MO: Here we are: Week the Last. After an up and down season, we're headed towards the final installment of what has been a frustrating yet promising season at times. In addition to the annual UT/VU battle, college football is graced with a rare occurrence – a rivalry game with national title implications. The fact that it's Ohio St./Michigan only sweetens the pot, and it headlines a week's worth of great rivalry games. Enough jibber jabber, fools – let's get it on!!
JW: I pity the fool who isn't excited about the Michigan/OSU game. This is a matchup of epic proportions, and a very fitting game for a week full of quality games with all sorts of bowl game implications. This was the first week I had no problem coming up with some non-SEC games to talk about. Of course, whether I actually knew what I was talking about is a different matter altogether. Last week was a pretty bad week to be in the top ten. This week has a few more top ten teams facing possible upset bids, and at least one top ten team guaranteed to lose. With all that in mind, let's get to the picks!
W. Carolina @ UF (NL)
MO: We start with a real stinker of a game – Florida, fourth in the BCS, should wax the floor with Western Carolina. The problem? This game really hurts their BCS title hopes. Yes, their SEC schedule is strong, and out of conference match-ups with Southern Miss, Central Florida and now Western Carolina do nothing to the lauded Strength of Schedule component valued by the computer portion of the BCS calculation. The game itself is a laugher – I'll say Gators by 36 – but the larger implications are that Florida now has to hope that USC loses a game in order to control its fate to the national title game.
JW: I wonder if Florida considered the implications of this schedule for national title hopes, or did they just not think they'd be in the hunt this season? If you're in the SEC, you have to expect to lose at least one conference game...it's such a good conference, an undefeated streak is a rarity. Therefore, you need to schedule some pretty good opponents for your non-conference games to give you a better resume when BCS time rolls around, because you don't have the luxury of waltzing through the Pac-10 or Big 10 schedule unharmed. Complain all you want (and believe me, I certainly do), but that's how it goes. Florida will easily win this game, no doubt about it, but Mike's right - this might hurt their BCS standings and ultimately their chances of sneaking into the title game. Then again, it might not matter, depending on USC's game (see, that's a little foreshadowing to a later pick!)....Gators by 28.
MTSU @ S.Carolina (-16)
JW: As sad as I am to say this (still bitter about all those losses), MTSU is pretty good. Relatively speaking, that is. They've absolutely destroyed their Sun Belt Conference rivals, with the only "close" game coming against FIU to start the season, a game the Blue Raiders won 7-6. However, let's take a look at their non-conference games: @Maryland - lost, 24-10 - not bad, actually, considering how Maryland's doing now. @Oklahoma - lost, 59-0. Ouch. That looks more like a Div-IA vs. Div-IAA score. Louisville - lost, 44-17 - at least they put up some points. Tennessee Tech - won, 44-0. Yeah, well, Tech lost to Gardner-Wbb 30-26. So what does this all mean? MTSU is probably more competitive than any Vandy fan would like to admit, but let's face it - they're only competitive against Sun Belt-like competition. Playing an SEC-caliber team, even a so-so one like South Carolina, will end up with the same results as their other Div-IA non-conference games. This one shouldn't be a contest, and I imagine Spurrier's going to have fun turning his players loose. They'll need it too, after hitting the hard reality that at 5-2, they really hadn't played any of the top-tier SEC East teams yet. With a three-game losing streak on their hands, the Gamecocks are hoping to use MTSU as a tune-up for their annual rivalry game against Clemson. They have their work cut out for them next week, but this week should be pretty smooth sailing. Gamecocks by 20.
MO: Maybe we did good playing Michigan rather than MTSU to start the season? That's a discussion for another time – let's talk some Gamecocks. South Carolina has been put through the ringer since their win at Vanderbilt with home losses to Tennessee and Arkansas, as well as the close loss at Florida. All of those teams were ranked in the Top 12 at gametime, and South Carolina lost each game by no more than 7 points. They'll be rewarded for their strong performances against these great teams by punishing an improved MTSU team that I, for one, am glad we had no part of this season. The visor stays firmly on Steve's head this week, as South Carolina wins by 23.
