November 18, 2011
A weekly primer.
GAME OF THE CENTURY OF THE WEEK
NEBRASKA at MICHIGAN (-3½) • Noon ET, ESPN.
What's at stake: For one thing, you have two huge, loyal fan bases that haven't seen each other in the regular season since 1962 and will have plenty to say to one another about 1997. More directly, they're posturing for prime BCS real estate in January: The loser is done for in the Big Ten's Legends Division, and even the winner has virtually no chance of surpassing Michigan State into the Big Ten Championship Game, but the Cornhuskers and Wolverines are very much in the thick of the hunt for the at-large BCS berth that's come to the No. 2 team in the Big Ten six years running.
Both teams come in at 8-2. If either wins its last two games to finish 10-2, it will rise to the edge of the top ten in the polls and present a very attractive alternative for the final big-money slot compared to, say, one-loss Stanford, which doesn't have a prayer of matching Michigan or Nebraska in the all-important travel and television categories. If it comes to that, the winner in Ann Arbor may be too good, dollar-wise, for the BCS to refuse.
Nebraska wants: The Cornhuskers have been inconsistent and occasionally just bad on defense, and they've specifically struggles with athletic quarterbacks: Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Northwestern's combination of Cain Colter and Dan Persa all gave the 'Husker D fits as runners and passers, and Denard Robinson is a more lethal runner than all of them. As a passer, though, aside from a wild fourth quarter rally against Notre Dame and an easy afternoon against hapless Minnesota, Robinson's transition to offensive coordinator Al Borges has been shaky at best. Occasionally, it's just bad.
The more often the ball is out of Robinson's hands, then — whether he's handing it off or putting it in the air or serving as a decoy in those strangely persistent packages for backup QB Devin Gardner — the better for Nebraska, which can stick future first-rounder Alfonso Dennard on top receiver Junior Hemingway and ask Robinson if he's feeling lucky. In general, the front seven has actually improved against the run since defensive tackle Jared Crick was ruled out for the rest of the season in mid-October, and the season-saving wins over Michigan State and Penn State both began with the defense taking immediate control of the line of scrimmage. If Michigan faces must-pass situations on third down,
Michigan wants: Actually, the Wolverines don't seem to have much problem with a less Denard-centric offense, either: Fitzgerald Toussaint carried 27 for 190 yards in last week's win at Illinois, the best game by a Michigan tailback since Mike Hart left in 2007, and arguably the first time anyone since Hart as clearly established himself as the No. 1 back. Borges is perfectly content to let Touissant handle the heavy duty stuff between the tackles, let Robinson pick his spots and hope a few big plays open up downfield off of play-action looks.
And as spotty as he's been as a passer, Robinson is still good for big plays when he does connect: He easily leads the Big Ten in yards per completion (15.8) and in percentage of completions that go for at least 25 yards. Hemingway also leads the Big Ten in yards per reception, and Jeremy Gallon and Roy Roundtree aren't far behind. Even as it continues to scale back Robinson's role as an every-down runner, this offense can still strike in a hurry.
Constants: Nebraska's misdirection-heavy option looks will force Michigan's freshman-laden linebacking corps into multiple blown assignments. … The Wolverines will commit at least one face-melting turnover.
Variables: How healthy is worn-out Nebraska tailback Rex Burkhead? … Which quarterback has more time to throw?
The Pick: These teams are nearly identical across the board, from their offensive styles to their conservative fan bases to their reverence for coaches named "Bo." Both trying to figure out how to exploit dangerous quarterbacks who have also proven to be too fragile to remain one-dimensional. Both are much happier with their defenses than they were a month ago. Both are wary of repeating last year's November fades. The point spread in Michigan's favor is due entirely to the home field, because otherwise they could pull off the old Marx Brothers routine in "Duck Soup."
On paper, the only notable advantage is Nebraska's edge in special teams, thanks two areas — net punting and kickoff returns — in which Michigan ranks among the worst in the country. The Cornhuskers are also slightly more experienced, in terms of both starting more upperclassmen and having prior experience with high stakes late in the season. With eight wins in the bank and preseason expectations more or less fulfilled, the Wolverines may have already entered gravy mode. If they haven't, this is the point where Brady Hoke's administration takes a clear step forward from the one that preceded it.
USC at OREGON (-14½) • 8 pm ET, ABC.
Oregon has taken 20 consecutive Pac-10/12 games since 2009, 16 straight in Eugene, all of them in identical fashion: The Ducks have gone over 40 points on at least 400 yards of total offense in every home game of Chip Kelly's tenure as head coach. USC may have a better chance of stopping the streak than anyone on that list, and with a newfound running game to complement Matt Barkley's arm, at least good a chance of trading blows with the Duck offense. If ace receiver Robert Woods is anywhere near full speed, the Trojans' surging attack can arguably match the Ducks' man-for-man.
But after last week's aggressive reassertion of Oregon's authoriteh at Stanford, that chance is still fairly low. Even if Barkley and Co. keep it closer than last year's 53-32 rout in the Coliseum — and they should — at the end of the night the grease stains on the Autzen Stadium all tend to look alike.
PENN STATE at OHIO STATE (-7) • 3:30 pm ET, ABC or ESPN.
