September 12, 2008
I try to stay out of the "conference wars," because there's so much less difference from one to the next than the hype suggests. If you're into that sort of thing, though, then this is definitely a clutch week for the Big Ten. Remember that Notre Dame's collapse last year left the league with literally zero quality non-conference wins last regular season -- Ohio State over Washington was about as good as it got -- and Penn State's obliteration of very sketchy Oregon State is the only decent win it has to hang its hat on through the first two weeks.
Ohio State aside, Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan can all bank a little credit for the conference with respectable wins Saturday, the Badgers and Boilermakers against ranked teams (Fresno State and Oregon, respectively) and the Wolverines in a high-profile slot against Notre Dame, which we can't write off as cheap win just yet -- if nothing else, Michigan has to save face by not losing to Notre Dame, and Wisconsin won't get much sympathy for Fresno State's ascension if it falls out west, either.
Of course, the Big Ten could go 3-0 in those games (well, 2-1, realistically, with Purdue a very long shot) and still be trashed to the heavens if OSU's not up to snuff in the Coliseum. Such is the burden of the champion, I guess. But more on the Buckeyes and Trojans later.
Finally, We’ll Learn About ...
Both South Florida and Kansas have serious BCS ambitions, and the worthier among them is charged with clearing a hurdle tonight to land in the discussion with the top dozen or 15 teams in the country. For the Jayhawks, it's about winning a tough game away from home -- they're 12-31 outside of Lawrence under Mark Mangino -- and USF badly needs a credible non-conference win. Rutgers took a few more swipes at the Big East's rep with its nosedive against North Carolina, which could still turn out to be a lousy team in the ACC, and for the moment the best non-conference trophy in the entire conference is the Bulls' overtime win over Central Florida. That won't cut it if an at-large spot is up for grabs in December; USF will probably have to run the table if it has any big money goals past a loss tonight.
Most to Gain: The winningest program in the country over the last three years shouldn't have to answer any questions about its "super power" status, but the unprecedented backlash against Ohio State for its mythical championship flops overshadows the Buckeyes' Big Ten championships and awesome overall record (12-4 since '05) against ranked teams. Shedding that albatross is stakes enough, but in practical terms, beating USC means OSU immediately vaults back into the role of championship frontrunner and doesn't have to answer any more shortsighted "big game" questions -- until it comes up against another SEC team, anyway, and it will be just as stupid then. On the other hand ...
Most to Lose: Again, Ohio State may have more riding on the USC game than any team in any regular season, non-championship game in recent memory; the scorn awaiting a Buckeye loss basically defines the category, because OSU will be effectively out of the national race with only the equally-maligned Big Ten schedule left to make up ground. But a handful of other teams are already at that "season on the brink" moment after bad losses last week:
• Washington State. The Cougars are narrow underdogs at Baylor tonight after a nine-touchdown pounding last Saturday by Cal. The Bears have the best playmaker on the field, freshman quarterback Robert Griffin, and a loss like this could officially throw the Paul Wulff era into a tailspin three games in.
• Maryland. Speaking of Cal, Maryland gets the unenviable task of hosting the rolling Bears off a disastrous beatdown at the hands of Middle Tennessee. If it looks anything like the Cougars' home stand last week, the date on the "When Will Friedgen Be Fired?" pool moves to midseason.
• South Carolina. The offense just needs to show some life against Georgia after back-to-back Thursday night snoozes. The second half against N.C. State put lipstick on a grisly start that foreshadowed the entire debacle at Vanderbilt. The quarterback situation is desperate and the suddenly conservative Spurrier should be reaching deep in the nostalgia bag for some kind of spark against UGA.
• Oregon State. The Beavers have been surprisingly awful in losses to Stanford (just by losing, period) and Penn State (by giving up gobs of points to a Jay Paterno-hatched offense), and a flop against rebuilding Hawaii, at home, will wipe the last of whatever luster remains from one of the most quietly successful programs in the Pac Ten the last two years.
...And All the Children Learned to Multiply by Seven...
In the miserable realm of blowouts and other morbid curiosities.
Inevitable Massacre of the Week.
SMU at Texas Tech. The widest point spread of the week is North Texas at LSU (-41), and rightfully so, but I actually watched a large portion of SMU's opener at Rice, and the disaster that unfolded before me is seared into my brain. The Mustangs can only be described as "ghoulishly bad" -- they gave up 56 points and six touchdown passes in that game, largely the result of awful, cover-your-eyes turnovers, and gave up 36 points last week to I-AA Texas State and its comically-named quarterback, Clint Toon. If Toon can have his way, Graham Harrell will throw for 450 without breaking a sweat, and the Raiders can choose their number at home.
Florida International Line Watch.
After last week’s 42-point loss at Iowa, Florida International has fallen to cruel defeat in 25 of it last 26 games, and has been favored by more than one point only twice in it's four-year history in I-A football. This week, the Panthers are idle before hosting South Florida next week in FIU Stadium. Projected line: -27.5 for USF.
Lame Game of the Week.
Toledo at Eastern Michigan. You have to work pretty hard - or else, not at all, actually -- to find yourself an underdog to EMU, a program without a winning season since 1995 and projected nearly unanimously to finish last in the MAC's West division, as usual. Especially if you're Toledo, and you've built some moderate credibility by beating the tar out of teams like the Eagles; the Rockets are 14-4 over EMU since 1990 by an average of 21 points in the wins. I guess a 25-point loss to Arizona is just that much more humbling than a 32-point loss to Michigan State in the eyes of the oddsmakers.
Weird Line of the Week.
Air Force at Houston. Two days after being humiliatingly ripped for 56 points and 699 yards by Oklahoma State, 379 on the ground, Houston opened the week as a six-point favorite at home against Air Force, which is third in the nation in rushing offense and cruising off a 20-point win over Wyoming in which the Falcons attempted four passes and held the Cowboys to the lowest pass efficiency rating (56.3) I've ever seen for an entire game. Gamblers aren't idiots: four days later, the line's moved toward USAFA by a full touchdown -- if you bet on it now, it's a pick 'em, although it's been fluctuating between 'EVEN' and 'UH -2.5' for the last hour. Either one is giving the Cougars' defense too much credit.
WE CAN REBUILD. WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY.
• Tennessee. UAB is a balm for the Vols before they resume the 'murder' portion of their schedule next week against Florida, then at Auburn. UAB's going to show up in this category a lot, I think.
• Oregon State. Suddenly, a no-brainer home win over Hawaii looks tough -- having no defense whatsoever has that effect.
• Buffalo. Bulls get very narrow benefit of the doubt over Temple in the "Who Wants to Make Our Coach a Millionaire?" Bowl, only because they're at home.
The Smart Money
• Mississippi State will fail to score an offensive touchdown against Auburn for the third time in four years.
• Kevin Craft will throw more interceptions than touchdowns (again) against BYU, but the Bruin defense will keep the game within reach.
• East Carolina will have a slight letdown against Tulane in the cavernous, anticlimactic Superdome and only cover the 13-point spread in the closing minutes.
• Steve Spurrier, Tom O'Brien and Frank Beamer will change quarterbacks on multiple occasions, and none will be effective (is this too obvious?).
• Duke and Navy will somehow exceed the combined 1,100 yards and 89 points from last year's game.
• And UConn, an 11-point favorite at home, will not beat Virginia by double digits.
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Photos of Brian Paysinger in Michigan-Oregon '07 and Ralph Friedgen via Getty Images; Photo of Air Force quarterback Shea Smith via US Presswire.