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FRIDAY QUARTERBACK

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Pleasantries dispensed today for the sake of time - straight on to the picks:

GAME OF THE CENTURY OF THE WEEK!
Southern Cal at Oregon

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What’s at Stake: The winner stays within at least a game of Arizona State and UCLA for the Pac Ten lead, with the chance to take on both of those teams as a likely favorite in the next few weeks, i.e. the winner here is the conference frontrunner in popular perception and still very much in the pecking order for a mythical championship bid.


It's lonely at the top, and even lonelier everywhere else.
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Speaking of popular perception, both teams have some elusive voter elan at stake: take away a less-impressive-than-it-looked-then blowout of Nebraska, and USC has been looking ordinary all season, very far from the automatic mythical championship contender or even conference powerhouse it was presumed to be. Oregon can officially knock the Trojans from that pedestal for the first time in five years, and turn anyone who’s still skeptical of the championship merits of a team that – gasp! – was unranked in the preseason.
USC Wants: It’s been years since the Trojans were underdogs in any game – since before anyone on this team set foot on campus, with the exception Herschel "Not the 19th Century English Mathemetician, Astronomer and Chemist But Old Enough to Be" Dennis, who has seen so many point spreads through the ages, impatient one – and at least as long since they came in as the less explosive, more ball control-oriented attack, but here we are. Not that USC isn’t going to take its shot at big plays, what with Oregon’s defense having yielded relatively big days to Houston (545 yards, 27 points), Stanford (402 yards, 31 points), Cal (400 yards, 31 points) and Washington (421 yards, 34 points), but competent opponents are pounding the ball to pretty good effect against the Ducks to date. The problem is that they’ve all found themselves playing catch up sooner rather than later, and mostly very young quarterbacks have been forced into predictable passing situations. USC doesn’t want that to happen to Mark Sanchez in just his second start, so while the mantra in this offense is always aggressive balance, and the somewhat disappointing receivers remain too talented to leave outside stalk blocking for too long, the Trojans’ ability to establish the run with Chauncey Washington, Stafon Johnson and Joe McKnight will establish the pace – they do not want to find themselves riding Sanchez in a shootout.

This is overlooked amid the offensive disappointment, but the Trojan defense has lived up to its hype and may be the best of Carroll’s tenure, not just the most talented: SC is fourth against the run, ninth in pass efficiency, third in total D and tenth in scoring defense. It may have to trust its corners in man coverage early on in an effort to take Jonathan Stewart out of the game, but if they can slow down the terrifying Duck running game long enough to build a lead and force Dennis Dixon into pass-first mode, Oregon's arsenal suddenly looks far less terrifying. Look for an aggressive approach from the SC defense out of the gate.
Oregon Wants: The Ducks are more comfortable with high scoring games because they attack with the most balanced, potent set of weapons in the country: third in rushing, second in total offense, second in scoring – there is no weakness, only pain. As long as Dixon is healthy, Oregon can beat a defense any way it wants. USC is one of the few defenses athletic enough and strong enough in the front seven to hope to neutralize Stewart, but the read option part of the scheme is designed to keep speed in check and make those athletes play smart, disciplined defense instead – when you combine that with the Ducks’ execution and sleek backfield talent, you get results like 465 yards rushing against Washington. USC definitely is not Washington, but if Stewart and Dennis Dixon find room early and keep the Trojans looking run, thinking too much, on their heels, it will be bombs away, and Sanchez will have to shoulder a much bigger load than SC would like to keep up.
The Pick: I’m not sure I can overstate my awe-filled love of Oregon’s offense. I want to resist hyperbole, and it’s just as impossible to ignore my respect for USC’s defense and near-monolithic big game dominance over the past five years. When the Trojans get up for a game, with the exception of the narrowest of narrow defeats to Texas, they win it, and usually win it big. I don’t think Dennis Dixon, even collaborating with Jonathan Stewart and the rest of the shock yellow mustangs on this offense, is anything like the force of nature Vince Young was at that point, but I don’t think USC is anything like what it was at that point, either. For a team that was supposed to just reassume its role as skull-cracking number one, this game is a line in the sand: are you still the USC everyone knew and expected again, or aren’t you? I haven’t made it a secret: I think the Trojans’ empire is slowly eroding. Oregon seems too balanced, too explosive right now to let them cross that line on its turf.

