We think about college football 24/7 so you don't have to.

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 3 (Sept. 15)

Do you remember the last time Notre Dame took a trip to East Lansing? You might not remember the game’s first 60 minutes and change, but that’s fine: things didn’t get wild until overtime, when Michigan State answered a Notre Dame field goal with the most audacious coaching decision of the 2010 season. Now you remember, right? Dan Conroy is lined up for the potentially game-tying 46-yard field goal; Aaron Bates, the punter and team captain, was the holder; tight end Charlie Gantt was lined up one spot inside from the edge to Conroy’s right. The call: “Little Giants.” The snap went to Bates, as expected – and then came the unexpected. You’ll see the rest of the play later tonight, when the Irish and Spartans meet in one of the day’s marquee games. Let’s run down the entire weekend’s action.

California at Ohio State, noon
Pick: Buckeyes 27, Golden Bears 23

Clancy Pendergast’s defense has issues defending more mobile quarterbacks, as we saw in Cal’s season-opening loss to Nevada. But was the defense that bad against Cody Fajardo and friends? The overall numbers were ugly: 31 points, 450 yards of offense, 230 yards on the ground. But the Bears did hold the Wolfpack to 5.1 yards per play, a total that would rank right in the middle of the F.B.S., if extrapolated over the course of an entire season. The issue is that Braxton Miller is better than Fajardo; Miller’s supporting cast is stronger than Fajardo’s supporting cast. I think that Cal can keep it close, but that’s a prediction contingent on three factors: one, the defense’s ability to limit Miller’s big plays; two, whether Cal can get one big play on special teams; and three, whether the offense can get the ball into Keenan Allen’s hands more than just six times, as it did a week ago.

Louisiana-Monroe at Auburn, 12:21 p.m.
Pick: Tigers 41, Warhawks 24

Because this is the factoid of the week: Gene Chizik has a career record of 21-29 when Cam Newton isn’t his quarterback. For Chizik and the Tigers, it’s time for the year’s first victory, and not even Louisiana-Monroe, fresh off a win at Arkansas, is going to prevent the Tigers from rolling into the win column. What you’d like to see isn’t just a win, however; you want to see a dominating win. That’s probably too much to ask. Instead, Auburn should settle for zero turnovers, a potent running game, an improved performance against the run and a decline in mental errors. The breakthrough won’t come overnight. But there’s too much talent on Auburn’s roster for yet another disappointing Saturday. Having a week of tape detailing how the Warhawks’ 3-3-5 defense lined up against Arkansas will help a great deal.

Alabama at Arkansas, 3:30 p.m.
Pick: Crimson Tide 35, Razorbacks 9

Remember when Alabama was favored by only six points? Yeah, it seems like ages ago. Since Saturday, when the Razorbacks lost in overtime to U.L.M., the line has ballooned up to three touchdowns – and with Tyler Wilson doubtful for the game, it’s likely that Alabama covers that spread with room to spare. What’s unfortunate, in a way, is that this was once one of the year’s most highly anticipated games – back before Bobby Petrino’s exit, that is. But even over the summer, before Alabama regained its place as the best team in college football, there was some reason to think that the Razorbacks could still make a run at the Tide and L.S.U. in the SEC West. Today, with Wilson likely out and Arkansas reeling, the only question is whether the Tide cover.

Virginia at Georgia Tech, 3:30 p.m.
Pick: Yellow Jackets 24, Cavaliers 20

Virginia’s unexpected run at the Coastal division crown a season ago was propelled forward by a 24-21 win over the Yellow Jackets on Oct. 15 – that win was followed by another four in five tries heading into the season finale against Virginia Tech. To net the win, the Cavaliers took a page out of Tech’s book: run the football, control the clock, limit turnovers and create errors in the passing game. Whether Virginia can repeat that formula depends in large part on its ability to ramp up a paltry running game. Through two games, the Cavaliers’ leading rusher, Kevin Parks, has only 75 yards. Perry Jones, one of the top dual-threat backs in the country, has only 104 yards of total offense through two games. While Michael Rocco has played well, the Cavaliers won’t win if Virginia can’t move the ball on the ground.

Florida at Tennessee, 6 p.m.
Pick: Volunteers 30, Gators 24

Consider how much has changed in two or three years. Florida is the plodding, win-ugly, win-at-all-costs, win-in-the-fourth-quarter team. Tennessee is the speedy, high-flying, aerial, catch-and-run team. Remember when this was reversed? I don’t think any philosophical change from Urban Meyer to Will Muschamp has been more striking that Florida’s willingness to take close games into the final quarter. Part of this is due to overall talent, of course; Meyer’s teams usually had the game well in hand by the end of the third quarter. But Florida’s identity comes from its coach, who wants to build a team that is mentally tougher than the opposition. Unfortunately, even the toughest team will need more on offense to unseat Tennessee, which has Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and a terrific home-field advantage in its corner.

