Really crappy slate of games this week. LSU-Alabama is your headliner and Penn State-Ohio State is your number two, but then what? Oregon State-Cal? Oklahoma-Nebraska? You could make a serious argument that Stanford-Oregon is the third-best game of the week. That's not an all an indictment of Stanford, but the Card are 5-3 and could miss a bowl game entirely. Next week, by contrast, we'll have Notre Dame-Pitt, Cal-Arizona, Iowa-Ohio State and Utah-TCU. None of those teams are in jeopardy of missing any bowl games, and even that is a relatively subpar week. Then again, sometimes the worst weeks on paper turn out to be the ones with the most exciting games. Plus, of course, if Stanford does pull the upset, it could legitimately be one of the weekend's headline results. Speaking of which…
On Stanford +5.5
Fans are usually irrationally enthusiastic about their team's chances of victory, but this week, Stanford fans have held a much more pessimistic view of their team than the experts have. (You normally only see such pessimism in a fan base after a series of demoralizing losses when fans think their team is worse than it really is.) We at Bet the Farm are no exception, and expected a line of Oregon -8 or Oregon -9. (Turns out we would end up pretty close, though Clinton Snyder's injury probably moved the line more than anything.) Thus, when Oregon opened just 5.5-point favorites we too were surprised. And, hey, the line does stand out, so we'll be picking Oregon to cover and desperately hoping we're wrong.
Then again, we tend to listen heavily to Vegas in situations like this on the rare occasion we don't defer to them outright. So a closer-than-expected line says several things to me:
1. Stanford coming off a bye week is more important than we realize. Probably true.
2. The potential for Oregon to let down after their USC win is a factor. Probably true.
3. Both teams' home-field advantages are larger than average. Probably true. For Oregon, Autzen is one of the most intense places to play in the country, so it makes sense they'd suffer a larger than average drop-off on the road. For the Card, the current Stanford Stadium certainly does not fall into that category of most intense places in the country, but for whatever reason, Stanford has been about 16 points better at home than on the road over the last two years, no exaggeration. Quirk or trend? We'll see tomorrow.
4. We're overreacting to the latest data point on Oregon, namely their USC victory. Probably true.
5a. USC is not that good. Probably true.
5b. By extension, Oregon is not that good. We'll find out soon enough.
6. Matchups go Stanford's way. Possibly true. On defense, who exactly is a good matchup for Stanford? The Card have been most susceptible in pass coverage, so for Oregon to be a run-first team might be a better matchup for Stanford than an equally good pass-first offense, like the USC offenses of yore (or Notre Dame in a few weeks' time). Not that Oregon's offense is a good matchup per se, just that it could be worse. Okay.
Oregon's defense is quick and built to defend the spread, but could struggle with Stanford's grind-it-out offense. Possibly true as well.
So there you have it: 5.5 doesn't look so crazy anymore and the good guys have a better shot than we realize. Speaking of Stanford's grind-it-out offense though, I think a major underrated reason to be optimistic about Stanford in the years to come is their contrarian offensive scheme. The game is evolving to ever faster offenses that are spreading the field in more and more ways by the year. Obviously spread concepts have worked wonders (and won national titles) for Urban Meyer and Chip Kelly and Rich Rodriguez and the rest, but defenses take notice and evolve. Indeed, to defend against the spread, defenses are getting faster and lighter by the year. Size is out and speed is in. These concepts are starting to work to slow down the spread, but, of course, no strategy is perfect. And a light defense is most susceptible to get gushed between the tackles – which is exactly where Stanford prefers to attack.
However, I do see two potential downsides, long-term, should Stanford choose to maintain its power-rushing identity post-Gerhart. The first is that high schools take their cues from the college game, and as more and more high schools shift to the spread, it's going to be harder to find recruits used to running a traditional pro-style offense. (Know any good wishbone quarterbacks we could recruit? Exactly.) The second concern, potentially more serious, is that your defense is arguably doomed to be a step too slow if you're running a power offense, both because the D practices against the O daily and because many players recruited for an offensive position will inevitably be switched to the other side of the ball over the course of their career. Recruit big, lumbering players for offense, and soon enough, you're going to have a big, lumbering (read: slow) team. Stanford, of course, can adjust by specifically recruiting speedy back seven guys, as they're attempting to do in the 2010 and 2011 classes, to bolster the D's overall speed.
Still, all in all, I think it's a good omen that Stanford is running the offense of a decade ago, while opposing defenses continue to freak out in trying to prepare for the offense of a decade from now. Because if teams are having this much trouble stopping a simple power run now, good luck when all your defenders are 15 pounds lighter.
Enough with the theory, here are our picks…
Boise State -20 at Louisiana Tech
Vanderbilt +35 at Florida
Oregon -6.5 vs. Stanford
Oregon State +7.5 at Cal
Minnesota -6.5 vs. Illinois
USC – 10 at Arizona State
Michigan -5.5 vs. Purdue
Wisconsin -10.5 at Indiana
BYU -13 at Wyoming
Oklahoma -4 at Nebraska
Last week: 4-6
Last week: 2-1. USC's dynastic run drew to a close, but Florida and Texas won big.
1. LSU +8 at Alabama
LSU's only loss was to Florida and I think Alabama would lose to Florida too, so that ‘Bama is one ahead in the loss column doesn't do much for me. I do think Alabama wins this de facto SEC West Title Game, but they haven't cracked 22 in the last three weeks. I'm taking the points in what should be a low-scoring affair.
2. Penn State -4 vs. Ohio State
Penn State outgained Iowa in its sole loss and has won every other game by at least 18 points. I think the Lions of Nittany are the Big Ten's best team, so for them to be essentially even-money against Ohio State at a hypothetical neutral site is lunacy. Ohio State's loss to USC doesn't look as impressive as it did two months ago and, in its last road game, it lost to Purdue. Purdue. Plus, the two-loss Buckeyes still have Iowa next week, so you could be looking at an 8-4 regular season team, worst-case 8-5 after a bowl. I'm taking the Lions, who I think are a future 11-1, over a potential four-loss Buckeye squad that will face a very hostile crowd in Benedict Arnold's (Terrelle Pryor) first return to his home state.
3. Oklahoma -4 vs. Nebraska
Oklahoma's three losses – to BYU, Texas and Miami, mind you – have come by a combined five points. Nebraska's last three weeks, meanwhile, look like this: 31-10 loss versus Texas Tech, 9-7 loss versus Iowa State, 20-10 ho-hum win over perennial bottom-feeder Baylor (who the Sooners beat by 26). The last time Oklahoma visited a Big 12 North team, it beat then-ranked Kansas 35-13, and I'd look for something similar here. Sorry Zhihao.
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