Oregon 27 Southern Cal 24

California at Arizona State
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ASU’s season now comes down its next four games, all of them tougher than any single game the Devils have won over their first seven (six of which were at home), and ASU’s success will be rightly scrutinized until it does something of similar merit against a defense of this caliber. Not that the Bears’ defense hasn’t endured plenty of problems: opponents are gaining 379 yards on average and scoring 26 points against Cal, fairly awful numbers for a ranked team, and a couple of offenses have really had their way – Oregon, for one, but also Colorado State, a team that started 0-6 before last week but nearly upset the Bears back in September. ASU, meanwhile, survived a close, lackluster game at Washington State but has largely buried the rest of its schedule under a lethally balanced offense and the most underrated defense in at least the Pac Ten – ASU is best in the conference and fourth in the nation in scoring defense, primarily by preventing the big play: only four snaps against the Devils in seven games have gone for longer than 40 yards, and none for longer than 47, suggesting they might have some success blanketing DeSean Jackson. I don’t know how much it helps ASU to be playing at home for the sixth time in eight weeks, but if you’re looking for a reason other than Arizona State’s defense to take the Devils, it can’t be a very good site for ending their opponent’s two-game slide.

Arizona State 30 California 25

Florida vs. Georgia
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It’s tempting to reflexively take the Gators in light of their overwhelming succes against Georgia the last 18 years, but don’t let history fool you – take the Gators because Matt Stafford is virtually guaranteed to struggle against Florida’s defense. The Gators have had their own growing pains, but Stafford hasn’t played to his promise since his quietly terriffic performance in the opening win over Oklahoma State. Outside of that game and Western Carolina, Stafford has completed less than 50 percent of his passes and shows no signs of being able to replicate the fireworks that Andre Woodson delivered to keep Kentucky in the game last week. Georgia has a shot if it can generate a consistent running game, but that seems like too much slack for Knowshon Moreno to have to pick up.

Florida 24 Georgia 16

Ohio State at Penn State
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The line here is only 3.5 in the Buckeyes’ favor, which strikes me as almost laughably low. Penn State is at home, but it’s facing a legitimately punishing defense , and with Anthony Morelli this time, not Michael Robinson. Fans doing the "White Out" thing will look good, briefly, but won’t be able to do anything to stop Chris Wells from pounding the clock away while the Lion offense does its damndest to get into good punt position.

Ohio State 21 Penn State 12

South Carolina at Tennessee
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The Vols frustrate me to no end, because there is no rhyme or reason for which version shows up week to week. – are we getting the UT that impressively smashed Georgia or that went down in flames on defense in other big games against Cal, Florida and Alabama? There are a couple common factors at play there: the one good game was at home, against a rather pedestrian offense; the losses were all on the road, against balanced offenses the Vols simply never adjusted to. South Carolina is closer to the first example: I don’t know who’s planning to start at quarterback for the Cocks, but I don’t have much confidence in him playing for very long, or in USC’s ability to sustain the run, which should also mean that Tennessee should not be repeatedly burned by Kennly McKinley the way it was by LaVell Hawkins in Berkeley, Percy Harvin in the Swamp or D.J. Hall last week; the borderline anemia of Carolina’s offense went from ‘possible concern’ to ‘wailing siren’ in about one quarter last week, and going into the ninth game of the season, it still has no identity to build on. Erik Ainge, meanwhile, is hitting the final month of his career, and if he can’t go out on top of the SEC, he can at least swing back all the way out the door.

Tennessee 26 South Carolina 17

West Virginia at Rutgers
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If I hadn’t actually watched Mike Teel against South Florida, I would certainly think better of him by his numbers, which are outstanding. He was erratic almost to the extreme against the Bulls, though, hitting just 11 of 29 just a couple weeks after throwing three interceptions in the Knights’ loss to Cincinnati. Against better defenses than Buffalo and Norfolk State, he doesn’t seem particularly improved. The same cannot be said for West Virginia’s defense, which has been vastly better than it was last year (the Mountaineers are currently fourth in the nation in total D) and will not bend much if Teel can’t effectively complement the endless Ray Rice plunges into the line. I have more confidence in White, Slaton and Devine, for whom 400 yards and 28 points is a slow day at the office; even on an ostensibly bad night at USF, with the backup quarterback eventually taking most of the snaps, the Mountaineers piled up 437 yards in surprisingly balanced fashion. Rutgers adjusted to Matt Grothe’s scrambling act last week and played much better in space in the second half, but it won’t have the luxury of focusing on one man here – as always, if West Virginia holds on to the ball, it’s Slaton and White’s game to lose.

