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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Pick 10, F.B.S. Notebook: Week 2 (Sept. 8)

Let’s not beat around the bush: this isn’t a great week. I mean, it’s great – better than what we’re used to, better than any non-football weekend – but it’s not great, all things considered. There’s no Michigan and Alabama to end the night; there’s no prime-time game on ABC at all, in fact. Instead, we’ll close our night with Nebraska and U.C.L.A., Georgia and Missouri and, later on, Arizona and Oklahoma State. Very, very intriguing games. But with perhaps the exception of Georgia, depending on how highly you think of the Bulldogs, these games don’t carry any title implications. That doesn’t make the games any less interesting – or change the fact that every game, especially while teams find their footing, carries some level of importance. Let’s run down the entire weekend’s action.

Miami (Fla.) at Kansas State, noon
Pick: Wildcats 31, Hurricanes 13

Remember when these two met last fall? Miami came within a yard – a foot, an inch, perhaps – of beating the Wildcats at home. Unfortunately, this season finds Miami far, far younger and K-State even more well-seasoned, especially at the offensive skill positions. Miami’s only chance comes from winning the turnover battle; the Wildcats have more experience and better coaching, of course. After watching the freshman tear through Boston College last week, K-State’s defense will focus heavily on running back Duke Johnson. Wildcats score a two-touchdown victory.

Penn State at Virginia, noon
Pick: Cavaliers 27, Nittany Lions 17

The Nittany Lions took last week’s loss to Ohio hard, from Bill O’Brien down through the roster, and it’ll be on O’Brien and his staff to rebuild this team’s confidence heading into a tough test in Charlottesville. How good is Virginia? Mike London hopes challenge-the-Hokies good, but it’s hard to get a read on the Cavaliers until London picks a quarterback – Michael Rocco is the starter today, but that might change once Phillip Sims grasps the system. For now, Virginia’s offense can match Ohio’s blueprint: run at the Nittany Lions, use the running backs and tight ends in the passing game and look for big plays downfield. In a change, it’ll be an upset if Penn State wins.

Auburn at Mississippi State, noon
Pick: Bulldogs 19, Tigers 17

Not quite the 3-2 game of 2008, I know. But with Auburn’s offense still searching for an identity, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dan Mullen opts to play in the mud – not taking chances, controlling the football and wearing down the Tigers between the tackles. Is that a recipe for victory? It wouldn’t have been a year ago, but this is clearly a different Auburn team; especially now, in the early going, the Tigers will either win without style or not win at all. Their best shot comes in a lights-on moment for the entire team, which doesn’t seem that far off, to be honest. Let’s keep in mind the fact that Auburn was right there with Clemson for much of Saturday’s loss. In a tight game, the edge goes towards the team with better focus. For now, that team is Mississippi State. The Bulldogs win by touchdown or less.

U.S.C. vs. Syracuse, 3:30 p.m. (in East Rutherford, N.J.)
Pick: Trojans 44, Orange 17

Matt Barkley’s breakout game a year ago came at home against Syracuse; he threw for 324 yards and 5 scores in a 38-17 win, the Trojans’ first on the year by a double-digit margin. After watching Northwestern drop 42 points on Syracuse last week, there’s no reason to think that the Orange’s defense has any hopes of slowing down Barkley, Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and U.S.C.’s high-flying offensive attack. So where does Syracuse have a shot? By trying to hang with U.S.C. with its own offense, which gained 596 yards on 6.3 yards per play in the opener. Well, good luck with that. Even returning wide receiver Alec Lemon, who missed last week, won’t give the Orange enough juice to score the upset. The Trojans cruise; afterwards, the fan base paints Manhattan red – or cardinal and gold, rather.

