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Friday Quarterback

You know what I’m thinking, guys? What if we just cut the whole ‘late season collapse’ thing this year. Whaddaya think?
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Finally, We’ll Learn About...
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Clemson is outright ACC Atlantic champion with a win over Boston College, an outcome predicted by exactly one outlet in the preseason: Street and Smith’s. That lack of prognosticative respect is fairly shocking given the Tigers’ talent and lack of high-end competition in the division (every team in the Atlantic except N.C. State had some picker in its corner, including Maryland and Wake Forest) but makes perfect sense given Clemson’s M.O. under Tommy Bowden – since 2001, the first year of post-FSU opportunity for advancement, no Clemson team has finished better than 5-3 in the league or survived without losing at least two games to unranked conference opponents. Even at 8-2, this version has played one team in the current polls in its first ten games, Virginia Tech, and was blown out of that game in the first quarter. So Clemson skeptics can be forgiven their hesitancy to jump on the bandwagon, even at home, at night, with an apparent speed advantage over reeling Boston College. What we know about Bowden’s teams over the last six years is that they always lose this crucial, make-or-break game, and that perception won’t change until they win it.

For its part, with a loss, B.C. might inherit the ‘choker’ tag: the Eagles have been in the driver’s seat in the Atlantic on the first weekend of November each of the last two years, and if they fall as expected Saturday for the third week in a row, will have blown it both times.

Most to Gain
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I talked everything at stake for Michigan on Thursday: not only beating Ohio State for the first time in three years, winning the Big Ten championship and securing another trip to the Rose Bowl, but avenging the season-crippling humiliation against Appalachian State and sending Henne, Hart, Manningham, Long and Carr out as something other than very good players who spit the bit in the biggest games. Ohio State has a lot to lose, too – from mythical championship game to Outback Bowl in two weeks? – but "never beat Ohio State" is a heavy burden to carry out of town for a group that has been more than capable from the beginning (they’ll worry about the "never won a bowl game" thing in another month).

Most to Lose
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With Oregon’s fall Thursday night, if all goes according to plan, the Big 12 will go into next weekend virtually assured of putting its champion in the mythical championship game. Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma should all be comfortable winners – the Jayhawks are overwhelming, 26-point favorites to wipe out Iowa State and the Tigers and Sooners are both eight-point favorites over Kansas State and Texas Tech, respectively (both pretty conservative estimates, if you ask me, given what Nebraska and Texas did to KSU and Tech last week) – and if they are, the only thing standing between a play-in game between OU and next week’s Kansas-Mizzou winner in the Big 12 Championship will be Oklahoma State, next Saturday’s visitor to Norman. A loss by any of those three this week, though, threatens to topple the entire pyramid.

In the miserable realm of blowouts and other morbid curiosities.
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Inevitable Massacre of the Week
In the days of the eleven-game schedule, this week immediately prior to the traditional season-ending rivalries was a week off for a lot of teams, and for a lot of them, it still is, if you disregard the enormous profit and injury risk of staging a game against a marshmallow from the gooey middle of the Sun Belt. Three different SEC teams hosted the SBC on this weekend last year, and Florida (-35 against Florida Atlantic) and Alabama (-25 vs. UL-Monroe) uphold the young tradition Saturday. The Gators actually brought in Western Carolina for ritual slaughter in this slot last November, so FAU is something of a step up for them. Keep reaching for the stars, guys.

Florida International Line Watch
After last week’s bye, Florida International’s string of cruel defeat remains at 21 games, the longest losing streak in the nation. This week, the Panthers have one of their best chances to win in the last two years, as mere 3.5-point underdogs to visiting UL-Lafayette, which sits at 2-8 and earlier this season lost a game to I-AA McNeese State by three touchdowns .

Lame Game of the Week
The worst, Jerry.
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No game will ever "top" for sheer lameness Wednesday night’s nationally televised, 18-punt, seven-turnover turkey between the Ohio-based Miami and Akron, but Notre Dame and Duke resolve to give it a go. Between them, the Devils and Irish are 2-18, 0-3 against service academies and rank among the worst in the country in almost every single major stat category:

Duke N.D.
Rush Offense 119 118
Pass Offense 71 111
Total Offense 116 119
Scoring Offense 108 118
Rush Defense 78 103
Pass Efficiency Defense 113 46
Scoring Defense 102 95
Pass Efficiency 68 113
Sacks T-55 109
Sacks Allowed 116 119

By the numbers, this is virtually guaranteed to be the most inept game you’ll ever see, the Iminently Resistable Force running half-speed into the Quite Easily Moved Object. In fact, it could be the first meeting in history of the nation’s two lowest-ranked teams in the same major category (in this case, rushing offense). Something, as they say, has to give – both teams are almost as bad at stopping opposing offenses as they are at moving the ball their own selves – but who could’ve guessed Notre Dame would come into any game this season leaning on its secondary as the most reliable element of the team? Somehow, I still doubt Devil QB Thaddeus Lewis will be very intimidated by that.

