November 04, 2011
A weekly primer.
• Sole possession of first place in the SEC West.
• Every No. 1 vote in every mainstream human poll.
• The No. 1 ranking in the BCS standings, with a clear path to the BCS Championship Game.
• Depending on the final score, the fate of all prospective one-loss contenders for the BCS Championship Game.
• Trent Richardson and Tyrann Mathieu's chances of winning the Heisman Trophy.
• The upper hand in the head-to-head series between Nick Saban and Les Miles, currently at two games apiece.
• The short-term emotional well-being of millions of adult citizens across at least four states.
• The trajectory of the global economy.
• Seismic activity far beneath the earth's crust.
• The formation of black holes leading to alternate dimensions on the edge of the solar system.
Other than that? Not much, really.
Alabama wants: Alabama's basic philosophy hasn't changed since the introduction of the forward pass — establish the run first, take care of the ball, play relentless defense — and its dominance over the first two-thirds of the season only reenforces the template: The Crimson Tide come in boasting the most balanced offense, most intimidating running back and most overwhelming defense in the nation, without much argument on any front. It's a team built for low-scoring slugfests, which just happens to be averaging just shy of 40 points per game.
As I wrote on Thursday, a slugfest with LSU begins with making the Tigers one-dimensional offensively by stopping the run, which Alabama does better than any other defense in the country, and maybe any other defense in a long time — it's on its way to historic numbers in terms of both yards per game and per carry. Eventually, that means opposing offenses are forced to either abandon the running game altogether or find themselves facing 3rd-and-death: 83 of the 121 third downs the 'Bama D has faced this year (68.5 percent) have been 3rd-and-7 or longer. At that point, no matter who's standing in the pocket, it becomes a feeding frenzy.
LSU wants: Ditto. Sorry if that's a little short, but these teams are such mirror images of one another, both relying on blue-chip defenses and big, five-star workhorses to physically impose their will offensively, differentiating between them is like sizing up a pair of overgrown bullies on the playground: Their strategy is to beat the other guy up. In both cases, that means establishing the run on offense to keep the entire playbook open, and stopping the run on defense to make the not-so-intimidating quarterbacks uncomfortable for the first time this year.
On paper, LSU isn't quite as overwhelming as Alabama on either side of the ball. But whatever the Tigers give up in statistical dominance — which isn't much — they make up for in extreme opportunism: The offense has gone five full games without a turnover and scored on 21 consecutive trips inside the opposing 20-yard line. (If not for Stanford's perfect scoring rate in the red zone, LSU would lead the nation on both counts.) In terms of field position and margin of error, generally, no offense has had it easier, or done a better job of taking advantage of it.
Constants: Both offense will strike for big plays early. … Both offenses will suffer through extended funks and multiple momentum swings. … Both coaches will attempt a trick play in a crucial situation, most likely on special teams.
Variables: Which offense is able to more consistently establish the run? … Which defense is able to bring more pressure on the opposing quarterback? … Which team will deliver a big play in the return game?
The Pick: The hype may be inescapable, but this match-up is as advertised: An Immoveable Object/Irresistible Force showdown between a pair of talent-laden powerhouses that have not been challenged by any level of competition. I'm almost tempted to predict a blowout, based on the finely honed killer instincts on both sides, but I don't know which side to pick. Anyone who claims he does is either indulging their rooting interest or splitting hairs so fine they're barely even visible.
The only indisputable advantage is the home field for Alabama, which probably accounts for at least 4 points in the 4.5-point spread in the Crimson Tide's favor. The rest comes from 'Bama's sheer dominance on paper: No team is outscoring or outgaining opponents by wider margins. And where LSU has a better reputation for creating big plays on defense, it's easier to imagine Alabama slowly, steadily squeezing the life out of LSU's offense over the course of four quarters than vice versa. If neither team has any glaring weaknesses, the Tide's unparalleled strength on defense should be worth the edge and the biggest win of the season until Jan. 9.
SOUTH CAROLINA at ARKANSAS (-5) • 7:15 pm ET, ESPN.
For a pair of top-10 outfits with shiny 7-1 records and legitimate SEC title hopes, the Gamecocks and Razorbacks have a few kinks to work out. On one hand, Arkansas has fallen into a double-digit hole two weeks in a row against league bottom dwellers Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, and last week needed a vintage Vandy choke job to get out of Nashville alive. On the other, South Carolina's offense was languishing even before it lost a third of its production to Marcus Lattimore's injured knee, and has now failed to score more than 14 points in four of its last five games.
The fact that Carolina has still managed to win four of its last five games says a lot about its defense, but possibly more about its opponents in those triumphs: Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Tennessee are not what anyone would describe as "explosive" opponents. Arkansas is, still boasting the league's most prolific passing attack going into a three-game home stand that could put the Razorbacks in position to lock up their second consecutive BCS bid (if not a share of the division title) in the season finale at LSU. If it comes down to the arms of Tyler Wilson at home and Connor Shaw on the road for the biggest start of his career, the dream should live to see another week.
KANSAS STATE at OKLAHOMA STATE (-21) • 8 pm ET, ABC/ESPN2.
