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Friday Morning Quarterback

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A weekly primer. And gimme a break, it’s morning somewhere.
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I guess it’s one thing to know how ugly a game can be, another to actually watch it unfold. Mississippi State in a microcosm: facing fourth-and-one just inside LSU territory, down a mere 10-0 in the first quarter, on one of its only somewhat positive drives of the night and desperately needing to make this makeable play, Michael Henig emerged from a key timeout and promptly fumbled away the snap. Later in the half, with the ball at midfield with momentum after a three and out that nearly ended in a safety, still desperately needing to make something good happen from the opportunity before the half, Henig threw his fourth interception, leading essentially to the icing touchdown for LSU instead. MSU was vastly outclassed Thursday, talent-wise, and still made every mistake it could to maximize the disadvantage. Henig was a bad quarterback facing a vicious, killer defense, we knew this, but still: six interceptions? You couldn’t script a performance that bad, unless you also included a team that needed to grind every inch and milk every second from the clock finishing with ten yards rushing. Uh...check. Again – and I said this after last year’s opening shutout against South Carolina, too – it seems very possible the Bulldogs won’t score a point all season without a significant contribution from the defense.


If the plan was to put the offense in Michael Henig’s hands...you might need a new plan. Like, fast.
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The only way Mississippi State’s night could have been worse is if it had been Iowa State’s. Bret Meyer only threw two interceptions in Gene Chizik’s debut, but even Kent State is good enough to take advantage of that sort of generosity, especially when it sets up the nail-driving touchdown from out yards out, as Meyer’s second pick did Thursday night. By my count, ISU made three first downs in the second half, equalling the number of possessions in said half that ended with the Cyclones going backward.

This time last year, Iowa State was squeaking by Toledo in three overtimes en route to finishing 4-8. Which makes losing by nine to Kent State a regression. A significant regression, actually. So...good luck with that whole "fired up" schtick in the Big 12, Gene.

Finally, We’ll Learn About... Technically, we don’t know anything about anyone. But of the five quarterbacks who might realistically take snaps in South Bend Saturday afternoon, we know especially little, beyond the fact that one of them can get a ball high enough for Calvin Johnson to outjump sub-six-foot cornerbacks for it. And really, who can’t?

At least Taylor Bennett’s snaps in the Gator Bowl tell us something - mostly good – about his ability to produce in Georgia Tech’s offense, which is vastly more information than we have to go on from the high school stats, hazy practice reports and deliberate subterfuge that represent our foreknowledge of the options at Notre Dame. If it really is Demetrius Jones opening up with the first team rather than previously assumed Evan Sharpley, it might also mean we’ll be learning about a few new, single wing-y dimensions in Weis’ offense – more draws, a little read option, more bootlegs. Maybe he’ll bring back the triple option!

Most to Gain
Deep down, the first thought that comes into my head when I consider a moderately hyped, high-scoring underdog going into Sanford Stadium to open the season is "Boise State." The Broncos were coming off a "breakthrough" 11-1 season in 2004 and a lot of smart (and not so smart) people though they had a great chance to beat Georgia in the ‘05 opener, which they entered as seven-point underdogs and exited as shellshocked, 35-point losers. Oklahoma State comes into Athens as 6.5-7-point underdogs, too, and if the Cowboys are significantly more equipped than those Broncos were physically – based on specimens Bobby Reid and Adarius Bowman alone, it’s safe to say they are – they’re in the same position of justifying their bid to take the next step up in public (and therefore pollster) prestige. Nobody will be willing to take a serious flier on OSU as a Big 12 South contender until its defense shows up in a game like Saturday’s.

...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
Take your pick: the number one and number two teams in my initial Blog Poll ballot are opening up their championship campaigns with Idaho and Arkansas State, respectively, with entertainment-only lines as high as 47 for the former and 39 for the latter. In reality, both USC and Texas should be joining the inaugural...

