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FRIDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK

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A weekly primer.
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Big game tonight: 7 p.m. Central. But curiously few Saturday…


Godspeed, Mean Green.
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Upwards…

Finally, We’ll Learn About:
Illinois still has a claim to competence, having come tantalizingly close to a comeback win against Illinois with a true freshman running around, losing fumbles, doing true freshman things, and has emerged to solidly whip a trip of patsies in a fashion befitting a middle-of-the-pack Big Tenner. Reeling Penn State, which beat the Illini by 53 the last time it was in Champaign in a game that wasn’t even that close, is a perfect litmus test for a young team that could equal its entire 2005-06 win total (four) in the first month of 2007.

Most to Gain
South Florida’s having a lot of fun with its spotlight game tonight, but the Bulls will still be viewed in the same cockeyed, Johnny-come-lately skepticism if they’re run out of their own stadium by West Virginia tonight, which most people outside of Tampa seem to expect. A win - or undeniably strong showing – against the Mountaineers, on the heels of beating Louisville, WVU and Auburn since 2005, will end the "upstart" phase.

Most to Lose
Florida’s lost plenty as a favorite to Auburn before: national title shots in 1994, 2001 and last year, to be precise, and even a squeaker against the suddenly shaky Tigers, with the current jam at the top of the polls, could be irreparably damaging to UF’s high, high mythical title hopes.

...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
For the record, yes, my perfectly reasonable at the time prediction of Louisville big big big over Syracuse last week turned out to be, ah, not so inevitable. It doesn’t deter me from certainty over the biggest lines of this weekend, both in the SEC West: LSU "visits" Tulane (+40) in the Superdome, which should be four-fifths purple and gold, minimum, and coming off two tough losses, Arkansas (-36) gets the same North Texas team that allowed 70-plus to Oklahoma in the opener.
Walk of Shame
You think it’s okay to face I-AA punching bags, Oklahoma State? IT AIN’T TRUE!! Join in humbling the behemoths shilling for easy victory against the proud but relatively hapless tackling dummies of the Championship Subdivision. 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 – and especially if they do it twice, like New Mexico State, who will face Arkansas –Pine Bluff just one month after pounding Southeastern Louisiana - these capable teams must also be singled out, brought before the people and humbled for their acquiescence to the crudest bullying:

Oklahoma State vs. Sam Houston State New Mexico State vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Texas Tech vs. Northwestern State San Jose State vs. UC-Davis
Boston College vs. Massachusetts

I guess it’s all just one big picnic!
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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, after allowing Baylor to run for roughly 48 percent of its entire 2006 rushing total and failing to cover as a mere three-point dog in a 34-21 loss, the Bulls visit Ball State expected to lose by two touchdowns. That line has moved: on the momentum of BSU’s near-hit at Nebraska, it opened the week at two touchdowns and two two-point conversions.

Lame Game of the Week
The worst, Jerry.
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Temple was supposed to be better, everyone was so sure of it, and instead the Owls start 0-4 with only a crooked call at UConn to their name. Woe unto ticket holders set to watch Temple battle 1-3 Army, overtime victors over Rhode Island and possessors of the 115th, 116th and 117th slots in total offense, scoring offense and rushing offense, respectively. Patton would have slapped these punks around for even thinking about losing to Akron.

WE CAN REBUILD. WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY.
Bouncing back.
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• Iowa: I am not high on the Hawkeyes and not particularly down on Indiana, in relative terms, but not relative enough to think the Hoosiers can pull off the same upset two years in a row.
• Texas A&M: TAMU generally struggles with Baylor – two overtime games, on a loss, in the last three meetings – but have every reason to rebound back in College Station with a tough seven-game stretch to close.
• Louisville: God help me, I think N.C. State is worse. The Cardinals’ collapse still doesn’t really compute.
• Arkansas: See above.
• Tulsa: Back to running up 45 points on C-USA bottom dweller UAB.
• Arizona: As much time as I spent assessing the Wildcats against Washington State, I should have just ‘officially’ picked the game below. I like the Wildcats.