Louisiana-Monroe @ UK (NL)
MO: I made fun of Florida's non-conference scheduling, but look at Kentucky – Texas State, Central Michigan and now UL-M. Based on their weak schedule, I'd love to play the karma card here and say they lose this game, but we saw last week that their offense is just too potent to held up by this level of talent. It'll be Cats all day, as they beat what might as well be their second 1-AA opponent of the season (whoop-deee-doo!) by 20.
JW: At least Kentucky had the excuse that nobody really thought they'd be in BCS contention, and hey, look! They were right! Of course, no matter what their talent level is, such a weak slate of teams is inexcusable. For shame, Kentucky! We all saw first-hand what Kentucky can do on the offensive side of the ball, and with a clearly inferior defense lining up against them, the Wildcats are going to move at will. This'll definitely be a snoozer, unless you're the type of person who likes to watch your friend set Madden to "very easy," play as the Colts, and destroy the Texans by 70. It might be fun playing those types of games, but it's definitely not a spectator sport. Wildcats by 31.
Ark. @ MSU (+14.5)
JW: Could this be the slip-up game that quiets some of the BCS "controversy" talk regarding Arkansas? The Hogs are the only undefeated team in the SEC (at least, they're undefeated in conference play), and are making a strong claim for a shot at the national championship, should they take the SEC crown. After trouncing Tennessee last week, that's sounding less and less far-fetched. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, only have pride to play for, but that is still quite a bit, considering their big upset of Alabama two weeks ago. State has had a couple of weeks to revel in the victory and get prepared for a home game against another top-ten team. Ever since their 42-14 loss to West Virginia, MSU hasn't looked as dreadful as they originally started out. They have two close losses to Georgia and Kentucky, a solid win against Jacksonville State, and a big upset against Bama. With the Egg Bowl next week, State is hoping to improve on their game even more, and I wouldn't be surprised if they put a scare into the Razorbacks. While I don't think the Bulldogs are talented enough to win this one outright, I think they'll give them a good game, with the Hogs ultimately winning by 13, happy to see their BCS hopes still alive, but also scared to death at almost being upset by a bottom-tier SEC team.
MO: After giving up 50 to USC in Fayatteville, Arkansas is going to need a LOT of help to make it into the title game; remember, every USC loss from here on makes that loss look worse. The worst part? Arkansas needs USC to lose in order to have any chance at being in Tempe on January 8th. Putting a beat-down against an improving Mississippi State team would help, but it probably won't be enough. Look for McFadden to have a career day on Saturday, and with the year he's had, that's saying something. Arkansas can and will clinch the SEC West with a victory in Starkville, winning by 20.
Auburn @ Alabama (+3)
MO: Ah, the Iron Bowl. So many jokes to make about Alabamans here, but I'll give a free pass this year, Jay. This shakes up to be a great game, with Auburn licking its wounds of Georgia asserted itself and showed that the SEC East is in fact the stronger of the two conference divisions. Alabama's coming off of a loss of their own to LSU, and could be in big trouble. You'd think that the game being in Tuscaloosa would be a big advantage for the Tide, but Auburn is actually 5-0 all-time in the city. In fact, they've won the last four, and I don't see that trend stopping this week. Without looking at the records (which mean NOTHING in this kind of game), I think Auburn comes in and cleans up after an embarrassing loss to Georgia – it's War Eagle all day long as the Tigers win by 17.
