Saturday, September 28, 2013

Shootouts Kick Off Conference Slates

LSU and Georgia meet today for the first time since playing for the SEC crown in 2011.

Last week's predictions were simply too easy, but I expect that to change. We've had some conference games in September — we always do — but nearly every game will be a conference game from here on out.

And that is when things become really competitive.

Most of the Top 25 games last week were ridiculous mismatches, and the final scores proved it. Four teams in the Top 25 hung 70 points or more on the opposition.

There was only one head–to–head clash between ranked schools, and it wound being lopsided, too.

In fact, lopsided is a pretty good description of most of the games in last week's Top 25. Notre Dame did survive a close call against Michigan State — but that is a rivalry game, and they belong in a different category.

The only really close game was between Michigan and Connecticut. Who'da thunk it?

This week's schedule is much more challenging.

I suppose the marquee matchup is between LSU and Georgia. It is CBS' SEC game of the week. But Oklahoma will be traveling to South Bend, Ind., to face Notre Dame at the same time, Alabama will host Ole Miss a few hours later, and Wisconsin will visit Ohio State in prime time.

And there are several good old rivalries on the schedule in which one of the teams is ranked and the other is not.

As September comes to its conclusion, college football season becomes more intriguing with the arrival of conference contests.

Idle: #7 Louisville, #13 UCLA, #17 Northwestern, #18 Michigan, #19 Baylor, #24 Texas Tech

  • #21 Ole Miss at #1 Alabama, 5:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Over the years, Ole Miss has only beaten Alabama seven times, and this will be the 57th time the teams have played.

    'Bama has won nine straight against Ole Miss and 20 of the last 22. The Rebels have won at Alabama only once (1988); they come into today's contest having lost 11 in a row in Tuscaloosa. Thoughts of an Ole Miss triumph there qualify as The Impossible Dream.

    But so, too, did thoughts of Ole Miss being undefeated when the Rebels faced Alabama. That hasn't happened since 1982 (granted, Ole Miss was only 2–0 on that occasion, but the Rebs are coming into this game only one win better at 3–0).

    History says to expect a Crimson Tide triumph, but hold the phone. Ole Miss has a pretty good running game (#21 in the nation; Alabama's ground game is ranked 90th), and rushing has always been a big part of SEC football, even with the increased influence of the passing game. The teams are about the same in that category.

    Still, solid quarterback play was the thing that teams that have beaten Alabama in recent years have had in common, and Bo Wallace gives that to Ole Miss. Wallace is ranked 45th in the nation with a completion percentage of better than 64%, four TDs and no interceptions.

    And he's been doing the kind of thing that can drive a coach to the brink of madness. He's been bragging about his receivers, saying that he thinks they're better than the bunch from Texas A&M that torched Alabama for more than 400 yards.

    I've heard people say the Crimson Tide is overrated, and perhaps that is true. But, if that is so, I expect it to be proven on another occasion. I think Alabama will put away Ole Miss tonight.
  • California at #2 Oregon, 9:30 p.m. (Central) on Pac–12: California leads this series, but Oregon has been gaining ground with wins in the last four meetings.

    I expect Oregon to win. The Ducks have a potent offense (currently ranked second in the land), and the defense (ranked 30th) isn't too bad, either.
  • Wake Forest at #3 Clemson, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPNU: I guess Clemson doesn't really need many advantages against Wake Forest.

    After all, the Tigers have won nearly 80% of the games played between the schools, including 15 of the last 19, and their offense, while not in the Top 25, has done pretty well, given the fact that they have already faced and beaten ninth–ranked Georgia.

    At home, Clemson has beaten Wake Forest more than 83% of the time. Wake Forest hasn't won there since 1998.

    I don't think the Demon Deacons will win this time, either. I pick Clemson.
  • #23 Wisconsin at #4 Ohio State, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: The Buckeyes have dominated the Badgers both at home and on the road, and it really looks like Ohio State holds all the cards again this time.

    Backup quarterback Kenny Guiton, who was thrust into the starting role the last few weeks, is 13th in the nation. He has completed more than two–thirds of his passes, 13 of them for touchdowns. But Wisconsin has the sixth–ranked defense in the nation.

