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October 20, 2008
Monday with Mike: Big weekend on horizon
There weren't any upsets in the top 10 on Saturday; in other words, it was a boring day.
But all that boredom makes this coming weekend the biggest of the college football season.
There are games in the Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC that will have huge impacts on the national championship picture.
IN THE BIG TEN
Penn State is at Ohio State in what basically is a de facto league championship game. This looks to be the last real hurdle between the Nittany Lions and an undefeated regular season, and given the gantlet of games still remaining for the front-runners in the Big 12 and SEC, a win in this one means Penn State has a great chance of being the only unbeaten team when the regular season ends.
Penn State is 11th in the nation in total offense and eighth in the nation in total defense. The Nittany Lions have run for at least 200 yards in every game but one – against Wisconsin. In that one, the Badgers decided to make quarterback Daryll Clark beat them with his arm, and he did. The big difference between the Badgers' secondary and the Buckeyes' secondary, though, is that the Buckeyes' secondary is a good one. What's interesting is that while Penn State managed just 106 rushing yards against the Badgers, it also rushed for four touchdowns.
Ohio State is 10th in total defense – and 92nd in total offense. But the Buckeyes' offense may finally have gained some traction in Saturday's demolition of Michigan State. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor and tailback Chris Wells can be a devastating 1-2 punch on the ground – but Pryor as a passer still has a ways to go. If the Buckeyes can't run on the Nittany Lions, they're going to have trouble scoring more than 17 points. Defensively, Ohio State has been at least solid all season; the Buckeyes have given up just three rushing touchdowns and have 12 interceptions.
It will be an 8 p.m. start in Columbus, and early forecasts are calling for a 40 percent chance of rain that day, with temperatures in the high 40s at kickoff. Thus, don't expect an offensive-minded thing of beauty; instead, this will be one of those old-fashioned Big Ten defensive slugfests in which the rushing attacks will decide the outcome.
THE KEY STAT: If Ohio State rushes for 175 yards as a team (two teams have reached that mark on the Nittany Lions this season, Illinois and Michigan), the Buckeyes will win. Ohio State rushed for 71 yards against USC, which is the only defense it has faced that is comparable to Penn State's.
IN THE BIG 12
The only game nationally matching unbeatens will be in the Big 12, with Texas playing host to Oklahoma State in the Longhorns' third showdown in a row. And after this one, the Longhorns get to go to Lubbock to face Texas Tech next week.
THE NIFTY NINE
Here's a look at the remaining unbeatens. Of the nine unbeatens, four (Ball State, Boise State, Tulsa and Utah) are from non-"Big Six" leagues, which means they have no realistic shot at the national title.
SATURDAY: d. Ole Miss 24-20.
THIS WEEK: at Tennessee.
Ball State 7-0
THIS WEEK: vs. Eastern Michigan.
Boise State 6-0
FRIDAY: d. Hawaii 27-7.
THIS WEEK: at San Jose State on Friday.
Oklahoma State 7-0
SATURDAY: d. Baylor 34-6.
THIS WEEK: at Texas.
Penn State 8-0
SATURDAY: d. Michigan 46-17.
THIS WEEK: at Ohio State.
SATURDAY: d. Missouri 56-31.
THIS WEEK: vs. Oklahoma State.
Texas Tech 7-0
SATURDAY: d. Texas A&M 43-25.
THIS WEEK: at Kansas.
SATURDAY: d. UTEP 77-35.
THIS WEEK: vs. UCF on Sunday.
SATURDAY: d. Colorado State 49-16.
THIS WEEK: Off.
Cowboys quarterback Zac Robinson is a better passer than he is given credit for, but he's not good enough to win this one with his arm if it comes to that. Washington State (hard to believe but true) and Missouri are the only teams to hold Oklahoma State to less than 200 rushing yards in a game. Texas, on the other hand, has allowed just one team (UTEP, with 145) to rush for more than 49 yards. One key for Texas is that UTEP is the only team to attempt more than 28 rushes (the Miners had 31 attempts). Oklahoma State has run the ball at least 42 times in every game, including four games of at least 51 rushing attempts.
The reason for the lack of rushing attempts against Texas is twofold. The main reason is the Longhorns generally get ahead early, meaning opponents resort to the air to catch up. Another is that the Longhorns' secondary is young – the starting safeties are freshmen – and opponents think they can take advantage.