There's no getting around the "Scandal Bowl" backstory: The head coaches in this game last year had as many undefeated seasons between them as this year's coaches have wins, period. But the pressing concern on the field is about the offenses (or lack thereof), both of them still toiling just ahead of Minnesota at the bottom of the Big Ten rankings. Ohio State has fared better on that front since making the midseason commitment to freshman quarterback Braxton Miller, which isn't saying much considering what it looked like against Miami and Michigan State. Considering Penn State's ongoing anemia, though, it will have to do in a pinch.
CAL at STANFORD (-17½) • 10:15 pm ET, ESPN.
Cal has quietly shaken off a three-game losing to win three of its last four, securing a bowl bid and lifting its defense to the top of the Pac-12 charts in the process. Two problems: a) Those wins came over Utah, Washington State and Oregon State, and b) All three came at "home," or what passes for home this season, AT&T Park in San Francisco. The Golden Bears' only road win came in week two at Colorado, in overtime, which is an awfully long way from dealing with Andrew Luck in Palo Alto.
OKLAHOMA (-15½) at BAYLOR • 8 pm ET, ABC.
I have no empirical evidence that it's actually happened, but I can see the thought process of a few desperate souls talking themselves into the Sooners are walking into a potential ambush: Robert Griffin III has overtaken Landry Jones in the eyes of at least a few pro scouts, Oklahoma comes in for the first time without its leading rusher and receiver, Baylor runs an up-tempo spread in the same mold as the one Texas Tech used to torch the Sooners last month, Bob Stoops' teams have always been more vulnerable on the road, Baylor's already beaten TCU and Missouri in Waco, etc. Fine. Baylor is also giving up 36 points per game and had to rally last week to nip Kansas — that's Kansas, which is Kansas — by one point in overtime. The Bears have six wins in the bank for bowl eligibility. Now they take their medicine.
KANSAS STATE at TEXAS (-8½) • 8 pm ET, FX.
Texas is 0-3 against the Wildcats since 2003, which is long enough even for Longhorn fans to admit Kansas State kinda owns Texas. Most recently, K-State exercised its ownership last year in a 39-14 rout in Manhattan, arguably the low point of UT's 2010 collapse, punctuated by unknown Wildcat quarterback Collin Klein running for 127 yards and two touchdowns while attempting just four passes.
He may not be able to get away with that kind of ratio this year in Austin. But Klein has emerged as one of the most valuable players in a QB-dominated conference, and five of Kansas State's eight wins have come as underdogs. (They nearly made it six at Oklahoma State two weeks ago, taking the Cowboys to the final play in OSU's narrowest escape of the season.) Throw in the fact that Texas has no running backs to help out their own struggling young quarterbacks, and I don't really get this point spread at all.
VIRGINIA at FLORIDA STATE (-17½) • 7:30 pm ET, ESPN2.
Virginia may be the most nondescript 7-3 outfit in the country, which will change in a hurry if the Cavaliers win in Tallahassee — that would be a first — to set up a winner-take-all showdown with Virginia Tech for the ACC's Coastal Division title. As novel as it is to imagine actual stakes in the Commonwealth Cup, it's not quite enticing enough to overtake Florida State's five-game winning streak since quarterback E.J. Manuel returned to the lineup in mid-October, at which point the 'Noles began to resemble the powerhouse everyone expected them to be back in August.
Of course, their resurgence could be chalked up entirely to the schedule: None of those five wins came against a team currently sporting a winning record. As it turns out, Virginia — sandwiched between Miami and Florida on the schedule — will be the best measuring stick for FSU's progress since early October. Thus ends this edition of "Sentences I never thought I'd type."
CINCINNATI (-3) at RUTGERS • Noon ET, ESPNU.
Untangling the Big East standings is like attempting to decipher the Rosetta Stone, but Cincinnati can make it real easy by winning out: Even after last week's loss to West Virginia, the Bearcats are in sole possession of first place and firmly in control of their own destiny en route to a BCS bid. Rutgers, on the other hand, is one of five teams on Cincy's heels with two conference losses, and could throw open Pandora's box with a minor upset. And frankly, it is way too late to start adding up the potential ramifications for the league race if that happens. So let's say it's not going to.
WISCONSIN (-14½) at ILLINOIS • Noon ET, ESPN2.
Illinois' first priority is probably Ron Zook's job — well, depending on who you ask — but an Illini win would have a ripple effect across the Big Ten's Leaders Division: If Ohio State takes care of Penn State, the Badger loss would thrust the Buckeyes back into contention if Wisconsin rebounds to beat Penn State in the finale; if Penn State wins in Columbus, a Badger loss would hand the division to the Nittany Lions regardless of what happens next week. If Wisconsin wins, it's simple: Penn State-Wisconsin next week is winner take all for a slot in the Big Ten title game.
CLEMSON (-7½) at N.C. STATE • 3:30 pm ET, ABC or ESPN.
In the larger scheme, N.C. State may have more to play for: Bowl eligibility, its head coach's job, its first win over a top-10 team in more than a decade. Clemson, having already booked a ticket to the ACC title game and effectively out of the running for the BCS title game, has nothing in particular at stake, and may be without its best player. But the idea of the same team that was blown out by Cincinnati, failed to score a point at Florida State and just lost to Boston College somehow rebounding to upend the most explosive offense in the conference just isn't going to fly.