Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Narrow Escape

When I was growing up in Arkansas, I experienced many excruciating moments watching Razorback football games.

Rarely was it as excruciating as the Arkansas–Mississippi State game last weekend.

I grew up before overtime was part of the rules. In fact, I still recall the night I first learned that there was no overtime at any in college football, not even in bowl games. It was a New Year's Night, and I remember sitting down to watch the Orange Bowl with my father and some of his friends.

That year, the winner of the Orange Bowl was widely expected to be named national champion in the next day's poll, and my father and his friends were speculating about what might happen if the favorite lost or won by less than the point spread — or if the game ended in a tie.

(Strength of schedule was not a factor in those days.)

"They'll go into overtime," I confidently volunteered. (I was about 8 or 9 years old at the time.)

No, one of the men assured me, there was no overtime in college football.

I couldn't understand. How could that be? I had heard overtime mentioned in postseason games in every sport I had seen on television — even professional football. I knew college football games often ended in ties during the regular season ... but in what amounted to a playoff game?

I didn't care for that idea, but I could rationalize it: Pro football had overtime, but it had no two–point conversion. College football had no overtime, but it did have the two–point conversion — which gave a team some strategic flexibility. It was a tradeoff.

Now, of course, such differences do not exist.

Oh, they have different kinds of overtimes, and that still provokes some arguments. But when a title is on the line, they'll keep playing, college or pro, until one of the teams wins.

And both have the two–point conversion now.

Well, anyway, my alma mater — Arkansas — faced a tough Mississippi State team last Saturday and almost gave the game away.

It looked like Arkansas was on the verge of putting the game away, but MSU fought back, apparently inspired by the memory of their teammate, Nick Bell, who died earlier this month.

Well, to make a longer–than–expected story short, MSU was down by three late in the game and had the ball on Arkansas' side of the field after the Razorbacks fumbled around the 50. The Bulldogs had to settle for a field goal, and the game went into overtime.

Mississippi State got the ball first and promptly turned it over, and all Arkansas needed to do was kick a field goal to win, but the Razorbacks' kicker shanked it. So it went to a second overtime.

Arkansas didn't squander this opportunity, scoring a touchdown and forcing MSU to match it for the game to continue, but the Bulldogs couldn't do it and the Razorbacks will go into this Saturday's game against LSU with a 9–2 record.

Not bad — even if it has cost me a piece of my longevity.

All times are Central.

  • #17 Texas A&M at Texas, 7 p.m. on ESPN: Dave Curtis of The Sporting News says this is one of 10 games this holiday weekend that will play significant roles in shaping the postseason.

    Rarely have the Aggies been able to anticipate a Thanksgiving Day road encounter with their hated rivals with as much eagerness as this year's team — and all its fans — must certainly have anticipated this one.

    The Longhorns, as most people must know by now, have suffered through a painful season less than a year after playing against Alabama for the national title. They've lost home games to Iowa State, Baylor and UCLA. They also lost their Red River Rivalry game with Oklahoma.

    Going into Saturday's game against cupcake Florida Atlantic, UT had lost four straight. The last time Texas lost three in a row was 1999. And, about once a decade (if that), the Longhorns have lost four in a row. They did it in 1997, 1988 and 1956. A few times, they've lost four out of five or six.

    Five straight losses would have been an all–time low.

    For the resurgent Aggies, who were expected to struggle to break .500 and secure a bowl bid, this is an opportunity to punch their ticket for a January bowl — and who better to achieve that against than Texas? The Aggies have enjoyed limited success in Austin in recent years, with only one win in their last six visits.

    It's a real role reversal, as Richard Justice writes in the Houston Chronicle.

    All eyes will be on the Aggies when they have the ball. A&M's offense is ranked 15th in the nation, but it will be up against the eighth–ranked defense. Those should be dramatic possessions.

    The outcome may depend on what happens when Texas' 60th–ranked offense must face A&M's #51 defense.