JW: You're too kind, Mike. I guess I'll lay off the "Braves choking" jokes for now (then again, there wasn't much of a choke needed this time around...zing!). This is another one of those rivalry games where all bets are off. However, it's hard to overlook Alabama's three-straight SEC losses (UT, MSU, LSU). Sure, Auburn had that ridiculous loss to Georgia, but look at what happened last time they lost an SEC game: after falling to Arkansas (which, at the time, was considered an upset), they came back and beat a very good Florida team by 10. There are other good storylines here, most notably Tommy Tuberville's classy "fear the thumb" campaign. Ok, the "fear the thumb" part isn't so bad, it's the coach himself reveling in the four straight wins that looks pretty silly. With all that in mind, you have to imagine Alabama is ready for the Tigers. However, I think ultimately Auburn keeps up its dominance in Bryant-Denny, and starts the new "fear the index finger of the left hand" campaign. Sure, not as catchy, but it gets the point across. Auburn by 7.
Ole Miss @ LSU (-28)
JW: I know there's a huge talent disparity here, and LSU has all the momentum in the world, while Ole Miss is essentially already hoping for a fresh start in 2007. But, having grown up in an Ole Miss household, when the LSU game rolls around, all best are off. Sure, it's not considered a high-level rivalry, not even in the SEC, but most LSU and Ole Miss fans will acknowledge it's pretty intense. Each team has had its fair share of big wins in this series. For instance, back in Eli Manning's senior year, it was LSU (and a few missed field goals) that kept Ole Miss from winning the SEC West for the first time ever. All of this is why I think this game will be closer than most people think. Now, I don't expect Ole Miss to win outright - they're playing in Baton Rouge, LSU is on a roll, and the Rebels aren't so hot - but I still think it could be a close game going into the fourth quarter. LSU has a lot to play for, still hoping for some miracle to allow them to win the SEC West, and they're definitely looking at a top-tier bowl game. The intensity of the rivalry should make this a decent game, but the Tigers will ultimately win this one by 14.
MO: It's going to be hard to concentrate on the picks here since I'm still seething about the Braves dig earlier. For shame, Jay. For. Shame. Luckily, there's not much analysis neeeded for this particular game, so I don't have to be al that focused. I can point out that last week's 14-point win against Alabama was actually the closest game they've had in Baton Rouge – the next closest is a 31-point drubbing of Mississippi State. I'd feel a lot better for Ole Miss if the game were in Oxford (LSU is just 1-2 on the road this season, though granted the losses were at Auburn and Florida), but not THAT much better. JaMarcus Russell strengthens his case for SEC Offensive Player of the Year as they get ready for a big game against Arkansas next week, beating Ole Miss by 35.
Indiana @ Purdue (-10)
MO: What a weird year for Indiana – after winning its first two games of the season, the Hoosiers went without Terry Hoeppner to brain surgery and promptly lost home games against Southern Illinois and Connecticut. The team bounced back later in the season and beat Illinois on the road, followed by upsetting the nationally ranked Iowa Hawkeyes. Since then, they're 1-3, including losses to Ohio St., Michigan and Minnesota, all in blowout fashion. Why is this important? I think that IU and VU have a lot of similarities – more of a basketball school in a tough football conference, haven't been to a bowl game in what seems like forever for its fans (1993), and at one time, both were coached by Jerry DiNardo. In this week's Battle for the Oaken Bucket game, I think they'll come out on top, beating a Purdue team that was shut out by Penn St. and just squeaked by a lousy Michigan St. team in a 2-point win. I think that Kellen Lewis will have a field day in an emotionally charged rivalry game that gets Indiana back into a bowl as they win by 13.
JW: Another great rivalry game, even when major bowl implications aren't on the line. This doesn't appear to be a very good matchup, though, with Indiana's up-and-down season, while the Boilermakers are doing relatively well. It's tough to predict which Indiana team will show up this week, but I'm going to say Purdue pulls this one off, but the win comes very late in the game. Both teams will have their fair share of mistakes, but look for Purdue to capitalize more. I like the VU/IU comparison, but I hope VU's rivalry game turns out differently this week. Purdue by 6.
