Peiser's Picks: Who's the best of the unbeatens?

USC and Oklahoma are firmly entrenched as the leaders for the Orange Bowl, but are they the two best teams in the land? Not necessarily, writes VandyMania college football guru <b>Howell Peiser</b>, who handicaps the nation's remaining unbeatens and issues his picks for this weekend's games.<BR><I>Peiser is 23-7 on the year vs. the spread.</i>

Halfway through the season, the preseason No. 1 and 2 college football teams remain firmly entrenched as the leaders for the January party known as the Orange Bowl. But are USC and Oklahoma the two best teams? Maybe-- then again, maybe not. About a dozen teams are still in the hunt for the coveted invitations. Here's a look at the contenders in a muddied field. (No team, including OU and USC, is one of the best of all time; it is a relatively balanced year.)

USC: This Trojan club is considerably weaker than last year's squad. The defense isn't the juggernaut of 2003. Matt Leinart is still highly competent, but Norm Chow's offense has become so copied that the opposing defenses are more prepared to limit it. The talent is still the best, but this team is "fiddling." It could easily run the table, but there are at least two teams left on the schedule which could beat the Trojans.

Oklahoma: I think the Sooners are the best team as of today. Freshman tailback Adrian Peterson is better than Maurice Clarett, who led Ohio State to the national title his freshman year. Defending Heisman Trophy winner Jason White isn't going to be an NFL star, but he gets the job done at the collegiate level. Ask Mack Brown how good the Sooner stop troops are. Road games at Oklahoma State and Texas A&M will be challenges, but the Sooners are on a mission. I think they will run the table and head to Miami.

Miami: Can you believe the Hurricanes are getting very little publicity? Assuming Miami beat unbeaten Louisville Thursday (I'm writing on Wednesday), the Canes have only one team left on their schedule with a legitimate chance to beat them. Miami plays at Virginia Nov. 13. You'd have to think the Canes would be favored over anyone at the Orange Bowl. Miami has excellent team speed on both sides of the ball, as well as more than adequate strength in the trenches. I think they will win the national championship. They are good enough to beat Oklahoma on a neutral field, and the Championship game would be a home game for the Hurricanes.

Auburn: Can the Tigers run the table and win the SEC championship game? The two toughest teams left on the schedule, Georgia and Arkansas, must visit the Plains. The Iron Bowl is in Tuscaloosa this year, and the Tide would love nothing better than to send a 10-0 Tigers team back home 10-1. The Tide has twice pegged the only regular season loss on Auburn in the past 35 years. The Tigers' defense and power running game will keep it in contention, and it could run the table if the passing game continues to be above-average. In a possible Orange Bowl match up, I see USC, Miami, or Oklahoma beating the Tigers.

Purdue: Kyle Orton is the leader for the Heisman by a huge margin over the rest of the field. The next two games for the Boilermakers are home tilts with Wisconsin and Michigan. If Purdue comes out of these still undefeated, then the final four games should be theirs as well. Purdue has some question marks on defense, and a good passer can exploit their secondary. The only really good passer whom they will face is Northwestern's Brett Basanez. Can the Wildcats pull off two big upsets in one season? Yes, they can, but I think Purdue will lose one of their next two and make it a moot point.

Wisconsin: The Badgers' defense has played more like a team from the 1950's. Wisconsin is surrendering only 6.5 points a game! As long as Anthony Davis and Matt Bernstein stay healthy, Barry Alvarez has a shot to run the table. The major stumbling block is this weekend's match at Purdue. I think Purdue has a 60-65% chance of winning, so The Badgers will probably have to settle for 10-1 or 9-2.

Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are one-dimensional. Their rushing attack ranks near the top of the NCAA at just under 300 yards per game. OSU throws the ball less than 10 times per game, and Donovan Woods is not a quarterback who can go 18-of-30 for 250 yards against quality competition. Teams like Oklahoma and Texas will be able to contain Vernond Morency, while the OSU defense is good but not great. Home games with a vastly improved Texas A&M and rival Oklahoma, plus road games at Missouri and Texas mean Oklahoma State will lose two or three times.

Arizona State: The distant number two in the Heisman race might be Sun Devil signal caller Andrew Walter. Dirk Koetter started the season on the hot seat in Tempe, but at 5-0, his job is secure. ASU travels to Los Angeles with a chance to make headlines against USC. The Trojans are ripe for the upset this week, but I don't think State will definitely win. Even if it can top the Trojans, ASU has to play Cal on the road and must host UCLA. Arizona State should be happy to go 9-2.