Purdue at Notre Dame, 3:30 p.m.
Pick: Irish 30, Boilermakers 20

The Boilermakers welcome back quarterback Caleb TerBush, who was suspended for the opener against Eastern Kentucky. That will push Robert Marve – fresh off the best game of his career – into a backup role. But can Danny Hope find a role for Rob Henry, who I thought could be an every-spot weapon for this offense? Being creative will help Purdue keep pace with a seemingly more balanced Notre Dame offense; a week ago, the Irish gained 293 yards on the ground against Navy. Notre Dame’s biggest weakness lies at cornerback – meaning it’s up to TerBush and Purdue to exploit the Irish’s issues on the outside. I’m not terribly confident in the Boilermakers’ ability to do so. It won’t be as smooth as the opener, but there’s no reason why N.D. can’t win with relative ease.

Florida at Texas A&M, 3:30 p.m.
Pick: Gators 21, Aggies 16

Not playing a week ago prevented the opportunity for a painful upset; while the Aggies should have topped Louisiana Tech, there’s every reason to think that the Bulldogs had a very good chance at the win, especially at home. At the same time, the bye week will lead to the sort of rustiness you’d expect from a team undergoing such a drastic transformation – new coaches, new offense, new defense, new conference. Florida has two positives in its corner: one, a defense with tremendous, tremendous upside; and two, an offense that cannot be any worse than it was against Bowling Green. With A&M in such flux, the Gators are in a great spot to notch a season-building win. If not with anything resembling the style of years’ past, the Gators land a key conference win.

Iowa State at Iowa, 3:30 p.m.
Pick: Hawkeyes 39, Cyclones 34

He who holds the ball last wins – as was the case in last year’s meeting. So why Iowa? Home-field advantage, for one; the Hawkeyes have won four straight at home in the series. But really, why Iowa? The Cyclones looked very strong in the opener, struggling early but eventually taking apart a Tulsa team more than a few had pegged for the upset – upset being a relative term, seeing that I.S.U. was criminally underrated by oddsmakers heading into the opener. Iowa, on the other hand, struggled mightily with Northern Illinois. But I think that coming back home will work wonders for the Hawkeyes, and for quarterback James Vandenberg and this offense in particular. It’ll be a wild one, but I think that Iowa is pegged for a rebound.

Nebraska at U.C.L.A., 7:30 p.m.
Pick: Cornhuskers 38, Bruins 21

Whether U.C.L.A. can make Jim Mora’s home debut a happy one depends on the answer to a question: Mora’s doing things the right way, but are the Bruins on the same page with the new staff? If so, there’s more than enough talent to make a run at a Nebraska team that was tested only slightly by Southern Mississippi a week ago. The key for U.C.L.A. will be getting pressure in the backfield, something it did well last Thursday – against Rice, however. With Rex Burkhead sidelined, the Cornhuskers will again look to Taylor Martinez as the leader on offense; shaking his confidence with a strong pass rush greatly increases the Bruins’ shot at the upset. I don’t think that U.C.L.A. is ready – yet. Nebraska has the more complete team, and it’ll show.

Georgia at Missouri, 7:45 p.m.
Pick: Bulldogs 35, Tigers 31

Old-man football? What’s old-man football? I’ll tell you: it’s the style of play that’s won the last six national titles. What else? It’s not really Georgia’s style – it’s a style seen far more prominently at Alabama and L.S.U., two defense-first, old-school, old-man throwbacks that embody the victory of substance over style. The Bulldogs are far more electric offensively than either team, which is why Saturday’s SEC debut for Missouri will likely result in a sight not often seen in SEC country: a shootout. In this case, that we’re still waiting to see whether James Franklin has truly recovered from his offseason surgery has me thinking Georgia, though Missouri is at home – and Georgia looked sloppy against Buffalo. I’m a huge backer of Missouri’s process. I think it’ll do very well in the SEC. I don’t think life in its new league opens with a win, however.

