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Right to it...

Finally, We’ll Learn About...
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Georgia and Tennessee have been all over the map: UGA looked listless in Knoxville, then inspired in Gainesville Jacksonville (obviously), and both lost games it could have won (South Carolina) and won games it could have lost (Vanderbilt) on the way, while the first place Vols* still have only a watershed game over the Bulldogs and an overtime toss-up with Carolina to recommend them for the East title, alongside genuinely awful games at Cal, Florida and Alabama screaming ‘fraud!’ It is a virtual lock one of these two will represent the division in the SEC Championship, but both need solid wins over Auburn and Arkansas, respectively, to look like a team with any kind of chance of hanging with LSU once it gets there.

* Yes, technically it’s Georgia, at 4-2 to Tennessee’s 3-2, with a half-game "lead" in the division, but the Vols control their own destiny courtesy the head-to-head win – it’s Tennessee’s division to lose right now. They are the frontrunners.

Ohio State. Michigan. The cold march of inevitability meets the desperate drive for atonement. Only one man stands in the way...
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Most to Gain
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It’s Michigan this week, and if the Wolverines get by Wisconsin and into the redemption game to end all redemption games for the Big Ten with Ohio State, it will be Michigan here again next week. The Badgers would make win number nine in a row and 14 in the last 15 conference games, but Appalachian State, Appalachian State, Appalachian State...only a Big Ten title win over the Buckeyes can simultaneously excise the nation’s two heaviest albatrosses (abatri?).

Most to Lose
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At the same time, Ohio State is on a merciless death march to the mythical championship, on which Illinois should be just another speed bump, the Bucks’ twenty-ninth straight in regular season games. Only two games in that incredible streak have even been legitimately close, the last two against Michigan, which is how it’s supposed to be and will be again unless the most consistent, fundamentally sound team in the country finds a way to blow the stakes of next week’s massive payoff by losing to a team coached by Ron Zook.

In the miserable realm of blowouts and other morbid curiosities.
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Inevitable Massacre of the Week
LSU and Oklahoma each opened the week as a 37-point favorite and their respective lines over Louisiana Tech and Baylor, respectively, began inching in opposite directions: LSU, hopefully prepared to suffer in the polls for delaying one of its cupcakes until November, when the Tigers’ competition for hearts and minds is in the meat of the conference schedule, has been downgraded to a mere 36.5-point favorite over the Bulldogs, while the Sooners’ expected advantage over BU has grown, to as high as 38.5. And still, there’s a good chance neither will put the kind of hurt on the scoreboard Boise State is prepared to deliver unto winless Utah State – the Aggies have lost 11 straight WAC games and rank in the bottom 20 in the country in every major stat category, except rushing, in which they’re a solid 93rd.

Florida International Line Watch
Following last week’s loss to Arkansas State, Florida International has fallen to cruel defeat in 21 straight games, the longest losing streak in the nation, over which the Panthers have averaged a national low ten points per game. After Arkansas State rallied for 17 fourth quarter points and a win on a last second field goal, FIU is off this week before resuming Sun Belt play next week with UL-Lafayette.

Lame Game of the Week
The worst, Jerry.
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Rare is the clash of last place foes in any conference at this point in the season, but Northern Illinois and Kent State hook up Saturday with each two games back of the next-worst team in its respective division in the MAC. When last we left NIU, it was plummeting to a new low in record (1-8) and in deed: the ever-respectable Huskies lost a string of close calls to Southern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, Temple and Western Michigan earlier in the year, but were truly humiliated in their last two games by gaining 99 yards total offense in 41-point massacre at Wisconsin and then allowing a shocking 812 yards in a seven-touchdown waxing by Toledo two weeks ago, the worst game by any defense in the country this season. Kent State, meanwhile, has launched its Phil Steele-predicted bid for the MAC title by dropping four straight games in-conference and six of eight since upsetting Iowa State in the opener.

Bouncing back.
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South Florida: It should be a rule in the Big East: lose three in a row, skip straight to Syracuse. USF needs a break.
Colorado: Buffs are coming from a completely opposite direction than Iowa State, but the Cyclones have to win more than one in the Big 12 before they’re considered anything but a doormat.
Kansas State: Wildcats are flailing, but nothing like what’s going on at Nebraska, where they’ll visit to pull off what is probably a first in Big 12/8 history: beat Nebraska and Texas, lose to Kansas and Iowa State in the same season.
Georgia Tech: After last Thursday, if Taylor Bennett can’t find his rhythm against Duke, it’s time for freshman Incredibly Surprising Quarterback Draw specialist Josh Nesbitt to try a few passes for a change.
Washington State: Gets a leg up on eighth place against Stanford, though I’m pretty sure Bill Doba wasn’t hired off a Rose Bowl season to finish in eighth place.
Boston College: The Eagles might have a hard time remaining properly inflated after the last two weeks, but I’ve been adamant for two years: Maryland is not good, and now the Terps have the 1-4 ACC record to prove it. B.C. will be back on track if it has any fortitude.
Oregon State: I toyed with the idea of a road upset by Washington, but Jake Locker still can’t throw and OSU is second in the nation against the run. A ringing endorsement for the Beavers.