U.S.C. at Stanford, 7:30 p.m.
Pick: Trojans 40, Cardinal 21

Here’s Stanford’s deal: the Cardinal have owned U.S.C. since 2009 – kind of. Yeah, there was that one dropkick that got out of hand, the loss that led Pete Carroll to question Jim Harbaugh’s motivation, in a way. But to extend its winning streak over the Trojans to three games, Stanford has needed a late field goal and three overtimes. Stanford’s winning streak will end tonight: U.S.C. is just more talented, above all else, but also more locked-in than a young and somewhat inexperienced Stanford team. The Cardinal’s hope is to pound away at U.S.C.’s weaker defensive front, and that’s enough to potentially make this a game for the better part of three quarters. But before too long, the Trojans’ big-play ability will wear down Stanford’s secondary.

Notre Dame at Michigan State, 8 p.m.
Pick: Spartans 28, Irish 14

The game of the day, in my mind. The Spartans will win by taking care of business, by avoiding any massive letdown in the areas where it excels: running the football, converting through the air on third down, controlling the line of scrimmage and winning on special teams. Michigan State is very hard to beat when on its game – Notre Dame wouldn’t be the only team to come up short against M.S.U. in such a scenario. For the Irish, any chance at victory comes up front, where a disappointing offensive line faces off against one of the best front sevens in college football. Simply put, the Irish have no chance in East Lansing if this line cannot keep Everett Golson clean, let alone get things working on the ground.

Utah State at Wisconsin, 8 p.m.
Pick: Badgers 38, Aggies 14

How much difference can an offensive line coach make? Quite a bit, especially in this scenario: Bret Bielema’s decision to fire Mike Markuson will light a fire under an underperforming Wisconsin team in time for a game with a very good Utah State squad in Madison. But what the in-season dismissal won’t give the Badgers is confidence, something the Aggies have in spades; confidence will come between the white lines, and regaining its lost swagger is one of Wisconsin’s leading goals before the calendar turns to Big Ten play. A second goal? Getting Montee Ball back on track after a subpar showing against Oregon State. A third? Rallying around Danny O’Brien, who has struggled. A fourth? Just reasserting itself against a less talented opponent.

Texas at Mississippi, 9:15 p.m.
Pick: Longhorns 30, Rebels 7

The Rebels are riled up. Hugh Freeze and his staff have brought in an impressive crop of official visitors, led by Robert Nkemdiche, the nation’s top recruit. Oxford is pumped up – and you know that Oxford never loses a party. This won’t help the Rebels put points on the board against one of the nation’s elite defenses, however. While a Texas win is a foregone conclusion, in my opinion, I’m interested in seeing if U.T. can continue moving the ball effectively on the ground. Against Wyoming, the Longhorns gained 280 yards on 47 carries; against New Mexico, the Longhorns gained 146 yards on 31 carries. Even if Mississippi’s defense is the best U.T. has faced thus far, the Longhorns should continue to find a solid level of success between the tackles. While Freeze’s offense looked good against UTEP, Texas will stop Bo Wallace and company in their tracks.

B.Y.U. at Utah, 10 p.m.
Pick: Utes 17, Cougars 16

This is a game that will be nearly impossible to predict until Utah settles on a starting quarterback. Which option gives the Utes’ offense the best chance against the Cougars? On one hand, Jon Hays clearly has a firmer grasp of this offense and its personnel. As a result, playing Hays will allow Utah to open up more of its playbook. On the other hand, there’s no question that true freshman Travis Wilson gives this offense a much-needed dose of electricity. Both will play, but Utah’s chances at a victory depend on how well Kyle Whittingham and Brian Johnson balance the two – on how well they use the pair in concert. So why do I have the Utes winning this year’s Holy War? Home-field advantage, an offense that can’t be any worse and a defense hungry for a chance at making up for last week’s inconsistent performance against Utah State. But it’ll be close.

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

It didn’t take long for Massachusetts to move from feel-good F.B.S. story to the worst team in the F.B.S. – it took two weeks, to be precise. Two weeks, two losses: Connecticut by 37-0, Indiana by 45-6. If Indiana explodes for 45 points, what can Michigan do to your defense? The only two things that will stop Denard Robinson and the Wolverines are the clock and Brady Hoke. Will Hoke call off the dogs early? You know it. Will that even make a difference? Michigan’s second-team offense will move the ball at will on the Minutemen.

