I know ESPN loves those "Rivalry Week" and "Separation Saturday" type themes for college football weeks, so I'll throw out "Judgment Week" for this week two. For my money, there are only two big games this weekend: Notre Dame-Michigan and Ohio State-USC. You really couldn't ask for two bigger games in one weekend. Four of the all-time great programs right there. If you aren't watching both those games, I don't know what to say.
Anyway, we're back with another round of picks, so here goes:
Thursday Night September 9, 2009:
Clemson +5 at Georgia Tech (ESPN 7:30pm)
Jeremy: Georgia Tech (-5)
I find myself firmly planted on the Ramblin’ Wreck bandwagon. Paul Johnson is a mad genius and has found a way to make the triple option work in the speedy ACC. Can’t say I know too much about the Tigers, but I assume we’ll be seeing healthy doses of CJ Spiller. In a matchup of great running backs, I’ll take Tech to cover.
Dan: Georgia Tech -5
Georgia Tech was a great team last year for gambler’s and nothing has changed in my mind this year. Did they have a sloppy first game? Sure. But at home, in a big Thursday night game, you can feel confident that Paul Johnson will have his team on its best behavior.
Georgia Tech 31 Clemson 21
Matt: Georgia Tech -5
I really don’t have much of an opinion on this game, but I did want to offer my thoughts on that great Florida State – Miami game the other night. Wow. Didn’t it just feel a little bit like both of those teams are on their way to regaining their swagger. There were ath-a-letes flying all over the field on both sides of the ball. The team speed on both sides of the ball was evident. I’ve been adamant that Randy Shannon will get the U turned around, and getting a W in Tallahassee definitely can’t hurt things. Jacory Harris looks like he is going to be a stud, and there are tall, lanky, fast receivers all over the field.
Christian Ponder really impressed me too. I watched him self-implode against Wake last year, and he looked like a different guy on Monday. The depth charts of both teams are filled with underclassmen. I would say all signs are pointing up in both Coral Gables and Tallahassee. Which is a good thing for the ACC after an opening Saturday to forget.
Finally, I just wanted to comment on Miami’s schedule. Wow. They opened on the road against FSU, play Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech and then Oklahoma at home. Plus they threw in nonconference road games against UCF and South Florida for good measure. Good God. Was the AD trying to get Randy Shannon fired? I mean, I’m all for tough schedules and I applaud the U for having the guts to challenge themselves, but that is tough. Even if Miami goes 8-4, I saw enough Monday to convince me that the program is headed in the right direction.
Georgia Tech 27 Clemson 21
Mike: Georgia Tech (-5)
Clemson showed some promise in the passing game last week, but their inexperienced quarterback and receivers also made plenty of mistakes. As such, it is imperative that the Tigers receive a strong effort from C.J. Spiller, who was injured last week, and Jamie Harper. On the other side of the ball, Clemson’s defensive strengths, which are its edge rushers and its deep, talented secondary, will be largely neutralized by the Georgia Tech flexbone attack. Clemson should be a contender in the ACC, but this appears to be bad opening conference matchup for Dabo Swinney’s team. Look for the Jackets to win rather handily at home.
Doug: Georgia Tech -5
Big, big Thursday night matchup in the ACC. Generally speaking, I like taking the home teams in these Thursday night conference games. The home crowd usually is extra fired up for the Thursday night games, and it always seems to make a big difference. Both teams are usually coming off short weeks, so adrenaline can play a big role in these games.
The other thing is that it must be awfully hard to only have a few days to prepare for a Paul Johnson coached team. I know Clemson probably installed a lot of triple option stuff in camp, but it's impossible to really zero in on the triple option when you have other games to prepare for. We saw that with Ohio State last week against Navy. Navy had Ohio State completely baffled with the triple option. It is not an easy offense to play against if you don't see it that often.
There isn't a bigger Paul Johnson fan out there than me. He is a terrific coach, and GT is lucky to have him. Very smart and a class act all the way. His teams play disciplined, sound football, and they always show up ready to play. I expect him to continue to evolve at Georgia Tech, which is the sign of a good coach.
As for Dabo Swinney, I know there isn't a lot known about him, but I like this guy's pedigree and thought he did a nice job last year with Clemson. He's got a good reputation as a recruiter, and Nick Saban wanted him on his staff a couple years ago.
Plus, he's got Bama Bangs!! How can you not love a coach with a big ole Southern Swoop like that?? I think every Southern male under the age of 50 should be required by law to have an SEC haircut/Bama Bangs/Southern Swoop.
But Thursday will not be their night. I think Georgia Tech wins this game comfortably.
Georgia Tech 21 Clemson 13
Saturday September 12, 2009
North Carolina -4.5 at Connecticut (ESPNU 12pm)
Jeremy: North Carolina (-4.5) – LOCK OF THE WEEK
I’m not gonna lie, I’m pretty confused by this line. Carolina abused UCONN last year, and while they certainly did lose some firepower on offense, they didn’t lose anywhere near as much as the Huskies. Randy Edsall is a good coach, but not good enough to keep this game close. The Tarheels win going away.
Dan: North Carolina -4.5
UConn got whooped by UNC last year in Chapel Hill and will be hungry for revenge this year. While UNC was beating up on Cital in week 1, Ex ND QB Zach Frazier was busy throwing the ball to the other team in a closer than expected win of OU. I think Frazier bounces back this week, but not enough to get the cover.
North Carolina 21 UConn 14
Matt: UNC -4.5
I guess I should be interested in this game since I live in NC and UConn is a future opponent, but I would honestly rather watch a 3 hour Andy Reid press conference than tune into this ACC – Big East showdown. These two teams just aren’t doing it for me.
