Thursday, November 17, 2005

Rivalry Week(s)

Cain vs Able...North vs South...Democrats vs Republicans...Coyote vs Roadrunner...Rocky vs the Russian...Great Taste vs Less Filling...the list goes on. Why can't we all just get along? It seems that this question has been asked ever since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. So, it should come as no surprise that in every aspect of society, we see rivalries form. What is surprising, though, is that the rivalries between old foes seems to be most intense in the college football arena. You don't believe me? When was the last time you turned off your phone after your side lost an election? Better still, when was the last time that you hugged a random stranger because Saddam Hussein was removed from power? As illogical and bizarre as it may seem, it's true: we care more about how our favorite team performs on Saturday than about something that might actually have a real effect on the world. But, for the true fan, there is nothing that has a greater effect on "your world." Therefore, when someone who just doesn't get it tries to tell you that "it's just a game" when your team meets its arch nemesis these next 2 weeks, don't let them make you begin to question your state of mind. Instead, pity them because they'll never know the full satisfaction that comes with aligning with the better team for the next 365 days. So now, let's see which side will spend the next year boasting and which one will spend it roasting when the annual grudge match is said and done...

(Note: In an effort to relax during my holiday next week as much as the next guy, I had originally decided to take a break from making picks. However, when I noticed that there were 2 great opportunities to rip on a couple of coaches for whom no Bama fan has any fond feelings (Fran and Croom), I decided that I should compromise. For this reason, I will still pick 5 games for each week, but I will only write up half of the 10 total: 3 this week and 2 early next week, which will be alluded to at the end, thereby explaining the optional plural ending to "Week" in the title. So, if this doesn't mess up any of the OCD types out there too much, I'll proceed as such.)

Alabama 22, The Other School 13. Not even 24 hours after Alabama suffered its 1st loss of the season, people across the nation who had hopped on the Bama bandwagon were jumping ship so fast that they made Jonah look like he was scared of water. But the Tide faithful, along with the actual team, still believe that a BCS birth and a fitting end to this dream season is not out of the picture. There's just one minor detail that needs to be taken care of: BEAT AU*#$N. Heading into the most anticipated Iron Bowl in over a decade (1994 was the last time the 2 teams' combined record was better), the field has never seemed more level. In fact, if the Tide was to look at the Tigers, or vice versa, they might swear that they were looking in the mirror. Both teams have a defense that rivals the Third Reich. Both teams' starting running backs have the same 1st name. Both teams' quarterbacks have the same initials. And both have only 1 loss in conference, which, not surprisingly, was a 3-point one dealt by LSU in OT. But, there is a difference: the other school has lost twice while the Tide has only been outscored once. And in both losses for the other school, 5 seemed to be the unlucky number. In the Georgia Tech game, Brandon Cox committed 5 turnovers (4 INT's and 1 fumble), and John Vaughn missed 5 field goals down in Baton Rouge. So, this weekend, maybe Kenny Irons will have 5 fumbles or 5 yards rushing or maybe their offensive line will have all 5 starters to go down with injuries. Or maybe none of this will happen, and Bama will just prove that it's a better team straight up. In any case, the Tide will Roll and begin to work on its wishlist of new toys to buy when it collects its BCS payout.

Ohio St. 30, Michigan 24. The Maize and Blue vs the Scarlet and Gray. When the Buckeyes travel up to the Big House this weekend to kick it off for the 102nd time against the Wolverines, it'll be the same ol' story as once again, as a share of the Big 11 title is at stake. Although Michigan holds a 19 game lead in the overall series, the last 54 games have been split right down the middle with each team having 26 wins (2 games ended in a tie). And it appears that the 2 teams are equal again this season. While neither squad has quite lived up to preseason expectations of competing in the Rose Bowl, either one of these 2 perennial powers would put up a valiant fight against the Trojans or Longhorns now that they've found their groove. After suffering some early losses to quality teams, Ohio St. enters this weekend with a 5-game winning streak, and Michigan has won its last 4. So, which team will break the 26-26 tie over the last half century and carry a winning streak into the bowl season? You gotta go with the Buckeyes and not just because they have the best-dressed coach in football. No, expect Jim Tressl's team to pull out the victory because the veterans A.J. Hawk & Troy Smith won't be shown up by a couple of young guys (Chad Henne & Mike Hart) suffering through a sophomore slump.

