Well, I decided to honor the Stardust's closing by giving money back to the 'books. To quote John Facenda (from "Black Sunday," the NFL Films Super Bowl XVIII piece), "It was a defeat from which no honor could be salvaged." Nothing I can do, really, except try to shake it off and get back at it.
It was by far my worst week since I started writing this column, and from a historical standpoint, I hadn't had a 2-8 week since 1992. Then, I shut it down for the season, and came back strong the next year; this time, I'll ride it out. Certainly, the first part of my 2006 was considerably better than the first part of my 1992, so my hope is that it's just a blip, and I can come back this week with some winners.
For the season, I still sit at 57-43, a winning percentage of 57%, not dissimilar to my winning percentage of 58% last season. Last season at this time, by winning percentage was around 52-54%. Lots of road teams and favorites this week. Here are the selections:
Louisville (-6) v. RUTGERS
First things first, I think Rutgers is a good team. That said, I do not believe they are an '8-0 team,' if that makes any sense; I think their schedule to date has papered over some deficiencies. Wins over Illinois and Ohio look better now than they did at the time, but the win over UNC looks worse, and their only noteworthy wins are over the rather modest collection of South Florida, Navy, and Pitt. When you consider that Navy lost its QB in the 1Q that win is not as impressive; even if you do not downgrade Rutgers for that win it is a relatively light resume. Of more note is that while the Rutgers D has been great this season, they have yet to face a truly good O; no doubt they did a good job against the Pitt passing game and against the Navy running game (with the obvious caveat), but they have yet to face an offense that truly has any balance. In fact, while it is obvious that Louisville will have the best passing game that Rutgers has faced this season, given the Navy QB situation I think it may also be true that the Louisville O may also present the best running game they have faced. Given the weak offenses they have played, I give the Rutgers D little margin for error, and there seems to be plenty. Rutgers did well against Pitt QB Palko, but much less well against USF QB Grothe; even UNC QB Dailey had a pretty good game against the Rutgers D. In any event, the Louisville passing game is on a much different level than any of this lot. Rutgers has been pretty good against the run, but UConn freshman RB Brown--a decent back, but not this good--absolutely tore them up for 199 yards in their last game; normally, you could just dismiss this as an aberration, but given that they've really played no other decent RBs this season, it's of particular note. The Rutgers passing game is nonexistent--there's really no reason that a QB that has a running game as good as Rutgers does should be so ineffective, but he is ( 5.97 ypp, with a 5-7 ratio)--but Rutgers has a good running game and they will get their yards, little doubt. But given that Louisville will be able to pretty much ignore the Rutgers passing game they should be able to keep them in check. In the final analysis, while Louisville's O will be kept in check somewhat, I do not think they will be stopped and Rutgers' one-dimensional O will not be able to keep up. As long as Louisville can keep their heads after last week they should get ahead of this number.
Ray Rice: will attempt to completely demolish the BCS picture tonight.
ILLINOIS (-3) v. Purdue
I think Illinois turned it around a while back but they have yet to turn it into any end product. Since the Ohio game, they have played Penn State and Wisconsin tough on the road, and Ohio State tough at home--three of the four best teams in the Big 10--but they have yet to manage a win. You wouldn't guess it, but Illinois has a pretty good D; in Big 10 play, they've only given up 109 ypg rushing ( 3.04 ypc) and 179 ypg passing (6.03 ypp) with a 4-4 ratio. Purdue's O this season is not your typical Tiller O, and they have struggled against good defenses. Wisconsin held them to a FG and Penn State shut them out; Illinois' D is not in that class, but it is not too far off and I think the Purdue O--which only gained 373 yds against a Mich St D that, outside of Indiana, probably has the worst pass D in the conference--will struggle to move the ball against them; the only QB who has had a good game against the Illinois D is Wisc QB Stocco, and please note that OSU QB Smith and Iowa QB Tate have been among their opponents. The Purdue D is pretty weak; to illustrate, they gave up nearly 400 yards to a very weak Penn State O. They have, in particular, struggled against the run; opposing RBs have averaged 5.73 ypc in Big 10 play. Illinois has averaged 161 ypg rushing (4.46 ypc) in Big 10 play; furthermore, they have averaged 134 ypg and 3.98 ypc the last three weeks against PSU, Wisc, and OSU. They will find the going easier this week against the Purdue D. Illinois QB Williams is not great but he is serviceable as a passer, and so long as he avoids mistakes it should be enough to let the Illinois running game and D take this one.