Auburn at Georgia

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What’s at Stake: A New Year’s Day game at minimum. Georgia, just a Tennessee stumble away from a clear sprint to the BCS, has more to lose than Auburn, whose hopes of winning the West hinge not only on the Tigers beating UGA and Alabama, but also on LSU losing to Ole Miss and Arkansas, i.e. it’s essentially a pride game for the Tigers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Auburn Wants: The Tigers are at their best when they try to hold the ball forever: they beat Florida by hogging time of possession, limiting the Gators to just 53 plays on offense; they took Arkansas out of its game (Casey Dick attempted more passes than Darren McFadden and Felix Jones had carries between them in a game that was never more than six points out of reach) by holding the ball for almost twelve minutes longer; they held it for five and a half minutes longer than LSU and took a team they could not stop in the second half down to the final snap. Auburn was able to cobble together a functional running game in each of these cases, giving Brandon Cox space to run Al Borges’ play-action faves make the easy throws he struggled dramatically to hit under pressure during the dark, sack-filled first three games of the season. The turnaround since then is fairly amazing: Cox’s TD:INT against Kansas State, South Florida and Mississippi State was 2:6; since, it’s 6:1, and he wasn’t picked off by Florida, Arkansas or LSU, the most pick-happy team in the conference. It’s chicken-and-egg, but the Tigers have tended to come out with Cox hitting short, safe passes to move the sticks out of the gate – 14 plays on the opening drive at Florida for a touchdown, 14 plays at Arkansas for a field goal, 11 plays for a touchdown at LSU. They take the crowd out quickly, set a pace, and open up the running-by-committee.

Don't ask how. Just accept it.
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Defensively, there is no secret: Georgia has not always been patient with its running game (45 passes against South Carolina, 36 at Alabama in close games in which Knowshon Moreno was faring well but still splitting time with Thomas Brown), and though Moreno has clearly broken out as a heavy-lifting, every-down workhorse the last three weeks, the more success Auburn can have against Moreno early, the more UGA might try to get Brown into the game or, better, put more on Matt Stafford’s shoulders. The more a true freshman left tackle has to try to block Quentin Groves, the better.
Georgia Wants: The Dogs know now Moreno is the real thing, and also that they’ve won the game in the trenches the last two years, with a healthy 4.6 yards per carry in 2005 and a full five yards a pop in last year’s rout. Those are big numbers by SEC standards, and achieved without a mustang like Moreno to feed over and over. South Florida, Mississippi State, Florida, Vanderbilt and LSU have all found ways to run on the Tigers, and even Arkansas, during by far its worst rushing game in two years, managed to spring Felix Jones for seven per carry.

The most important trend will be on defense: can UGA get in Cox’s face? The Bulldogs have broken out of a dry spell with 12 sacks the last three weeks, including six against Florida, and were merciless against Cox in the process of sacking him four times and forcing four more picks last year. That’s the Brandon Cox we saw limping to an atrocious finish last year and right into an ignominious start to this season under the same kind of pressure, and the Brandon Cox Georgia wants to see again.
Constants: Both offenses will try to establish the run into aggressive fronts that for the most part have had none of it this year (or most other years). Auburn may try to get Cox into a rhythm early, but over the course of the game, both teams want to set up safe, move-the-chains throws off play-action. Neither will take a lot of chances until it’s necessary.
Variables: Tuberville’s teams are noted as "big game" teams, probably for the aforementioned death grip they try to impose on potentially high-powered offenses, and Cox is 9-2 as a starter on the road, both losses by a last second score at LSU; a commenter at EDSBS notes the Tigers have won 14 straight in all whites (they wear the dark jerseys at LSU, you know) and Georgia hasn’t beaten Auburn and Florida in the same season since Herschel Walker was around. The road team has won five of seven games in this series this decade. Turnovers, dropped passes, missed field goals, etc. go without saying.
The Pick: As terrible as it’s looked at times, it’s taken hell to beat Auburn this year – overtime for South Florida, five turnovers at Mississippi State, a near flawless second half and last-second heave by LSU. The Tigers have not been overwhelmingly impressive in any single game, but they do manage the clock well, play very good to stifling defense and have no glaring weaknesses. Cox has stopped throwing games away, because his line has started blocking for him on a somewhat regular basis. Georgia, on the other hand, has shown some weakness on defense against misdirection (think Tennessee), the foundation of Borges’ play-action passing game. This will probably be the best defense UGA has faced, and if it can’t establish Moreno, it could be another very long, erratic afternoon for Stafford. This is usually one of the best games of the SEC season.