West Virginia 34 Rutgers 23

South Florida at Connecticut
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I haven’t been particularly impressed with either of these offenses in the times I’ve seen them this year, but I was doubly not impressed with UConn last week against a really porous unit from Louisville. Maybe it was the rain, but the Huskies didn’t accomplish anything offensively until the closing minutes, and there’s still the matter of the bogus fair catch no-call there and the blown fourth down touchdown call against Temple – even the Big East administration doesn’t think the Huskies should be 6-1 right now. They will not be 7-1 unless this turns into another mudder, figuratively or literally, as was the case last week. Matt Grothe doesn’t get a lot of help from the rest of USF’s offense, but he is a real playmaking talent for the Bulls, and I don’t know who you can say that about for UConn.

South Florida 27 Connecticut 18

Kansas at Texas A&M
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The Aggies are supposed to be "lame duck" or something, but I wouldn’t count on that – not after they stomped the genuine article last week in Lincoln. This Kansas team is operating under a completely different mindset, of course, but much more important than the psychology is this: can A&M run the ball? The Aggies are at their best when they’re pounding away on long, time-consuming drives, and when they can’t do that – see at Miami, at Texas Tech earlier this year – the whole operation seems to go belly up. Kansas has unveiled a diverse, potent offense that stole the show at Kansas State and at Colorado and should fare just fine if it can get its hands on the ball here. The Wildcats couldn’t run on KU (53 yards) and the Buffaloes couldn’t run on KU (66 yards), and with the focus on making TAMU one-dimensional, I like another Jayhawk win on the road.

Kansas 31 Texas A&M 27

Colorado at Texas Tech
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There will be a lot of attention on what Colorado inexplicably did to Tech in Boulder last year, a vicious beatdown in an otherwise wreched season of CU, but the Raiders have never been the same team outside of Lubbock, for whatever reason. The Buffs looked like they were going to make a nice run after beating Oklahoma in the middle of three-game win streak, but that’s fizzled the last two weeks against the Kansas schools; as it stands, CU is 1-4 against quality competition and has given up an average of 420 yards over its last three games. This is the wrong offense for getting your feet back under you.

Texas Tech 36 Colorado 23

Clemson at Maryland
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Maryland continues to mystify, because it’s not good at anything in particular, and is glaringly bad at a few other things (like passing, for instance, anything to do with passing), yet the Terps continue to win games against the likes of Georgia Tech and Rutgers and are an overtime (against Wake Forest) and one point (against Virginia last week) from being 6-1 and unbeaten in the ACC going into this game. I like Clemson because it’s good in a few specific ways – the Tigers can usually run the ball and have gone out their way to balance the offense this year with Cullen Harper, and rank in the top ten nationally in pass efficiency and total defense, where all four ACC opponents to date have been held under 300 yards – but mainly because I don’t have anything nice to say about its opponent.

Clemson 28 Maryland 22

Boise State at Fresno State
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I don’t think I’ll be able to watch this game tonight, but I’d like to, because – Broncos’ November visit to Hawaii notwithstanding – this could be the mid-major game of the year. Even on the road, with Ian Johnson out of the lineup for Boise, I don’t know enough about Fresno this year to justify picking against BSU. I do know the Bronco-favoring long term trends on these two teams (Boise has won every conference championship since it entered the WAC, and Fresno, for all its success, has never won even a share of a title under Pat Hill), and on top of that, FSU is currently 101st against the run, having allowed 248 to Nevada and 290 to Idaho in consecutive weeks. Ian Johnson or not, blue turf or not, that will not be good enough against Boise State.

Boise State 41 Fresno State 32

Nebraska at Texas
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I’ll be looking live! at this game, from way, way up in the upper deck, apparently – not that there’s anything wrong with that – and so feel compelled to give it some due here, but in reality, I don’t think Tom Osborne or pep-talkin' Lou Holth or anyone else could quite salvage the wreckage of Nebraska’s season. Texas has not been impressive, but the ‘Horns are still winning, at least, and have the talent on offense to continue the Big Red’s disgraceful defensive backslide. UT is a 23-point favorite, so let’s go with the experts.

Texas 39 Nebraska 13

Remember to stop in Saturday for the gameday open thread, a new SMQ tradition off to a nice start the last few weeks, going up early and staying up all day for whatever you’d like to add. It’s a scene, man.