Navy (-12.5) v. EASTERN MICHIGAN
Navy has suffered a downgrade at the QB position with the season-ending injury to Hampton, but his replacement Kaheaku-Enhada has stepped it up and the net result appears to only be a small minus. If you eliminate the Rutgers game, where he had to come off the bench and was not entirely prepared, under Kaheaku-Enhada the Navy O has rushed for 246 yds against ND, and 435 yds against Duke; Navy's overall offensive effectiveness does seem to be less--partly because Hampton was a better passer--but they still apparently have enough to overwhelm teams that are not their equivalents (given their authoritative win over an improving Duke team last week). EMU's D has not been too bad in MAC play this season--21 ppg and 337 ypg--but their run D is very average, giving up 179 ypg and 4.70 ypc, and they have had trouble with mobile QBs; opposing QBs are averaging 42 ypg rushing on average, and those that can run have. Navy's D is poor statistically, but as I have pointed out elsewhere they tend to give up considerably less points than you would expect given the yardage they give up ( i.e., they bend, but don't break) and the EMU O is not particularly prolific; EMU has yet to score more than 21 points this season and they are averaging 16 ppg and 292 ypg. Adding to their offensive problems are injuries; QB Schmitt--the slightly better of the two QBs EMU rotates--did not play last week and he is listed as questionable. EMU's O consists of mostly the QB running or throwing--the two leading rushers on the team are their QBs, so being limited at that position hurts them even more than one would usually expect. In addition, their top RB is out for the season, and their next RB in line, Harrison--and, keep in mind that we are talking about someone who only has 116 yards for the season--missed the last game and is questionable for this week. Navy's pass D is really bad, but the EMU O is so limited that they will not be able to take advantage, and I think Navy will win this game with ease.
Rice (+14) v. TULSA
I have been a big fan of Tulsa the last couple of seasons; I think this is the first time I am picking against them.
Early in the season, I stated that I expected Rice's O shift in scheme to take root earlier than normal due to talent at the WR position; and it has, already. The Rice O was stuffed against UCLA, Texas, and Florida State, but against non-BCS opponents they have averaged 36 ppg and 409 ypg, and they seem to be getting better as the season progresses. Since the Florida State game, Rice's running game is averaging 196 ypg and 5.35 ypc, and Rice's passing game is averaging 239 ypg and 6.82 ypp, with a 15-3 ratio. Tulsa has a good pass D but they will be hard-pressed to shut down the Rice pass O the way they have been playing. And, the Tulsa run D has been exploitable; they have only faced one elite run O--Navy--but they have struggled against a couple of mid-level running games; BYU and Houston went for an average of 230 ypg and 5.88 ypc. Rice's problem is on the other side of the ball; their D ranks among the worst in the nation. Despite this, Tulsa's O this season has not been overly prolific--25 ppg and 334 ypg in ConfUSA play this season--and they do not seem to be the sort of team that is going to go off for a lot of points (their season high against 1-A opposition this season is 35 points against Memphis). Additionally, I think Tulsa will be a little down after losing the game to Houston last week, a loss that puts a serious dent in their chances to defend their ConfUSA title. I think Tulsa will win, but I think Rice will score enough points to keep it close to this number.
Houston (-4.5) v. SOUTHERN METHODIST
Houston needs to keep it together this week after their win over Tulsa last week, but as long as they can do that they should be fine. SMU has definitely improved this season, but I think this may be beyond them. Houston's D is not too strong, and they've had some uneven performances; they gave up over 400 yards to Miami (Fla) and La-Lafayette, and over 500 yds to Central Florida, but they held Tulane, UTEP, and Tulsa to less than 250 yards each, and held Southern Miss to 325. Fortunately, even if the Houston D does not show up, they are unlikely to get torched by the SMU O. SMU's running game is very modest; outside of a 226 yard performance rushing the ball against Arkansas State, they have maxed out at 133 yards, and they are averaging 100 ypg ( 3.13 ypc) in conference play. The SMU passing game is a little more effective--199 ypg (6.87 ypp) in conference play--but, once again, this is not overly prolific and they are not likely to be in a position to exploit the inconsistent Houston D. SMU has a good D--or, better put, a good rush D (56 ypg in conference play)--and, much like their D, the Houston running game has been inconsistent (198 yds v. UTEP, 227 yds v. Tulsa, but only 23 yds v. La-Lafayette), and I do not think the Houston rushing game will be a factor. The one area in which Houston has not been inconsistent is their passing game. QB Kolb has always been legit, and he is having a good season; 66% completions, 8.93 ypp, and a 20-3 ratio against 1-A opponents, and note that those numbers include games against Miami (Fla) and Tulsa, two of the better pass defenses in the nation. As it happens, SMU's pass D is very poor; for the season, they have given up 262 ypg and 7.28 ypp, despite facing a very modest slate of QBs; the passing Os they have faced that I would rate in the top half of the country are Texas Tech (against a QB making his first start), Tulane, and UTEP--who averaged 344 ypg, 7.64 ypp, with a 9-2 ratio--and they have also faced North Texas and Arkansas State, who I rate as two of the three worst passing offenses in the nation. Certainly, Kolb will be the best QB they have faced, and I think he will have a big day; given that the line is so short, I think that even with their other inconsistencies the Houston edge here will be more than enough to get ahead of this number.