    To me, it looks like it could well be a typical UT–A&M Thanksgiving brawl. Well worth watching. And I pick Texas A&M to win — and deny the struggling Longhorns bowl eligibility.
  • #20 Arizona at #1 Oregon, 6 p.m. on ESPN: Arizona has won only two of its last 11 encounters with Oregon, and the numbers don't look too favorable for the Wildcats this time, either.

    Arizona's had a pretty good season, 7–3 record, currently ranked 20th in the nation in both offense and defense. But Oregon has been better in both categories, especially offense, and the Ducks are the hosts.

    I expect Oregon to hand Arizona its third straight loss.

  • #2 Auburn at #9 Alabama, 1:30 p.m. on CBS: Alabama has beaten Auburn two years in a row, but Auburn was in control of the series for seven of the eight years before that.

    And, if Cam Newton is able to play for the Tigers, I expect Auburn to win this game, too. But a lot can happen, even on a holiday.

    With Newton, Auburn has the sixth best offense in the nation. Without him, who knows? Alabama hasn't been too shabby on offense, either, ranking 26th in the country, and the numbers suggest that Auburn's 50th–ranked defense will struggle to contain the Tide.

    It's true the Tigers have given up a lot of points at times — more than 30 points to four of their last six foes. But they have exceeded 40 points on offense six times this season including 65 against Arkansas last month.

    Newton's been a mystery to most teams. If he can play, I expect him to baffle Alabama, too. But, as I say, a lot can happen.

    Anyway, assuming Newton is allowed to play, I pick Auburn to win the game.

  • #3 Boise State at #19 Nevada, 9:15 p.m. on ESPN2: Boise State is 9–0 against Nevada since they've both been members of the Western Athletic Conference.

    Nevada enjoyed some success against Boise when they were both members of the Big West Conference. Boise has won four straight at Nevada; Nevada's last home win over Boise came in 1998.

    I'm not inclined to think Nevada (10–1) will reverse that trend this time — especially since Boise is so much better than Nevada on defense. That might seem odd, given the reputation Boise State (10–0) has established with its offense. But the truth is that Nevada actually is rated just ahead of Boise on offense. Meanwhile, Boise has the nation's second–best defense compared to Nevada's 67th–ranked unit.

    It might be competitive for a half, but I expect Boise State to seize control of the game and improve to 11–0.

  • Colorado at #16 Nebraska, 2:30 p.m. on ABC: Four of the last five games in this series have belonged to Nebraska.

    Not too long ago, Colorado had the upper hand. But, most of the time, Nebraska has had the edge.

    This time, a win will put the Cornhuskers in the Big 12 championship game against (probably) the winner of the Oklahoma–Oklahoma State game.

    Nebraska has been far better than Colorado in both offense and defense. On offense, Taylor Martinez has been getting all the ink, but the Cornhuskers have managed to put together the nation's ninth–best defense, and it wouldn't surprise me if Nebraska puts the clamp on Colorado early and keeps it there the whole game.
  • #4 TCU at New Mexico, 3 p.m. on Versus: Dennis Dodd writes, for CBS Sports, that 11–0 TCU's chances for securing a BCS bowl bid got better with Nebraska's loss to Texas A&M last Saturday.

    That may be so. If Nebraska had not lost that game, the Cornhuskers surely would still be in the national championship discussion, but with two losses, they are much less likely to be a factor.

    At this stage of the season, I have to think that TCU will not stumble before the bowl bids are announced. If Auburn loses to Alabama on Friday, I don't see how TCU could be denied a spot in the title game.

    It doesn't seem likely that 1–10 New Mexico will get in the way.

    TCU has won five straight against New Mexico since both have been members of the Mountain West Conference. The wins have been a bit more lopsided when the games have been played at TCU. But this year's game is being played in New Mexico, where the scores have been somewhat closer. Even so, as I say, TCU has dominated New Mexico lately.

    I doubt that the score will be close this year. TCU is an easy choice.