Upwards...

GAME OF THE CENTURY OF THE WEEK!
California at Oregon

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What’s at Stake: I covered the importance of this game to the Pac Ten’s reputation Thursday, and specifically the fact that the winner becomes a favorite to run the table, darkhorse run at the Trojans notwithstanding, and challenge for the elusive second BCS slot. Oregon and Cal have done exactly this in the last three years, and neither will be shut out to the Holiday Bowl with the addition of the fifth big money game.
Cal Wants: The most lopsided areas of last year’s blowout win for the Bears in Berkeley were turnovers (Cal was +3, including a tone-setting pick on the first play from scrimmage) and the running game, where Cal outran the Ducks 235-70. This was due in large part to the failures of the worst run defense in DC Nick Aliotti’s tenure at Oregon and early returns are optimistic re: the Bears re-establishing control on the ground with Justin Forsett and Jahvid Best – not only is Cal averaging about 220 on the ground as part of a balanced offensive diet, but Oregon does not appear much improved:

Yards Per Carry TD
Houston 315 6.4 2
Michigan 144 3.3 0
Fresno State 60 1.7 2
Stanford 140 4.4 2

The collapse against Houston stands out, as does the knowledge Mike Hart missed most of the second half of the game at Michigan after some early success against the Duck front, for all the good it did him there. We know Cal can throw, but its struggles the last two years have been consistently related to the few times any defense has been able to play the run first. It will pay to keep Oregon’s offense off the field…
Oregon Wants: ...because Oregon’s versatility can put more pressure on a defense in more ways than almost any other offense in the country. Jonathan Stewart was manhandled by the Bear defense last year off a pair of 140-plus-yard games (18 carries for 25 yards), so it’s not a given that his 436 yards over the last three weeks will hold up. The Ducks need it to, to take away attention from Dennis Dixon as a runner and a passer. Dixon didn’t fare particularly well in either role last year when Stewart or Jeremiah Johnson struggled, a fate UO has avoided over the first month of this season and would like to continue to do so. Michigan demonstrated all too well what can when a defense leaves its underclassman corners on an island to focus on the Ducks’ backfield:

Similarly, no defense has put much on Nate Longshore’s shoulders, either by slowing Forsett and/or Best or by getting to the quarterback; he’s hitting the ground a little less than once per game. If he has time – the Ducks didn’t get to him at all last year – it will be lights out for the secondary.
Constants: One way or another, there will be a lot of points. Both offenses are too versatile and high octane at every skill position to get into a punting game, but the team that establishes the run from the outset will dictate the other elements of its game.
Uncontrolled Variables: DeSean Jackson, instantaneous game-changer … Oregon’s pass rush: dormant last year, can’t afford zero sacks again … Jonathan Stewart: on the best roll of his career, but yet to show consistency beyond a few games at a time.
The Pick: Oregon seems to have more questions because the loss to Cal last year was the start of the Ducks’ devastating 3-6 slide over the second half of the season. But UO is 24-4 at home against Pac Ten teams other than USC since 2001, and when Dixon and Stewart are healthy, I’m not sure how anyone is supposed to go about defending this offense.

Oregon 36 California 31

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: Penn State at Illinois
The Line: Penn State by 3.5
Conventional Wisdom: Illinois is clearly improving, but Penn State is too physical, too talented and too entrenched to go down to a young team still prone to turnovers and game-killing mental errors and that still thinks of 5-7 as a major step in the right direction.
The Pick: The Illini effectively ran over Penn State last year in Happy Valley, outrushing the Lions 202-40 and outgaining them overall 358-184 while allowing a meager ten first downs all afternoon and eventually losing mainly due to a pair of killer fumbles. Back at home, Illinois appears older, wiser and better in every way, if still only a mediocre team, while Penn State appears stagnant, stuck with Anthony Morelli and no reliable running game. I wouldn’t have picked this game this way a week ago, but PSU looked grim against Michigan, and if the Illini can hang onto the ball for a change – a big leap forward, I know – it should be able to move and score enough to outgun the very low-octane Lions.