UNC 21 UConn 14
Mike: North Carolina (-4.5)
I am not happy to see Connecticut in the lineup of picks this week because I seemed to guess wrong about the Huskies every week last year. After reading about both teams, however, it does not appear that the UConn offense will have any success against the UNC defense. Although there are still plenty of question marks about the Tar Heels offense, they have some talented young playmakers at receiver and a veteran quarterback, which bodes well for Butch Davis. Carolina throttled UConn in Chapel Hill last year and, while this game should be closer, the more talented and athletic Tar Heels should prevail again.
Doug: North Carolina -4.5
North Carolina is sort of quietly lurking out there as a contender in the ACC. I haven't really heard all that much about them in the preseason this year, which sort of surprises me. I'm a believer in what they are doing down there in Chapel Hill. Butch Davis can coach and recruit like no one else, and now is the perfect time for Carolina to make a little resurgence in football. They pulled in a top 10 recruiting class on Rivals.com in 2009.
Looking at their schedule, I don't see any reason why UNC can't win 9+ games this year. The ACC Coastal division is pretty strong this year with Miami, UNC, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech, but UNC can compete with all of those teams.
UNC's biggest nonconference game comes this weekend at UConn, so I expect them to be up for the game. TJ Yates is a pretty dependable quarterback, and the Heels have some athletes on defense.
As for UConn, sort of an iffy start to the season for them squeaking out that win at Ohio University. Zach Frazer threw a couple td passes, but also threw three picks. I wonder sometimes how he would have turned out at ND. Guys like Floyd and Tate can make anyone look good, but I was never that impressed with Zach Frazer. Needless to say, I'm glad Jimmy Clausen is our quarterback right now instead of Zach Frazer.
I expect a competitive game, but I'm going with the talent here and taking the Heels to win and cover.
North Carolina 27 UConn 14
South Carolina +7 at Georgia (ESPN2 7pm)
Jeremy: South Carolina (+7)
The opening game against NC St. was ugly, but there were some glimmers of hope. Stephen Garcia looked competent at times running Spurrier’s offense and South Carolina’s defense played strong, as expected. Georgia really did not look good at all against the Pokes and I’m a bit surprised to see them favored in this game by more than a handful of points. The Cocks might not win this game, but I think they definitely cover. I’ll take the points.
Dan: South Carolina +7
Trouble in Athens! The Bulldog faithful cannot feel very good about their season after the week 1 performance in Stillwater. 7 points is a lot in this match-up given their recent defensive struggles. Given that, take the points.
Georgia 13 South Carolina 7
Matt: Georgia -7
I was at the ND game and didn’t get to see the UGA – Ok State game, but I did watch USC-NC State, and I have to say that game set offensive football back 15 years. Ugh. So there’s either two ways this game can go. UGA comes out pissed off and destroys Spurrier and goes on to an Outback Bowl type year. Or they struggle and lose and it quickly turns into full on rebuilding year in Athens. I think Option 1 plays out.
Georgia 34 USC 6
Mike: South Carolina (+7) --- LOCK OF THE WEEK
Given the recent history of these two teams in this series and their respective opening efforts, it is unrealistic to expect anything other than a defensive struggle in this game. South Carolina was predictably inconsistent on offense (I never thought I would describe a Steve Spurrier team that way) at N.C. State, but the Gamecock defense looked tremendous. Similarly, Georgia’s defense held its own against an explosive Oklahoma State offense, but Joe Cox and the Bulldog offense laid an egg. These two teams are almost identical, so I will gladly take the points and perhaps, for entertainment purposes, I will take the money line on Saturday.
Doug: South Carolina +7
Impressive win for South Carolina last Thursday. Stephen Garcia could finally be maturing into a decent SEC quarterback.
South Carolina's win at NC State confirms what I should have known all along. When an SEC team gets together with anyone else, you probably ought to give the benefit of the doubt to the SEC team. These SEC teams are all playing and recruiting at a higher level than anyone else.
That reminds me, how bad was the ACC in week one?? Virginia lost to William & Mary at home!! Unbelievable! How does that even happen?? Maryland also got crushed, VT got completely outclassed, NC State got beat at home, Wake lost to Baylor at home, and Duke lost to Richmond. Just a miserable output.
The ACC cannot seem to get any momentum. The top teams aren't really all that great (Va Tech, GT, Miami) and definitely a notch below the top teams from other conferences, and the bottom feeders are really looking bad.
Georgia really needs a win here, and the game is at night at home. I think they'll win this game, but I think South Carolina can cover the seven points. I'm always reluctant to give away seven points in the SEC.
Georgia 17 South Carolina 13
UCLA +8 at Tennessee (ESPN 4pm)
Jeremy: Tennessee (-8)
Sneaky spread here – the Vols were a mess last year and I find it difficult to believe that they’ve recovered so quickly. I expected the combo of Slick Rick and Norm Chow to turn UCLA around, but this rebuilding thing seems to be taking a bit longer than expected. Eric Berry might be the best defensive player in football and you can bet he’s going to make his presence felt in Neyland on Saturday night. The Bruins are still a year or two away from being able to hang in an SEC road game.
Dan: Tennessee -8
Both UCLA and and Tennessee looked good in their cream puff openers. Lane Kiffin has had a controversial off-season to say the least. And I think that Kiffin’s presence may have helped Cropmpton make the leap to legit SEC QB. Meanwhile, Tricky Rick hasn’t been around very long at UCLA, but I’m already starting to question if he’s the long term answer in the city of Angels. Expect UCLA to struggle on the road under the noise of a rowdy Knoxville crowded excited for the first big game of the Kiffin era.
