Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Ain't What It Used to Be

The Nebraska–Oklahoma game on Thanksgiving in 1971
was called the "Game of the Century" by many.

Today is Thanksgiving Day, a day when traditional football rivalries were renewed in days of old.

Things have changed — not so much in the NFL, where the Lions and Cowboys continue to host holiday games as they have for decades, but in the college ranks. When I was a child, Oklahoma and Nebraska played their annual grudge match on or around Thanksgiving every year. Here in Texas, the Longhorns and Aggies faced off every year — and continued to do so until this season.

Sure, there are some rivalries that are still played during the four–day Thanksgiving weekend.

Mississippi State and Ole Miss will play the "Egg Bowl," as always. Alabama will play Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Georgia and Georgia Tech will square off in the latest edition of "Clean, Old–Fashioned Hate." Michigan will play Ohio State. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will renew the "Bedlam Series." Notre Dame and Southern Cal will face each other. Florida will play Florida State.

Yes, sir, still lots of good rivalries — but some of the best are gone. And none of the ones that remain are played on Thanksgiving — at least, not this year.

That's a shame.

Idle: #7 Kansas State

  • TCU at #18 Texas, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: When I was growing up, watching this game qualified as a waste of time. (But watching it was never an option unless you were a student on the home campus because, in those pre–cable days, the TCU–Texas game was never televised.)

    Long before the day I enrolled in elementary school through my college days (including my graduate school days) and beyond, Texas and TCU played each other every year as members of the Southwest Conference — and Texas rarely lost. More often than not, it was a blowout. More often than not, TCU didn't score — or didn't score much.

    But times — and circumstances — have changed. The teams are back in the same conference, and although TCU has struggled this season, this isn't your father's Horned Frogs. They are more competitive than they used to be. They've even played in the Rose Bowl (won it, too).

    Of course, Texas has played in Pasadena recently, too — twice, in fact, with victories in both. A trip to the Rose Bowl won't be on the line tonight, but TCU would like to win in Austin for the first time since 1967.

    The Frogs might just do it, too. They have the 16th–best defense in the nation and should be capable of stopping Texas' 30th–ranked offense. TCU's offense is, at best, average (57th in the country), but Texas' defense (84th in the country) isn't even that good.

    It will probably be regarded as an upset, but I will pick TCU.
  • Ohio at #23 Kent State, 10 a.m. (Central) on ESPNU: This is really an interesting series.

    The schools have played each other every year for the last 50 years, and Ohio has won 62% of the time.

    Recent history hasn't been favorable for Kent, either. The Bobcats have mirrored that all–time winning percentage in the last 16 years, going 10–6 against the Flashes. Of course, Kent has won more games than it lost only once in the last quarter of a century.

    But history is changing, as Michael J. Fox said in "Back to the Future." Kent is 10–1 this year, and the Flashes are already assured of their best record ever, even if they lose to Ohio again.

    The numbers suggest that might happen. Ohio (8–3) is rated higher on both sides of the ball, and that includes Ohio's season–opening win over Penn State. On the surface, Kent's record is gaudier, but the Flashes' only loss was to Kentucky, a 2–9 football bottom feeder in the SEC.

    I think Ohio will win in an upset.
  • #17 Nebraska at Iowa, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: When I was a child, Nebraska frequently finished its regular season with a big Thanksgiving Day game against Oklahoma.

    That tradition gradually gave way to the Nebraska–Colorado game, which stopped being played when the schools left the Big 12 for other pastures.

    Now, the Cornhuskers' season finale is with Iowa — or, at least, that's what it has been in Nebraska's first two seasons in the Big Ten. I don't know if it will become the holiday tradition Oklahoma–Nebraska was, but it has some potential. After all, Iowa may be 4–7, but the Hawkeyes have been successful far more often than not in the last 10 years. It seems like simply a matter of time before they return to prominence.

    This year, though, it appears to be no contest. Nebraska's offense and defense both rank in the Top 20. Iowa's defense is #60, and that is the Hawkeyes' strong point. Their offense ranks #110.

    I pick Nebraska to improve to 10–2.
  • #24 Northern Illinois at Eastern Michigan, noon (Central) on These schools have met 25 times in the last 35 years, and Northern Illinois has owned the series, winning more than three–quarters of the time.

