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FRIDAY QUARTERBACK

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Go. Fight. Win. Etc.

Finally, We’ll Learn About...
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Schools like Alabama get at least one shot at a "We’re back bitch!" game every year, but rarely does it come as late as the Tide’s bid for division supremacy against LSU. At no point this season has ‘Bama been considered by the outside world a legitimate conference championship threat, but it will have to be the favorite if it turns the tables on LSU, currently riding a four-game win streak in the series.


Not yet. Not yet.
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This is a big weekend for Notre Dame, too, as the Irish finally move out of their hellish run against actually decent-to-good teams – ND’s first eight opponents are a combined 49-20 and are all en route to bowl games, probably forming the toughest two-month gauntlet in recent memory – and into a manageable final month of service academies and eggheads. Not that anyone really looks like a pushover from Notre Dame’s current perspective, but as bad as the Irish have been, it can at least salvage some momentum and carry a little optimism into next season with progress against the teams it’s supposed to beat. That starts with continuing the winning streak against Navy, which should at least make Notre Dame feel like Notre Dame again for the first time all season. Otherwise, yeah, it really is that bad.

Most to Gain
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There’s Alabama, but the Tide’s SEC West insurgency is small potatoes next to Arizona State’s bid at national viability, the kind that only comes with beating another team with elite standing in voters’ hearts and minds. Everyone respects ASU’s 8-0 start, but the Devils are still all the way down at sixth in the human polls because they’ve lacked exposure, haven’t earned an elite win and still carry the stigma on an outsider in this kind of territory. Realistically, Ohio State is number one as long it keeps on winning by whatever means necessary, but ASU enters the discussion for number two with Boston College, LSU, et al only with a worthy road win. Oregon in Autzen more than qualifies.

As for the Ducks, they obviously have to win out to maximize championship ambitions of any kind, but they’re in a different position than Arizona State because, unlike the Devils, Oregon clearly can’t win its way into the title game. It needs help to get that far.

...AND ALL THE CHILDREN LEARNED TO MULTIPLY BY SEVEN...
In the miserable realm of blowouts and other morbid curiosities.
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Inevitable Massacre of the Week
The biggest line of the week is in Knoxville, where Tennessee takes a well-timed break from SEC body blows for lightweight tuneup with UL-Lafayette. The Vols are four touchdowns, which sees like a reasonable compromise between UT’s six-touchdown talent edge and its two-touchdown volatility buffer. Can you rely on Tennessee to beat its cheerleaders by more than four touchdowns? Probably not, but even on a bad day by the Vols, you can rely on the Cajuns being handled decisively, sooner or later.

Florida International Line Watch
After last week’s loss to Arkansas, Florida International has fallen to cruel defeat in 20 straight games, the longest losing streak in the nation. This week, the Panthers are 17.5-point underdogs at Arkansas State. That seems a little harsh – Arkansas State?

Lame Game of the Week
The worst, Jerry.
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First, it’s lame that a team from Louisiana is playing a conference game in Idaho, as Louisiana Tech is Saturday against the Vandals, and second, that it has to go that far to play in the smallest FBS stadium in the country, Moscow’s Kibbie Dome, which seats a roaring 16,000 and currently sits about 2,500 fans per game below the NCAA-mandated 15,000 over its first four home games. So any game in the Kibbie Dome is depressing per se. Yet we go on: between them, Louisiana Tech and Idaho have two wins over I-A opponents in 15 tries, both of them by La Tech, and one of them a defeat of winless Utah State. On the bright side, the Bulldogs have the distinction of leading the WAC in net punting, going against the conference leader in net punt returns in the Vandals. So something’s gotta give there, one would think.

