NATIONAL TOP 25
(Note: This is not a talent ranking of how good these teams are, but rather a look at how they'll perform against their remaining schedules and where they'll be ranked on January 9.)
This week: when Michigan is on offense.
Can they run the ball? Mike Hart is the best in the country at turning minus-2s into plus-3s, and they will need that from him all afternoon. The left side of the line, from center Mark Bihl to tackle Jeff Long, the best at his position in the country, is something special, but the right side is just middling – can it hold up in pass protection? How healthy is Mario Manningham? Chad Henne was playing at an NFL-level through the Penn State game a month ago, but then Manningham went down, and his throwing has regressed enormously. If he can connect deep with any of his three big-play receivers, watch out. Defensively, for Ohio State, the secondary is superb, the defensive line merely good, and linebacker James Laurinaitis something special.
3. USC (6-1, Last: 2)
Last: Won vs. Oregon, 35-10
Next: vs. Cal
How the proverbial Red Sea has parted for the Trojans – win out and only Florida and the loser of that game in Columbus separate the Trojans from a shot at yet another title. The loss has awakened the Trojans, and this team is now playing with the passion of years past. Watch out, Notre Dame.
Ugly win after ugly win usually means the team is going to drop one soon, but if the Gators do not, their strength of schedule should be enough to push them into the national title game. With all the talent on offense, the current struggles are unconscionable and someone needs to lose his job over this.
Guess they are for real after all. Proof that solid defensive fundamentals and inspired, hard-nosed play can overcome moderate talent discrepancies after all. Hope they are listening over in the Athletic Department... This week, be warned. Cincinnati is flying under the radar, but plays the big boys tough. I smell an upset brewing.
One loss and everyone writes this team off? A win against Rutgers, which should happen, and these Mountaineers are right back in a tie atop the Big East, looking at a BCS bowl at a minimum. The rushing game continues to dazzle.
7. Louisville (8-1, Last: 4)
Last: Lost at Rutgers, 28-25 (November 9)
Next: vs. South Florida
Imagine being the defensive end who jumps off-side on Rutgers' missed field goal in the last minute, only to be whistled and then watch the guy boot it through. Nice gumption by the officials for making the correct call and not swallowing their whistles in the game's key moments.
Another tune-up for LSU and Florida in the SEC Title Game for the only team south of the Mason-Dixon line to still believe in an actual offense. The fact that they can score 30-plus on the Tennessees of this world suggests to me that it really is more bad offense than good defense carrying the SEC banner right now.
Closing out the season in style. The Badgers duck Ohio State this year, but worry not, this one will be sure to bolster the strength of schedule. As the rest of the Top 10 beats itself up, these Badgers will be awfully hard for a BCS bowl to overlook.
Congratulations Notre Dame on capturing the Commander-in-Chief trophy. I am not saying that gaudy record is inflated, but the Irish have done more damage to the service academies since anyone since (Donald Rumsfeld/Bill Clinton/insert ideological opposite here). USC is going to torch their non-existent secondary and win by Matt Leinart margins.
Looking ahead to USC a little? Or perhaps Arizona's exemplary offensive playcalling (exhibit A: this year's Stanford-Arizona game) did in the Bears. No matter, that loss is a killer to their BCS at-large hopes. That likely would have been a Rose Bowl berth had USC played their way into the national title game.
After cruising through the part of the season where their schedule was as challenging as their classes, the Tigers are back to struggling against teams with pulses. Their loss this week officially eliminates them from SEC Title contention, bringing Arkansas (Phil Steele, perhaps the only man in America who called this, looks like a genius) one step closer to the promised land.
Kansas State pulled off its biggest win since a guy with a letter of a name (Ell Roberson, to be specific) lined up under center. I wonder if Ell had siblings. Jay? Dee? Back in Austin, the defense has all but quit.
14. Boise State
San Jose State acquitted themselves well against their toughest opponent (no offense, Cardinal) of the season. At 6-3 now, David Marrero's future school is probably looking at a minor bowl berth with another win or two. Boise meanwhile, is a lock for the BCS if they win out.
LSU lost two early to Auburn and Florida, and the national media wrote them off. (See: Virginia Tech.) But ever since, they have been really good, and right now, are playing better football than quite a few of those teams ranked above them. If all the cards fall right, maybe a BCS at-large berth is in the mix, but I would not count on it.