Oklahoma State at Arizona, 10:30 p.m.
Pick: Cowboys 48, Wildcats 34

What do we know about Arizona? The offense clicked right from the start, albeit against a MAC team – though Toledo is a great MAC team, the level of defense was not the same as the Wildcats will face against B.C.S. conference competition. Matt Scott threw for 387 yards and gained 74 yards on the ground. Ka’Deem Carey added another 147 yards on 20 carries. The kicking game was the only reason why the win over Toledo went to overtime. What do we know about Oklahoma State? Absolutely nothing – other than the fact that many important players return off of last year’s Big 12 title-winning team. Most of all, we know nothing about the Cowboys’ defense or their quarterback. So it’s a game of unknowns. But based off of the small taste of the Rich Rodriguez era and Oklahoma State’s up-up-and-away performance over the last four years, I can predict with some certainty that O.S.U. will win by two scores but give up yardage in bunches along the way.

Most points, team (F.B.S. competition)
Oregon: 63 points

How many points could the Ducks have scored on Arkansas State? It was 57-34 after 60 minutes, but 50-3 after 23 minutes. Oregon won’t take it so easy in the second half against the Bulldogs, who continue their anytime-anyone-anywhere practice with Tim DeRuyter, not Pat Hill, running the show.

High-scoring game
Louisiana-Lafayette at Troy

The Trojans recovered some of their lost momentum in a 39-29 win over U.A.B. last Saturday. Running back Shawn Southward stole the show, gaining a career-high 204 yards on 28 carries. Why is Southward’s yardage noteworthy – beyond the fact it was a new high mark? Because the Trojans’ season-high rushing total as a team last fall was only 172 yards. With Corey Robinson at the controls at quarterback, Troy’s offense could be very dangerous with a dedicated ground game. Louisiana picked up where it left off 2011, blanking Lamar, 40-0, despite a sour performance from senior quarterback Blaine Gautier. Keep an eye out for sophomore Terrance Broadway, a former Houston transfer who made nine attempts in the opener. This game won’t lack for touchdowns.

Best chance at shutout
Florida State (vs. Savannah State)

Oklahoma State’s backups and walk-ons held Savannah State to 138 yards of total offense. Florida State could keep the Tigers in the negatives. However… after last week’s loss, part of me thinks that Savannah State gets on the scoreboard somehow in Tallahassee. A fumbled F.S.U. snap deep in their own territory, three plays, three losses, a 25-yard field goal? It’s possible. Just not likely.

On-the-fence teams and games
San Diego State, UTEP, Duke, etc.

If San Diego State is really a team that can keep things close against Washington, it should beat Army at home… If UTEP can make things difficult for Oklahoma, it should do the same with Mississippi, if not beat the Rebels outright… While Duke didn’t sniff Stanford last year, the Blue Devils looked great against Florida International; if that’s a true barometer of their ability, the Blue Devils should hang with Stanford… If Texas-San Antonio beat South Alabama, it should beat a Division II team in Texas A&M-Commerce… If history holds, Arizona State should beat Illinois; the Sun Devils are 7-0 against Big Ten teams at home.

Revenge is best served cold
Maryland, Wake Forest, Syracuse, etc.

Six B.C.S. conference teams are looking to avenge a 2011 loss: the Terrapins, Demon Deacons, Orange, Iowa, Oregon State and Arizona. Syracuse, Iowa and Arizona, as noted earlier, are looking for some revenge against the Trojans, Cyclones and Cowboys, respectively. Maryland looks to knock off Temple after last year’s 38-7 loss – it was as bad as it sounds. Wake Forest was bombed, 49-24, by North Carolina. Oregon State never had a prayer against Wisconsin last fall, but the Beavers, after missing last week’s game against Nicholls State due to weather concerns, have to feel better about their chances after watching the Badgers struggle against Northern Iowa.