UMD @ BC (-8.0)
JW: Maryland's been an impressive success story this season, and just has to get past BC to be able to play Wake Forest for the ACC Atlantic Division crown. After an October 7th close loss to Georgia Tech, the Terps have been on the opposite side of close games five straight times, gaining national attention in the process. The Eagles have had their fair share of close wins and two close losses, but they also have a couple of big wins under their belt. It's a hard game to call, because Maryland has those elusive "intangibles" helping them out, as they're on a roll and seem to really be enjoying their "team to beat" status. Boston College, on the other hand, is used to being a top-tier team in their conference, and they're also riding a ten-game home winning streak in which they've held their last four home opponents to ten combined points. That's pretty impressive until you realize that the only decent team on that list is Virginia Tech. However, BC's home play is a force to be reckoned with, and I see the Eagles pulling this one out in a hard-fought close game. Sorry Maryland, but when you win that many squeakers, the law of averages says it's bound to catch up to you. At least, I think that's what it says. BC by 6.
MO: Fear the Turtle. Despite having only one loss in conference play, Maryland needs a win here in order to control their ACC Atlantic destiny win they face Wake in next week's showdown. BC is looking to sneak there way to the top of the Atlantic as well, but would need a win here followed by a Wake loss and an Eagle victory against Miami, then have to win a 3-way tiebreaker which I don't really want to investigate. Why not, you ask? Am I actually shirking journalistic responsibilty for sloth? Ha! You only wish. I just don't think BC wins this game, so the point is moot. Maryland knows what's on the line here, and let's not forget – they've been atop the ACC before, so it's not like they don't know what they're doing. I like the Terps to head into Wake on a roll, setting up the most unlikely of important games as they win this week by 6.
VT @ Wake (+1.5)
MO: I love it – Wake Forest, a team that few thought could beat Florida St. in Tallahassee, went to Seminoles' house and didn't just take away their first win there since the 1960's; they shut out Florida St. to the tune of 30-0. The Demon Deacons now sit atop the Atlantic division of the ACC with just one loss heading to an improbable showdown with Maryland next week. And yet, here comes a Virginia Tech team with two losses, including a recent 22-3 drubbing at the hands of Boston College, an Eagle team that Wake beat two weeks ago. Of course, the Hokies are favored in this game as the Seminoles were last week. I didn't buy it then, and I won't buy it now. The Demon Deacons have come too far this season to start losing now, and they'll score another win on their way to Maryland next week, winning by 9.
JW: I wish I could disagree with you here, just to have some more contrary picks, but I honestly don't see much of a reason why Tech should be favored in this game. What is it? History? Do people still think the Deacons are just getting lucky week in, week out? I expected them to beat Florida State last week, but not the way they did it. No matter how much of an "off year" this is for the Seminoles, only really good teams shut them out in Tallahassee. Aside from the different results in their respective games with BC, it's also worth noting that the Hokies were able to beat down Clemson at home 24-7, while Wake dropped a home game to the Tigers ten days earlier, 27-17. This might lead one to conclude that Virginia Tech could be the better team, but I'm not buying it after last week's game. It'll be a hard fought game, but Wake Forest is the real deal, folks. Deacons take this one, winning by 3.