Bouncing back.
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Connecticut: The Louisville game in September notwithstanding, no team has served as a more consistent salve for teams in "bounce back" mode than the Orangemen. Repita, por favor: "It should be a rule in the Big East: lose three in a row, skip straight to Syracuse." It’s only been one in a row for the Huskies, but they’ll take it.
California: Bears are only touchdowns favorites at Washington off four losses in five games. At least that’s better than the Huskies’ seven losses in eight.
Oklahoma State: The Cowboys actually give up slightly more yards per game than Baylor, 456-454. The Bears, do not, however, average 497 on offense, and they’ll drop their eighth straight as a result.


Ohio State at Michigan

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What’s at Stake: See above. The Rose Bowl is no consolation prize (Jim Tressel has never taken a team there). But where Michigan has pride and redemption and other high emotional stakes on the line in addition to the rivalry and conference championship, Ohio State adds the simple practical matter of still being in the mythical championship hunt – Oregon’s loss and the inevitability of at least two of the Big 12 powers losing at one another’s hands means the Buckeyes are but a mere LSU loss away from the heat of the battle with an impressive enough performance here.
Ohio State Wants: On its eight-game winning streak, Michigan put it together on defense – Brandon Graham, Donovan Warren and Brandent Englemon shored up some of the personnel problems, and the unit that was so viciously gashed the first two weeks hunkered down and held the next eight offenses it faced to 290 yards per game, including 253 total to the same Illinois scheme that racked up 260 on the ground alone last week in Columbus. And then, Wisconsin: the wounded Badgers had their best game running against a Big Ten defense against Michigan, at full strength, and it wasn’t inflated by a long run or the Wolverines’ notorious whimsy against the spread option; it was the kind of straight ahead, stop-us-if-you-dare pounding Ohio State calls its bread and butter, and almost certainly portends a heavy does of Chris Wells against the defense that yielded the most spectacular run of his young career last year:

You will notice, however, that that run was hardly of the straight-ahead, pounding variety described above and employed by the Buckeyes most of this year. Last year’s game was part of the lore of Michigan vs. The Spread in large part because Troy Smith could be trusted to make good, quick decisions from the shotgun with receivers who were largely wide open against hopelessly trailing Michigan DBs (and, in the most unfortunate cases, linebackers...*cough*Chris Graham!*cough*), thus softening the interior for runs like Wells’ and Antonio Pittman’s similar jaunt in the third quarter against what had previously been one of the impenetrable walls in modern history against the run. Michigan’s secondary is not particularly better than last year’s, but, sans Smith and two first round draft picks at receiver, neither is Ohio State’s passing game, and certainly neither is Michigan’s front seven. Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline have been much better than adequate in place of Ted Ginn and Tony Gonzalez (their numbers are nearly identical to their predecessors’ at the same point last year), but after Todd Boeckman’s sudden, three-interception meltdown at home against Illinois last week, the situation is ideal for Tressel Ball in its purest form. This is not necessarily a conservative, run till you drop approach from start to finish; Tressel has shown a tendency to be aggressive in spots and take his shots off play-action on first down and on second-and-short situations, such as the second quarter touchdown Smith lobbed to Ginn on 2nd-and-1 last year, or the first down play-action bomb Boeckman launched to Robiskie that broke open the Washington game in September after OSU trailed at the half.

Michigan’s defense has to care more about Wells than Boeckman to take advantage of this, and Ohio State has been very good at making defenses overly the concerned with the run. This starts by gaining good yards on first down (OSU averages 4.8 on first down carries for the season), because the relationship between Boeckman’s performance and down-and-distance has been pretty clear:

Ohio State Passing on 3rd Down
To Go Att. Comp. % Conversion TD:INT
1-3 yds. 15 80.0 66.7 4:0
4-6 yds. 31 74.2 54.8 5:0
7-9 yds. 26 69.2 43.3 2:3
10+ yds. 19 36.8 31.6 3:1

If Boeckman looks like a hero, it’s because Wells and the offensive line dragged him into the right situations.