Oklahoma State's defense has stepped it up of late, allowing just 29 points and 106 rushing yards in the past two games. Texas is a pass-first team, though the rushing attack seems to be coming around thanks to the emergence of Chris Ogbonnaya. Oklahoma State's secondary has had some issues this season, though it did pick off Missouri's Chase Daniel three times. But Daniel threw for 390 yards, Houston's Case Keenum for 387 (with four TDs and no picks) and Troy's Jamie Hampton for 292 (with three TDs and two picks).
Texas is going to have success through the air; can Oklahoma State counter with its ground game?
THE KEY STAT: If Oklahoma State rushes for 180 yards, it can win. If it rushes for 180 and holds Texas to less than 250 passing, it will win.
IN THE SEC
LSU's defense has shown some holes. Florida had the athletes to hang with the Tigers, and the Gators rang up 51 points and 475 yards, including 265 on the ground. Thus, Georgia is going to make LSU prove it can stop Knowshon Moreno. And expect the Bulldogs to let Matthew Stafford unlimber his arm and throw it deep a few times, too; the Tigers' new corners are a step below the two who started last season, and Mohamed Massaquoi and A.J. Green could have some success on deep routes.
Offensively, LSU has to run effectively to win. Tigers quarterbacks Jarrett Lee and Andrew Hatch will not be able to put a big enough dent in a veteran Georgia defense if they can't use play-action. Florida shut down the Tigers' running game and forced Hatch and Lee to dink and dunk all night; the result was 41 attempts (and 25 completions) but for just 241 yards. The Tigers used a combination of tailbacks Charles Scott and Keiland Williams to grind out 164 rushing yards against South Carolina's solid defense in a win this past weekend.
Georgia's run defense has been good; the Bulldogs' worst effort was a 129-yard outing by Alabama. But the Tide also rushed for four touchdowns. LSU's offensive line had trouble with Florida's defensive front seven – and Georgia's defensive line is better than Florida's. Look for Georgia to creep its safeties up close, and if LSU can beat the Bulldogs' corners deep, so be it.
THE KEY STAT: Scott and Williams need to outrush Moreno by at least 50 yards if the Tigers are to win. Georgia is going to have more success in the air, so it's vital for LSU to win the battle on the ground.
In the space of a week, Missouri went from national title contender with a Heisman front-runner to Big 12 North hopeful with a Heisman afterthought. That's what two losses in a row will do to you.
After losing at home last week to Oklahoma State, the Tigers had a chance to get back in the title hunt with a victory at No. 1 Texas on Saturday. Instead, they got crushed, falling behind 35-3 at halftime en route to a 56-35 beatdown. Texas led 28-0 before Mizzou even crossed midfield. Texas scored touchdowns on each of its first-half possessions – including two drives of 90-plus yards against an overmatched Mizzou defense – and cruised from there.
"There's no excuses. They just outplayed us, outblocked us, outkicked us ... running, passing, coaching everything," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel told reporters afterward.
The game was billed as a showdown between Texas quarterback Colt McCoy and Mizzou quarterback Chase Daniel, but like the game, the individual battle wasn't close. McCoy was 29-of-32 passing for 337 yards and two touchdowns; Daniel was 31-of-41 for 318 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. But Daniel threw for just 22 yards in the first quarter and 113 in the first half.
So, with any national title hopes gone, what's next for the Tigers? No team in the Big 12 North is unbeaten in league play, and the next four games for the Tigers – Colorado, at Baylor, Kansas State and at Iowa State – are winnable, which means the regular-season finale against Kansas could be for the division title. But given how they've been handled the past two weeks, the idea that the Tigers could win the league's championship game seems preposterous.
As for the future, the Tigers could see a huge talent drain at the end of this season. Daniel, who is a perfect fit for Pinkel's version of the spread offense, is a senior, as are two starting linemen, star tight end Chase Coffman and starting wide receiver Tommy Saunders. Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin is a third-year sophomore, meaning he's eligible to go pro; he's considered a likely first-round pick. Seven starting defenders are seniors, including standout free safety William Moore and star linemen Ziggy Hood and Stryker Sulak. And star linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is a junior who could go early.
And should Washington get rid of Tyrone Willingham – which seems a given – Pinkel's name is sure to come up. He is a former longtime Huskies assistant (1979-90) who both played for and coached under legendary U-Dub coach Don James.
