Sometimes injuries are obvious – when Dennis Dixon went down lat Thursday, everyone held their breath and Oregon’s once-in-a-lifetime season careened into oblivion, or the Holiday Bowl, or where ever. USC’s season-long injuries, even to John David Booty, were less dramatic (because, gee, Mark Sanchez is just another plug-n-play blue chip, yes?), but maybe no less evident in retrospect after SC trashed Arizona State Thursday. At full strength, on the road, in a must-win situation against a top ten team in the national spotlight, these Trojans were finally who we thought they were in September: balanced and precise on offense, with big, physical receivers that out-position smaller defenders in man coverage and hang on to the ball in traffic, and relentless and hard-hitting on defense; every hit on ASU’s first possession out of halfime was loud and sent Devil ballcarriers reeling backwards and left Rudy Carpenter literally bloodied.
This team lost to Stanford?
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There are a handful of games this weekend that come with direct conference or mythical championship implications:
GAME OF THE CENTURY OF THE YEAR!
Kansas vs. Missouri
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What’s at Stake: Something akin to the fate of the free world, if you ask Jason Whitlock, who is in better position than the average national fan to push residual hatred from the pre-Civil War, slave/free blood feud as an emotional stake in itself (or he was, anyway, prior to the education Professor Holtz dropped on a stunned nation Thursday night). For the rest of us, it’s the only game of the season between two teams in the top five, will decide the Big 12 North and possibly serve as a direct funnel for the mythical championship game – the winner is a favorite next week to beat Oklahoma or Texas in the Big 12 Championship and take on LSU, West Virginia or Ohio State in New Orleans. The conference title in itself is a rare prize: Kansas hasn’t won a league outright since 1930, Missouri since 1960. So Whitlock is right that this will be the biggest game the rivalry has seen since John Brown’s anti-slave gang came a-massacrin’ in the streets, and probably will ever see again.
Even with a loss, Kansas could still find itself swimming in McDuck-like vaults of filthy BCS moolah (Mangino would don a speedo for his turn in the coin, no doubt), but with Oklahoma and Texas still lurking around, Missouri could very realistically pull the dreaded Kansas State slide from January to December, via the Holiday Bowl. Not likely, necessarily, but the Tigers stand to lose an awful lot of cash along with everything else.
Kansas Wants: The winner has to score – against an offense with any kind of teeth, both defenses have proven very ordinary, and that goes especially for the Jayhawks. KU’s overall defensive numbers are great on paper – in the top ten in all four major categories – but that’s hyperinflated by big games against the scintillating attacks of Florida International, Southeastern Louisiana, Baylor, et al. The best offenses Kansas has faced (Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Nebraska) have averaged 30 points and 439 yards, requiring even bigger responses from the KU offense, and all evidence suggests Missouri will, too.
Todd Reesing is almost untenably short and doesn’t have a real downfield kind of arm, and Kansas’ scheme seems based on getting the ball out of his hands on quick, easy reads and timing routes, often on one-man hitches, slants or bubble screens (glorified picks, really) that can go for big yards with one good block and one bad angle against man coverage; they’ve had an inordinate amount of success with the short stuff and run-after-catch:
Besides the obvious virtue of giving Reesing an outlet without forcing him to make many reads through big trees in front of him, short, horizontal one-man routes provide the dual benefit of getting defenses focused on moving left to right enough to open up quick seam routes, whic ex-quarterback Kerry Meier seems to have turned into a personal specialty in the red zone over the last few weeks. The emergence of lumbering Brandon McAnderson in the zone running game has only added to the threats, and to Reesing’s hyper efficiency. He doesn’t do as many different things as well as Chase Daniel on the other side, but Reesing is smart, accurate and can improvise, and Kansas has proven machine-like in its ability to answer opponents’ scores all season. Missouri will make plays when it has the ball, but the Jayhawks can keep the Tigers’ chances for damage to a minimum with long drives on offense and the usual opportunism on defense and special teams – KU leads the nation in turnover margin, kickoff return average and return touchdowns.