Here is yet another team written off after two early losses that is starting to click. I do not know if you can place bets for this type of thing yet (although I am sure some readers would know), but I have to like their 2008 national title odds right now.
17. Wake Forest
Will this year's Cinderella (Rutgers excluded) turn into a pumpkin with Virginia Tech's visit this week? Control the special teams, try to slow down and stay in the game and let the home fans start to believe and who knows what could happen for Rutgers. Still, they are staring at a mountain of a talent discrepancy, and Frank Beemer should find a way to exploit it.
Is anyone in the Top 25 playing worse than this team right now? This is not the type of rebound year the Vols needed after the catastrophe that was last season. Have to imagine Phil Fulmer's seat is a little toasty.
19. Georgia Tech
If either of Stanford's top-two quarterbacks replaced Reggie Ball on this team, they'd be undefeated and in the thick of the national title discussion. Plus, Notre Dame would have another loss. He holds his team back more than anyone I've seen in this game.
20. Virginia Tech
After a sputtering start, the Hokies are playing like one of the top 10 teams in the country, though voters are unfairly biased against them this season because of an overall vanilla ACC. I think they would take Wake by three touchdowns on a neutral field today.
Never did I think I would write stealthy and Ralph Friedgen in the same sentence, but the game's prominent overweight offensive genius, pre-Charlie Weis, is back at the top of his game again. Anytime the Terps beat Florida State, you know it is a special season. It will not happen because of voter (and bowl) bias toward big-name schools, but how awesome would it be to see a team like this, instead of, say, an underachieving Texas, in the Fiesta Bowl?
The bigger the opposition, the more likely the Ducks are to disappear completely, as USC discovered this week. Must mean it is time for another uniform makeover.
23. Boston College
What could have been a great season will now just be a good one for a team that saw an opportunity of a lifetime (ACC as down as it will be for decades) slip through its fingers. Do give these guys credit for Wake Forest's only loss of the season however.
Yet another middling, offensively struggling ACC team. I think it becomes clearer by the year that the only Bowden worthy of a college football coaching job wears a big cowboy hat and is named Bobby.
8-2 is 8-2, but on talent these guys are not in the Top 40. Never underestimate voter sentimentality (read: stupidity), though. The Cougars did lay a Pete Carroll on Wyoming, the best team you have never heard of, this past week.
RAMBLINGS 'ROUND THE COUNTRY
Weekly BCS Projection:
ACC: Georgia Tech over Wake Forest
Big East: West Virginia
Big 10: Michigan
Big 12: Texas over Nebraska
SEC: Florida over Arkansas
At-large: Ohio State
At-large: Boise State
At-large: Notre Dame
Projected Heisman finalists, and order of finish:
1. Troy Smith, Ohio State – All comes down to this.
2. Brady Quinn, Notre Dame – Will have his chance against USC.
3. Mike Hart, Michigan – A big game Saturday could vault him to the top.
4. Ray Rice, Rutgers – Why not? Just keep winning.
RANKING THE CONFERENCES
Because there is nothing I love more than some hate mail.
I look at them top-to-bottom, obviously more so at the top. Quick, dirty question that sheds a lot of light on the topic: compare each conference's fourth-place team.
1. SEC (Florida, Arkansas, LSU, Auburn, Tennessee)
2. Big 10 (Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State, Iowa)
3. ACC (Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Maryland, Clemson)
4. Pac-10 (USC, Cal, Oregon, Washington State, Oregon State)
5. Big 12 (Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas A&M, Texas Tech)
6. Big East (Rutgers, West Virginia, Louisville, Pittsburgh, South Florida)
BIG GAMES ON TAP
Season: 16-14 ATS, 17-13 SU.
Last week: 0-3. West Virginia, Tennessee and Boston College each lost to underdog Louisville, LSU and Wake Forest. Ouch.
1. Michigan at Ohio State – Defense wins championships. Michigan's, especially against the run, is better. The teams are so evenly matched that one or two big plays could make all the difference. Michigan 24, Ohio State 21 (OT).
2. Cal at USC – Both teams should be able to shut down the run. If so, I think you, me and the rest of college football nation knows who will dominate in the air. The Rose Bowl drought lives on. USC 31, Cal 17.
3. Virginia Tech at Wake Forest – Guess it is time for me to back up my claims in the poll with an actual prediction. Boston College made me look very silly doing this two weeks ago, but Virginia Tech has worlds more talent than Wake – I have to pick this. Virginia Tech 41, Wake Forest 14.
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