South Carolina (+13.5) v. FLORIDA
I think Florida is a great team with one of the best defenses in the nation, but their offense is just too inconsistent to cover this sort of number against legitimate opposition. South Carolina's rush D is apparently exploitable, if a team is good enough (witness Arkansas' 273 yards last week); Florida is probably not good enough. Florida is averaging 150 ypg and 4.42 ypc rushing on the season; when you take out the games against the poor defenses on their schedule--specifically, UCF and Kentucky--those numbers drop to 130 ypg and 3.88 ypc. South Carolina held down the Auburn running game (126 yds), and also held a decent Vandy running game to 133 yds. Florida's offensive strength is their passing game, which is efficient but not overly prolific; 198 ypg and 7.91 ypp with a 12-8 ratio in SEC play, and they have only gone over 200 yards against Kentucky and Vandy. The South Carolina pass D has been uneven this season; they have dominated lesser QBs and struggled against the better ones. Florida's QBs certainly rank among the better they have faced but I am willing to bet that even if they have a good game it will not result in too much production. On the other side of the ball, South Carolina was shut out by Georgia, but recovered to play well against the other strong Ds they have faced, scoring 17 against Auburn and 24 against UT, averaging 370 yds on offense in those games. Florida's D is probably a step up from those units but it is not a massive jump. SCar is stating that Mitchell will start at QB this week, but Newton may very well play in a backup role; in any event, it is likely that HC Spurrier will use his QBs in the most effective manner possible. Florida's pass D has been strong this season, but SCar presents more of a challenge at WR than any team the Gators have faced thus far this season, and I expect this to be their worst performance against the pass this season. SCar had no running game last week, but that was primarily down to an injury to RB Boyd (undisclosed prior to the game), but he will be back this week and he will be able to provide a little balance. Florida will almost certainly win this one at home, but Spurrier will make them sweat for it and I like for it to be close at the final gun.
Steve Spurrier. We're familiar.
Texas Christian (-8) v. NEW MEXICO
New Mexico has stepped it up since inserting QB Porterie into the starting lineup, winning the 3 games in which he has started. I think the task before him is too tall an order this week, however; the TCU D will be by far the best he has faced, with the possible exception of Wyoming's; in that game (admittedly, before he became the starter) he was ineffective, going 7-17 for 68 yards. The TCU D is comparable to Wyoming's strong D; they have given up more than 20 points once, to BYU's offensive machine, and they are giving up an average of 13 ppg this season, despite having played Big 12 teams Baylor and Texas Tech. Outside of BYU QB Beck, no other QB has had a particularly good game against them (Utah QB's Ratliff's statistics were very average, outside of a 49 yd TD pass that was tipped by a defender and went right to his WR); all other QBs are averaging 5.33 ypp against them with a 3-7 ratio. New Mexico's running game will likely not provide too much assistance for QB Porterie; they are only averaging 93 ypg and 2.87 ypc this season, and the TCU D is giving up an average of 62 ypg and 2.54 ypc and have only allowed Utah to hit 100 yards rushing against them (129). TCU's O hit a bit of a snag last week--29 FD, 416 yds, but only 25 points--but I think they will be more focused and do a better job this week. New Mexico's D started the season pretty strong; oddly enough, they seem to have started trending downward coinciding with the insertion of QB Porterie into the lineup; they have given up 29 ppg and 344 ypg to UNLV, Utah, and CSU, none of which can really be described as having a good O (Utah's is fair, but the others are poor). Against mid-level teams with conventional passing games (UTEP, Wyo, UNLV, Utah, and CSU) New Mexico has given up 240 ypg and 6.92 ypp with a 12-5 ratio. I expect TCU QB Ballard--7.03 ypp this season--to at least match that level of production. Of perhaps more importance for the TCU O, Ballard ran the ball 14 times last week for 84 yards; given that he was injured in the first game of the season and reinjured in the Utah game, this suggests that he is back to full strength and will be able to run the offense to its full potential henceforth. New Mexico has only given up 110 ypg and 3.22 ypc this season, but for the most part they have avoided good rushing attacks this season. That said, they have been pretty good against the good running Ds they have faced (AFA, Mizzou), but TCU has been pretty solid running the ball this season--157 ypg and 4.06 ypc--and they will be able to move the ball on a good New Mexico D. I expect the TCU D to handle the New Mexico O, and for the TCU O to do enough to get ahead of this number on the road.