Walk of Shame
Fie, fie on the behemoths shilling for easy victory and wealth against the proud but relatively hapless tackling dummies of the Championship Subvdivision. If they receive the benefit of an extra payday, a manufactured excuse to sell tens of thousands of extra tickets and take an automatic step up the ladder to bowl eligibility, these capable teams must also be singled out, brought before the people and humbled for their acquiescense to the crudest bullying this week:

Cincinnati vs. SE Missouri State Louisville vs. Murray State
Boise State vs. Weber State Michigan vs. Appalachian State
Ohio State vs. Youngstown State Northwestern vs. Northeastern
Florida vs. Western Kentucky Air Force vs. S. Carolina State
Kentucky vs. Eastern Kentucky Maryland vs. Villanova
North Carolina vs. James Madison Texas A&M vs. Montana State
Ohio U. of Ohio vs. Gardner-Webb Vanderbilt vs. Richmond
Southern Miss vs. Tennessee-Martin South Florida vs. Elon
Alabama vs. Western Carolina Indiana vs. Indiana State
Rice vs. Nicholls State Fresno State vs. Sacramento State
Hawaii vs. North. Colorado New Mexico State vs. SE Louisiana

Cupcakes are for helpless babies!
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Feel our icy gaze. Remember it. Learn to fear it until you change your patsy-devouring ways.
Buffalo Line Watch
Since it joined Division I-A in 1999, Buffalo has been favored to win just once, against Temple to open the 2006 season. This week, the Bulls were 32-point underdogs at Rutgers, to whom they lost Thursday, 38-3, after trailing 28-0 at the half.

Lame Game of the Week
You know how you know you’re bad? When you’re a I-A team and still don’t merit inclusion in the Walk of Shame for playing a I-AA team, because said team represents actual competition. Such is life for Louisiana Tech, opening up Saturday against Central Arkansas, until the Bulldogs prove definitively they are no longer the worst defense in the country.

WE CAN REBUILD. WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY.
Bouncing back.
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Everybody’s undefeated! Come back next week.

GAME OF THE CENTURY OF THE WEEK!
Tennessee at California

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What’s at Stake: I wrote this before last year’s UT-Cal game in Knoxville:

What’s at Stake: Dignity, or, at least, sanity. Barring a one-point heart attacker, one of these teams is going to leave with momentum and the subsequent hype to launch a mythical title campaign. Cal must justify its existence at these levels; Tennessee must reassert it.
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...and except for "mythical title campaign," I’ll repeat that. Cal is especially interested in the "dignity" part after the thorough beatdown it took last year, which set the SEC a-cacklin’ for another year about the pansy-ass Pac Ten’s inherent softness. And for good reason, really: aside from the limp, out-of-sync offensive effort and all the big plays to Robert Meachem, Cal allowed 5.3 yards per carry, a yard-and-a-half worse than any SEC team gave up to the Vols except Vanderbilt. The Bears were physically whipped last year, in other words, and whatever secret national hopes they’re harboring this time around hinge on its ability this time to match up in the trenches. The winner’s season is still wide open; the loser starts seeing barriers to the biggest goals before it even gets a head of steam.
Tennessee Wants: Tennessee only ran well against three other defenses, Marshall, Memphis and Vandy, and with Cal looking at three new starters on its defensive line – none of whom are Brandon Mebane, or are backed up by leading tacklers Desmond Bishop and Mickey Pimental – convention and stereotype would dictate straight-ahead physicality in the classic Vol fashion. Without LaMarcus Coker, though, UT finds itself somewhat bereft of special talent in the backfield, and with only one reliable source of offensive production: Erik Ainge. The receivers are very likely to be guys who have caught very few collegiate passes, or, like, none, but the buzz since the spring has centered on a no-huddle that puts much of the decision-making and execution in Ainge’s hands, and would seem to predict quite a bit of passing. Ainge is a four-year starter and should be able to handle the systemic elements, even on the road, but he can’t do anything about the inexperience of the talent surrounding him. A Meachem-like target needs to establish himself – Kenny O’Neal? Lucas Taylor? – quickly, or be prepared to see running lanes start to constrict.
Cal Wants: The Bears’ best games last year were the ones they struck quickly and decisively: they led Minnesota 28-14, were up 35-7 against Arizona State, 31-0 against Oregon State, 28-3 against Oregon and 35-10 at UCLA. Cal can force turnovers and has quick strike potential at every skill position and in the return game. Tennessee’s run defense dipped to dramatically low levels last year, by its usual standards, but even with a couple new tackles inside, Cal’s lines was one of the few UT dominated and is likely to find trouble again trying to run into a front that should gravitate toward the norm. But the secondary – yikes, the UT secondary is dramatically untested, far moreso than Cal’s when the Bears were scorched in this game last year, and therefore very inviting for Nate Longshore – not making his second career start in a hostile environment of 100,000-plus this time – and a group of receivers Phil Steele ranks as the best on in any team anywhere, for what it’s worth. Tennessee’s projected starters at corner are ripe only in the sense of their vulnerability to allowing a big, big play to DeSean Jackson, who happens to be unmatched in that department.