Auburn 22 Georgia 17

Michigan at Wisconsin
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Brian covers this today, naturally, because it’s pretty glaring:

Wisconsin Run D vs. Big Ten*
Oppnt. Yds. Yds./Carry 10+ Runs
Iowa 77 2.3 2
Mich. State 279 8.5 7
Illinois 295 6.9 8
Penn State 231 5.0 8
Indiana 164 5.9 4
Ohio State 221 6.5 6

* Excluding sack yardage
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The last category (ten-plus-yard runs) might even be a little forgiving to the Badgers, given the sheer number of big plays Michigan State, Penn State and Illinois ripped off in quick spurts; Chris Wells last week took it to the house from 30, 31 and 23 yards out in a span of about six carries to put the game away in the second half. Mike Hart doesn’t have that game-breaking ability, but Wisconsin is also without starting tackle Jason Chapman in the middle and unless the Badgers sell out entirely, Michigan should eat Wiscy’s front seven alive. And if they do sell out, this is not one of those games the Wolverines will be shy about lobbing it out to Mario Manningham in man. From the looks of the end of the Michigan State game, they’ve overcome all reservations where the Manningham lob is concerned. Still, this is Hart’s game.

Michigan 27 Wisconsin 18

Illinois at Ohio State
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We have to assume based on all available evidence that the Buckeyes are going to keep the Illini well below its accustomed gains on the ground, so the first question to ask is: can Illinois stop the run? Eh, maybe – they did a good job against a very conservative OSU look last year in Champaign, but this year’s defense has slowly deteriorated on the stat sheet, culminating in the 170 allowed last week to Ball State, a season high. No defense yet has slowed Wells, and nothing Illinois has done to date suggests it will be the one.

Ohio State 29 Illinois 14

Southern Cal at California
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USC’s offense has gone into a hole with a rash of injuries, but Cal doesn’t even the injury excuse for the decline of its running game in conference play. The Bears are averaging less than four yards per carry against Pac Ten defenses and haven’t scored more than 21 points or cracked 360 yards – very pedestrian by Tedford standards – in any of their last three games, all losses. USC, meanwhile, can still play defense above all else (top seven nationally in every major stat category) and will be almost full strength on offense for the first time in more than a month: John David Booty, Stafon Johnson and Chico Rachal should all play for the second straight week, and center Kris O’Dowd could be back as well.

Southern Cal 24 California 16

Wake Forest at Clemson
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Clemson has very quietly set itself up to control its own destiny in the ACC Atlantic and will get a winner-take-all game at home next week with Boston College if it can handle the Deacons at home, which seems like a good bet – Wake has hung around without much offense for the last two years, and was finally bitten by the lack of production last week when heretofore automatic kicker Sam Swank pulled the game-winner at Virginia. Now it runs into the fifth-ranked total defense in the nation, one that’s only allowed 300 yards in garbage time of wins over UL-Monroe, Furman and Maryland. Besides James Davis and C.J. Spiller, Cullen Harper has been humming along with eerie efficiency: outside of the Murphy’s Law situation he quickly found himself in at Virginia Tech, he’s completed 67 percent of his passes with 21 touchdowns and two interceptions. Wake can’t match the firepower offensively.

Clemson 27 Wake Forest 17

Florida State at Virginia Tech
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On paper, the Seminoles delivered the best performance they’ve had since the ‘05 conference title game last week at Boston College. Drew Weatherford had probably the game of his career in his first start back in place of Xavier Lee while the defense shut down the Eagles’ running game and forced Matt Ryan into an erratic, three-interception calamity. But going into Blacksburg this time of year is too much: Tech has a way of lulling you to sleep with atrocious offense and borderline wins in September, then enters this zone of destruction in mid-to-late October, evidenced this year by the all around shellackings the Hokies put on Clemson and Georgia Tech and the defensive hammer it also put into Ryan during the first 56 minutes of a should-have-been loss two weeks ago. The offense isn’t going to replicate the 481 yards it stunningly hung on Georgia Tech against FSU, but the ‘Noles as we know them (that is, sans any kind of functional running game) will be hardpressed to crack two touchdowns and not turn the ball over. I’ve been burned too many times by false starts in FSU’s resurgence to fall for this now.

Virginia Tech 20 Florida State 12

Connecticut at Cincinnati
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These teams are collectively 15-3 and I don’t trust either of them, for obvious reasons: they’re third (Cincy) and fourth (UConn) nationally in turnover margin, both have won games on blocked kicks and UConn has allowed an average of 400 yards over their last four games, the first four it’s played against winning teams, but only 16 points. Cincinnati was run over two weeks ago by Pittsburgh, which ran for 260 yards on the same day South Florida ran for 251 on the Huskies. The difference is that that game was an anomaly for the Bearcats, who haven’t allowed another offense over 100 net rushing yards since the opener against Southeast Missouri State (a game UC won 59-3); UConn, though, has been hit for more than five yards per carry each of the last two weeks against USF and Rutgers, and also gave up yardage to Temple and Virginia. When in doubt, go with the better run defense at home, but, yeah, there is significant doubt.