Missouri Wants: The Tigers have the best player on the field (Daniel) and more top-flight options around him than Kansas or any defense in the conference can reasonably expect to contain, so Mizzou has effectively gone pedal to the metal all season with his arm, athleticism and decision-making, with huge dividends. By themselves, William Franklin and record-breaking freshman Jeremy Maclin are nightmares for secondaries on the outside, which leaves "tight ends" Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman (one of three guys on the team named ‘Chase,’ annoyingly) to run against hopelessly overmatched linebackers in their wide receivers’ vapor trails. Like all spread schemes these days, Missouri relies chiefly on quick throws and the long handoff flips into the flat, too, but Daniel is more dangerous than Reesing as a deep passer and can strike from anywhere on the field with Maclin. Kansas played the short stuff aggressively against the most applicable offense it faced, Oklahoma State, knocking OSU’s Adarius Bowman out of that game in the process, and the Tigers will be best served by putting KU on its heels early by opening holes for hot, healthy Tony Temple, letting Daniel burn a little ground with his legs and showing a willingness – nay, a hunger! – to take shots downfield. This offense has too much going for it to take anything off the throttle here.
Constants: The offenses will be back and forth – both are balanced and have efficient, heady midget quarterbacks with plenty of options. Defensive stops and turnovers will be rare and precious.
Variables: Turnovers, as mentioned, but also special teams could be the great equalizer: Kansas has made a comfortable living off its return game (see above), but if there’s only one big play to make on that front, the smart money is probably on Maclin taking one back for Missouri.
The Pick: Again, these teams are the same – dangerous, versatile spread offenses that don’t do a lot of different things but execute and scheme off of what they do extremely well – but Missouri moreso; the Tigers’ offensive weapons make them like Kansas Turbo. It bothers me, too, that Kansas hasn’t played a game against a team better than 6-5 all season, and hasn’t faced an elite unit on either side comparable to Missouri’s offense – Oklahoma State’s offense is the closest, and the mistake-prone Cowboys were much worse defensively. Playing in the same division, of course, Missouri isn’t dramatically better, but the Tigers at least took out Illinois in a similar neutral site game to start the year and have fared slightly better than Kansas against a few common opponents that gave the Jawyhawks trouble – namely Colorado, Texas A&M and Kansas State, in addition to destroying Texas Tech – and blowing Nebraska off the field in about equal measure (Kansas scored 76 on the Huskers to Missouri’s 41, but Mizzou gained over 600 yards and held NU to six points – it scored 39 in the frenzy in Lawrence – in a thorough rout). Missouri would be undefeated, too, if it had held on to a late lead at Oklahoma, in a far tougher environment against a far tougher team than Kansas has faced at any point. Missouri is more talented and will take the various prizes if the level of play is consistent with the last two months.
Show West Virginia the money!
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Big East championship and automatic BCS bid/dollars directly on the line. Two opposite instincts push me to UConn: my conservative side says "Respect the record" and the Huskies’ quiet, steady success en route to this point, while my contrarian side resists the certainty of the 17-point line in the Mountaineers’ favor, surely born at least as much of hype as of merit for two teams a mere half-game apart in the conference standings. Another, more powerful factor benefits West Virginia: reality. And talent, speed, big game experience, talent, home field, talent... As long as Pat White and Steve Slaton are healthy – WVU is 26-1 when neither leaves a game with injury in their careers – the Huskies are significantly outgunned.
|West Virginia 27
Virginia Tech at Virginia
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Both teams are 6-1 in-conference with the ACC Coastal title and a date with Boston College in next week’s championship game directly at stake. I get the impression both teams would sit on the ball for 57 minutes and then send out the field goal team if they could, especially Virginia: the Cavs have won five games by two points or less, including a two-point win over mighty Middle Tennessee State, and six by five points or less. UVA also has no offense to speak of, against a typically overbearing, athletic Hokie defense that’s rounded into its usual top five form since it was humiliated by LSU in September. Even if it hadn’t had such success, facing Jameel Sewell and a nondescript set of receivers against Virginia Tech’s lockdown corners, the Hokies’ offense has shown enough pop against Georgia Tech and Miami to keep the score out of reach of the kicker late. Virginia is going to have an impossible time scoring.
|Virginia Tech 20
Boise State at Hawaii
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Both teams are undefeated in the WAC, with the outright conference championship and a likely BCS at-large bid – at least the shot at one – on the line, which makes me kind of sick (Woo! They beat Fresno State!) but it is what it is. Cue the battle of intangibles: Hawaii is 14-2 at home against the WAC over the last four years, one of those two losses coming by three points to eventual champion BSU in 2005, a much, much weaker Warrior team than Boise will see tonight, but the Broncos are almost flawless against the conference since joining in 2001: Boise is 52-3 (46-1 over the last six years) and won at least a share of the league title every season. It’s been on a different level than the rest of the WAC the entire stay, and hasn’t even endured the close calls this year that it during last year’s Fiesta Bowl run, or that Hawaii has had to survive – UH is only unbeaten after overtime at Louisiana Tech and San Jose State and last-second kick to beat Nevada in Reno last week, albeit without Colt Brennan. Things are usually (Big Ten fans upset with officiating on various trips might say "notoriously") different on the island, but Boise brings a more balanced, physical team with an experienced secondary and a pair of corners fast enough to hang with Hawaii receivers if the Warriors try to go beyond dinking and dunking. I was angry at my own team but very impressed by Boise across the board when BSU coldly, ruthlessly cut out Southern Miss’ heart on the blue turf in September. If it establishes Ian Johnson on the ground – there is no reason barring a quick, possibly turnover-induced deficit and subsequent one-dimensionality that it won’t – it’s still the Broncos’ league, whatever that’s worth on the national scale.