You have to think Pinkel would at least listen if Washington called. After all, this was supposed to be the breakthrough season for Mizzou. Instead, after a two-game stretch, the Tigers are just hoping they can repeat as Big 12 North champs – and things may not be this good again for a while.
Wisconsin (3-4) is 0-4 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1996 after getting manhandled by Iowa on Saturday. It's conceivable the Badgers could fall to 0-6 in league play, as Illinois and Michigan State are the next two games. The Badgers' passing attack scares no one, so teams load up to stop the run. Defensively, the front seven is soft.
Maryland has as good a chance as anyone at winning the ACC, and you have to wonder how the Terps have gotten to this point. They opened the season by barely getting past Delaware, a Football Championship Subdivision (i.e., Division I-AA) school. Then, they fell by 10 to Middle Tennessee. Since then, though, they have beaten California, Eastern Michigan, Clemson and Wake Forest – but also gotten whipped by 31 at Virginia. The Terps (5-2) basically have a gimme game this week against N.C. State, but they end the season with four tough ones: at Virginia Tech, vs. North Carolina, vs. Florida State and at Boston College. If coach Ralph Friedgen is right, his team is peaking at the right time. "We finally put a full game together," he said after Saturday's 26-0 victory over Wake. "I think by far it's the best we've played all year."
Rice outlasted Southern Miss 45-40, and both quarterbacks had huge games. Rice's Chase Clement threw for 444 yards and six touchdowns (and one pick), and Southern Miss' Austin Davis threw for 461 yards and four touchdowns.
Baylor true freshman quarterback Robert Griffin set a noteworthy record in the Bears' 34-6 loss to Oklahoma State. Griffin was 15-of-27 passing for 162 yards and did not throw a pick. He has thrown 155 passes without an interception to start his career, a Football Bowl Subdivision (i.e., Division I-A) record.
If you saw the final score – Tennessee 34, Mississippi State 3 – you might figure the Vols got their offense untracked. Not really. Tennessee led 13-3 going into the fourth quarter before two interception returns for touchdowns broke the game open. The Vols finished with 275 yards of offense. They play host to Alabama this week. Note to Phillip Fulmer: 275 yards against the Tide isn't going to cut it.
TCU gave up 23 rushing yards in its demolition of BYU on Thursday night. Thing is, the Horned Frogs' run defense took a hit; they had been giving up 20.7 rushing yards per game and now it's 21.0.
Speaking of BYU, the life of a non-"Big Six" school can be cruel. The Cougars can win out and finish 11-1 – yet they know their chance at a BCS bid almost certainly went by the wayside in the loss to TCU.
At first glance, these games don't jump out at you. But upon further review, they look a whole lot more interesting.
Auburn at West Virginia, 7:30 p.m. Thursday: Before the season, this looked like one of the three or four best non-conference games of the season. Now? If nothing else, tune in for the car-wreck aspect of the situation.
Boise State at San Jose State, 9 p.m. Friday: This might be the last hurdle between Boise and an unbeaten regular season. Dick Tomey's Spartans play good defense and have a good pass rush and solid secondary. The question is whether San Jose State can do enough on offense to keep this interesting.
Ole Miss at Arkansas, 7 p.m. Saturday:On the face of it, these are two four-loss teams going at it in the SEC. But remember that Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt used to be at Arkansas, and he and new Hogs coach Bobby Petrino have wildly different offensive philosophies. This is huge for both teams' bowl aspirations.
Speaking of Tulsa, the Golden Hurricane led UTEP 49-28 at halftime; it was tied at 28 after the first quarter. Tulsa went on to win 77-35 behind 791 yards of offense. The NCAA record for total offense is 1,021 yards by Houston against SMU in 1989. Houston won that game 95-21 against a Mustangs team that was coming back from two years of having no team because of an NCAA-imposed "death penalty."
North Carolina has lost 14 in a row at Virginia after falling 16-13 in overtime to the Cavaliers on Saturday. UVa's first touchdown came with 47 seconds left to send the game into overtime. UNC kicked a field goal on its OT possession, but the Cavs won it with a TD.
As for bad numbers, no one has it worse than Idaho. The Vandals were pounded by Louisiana Tech 46-14 on Saturday and now have lost 21 in a row to FBS opponents, 17 in a row in the WAC and 13 in a row on the road. At least they play their next three at home.
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