UT 31 UCLA 17
Matt: UCLA +8
Tennessee put on a fireworks show against a tomato can last week in Lane Kiffin’s debut, but the competition gets a little tougher this week. We didn’t really learn much about UCLA in their season opening win over San Diego State. They have a freshman QB who threw two picks, and playing in Neyland won’t be easy. I just don’t think that Tennessee’s offense is as prolific as it looked last week. By the way for Vols fans, T-1 week until Urban Meyer plays name the score against you. Better enjoy this one.
Tennessee 24 UCLA 20
Mike: UCLA (+8)
Tennessee boasts an experience edge at quarterback, as well as the important home field edge, but these two teams appear to be otherwise evenly matched. Although I am a bit worried that UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince may suffer a “deer in the headlights” meltdown in front of 110,000 fans in his first collegiate road start, I nonetheless expect an honest effort from UCLA. I thought this would be a 4 point line prior to last week, so I suspect that the gambling community may be overrating Tennessee’s blowout over a severely undermanned Western Kentucky team.
Doug: Tennessee -8
The Lane Kiffin era got off to a pretty smooth start on Saturday. They just destroyed Western Kentucky the other day. 380 yards rushing in that game, and another 200+ through the air. That's the Vols football that I have come to know through the years. Tennessee could be a factor this year if their offense can regain its luster.
Sounds like Kiffin has really set the bar high with his team. They are doing a lot of the stuff that you hear about at USC with intense, physical practices that separate the men from the boys. I gotta admit that I'm buying in a little bit on Lane Kiffin.
In some ways, the rebuilding effort at Tennessee has been a little overstated. It's not like Phil Fulmer left the cupboard bare. He could always recruit.
Here's their last five recruiting classes:
2005 - 4
2006 - 23
2007 - 3
2008 - 35
2009 - 10
Now that's not USC level or anything, but you're still talking about two top five classes to work with for Lane Kiffin. He has talent on this roster. Fulmer had lost the team from a coaching standpoint, but he did a good job of stocking the groceries.
There really doesn't need to be a long rebuild at Tennessee for Kiffin if he knows what he is doing. They will probably have some growing pains this year, but he could easily turn them around quickly if he's any good. I don't know if he is or not, but the debut was promising.
One thing I remember about Kiffin's teams in Oakland is that he loved running the football, so I expect to see them churning out yards on the ground. If they can do that well, they could be very good in the SEC this year.
I'm a little bummed about this 4pm start time. I would love to watch this game, but probably won't see a snap since it's on at the same time as the ND-Michigan game.
UCLA also sounds like they making some strides, but I like the Vols to make a big statement in week two.
USC -7 at Ohio State (ESPN 8pm)
Jeremy: USC (-7)
I won’t cheat and use the Lock of the Week here because its almost too easy. The SC offensive line is the best in the country, and coupled with their talent-laden backfield, I expect the Trojans to run wild in Columbus. The Buckeyes may try to stack the box and make Barkley win his first road game on his own. Watch out for a few big play-action passes from the freshman to keep the safeties honest. On offense for the Bucks, I just don’t see too much explosiveness coming from anyone other than Pryor. Navy spent a good portion of their time in OSU’s backfield last week and the highly touted recruits on Ohio State’s offensive line were very disappointing. If the Bucks can’t get a consistent running game going, its going to be a very, very long night. Pryor tries to pull his best Vince Young impression but can’t do it himself. Trojans pound away in the 2nd half and win by double digits.
Dan: USC -7 -- LOCK OF THE WEEK
If this line were USC -14, it would still be my lock of the week. USC against the big 10 is like taking candy from a baby.
USC 31 OSU 13
Matt: USC – 7 -- Lock of the Week
This one is too easy. I’ll let Doug get into all of the analysis, but even Jim Tressel doesn’t believe that the Buckeyes can win this one. I don’t care that USC lost its whole team to the NFL, or that they are starting a true freshman QB in the ‘Shoe, or anything else that might seemingly tip the scales in the Buckeyes favor. Look for Tressel to play the conservative field position game to the extreme – coffin corner punts from the red zone, punts on 3rd down, the field goal unit on 1st and Goal…really anything is possible at this point.
USC 31 Ohio State 13
Mike: Ohio State (+7)
Obviously, USC was far more impressive than Ohio State last week, although one must be careful not to read into each team’s performance too much. Matt Barkley looked great at home against SJSU, but he has never seen a team like Ohio State and he has never played on the road in front of over 100,000 fans. Likewise, Navy is a tough team for any team to face on opening day, so Ohio State should not be overly discounted for their struggles last week. Ultimately, I think both defenses will rise to the occasion and USC will prevail in a squeaker.
Doug: USC -7 -- LOCK OF THE WEEK
Nothing like a big early season showdown in college football. Two of the biggest of heavyweights. When I think of USC, I think of OJ Simpson and Matt Leinart and these larger than life celebrity players. When I think of Ohio State, I think of Chris Speilman and Woody Hayes and this tough, Midwestern style of football that has been played in Columbus for 60+ years. The ultimate clash in opposites. While I think this game could get ugly, it's still a great game to see scheduled. The pomp and circumstances of USC and Ohio State getting together are what college football should be all about. There should be more games like this one.