|Boise State 45
Tennessee at Kentucky
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The Vols lock up the SEC East with a win; Georgia advances to play LSU next week if UT loses. The last time Tennessee lost to Kentucky, for the record: 1984. It’s not only that, but both teams are going in very directions than they were at about 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time on Oct. 20, about the time Alabama was putting the finishing touches of its rout of the Vols in Tuscaloosa and the Wildcats were kicking off to play Florida a week after knocking off LSU. Tennessee is 4-0 since with an impressive takedown of Arkansas; Kentucky is 1-3 with a bad loss to Mississippi State. A month ago, I wouldn’t have liked the Vols’ young secondary much on the road against André Woodson, but the young guys have had basically a full year now and have Erik Ainge backing them up on the other side, anyway. Tennessee’s improving run game will give it an edge in balance.
Oklahoma State at Oklahoma
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Oklahoma can wrap up the Big 12 South and set itself up as spoiler against the Missouri-Kansas winner in the conference championship next week. The Cowboys have the offense to match up here, but oh, that porous OSU defense is in for a long afternoon of DeMarco Murray and Allen Patrick barrelling through after OU neglected its running game in the shift to catch-up mode last week at Texas Tech. Sam Bradford has been cleared to play, but the more ancillary his role, the better. Oklahoma hasn’t lost two straight regular season games this decade and hasn’t lost any Big 12 game in Norman since Les Miles’ Cowboys knocked OU from the conference championship in 2001. Eerie, but no.
|Oklahoma State 23
Texas at Texas A&M
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This game is meaningless in championship terms if I’m right about the last one – Texas can only secure the Big 12 South if Oklahoma loses. But UT-A&M is never meaningless, not when the Longhorns are still harboring distant BCS at-large dreams and can drive the final stake into Dennis Franchione’s gossiping heart in the process. Just when Texas is getting its act together and getting Jamaal Charles rolling, the Aggies have lost four of five since coming from behind to beat Oklahoma State by a point, and haven’t been competitive against another winning team. The debacle at Miami looks worse by the week.
|Texas A&M 17
Arkansas at LSU
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The Tigers have clinched the West but are still two tough games from clinching a spot in the BCS Championship, and we’ve learned by now not to take any two games – tough or otherwise – for granted. I’ve had a hard time coming to grips with picking against Darren McFadden all season, especially with Felix Jones in the mix at the same time, and both had devastating games against the Tigers last year in Little Rock, when McFadden made a persuasive case that he is not, in fact, human. He is also not accompanied by anything like a competent passing game, which spells disaster even more clearly than it did in the Razorbacks’ disappearance at Tennessee. LSU is just a few yards away from 400 yards total offense in seven straight games, including 488 and 475 in back-to-back weeks against Auburn and Alabama.
Oregon at UCLA
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Arizona State’s loss means Oregon controls its own destiny for the Rose Bowl (the postseason reward, not the home stadium where it will be playing Saturday), although it also means the popular mind will be rooting for a matchup of behemoths between Ohio State and USC rather than get the Dixon-less Ducks backing in for a blowout. Something’s gotta give: Oregon comes in banking on the road presence of Brady Leaf, season saboteur par excellence, with whom it’s winless over the last two years, against reeling and apparently left-for-dead L.A., starting a third stringer off four losses in the last five. This could be the inexplicable snipe the Bruins have mastered under Karl Dorrell, in probably his last game in the Rose Bowl, but chaos doesn’t have Jonathan Stewart in its backfield.
...and then there is only pride:
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It's Heated and Ultimately Meaningless Territorial Rivalry Time!