WE CAN REBUILD. WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY.
Bouncing back.
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Texas Tech: Off two straight losses, the Raiders get to lick their wounds against one of the nation’s lowest-scoring, most turnover-prone, poorest pass-defending outfits at Baylor.
UCLA: The Bruins are always a risk, but a calculated one this week at Arizona, where they last lost 52-7 in 2005. That sounds bad, but this is UCLA: that’s exactly what they want you to think...
Washington: The Huskies have hit the skids in six straight losses since the 2-0 start, and get their best hope at cracking the Pac Ten win column Saturday at Stanford.
Southern Miss: Relinquished control of C-USA East last week against Central Florida, now has to regain some traction at UAB. USM has never lost to the Blazers in seven tries, but also (per Phil Steele) never won by more than nine.
California: Washington State couldn’t come at a better time for the reeling Bears – week-by-week, the losses were growing progressively worse.

Upwards...


Pick your poison. It all looks horrible .
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GAME OF THE CENTURY OF THE WEEK!
Arizona State at Oregon

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What’s at Stake: See above. Mainly, this is about the Pac Ten championship and taking care of business in-conference. ASU hasn’t won a conference title since it ran the table in 1997, Oregon since it was snubbed for the mythical championship game with one loss in 2001, and both still have three conference games in front of them in a league that’s already had its last place team (Stanford, Washington State) knock out is first place team (USC, UCLA) twice in the span of five weeks. Despite the ramifications, it’s too early to be thinking too seriously about national impact when there is still so much ground to cover. The first step is strengthening a grip on the conference.
Arizona State Wants: ASU is still very good at the stereotypical, high-flying Pac Ten offense – Rudy Carpenter has multiple touchdown passes in six of the first eight games – but the Devils have also put together a deep running game that hasn’t missed a beat since leading rusher Ryan Torain was sidelined for the season with a toe injury. Dmitri Nance has moved into the role of yin to Keegan Herring’s yang, picking up 177 yards and four touchdowns in split time the last two games; Herring has 215 yards in the same period, on 6.3 per carry. The chances are not very good if Carpenter has to find himself slinging it around to young receivers in a shootout, the kind of game – when it takes care of the ball – on which Oregon thrives.

There is also this matter of falling way behind right out of the gate, which ASU has done three times now: 14 points down to Colorado, 19 down to Oregon State and 13 down to Cal last week, not to mention smaller halftime deficits against Washington and Washington State, all but the latter (a three-point win on a field goal as the clock expired) games Arizona State went on to win handily. Not only because the odds are so against repeating this trend yet again, on the road, but because Oregon’s offense is operating on the exact opposite trend – the Ducks are fast out of the gate and haven’t trailed at halftime once this season – that smells like the road to disaster.
Oregon Wants: As mentioned, as fast start works in Oregon’s favor, keeping the crowd in the game and getting its first rate skill guys involved and in rhythm from the beginning. No one who watched Oregon dismantle Michigan’s defense back in September could forget the complete performance the offense put on there, powerful, fast, unpredictable and in sync all at once, and it wasn’t an aberration there. The Ducks are not playing great defense, but if this plays out as an "average" game for the offense, and it doesn’t turn the ball over, the defense will have a pretty high margin of error. However solid Arizona State has been on defense against mostly mediocre offenses (Oregon State, Washington State and Cal all moved the ball effectively on ASU), Oregon is nigh indefensible if it’s healthy and has its head on straight (which it has to date this year). Unless the Devils are able to load up against Dixon and Jonathan Stewart early and get in Dixon’s face (something ASU has not done; it’s last in the Pac Ten in sacks and tackles for loss) when he does want to throw, Oregon will be able to do what it usually does, which adds up to a lot of points.
Constants: The quarterbacks are going to complete passes and get the ball up and down the field. ASU was just okay at Washington State (23 points, 296 yards) but otherwise, neither offense has had anything like a bad game.
Variables: The running game is essential to controlling the clock for Arizona State, and the Devils have not been as consistent in that area as Oregon – Oregon State and Washington State both had success stopping ASU runners, and ultimately both were doomed more than any other single factor by turnovers, just as Oregon was doomed by turnovers in its only loss, to Cal.
The Pick: Oregon was on a nearly obscene offensive roll before it ran into USC last week, and found a way to win against a talented group that covered well and limited big plays. Arizona State will have to limit the quick strike and try to force long drives, too, but I like the Ducks’ weapons too much, especially at home. If they don’t give the ball away the way they did at Cal – and nowhere else, as Dixon has been sharp and big mistake-free – ASU should not be able to keep up.