Harvard: Checkmate. For the 5th year in a row, the Crimson outwits the Bulldogs by cornering the Blue King with their Queen and Rook, forcing him into an immovable position whilst lying in check...Oops, wrong game...Even though the 2 most prestigious universities in the world aren't usually heralded as any type of athletic juggernaut, the contest between them to end each football season is a rivalry that is unparalleled in all of sports. "The Game," as it is simply known, may not showcase the most athletic talent, but it does offer spectators the opportunity to see their future bosses, world leaders, their best in the heat of battle. And a battle it will be. Despite the Ivy League's refusal to allow its members to participate in the postseason in football, a victory in this rivalry is much more fulfilling than any NCAA championship could ever be. At stake for the 2 teams this year is a possible "Ancient 8" championship. If Columbia falls to Brown this Saturday, there could be a rare 3-way tie atop this STUDENT-athlete league between Columbia, Princeton, and the winner. However, this is highly unlikely (I'm sure you could hit up one of the players to find an exact probability), so this year's version of The Game will be all about pride. And like I said above, the Crimson will win for the 5th consecutive time. Score: Harvard (3+7*4), Yale (5 ^2 - 2^2), or 31-21 for those of you who, unlike these guys, took college algebra at community college in the summer.

In other action:

LSU 24, Ole Miss 10.

Vanderbilt 24, Tennessee 23.

Well, that'll do it for the 1st edition of rivalry weeks. When watching the Iron Bowl this weekend, just remember that no matter how bad the Tigers are getting beat, Tommy Tuberville's wife still thinks he looks good in those glasses. Be sure to look below for next week's games...

Round 2:

Texas 45, Texas A&M 16. When Dennis Franchione pulled the "Bear Reversal" 3 years ago by leaving the Tide for the Aggies, everyone just knew that College Station would be the home of championship ball teams early and often. And after last season's run to the Cotton Bowl, those assumptions were seemingly on their way to being fulfilled. Well, we all know what they say happens when you assume. Despite Fran's ability to quickly earn 10-win seasons at both of his former stops (TCU & Alabama), the only thing he's been able to do quickly while leading the Corps of Cadets is end 2 more seasons in 3 years with a losing record than his predecessor R.C. Slocum did in his entire 14. Even more, both the Horned Frogs and the Crimson Tide are proving that maybe he wasn't the reason for their success as they're both back to their winning ways. While this game should be all about Vince Young and the Longhorns ending the regular season in position to make it to Pasadena, it's more fun to view it as the Aggies' ending the regular season out of position to go bowling.

Ole Miss 31, Mississippi St. 7. Another intrastate rivlary featuring a coach with Alabama ties will be taking place this weekend a couple of states east of the Lone Star State. However, this one has no postseason implications whatsoever. In fact, with the direction the Rebels and Bulldogs are headed, the Egg Bowl may not have postseason repercussions for years on down the line, which may explain why this "highly" respected rivalry is not even televised any longer. But television or not, the show will go on. Only the 20,000 fans on hand will be able to see it, though. However, don't think that these pitiful souls won't be getting their money's worth because they'll get to witness a coach earn his 1st victory in this annual struggle for the Golden Egg. It's just not going to be the one who's giving it his 2nd try. I'm sorry State fans, but the man who was supposed to return the Bullies to their once glorious middle-of-the-West status has only been able to return them to their dominance over 1AA and hurricane-ravaged opponents. (For all of those who really wanted to see all of the O's capitalized, it's just not worth the effort anymore. By now, I think everyone has gotten the point that Rebel fans made way too much of a fuss over Orgeron.)

And Finally:

Florida 24, Florida St. 20.

Georgia 31, Georgia Tech 21.

As the SEC exhibits its superiority to the ACC.

Notre Dame 42, Stanford 17.

