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One Loss, and Here Comes SMQ!

Before SMQ hits the road for the rest of the afternoon and Alabama crosses  its jilted fingers on another expensive target, an Orange Bowl prediction. But first, a brief word on the Big Ten:

    What the hell is going on out there?!


Does this mean I have to vote Wisconsin ahead of Michigan?

Typically, SMQ expends a lot of energy on re-hashing the biggest games, but here's the essential version on one of the three or four most essential games of the season: Michigan got rocked. Well, half rocked - it was an evenly-matched 3-3 at the half - but by the time John David Booty and his re-tuned cyborg receiving corps turned the Rose Bowl into a lopsided seven-on-seven drill, the logic behind the somber incredulity that declared Michigan "clearly" the immutable "second-best" team in the country was, as they say, exposed. Once Mike Hart was effectively eliminated from Michigan's gameplan for the first time all season, Michigan couldn't handle SC's pass rush, and down she goes. Its run defense returned to season-long form, as expected, but for the second straight game against top-flight receivers and a decisive, strong-armed passer, Michigan was severely overmatched.


Fight on for ol' tidy metaphors: Booty carves the Trojans up to, possibly, No. 2

What this says about USC and its ability to lose to middle-of-the-pack PAC Ten fare like Oregon State and UCLA while unmercifully walloping the half dozen strongest teams on its schedule is a topic for deep psychological analysis by professionals, but it does cast what could have been a banner day for the Big Ten - Wisconsin justifying its one-loss, top ten existence, joined by Penn State in earning its first really solid pelt of the season - in a baffling light. Though not one, SMQ would suspect, that has any bearing on judging Ohio State's potential performance against Florida - the Buckeyes' win over Michigan is slightly tarnished, but beating Penn State becomes more valuable. The Gators' celebrated takedowns of Tennessee and Arkansas, on the other hand, lose luster on both counts. More on Monday's victory-chain-linking effects re: sorting among various resumes before next week's final BlogPoll effort.

Onwards:


Orange Bowl Louisville v. Wake Forest
It's this game, not Boise State-Oklahoma (thank goodness), SMQ had pegged for the invocation of the BCS "Mercy Rule," because he has far, far less faith in any team at this level than Wake Forest. The Deacons have earned their Miami millions by winning the ACC straight-up, that is not in any dispute, but it's also undisputable that this is a one-dimensional, scattershot offense whose one dimension in the ACC Championship consisted, literally, of direct snaps and ends around because injuries and limited talent left it wholly unable to run at Georgia Tech by any conventional means, and Wake did not reach the end zone in that game. When Rutgers and its lackluster quarterback took Louisville to the cleaners, it was able to manage a worthy, moderately-balanced attack on the back of an all-star tailback in an offense that finished 16th nationally in rushing; Wake, like the Knights, is ranked in the bottom 15 in pass offense, but has nothing like a Ray Rice to hold Louisville accountable between the tackles and open up the timely passing game that's been its lifeblood - the pass-happy Cardinals, in fact, average about a yard-and-a-half more per carry with its committee than Wake's own contingent. It was interesting to hear a preview of this game Monday describe the passers as "different quarterbacks who are asked to do different things," code for "one of these guys is actually very good, and the other's coaches pray every night he doesn't completely blow the game." As the latter, Riley Skinner has been just fine, but exclusively against a league of opposing quarterbacks - save maybe Matt Ryan - in exactly the same position; Skinner's 201 passing yards against Georgia Tech was the first time he'd topped 200 against a team other than Liberty (Brian Brohm obliterated that mark in every game he finished except at Rutgers) and seven of nine ACC opponents - including Duke - held Wake below 300 yards total offense. Because conservatism reigned across the ACC, which placed one total offense (Clemson's) among the nation's top 50 and six - that's half the league, including Wake - among its worst 25, punting, field goal kicking (Sam Swank is an all-American and won the Championship Game), field position and defense were perfectly adequate for overcoming a lousy, low-octane offense, because pretty much every team was accounting for a lousy, low-octane offense to just be in position to pull out a close game as long as the quarterback didn't completely screw up. Even in a pair of double-digit losses, Skinner was composed and generally efficient, and the Deacs won all five conference games decided by a touchdown or less.

Against Louisville, though, whose deep throws will consist of more variety and less futile clanging than those fruitlessly lobbed by Reggie Ball in the ACC Championship, Skinner will have to make more than a play or two. Rutgers contained Louisville in the second half of its game with the Cardinals by jumping around, in and out of unorthodox sets with hardly a distinction between one layer of possible blitzers and the next, and somewhat consistently forcing Brohm into the wrong decision under fire. That's the only time that sort of confusion seems to have struck the junior wunderkind in two seasons but a track the Scarlet Knights (seventh nationally in sacks per game) have followed most of the year against most quarterbacks. Wake Forest does have a precedent for inflicting such pain - four sacks against Boston College, five at Florida State - but hasn't done so with nearly Rutgers' consistency. Or Louisville's, for that matter: Skinner, after being sacked four times against Georgia Tech, will be dealing tonight with Malik Jackson and the second-ranked pass rushing unit by sacks in the nation. Which brings us back to the clock-grinding efforts of the running game, averaging under four yards per carry for the year and entering with a makeshift offense that doesn't possess even a recognizable starter behind Skinner to keep that pass rush from flying upfield, where it can also disrupt the reverses that made up the ground attack against Georgia Tech.

Now: SMQ respects that Wake Forest has won 11 games and the ACC title and is endlessly smart and resourceful and possesses excess reserves of heart and grit and steely resolve that Louisville, as the more attractive favorite, lacks by definition. But if there is any existing indicator that might suggest the Deacons have any chance of being in this game in the fourth quarter, he'd like to read it.
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Louisville 34, Wake Forest 16