I am operating under the assumption, as Ohio State must be, as well, that Henne and Hart are going to play, and of the two I would think OSU would be swarming the line of scrimmage with every intention of making Henne’s separated right shoulder click until it falls off. The Buckeyes are in position to disrupt the zone running game by getting quick penetration, something they’ve done extraordinarily well at times – see ten tackles for loss against Wisconsin, which OSU held to 12 yards rushing two weeks ago (twelve!) – and, after the Badgers’ success manning up on Michigan’s receivers last week, might leave Malcolm Jenkins and Donald Washington to their devices in an effort to blow up the Hart attack; this will have very much to do with whether Jenkins can hang with Manningham as effectively as Jack Ikegwuonu did last week, and whether Michigan makes any effort to test him. The Buckeyes have only allowed three passes all season go for more than 40 yards, and none for more than fifty.
Michigan Wants: First of all, for Henne and Hart to play; if it’s Ryan Mallett and/or the backup running backs, i.e. the disastrous collaboration from the future that stunk up Camp-Randall in its first ever incarnation last week, this game is over. And even if Hart can go, if Henne can’t, or his shoulder is still enough of a problem that he’s no more effective than the live-armed but scatter-brained Mallett, this game is probably over, because – despite its astounding success running against the Buckeyes last year – Michigan’s offensive line has not been consistent enough to expect it to push around the nation’s fourth-ranked run defense. Illinois’ success was based on the spread option and Juice Williams’ ability to cause indecisiveness with his potential to run, and Michigan just doesn’t do anything like this. Penn State made some headway on the ground, I’d project a long day for the running game if the Wolverines don’t show very quickly that Henne’s arm is okay and they’re not afraid to destroy his precious tendons forever if that’s what it takes to finally beat these bastards. This means balance on first down and at least one early shot downfield, just to let them know it’s on. If the deep threat isn’t there, Hart may be overrun.

Bringing it all back home.
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Then again, despite the odds, Mike Hart does not get overrun: he’s topped 100 yards in every game he’s played this year and gained at least 90 in every regular season game last year, including probably the performance of his career against a Buckeye defense that, statistically, anyway, was better against the run than the one he faces Saturday. It’s mostly the same defense, with the exception of the tackles, so the Wolverines have to think they can still grind their bread with Hart as long as his ankle holds up. Illinois won last week by bleeding the clock dry in the second half, and Michigan’s best bet will also be to stay on the field as long as possible.

Defensively, questions linger about Michigan against the run after the debacle in the trenches against Wisconsin, and about Ohio State’s tackles against speed rushers after last year’s mythical championship asskicking – again, you have to go that far back to see the Buckeyes in a come-from-behind situation that allows edge rushers to pin their ears back, because the line has been so effective in keeping Wells going and Boeckman out of trouble. The key for Michigan is the former: if the defensive line can hold up on first and second down and create obvious passing situations (see the chart above), we’ll see what kind of problems Sean Crable and Brandon Graham create for Alex Boone and Kirk Barton around the end.
Constants: You can’t be a major player these days without a modern, balanced passing game, but both of these teams still hew to old run-first cloud-of-dust identity. The running backs are the stars on both offenses and the first priority for both will be winning the shoving up front in order to keep the entire playbook open. Both offenses (especially Ohio State’s) may come out determined to show they’re not going to play close to the vest, but at some point both will also say, "Screw it, time for the ploughhorse."
Variables: Henne and Hart’s health. Michigan is dead in the water without them. Both of them. I can’t imagine they won’t start, but will they hold up for four quarters? . . . Key matchups on both defenses: Malcolm Jenkins’ ability to cover Mario Manningham man-to-man, thus freeing up the safeties and linebackers against the run; and Ohio State’s tackles against Michigan’s speed on the outside. It could get ugly for Boeckman if Boone and Barton relapse into mythical championship form (olé!).
The Pick: Michigan is the sentimental pick, again, but even if Henne and Hart came in at full strength, the Wolverines’ defense is a liability against an offense as physical and efficient as Ohio State’s. The middle has never gelled for Michigan since it lost Alan Branch and Dave Harris, and that alone makes the potential for a big game from Wells is greater than a big game from Hart. Ohio State has just been the more consistent, better-coached team all season, and Michigan is in no position to replicate the heretofore unseen weaknesses Illinois exploited with its athletic quarterback. Hart may come up big, after all, but my metaphorical money says Henne will not.