Cal @ USC (-6.0)
JW: After a disappointing 2-point upset loss to Oregon State, USC has struck back with a vengeance, shutting out lowly Stanford, and dominating a pretty good Oregon team. It was a good week to be USC last week, as almost every team (besides, of course, the Big Two) that USC needed to lose did indeed lose, putting the Trojans back on track for a possible BCS title bid. The Golden Bears, however, are a different matter. They stumbled early against Tennessee, but then seemed to be back on track until a surprising setback last week against Arizona. This moved Cal from a top ten team to a lower-level top twenty-five team. I'm not too surprised at this, considering the competitiveness level of the Pac-10, but a four-point loss to an Arizona team that's prone to big upsets doesn't seem to be a total disaster. Anyway, this is another one of those big rivalry games where it's hard to predict what's going to happen, other than it should be a hard-fought football game. In addition to the rivalry, this game has the Pac-10 BCS bid on the line, with USC hoping to still be in the national title picture, and Cal hoping to head to the Rose Bowl. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say Cal scores the upset. The Cal/USC game hasn't been this meaningful for both teams in a long time, and while the Bears lost a tough one last week, they were done in by a couple of fluke plays and penalties. Look for Cal to be more disciplined this week and find an offensive rhythm. It'll be close (maybe even triple-overtime in 2003 close), but I believe that the Golden Bears pull off the upset, dashing USC's national championship hopes. Cal by 4.
MO: I was impressed and surprised at how well USC played against Oregon last week. They've got a tough next couple of weeks with Cal tomorrow and Notre Dame, and I'd be surprised if they make it out of both games unblemished. The winner of this game decides who wins the Pac-10 and gets the automatic bid to a BCS bowl. If USC wins, they remain in the driver's seat for the BCS title game, but I'm not sure if that's in the cards for the Trojans. Though they've looked good most of the season, an inexperienced Trojan team is bound to lose in the next couple of weeks, and I think that this week just might be the time. Behind a few interceptions from the Cal secondary, Cal racks up a big lead before holding off a late USC rally, winning by 10.
Mich. @ Ohio St. (-7)
MO: This one's for all the marbles. The wall ball o' wax. Winner punches their ticket to the national title game. Everything's on the line here. This is THE Game. Ummm…. These 60 minutes are what they prepare all season for? Ok, I think I met the cliché quota for both Jay and myself; now for the game analysis. OSU and Michigan have both remained unbeaten throughout the season, but aren't unbeatable. Two weeks ago, Ohio St. edged Illinios 17-10, while Michigan barely held off Ball St., winning 34-26. Both teams came back to wallop their next opponents last week, but in the back of their minds, they have to understand that each team has its weaknesses.
Everything is pointing to this being a great game as both teams are even on both sides of the ball. For every Troy Smith, there's a Chad Henne. OSU has Ted Ginn, Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez; Michigan has Steve Breaston and Mario Manningham. Both teams have fantastic defenses, meaning on every down, we'll get to see strength vs. strength. This ought to one for the history books, but like I mentioned all the way back in Week 2, more often than not, these types of games disappoint, and something tells me that this week won't be an exception. I see Ohio St. scoring early and often at home, as their defense, which is getting twice as many takeaways this season as they did last year despite losing so many key players to the draft, keeps the Michigan offense off the field. In the end, Coach Jim Tressel notches yet another Michigan victory on his way to Tempe for the national title game as the Buckeyes defend the home filed and win by 20.
JW: I was really looking forward to throwing down some good cliches here, but Mike definitely did a good enough job for the both of us. I will, however, say that in order to win this game, Michigan is going to need to score more points than Ohio State.
Each team might have had its stumbling block against inferior competition, but that tends to happen when you're a national powerhouse. I can't really read much into the Ball State or Illinois games, except that it was fun for a moment thinking that about how much either of those upsets would have helped the SEC. This is a legitimate game between the two best teams in the nation, and unlike my good friend here, I think it'll live up to its billing. While I agree that both teams have an excellent defense, this game could still easily turn into a shootout. One might say that this would give Troy Smith the edge, but the Breaston/Manningham duo is hard to beat. Chad Henne might not be a better QB overall, but I think for this game, he'll outshine Smith (with a little help from the Wolverine defense). Michigan will find a way to overcome the enormous home-field advantage in Columbus, and come away with their ticket to Tempe with a 7-point victory.