Oregon 34 Arizona State 26

LSU at Alabama
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No idea yet whether Glenn Dorsey will be able to go off the chop block injury, but I question how much impact that will have strategically – LSU is deep on the line and should stop the Tide from running anyway, and Alabama’s offense has been far more pass-oriented under Major Applewhite. Odds are ‘Bama will come out looking to repeat its passing success against Tennessee, trying to get John Parker Wilson into rhythm on safe throws that will open up more of the offense later on. The dominant Tiger defense of September hasn’t been as evident in the last three games, even with Dorsey: Florida scored 24, Kentucky scored 27 in regulation, Auburn scored 24. LSU might be fading at just the time the Tide is peaking.

Normally, I don’t pay much attention to bye weeks, but in this case, I think it’s crucial: LSU desperately needed a week to regroup after the three draining, emotional games it played in a row, and Alabama was as crisp as any Tide offense has ever looked passing against Tennessee. With time off, though, that momentum is interrupted and we look at the big picture: LSU is still more talented than Alabama and, with Early Doucet back in the offense – he made a a significant difference at Auburn – is less likely to become one-dimensional. Ultimately, ‘Bama’s defense has been just mediocre, which will not be good enough to keep LSU from reestablishing its identity as a power running team and putting the division in a stranglehold.

LSU 30 Alabama 21

Wisconsin at Ohio State
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The Badgers have run the ball well enough at times that it’s always a threat; at any point, against any defense, you have to concede that Wisconsin can line up and pound its way to a win. Possibility, though, is not probability, and the Badgers have also shown a capability of being stonewalled by good defenses – P.J. Hill was ground to a halt last year at Michigan, Illinois and in the bowl game against Arkansas, and found no room again earlier this year against Penn State. Defenses do not come much better than the current edition of Ohio State’s, which has held three different opponents this year under five yards rushing, and stuffed Minnesota and Michigan State on the ground for good measure. The Buckeyes are not impenetrable (there was Michigan last year, most memorably, and Penn State had some success running on OSU last week), but the description is far more apt for them than it is to Wisconsin, whose D had opened the floodgates before the gears shifted dramatically to shut down a truly terrible Northern Illinois offense two weeks ago, then carried over that success to stopping Indiana last week. The Hoosiers, however, did not have anyone carrying the ball like Chris Wells, who is a bigger, stronger, faster version of the three backs (Javon Ringer, Rashard Mendenhall and Rodney Kinlaw) who gashed the Badgers in straight-ahead running schemes in consecutive weeks. No team is better now than the Buckeyes at controlling the tempo and imposing its will.

Ohio State 27 Wisconsin 14

Michigan at Michigan State
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The Spartans are somewhat disregarded, not surprisingly, as most teams who lose four games in five weeks are. But outside of its loss to Ohio State, MSU is very close to being in right in the Big Ten race: the other losses are by a field goal at Wisconsin, in overtime against Northwestern and most recently in overtime at Iowa – less than a handful of plays from being 8-1. You can’t take that too far, since the Spartans have allowed 200-plus yards rushing to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa and allowed well over 600 in total offense to Northwestern and you can’t overlook that with Mike Hart and Michigan’s machine-like running game set to do the same kind of damage. Michigan appears to be gelling on defense, as well (three straight opponents held under 300 total yards, including Illinois and Purdue), but if the score starts creeping up, MSU is not going to be helpless about it.

Michigan 32 Michigan State 24

Texas A&M at Oklahoma
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The Sooners are a three touchdown favorite, which seems high to me against a team OU only beat by one on its way to a conference championship last year; I may be less certain of the Aggies’ alleged listlessness than the general consensus. Either way, we’re only hashing over margins of defeat: TAMU is currently 6-3, and closes against Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas, an ideal recipe for finishing 6-6 on a four-game losing streak, out of bowl contention and with a coach who already has a foot out the door. The Aggies are too one-dimensional against a nasty Oklahoma D to stave off that fate this week.