Ohio State 27 Michigan 18

Boston College at Clemson
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Big game with crystal clear stakes: both teams are 8-2 with a pair of conference losses, winner represents the Atlantic division in the ACC Championship. They’re also going in very different directions now: Boston College has lost two in a row (and, frankly, it could easily be three, if you think back to the frantic Thursday night comeback after 56 minutes of flat offensive failure in Blacksburg) and given up season-high numbers in the process to a pair of mediocre-at-best offenses from Florida State and Maryland, while Clemson has rebounded from its own humiliating performance against Virginia Tech by outscoring its last four foes by an average of five touchdowns. Yes, two of those games were blowouts of Central Michigan and Duke, which you may disregard; the others, though, were convincing takedowns at Maryland and a particularly impressive 44-10 rout of Wake Forest last week, the worst loss anyone’s handed the Deacons since 2004. The Eagles do have a potential saving grace in their run defense, which still ranks second in the country, but even that has deteriorated over the last three, with Tech and Maryland each topping 100 yards (no other offense had managed that through B.C.’s first seven games) with nothing approaching the rippling explosiveness of C.J. Spiller and James Davis. I haven’t seen Clemson since its Labor Day win over Florida State, but I was impressed then with the Tigers’ speed and general athleticism, just as I was watching them demolish Georgia Tech last year in a situation similar to this one. This hasn’t been the case in the half dozen good looks I’ve had at Boston College over the same period – the Eagles are a well-coached team that executes its assignments and forces opposing offenses into an inordinate number of mistakes, but man-for-man, Clemson has been better and should be able to move the ball with its more balanced offense if the proverbial head is in the game.

Clemson 31 Boston College 19

West Virginia at Cincinnati
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The first thing I check against any opponent of West Virginia is its run defense, and Cincinnati’s is okay on its face: the Bearcats are 13th nationally and have impressively held eight of nine opponents under three yards per carry (I-AA SE Missouri State averaged 4.7 on UC in the opener, but lost 59-3, so I’m going to disregard that). There is the matter, though, of allowing 260 on 5.7 in a loss to Pittsburgh, and moreover the fact that I don’t know if it’s fair to compare other running games to West Virginia’s – not only in scheme, since a lot of teams with athletic quarterbacks run some version of the spread option these days, but in talent and execution, where none of those teams can touch the White-Slaton-Devine collaboration. Cincinnati has hung around in the Big East race by being an opportunistic, turnover-fuelled team all season, but where the Bearcats are third in the nation in turnover margin, WVU is fourth; the Mountaineers are also quietly fourth in total defense. Russell Levine from Football Outsiders liked Cincinnati straight up in our talk Wednesday night, but I see no match for WVU’s firepower.

West Virginia 36 Cincinnati 20

Kentucky at Georgia
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I picked against Georgia last week, but I’m completely on board with the resurrection of the Bulldog offense at this point. Really: Georgia, of all teams, has scored 42 points three straight games, two of them against Florida and Auburn, a burst not coincidentally corresponding to the emergence of Knowshon Moreno in the UGA backfield, an advantage Matt Stafford has exploited to full effect. Kentucky, on the other hand, is 97th against the run, having allowed over 200 in three of its last four and well over 300 in earlier wins over Kent State and Arkansas. I think this means exactly what it looks like it means. André Woodson has been sacked eleven times over the last three games.

Georgia 38 Kentucky 21

Oklahoma at Texas Tech
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It’s a given the Raiders are going to get their yards one way or another – Graham Harrell is three yards against Missouri shy of topping 400 yards passing in every single game this season, an unreal and ultimately unpersuasive number. Harrell’s been intercepted nine times in his last three games against teams that aren’t Baylor – that would be Missouri, Colorado and Texas – and the Tech defense has allowed 131 points (46.3 per) in those three losses. The Raider D has allowed 233, 212, 217, and 283 on the ground in four of its last five, along with the 215 it gave up to UTEP and an embarrassing 366 to Oklahoma State earlier in the season; Mike Leach changed coordinators after that game, but the defense still hasn’t stopped anybody. They’re fun out there, but that won’t hold up once Oklahoma put its head down. Bob Stoops is 6-1 against his old coordinator, all of the wins by double digits.