UT @ VU (+7.5)
JW: Having clinched its 24th straight losing season, it's time for Vanderbilt to finish off another rollercoaster ride of a football season with a home contest against the Volunteers. I'll go ahead and get this out of the way now - 28-24. Just in case you missed it, I'll say it again. 28-24. Maybe one more time. 28-24. This week is the last time Vandy fans can legitimately brag about the big upset at Neyland last year. Whether we'll have a new score to hold over the orange-clad fans' heads remains to be seen. We all know that this series usually puts out a close game, regardless of the talent gap between the two teams. Sure, there have been some lopsided scores, even a few recently, but I don't see that happening here. Bobby Johnson has made this Commodore team too disciplined to let any game against Tennessee to get out of hand. As sad as it sounds, though, the Volunteers absolutely OWN the Commodores on Dudley Field, and Vandy hasn't beaten UT in Nashville since 1982. Ouch.
Eric Ainge looks to come back under center this week, but who knows how mobile he'll be. then again, the way the Vanderbilt defense has played as of late, thanks to fatigue and key injuries, he may not need to be *that* mobile. That being said, I'd still rather see Crompton than Ainge. Chris Nickson and the Commodores are coming off a real tough loss to Kentucky that included several horrendous red-zone possessions. Nickson put up monster yards in that game, but had some key mistakes that may have cost the 'Dores the game (not discounting the defense's inability to stop UK). Nickson obviously has talent, and if he can cut down on his mistakes, this could be a good game.
Now, to keep with the tradition of Vanderbilt almost always doing the opposite of what I pick them to do, I'm picking a Tennessee win by at least 300 points. Eric Ainge will set multiple NCAA single-game records, including ones for passing yards, passing touchdowns, and completion percentage. Earl Bennett will drop every pass thrown to him, which won't be many, because Nickson will get sacked 28 times (another record). Cassen Jackson-Garrison will rush for -76 yards with 8 fumbles. It'll be so bad, that by the end of the game, only one Vanderbilt fan will remain in the stands - Vandy Lance (what a guy). Call it the anti-jinx if you will, but I'm sticking with this pick. I'm willing to sacrifice my "journalistic integrity" (hahahahahah!) if it means Vanderbilt pulls off the win in Nashville. Go 'Dores!
MO: Did I hear 28-24? Seriously, though, Tennessee has a lot to be vengeful for this weekend after a 28-24 loss to Vanderbilt capped off a disappointing 5-6 season last year. This season, Tennessee's enjoyed a little more success, though they've had a disappointing past couple of weeks. While Tennessee has had our number at Dudley, let's not forget that they'd had our number at Neyland as well before last year.
Here's the thing about Ainge – he's got a rocket arm, but late in the season he consistently shows his glass jaw/ankle. This is his third year with UT, but only the first time he's played VU. The last two times we've played UT, he's either been out with an injury or by playing more poorly than Rick Clausen (which is saying something). We'll see a less mobile UT quarterback than we've seen in years (and after Peyton Manning and Clausen, that's saying something once again), so if our linebackers can play their best, we'll be able to get to Eric early and often. Our concern should be the running game, which thankfully is where UT has struggled this season. Tennessee has only averaged 70.5 yards over the last 4 games and, along with a paltry -11 yards rushing against Florida, has only had 3 games of over 100 yards rushing all season. Even though Vanderbilt has a way of making low-powered running games look like Air Force, I think they should be able to handle UT's run game this week.
Turnovers is what has killed our chances to make a bowl this season – we outgained Ole Miss by over 200 and lost thanks to turnovers, and multiple turnovers in the red zone against UK didn't help our cause either. The last time we were so adversely affected by turnovers (Ole Miss), we bounced back and upset a Georgia team that as recently as last week beat Auburn. I think we'll do the same thing this week, as our team will be focused on taking care of the football. Our defense can and will get to less-than-mobile Ainge, and should be able to overpower an inexperienced backup in Crompton should he be tapped to come in. This week, the turnover battle swings back in our favor and the Commodores at last defend the homefield, winning by the familiar margin of 4 points.