And that's really it this time. Enjoy the break, and don't forget that as hard as it may be to make small talk with your relatives this Thursday, you could be having to listen to Bob Davie dramatically over enunciate every word that comes from his mouth...Until next time, Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

How the SEC Was Won: Showdown Saturday

Sleep deprivation...loss of appetite...increased anxiety...mood swings...irritable bowels (oops, was that outloud?). All of these symptoms signal that a significant event in a person's life is looming on the horizon. While for most people the momentous occurences that cause such indicators to arise tend to be incidents in which they are directly involved, there are a pathetic few (myself included) that experience these warning signs for reasons that really just aren't plausible. Exhibit A: This weekend's slate of football games in the Southeastern Conference. November 12, 2005, could end up being one of the most memorable days of football ever played below the Mason Dixon Line. And for that reason, Chris, Lee, and Kirk have decided that they should actually come down and pay a visit despite their (and the rest of the nation's) recent disrespect for football played in the South. With the divisional races still wide open with less than 3 weeks left, no weekend is more important as both the East and the West could actually be clinched by Sunday morning, or the suspense could grow even more. In case you still haven't figured out the implications of this upcoming weekend, let me offer some assistance by breaking down each contender's outlook heading into Saturday. First, the East...If Georgia beats Auburn and Kentucky, then they go to Atlanta. However, if they lose either one of these games, and Florida beats South Carolina, then the Gators go because they win the head-to-head tie-breaker. But if Florida loses to South Carolina, Georgia could lose both of their games and still make it because there would be a 3-way tie at the top between these 3 teams with the tie-breaker favoring the Bulldogs because their 2-1 record against the West would be better than either of the other 2's record of 1-2. Now, we go West...If Alabama beats both LSU and Auburn, then they get to play the extra game. If LSU loses to Alabama, then they're out. But, if Alabama loses to LSU, and LSU proceeds to defeat Ole Miss and Arkansas, then they go. If LSU loses one of these final 2 games, though, Alabama can still make it with a win over Auburn. If Alabama beats LSU, and Auburn loses to Georgia, the Iron Bowl won't even be a factor in determining who goes. But, if Alabama beats LSU, and Auburn beats Georgia, then the winner of the Iron Bowl will go. Finally, if LSU beats Alabama, and Auburn beats both Georgia and Alabama, then LSU has to win both of its remaining games to keep Auburn from going to Atlanta. But if Auburn loses to Georgia and beats Alabama (given that LSU beats Bama as well), then LSU only has to win one of its remaining 2 games because they'll have the head-to-head tie-breaker against Auburn...So now, since that's as clear as mud, just look at the predictions below, and you'll be happy to see that none of these scenarios will ever have to be analyzed again because the race will end this weekend when the 2 leaders (Georgia and Alabama) take care of business and clinch their divisions...

Alabama 21, LSU 10. When 5th year seniors Brodie Croyle, Roman Harper, Freddie Roach, etc...dressed out for the 1st time under the Bryant-Denny Lights for the UCLA game during their Redshirt Freshman year, the Gameday Crew made its 1st trip to Tuscaloosa to witness an underdog team (the Bruins) pull out a win. Almost 5 football seasons and no championships later, ESPN's celebrated college football personalities will be on hand again to see these seniors off as they suit up for the last time at the Capstone. And again, the underdog (LSU is a 3 point favorite) will prevail. In spite of Bama's 9-0 record, unparalleled defensive dominance, and knack for winning big games this season, the Tide still doesn't have the respect of others. Therefore, a statement game is strongly needed against a top 5 team this weekend, and the Tigers' 2 turnovers & 9 penalties per game average along with just a 37% 3rd down conversion rate should allow such a statement to be made. Look for seniors to lead Alabama in its most complete game (offense, defense, & special teams) of the season as they end their playing days in Byrant-Denny on their highest note.

Georgia 19, Auburn 16. If only DJ Shockley wouldn't have missed the Florida game, the Bulldogs would have already clinched the SEC East and would still be undefeated. But, injuries are part of the game. Luckily for Mark Richt, though, his QB's injury wasn't season-ending. On the other hand, Tommy Tuberville probably isn't as excited to see Tereshinski III back performing his normal duties as longsnapper because, up to this point, the Plainsmen have beaten only 1 IA team (South Carolina) with a winning record. And that win came when the Gamecocks starting QB Blake Mitchell was out with an injury. So, when Auburn is forced to actually beat a legitimate team that has its 1st string signal caller, look for the Tigers to do as well as they did against Georgia Tech and LSU. Let's just hope the 3 point margin of defeat isn't John Vaughn's fault again...for his sake.