OKLAHOMA STATE (-16.5) v. Baylor
OSU QB Reid has had a great season, but had a howler last week--much like I did. I am willing to throw that game out--Texas is the class of the Big 12 once again, and playing in Austin is never easy--and, if I do, there's little doubt that Reid's season has been among the best in the nation. He has thrown for 10.35 ypp with a 12-4 ratio, even after you throw out the games against Sun Belt opponents. The slate of opponents he has faced has not been especially strong, but Baylor does not bring a particularly strong pass D to the contest; they have given up 7.07 ypp with a 18-12 ratio this season, despite playing Army and Colorado, two of the weaker pass Ds in the nation. And, as impressive as the OSU passing game has been, their running game has arguably been better; 192 ypg and 5.29 ypc in Big 12 play, and only Texas has held them to less than 193 yards. Baylor held K State's weak rushing game to 45 yards in their Big 12 opener, but since that game conference opponents are dominating them on the ground, averaging 227 ypg and 5.89 ypc. While most of these opponents have had good running games, you would be hard-pressed to argue that any of them are definitively better than the OSU running game. As good as things look on the offensive side of the ball for OSU, things look nearly as good for their much-maligned D. Baylor has gone to a Texas Tech-style offense this season, so their running game is not overly productive; 59 ypg and 3.01 ypc in Big 12 play. Against the pass, OSU is definitely exploitable; they have given up 229 ypg and 8.40 ypp with a 10-1 ratio in conference play. Fortunately for them, Baylor starting QB Bell is out for the season, and his replacement Szymanski is a downgrade; statistically, as a passer, Bell and Szymanski are comparable (Bell, 6.74 ypp with a 19-10 ratio; Szymanski, 6.83 ypp with a 2-2 ratio); but last week in his first start (against Texas Tech), Szymanski had an astonishing 22 rushes (for 25 yards) and 30 passes--and he suffered 6 sacks on the day, mostly without blitzing. I would rate the OSU DL as better than TT's--OSU has 30 sacks on the season, whereas TT has 24 even after the 6 last week--and I think that while Szymanski will almost certainly have a better game than he did last week, he will throw shorter passes that will be easier for the OSU D to deal with, and as a result they should be able to defend the pass better than they have thus far this season. I think the OSU O will be rampant this week and while Baylor will score some points they will not be able to keep up with the OSU O.
