Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Showdowns in the Top 25

If you're a college football fan, this is the time of the year that gets your blood racing. And nothing gets a college football fan excited quite the way a rivalry does.

In the next couple of months, we'll see many rivalries renewed, sometimes involving national or conference implications but always involving strong emotions.

And sometimes they involve two teams that are both ranked, sometimes highly ranked.
  • A good example is the "Red River Rivalry" between Texas and Oklahoma. The two teams will face off this Saturday for the 103rd time. The game will be played in Dallas, as it has been since 1912.

    For sheer spectacle and grandeur, there really is nothing in American sports like the OU-Texas football game. It has had regional implications for a century. It has had conference implications since Texas and OU became members of the same conference more than a decade ago.

    And, in every season but five since the end of World War II, at least one of the teams has been nationally ranked when they played each other.

    Sometimes both teams are in the Top 10 when they face each other. This is one of those times.

    Oklahoma is ranked #1 in the AP, Coaches' and Harris polls. Texas is ranked #5 in all three polls. Both teams have records of 5-0.

    And one of the players who is sure to get plenty of attention is Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford, who is ranked seventh nationally in passing yards.

    Oklahoma is fifth in the nation in total offense, scoring 49.60 points per game; Texas is 12th and averages 47.20 points per game.

    In total defense, Oklahoma is ranked 11th nationally, while Texas is 28th. The Sooners are giving up 13.8 points per game. The Longhorns are yielding 11.4 points per game.

    As heated as the rivalry is, the Norman (Okla.) Transcript says it isn't personal for the head coaches. "I’ve never believed you have to hate someone to compete against them," says OU coach Bob Stoops.

    The game has an early start this year — 11 a.m. (Central). It is being televised by ABC.

    I predict a victory for Oklahoma, 20-17.
But the OU-Texas game is, by no means, the only show to see on Saturday (although you'd probably get an argument about that here in Dallas this week!)
  • Texas Tech, which is ranked #7 in all three polls, plays in the Big XII South with OU and Texas and probably will have something to say about whether Texas and Oklahoma live up to expectations this season. The 5-0 Red Raiders will be at home against unranked Nebraska (3-2) on Saturday in a game that will be televised by FSN at 2 p.m. (Central).

    Offense — mostly Texas Tech's — should dominate in this game. Michael Crabtree of Texas Tech is seventh in the nation in receiving yardage. He is fortunate enough to have the nation's leader in passing yardage, Graham Harrell, throwing the ball in his direction.

    Those two players are a big part of why Texas Tech, ranked second in total offense, is averaging 48.20 points per game.

    The Cornhuskers, who rank 40th in total offense, are scoring 33.40 points per game.

    They say defense wins championships, but it's not likely to win this game. Tech's potent passing game will be going up against a Nebraska defense that ranks 82nd nationally and gives up 26.0 points per game. Those are the kinds of numbers that make Tech's 49th-ranked defense look like, well, the '85 Chicago Bears.

    I predict that Texas Tech will win, 38-17.

  • Aside from the OU-Texas game, two other undefeated Big XII teams — 5-0 Missouri (#2 in the Coaches' poll, #3 in the AP poll and #4 in the Harris poll) and 5-0 Oklahoma State (#17 in all three polls) — will play each other in a game that will be televised by ESPN2 at 7 p.m. (Central).

    Both teams are in the Top 10 in total offense, and they bring legitimate offensive weapons into the game. Missouri's #3 offense is led by QB Chase Daniel, who is considered a Heisman Trophy candidate and is currently tied with Bradford at seventh in passing yardage. Oklahoma State's sixth-ranked offense boasts Kendall Hunter, who is tied for sixth nationally in rushing yardage.

    In scoring, Missouri ranks second in the nation with 53.40 points per game. Oklahoma State is third in the nation with 52.60 points per game.

    Once again, I don't think either defense will play a major role in the outcome. But, if either one does, I expect it to be OSU's defense, ranked 51st in the nation. Missouri's defense is ranked just a hair behind Nebraska, at #83.

    Even so the Cowboys have been giving up 23.0 points a game while the Tigers have been giving up 20.0 points per game.

    Andrew Astleford writes, in the Columbia Missourian, that Missouri's offensive unit doesn't care about time of possession. Bob Davie, the analyst for ABC/ESPN who will call the game, agrees — to a point. "It doesn't matter how long you have [the ball]," he says. "It's what you do with it."

    And I predict Missouri will do enough to win: Missouri 28, Oklahoma State 24.

  • Kansas (4-1) is ranked 16th in the AP and Harris polls, 15th in the Coaches' poll. The Jayhawks host unranked Colorado (3-2) this weekend in a game that will be televised by ESPN2 at 11:30 a.m. (Central).

    Kansas' 14th-ranked offense is led by Todd Reesing, who is fourth in the nation in passing yardage. The Jayhawks are scoring 35.20 points per game. Colorado is ranked 89th in total offense and is scoring 24.20 points per game.