Florida 27, South Carolina 14. The conference home opener against Alabama was supposed to be fun. Returning to Knoxville to pick up where he left off was nice. But the game that the Ol' Ball Coach has really been looking forward to is this one. When Steve Spurrier's Gators (yes, I'd say he still has more influence in Gainesville than anyone else) come to visit his Gamecocks this Saturday, many more eyes than usual will be on what usually is a ho-hum contest between Eastern Division foes. When Spurrier was at Florida, he created a monster that destroyed just about anything in its sight. While the Gators are no longer such a dominant force, the monster does reappear on occasion. This week would be a pretty opportunistic time for the monster to make such an appearance when Urban Meyer's ballclub faces a team that has won 4 straight. As explained earlier, the Gators' championship hopes would be ended with a loss this weekend. But even if they win, they still might not go to Atlanta despite beating every other team in their division--a feat that has only occured one other time in SEC history (if you don't count the 93 Auburn team on probation). Ironically, the other instance also involved a Gator team led by a 1st year coach in 2002 when Ron Zook beat every team in the East, but, you guessed it, Georgia represented the East because it had the better overall conference record. Funny how history has a way of repeating itself. Even though Spurrier has already accomplished his 1st season goal of going to a bowl game by becoming bowl-eligible last week, he hasn't quite achieved his more lofty aspiration of making the Gamecocks one of the SEC elite, so don't expect them to attain that status by knocking off another of the Big 3 this weekend.

Ole Miss 20, Arkansas 14. (I know you've missed this!) Never befOre have 2 teams drOpped as drastically as the Rebels and RazOrbacks simply by lOsing their multi-year starting quarterback. Ever since Eli left OxfOrd, Ole Miss has been 4-9 in cOnference play; and Arkansas hasn't wOn a single game in the SEC since Matt JOnes left. SO, it shOuld cOme as nO surprise that these 2 teams that depeneded sO heavily On their quarterbacks are still desparately trying tO find the recipe tO replace them. Last week, HOustOn Nutt wasted 7 weeks (and anOther year dOwn the rOad) Of quarterbacking by giving (what was suppOsed tO have been redshirt) true freshman Casey Dick nOt Only his 1st start but alsO his 1st game-time experience at all. Needless tO say, the HOgs still lOst. This week, COach O is jOining in On the fun by sitting Micheal SpurlOck and starting Ethan Flatt. Since Dick will be experiencing anOther 1st this weekend (playing On the rOad), Ethan Flatt's bOys shOuld have the "edge"--term used extremely lOOsely. Since bOth Of these teams eliminated themselves frOm cOntentiOn in the Western DivisiOn race sOmetime during the preseasOn, this game may appear to be insignificant. But with a win Over Arkansas On Saturday, Ole Miss will clinch the 4th place spOt in the West, which, using the Rebels' standards, is bannerwOrthy.

Tennessee 27, Memphis 10. There's no need to adjust your monitor. That really is a 27 next to Tennessee. Despite their offensive struggles this season, last week's 21 point production was a sign that the Vols might actually have solved a couple of problems. The improvement should continue this week since Fulmer's team is playing a defense coached by "highly acclaimed" Joe Lee Dunn. How Dunn ever became such a sought-after and respected coordinator might be a greater mystery than the collapse of the Volunteer program during the 2005 season. Memphis has given up over 20 points in 6 of 8 games this season, and the Tigers have surrendered 0ver 30 3 times. This Tiger High generosity is due largely in part to the "innovative" schemes of Dunn such as playing 2 down linemen against a UAB team that continued to run it down their throats. While U cheaT may no longer have an offensive coordinator, any body with an IQ over 100 could figure out a way to score on the Tigers. So, expect the Vols to keep their bowl hopes alive by avoiding their 5th straight loss. Fortunately for Memphis, it won't exactly be time to panic because they still have 2 very winnable games left to make them bowl eligible.