F.B.S. against F.C.S. upset alert
Colorado State (vs. North Dakota State)

How good are the Bison? They’re the defending F.C.S. national champs. Last September, they absolutely manhandled Minnesota in a 37-24 win. This team is good enough to weather a mid-week storm: Eight N.D.S.U. players have been charged with voter fraud – faking petition signatures for a ballot initiative; it’s not as bad it sounds – though it looks as if none will be suspended. How good is Colorado State? I realize that the Rams opened the Jim McElwain era with a great win over Colorado, but the jury remains out on McElwain’s ability to field a consistent winner in his first season. Of all the games between F.B.S. and F.C.S. teams, this has the highest probability of an F.C.S. win. You know what? I don’t think it would be an upset at all. Former Nebraska defensive coordinator Craig Bohl has done an outstanding job.

They like him now, but…
Jon Embree, Colorado

Embree’s still feeling the love despite last Saturday’s loss to the Rams. Luckily, the vast majority of the fan base – and the administration, most of all – realizes the mess he inherited from his predecessor. Want these good tidings to evaporate into thin air? Then fail to win convincingly against Sacramento State, a team that lost by 30 points to New Mexico State in the opener. The Buffaloes again look like the worst team in the Pac-12; there’s still no excuse for not winning by at least the same margin against an F.C.S. opponent.

Team that will need earplugs
U.C.F. (at Ohio State)

George O’Leary on Ohio State’s supposed home-field advantage: “I tell you what, it’s like Michigan. It’s not a loud stadium. I mean, they sit on their hands in that stadium… [A] lot of stadiums are a lot louder than that place. I didn’t even bring in music this week, or any type of noise because I think we should be able to execute without it.” Here’s guessing that Ohio State will welcome O’Leary and the Knights into the Horseshoe with open arms and ear-piercing decibels.

Fireworks-free game
Kent State at Kentucky

One thing you saw from Kentucky in its season-opening loss to Louisville was a more frenetic offensive pace – the Wildcats were quicker to the line, quicker to the snap, quicker out of the huddle, if they huddled at all, and so on down the line. The end result? Fourteen points. Kent State’s offensive deficiencies span the generations: the Golden Flashes have averaged more than 25.0 points per game only four times since 1975, the year after Don James left for Washington. Like defense? Then watch Kent State go to work. Like offense? Then look away.

New stadium to watch
T.C.U.’s Amon G. Carter Stadium

The stadium’s refurbishment, which began after the close of the 2010 season, will be unveiled to the public for T.C.U.’s opener against Grambling State. This was the university’s first major renovation since 1956. Among the additions and changes, per the school: new suites, new and more comfortable seating, wider concourses, new and improved restrooms and concession areas, handicap accessible accommodations, elevators and escalators and new lighting. Most of all: a new press box.

Sort of scared team, but not really
Texas Tech (at Texas State)

The Red Raiders aren’t really scared of the Bobcats – they’re a better team, a more talented team and a better-coached team, I think. The dichotomy of talent between the two teams will be evident from the opening kickoff. Nevertheless, and while Texas Tech knows it should win with ease, you couldn’t blame the Red Raiders for stepping into San Marcos with a sight sense of trepidation. For one, the Bobcats have circled this game, the program’s first at home on the F.B.S. level, since stepping up the ranks earlier this year. Secondly, the Bobcats might just be a team to take seriously: Texas State opened its season by smothering Houston, 30-13, despite heading into the game as substantial underdogs. So Texas Tech might be thinking, “We should win even when not at our best… but man, what if we lose?”

Worst F.B.S.-only game
Florida Atlantic at Middle Tennessee State

Where to begin? Florida Atlantic beat Wagner, 7-3, in its opener. Middle Tennessee State lost its opener, 26-21, to McNeese State. At least the Owls won, right? Without question, this is your worst F.B.S.-on-F.B.S. game of the weekend: F.A.U. is starting from scratch under a new staff and the Blue Raiders are completely lost. What’s the silver lining? With a win, F.A.U. will have more wins through two weeks than it had all of last season. For M.T.S.U., a win would snap a long, long, long losing streak.

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  1. UL Warhawks! says:

    The REAL UL!

    Take that Lafayette College Cajuns.

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