    Defense also favors Kansas. The Jayhawks are 39th in total defense, and they're permitting 18.8 points per game. Colorado is 61st in total defense; CU is allowing 26.4 points per game.

    But Colorado may be bolstered by the knowledge that head coach Dan Hawkins has been given a two-year contract extension that keeps him in place through 2012.

    Even so, I predict that Kansas will win, 30-24.

  • Conference games are always important in the Southeastern Conference, even if the teams aren't ranked.

    Tennessee and Georgia play each other Saturday in a game that is a good example of that. Tennessee (2-3) was ranked #18 when the season started, but the Volunteers lost in overtime to UCLA and fell out of the rankings. Georgia (4-1) was at the top of the polls until the Bulldogs got blasted by Alabama a couple of weeks ago. They're currently ranked #10.

    The teams meet in an SEC East game that will be televised by CBS at 2:30 p.m. (Central). Although currently winless in SEC play, the Volunteers could get back in the divisional title picture by beating the Bulldogs.

    I expect this to be more like what SEC games used to be, with lots of defense and not much spectacular offense. Tennessee is ranked #5 in total defense and allows 16.6 points per game; Georgia is ranked #22 and permits 19.2 points per game.

    Actually, defense remains a key ingredient in SEC football. Seven of the top 20 teams in total defense (and six of the top 20 teams in scoring defense) play in the SEC.

    In total offense, Georgia is 30th nationally and scores 34.40 points per game. Tennessee is 97th and averages 18.00 points per game.

    The numbers seem to favor Georgia, but Terence Moore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has seen that before. And he wonders why Tennessee has dominated Georgia in three of the last four seasons.

    I pick Georgia to win this time, 27-17.

  • Elsewhere in the SEC, defending national champion LSU faces #11 Florida in a game that will be televised on CBS at 7 p.m. (Central). It's not a divisional game — but it certainly could be a preview of the conference championship game.

    LSU's total offense ranks 28th in the nation thus far, averaging 35.50 points per game. Despite having the defending Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback calling signals again this season, Florida's total offense ranks 47th in the nation — but it averages 36.0 points per game.

    Randy Rosetta of the Baton Rouge (La.) Advocate is wondering if LSU's tailback Charles Scott has a shot at winning the Heisman Trophy. Scott isn't leading the nation in rushing yardage, though, and talk about his chances of winning the trophy will start to fade if the Tigers can't beat the Gators.

    Both teams are in the top 20 nationally in total defense. LSU is ranked 14th and gives up 15.3 points per game, and Florida is ranked 19th and gives up 11.4 points per game.

    This is my upset special — Florida 27, LSU 24 at "The Swamp."

  • Notre Dame and North Carolina exemplify two programs hungry for recognition that are on a collision course this Saturday. North Carolina (4-1) is #22 in the AP poll and #25 in the Harris poll, but hasn't quite managed to get enough support to break into the Coaches' poll. Notre Dame's once proud program has been getting some votes in all three polls — thanks to a 4-1 start that has included wins over Michigan, Purdue and Stanford — but hasn't cracked the Top 25 in any of them.

    I think the game between the Fightin' Irish and the Tar Heels could be one of the more competitive games of the day. It certainly appears to be one of the least predictable.

    Notre Dame has the edge in total offense with a #70 ranking, averaging 25.80 points per game. North Carolina is 88th in total offense but averages more points than the Irish with 32.40.

    In total defense, North Carolina has the numerical edge, ranked 57th compared to Notre Dame's #84 ranking. Both teams give up 19.0 points per game.

    It's one of the games that will be televised by ABC in its 2:30 p.m. (Central) slot.

    I predict North Carolina 27, Notre Dame 21.

  • ABC's viewers on the Pacific coast probably will get to see unranked Arizona State visit USC (ranked eighth in the AP and Harris polls, ninth in the Coaches' poll).

    The 3-1 Trojans are 19th in total offense, averaging 38.00 points per game. Arizona State (2-3) is 69th with a scoring average of 23.00 points per game.

    It's going to be tough for Arizona State to raise that scoring average because USC is fourth in the nation in total defense, and the Trojans give up only 11.8 points per game. Arizona State is 42nd in total defense and gives up 20.8 points per game.

    Actually, I don't think Arizona State has much of a chance in this game. I pick USC 31, Arizona State 10.

  • Another intriguing matchup in the middle of the afternoon features Big Ten rivals Michigan State and Northwestern. Michigan State (5-1) is ranked in all three polls (#23 in AP, #19 in the Coaches' poll and #21 in Harris).

    Northwestern, despite being 4-0, seems to be something of a prisoner to its past failures in football, although that appears to be changing. The Wildcats have received some support in the AP poll but are not in its Top 25. The Coaches' poll, however, has Northwestern ranked #22 and Harris ranks Northwestern #23.