DeSean Jackson: Not the ideal opponent for a green secondary. Or any secondary.
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Defensively, Ainge had all kinds of time to pick apart the Bear secondary – he was never sacked, barely touched, as his numbers (11-18, 294 yards, 4 touchdowns) can attest. Cal can’t afford to be hesitant in this case: Ainge has had demonstrable problems handling a strong rush and blitzes over his career, and if he is going to be working from a no-huddle set at least part of the time, disrupting his reads and timing with pressure of any origin will be key. Cal might force the new receivers to earn their respect against man coverage in effort to stop the run and get in Ainge’s grill.
The Constant: The quarterbacks are both upperclassmen with very public bewilderment in their past, but both are coming off good seasons and hold the fate of their respective offenses in their hands. Longshore should show dramatically more poise and both will make plays in the passing game.
The Uncontrolled Variables: Who can run? Is undersized Justin Forsett a viable every-down back, and will it matter if Cal’s O-line struggles so much again? ... Whither the Tennessee pass rush? The Vols had three sacks against Cal and pressured Longshore into mistake after mistake last year. But after logging ten sacks in the first four games, UT finished with a measley seven in the last eight ... Tennessee’s newcomers in the passing game, both in their own and in trying to contain Cal’s – can they contribute/hold their own immediately? ... Tree-bound protestors: will a fence keep them from making a spectacle at the expense (or at least to the amusement) of the Earth-hostile barbarians?
The Pick: I have confidence in Ainge, but almost no one else for Tennessee. Longshore is a very different quarterback than the kid who came out so flustered last September, and Tennessee’s inexperience in the secondary is the worst possible scenario against Cal’s passing game. Jackson will break free for at least one big, tide-turning play the Vols won’t be able to answer.
California 27 Tennessee 19

5-3 ATS, 4-2 AS A DD HOME DOG, IT'S SMQ'S DOUBLE BARRELL GOLDEN ROCK SOLID BARKING DOG OF THE WEEK!!
If it were logical, it wouldn't be an upset.
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The Game: Central Michigan at Kansas
The Line: Kansas by 8.5
Conventional Wisdom: Per Steele, Kansas is 14-2 in its home opener since 1991 and, though it’s only 5-6 against current MAC teams, the Jayhawks’ stability and Big 12 talent will endure over the scrappy but outmanned Chippewas, playing their first regular season game under Butch Jones and breaking in two new coordinators.
The Pick: Despite employing the alliteratively-named Aqib Talib, widely regarded as one of the two or three best corners in the country, Kansas allowed more yards through the air than any other team in I-A in 2006, including 377 to UL-Monroe in an eventual two-point win, 240 to ground-based Texas A&M, 411 to Oklahoma State, 394 to Baylor and 356 to Missouri. Central Michigan has the best young quarterback in the MAC, at least, and maybe a burgeoning national player in Dan LeFevour, who had 26 touchdowns and more than 500 yards rushing as a redshirt freshman while leading huge scares against BCS bowl teams Boston College and Kentucky, both defensive losses. Kansas loses its offensive engine in all-time rushing leader Jon Cornish and finds itself unable to keep pace with CMU’s barrage.