    When Eastern Michigan has the ball, the 100th–ranked offense will be trying to score against the 44th–best defense. As much of a mismatch as that appears to be, Eastern Michigan will be fielding the 115th defense against the nation's 15th–best offense.

    I think Northern Illinois should win easily.
  • #8 LSU at Arkansas, 1:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: They call this the battle for the Golden Boot, a trophy inspired by the physical maps of Louisiana and Arkansas.

    I don't think they've been calling it that all along, but it is an old rivalry, dating back to 1906. And, in recent years, it's been a competitive rivalry.

    It's also been friendly to the home fans lately. The last four meetings have been won by the home team.

    All time, the advantage belongs to LSU, and this season has leaned in that direction as well. LSU still has a slender chance to finish in a three–way tie for the SEC West title with Alabama and Texas A&M if the Tigers beat Arkansas — but, unlike recent years, the Tigers have no hope of playing for the national title.

    They still will need an upset by Auburn against Alabama on Saturday if they are to share the SEC West crown — and that isn't likely.

    But it will still be a possibility when LSU plays Arkansas.

    For Arkansas, though, it is the last game in a season that was expected to be so much different. The 4–7 Razorbacks lost their remaining chance of a bowl bid when they lost to Mississippi State last week, and all they will bring into Friday's game is pride.

    The numbers suggest that won't be enough to finish the season on a positive note. LSU has the fifth–best defense in the land, and I think it will be able to stop Arkansas' 54th–ranked offense. On the other side of the ball, it might be a fairly even match; Arkansas' 79th–ranked defense might give LSU's 68th–ranked offense a competitive game.

    But LSU appears likely to make the Razorbacks turn the ball over, and that means an LSU victory is probable.
  • #1 Notre Dame at Southern Cal, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Of all the schools that consider Notre Dame their rival — and there are many — Southern California is acknowledged by most to be Notre Dame's primary rival.

    Between them, Southern Cal and Notre Dame have produced more national titles, more Heisman Trophy winners and more All–Americans than any other rivalry, and, with the exception of the World War II years, they've squared off every year since Knute Rockne roamed the Notre Dame sidelines.

    Notre Dame leads the all–time series, but Southern Cal has dominated for the last decade, winning nine out of the last 10 meetings (I suppose, in a way, that makes up for that period from 1983 to 1995 when Notre Dame's only blemish against USC was a 17–17 tie in 1994).

    And Southern Cal's quarterback is guaranteeing a victory over the Irish this year.

    Not so fast, my friend.

    Notre Dame has the nation's sixth–best defense, which should make for some memorable clashes when the Irish are on the field with USC's 27th–ranked offense.

    When the Irish have the ball, it should be more competitive. Notre Dame is 50th in offense; USC is 58th in defense.

    But the Notre Dame defense has been remarkably resilient. I pick Notre Dame to win the game.
  • Auburn at #2 Alabama, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: For three straight years, the winner of this game has gone on to win the national championship.

    You might think that Auburn tends to win when it has a Heisman winner (or, at least, a Heisman contender) on its roster; however, the Tigers didn't win the year Pat Sullivan won the Heisman (1971) or the year Bo Jackson won it (1985), but they did beat Alabama the year Cam Newton won the Heisman (2010).

    With no one like Sullivan, Jackson or Newton in the backfield, the numbers suggest that Alabama's second–ranked defense will toy with Auburn's 112th–ranked offense.

    Auburn's defense (#74 in the land) might be a little more competitive against Alabama's offense (#44), but I see no reason to think Alabama won't notch its eighth win in the last 11 meetings with Auburn.
  • Georgia Tech at #3 Georgia, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: Georgia has won the last three contests in a series known simply as "Clean, Old–Fashioned Hate."

    In fact, Georgia Tech has won only once (2008) in the last 11 contests. And there is little, if any, reason to think Tech will log its second win over the Bulldogs since 2001.

    Both teams will play in their conference championship games next weekend. The 6–5 Yellow Jackets will take on #10 Florida State, and Georgia will face the representative of the SEC West. Presumably, that will be #2 Alabama — but that has not been determined yet.

    The numbers favor Georgia. The Bulldogs' offense is 25th in the nation and should have the upper hand with Tech's #61 defense. When Tech has the ball, the Yellow Jackets' #28 offense should have its hands full with Georgia's #20 defense.

    Georgia has beaten Tech four of the last five times they have played in Athens, and I pick Georgia to win this one as well.
  • #20 Michigan at #4 Ohio State, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: I think most people would call this a classic football rivalry. And it seems fitting that both teams are ranked.