    Football fans who watch the Michigan State-Northwestern game on ESPN2 at 2:30 p.m. (Central) will get to see the nation's second-leading rusher, Javon Ringer of Michigan State, who needs only 12 more yards to crack the 1,000-yard mark for the season.

    In spite of Ringer's contribution, though, Michigan State ranks only 54th in total offense and averages 28.50 points per game. Northwestern is 64th and averages 25.00 points per game.

    Northwestern has the edge in total defense. The Wildcats are ranked 37th in the nation and give up 12.4 points per game. Michigan State is ranked 56th and gives up 16.2 points per game.

    Northwestern's quarterback acknowledges that the Wildcats' game with Michigan State isn't considered a rivalry, but he thinks maybe it should be, according to Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune.

    I predict that Northwestern will remain undefeated with a 21-17 victory.

  • Another significant game in the Big Ten — between Penn State and Wisconsin — will be televised at 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN. Penn State (6-0) is ranked #6 in all three polls. Wisconsin (3-2) is #24 in the Coaches' and Harris polls but is currently unranked in AP, having been displaced by Ball State.

    Penn State is ninth in total offense, thanks in part to Evan Royster, who is 10th in the nation in rushing yardage. Wisconsin is 43rd in total offense.

    The Nittany Lions are eighth in the nation in total defense. The Badgers are 31st.

    And when it comes to the scoring categories, Penn State averages more than 44 points a game; Wisconsin averages just under 29 points a game. Penn State's defense allows less than 12 points a game, while Wisconsin gives up 18 points a game.

    I pick Penn State to win, 31-20.

  • Ohio State (5-1) travels to Purdue (2-3), and the game will be part of ABC's viewing package at 2:30 p.m. (Central).

    The Buckeyes are ranked 11th in the Coaches' poll, 12th in the other two polls.

    The numbers on offense tell different stories. The Boilermakers are ranked 58th in total offense, and Ohio State is ranked 81st. But Ohio State is scoring more than Purdue, 25.67 points per game to 25.40 — a narrow margin, to be sure.

    Ohio State enjoys a decided advantage over Purdue on defense. The Buckeyes are ranked 18th in total defense, giving up 16.2 points per game, while Purdue is ranked 108th and surrenders 25.0 points per game.

    My pick — Ohio State 24, Purdue 20.

  • Another Top 25 team — 5-0 Brigham Young (ranked eighth in the Coaches' poll, ninth in the other two) — hosts New Mexico (3-3) in a game that will be televised by The Mtn. at 5 p.m. (Central).

    The Cougars' advantage against New Mexico is more pronounced on offense. BYU is ranked 13th in total offense and averages 41.20 points per game. New Mexico is ranked 96th and scores 22.33 points per game.

    Brigham Young ranks 30th in total defense and gives up 11.6 points per game. New Mexico is 63rd and allows 27.0 points per game.

    I pick BYU by a score of 35-16.

  • Earlier Saturday, viewers of The Mtn. can see Utah (13th in the Coaches' and Harris polls, 14th in the AP poll) travel to unranked Wyoming for a 1 p.m. (Central) kickoff.

    The offensive numbers suggest a blowout. Utah (6-0) is 39th in total offense and scores 37.17 points per game. Wyoming (2-4) is nearly the worst team in the country in total offense, ranking 118th, and it is the worst team in scoring, averaging only 9.33 points per game.

    In total defense, Utah is 13th and gives up 21.0 points per game. Wyoming is 43rd in total defense and gives up 28.2 points per game.

    I predict that Utah will stay undefeated with a 33-13 win.

  • Boise State (15th in the AP and Harris polls, 16th in the Coaches' poll) travels to Southern Miss for a 7 p.m. (Central) kickoff on CBS-CSN.

    The offensive numbers would suggest a close game. Boise State (4-0) is 20th in total offense and averages 36.0 points per game, but unranked Southern Miss (2-3) is 17th in total offense while averaging 31.0 points per game.

    Boise State seems to have a clear edge in defense, though, ranking 41st in total defense and giving up 12.3 points per game. Southern Miss ranks 97th in total defense and yields 29.2 points per game.

    My prediction is that Boise State will win, 31-21.
But you don't have to wait until Saturday to see a ranked team in action.

Wake Forest (#21 in the AP and Coaches' polls, #22 in the Harris poll) plays Clemson on ESPN Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. (Central).

Time was, Clemson would have been the big draw in a football game between those two teams. And Clemson was in the Top 25 until falling to Maryland in overtime last week.

So Clemson enters the game unranked and 3-2. Wake Forest is 3-1 after an upset loss to Navy.

Clemson is ranked 50th in total offense and averages 30.60 points per game. Wake Forest is ranked 85th in total offense and averages 25.00 points.

Both teams are strong on defense. Wake Forest is ranked 26th in total defense and gives up 17.0 points per game. Clemson is ranked 36th, but the Tigers give up fewer points per game (16.0).

The numbers suggest that the unranked Tigers might defeat the Demon Deacons. And that's what I'm going to predict — Clemson 24, Wake Forest 21.

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