Central Michigan 34 Kansas 28

Georgia Tech at Notre Dame
It’s foolish to dismiss a team with Notre Dame’s talent out of hand, especially with Charlie Weis on one sideline and Chan Gailey and his dogged, NFL-bred tendency to make every game into a tight defensive/field position bog on the other. Everything we know about these coaches and their typical approaches suggests Notre Dame will somehow hold onto the ball forever and ever (amen) and Tech will find a way to screw itself out of a late victory on the road.

But Tech also has a great history in its favor against young quarterbacks early in the season, having claimed the hides of first-year starters in upsets of ranked teams in four consecutive Septembers (Auburn in 2003, Clemson in ‘04, Auburn again in ‘05 and Virginia Tech last year). DC Jon Tenuta is aggressive and unorthodox and has his usual pass-rushing raptors in Phillip Wheeler and Michael Johnson, all the better to force whichever freshly scrubbed scholar Weis has selected into the same eye-opening mistakes of his wilting forebears against Tech. The Jackets got after Brady Quinn something fierce in last year’s opener, and it was Quinn’s instincts and experience that got the limping Irish offense out of trouble on more than one occasion. I’m not giving Sharpley or Jones (or hell: Clausen. Why not?) the benefit of the doubt where icy decision-making is concerned until one of them has demonstrated it in live action. There won’t be much scoring, unless some it comes from the defenses.

Georgia Tech 16 Notre Dame 10

Oklahoma State at Georgia
I think Oklahoma State is going to score here, probably quickly, and score plenty. The pieces are in place on offense, and Georgia’s defense is still searching for players to step up at every other position defensively. It will be an upset if Georgia’s many noobs hold the Cowboys under 300 points and/or 17 points, to put it conservatively. But how, exactly, is OSU expected to stop Georgia? The Bulldogs are loaded with skill talent, too, against a traditionally bad defense that happens to be rebuilding – all four defensive line starters will be new – in exactly the position that UGA is most vulnerable (offensive line). It’s just as likely a coming-out party for "team leader" Matt Stafford as a sophomore as it is for OSU’s frightening contingent, and Georgia has fared well in this sort of game under Mark Richt (besides being 6-0 in openers, Richt’s teams have beaten comparable Clemson teams in 2002 and 2003 and rocked the aforementioned Boise State upstart in 2005). If the Dogs can run to control the clock, which Oklahoma State’s youth and traditional generosity up front suggests they can, UGA has to be the pick at home.

Georgia 30 Oklahoma State 24

Wake Forest at Boston College
The Atlantic division turned last year on Wake’s home win over B.C., probably the best game the Deacons played last season. I’ve made it clear I don’t think Wake has a chance of repeating last year’s run, but if Boston College can’t pick up two yards per carry Saturday, as it couldn’t in last year’s loss, the defending champs will be off to a good start. I like the Eagles’ defense, though, and expect it to apply more pressure to Riley Skinner after being shut out in the sack department last year. Damn, after being plus-13 in turnover margin, Wake has to give the rock over at some point.

Boston College 23 Wake Forest 14

Missouri vs. Illinois
An intriguing matchup to commence Illinois’ season of redemption, but also the kind of game that can take an upset-minded sort off track in his optimism for the young Illini. Chase Daniel is vastly preferable to Juice Williams, and unless Arrelious Benn is too sexy for his shorts, Illinois still has to prove it can hold on to the ball and score with it, basic skills Missouri has more or less conquered. The Illini just want to keep this one within striking distance.