Oklahoma 25 Texas A&M 13

Texas at Oklahoma State
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The Cowboys have quietly dug themselves out of a 1-2 hole following that embarrassing loss at Troy – well may not so quietly – and are playing to keep pace with the Sooners in the South with one conference loss apiece. Texas is not really in that picture (no matter what the Longhorns do, Oklahoma would have to lose twice at minimum), but UT’s second half surge last week was a good sign it’s not ready to roll over this lackluster season yet. OSU has the rushing stats – fifth nationally – but if Texas commits to running Jamaal Charles on the still-flimsy Cowboy defense, the ‘Horns will have the more effective attack here.

Texas 36 Oklahoma State 28

Wake Forest at Virginia
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These two are about as non-descript as two teams with a combined 13-4 record can be. Both teams lost on opening day and have been quietly rolling by narrow margins since; Wake started 0-2 and has now won six in a row. The Deacons get the benefit of the doubt for having a more versatile and effective offense to date, and for having pulled this "Stayin’ Alive" routine before. Riley Skinner is a thoroughly average quarterback who happens to be 15-4 as a starter in two years and Kenneth Moore will be the most dangerous player on the field for either team.

Wake Forest 24 Virginia 20

Cincinnati at South Florida
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On one level, I don’t trust South Florida’s reliance on Matt Grothe to do everything on offense – Rutgers exposed USF’s lack of execution when a defense can contain the quarterback and not let him create on the fly, and the rest of the offense took a holiday last week at UConn; Grothe threw 30 times and ran 25 more, accounting for 80 percent of offensive snaps, and though the Bulls had 440 yards, he also threw two interceptions and the team scored 15 points in its second straight loss. Cincinnati, though, has regressed much more obviously on defense and is not creating the turnovers that propelled the Bearcats to their 6-0 start. Pittsburgh was the first team to run with great success on Cincy last week, but that success came on the heels of three straight 300-plus yard passing game by UC opponents.

South Florida 31 Cincinnati 21

Oregon State at Southern Cal
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This is a much closer-looking game on paper than the 15-point spread suggests, mainly because Oregon State is good in the trenches: OSU leads the nation in run defense and continues to pound out success between the tackles with Yvenson Bernard when the Beavers have the ball. Quarterback, though, leaves too much to be desired, and OSU’s three-game win streak actually coincides with a bit of an offensive rut; a dramatic decline in turnovers has been the difference, just as it was in the Beavers’ run to ten wins last year. It took four turnovers to upset USC in Corvallis, for example, too many to give Oregon State the benefit of the doubt against the more talented team on its own turf. Expect the Trojans to continue struggling to pulling away against the OSU defense, though.

Southern Cal 26 Oregon State 16

South Carolina at Arkansas
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Arkansas is out of the race to win the West, rather obviously, but it can still set itself up for a good stretch run with a quality win here, which would be the first the Hogs could claim all season (its five wins to date are against Troy, North Texas, Chattanooga, Ole Miss and Florida International). South Carolina continues to struggle against the run, as usual, which opens the door for a breakout game by McFadden and Jones against an offense that only broke out of its own funk last week in the midst of turning the ball over four times. The luster is definitely off the Gamecocks.

Arkansas 28 South Carolina 19

Purdue at Penn State
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Depending on what happens with Northwestern the rest of the season, Purude may have ended its long losing streak against winning teams last week (the Wildcats fell to 5-4), but that doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in the Boilers in Happy Valley. The Lions shut out Purdue last year in West Lafayette, and the Boilers were effectively shut out at home against Ohio State four weeks ago, a week before being spanked by Michigan. As prolific as it the rest of the time, the offense just doesn’t show up against any defense with teeth. And the Lions have teeth.

Penn State 20 Purdue 15

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Stop by Saturday morning for the gameday open thread – as always, all games in play, all social barriers lifted in the name of anonymous, irresponsible, reactionary Web rage. It's a party.