    Ohio State starting quarterback Braxton Miller is expected to return to the lineup after missing most of the last three weeks with an injured knee. He's likely to be a bit slow out of the gate, and playing the 23rd–ranked team is not the most ideal warmup for him. It could be shaky at times.

    I think Ohio State will win, but Wisconsin will keep it close.
  • #5 Stanford at Washington State, 9:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: At first glance, I guess it is tempting to dismiss this as a mismatch.

    Historically, Stanford leads the series — although not by as much as some of the Top 25 teams who are playing familiar foes today. As a matter of fact, Stanford has been more successful at Washington State than at home.

    But, since neither team has been especially strong on offense, my guess is that this game might be decided by the defenses — and that is where Washington State has a distinct advantage. The Cougars are ranked 10th in the nation while Stanford is 36th.

    Does that mean 3–1 Washington State will win the game? No. I pick Stanford to win, but I think it will be a lot closer than it usually tends to be.
  • #6 LSU at #9 Georgia, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: I think this might be the best game of the weekend, in no small part because expectations for LSU are always through the roof.

    People tend to forget that Georgia has been good enough to play for the SEC championship the last couple of years. The Bulldogs lost both, but expectations were pretty high for them going into this season, too — until they lost their season–opening showdown with Clemson.

    People also tend to overlook the fact that LSU gave up more than 200 rushing yards to Auburn last week, and that suggests a problem for the LSU defense.

    Auburn hasn't been the same since Cam Newton left for the NFL. For many SEC schools, playing Auburn these days means a likely win. Georgia will be significantly more challenging.

    The pregame spotlight has been on LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger's return to his home turf, but that might just keep the pressure down on running back Jeremy Hill, who ran for 183 yards and three touchdowns in last weekend's game with Auburn.

    Hill and Georgia's Todd Gurley share many similarities, observes Jim Kleinpeter in the New Orleans Times–Picayune. In fact, in many ways, the two programs share many similarities as well.

    They both have Top 10 quarterbacks. As impressive as Mettenberger has been, Georgia's Aaron Murray has been even more impressive, I think. He has completed nearly 72% of his passes and certainly bears watching in this game. It's going to be a challenge for both schools.

    And I predict LSU will not rise to this challenge. I pick Georgia.
  • #8 Florida State at Boston College, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: These schools had an admittedly abbreviated history with each other before they became conference rivals.

    But they've been playing each other every year since 2005, and Florida State holds a slim (5–3) lead in that time.

    Most of the time, FSU blows out Boston College. The Seminoles won last year's game, 51–7, and I'm inclined to think the same sort of thing will happen this year. FSU's defense is ranked seventh; I don't think it will be seriously challenged by the 114th–ranked Boston College offense.

    Things might be a bit more competitive when FSU has the ball — but not much. The Seminoles, behind quarterback Jameis Winston and running back Devonta Freeman, are 13th in the land in offense, and they will be facing the 66th–ranked defense.

    I feel confident picking Florida State.

  • Arkansas' Brandon Allen has been cleared to play Texas A&M.

  • #10 Texas A&M at Arkansas, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: The Razorbacks have dominated this series, even when it was revived four years ago after nearly two decades of dormancy.

    In fact, had it not been for eventual Heisman winner Johnny Manziel last year, the Aggies could be looking for their first win over the Razorbacks since both were members of the Southwest Conference.

    A big key for Arkansas could be quarterback Brandon Allen, who injured his shoulder in the Samford game, forcing him to miss last week's game with Rutgers. First–year Arkansas coach Bret Bielema was cagy about Allen's status early in the week, but last night it was announced that Allen has been cleared to play.

    It probably won't make much difference if he does. Bielema has the program moving in the right direction, but it's going to take a season or two for it to be back at the level the fans expect. The Aggies already are at that level, and I think Texas A&M will win.
  • #11 Oklahoma State at West Virginia, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: This series goes back to 1928, but the teams have only played four times — and only once in the last 25 years.

    That was last season, when West Virginia joined the Big 12. OSU, the home team, won by three touchdowns.

    West Virginia won the only game the teams have played on the Mountaineers' field — but that was 85 years ago.

