense from the Tennessee game or the Minnesota game shows up, but when in doubt, give the edge to the best player on the field (Lynch) at home.

There's no way to take an extremely unproven bunch from Wisconsin on the road here, no way, as intriguing as box scores and chaos theory at large make the possibility. Statistically impressive (138 ypg) but anonymous Wisconsin back P.J. Hill, as well as Dwyon Rowan, are inevitably stars-in-waiting, but no reason to consider banking against - so far - the best rushing defense in the country. Teams who stop the run are winners, and Michigan gets the benefit of any and all doubt - SMQ should be clear that there's very little in this game - until somebody runs on them. Also: Wisconsin's win last year came in Madison with the Wolverines absent Mike Hart, and present the apparently vanquished Evil Henne. With the influence of last week's anomalously large Michigan win, though, take the Badgers - for entertainment only! - against the 13-point spread.

The Gophers have the best team kick return average in the country, which is the kind of thing that makes Lee Cosro go "Yo!" and recklessly pick a Minnesota win via big kick return, but is more likely to be an early season indicator of circumstance and poor opposition, to be straightened out in conference play. What's more telling is that, in its only game against at team with a pulse, Minnesota was surprisingly held well under four yards per carry by California, which is the first indication its bar-the-door running game is returning to something like average, or just above. Purdue's pass defense, though, however many yards its offense is generating on hapless MAC competition (which is a lot) is well, well below average at 304 yards allowed per game - this against Indiana State (35 points, 387 total yards), Miami, Ohio (31, 483 in overtime) and Ball State (28, 352). Thirty-five-points to Indiana State? Minnesota and its veteran quarterback win by big pass - Yo!

For' Bama, the relatively rare flop to Arkansas is a harbinger of the illest fortune, and SMQ means "ill" in the Valerianian sense, not the Beastie Boyian: the last three times it's happened, in 2000, 2003 and 2004, the Tide finished 3-8, 4-9 and 6-6, respectively. Neither of these teams has impressed in the least, each beating Vanderbilt by just a field goal, beating up on lame Sun Belt and WAC fodder, hyped young quarterbacks failing to inspire a big play mentality in the most conservative possible league. Arkansas has two advantages here: home field (which matters for Arkansas more than most teams) and the more experienced group. Right, and a healthy-toed Darren McFadden.

Colt McCoy needs this game to set his path against decent opponents straight after his very limited effort at Ohio State, and will probably have to make a play, as Drew Tate had to make a few to bring Iowa back at home against ISU last week, because it's not a given Texas can consistently run the ball on a pretty good Cyclone front seven otherwise. SMQ envisions some impatience, some groaning, possibly full-blown, nail-chomping fretting from the home crowd before the `Horns pull away - probably sparked by a big play on defense. Because Iowa State's chances of running well and controlling the clock are even lower.

This is something like the "SEC Game of the Week," since Colorado's anticipated visit to Georgia was sabotaged by utter CU incompetence. Ole Miss: barely beat Memphis, lost big to Missouri and Kentucky. Wake: barely beat Duke, hammered UConn. If only this were the NCAA tournament!

Post-upset, "woeful to hopeful" Washington is very tempting at home after UCLA's own home struggles with Rice, especially because the Huskies have found somewhat of a resurgence running the ball, the Bruins' fatal flaw (Utah and Rice both had rushers over five yards per carry despite meager attempts). Washington was also the first of many teams to play well and lead UCLA well into the fourth quarter before eventually losing last year. Bruin RB Chris Markey is good, but karma's a bitch.

Included as a nod to the upset potential of undefeated, unheralded, disrespected KSU, which gets seriously banged-up Louisville at home in potential post-big win letdown. Just to note that SMQ didn't overlook that possibility. He also didn't overlook the Wildcats' opening one-point win against Illinois State, in which they were outgained by more than 100 yards and had to score twice on special teams and stop a late, go-ahead two-point conversion to beat a I-AA team.

There's more upset potential here, because SMQ is not nearly sold on B.C. - the Eagles really had to have some calls to beat Clemson, which outgained them by a mile, and only beat Central Michigan and BYU by a touchdown apiece. NC State has looked just awful, but never underestimate the influence of a new quarterback (the Pack got a boost when Marcus Stone came in for Jay Davis last year), even it's just to set up the boost when the original starter comes back. There's a boost there somewhere - unless it's really that much of a sinking ship at NCSU, which is possible and maybe likely, and in which case SMQ is not going to hop aboard.

The Golden Hurricane have two impressive defensive performances against Stephen F. Austin and North Texas, sandwiching an abysmal game in which it allowed well over 200 yards rushing to BYU. What does that equal against Navy? Way more than 200.