    That hasn't always been the case, but it sure seemed to be when I was growing up.

    Historically, Michigan leads the series, but Ohio State has more than made up for it in the last 75 years. Michigan still leads the series overall, but the Buckeyes bounced back, especially in the Woody Hayes era.

    Well, that's what happened in the past. What do the numbers tell us about this year?

    The elite units for both teams are on defense, and of the two, Michigan's is ranked higher (#12) than Ohio State's (#38). Neither offense has been overly impressive. Ohio State's is ranked higher (#45) than Michigan's (#67).

    That points to a close, low–scoring contest, and my thoughts turn to other factors, such as the home field advantage (Ohio State has won five in a row at home against Michigan) and motivation.

    Ohio State is unbeaten but also prohibited from playing for the conference title — and that could be all the motivation the Buckeyes need. Michigan could play for the conference crown if Nebraska loses to Iowa on Friday — and the outcome of that game will be known before Ohio State and Michigan kick off — but it is unknown right now.

    In what may be regarded as an upset, I will pick Michigan and its defense to prevail.
  • #5 Oregon at #16 Oregon State, 2 p.m. (Central) on Pac–12: You might not know it from Oregon's success in recent years, but as recently as 2007, Oregon State led the all–time series.

    Then Oregon started its current four–game winning streak and seized the lead. And with the fourth–best offense in the country, you have to figure that Oregon will be favored to put some points on the board — even though Oregon State's defense is ranked #26.

    The Pac–12 has been known for its offenses over the years so I'll go with the flashy offense in this matchup and pick Oregon to win.
  • #6 Florida at #10 Florida State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Seems like old times.

    Well, not quite. I mean, it's great for this rivalry that both teams are in the Top 10 — but 15 years ago or so, both of these teams would have been in the Top Two.

    In the tradition of great Southern defenses, both schools Florida State has the top–ranked defense in the nation, and Florida has the fourth–ranked unit. But Florida State's offense (#14 in the nation) seems much better–prepared to face a Top 10 defense than Florida's (#104).

    The good news for the Florida offense is that banged–up QB Jeff Driskel is slated to rejoin the team but may not play.

    Regardless, I'll take Florida State at home.
  • Missouri at #9 Texas A&M, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: Recent history favors Missouri in this game. The Tigers have won five of the six games the schools have played in the last 10 years.

    All eyes will be on Johnny (Football) Manziel, the freshman phenom who has led the Aggies to their #5 ranking in offense and will be making his case for the Heisman Trophy.

    The Aggies won't wind up in the SEC Championship game, but they'll finish strongly as Texas A&M should have little trouble with Missouri.
  • #11 Stanford at #15 UCLA, 5:30 p.m. (Central) on Fox: If everything happens just so, this could be a preview of the Pac–12 title game.

    UCLA has already clinched its division, and Stanford, with its win over Oregon last week, could be the Bruins' opponent.

    That is highly unlikely — but only because Oregon probably will turn back Oregon State today. Stanford and UCLA should know the outcome of that game before they kick off their own.

    In the past, UCLA has had the advantage in the series, but Stanford has won the last three contests. It is worth remembering, though, that, when Stanford beat UCLA in Los Angeles in 2010, it was the first time the Cardinal had beaten the Bruins there since 1996.

    In the tradition of Pac–12 powers, UCLA does have a Top 20 offense (#16) — but Stanford has a Top 20 defense (#18). That sure sounds a lot more appealing than the matchup that will occur when Stanford's offense (#85 in the nation) takes the field against UCLA's defense (#80).

    I expect this to be a close game, but I'll go with the home team, UCLA.
  • #13 South Carolina at #12 Clemson, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: I really have to give South Carolina credit.

    The Gamecocks lost their star running back, but they have persevered and enter this game with a 9–2 record and a three–game winning streak. But the three teams this squad has beaten in that winning streak (Tennessee, Arkansas, Wofford) are not as good as the team they will face on Saturday.

    South Carolina has won three straight against Clemson, but the Gamecocks have really struggled at Clemson, where they trail in the all–time series, 16–9–1.

    The marquee matchup in this game will come when Clemson's sixth–ranked offense is on the field against South Carolina's 13th–ranked defense. Clemson's defense isn't anything special (#69 in the country), but it seems likely to be able to handle South Carolina's offense (ranked 93rd in the country).