Oklahoma 46 Texas Tech 28

Penn State at Michigan State
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Penn State has found its running game in a pair of unlikely sources, Rodney Kinlaw and Evan Royster (the Lions are averaging 210 per game over their last six), and just in time to catch the flagging Spartan defense, which has been steadily gashed over its last four games, including big yields to Iowa and Purdue. The thing with Anthony Morelli is, when PSU can run and give him time, he can make the routine throws that keep drives alive. He doesn’t have to be a creator here. Also over the last six games: only Ohio State has topped three yards per carry against the Penn State defense. Another case of two teams moving in different directions.

Penn State 29 Michigan State 20

Missouri at Kansas State
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Kansas State is kind of a mystery: like everyone in the Big 12, the Wildcats are continuing to roll on offense (averaging 461 yards and 38 points over the last five), but the 73 points/702 yards to the lamest of lame duck teams at Nebraska is an all-time dealbreaker. At least Missouri has a veneer of defense, a thin one, not that it’s needed it with Chase Daniel. I’m a little frightened to think what the Tigers might do if the same KSU defense from last week shows up here – the eight-point line strikes me as scandalously low for a team coming off such a loss.

Missouri 48 Kansas State 27

Mississippi State at Arkansas
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The Bulldogs have done an admirable job defensively, hanging in games and forcing turnovers to win a few of them despite an even lower-octane passing game than Arkansas’, if you can imagine that. But the last time MSU lined up across from a pair of weapons on par with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, West Virginia rolled up 31 points in the first half. Remember LSU? The Bulldogs do not handle explosiveness very well, and even if nagging injuries keep Jones out of the game, they don’t come more explosive than McFadden. I would give more thought to the upset here if MSU had a chance to crack 17 points on offense, but the way Wesley Carroll has played at quarterback, there is no reason to expect that.

Arkansas 24 Mississippi State 13

Miami at Virginia Tech
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It doesn’t seem possible for Miami to be worse offensively than it’s been the last two weeks, against the best defense in the ACC – the school of Kelly, Erickson, Testaverde, Walsh, Torretta and Dorsey currently ranks 110th in passing offense after finishing three of the last four games with under 100 yards through the air. There is no recourse except throwing Javarris James and Graig Cooper into the line over and over again, and I have a good idea what that might look like:

That's just an approximation.

Virginia Tech 27 Miami 6

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It's Heated and Ultimately Meaningless Territorial Rivalry Time!

Vanderbilt at Tennessee
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Commodores need a win here or at Wake Forest to become OMG Bowl Eligiblz! for the first time in a quarter century, but Tennessee appears to be playing like Tennessee for a change; the Vols have somewhat quietly won six of seven and still control their destiny to win the East. Which, as always, means pain and a must-win next week for Vanderbilt.

Tennessee 31 Vanderbilt 13

A trophy’s not a trophy unless it’s an axe.
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Wisconsin at Minnesota
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Minnesota has to hold the Badgers to 456 yards of offense to drop its average total defense for the season under 519 yards per game, thereby inching ahead of 2002 Eastern Michigan to avoid the title of "Worst Defense of the Decade." The Gophers have a chance if Tyler Donovan doesn’t play – a chance of avoiding becoming the laughingstock of modern defensive football, that is, if Wisconsin is feeling merciful. As far as avoiding an 0-8 Big Ten debut for Tim Brewster? Nil.
Wisconsin 37 Minnesota 17

Purdue at Indiana
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The Boilermakers have dropped two straight but continue to move the ball on offense, where Indiana, already bowl eligible, went into a shell on offense against Northwestern, of all teams, last week. The Hoosiers may be eligible, but so are nine other teams in the Big Ten: they probably have to win here to guarantee the first bowl since 1993, and I’m riding with the Purdue offense. The Boilers tend to beat the teams they’re supposed to at the bottom of the league; they’ve won five straight in this series.

Purdue 40 Indiana 31

Northwestern at Illinois
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The Wildcats inexplicably stopped one spread option attack last week against Indiana to get its elusive sixth win. What did Illinois do last week, again? Oh, right...yeah, this may not be so close.

Illinois 34 Northwestern 16

N.C. State at Wake Forest
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Fortunes have flipped dramatically here in the last month: the Wolfpack have ripped off four straight after a 1-5 start, Wake has been dragged to earth by two straight losses. The Pack has found its rhythm with running back Jamelle Eugene and Daniel Evans at quarterback: he has seven touchdown passes during the current streak.

N.C. State 22 Wake Forest 19

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Remember, friends: open thread Saturday morning. Be there or be square, which, contrary to popular opinion, it most definitely is not hip to be. It is hip to leave comments on the Internet! Do your duty.