Cincinnati 23 Connecticut 21

Arkansas at Tennessee
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Last week’s stunning shock-and-awe campaign against South Carolina should be a wake-up call to everyone (SMQ included) who shoved the Razorbacks aside after it started 0-3 in the SEC: Arkansas is three points at Alabama, two against Auburn and 13 against Kentucky – all games it led into the final minutes, in the first two cases the final seconds – from another very special season, and with Marcus Monk back in the lineup might close as strong as any team in the conference. Tennessee is in much better position, standings-wise, without being so close. The Vols’ three losses were all routs, and they barely squeaked by in overtime over the team Arkansas obliterated last week. As for its abilities against McFadden et al, UL-Lafayette ran for 234 against UT last week, on the heels of back-to-back 500-yard efforts by Alabama and South Carolina, none of whom had weapons on the level Tennessee will Saturday. Arkansas has had its own problems against the run, which UT can exploit – we really don’t know what we’re going to get week to week with the Vols’ running game – but there’s not much question on the other side.

Arkansas 31 Tennessee 25

Florida at South Carolina
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The Gamecocks haven’t played anything like a complete game in a month; since it beat Kentucky with two defensive touchdowns, USC is 1-3, the one a lackluster 21-15 win over North Carolina. The last three have been a mishmash of woe: a good defensive effort submarined by offensive ineptitude against Vanderbilt, solid efforts on both sides undone by turnovers at Tennessee, the best offensive outburst of the year killed by complete defensive collapse at Arkansas. Nothing is foregone with Steve Spurrier scheming against Florida’s infant secondary, but Carolina is in a freefall at the same time the Gators looked angrily refocused last week against Vandy. I’m not going against angry, focused Tebow across from a defense that just allowed 500 yards rushing in one game.

Florida 34 South Carolina 24

Kansas at Oklahoma State
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The closest Kansas has come to facing a running game as effective as Oklahoma State’s is Texas A&M, which the Jayhawks held to 74 yards on the ground and 11 points. The Cowboys represent a greater challenge because of their much more balanced explosiveness on offense – in its last seven games OSU has gone over 500 total yards six times and is averaging 551 per game – but under no circumstances can I vouch for the nation’s 102nd-rated defense. A lot of points on deck here, per the usual with OK State, but KU has more than demonstrated it can keep up.

Kansas 45 Oklahoma State 39

Texas Tech at Texas
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More high-flying Big 12 action! Texas hasn’t shown much to suggest it can put the chains on the Raiders the way it has in the past – not in between the 20s, anyway – but the next decent running game Tech successfully resists will be the first; Texas A&M, Colorado and Missouri all went over 200 against the Raiders in consecutive games, and the aforementioned Cowboys rolled up 366 in rushing alone back in September. Jamaal Charles has 470 yards and six touchdowns the last two weeks, and the average shouldn’t suffer much here.

Texas 43 Texas Tech 31

Texas A&M at Missouri
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Mizzou’s history says watch out for a bizarre trip up around this time of year, against a quasi-competent outfit like the Aggies, but A&M is so thoroughly lame duck at this point, and Chase Daniel so absurdly hot as a passer, it’s not worth overthinking the point. The Tigers are a rolling boulder, and A&M is a wilting dandelion, and it will be that ugly when they, uh, collide.

Missouri 42 Texas A&M 20

Take 'er out in style, boyz.
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Arizona State at UCLA
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Again, you want to do it, you want to say, "Hey, Arizona State is capable of anything, and UCLA is capabale of anything..." but no. No. UCLA has all the signs of a sinking ship beyond bailing, not least because it’s going with a first time starter under center. The Sun Devils still have plenty to try to salvage: an 11-1 finish would almost certainly lead to an at-large BCS berth, if not better, depending on what happens to Oregon. Unless Osaar Rasshan is a revelation at quarterback, it would take a fraudulent, genuinely lazy team to lose to the Bruins right now.
Arizona State 34 UCLA 19

Virginia at Miami
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Two very different teams: Miami is still talented but erratic, shizo; Virginia shows no particular strengths but wins and wins in the closing minutes. One thing about UVA, though: it’s not going to run away from anybody. Miami’s defense will keep it in the game, Kirby Freeman be damned, and since it’s the last game at the legendary Orange Bowl, what the hell. Let’s go sentimental. Win one for the OB, baby!

Miami 17 Virginia 14

Gameday open thread will be up around 10 a.m. Central, give or take – stop by for the party! There's no keg, but, uh, registration is free?