Virginia: The Cavaliers haven't been this good since 1990, when they were ranked number one at the start of November. That team lost a tough game against eventual National Co-Champ Georgia Tech. My gut feeling is the Cavs will lose a close ball game in Tallahassee this weekend then play their best game of the season against Miami later in the year and make it close. Virginia has few liabilities on either side of the ball, and one of the better special teams in the nation. I think they could be vulnerable to a good passing quarterback. The last half of the schedule is considerably tougher with games against Florida State, Maryland, Miami, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech. I see the Cavs falling at least twice.

The One-Loss Teams

Michigan, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida State, California, Texas, and UCLA all have glimmers of hope if the unbeatens start falling. Of the one-loss teams out there, if Michigan can run the table the rest of the way, it has the best shot at creeping into the title picture. Florida State could get there by winning out if USC and Oklahoma both lose, and Miami is the opponent. Georgia, California, Tennessee, and Texas need too much help to be serious contenders, but they have slim chances. UCLA is a very long shot at best if it can win out impressively against the likes of California, Arizona State and a still-unbeaten USC.

The Mid-Major Unbeatens

As of this writing Louisville is still unbeaten, but the Cardinals should have one loss by the time you read this. Assuming it pulled off the big upset, Louisville has a legitimate shot at breaking into the BCS (not the Orange Bowl) if it runs the table. Southern Miss is also unbeaten and doesn't face Louisville this year. I think the Golden Eagles will lose a close game at Alabama Saturday to kill all their hopes. Navy has a shot at 11-0, but the Midshipmen will not crack the BCS party, even if they win out.

Out west, Utah and Boise State remain undefeated. The Utes' win over Texas A&M looks much better now than it did originally. Utah must play at San Diego State and at Wyoming. One of those two could very well pull off the upset and spoil the season. At 11-0, Utah deserves strong consideration for a BCS bowl. Boise State probably has the best shot of all the mid-majors at running the table. For the Broncos to crack a BCS bowl, Tennessee, Georgia, Cal, Texas, Florida State, and all the runners-up in the Big Ten must finish with two losses. It looks very improbable, but Boise State could move up to a higher second-level bowl, as it did last year when it beat TCU in the Fort Worth Bowl. If Utah lands in a BCS bowl, the Broncos could replace Utah in the Liberty Bowl.

Last Week's Vandy Game

It's hard to write anything about this game that hasn't already been reported, but here goes. I wasn't surprised Rutgers came back and scored 37 points. It has nothing to do with "Same Ol' Vandy" syndrome. In the first half, the Knights hurt themselves with several mistakes. Vandy's defense wasn't doing much differently in the second half than it did in the first half; it did look a little fatigued in the final 20 minutes, and that's why our secondary may have given up too much cushion.

We just don't have enough 4-star athletes. If we had 15 more players as good as Justin Geisinger, Matt Tant, and Jovan Haye, we would be 4-1 today. I do not blame the coaches nor the players; I blame the situation. We just cannot recruit enough talent and depth to excel on both sides of the ball simultaneously. It's a numbers game.

I remember a statement made by Woody Widenhofer after Vandy lost to MTSU in 2000. He said his team "didn't know how to win." At the time, I thought Woody had suffered a mental breakdown, but the quote has stuck in the back of my head for four years. I don't think Woody was being overly harsh or giving destructive criticism; he just wasn't as tactful as he needed to be. I interpret the quote thusly: Vandy's players may be subconsciously lacking the confidence needed to win the close ones. Some self-help gurus actually believe a lack of confidence can be broadcasted non-verbally to those around you. Hence, the referees keep calling close plays against our beloved Commodores. I don't have the answer for the perceived confidence deficiency. Often a major shift can bring about confidence if it is followed up by some form of immediate success.

What might this major shift be? I'd consider throwing the ball 60 times against Georgia and letting the chips fall. We might complete 35 for 350 to 400 yards and still lose 63-35, but it could give our players the needed boost and confidence to blow Eastern Kentucky and Kentucky off the field and throw a major scare into Florida. Without some form of confidence boost, Vandy is looking at yet another two-win season.

This Week's Vandy Game

This could get a little ugly Saturday. Georgia will be meaner than a junkyard dog between the hedges. I could see a scenario where the Dogs win 45-0 and hold Vandy to less than 150 total yards, especially if the Commodores try to run the ball 65-70% of the time. Georgia has had a lot of reps practicing against the option this year, as they opened the season with Georgia Southern and their spread option attack. I don't think Vandy can run outside with much success this week, and the inside game isn't going to get it done either. That leaves the horizontal and vertical passing game. David Greene won't have to do much but hand the ball off and get out of the way. Remember South Carolina? The Bulldogs will try the same approach, and it should work. The spread is low at 23, but you can never tell when Coach Richt will call off the dogs. I'd lay off the game.