Best chance at a shutout
Illinois (vs. Charleston Southern)

This is not so much a statement about Illinois’ defense, seeing that the Illini were torched by Arizona State last Saturday: 45 points, 510 yards of total offense, 7.6 yards per play. (Though Illinois did a very nice job against Western Michigan’s strong offensive attack in its opener.) A date with Charleston Southern comes at the right time. The Buccaneers are 0-2, having lost by 35 points to The Citadel and by 21 points to Jacksonville. Let’s put it this way: it would not be a good sign if Charleston Southern moves the ball on Illinois.

Highest-scoring game
Louisiana-Lafayette at Oklahoma State

You saw points in bunches when this pair met a season ago – O.S.U. 61, U.L.L. 34. Mark Hudspeth’s offense has picked up right where it left off a year ago despite one strange development: the Ragin’ Cajuns aren’t running as many plays as they were a year ago. I thought the offense would be even more frenetic thanks to the added experience; that hasn’t been the case through two weeks. The Cowboys’ offense lone enemy is itself, as we saw in last week’s loss to Arizona. If the receiver corps can do a better job catching the football, O.S.U.’s offense is going to remain among the best in the country. But can the Cowboys stop a wide-open offense? U.L.L. won’t win, but it’ll make things difficult for O.S.U.’s defense.

Proud defense runs off the rails
Nebraska (vs. Arkansas State)

It never got this bad – not under Bill Callahan, not when Craig Bohl was coordinator, not when Kevin Cosgrove was coordinator. The worst part about Nebraska’s performance against U.C.L.A. wasn’t merely how lost the Cornhuskers looked in Bo Pelini’s system; that was terrible, but it wasn’t the worst part. What was worse was seeing just how slow Nebraska was throughout its front seven, which helps explain why Pelini and his staff are inserting a new starter at weak side linebacker and contemplating a full-bore move to a 3-4 base set. What is Nebraska without a good defense? An average team. What is Nebraska without a good defense or Rex Burkhead? It’s not a good situation.

Is this a little awkward?
Randy Edsall, Maryland

Don’t say it’s not awkward, because it is. Yes, Edsall has handled this the right way, saying that he loves it at Maryland but, if he could have done one thing differently, he would have told his players he was leaving before trading in the Big East and Connecticut for the A.C.C. and the Terrapins. Nevertheless, it will be strange for the Huskies to storm the field against their former head coach, just as it will be strange for Edsall to lead his new team against the program he helped lead into relevancy – not to mention a B.C.S. bowl – before leaving after the 2010 season. Connecticut has 28 redshirt juniors, seniors and fifth-year seniors; these 28 players weren’t just recruited by Edsall but developed by Edsall and his staff. It’s going to be a little awkward.

Not thinking about the past
Florida State (vs. Wake Forest)

The Seminoles have lost four of six to the Demon Deacons, including a 35-30 decision in Winston-Salem a year ago. The Seminoles won’t lose tonight – they shouldn’t lose, at least. But how many times have we inked F.S.U. in for a win over Wake? The difference is that this year’s team is not just Florida State’s best since 2006 but also the program’s best-coached team since 2006; Jimbo Fisher’s team might have its eye on a bigger prize, but it won’t look past the Demon Deacons. And the one positive byproduct of Wake’s current run is that it has eliminated any idea that the Seminoles can just roll out of bed and notch a win. Keep this one key fact in mind: Wake won’t have all-A.C.C. nose guard Nikita Whitlock due to injury.

How bad will it get?
Penn State (vs. Navy)

Last Saturday, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit suggested that a loss to Virginia might send Penn State to a 3-9 finish in Bill O’Brien’s first season with the program. So now that Penn State is 0-2, is it fair to at least consider the possibility? Here’s what the Nittany Lions have the rest of the way: Navy (today), Temple, at Illinois, Northwestern, at Iowa, Ohio State, at Purdue, at Nebraska, Indiana and Wisconsin. The three most likely wins would be Navy, Temple and Indiana. After that, in order: Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa, Purdue, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State. Based on all that O’Brien must deal with off the field and this year’s schedule, it’s almost impossible to see P.S.U. win more than five games the rest of the way.