  • Northwestern at #5 Wisconsin, 2:30 p.m. on ABC/ESPN: The home team has won the last five meetings. The visitor hasn't won since Northwestern won at Wisconsin 10 years ago.

    Northwestern has had a pretty good year, but the Wildcats, who won their first five games, have lost four of their last six. They will be hard pressed to win at Wisconsin.

    The Badgers are better on both offense and defense (significantly better on defense), and they will have the home crowd. Plus they're still hoping to go to Pasadena in January. I pick Wisconsin.

  • #6 LSU at #12 Arkansas, 2:30 p.m. on CBS: LSU has dominated this series since Arkansas joined the SEC in 1992. The Tigers have won 11 of the last 18 games, including last year's heart–stopping victory in Baton Rouge.

    And that wasn't surprising, really. Arkansas has rarely beaten LSU on the road. But it's been a different story in Little Rock, where the Razorbacks have won five out of nine — and where this year's game will be played.

    Arkansas has been much better than LSU on offense. The Razorbacks are eighth in the nation; the Tigers are 90th.

    But LSU has a much better defense. The Tigers are fifth in the country; the Hogs are respectable at 38th.

    I'll take Arkansas at home.

  • Oregon State at #7 Stanford, 6:30 p.m. on Versus: Oregon State has won seven of its last 10 games with Stanford, but before the 21st century began, Stanford tended to own Oregon State, compiling lengthy winning streaks.

    I get the feeling the pendulum is swinging back in Stanford's direction. Stanford has been much better on both offense and defense and should win handily.

  • Michigan at #8 Ohio State, 11 a.m. on ABC: Ohio State–Michigan is one of the legendary rivalries in college sports.

    And the football games are usually competitive, although Ohio State has won the last six.

    Michigan may be the best possible example of how numbers can be deceptive. The Wolverines are #5 in the nation in offense with Denard Robinson pitching in nearly 140 yards a game on the ground. They've been better than the Buckeyes and quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who was mentioned prominently as a Heisman prospect before the season began.

    But Ohio State's defense is third in the nation, far better than Michigan. And the game will be played at The Horseshoe. I pick Ohio State.

    In fact, because Michigan's defense has been so bad this season, this game really could get ugly early. In anticipation of such a development, Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News thinks that coach Rich Rodriguez, who enjoyed a successful career at West Virginia before coming to Michigan three years ago, must go if Ohio State wins.

    Maybe Rodriguez should be polishing his resume.

  • #14 Oklahoma at #10 Oklahoma State, 7 p.m. on ABC: In Oklahoma, they were calling the OU–OSU rivalry "Bedlam" before I was born.

    Even in the years — and there have been many of them — when nothing special, except for in–state pride, was on the line.

    But, as Jenni Carlson points out in The Oklahoman, this year's game, with a trip to the conference championship game hanging in the balance, is "the biggest game in [OSU] history."

    And if they were playing it in Norman, OSU probably should be nervous. The Cowboys haven't won there since 2001.

    On the other hand, it has been nearly as long since the Cowboys last beat Oklahoma in Stillwater. That was in 2002.

    So, if you're keeping score at home, that means OSU has lost its last seven encounters with the Sooners. Why should the Cowboys think they can win this time? Especially when you consider that, as Carlson observes, "this was supposed to be a rebuilding year" for OSU.

    Well, it ain't defensive performance. Oklahoma's defense, once feared from coast to coast, is currently 62nd in the nation. That looks good, though, compared to Oklahoma State (78th on defense).

    On offense, Oklahoma State is currently the best in the land, even more productive (by 10 yards per game) than top–ranked Oregon. In fact, OSU is averaging more than 80 yards per game more than OU (which is 13th in the nation in offense).

    Since neither defense seems prepared to stop the other team, I expect a high–scoring game — with Oklahoma State eventually winning it and moving on to next week's Big 12 title game against Nebraska.

  • #11 Michigan State at Penn State, 11 a.m. on ESPN2: Michigan State has won only four of 17 games against Penn State since 1993.