The Big Picture:
Before getting to some thoughts on the matchups and the game itself, I wanted to lay a little background on what this game means for Ohio State and their program. I mentioned this the other day, but I have never seen Ohio State fans this demoralized heading into a big game. I've seen them tense and even anxious or nervous, but never to the point where they are ready to throw in the towel before the game has even begun. Buckeye fans already had a damaged psyche from the last couple years, and the shaky start against Navy has really turned the Buckeye Nation into a fragile group at the moment. As an ND fan, I've become somewhat astute at recognizing damaged fanbases who go into every game dreading the worst. Those feelings linger in the air and often carry over to the team. When the bad stuff starts happening, the fans (and the team) go into a shell. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Which brings me to Jim Tressel. I've lived in Columbus for four years now and would generally describe the relationship between Buckeye fans and Tressel as one of reverence and admiration. He's Senator Tressel. He wears Sweater Vests, says hokie things like "gosh" and "golly," and beats Michigan every year. Most fans know what Tressel is all about and have generally accepted his style of play and laughed off his obsession with the punting game and conservative offense.
Prior to the 2007 BCS championship game against Florida, there was really nothing to even remotely complain about with Jim Tressel. He won the national championship game against a great Miami (FL) team, he won two Fiesta Bowls against Kansas State and ND, and he beat Michigan just about every year. There was no reason to question Tressel because he had never really let them down. Even the home loss to Texas in 2005 was a fantastic game against a team that won the national championship and had an all-time great college player (Vince Young). For several years, Tressel was "Big Game" Jim Tressel and deservedly so.
And then the Florida game happened out in Tempe. I don't think the program has ever recovered from that game. That was the moment when a fanbase that was in awe of their head coach suddenly lost confidence in the Jim Tressel brand.
For a third party observer like myself, that Florida outcome wasn't the least bit surprising. That was the moment where the SEC stamped on everyone's foreheads that they were playing a superior brand of football that the Big Ten teams could not keep up with. For anyone who had been following the game closely and paying attention to recruiting and demographic trends, the result of the game was really not all that shocking. There was nothing flukish about it. Florida was the better team. The SEC teams have better athletes, better competition, and better coaches.
But for Buckeye fans, it was impossible to come to terms with that loss. They were like 10 point favorites going into the game and had been ranked #1 all year. To get your hat handed to you like that was devastating to Ohio State fans. I swear, people were calling in to local radio shows to break that game down for MONTHS after the game. It would be the middle of March with Ohio State basketball making a run at the Final Four, and people would be calling in to wonder why Florida's defensive line had so little difficulty getting to Troy Smith. People couldn't get over it.
As the next two seasons went along, Ohio State won plenty of games, but they laid eggs in every single big game they played in 2007 and 2008. The calls for Tressel to make changes and reevaluate his approach have been getting louder and louder, and I think a lot of fans held out hope that he would go into 2009 with a fresh approach.
The performance in the Navy game last week revealed that Tressel hasn't done one thing to change it up inside his program, and I think that's where fans are revolting.
I think Tressel has made two huge mistakes going into the 2009 season. One with his players, and one with his fans.
1) Tressel had an opportunity to shake this program up all offseason by getting rid of some coaches, bringing some fire back to the program, and maybe comimg out with a new brand of football. Instead, he did nothing. No coaching turnover, no new schemes or ideas. Nothing. The team came out against Navy and played conservative, boring, unaggressive football.
Could you imagine being an Ohio State football player and running that game plan against Navy where the goal was to apparently beat them by one point?? You spend all offseason in the weight room killing yourself to become a great player, and then your head coach has you lay down and play vanilla against Navy?? What kind of message does that send?? Work your butt off all year and then run some half-baked game plan in the opener and squeak out a win?? Why not reward them by putting the best game plan forward in every game and go out and try to win every game by 50?? Does Tressel have to save all of his best stuff for Michigan?? Why can't he have great stuff prepared for EVERY game??
Tressel's mentality might have worked in another era, but this is 2009. Players want to light up the scoreboard and play an attacking style of football. Tressel wants to play for field goals, play it close to the vest, punt well, and hope his defense comes through to win the game by three points. That works in the Big Ten but not in big boy football.
Tressel has a world class talent like Terrelle Pryor, and he's got him in the same offense that he would have used for Craig Krenzel. Is that the best you can come up with?? I-formation, runs up the middle, and 6 yard square outs?? Why not get Pryor out on the run and let him become a playmaker with his arms and legs?? Why not do some Pistol formation and spread stuff to give him better looks and more opportunities to become a Vince Young type player??
Just a huge mistake. With all the scrutiny, the last thing Tressel should have done to his players is play it close to the vest against Navy. He should have done everything to whip Navy and get his players sky high for the USC game. Now they are going into that game completely unsure of themselves.
2) The other thing is that Tressel KILLED his fanbase by coming out with that half-baked game plan against Navy. Just an absolute backbreaking blow to an already wobbly fanbase. Fans needed a bloodbath in that opener to get their hopes up. Now fans are completely demoralized. Just about every OSU fan I know is predicting not only a loss but a big loss.
3-4 years ago, fans wouldn't have even remotely questioned Jim Tressel. If he said that he was playing it close to the vest against Navy to save his best stuff for USC, fans would have bought in all day long. But I think those days are over. OSU fans are now in the "prove it" phase with Tressel after all the bad losses in big games, and they aren't buying in to anything that Tressel sells until they see it work in a big game.
Tressel would never reveal his true feelings to anyone in the public, but I wonder where his mind is heading into this week. I don't see how it's possible for him to be completely oblivious to all the gloom and doom and the lack of faith in his ability to win this game. Then again, the guy never seems to be phased by anything, so maybe he really doesn't feel any pressure.
My opinion is that he made a mistake in the offseason by essentially standing pat. Fans wanted to see something new and had hopes that he would do it with Pryor on board and the extra motivation to get the "big game" monkey off their back, but Tressel made his decision to stay with what he's always done. Ohio State's program hasn't been the same since that loss to Florida, and Tressel apparently doesn't have his finger on the pulse to recognize it.