Debut’s not going as planned
Paul Chryst, Pittsburgh

No, Chryst isn’t on the hot seat. (Except with the lunatic fringe of Pittsburgh’s fan base.) But it’s only fair to say that Chryst’s first two games have been massive letdowns. There was a loss to Youngstown State, which was bad enough. You had a feeling that the Panthers’ date with Cincinnati was going to run along the same line after George Winn scored a 58-yard touchdown – untouched – on the Bearcats’ first play from scrimmage. Pittsburgh’s play over its first two games points to another ugly loss to Virginia Tech later today, and it’s hard to find a reason why the Panthers are ready to turn the corner against such fierce competition. Well, here’s one reason: Pittsburgh isn’t a bad team. There’s talent here; the issue is that this entire program is reeling due to the carousel of coaches over the last two seasons. Chryst needs time to get Pittsburgh’s house in order. Unfortunately, he’ll need to wait another week before landing his first win.

Huskies storm into Manhattan
Northern Illinois (at Army)

It was U.S.C. last week – the Trojans, who met Syracuse at MetLife Stadium last Saturday, held a pep rally right in the heart of Times Square. Northern Illinois’ fan base isn’t as strong in numbers, nor did those in Manhattan for today’s game at West Point hold any sort of gathering below the bright lights of 42nd Street. But there are Huskies in town for a date with Army – and they’re confident. I asked two red-clad N.I.U. fans for their score prediction: One said a touchdown win, “but that it’ll be close,” citing the three-point spread; the other said simply, “We’re going to kill ‘em.”

Hard-pressed to match breakthrough
Eastern Michigan (at Purdue)

After years of ineptitude, Eastern Michigan reached bowl eligibility a season ago – breathing some life into a moribund program in the process. To repeat that feat, E.M.U. is going to need a whale of a run over the year’s second half. To most, the Eagles were destined for a 2-0 start: Ball State was a likely win, and Illinois State was an easy win. Now 0-2, not 2-0, the Eagles will soon be 0-4 after meeting Purdue and Michigan State on the road. To get back to six wins – let alone seven, improving upon last year’s total – the Eagles will need to go 6-2 against a slate that includes Toledo, Ohio, Western Michigan and Northern Illinois. If E.M.U. slides back to 2-10, would the program feel that Ron English’s successful 2011 season would be enough to offset the painful decline?

The Wildcats take on another league
Northwestern (vs. Boston College)

The Big East came first, though it took every ounce of Northwestern’s energy to knock off Syracuse, 42-41, in the Carrier Dome. Then came the SEC, though again, the Wildcats didn’t make it easy on themselves against Vanderbilt – the weather was an issue, but N.U.’s physical and mental errors led to a downturn from the passing game. The A.C.C. is next: Northwestern plays host to Boston College, one of the A.C.C.’s weaker teams, after topping the Eagles in Chestnut Hill last September. That makes three B.C.S. conference opponents in three weeks for the Wildcats, who cap non-conference play with South Dakota before turning to the Big Ten. How many B.C.S. conference teams will the rest of the Big Ten have played after today’s games? Eight: Alabama (Michigan), Virginia (Penn State), Iowa State (Iowa), Oregon State (Wisconsin), U.C.L.A. (Nebraska), Arizona State (Illinois), California (Ohio State) and Notre Dame (Michigan State).

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

In reality, the worst games are those pitting powers against weaklings, as in L.S.U.’s date with Idaho or Georgia’s game against Florida Atlantic. At least Middle Tennessee State and Memphis will be competitive – you’d think so, at least. On the other hand, L.S.U. and Georgia will combine to beat the Vandals and Owls by 100 points, give or take. But for pure rumbling, stumbling and bumbling, nothing can top the Blue Raiders’ trip to Memphis to take on the hometown Tigers. And by the way, this is a schedule that keeps giving for Rick Stockstill, who should be 2-1 heading into late September after christening this season with a dreadful loss at home to McNeese State.

Most likely to get in the win column
Auburn, Texas A&M, Boise State, etc.

This doesn’t count teams facing off against F.C.S. competition, which eliminates Syracuse, Hawaii and Wyoming, among others. As noted, I think Auburn takes care of business against Louisiana-Monroe. Texas A&M will take out some frustration against S.M.U. – I’m guessing by 17 points. Boise State’s upcoming winning streak kicks off against Miami (Ohio). Anyone else? I’m not sure if Colorado has what it takes to win at Fresno State. Likewise with Army, which hosts N.I.U, and Navy, which heads to Happy Valley. But someone is getting a win on Saturday, whether it be 0-2 Penn State or the 0-1 Midshipmen.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Home  Home

Comments

  1. Patrick says:

    “Aaron” Bates, not Adam. Still a great article, thanks for the work you do!

Leave a Comment