    But the numbers favor the Spartans this time. The offense is ranked 37th with Kirk Cousins passing and Edwin Baker running. Penn State, on the other hand, is 66th. Both teams are better on defense, but, again, Michigan State (#28) is better than Penn State (#48).

    I expect Michigan State to win.

  • Virginia at #13 Virginia Tech, 11 a.m. on The Hokies have beaten the Cavaliers six straight times, and they've won their last five home games against the Cavs.

    Is there any reason for Virginia to think it can turn things around this time? Well, actually, Virginia's offense is ranked higher than Virginia Tech's.

    Tech's quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, is 12th in the country, but he might struggle against Virginia's pass defense, which is ranked 29th in the nation.

    Overall, however, Virginia is 80th in the nation in defense, thanks to a run defense that is one of the worst. And I have to think the Hokies, who have the country's 19th–best ground game, will find a way to exploit it.

    I pick Virginia Tech.

  • #15 Missouri at Kansas, 11:30 a.m. on FSN: If Nebraska loses to Colorado on Friday, this game could propel Missouri into the Big 12 championship game. But, if Nebraska wins the game, this game will be virtually meaningless.

    Either way, they will know prior to kickoff if anything like a divisional title is riding on the outcome.

    Missouri has been considerably better on offense and defense and should win, even if a Big 12 championship game berth is no longer available.

  • #18 South Carolina at Clemson, 6 p.m. on ESPN2: This is the last tuneup for the Gamecocks prior to their SEC championship game showdown with currently second–ranked Auburn.

    I'm inclined to pick South Carolina to win the game — as long as the Gamecocks don't look too far ahead and remember that Clemson is no pushover (the Tigers have won 16 of their last 22 meetings with South Carolina).

    South Carolina has the better offense, but beware. Clemson has the better defense. Which will prevail?

    I'm going to pick South Carolina.

  • #21 North Carolina State at Maryland, 2:30 p.m. on ESPN2: N.C. State beat Maryland last year, snapping a three–game Maryland winning streak.

    It is still possible for N.C. State to tie Florida State for the ACC's Atlantic Division crown. By virtue of the Wolfpack's win over the Seminoles a month ago, N.C. State would win the tiebreaker.

    There isn't much difference between N.C. State's record and Maryland&pos;s, but N.C. State has been better on both offense and defense. So, even though Maryland has beaten N.C. State four of the last five times the teams have played in Maryland, I predict North Carolina State will win this game and go on to play Virginia Tech for the ACC title.

  • Florida at #22 Florida State, 2:30 p.m. on ABC/ESPN: Florida enters this rivalry game with a six–game winning streak against Florida State.

    These two schools have accounted for four Heisman Trophy winners since 1993 so you might think that tradition favors offense, but both are rebuilding their offenses this season. Both have been better on defense; in Florida's case, a lot better. The Gators are 10th in the nation on defense, so I will take Florida to win.

  • Brigham Young at #23 Utah, 2:30 p.m. on The Mtn.: This has been a pretty competitive series, with each team winning 10 of the last 20 meetings.

    What does this season tell us? Well, both teams have been pretty good on defense, but Utah has the edge. On offense, the advantage is more decisive. I pick Utah.

  • #24 Iowa at Minnesota, 2:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network: Iowa has dominated this series lately, winning eight of the last nine meetings.

    Neither team has been particularly impressive on offense, but Iowa does have the 14th–best defense in the country. And that should be sufficient to give Iowa its fourth win in its last five trips to Minnesota.

  • #25 Mississippi State at Ole Miss, 6 p.m. on ESPNU: In Mississippi, they call this game the Egg Bowl — or the Battle for the Golden Egg, and this year's edition of the game will be the 107th.

    If that "egg" part seems baffling, it is because it is a reference to the shape of the football that was in use more than 80 years ago.

    Since 2004, the home team has won every game. Mississippi State hasn't won at Ole Miss since 1998.

    I think that will change. I pick Mississippi State.
Last week: 14–3

Season: 193–42

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