Anyway, that's my big picture take on this game. I think Tressel has a TON riding on this game, and I'm not sure he realizes it or cares. If he comes out and plays Jim Tressel ball and gets it handed it to him, he's making a huge mistake that will ultimately harm his legacy.
Back to the game though.
Some big keys:
1) The USC offensive line -- For my money, USC has the best offensive line in the nation, and I expect them to completely control this game. It might not be right away, but I think USC's o-line will eventually grind Ohio State down in the 2nd and 3rd quarters and wear them out.
Ohio State has a pretty good defensive line, but no great defensive tackles who can completely shut down a running game. If they can't get penetration and/or a push up front defensively, it's going to be a long night for the Buckeyes.
This is the key to the game. Can the Ohio State defense control this game?? They got worked by LSU and Florida and USC the last three years. They lost the battle in the trenches. If that happens again, they have no chance. If they can neutralize USC's o-line, they can make this game interesting.
2) Matt Barkley -- From a USC standpoint, the only thing that would make me nervous about this game is Barkley coming into a hostile environment and possibly getting a little too caught up in the moment. USC is not going to ask Barkley to win the game for them, but he certainly could lose it if he plays poorly. If he throws a couple bad picks early in the game or kills a drive with a red zone INT, those types of plays can keep Ohio State in this game.
Barkley needs to play relatively error free football. He is going to get time to throw, he has the running backs and skill guys, and he probably will have a simplified game plan. He will have some opportunities to hit big play action passes. If he hits those throws, forget about it. If he misses those throws, this game could get interesting.
3) Can Ohio State score points?? -- While I think Ohio State's best chance to win is to somehow keep this game low scoring and hope for turnovers and big plays out of their defense, at some point you gotta think that Ohio State will need to put some points on the board. And by points, I mean touchdowns and not field goals. If Ohio State gets into the red zone, they have to score a couple touchdowns.
How can they do that?? I think it all comes down to their running game and finding creative ways for Terrelle Pryor to make plays. I would have Pryor rolling out with an option to run, I would have him running QB draws, and I would probably open it up and let him make throws down the field. If USC has to worry about Pryor being all over the field, it could open up the running game.
I would even have Pryor line up at receiver a couple times if there's someone who can throw him the ball. Pryor is probably the best receiver on Ohio State's team. When he moved to receiver against Texas in the Fiesta Bowl last year, they couldn't cover him. If you get down into the red zone, maybe you break out a couple of those plays to get the ball to Pryor in space.
Whatever it takes to get points on the board. Ohio State is not going to win this game 13-10. It's just not going to happen. They need to find a way to get to 20-25 points to have a chance to win.
So those are my three keys to the game, and my money is on USC winning big. I think Ohio State will come out aggressive on the opening drive of the game and kick a field goal, go into a shell after that, USC will eventually land some big punches to get the lead, and OSU won't be able to come back.
Part of it is Tressel's coaching, but the bigger part is just talent across the board. Look at Ohio State's defense. It's not as loaded as it was 4-5 years ago. They don't have as many studs in their front seven as they once did, and their secondary isn't as loaded either.
Compare that to USC's defense. USC has 5 star recruits all over the field and NFL first rounders everywhere. Their defense is as good as any in the nation even though they lost a ton of personnel from last year. It doesn't even matter. They just bring in a whole new crop of guys to replace the guys they lost. Look at their speed and size and ability.
Like the SEC teams, USC is playing a different brand of football. They just keep coming and coming at you until you wilt. USC has so much depth that their practices are as intense as their games. When you play in that type of environment, you are ready for these heavyweight gladiator matchups.
Ohio State has very some good top end talent, but the overall depth and stamina to compete at that level is not there. The Buckeyes will come out guns blazing in the first quarter and look like they can match up with USC, but they can't sustain it. Tressel needs this game to be a low scoring, sloppy game, but that's not going to happen. Over four quarters, USC will take over this game.
In that respect, it's hard to really blame Tressel. He is doing the best that he can with the players that he can get. He gets good Midwestern players, but it's not the same as what you see at USC. That's not a Tressel problem. It's a demographics problem. College football (like the nation) has moved South and West.
However, if Ohio State gets slaughtered in this game, I think it will mark the moment where OSU fans officially turn on Jim Tressel. Not to the point where he would ever get fired, but to the point where the Tressel Mystique evaporates. Tressel will never get fired at Ohio State unless he starts losing regularly to Michigan (which suddenly could get interesting over the next couple years), but I think he will have lost the trust of the fans if he can't keep this game close.
I've felt all offseason that USC would roll in this game, and nothing from last weekend has given me even the slightest bit of doubt. Betting on USC this weekend is like walking up to an ATM and deciding how much money you want to take out. If you want to bet $50, then you'll have $100 in your account at 11pm Saturday night.
I'll be rooting for Ohio State to pull the shocker though. It certainly is a possibility with the game at home. Heck, if they even hang around in this game, it would be a good thing for the program to build on. But if it's 28-6 in the 3rd quarter and Musberger is yelling "Footrace!" every other time Joe McKnight touches the ball, I think it will be a very ugly scene in the Horseshoe.
USC 28 Ohio State 10
Notre Dame -3.5 at Michigan (ABC Sports 3:30pm)
Jeremy: NOTRE DAME
This game is starting to make me physically ill. I’m thrilled that Michigan’s performance last week has ratcheted up the intensity, but its really wreaking havoc on my insides.