Well, there you have it folks. In closing, I'd like to point everyone's attention to the fact that Notre Dame has actually dropped in my Top 15. I know this is impossible for some of you to believe, but I am finally growing weary of the love shown to the Irish this year despite their loss to an unranked team and only beating one ranked team. That should never warrant a BCS at-large bid. Anyways, hope you enjoyed the All-SEC version this week, and enjoy the weekend....O yea, 1 more thing. I was actually told this week that, in essence, it was George W. Bush's fault that Southern Miss lost to Alabama earlier in the season b/c the Eagles would've won the game had it not been for Hurricane Katrina...and we all know who caused Katrina don't we???

Thursday, November 03, 2005

November Rain

When it rains, it pours. While April is usually designated as the month that brings us showers, for college football fans, it seems that November is the time of year that it most feels like the sky is falling in regardless of whether your team is winning or losing. For those teams that are performing less successfully than anticipated, it is during this home stretch of the schedule that they appear to catch fewer and fewer breaks as their respective programs eventually collapse into a complete state of disarray. This disintegration is usually followed (or sometimes preceded) by the proverbial hot seat that opportunistically settles in behind the desks in coaches' offices all across the country in College Town, USA. And as the seat warms up, more times than not, the quality of play cools down. On the other hand, teams that are winning (specifically undefeated ones) have to confront some storms as well. However, unlike the storms that have already touched down in the backyards of their futile counterparts, these gales have not quite made landfall but instead are still in the warning stages. What type of storms are these? They are the ones of the possible postseason snub. Just like clockwork, as the calendar turns to the last few weeks of the football season, the nation realizes yet again that the method with which a champion is chosen in IA college football is both archaic and arbitrary. The "system"--if it may even be called that--is no more complex than the manner in which teams are chosen on the playground in grammar school. We all remember the guy who was the 1st pick. No matter whether he was truly deserving of his top pick status or not, he was always given the benefit of the doubt simply because he was chosen before anyone else. Similarly, the teams that are ranked high before the season ever starts are allowed their position of supremacy over others throughout the year merely because they were put there first. That definitely sounds like a logical reason to me. Does it not to you? Furthermore, when the creators and supporters of this absurd scheme argue that "it will all work out in the end," and "you just have to be patient," they sound more like the addicted gambler who can't leave the Blackjack table: despite continuing to lose, he knows his "system" is going to work if he just waits a little longer for the right cards. But we all know that Las Vegas wasn't built by people with the best interest of others at heart. Likewise, we also are aware that college football's best interest is not being served by the architects behind the current postseason format. However, in spite of these annual dilemmas brought on by our autumn passion, we continue to feed our craving for college football in hopes that one day the rain that comes at the end of each and every season will eventually become showers of blessing.

Now, to the picks...

Alabama 24, Mississippi State 3. All across the Magnolia State this week, writers and dreamers alike have been reminding football fans of that fateful day in early November of 1980 when a highly overmatched Bulldog team took down an undefeated and top ranked team from Alabama in possibly the biggest upset in the "storied" history of Mississippi State football. In an effort to recreate the magic of that Saturday 25 years ago, Slyvester Croom has employed more than his share of motivational tactics to prepare his team for the arrival of the SEC's best this weekend. Encouraging all fans to wear the same color, designating every player from Alabama on the State roster as a game captain, and starting a new quarterback in an effort to revive a breathless offense are just some of the ploys utilized by the 2nd year head coach in preparation for Saturday's contest. But, even if David Copperfield himself dressed out in a maroon jersey this weekend, the Bulldogs still wouldn't be able to garner enough magic to pull off this upset. However, his presence would explain the inevitable disappearance of an opposing team to the Tide as it may look like, at times, that Mike Shula's team is on the field all by itself this weekend. While the game may be closer than expected (Alabama has had to come from behind in both games this year against MS teams), there's no way an offense that put up 7 points against a wretched Kentucky team will suddenly be able to score on the nation's 3rd ranked defense, even if they do now have a 175 pound Freshman QB. So, when it's all said and done at Scott Field on Saturday, the Tide will be 9-0 and ready for its 2 final exams against its real SEC West opponents to close out the year.