I'm not sure there was ever anything that would qualify as a proper "bandwagon," but whatever semblance of momentum Kansas State rode to an unlikely 7-0 start was reduced to splinters last weekend by Oklahoma, and may be ashes by Sunday morning. This is the same secondary that just yielded a school-record 505 yards passing to Sooner quarterback Landry Jones, with Jones essentially taking the fourth quarter off in a 58-17 massacre. For Oklahoma State sharpshooter Brandon Weeden, those numbers are just targets to keep it interesting.
TEXAS A&M at OKLAHOMA (-14) • 3:30 pm ET, ABC/ESPN2.
It hasn't been two weeks since Oklahoma's seven-year, 39-game home winning streak ended with a whimper in the middle of the night, courtesy of Texas Tech and a sleepy Sooner defense. But the oddsmakers are more than willing to forgive and forget in the wake of the bomb OU dropped on K-State — and in this case, in the wake of the bomb Texas A&M dropped on itself against Missouri, the third time this season the Aggies have blown a double-digit lead in the second half.
If you're so inclined, you could use that to paint the Aggies as an outfit that's "better than its record," only a dozen points away from a perfect 8-0. Or, you use it to cast them as underachievers who have consistently failed to adjust against competent competition: A&M has been outscored in the second half in four of its last six games, by a total of 64 points in those four games, and ranks dead last nationally in pass defense. Either way, it adds up to disaster against an offense that can hit the gas at a moment's notice.
OREGON (-16½) at WASHINGTON • 10:30 pm ET, FSN.
The Ducks are just banged up enough on offense, and had just enough trouble last week with Washington State, to give some tiny glimmer of hope to a Husky upset in Seattle. But Washington's only previous efforts against ranked teams — a 51-38 loss to Nebraska that wasn't as close as the score and a 65-21 obliteration at the hands of Stanford — were both lopsided losses that exposed the Huskies' vulnerability against the run, spread and non-spread alike. Even when all else fails, Oregon is still a nightmare on the ground: Since their opening night loss to LSU, the Ducks have topped 40 points on well over 200 yards rushing in all seven.
MICHIGAN (-4) at IOWA • Noon ET, ESPN.
An awful lot of Michigan teams have hit November with 7-1 records over the decades, and it's doubtful any of them had as many lingering question marks as this bunch does going into Iowa City. The Wolverines have faced one ranked team, were convincingly dispatched, and had to rally in highly improbable fashion to knock off the only other team on the schedule that's even appeared in the polls.
But the mystery is still better than Iowa, which knows all too well what kind of team it has after enduring upsets at the hands of Iowa State and Minnesota, failing to reach the end zone at Penn State and rallying in highly improbable fashion itself against Pittsburgh. As little as Michigan knows about itself at this point, at least it can be certain it would never lose to Minnesota.
TEXAS TECH at TEXAS (-14) • Noon ET, FX.
Texas Tech may be going through a brief schizophrenic episode — how is it even possible to follow up a road upset at Oklahoma with a 41-7 thrashing in your own stadium at the hands Iowa State? — but the Raiders have been consistent defensively: Six straight opponents have scored at least 34 points, all but one of them exceeding 200 yards on the ground. That just so happens to be where Texas is beginning to forge an identity behind freshman workhorse Malcolm Brown, who's well on his way to 1,000 yards and ought to keep things running smoothly for the Longhorns' mewling quarterbacks. UT is still young, but this — as opposed to last year's collapse — is what a young, rebuilding Texas team is supposed to look like.
MISSOURI at BAYLOR (-2½) • 7 pm ET, FSN.
The proverbial teams going in opposite directions: Mizzou evened its record with a wild, come-from-behind upset at Texas A&M, just before Baylor was thrashed by Oklahoma State for its third loss in its last four. (With the win, the 4-4 Tigers moved up to No. 11 in Jeff Sagarin's computer rankings, thanks to what his algorithm says is the toughest schedule in the nation.) So far, though, all three of the Bears' losses have come on the road, against ranked teams. This is their last chance to turn the tide at home, against the very unranked Tigers, before Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Texas come to Waco in back-to-back-to-back weeks to make bowl eligibility a very dicey proposition.
NOTRE DAME (-16½) at WAKE FOREST • 8 pm ET, ABC/ESPN2.
The Demon Deacons are the first of three straight ACC Atlantic also-rans in as many weeks for the Fighting Irish, whose internal issues shouldn't stop them from reeling off four straight wins (beginning with last week's blowout over Navy) ahead of a season-ending trip to Stanford. Wake is the best of those four at the moment, but the few hours it spent as a darkhorse ACC contender have been emphatically ended by lopsided losses to Virginia Tech and North Carolina, on either side of a one-point win at Duke. Whatever internal issues and distractions Notre Dame has, it shouldn't have to dig too deep to overcome them here.
NORTH CAROLINA (-3½) at N.C. State • 12:30 pm ET, Regional.
The only unambiguously good thing about Tom O'Brien's tenure at N.C. State: Four straight wins over the Tar Heels since he and Butch Davis arrived at the same time in 2007, the last three as an underdog. Davis is no longer on the opposing sideline, but the blood is still running hot enough to keep the Pack's streak alive at home, and keep O'Brien from another week of speculation about his job security.