Michigan is paper-thin, depth-wise, throughout their entire defense. There aren’t many spots out there that can sustain an injury, particularly in the secondary. Fortunately for Michigan, the ND teams of Charlie Weis haven’t been too physically abusive. I imagine the Irish will again have trouble finding much running room and will have to rely on Clausen and the receivers to consistently move the ball. Michigan’s defensive line is nowhere near as deep or talented as the 2006 Wolverines, but Brandon Graham is a beast on the outside, and ND will likely have to gameplan around him, keeping tight ends and running backs in to block. If the Irish are forced to max protect early and often, the potent passing game could fizzle.
On offense, Forcier showed good movement in the pocket and a very accurate arm, particularly on the run. As the strength of the Irish defense is in the secondary, I don’t expect Michigan to have much success throwing downfield. They’ll have to be content to take small chunks of yardage up and down the field, which will require quite a bit of precision by the freshman. Robinson is certainly exciting, but I don’t think we’ll see too much of him. Tenuta’s defense did a great job keeping Kaepernick under wraps last week and if Robinson is in the game, they will certainly key on taking away his running lanes. The Irish will again have to rely on stiffening in the red zone and creating some big plays and turnovers off the blitz to throw a wrench into the Michigan offense.
I really only see 3 possible outcomes in this game – 1) Michigan wins a close, hard fought game in the 4th quarter; 2) ND wins a similarly close game; or 3) ND wins big, taking advantage of youth and turnovers. Option 2) seems like the most realistic, and I believe that a big win ND is more likely than a Michigan victory.
Keys of the game: 1) Making big plays on defense, including sacks, turnovers and stops in the red zone; 2) Establishing some sort of running game to keep the heat off Clausen; 3) Freeing up Rudolph and the 3rd WR (either Parris or Kamara) who will create matchup problems for the Wolverines all day.
I think the Irish do enough to pull out a huge road win in AA with Michigan tacking on a late TD to pull within 6 late in the 4th quarter.
Dan: Notre Dame -3.5
Huge match-up in Ann Arbor this weekend. It almost feels like the future fate of both coaches are at stake. If Notre Dame loses, the Weis doubters will have all the ammunition they need to proclaim the early season failures and really begin to call Weis’s likelihood of being around in 2010 into doubt. If Notre Dame goes in and blows out UM, any goodwill Rodriguez gained by the blow-out last weekend will be gone. While UM will match up much better with ND than Nevada did, I still expect UM to struggle with multitude of passing options available to ND. Expect a few long touchdowns combined with a decent, but not great effort by the ND defense to seal a close, but not too close win.
Notre Dame 28 UM 20
Matt: Notre Dame
There’s not much more I can say that Doug and Jeremy haven’t already said about last week’s performance. But let’s see it against the big boys now. Really the only thing separating this ND team from a humiliating no-show against USC is two beat downs of WAC teams. Maybe it’s just a sign of how far ND had fallen that everyone is giddy over 35-0 over Nevada. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled with the win, and there is undeniable talent all over the field. But I’m still in the “show me” mode. There is no reason that ND shouldn’t be able to beat a still rebuilding Michigan team.
A few keys to the game:
Run the ball – Sure, we’re a pass first team, but the o-line has to be able to create some holes for Armando and Jonas. It’s a lot different going up against 300 pounders on the Michigan line as opposed to WAC D-lines.
Leading Tacklers – It’s great that we have sure-tackling safeties, but it’s not great when they are constantly making tackles 6-10 yards downfield. Bruton and McCarthy made just about every tackle last year, and McCarthy was all over the field last week. It would be huge to see a few d linemen notch some tackles and TFL’s and the LB’s get more involved in the run game.
Special Teams – We really didn’t learn anything about Nick Tausch. Kicking in front of 100,000+ will be a little different. It would have been nice to see him get that first field goal under his belt in the friendly confines. Also, no James Aldridge to QB the return unit means Theo and seldom used Barry Gallup are on their own to give the Irish good field position. Finally, Michigan has some speed and Anello and the gang will have to be up to the task on returns.
Notre Dame 28 Michigan 20
Mike: Notre Dame (-3.5)
While Tate Forcier was admittedly impressive last week in his college debut, it is an extremely tall order to expect a similar performance in a much bigger game against a significantly better opponent. The key will be whether the Notre Dame front seven can be stout against the run, which would force Forcier (no pun intended) into a position to make mistakes. Denard Robinson may be a factor in the running game as well, but I expect that the speedy Irish defense will be well prepared for him. On offense, Notre Dame must build on their positive rushing efforts last week to set up the play action passing game for Clausen. Although I am still scared to death of this matchup, particularly given the history of success for the underdog in this series, I think the Irish will pull away from the Wolverines in a tightly contested affair. Michigan fans are presumably already working on their standard laundry list of excuses and complaints.
Doug: Notre Dame
Wow, what a monster game on Saturday for both these programs. I'll be in Ann Arbor on Saturday and haven't been this excited about a game like this one in a long time. Both programs look like they are on the rise, which should create an electric atmosphere in the Big House. I've only been to the Big House one time before and wasn't blown away by the experience, but it feels like the Michigan fans are coming out of the woodwork this week. I didn't think any program was as starved for success as ND fans, but Michigan fans are probably right there with us in that respect.
Before we break down the game, let's set the stage for both programs.
For ND, there is a palpable feeling that this program has finally arrived under Charlie Weis. Watching ND against Nevada last week was a different feeling. I was relaxed and confident (ok, maybe I was a LITTLE nervous in the first couple drives but quickly settled down). The days of sweating out games with joke programs look like they are over. The talent is there, the depth is there, the experience is there, and this team looks like they are on a mission to prove that they are for real this year. While there is a sense of relief from the fanbase that the team played well in the opener and did not lay an egg like in the San Diego State game, the fans are hungry for more. The goal at this point is a BCS bowl game, and expectations are ratcheting up.