This Week's Picks

Last week, I missed a perfect 3-0 record when Ole Miss came out of nowhere to upset South Carolina and spoil an otherwise perfect 4-team parlay. I went 2-1 for the second week in a row to run my record to 23-7 for the year. The pressure is starting to mount, as it just isn't feasible to continue to beat the spread by 70%. 58-60% is considered very good and guarantees a winning year where it counts. I'd be foolish to expose myself enough to drop down to that level, but since this is just for fun, I will play the part of the fool and keep picking liberally.

UNLV - 2 1/2 vs. New Mexico: John Robinson announced his retirement effective at the end of the 2004 season, just after UNLV lost to a weak Utah State team to start 0-4. Since then, the Rebels have won impressively over Nevada and BYU. They have a remote chance of getting to 6-5, and this is a must game if they are going to get there. The Lobos are a bit down this year and appear headed to a losing record. My pick: UNLV.

Stanford -1 vs. Washington State: The Pac-10 seems to run in cycles at the bottom. Stanford has been down for a few years, while the Cougars have had success. The teams are ready to switch places. This could be the Cardinal's year to go bowling, while WSU is headed to eighth or ninth in the league. My Pick: Stanford.

Marshall -550 Kent +425: I'm playing the money line here. Marshall is playing well enough to wrap up the MAC East race, while Kent is the bottom-feeder. The Herd should thunder over flashless Kent.

Georgia Tech vs. Duke 44 O/U: I think Duke will score some points in this game. The Blue Devils won't win, and they may fail to beat the spread, but they should score 17 to 23 points. Georgia Tech is good for four touchdowns in this game. 28+17 = 45, which is what I think the minimum total score will be. My Pick: Over 44

3-Team, 10-point Teaser Parlay: South Carolina -1 vs. Kentucky; Marshall -3 vs. Kent; and Washington +16 1/2 vs. Oregon State. Even in Lexington, I cannot see Kentucky knocking off USC. The Gamecocks will play with purpose after losing to Ole Miss last week. Marshall at -3 sounds safe. Oregon State was a victim of an early killer schedule. The Beavers are headed to 4-7 or worse. Washington is no better and is also headed for a losing record. At home, I like Washington to keep it close or win outright, so +16 1/2 is gravy.

3-Team, 10-point Teaser Parlay: UNLV +7 1/2 vs. New Mexico; Toledo - 3 1/2 vs. Ohio U; Rutgers -3 vs. Temple. If I like UNLV at -2 1/2, I love them at +7 1/2. Toledo is on a roll offensively and should drill Ohio by double digits. If Rutgers can beat Vandy on the road by 3, they should easily beat an even weaker Temple team at home by more.

4-Team, 13-point Teaser Parlay: Ole Miss + 23 1/2 vs. Tennessee; Wisconsin +20 vs. Purdue; Notre Dame +6 vs. Navy; Illinois +32 vs. Michigan. Ole Miss returns home to play Tennessee. Last week, both pulled off big upsets on the road. This is a system pick. The "system" says always go with the home team in this situation (home team is double-digit dog following upset road wins for both teams). Giving Ole Miss an extra 13 points allows me to feel comfortable. Wisconsin's defense will keep them within striking distance. I cannot see Purdue winning by more than 7, and the Badgers are capable of staying unbeaten. Notre Dame has beaten Navy every time since Roger Staubach's Heisman Trophy season. Even if Navy ends the drought, it should be by only 3 points. I am taking Illinois here as a hedge. As you will see, I am also taking Michigan the other way in the next wager.

4-Team, 13-point Teaser Parlay: Michigan -6 vs. Illinois; Colorado +3 vs. Iowa State; Oklahoma -7 vs. Kansas State; Memphis -10 1/2 vs. Tulane. By taking Michigan here and Illinois above, I am guessing the Wolverines will win by 7 to 31 points. Colorado is in a must-win situation against The Cyclones if they are to finish 6-5 and get a bowl bid. Oklahoma should get their revenge Saturday, but their conservative style necessitates putting them here. Memphis should clobber Tulane by 28 points, but my gut instinct says play them here for safety. I don't trust Joe Lee Dunn's defense. It can backfire and give up too many cheap scores.

******

With the weather finally starting to change, let me paint a verbal portrait of the perfect football-watching day. You have a warm fire blazing in the fireplace in the den and enough firewood to last through the final TV game. Your sweet, beautiful wife, who loves football as much as you, has prepared the best festival-style dinner (the type you eat at 1 pm) with your favorite comfort food, and you eat it in your La-Z-Boy in front of the TV. As the temperature outside drops into the mid 30's, the two of you cuddle up on the couch inside your favorite afghan or blanket and watch your team win as you sip your favorite hot beverage.

Ah, autumn weekends. Enjoy them. We don't get many like that, especially here in the Southeast.


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