Notre Dame 17, Tennessee 14 (OT). One coach got a 10 year extension, and the other gave his 10 week notice (maybe less if the Vols don't make a bowl). This pretty much sums up the state of the 2 programs that will be on display in South Bend this weekend. The combination of amazing success at Notre Dame, unanticipated failure at Tennessee, and the Irish having 2 weeks to prepare for the Vols have caused many experts to write this game off as another win over a top football school for Charlie Weis in his inaugural season. But, in the words of Lee Corso, "Not so fast!" The Golden Domers may have one of the most productive offenses in the nation, but that is a result of playing poor defenses. When the Irish face a real defense this weekend (as they did when they played in Ann Arbor), don't expect the points to come as easily as viewers from across the nation finally begin to understand why the point production has been so low in the SEC this season. However, the Vols, who have been "suffering from a severe case of offensive constipation," (as eloquently articulated by ESPN Sr. Writer Ivan Maisel) probably won't be able to reach the end zone enough to pull out the victory as losing their offensive coordinator during game week preparations will prove to not be the most effective laxative. Expect this game, like 2 previous ones played at Notre Dame Stadium this year, to come down to the last play. But this time, the Irish will be on the winning end for a change.

Virginia Tech 20, Miami 17. For the 2nd week in a row, the eyes of the nation are focused on Blacksburg, VA, as the Hokies face another former Big East comrade in a game whose ramifications will not only be felt throughout the ACC but also the rest of the nation. With a victory over the Hurricanes this weekend, Frank Beamer's team will pretty much be guaranteed an undefeated regular season as Virginia (4-3) and North Carolina (3-4) are all that await the Hokies before the inaugural ACC championship game. And a Miami win gives the Canes the tiebreaker needed if both teams finish with just one loss. Even though Marcus Vick steals most of the Hokie spotlight and Miami is more accustomed to producing Bernie Kosar's, Gino Torreta's, and Ken Dorsey's than Warren Sapp's, the defenses will be the dominant forces in this matchup featuring 2 quarterbacks with only 15 career starts between them. And if we've learned anything this year, it's that voters would rather see a good offense than a great defense any day--regardless of what ridiculous uniforms Nike makes for these teams this week. Therefore, despite a late-season win over a top 5 opponent, Virginia Tech will still be on the outside looking in at a chance to play for the national championship.

Penn St. 35, Wisconsin 21. In the Big 11 this year, 2 coaches nearing the end of the road are out to prove that you can teach an old dog new tricks. By opening up the playbook more and finally using a quarterback who's not purely a pocket passer, Joe Paterno has led the Nittany Lions back near the top of the national polls. On the other sideline, Barry Alvarez has forsaken his predilection of the stocky, powerful backs of Ron Dayne and Anthony Davis and has turned to the finesse of Brian Calhoun, a Colorado transfer who was placed at wide receiver in Boulder. So, when these 2 football stalwarts face off this weekend in Beaver Stadium, it may seem more like a game played out West than in the North as the scoreboard will be lit up all day long. But the boys from University Park, PA, should burn more of the bulbs as the Badger defense ranks near the bottom in the nation in points allowed while Penn St. has All-American LB Paul Posluszny to keep Calhoun in check.

South Carolina 27, Arkansas 13. One week after Steve Spurrier officially marked his return to the SEC by throwing some more blows at his old punching bag in Knoxville, he takes his South Carolina team on the road again in search of win number 6, which would make the Gamecocks bowl-eligible. In Spurrier's 3 previous encounters with the Razorbacks, he's dominated the Hogs by an average score of 44-6, so a trip to the Nutt-House at D.W. Reynolds stadium shouldn't cause too much concern for a team that just conquered Neyland Stadium. All season long Houston Nutt's ball club has been looking for that elusive 1st conference win. In an effort to increase his chances this week, Nutt's wasting a year of eligibility for Freshman QB Casey Dick by naming him the starter for Saturday's matchup by pulling off his red shirt. But this won't solve the problem either. Instead, it'll only increase the Gamecock's chance of accomplishing the ol' ball coach's goal of playing in the postseason in his 1st year back in the SEC.

Well, that'll do it for another week. I hope you liked the picks, but if you didn't, I apologize. I've been suffering from a severe case of prediction constipation...Have a good weekend and come back next week to see who will make it to the SEC championship in Atlanta.