Michigan represents the first real big test for this new look ND team. A win here would be a sign that this team could be in for a big year. A loss would probably send us back to the drawing board to some degree and start up the Charlie Weis hot seat talk. The stakes are really high for ND. This program has been building for five years toward this season, and we cannot afford to lose to a Michigan team that is entering year two of its rebuilding process. Could you imagine losing this game?? It would be a devastating blow, especially if our goal is to return to the nation's elite. No excuse to lose to Michigan this year even if it's on the road.
For Michigan, the stakes are probably a little lower for them considering that they are probably a year or two away from feeling like they are back, but I think Michigan fans are recalibrating their expectations for this team. They were impressive in week one, and now they are eyeballing the Irish and thinking that they can get back on the map with a big win in a nationally televised game.
There's a little less pressure on Rich Rodriguez to win this game, but he did go 0-3 against their big three rivals last year (OSU, ND, MSU). I get the impression that his fans would like to see him win at least one of those games this year.
I must say, this whole Michigan resurgence thing has been a little jarring to me. I had sort of bought into the "Michigan is a year or two away" talk, and didn't expect to see "Michigan 31 WMU 0" on the scoreboard at ND Stadium. Now they look like they could be back in a hurry. Even though this game has been looming all summer, I hadn't really given much thought to the possibility of ND losing to them. Now, I'm looking at this game like it's an old school heavyweight ND-Michigan battle.
Some keys to the game from where I'm sitting:
1) Michigan running game: The biggest thing I'm worried about against Michigan is whether our run defense will hold up against them. I know everyone likes to focus on Michigan's speedy guys, but the real weapon in their offense is Brandon Minor. That guy is a beast. He adds a power inside component to their offense to go with their spread plays on the perimeter. He didn't play in week one, but it sounds like he'll probably be back for the ND game.
I hope Tenuta has made adjustments to our run defense. We cannot get away with running backs exploding into the secondary with our safeties as the only thing between them and the end zone. That happened way too much against Nevada. Our defensive line needs to step it up.
I think we'll know a lot more about our defensive line after this week. Either it's going to emerge as an Achilles heel for this team, or we'll be talking next week about how well the d-line played.
2) Big plays and the ND passing game -- Offensively, the key for ND is going to be whether or not we can hit some big plays out of the passing game. Let's be honest, we are never going to pull an Alabama against anyone and just grind teams into the ground with the running game. We're going to have to hit some big plays early, get a lead, mix in the run when we can, and hope we put enough points on the board to hold on.
I think we should come out aggressively and look to pass to score early in the game. Test their DBs down the field, get Rudolph involved, and come out five wides on occasion. Get the lead and settle in from there. If we can get them back on their heels a little bit, it opens up the running game as the game goes along. And if Michigan has to worry about everything, we can nail them with some big stuff down the field to Tate and Floyd. They don't have any answer for Tate or Floyd in single coverage, but we need to be able to set things up so that they can't afford to double those guys.
The biggest concern I have offensively is that we'll fall behind and immediately scrap all efforts to remain balanced and chuck and duck for the rest of the game like we did in 2006. As much as I like Clausen and our receivers, I don't like our chances to win this game if that happens. Michigan will pin their ears back with a pass rush knowing that we won't run it, and then double all our wide receivers. Turnover city, and big trouble. Clausen is great when he has time, but it's going to be a long day if they are all-out rushing him with no fear of the run.
I would also work in screens and misdirections to keep them off balance. Weis assumed the o-coordinator responsibilites for games like this one. He needs to have a great gameplan to get the ball to our offensive weapons, but also needs to design some stuff to lure Michigan out of their plan to go after Jimmy C. No need to get too cute either. Weis has the ability to call a great game, but he also tends to overthink this stuff.
If we can get off to a good start and present a balanced approach, I think the offense will be fine.
3) Contrast in styles -- By the way, isn't it interesting that Michigan now plays like ND did under Lou Holtz and that ND now plays like Michigan used to play back in the Lloyd Carr/Moeller/Bo eras?? Think about it. Our offense is a pro style offense with a big armed QB and big play pro style receivers with a big line and a standard pro style 4-3 defense. The personnel is straight out of the Lloyd Carr playbook. It's an offense that relies on power and skill. Couldn't you picture guys like Clausen and Floyd in those UM offenses??
Meanwhile, Michigan is basically running the evolution of the Lou Holtz offense. There's really not that much of a difference. Run the football with different backs and even your quarterback, and get the ball in space to your playmakers. All their little screens and reverses are the type of stuff that ND used to do with Rocket Ismail and Watters and company. It was all based on speed in space and power in the middle. Think about what guys like Rocket and Tony Rice would do in that Rich Rod offense. They would make Pat White and Steve Slaton look slow.
Just thought that was an interesting thing to note. The roles are reversed. I'm not really sure which style is better, but you couldn't dream up two more different football teams.
4) Turnovers -- Big big factor here. Any time you are talking about not one but TWO freshman quarterbacks, turnovers could play a major factor in this game. If Michigan's QBs are turning it over or their young skill players can't hold onto the football, I see no reason why ND can't win this game in a rout.
Quick note on Forcier and Robinson. I've had a chance to watch highlights of both guys, and I think both bring a lot to the table but neither is a perfect fit for the Rich Rodriguez offense. Forcier is clearly their better quarterback right now. He can make the throws, and he has some mobility. He seems like he has a pretty good feel for the game already as a freshman. I'm not sure he's a future superstar, but he definitely looks like Michigan's best option right now.