    It is clear that we can't learn much about this game based on the history of the series.

    Statistically, Oklahoma State has had the better offense (by far), and West Virginia has had the better defense.

    I think it will be close, but I'll go with Oklahoma State.
  • #12 South Carolina at Central Florida, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: Hey, did you know UCF is unbeaten? Don't feel too bad. Unless you're a student at UCF, there really isn't much reason for you to know that.

    But UCF won't be unbeaten for long. I'm sure that South Carolina will win this contest.

    But that isn't the question for me. I think the guy to watch is South Carolina's all–everything defensive star Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney has had a rocky start, but I really think he might have a big game against UCF.

  • Oklahoma is 1–9 against Notre Dame.

  • #14 Oklahoma at #22 Notre Dame, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on NBC: I used to teach at OU, and I know from experience that the people there always believe their team is superior to any other.

    And I was there during arguably the worst time in the history of the modern Sooner football program. They were 25–18–3 in the four years I was there and lost the only bowl in which they played.

    The fans still believed they were superior to any other team, though.

    I guess they've mostly run out of excuses for their series with Notre Dame. Their only victory over the Irish came in 1956; Notre Dame has beaten the Sooners seven straight times since then — including a 30–13 win in Norman, Okla., last year.

    So far, the stats seem to favor OU. The Sooners' offense and defense both rank in the Top 25; Notre Dame's defense is ranked 41st, and the offense is a miserable 71st. That would suggest a solid OU advantage, but it can be argued that Oklahoma hasn't really been tested (that will change soon enough), and Notre Dame has — and Notre Dame will have the considerable advantage of the support of the home crowd.

    Nevertheless, I think Oklahoma will pull off a narrow victory.
  • #15 Miami (Fla.) at South Florida, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPNU: Miami is 2–0 at South Florida, with wins in 2009 and 2011.

    Just on the surface, it looks bad for South Florida, which is 0–3 coming into this game. The 3–0 Hurricanes scored 77 points last week — and still rank only only 52nd in offense. Can USF's #23 defense handle Miami's offense?

    The Miami defense is 14th and should be well equipped for USF's 119th–ranked offense. I pick Miami to win by a comfortable margin.
  • Arizona at #16 Washington, 6 p.m. (Central) on Fox: This may be the most interesting game on today's schedule.

    Arizona has been largely untested in its 3–0 start, but that ends tonight. I would be inclined to think that Washington has been untested as well — except that the Huskies manhandled a well–regarded Boise State team in the first weekend.

    The Huskies (also 3–0) are ranked third in offense (Arizona is 58th) and 12th in defense (Arizona is 26th).

    The recent history of this series is that the home team wins. In my mind, that adds up to a Washington victory — by a slim margin.

  • The Gators' Dominique Easley is out for the rest of the season.

  • #20 Florida at Kentucky, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPNU: Florida came into the season as one of the top contenders for the SEC championship.

    Through the first four weeks of the season, Florida's defense is ranked second in the land. But earlier this week, we learned that the Gators' top defensive player will miss the remainder of the season — and that could change things for Florida. The Gators' defense is the strength of the team. The offense is only ranked 66th.

    Historically, the Gators have dominated Kentucky. They've been far more successful at home than on the road — but they have won 12 straight at Kentucky. They come into the game with a 26–game overall winning streak against Wildcats.

    The sentimental favorite will be Kentucky, but the betting line will favor Florida. I'm inclined to pick Florida, but my guess is that Kentucky will play Florida closer than most folks thought just a few days ago. The Wildcats do, after all, have the 25th–best offense in the country.

    I expect Florida to win, though.
  • #25 Fresno State at Hawaii: Hawaii leads the all–time series, but Fresno State has been gaining ground with wins in three of the last four meetings.

    But the odd thing about this series is that the visiting team holds the edge on both campuses. At Hawaii, Fresno holds a commanding 11–4 lead, but three of Hawaii's victories have come in the last six homestands.

    Neither defense has been impressive so far, and Hawaii has one of the worst offenses in the nation, which leads me to conclude that Fresno's 37th–ranked offense might have a pretty good day. I pick Fresno State.
Last week: 20–0

Season: 71–8

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