Illinois 20 Penn State 13

Auburn at Florida
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Part of the buzz on this game is that Auburn always gives glory-bound Florida the shaft at the most inopportune moment – 1993, 1994, 2001, last year – more than once in ways that could be reasonably replicated without the quarterback ever looking up from his shoelaces on the sidelines. As long as Brandon Cox (or Kodi Burns, or anyone who has failed thus far to unseat either) must come into the game, though, the pick in one of the toughest possible situations for any quarterback must be in the other direction. I remain skeptical of Auburn’s very fast but also very undersized run defense, which should keep the Tigers in the game, as usual, but ultimately seems perfectly suited for an old-fashioned Tebow-smashing. Quentin Groves should not be able to fly up the field against such a misdirection-based offense, especially if UF can stay in front of the scoreboard and down-and-distance, but then, he left his card in Chris Leak’s ear hole after his third sack last year. Whatever; Auburn may not score.

Florida 23 Auburn 9

Michigan State at Wisconsin
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One issue that stood out clearly for Michigan State against Pittsburgh two weeks ago was the Spartans’ spotty pass-blocking, which nearly cost them the game against other wise overmatched Pitt. Wisconsin may be conservative enough offensively to keep MSU around longer than it would really like, but it will Brian Hoyer’s first serious road test, and he and Mark Dantonio will have to prove this is really a different set of Spartans than the unparalleled choke artists that preceded them before I believe it.

Wisconsin 20 Michigan State 16

Alabama at Florida State
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If only these two could have hooked up last year, in a real privileged-son staredown between Mike Shula and Jeff Bowden, the despondency would have been palpable. As it stands, Alabama’s coaching change seems have done much more for the Tide than FSU’s has for its ailing offense. It may not be possible to have less confidence in Drew Weatherford without necessarily thinking he ought to be pulled, because then it’s Xavier Lee on to make the most athletic throwaways you’ve ever seen, and then what? Alabama is three points from being undefeated with wins over Arkansas and Georgia; Florida State was ten points from being upset at home by UAB. The ‘Noles still just can’t move the ball.

Alabama 24 Florida State 18

Clemson at Georgia Tech
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Weird, weird things happen when Clemson plays Georgia Tech, like a freshman receiver taking over a game to win on the road, then failing to catch a pass as a star in a blowout loss on the same field two years later, and the general parity in the ACC has led to plenty of weird wins and losses out of Clemson and Georgia Tech across the board, whether or not they have anything to do with one another. So weird that Clemson, essentially unchallenged outside of a few harrowing minutes of its largely dominant win over Florida State, is only a three-point favorite against a team that’s lost two in a row. Such is the sturm und drang of attempting to assess when the other show will fall on Bowden or Gailey. So maybe the really surprising thing here is really the most predictable: James Davis and C.J. Spiller broke out against Tech last year, and if Cullen Harper remains an android of efficiency in his second road start, arm strength be damned, Clemson should be able to maintain its much healthier footing. Like last year, the Tigers could use a de-stinging of the Jackets to slide up into the top ten.

Clemson 26 Georgia Tech 17

Kansas State at Texas
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Last year’s upset in Manhattan was the most fun game of the season but also made no sense, and was stocked with every variety of fluky turn (hence the fun, unless you’re a UT partisan): Texas lost its starting quarterback on the first series, Kansas State’s interception-prone true freshman turned into John Elway for three hours, the Wildcats scored after halfback passes on consecutive plays, a blocked punt and two fumbles and still the Longhorns were in the game until the final seconds. Good as he looked last year, Josh Freeman has not nearly replicated his performance against any respectable defense before or since, and there is no reason to expect the return of His Massiveness in Austin Saturday.

Texas 33 Kansas State 18