Forcier's biggest weakness is his body. He's a string bean. I can't see him ever breaking a tackle if we can get pressure on him, and I could see his body breaking down if he takes too many hits. ND has got to pop this guy, make him uncomfortable, and force some bad throws out of him. He's not going to have wide open receivers all game like he did against Western Michigan, so we have no idea if he'll turn into a turnover machine if we get some pressure on him.
As for Denard Robinson, this guy is a freak, but he's not a quarterback at all right now. In fact, I hope he's on the field a lot against us because it makes them completely one-dimensional. He can't throw. Go back and watch his highlights. One of his throws was a five yard route that he threw about two feet above the receiver's head. If he is throwing the ball against ND, I'm all for it. He'll throw a pick at some point.
But as for him running the ball, that's a little bit of a concern. Robinson has incredible speed. That long run against Western Michigan was unreal. He just turned on the afterburners and blew past everyone on their defense. We cannot let him get into the open field with the football. If I was Michigan, I would be dreaming up everything under the sun to try to get the ball in this guy's hands.
If Robinson is in the game, we need to be selling out on the run to shut him down. I'd bring in our best run defense unit and shadow him. I don't think he's any threat to pass, so it would be worth the gamble.
Getting back to the turnovers though. Can't overstate how big turnovers could play a role. Michigan plays fast, but they are also sloppy. That's always been a trademark of a Rich Rodriguez team. They put the ball on the ground, and they get a lot of penalties. It's part of the high risk/high reward nature of his offense.
ND cannot afford to turn it over either. Clausen is going to have to make good decisions and not force stuff. Nothing wrong with taking a couple chances, but there's no reason to throw into double and triple coverage if nothing is there.
4) Psychological warfare -- Interesting psychological dynamic here. Which of these teams is more mentally ready to win this game?? Both these teams are surging upward but still a little fragile. Especially the fanbases. As an ND fan, I'm still a little unsure of what to expect out of this team in our first big road game, but I am excited about what I've seen out of this team so far. For Michigan fans, you're excited about some of the young athletes with big potential, but probably also wondering deep down if week one was just a mirage against a bad MAC team.
The first half of this game is going to tell us a lot about where both teams are mentally and emotionally. If the Irish jump all over Michigan, are they going to pack it in right away and start making freshman mistakes?? If Michigan gets to Clausen and challenges our manhood, are we going to revert back to 2008 and go mentally soft???
To say that both of these coaches are "embattled" would be the understatement of the year. Charlie Weis has done all the right things thus far this year, but his track record in big games is shaky. Rich Rodriguez made a statement in week one, but still has a lot of doubters and a lot of square peg parts for round holes.
ND-Michigan is AT LEAST the second biggest game of the day, so there might be a lot of nerves on that Michigan sideline. Meanwhile, ND has now been through the battles for three years. I do not expect this team to have the deer in the headlights about going into the Big House.
Overall, I'll admit that I'm worried about this game. I think Michigan really wants to make a statement, and they looked good in week one. A lot of their strengths (running game, team speed, d-line) are going right into our weaknesses. Plus, the game is in Ann Arbor.
I see two big advantages for ND in this game though: Experience and our passing game. Jimmy Clausen is a 3rd year starter going against a guy who is starting his second career game. Our entire offense and defense are back, and I think these guys are tired of the losing. As Kramer would say, poise counts!! When you have that much experience going against a team that is still finding itself, it's a big advantage in a big game. We are a better and deeper and more complete team than Michigan right now. There's no reason not to win.
If Charlie Weis wins this game, it would be a huge win for the program and the 2009 team. 2-0 would be a sweet start, and I think the Irish will get it done in Ann Arbor.
ND 24 Michigan 20
Stanford +3 vs. Wake Forest -- I’ll at least be tailgating for the Tiger Woods Bowl (Alma Mater vs. Niece’s school – she’s on the golf team), and may even wander into the stadium for the first half before retreating to the couch for ND-Michigan, so I figured I’d throw out my thoughts on this matchup.
I missed the debacle against Baylor for the hometown Deacs, but heard enough to know that this season could get ugly in the Dash. Riley Skinner, in his 7th season as starting QB, threw 3 picks and got little help from his running game. Meanwhile, a defense that lost Aaron Curry and Alphonso Smith to the NFL and a number of other key contributors, let Robert Griffin run all over the field. I think Stanford marches into BB&T Field and walks out with the outright W. And Deacon fans start counting down the days until March Madness. At least Al-Farouq Aminu is still on campus…
Stanford 37 Wake Forest 28
Virginia (+11) over TCU -- Even though most people have written off Al Groh after an embarrassing loss to William and Mary, the Cavs may still have a little life remaining. After all, Virginia lost badly at Wyoming on opening day in 2007 before bouncing back to win nine games. I certainly don’t expect a nine win performance for Virginia in 2009 and, in fact, I believe that Al Groh will likely be jettisoned after (or even during) this season, but I am counting on a close game in Charlottesville this weekend. Nonetheless, this is the season opener for TCU and history shows that a team playing its second game has a significant advantage over a team playing its first game. Based upon this angle, I like the Cavaliers to cover.
Houston +15 at Oklahoma State -- Just feels like Houston could hang around in this one. Case Keenum is a sleeper Heisman candidate.
Oregon -11 over Purdue -- Pay close attention to this score. Guess we'll see what Purdue looks like. I had them pegged for 3-4 wins this year, but they had a nice debut with new coach, Danny Hope. If they make this game competitive, they could end up being a lot better than people might have expected.
Lock of the Weeks:
Alma Matters: Graduation
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