Alabama at Auburn
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There were many caveats to backing Brandon Cox before he tossed four picks last week at Georgia, raising his TD:INT for the season to 9:11, and he still doesn’t have a deep ball in that arm. The best thing you can say about Auburn at this point, actually, is that the Tigers do not appear to have fallen completely off the map – there is still a defense, still a pass rush with Quentin Groves and Antonio Coleman and a better-than-serviceable running game. Alabama, on the other hand, has fallen completely off the map, not only in three straight losses, or two straight bad losses to Mississippi State and UL-Monroe, but dating back to the 24-10 win over Vanderbilt in the second week of the season, only one of the Tide’s four victories since (the impressive win over Tennessee) has been by more than six points, and that includes sketchy victories over the likes Houston and Ole Miss. In retrospect, those games should have served as a little thing we call "foreshadowing," of the wounded, turnover prone shell ‘Bama has quickly become.
Florida State at Florida
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FSU is in a position to salvage some face with its eighth win of the season, but these are the same Seminoles we’ve come to know and slightly pity: Drew Weatherford, no running game, a defense that’s allowed 386 yards and 27 points per game against its last five opponents who aren’t Duke. Those offenses: Wake Forest, Miami, Boston College, Virginia Tech and Maryland. Good luck against Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin, who lead a unit averaging 38 points against SEC defenses alone. For the first time in years, it appears FSU just doesn’t have the athletes to stay competitive for four quarters in this game.
|Florida State 15
Georgia at Georgia Tech
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Taylor Bennett’s passing numbers for Tech don’t look too bad through the last seven games, if you count his games against Maryland, Army, Duke and North Carolina. Not so much against the actual defenses of Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech, against whom Bennett was well under 50 percent completion rate and cumulatively threw seven interceptions to zero touchdowns. Georgia is an actual defense, with an actual passing game, and the ability to offset whatever Tashard Choice gains on the ground with those of Knowshon Moreno, working on his sixth 100-yard game in a row.
|Georgia Tech 17
Clemson at South Carolina
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Clemson is fending off another late season "collapse," but in the Tigers’ case, it’s only one game. The Gamecocks are suffering through the real thing, the most grisly memory of which is Arkansas running for ungodly numbers on a shamed USC defense three weeks ago. Clemson seemed a little impatient with James Davis and C.J. Spiller last week, but largely due to a stout run defense by Boston College. No such excuses Saturday.
|South Carolina 23
Utah at BYU
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BYU has clinched the Mountain West with a perfect 7-0 start, but it’s Utah, after a pair of bizarre early stumbles to Air Force and UNLV without quarterback Brian Johnson, that might be the hottest team in the conference: the Utes have won seven sstraight by increasingly wide margins since Johnson returned and running back Darrell Mack emerged from the pack at running back. BYU has won 16 straight and 18 of its last 19 MWC games, but Utah is the last team to beat the Cougars (in 2005), played them closer than anyone else in a last second loss last year and has been the more overwhelming team at full strength.
Nebraska at Colorado
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This is an interesting game of "Which Disaster Is Worse?" a title Nebraska have cruised to three weeks ago. Since, though the Huskers won their last game by six touchdowns and Colorado has lost two straight in ugly fashion (one by blowout to Missouri, the next to Iowa State, period). Dan Hawkins, at home, is not the lame duck Bill Callahan is, but I don’t know that his team is that much better right now.
Ole Miss at Mississippi State
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Record aside the Bulldogs are really not much better than the three-win editions of Sly Croom’s first three seasons. If Ole Miss had any kind of opposition to the run, I’d put a lot of wreight on the Rebels hanging on in a punting game for their first SEC win of the year. Alas, they’re terrible against opposing backs: 210 yards per game, worst in the SEC, and worse in SEC games. State can’t throw, but with Anthony Dixon, it can run, and will, to unlikely win No. 7.
|Mississippi State 21
|Ole Miss 16
Washington State at Washington
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Just when you think the Huskies are completely punchless without Jake Locker, Louis Rankin breaks off his second 200-plus-yard game in three weeks in a stunning obliteration of Cal, and the eighth-ranked run defense in the Pac Ten looks like too much of a liability to overcome for the Cougars. Washington’s defense has improved by leaps over the last three weeks.
|Washington State 24
Duke at North Carolina
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It’s widely acknowledged Butch Davis is building the oncoming buzzsaw of the post-FSU ACC, the team that will make the rest of the league bow to its will. That’s the story, anyway, and as long as the young, almost-there Heels can take care of Duke – Duke, the Duke that is Duke and which lost to lame duck Notre Dame last week by three touchdowns – I’m sticking to it.
|North Carolina 26
Let this serve as the open thread for Friday’s games, and I’ll be back with another thread Saturday morning.