Missouri 31 Illinois 17

Just a reminder, if the Illinois bandwagon is starting too look a little too attractive.
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Kansas State at Auburn
Teams that have the most success against Auburn are the ones that can run straight at its undersized ends and linebackers and make some hay in the power running game. Kansas State’s starting tailback is 5-7, 184 pounds. Auburn, on the other hand, has its usual stable of backs and a huge – if unsettled – line working against K-State’s own pass rush-oriented front; the AU offensive line outweighs KSU’s defensive line by about 30 pounds per man. I have a lot of reservations about Auburn’s ability to put points on the board, but if it comes down to KSU sophomore quarterback Josh Freeman trying to make plays from behind – his TD:INT as a true freshman was 6:15 – the Tigers’ pass rush will take over.
Auburn 20 Kansas State 9

Arizona at BYU
The Wildcats are unveiling their version of the spread for the first time, where BYU has sorta perfected its thing over the past, what, three decades? New Cougar quarterback Max Hall, an Arizona State transfer, was a major recruit and seems to be the type that can step right into the lineup and succeed, if not quite on a John Beck level right away, but Bronco Mendenhall’s influence has been to put some teeth into the BYU defense: the Cougs cut their scoring defense in half in his second year. They also went 6-0 in Provo. Like Illinois (a moreso, in fact), we need to see Arizona score before we believe it.

BYU 28 Arizona 17

Washington State at Wisconsin
Alex Brink is a good enough quarterback to put a scare into most teams, but Wisconsin’s pass defense was unreal in ‘06, and anything approaching that level again is death for visiting quarterbacks. If it’s not, P.J. Hill will be: Wazzou allowed 293 yards on the ground at Auburn in last year’s opener, which reeks of de ja vu waiting to happen. The Badgers’ new quarterback shouldn’t have to do much, but it might be interesting if he does.

Wisconsin 27 Washington State 13

Washington at Syracuse
Husky partisans love Jake Locker on an unhealthy level for a redshirt freshman taking his first career snaps tonight, but the difference between these teams last year was much wider than their records (5-7 for Washington, 4-8 for Syracuse) show: the Huskies started 4-1, put a real scare into USC and actually cracked the top 25 before QB Isaiah Stanback went down, after which they still managed to take Cal and Arizona State into overtime in the midst of a six-game tailspin; where Syracuse finished 110th in total offense and 107th in total defense. If Locker approximates his hype – which would mean approximating Stanback’s duel-threat heroics, from the sound of it – the Orangemen are short on weapons and slightly behind the curve.

Washington 24 Syracuse 13

Houston at Oregon
I include this game as a nod to Houston’s usual quality and mild potential for upset-making, sparked this year mainly by running back/receiver/all-purpose dynamo Anthony "Quick" Alridge, who averaged an obscene ten yards per carry while splitting time in the backfield last year. Minus Kevin Kolb, his role will grow, although certainly not enough to overcome Oregon’s first class offensive skill talent at every position here. Still, this should be a solid, competitive test for the Ducks before Michigan next week, especially its oft-abused defense.

Oregon 38 Houston 17

Colorado State vs. Colorado
The Rams are the far more veteran team and return great white tailback hope Kyle Bell after a year of woeful incompetence in the running game; Colorado is starting the coach’s son at quarterback as a redshirt freshman in an effort to rejuvenate its own woeful incompetence in the passing game, a kid whose hero is Chris Leak because he’s only about 5-foot-11. It seems CU should have the drop in this game on a consistent basis, but it hasn’t been able to achieve much separation at all the last five years or so: the Buffs lead the series since 2002 three games to two, but the largest margin for either team is just a touchdown. In that case, I’m casting my lot with the senior quarterback, CSU’s Caleb Henie who completed 20 of 23 passes in the Rams’ win in this game last year.

Colorado State 20 Colorado 16