Oregon State (-2) v. UCLA
UCLA's O impressed me last week but I think that was more down to the Cal D than the UCLA O. Cal is certainly a machine on O, but they do not have the best D; in any event, Oregon State has a stronger D and UCLA's O will face a stiffer challenge this week. For the season, UCLA is averaging 108 ypg and 3.75 ypc rushing against BCS opponents. If last week is any indication, they will run the ball some but I do not think the running game will not be a deciding factor this week. OSU has recovered nicely from their flattening by Boise RB Johnson in week two, and they are only giving up 78 ypg and 2.47 ypc in Pac 10 play. OSU held the Cal running game to 132 yds rushing and held USC to 79 (albeit helped by USC abandoning the run after they fell behind); I cannot imagine that UCLA will match either of those teams' levels of production. UCLA QB Cowan appears to have had a good game last week--but, in reality, he only had a good first half; after going 12-20, 203 yds in the 1H, he finished up the game going 10-20, 126 yds in the 2H--and until the final drive, when the score was 38-17 and Cal gave up on the game (the bastards), he had been 5-13 for 86 yards in the 2H. As a result, I am more inclined to view his performance as an aberration and not a sign of significant improvement on his part. UCLA QB Olson may suit up this weekend, but as I have pointed out previously, there's not a whole lot of improvement even if you make the QB change; Cowan is averaging 6.48 ypp with a 5-6 ratio, and Olson is averaging 6.63 ypp with a 5-5 ratio against a slightly easier slate of pass defenses. Oregon State was thrown on by Cal, WSU, and USC--but these teams arguably have three of the four best QBs in the Pac 10, and almost certainly have the three best sets of WR; against Washington and 'Zona State--teams closer to UCLA in terms of passing attacks--OSU gave up 5.02 ypp with an 0-2 ratio. UCLA will probably outperform those numbers this week, but I do not expect the UCLA passing game to have too much success. On the other side of the ball, OSU has gotten their running game going in Pac 10 play; while it is not especially prolific, RB Bernard is a decent back, and they are averaging 106 ypg and 3.28 ypp. It is unlikely they will have too much success against a strong UCLA run D, but I still expect them to outproduce the Bruins on the ground. The OSU advantage on O is in the passing game; OSU QB Moore has developed as a passer this season, and while he hasn't thrown a lot of TDs--only 4 TDs in 6 Pac 10 games--he has had good production, throwing for 241 ypg and an impressive 8.75 ypp. UCLA has struggled against the pass this season; ND QB Quinn took them apart when he needed to, and for the season they have given up 7.44 ypp with a 15-8 ratio. These are not overly impressive numbers, and they are even less impressive when considering that without games against 'Zona and Stanford--by far, the worst passing games in the Pac 10--those numbers rise to 8.37 ypp with a 14-4 ratio, and their last two opponents have each averaged over 10 ypp. OSU has already won at 'Zona and at Washington this season, and I think they will keep it going this week in the Rose Bowl.
Other Games of Note:
ARKANSAS (-5.5) v. Tennessee
This isn't a play because I still have some issues with the Arkansas pass D--and, they'll have their hands full this week against a strong Vol passing game--but if they are going to get QB play like they did last week they are going to be damn near impossible to beat. I rate the UT D pretty highly, but I was surprised at how well LSU was able to run on them last week; in addition, when you consider that UGA, SCar, and Marshall all moved the ball on the ground against UT--not to mention AFA--they are up against it here. Arkansas has as good as running game as there is in the SEC, and they should rush for somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 yards on Saturday. UT will not have an answer; the UT running game is pretty much nonexistent at this point, and while RB Coker is expected to play I would imagine his effectiveness will be limited and I do not believe the UT run game will be a factor. QB Ainge is a game-time decision, and while QB City of Crompton looked good last week, there is a world of difference between playing in front of your home fans and playing in Fayetteville. Super Arkansas CB Houston will shadow WR Meachem, and if he can limit his effectiveness, the UT passing game will be severely compromised, whether Ainge plays or not. I like Arkansas to take this one at home.
Dick, Johnson in same pic. If you don't love this Arkansas roster, you have no sense of humor.
Oregon (+7.5) v. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
USC's problems are well-documented, and despite their 42-0 win over lowly Stanford, they were quite fortunate to get to that number. Part of me thinks that at some point they will just turn it on, and start playing up to their potential--sort of like they did for the last 17 minutes or so of the Oregon State game--but another part of me thinks that it is too big an ask to overcome their talent losses in a conference as deep as the Pac 10 is this season. Still, even at this point they must like their chances to go to the Rose Bowl--all they need to do is win home games against Oregon and Cal, and a road game at struggling UCLA, and they will be the conference champs; and, if they can add a home win against ND to the mix, they can very possibly supplant Florida and Auburn as the most likely 1-loss team to stake their claim to the title game. Still, I actually came close to playing the Ducks here, until I realized that Oregon may very well be a fraud; considering the dubious nature of their win over Oklahoma, their best clear-cut win is over 'Zona State--it looked good at the time, but in retrospect is much less impressive, and the win over Fresno--a game that was tied with 5 minutes to go--looks almost embarassing at this point. Cal and WSU are the two best teams they have played, and they lost to both of them--handily. USC's conference resume, at least, looks little better; they struggled against a really bad 'Zona team, and barely beat everyone else they have played (save Stanford), with the exception of the Beavers, to whom they lost. So, I don't really know what to think. I rate these teams as pretty even, and if I had to, I'd go with Oregon this week because while the Ducks will be fully focused on the Trojans, I can't help but think that USC will be more focused on next week's game with Cal than this week's with Oregon. Plus, +7.5 is a magic number that you always get excited about having.