    I expect Clemson to win.
  • #22 Oklahoma State at #14 Oklahoma, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: I know from my years in Oklahoma that the "Bedlam Series," as the athletic rivalry between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State is known, attracts insane amounts of attention.

    When I lived in Norman, OU probably had its worst football seasons in at least a couple of decades, if not more. But Oklahoma State was probably worse, and the record in my four years there was two wins for OU, one win for OSU and one tie.

    (That, incidentally, was after the Barry Switzer era had ended. Under Switzer, OU fans probably took victories in the Bedlam Series for granted. After all, he was 15–1 against the Cowboys.)

    Nevertheless, people absolutely flocked to the games. In Okie hearts, only two games really matter on the annual football schedule — the Texas game and the OSU game. Nebraska used to be a rival until the Cornhuskers departed for the Big Ten.

    Both schools have had better football teams in the years since I left Oklahoma. This year, OSU is ranked third in offense, and OU is ranked 11th. Defense has not been either team's strongest point, but OU is ranked 41st and OSU is ranked 54th.

    I'm inclined to give Oklahoma the edge — the Sooners are at home, they've beaten OSU seven of the last nine times they have met in Norman, and their defense is better than OSU's.
  • Connecticut at #19 Louisville, 11 a.m. (Central) on Big East: Not surprisingly, Louisville leads the series, 5–3 — largely on the strength of a 3–1 mark at home.

    For a 4–6 team, Connecticut is in the Top 10 in defense (#9). Louisville (9–1) is ranked #32. Offense has been neither team's strength this season, but Louisville's (#42) has been far better than Connecticut's (#109).

    Most of the time, teams score on offense and, considering that Louisville's has been so much more effective than Connecticut's, I'll pick Louisville to win.
  • #21 Rutgers at Pittsburgh, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN2: Historically, this series has belonged to Pittsburgh — except for the last seven games, five of which have been won by Rutgers.

    But 8–1 Rutgers need not be cocky about facing 4–6 Pittsburgh. Records can be deceiving. Rutgers' only loss came against Kent State (which lost to lowly Kentucky in September), and Pittsburgh took Notre Dame to triple overtime before finally losing.

    Both defenses are ranked higher than the teams' offenses. Rutgers' defense is 14th in the nation (Pittsburgh's is 39th). On offense, Pittsburgh is ranked 58th, and Rutgers is ranked 96th.

    These teams have seldom played in November; when they have played this late in November — and they've only played on or after Nov. 20 twice before — Pittsburgh usually wins.

    So, in what is likely to be seen as an upset, I pick Pittsburgh.
  • Idaho at #25 Utah State, 2 p.m. (Central) on ESPN–Plus: Idaho's only win this season came against New Mexico State.

    Utah State, on the other hand, pounded New Mexico State, and its only two losses were by extremely thin margins to Wisconsin and BYU.

    Utah State is ranked #21 on both offense and defense. Idaho, on the other hand, doesn't make the Top 100 in either category.

    I feel safe in predicting that Utah State will win comfortably.
  • #25 Mississippi State at Ole Miss, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPNU: Known as the Egg Bowl, Mississippi State has won five of the last seven contests.

    But their victory in Oxford in 2010 was the Bulldogs' first since 1998.

    The series dates back to 1901, but only since 1927 has it been known as the "Battle for the Golden Egg." And that is what the winning team receives — a trophy shaped like a golden egg.

    For many years, the teams played in Jackson, a more centrally located site (and more of a neutral one, too), but the series was moved back to the campuses in 1991. Ole Miss leads the series overall, but Mississippi State has a 12–9 advantage since the series returned to the campuses.

    Mississippi State also was 12–6 against Ole Miss when they met in Jackson every year from 1973 to 1990, so it can be reasonably said that Mississippi State has dominated the series for the last four decades.

    The numbers from 2012 suggest that this isn't likely to change on Saturday.

    I do think the game will be close. But the highest–ranked unit in the game is Mississippi State's defense (#45). It should be adequately challenged by Ole Miss' offense (#53).

    Mississippi State's offense (#68) should be similarly challenged by Ole Miss' defense (#57).

    That makes me think turnovers will decide the outcome, and Mississippi State has been far better in turnover margin than Ole Miss.

    Consequently, I will go with Mississippi State.
Last week: 16–5

Season: 190–49

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