Rushing The Field: Poll Anarchy

Well, seven weeks in and we’ve got the same damned problem we had last year with college football (or non-problem, for without these issues, the sport isn’t as half as fun to discuss or opine on.)  The field has leveled out so greatly that you have three of the top five getting knocked off on a Saturday.

Oklahoma and Texas were essentially trading blows for about three quarters, with Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy upping the ante on who would be favored in the Heisman race. Texas turned it in the 4th quarter: prodding Bradford into picks and getting big play from McCoy (who was 28-35 passing, good accuracy) along with a huge 60-yard run from Chris Ogbonnaya, and the Horns took the win 45-35. However, any analysis of this game without a lament about the sorry Big 12 officials in charge is incomplete. I understand the reasons for stringent rules about roughing the passer or personal foul calls; you want to keep people from getting hurt. McCoy flopped twice on ruhses out of bounds that got called for 15-yard flags, he and Bradford both were given the gift of flags on roughing penalties that shouldn’t have been called, an OU interception that should have been in the first half wasn’t, and the OU punter put on an acting job that Cristiano Ronaldo would have been ashamed of.

The Swamp is an entirely different beast of a stadium, particularly for a new starting QB like Jarrett Lee in his first road game as LSU “supplied the butt” for Florida to whip, in Mike Patrick’s parlance.  Florida got out to a 20-0 lead at one point; LSU closed it to 6 points, but the Gators’ defense finally stepped up, turning the multitude of running backs of LSU into an ineffective rotation, and forcing them to try to win on Lee’s arm — never a good prospect for a redshirt freshman.  Urban Meyer’s squad wound up putting half a hundred on ’em in the first complete game where Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin were not the sole playmakers in the Gator spread.

T. Boone Pickens’ money is apparently going to good use; it’s enough to buy a defense when there apparently was none.  A 28-23 upset of Missouri at Columbia gives Oklahoma State some of the respect they’ve been seeking, as no other team made Chase Daniel look out of sync as often as the Cowboys did (Mizzou fans may be tempted to blame the fact that Daniel was wearing #25 in honor of a fallen teammate rather than his usual #10 jersey), forcing him into crucial picks late.  Zac Robinson was a revelation for those of us who haven’t taken the time to watch him, pulling touchdown passes out of his ass. One in particular impressed me in the second half: he rolled out left and had NOTHING at the time downfield, he’d just avoided a sack, and to avoid another one, he hurled it to a spot in the end zone where he had two receivers against one cornerback — leap, catch, touchdown.

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Rushing The Field: That Was Supposed To Be Competitive, Right?

Honest question: is 35-3 a bad enough beating for Ohio State that we can no longer consider them candidates for the BCS championship game? After watching USC’s offensive pick apart the secondary and the Trojans’ front seven on defense get after Todd Boeckman early and often, it seems that Jim Tressel’s ethic and mentality in Columbus may need just as much of a change as Lloyd Carr’s did in Michigan. That wound up with Carr leaving and Rich Rodriguez replacing him, but I am not suggesting such a drastic step.  What it may require is Tressel stretching out his recruiting area — because he can get every athlete in the Midwest and many in the Atlantic part of Big 10 territory that he likes, but he isn’t attracting players that can be difference makers in out-of-conference games.  I don’t think Beanie Wells would have made a lick of difference, either, and you know what? I don’t like the Buckeyes much when they have to play Penn State are their spread offense later this year, either.

They may not be able to get by Wisconsin, who grind out wins. For every play that Fresno State made against the Badgers in the San Joaquin Valley, the Badgers had answers and their defense was able to keep Tom Brandstater in check.

The dirty little secret about USC? They have the easiest path to the MNC game because the Pac-10, usually good for 2nd in conference strength behind the SEC these days, is in a down cycle. USC was one of only two Pac-10 teams that won an out-of-conference game convincingly, and I would rather not count Oregon State-Hawai’i as any sort of meaningful OOC game. Oregon lost another QB and snuck by Purdue in OT, to be fair.

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Ill-Advised Sweet 16 Predictions

Just the usual quick and dirty here. My Final Four is still intact, but I can’t say that I think it will be after the next two days.

East Regional:

  • UNC over Wazzu — this’ll be a slog of a game, I think, because this is the best defensive team the Heels will see unless they play UCLA in the final. UNC has enough talent to get by the Cougars, but they won’t be scoring 100 this time.
  • Tennessee beats Louisville — the Cardinals are streaking right now and the Vols look vulnerable. My pick of Tennessee is pure sticking with my bracket; it could go either way.

West Regional:

  • UCLA tops Western Kentucky — Nice run, Hilltoppers, but UCLA gets calls and plays defense too well. The Bruins can overcome a bad start.
  • Xavier over West Virginia — Like L’Ville/Tenn, this is a bracket pick that I’m sticking with because I think this will be a close game and don’t really know how it will go. I think Xavier’s defense will be the defining factor.

Midwest Regional:

  • Kansas over Villanova — Jayhawks, although it will not be a walkover and Villanova will give them a very good game.
  • Wisconsin ends Davidson’s run — On a Sweet 16 bracket, I picked Davidson for fun, but really, Bo Ryan’s defense seems to smother all and I don’t see another upset for the Wildcats here.

South Regional:

  • Michigan State upsets Memphis — Watch. The Tigers will kill themselves with bad free throw shooting and being forced to take jumpers that don’t fall.
  • Stanford beats Texas — Guard play is a big thing in the NCAA tournament, but having the Lopez twins to get points and clean up the boards will be crucial in a close Stanford win.

Photo: AP/Ted S. Warren

So, We’ve Got 16 Left

What did I screw up? Plenty, but all my Final Four choices are still in.  Let’s look at the less than obvious choices. UNC was expected to be at this level and are playing lights-out ball right now.  That’s about as simple as it gets. Tennessee and Memphis are serious liabilities at the free throw line, UCLA scared the crap out of just about everyone who’d picked them to win it all.  Kansas made short work of its first two opponents.

I should know better after watching the Pac-10 all year to have dismissed Washington State so easily. That’s a bad oversight, because I forgot that they played lockdown defense. Do I think they will beat UNC? Probably not, but it’s more validation for Tony Bennett.

Michigan State looked really inconsistent all year and then reels off two solid games to get back to the 16 — beating a Pitt team that was a very popular choice to go to the Final Four in the East. Now they get Memphis, and this is the round where no one will be surprised if Memphis loses to any of hte teams left.

I knew nothing about Western Kentucky going into the tournament. I guess I better know now.  I don’t have the same excuse for Davidson — I knew Stephen Curry was good, but 70 points in two games good? That I wasn’t aware of.

Wisconsin is consistent. They play Bo Ryan’s style and do it well enough to get back to the 16 even though they were a popular upset target.

Xavier worries me, they’ve had to make comebacks, and they’re going against a West Virginia team that’s overachieving in ways no one expected this year (this is one of the only feathers in my cap that I get to claim, predicting that WVU would beat Duke in that exact game.)

Texas has great players, but they’re just as likely to shoot poorly at the line as Memphis and Tennessee — and they have to play Stanford, who shoots well from the line, has better inside presence. Rick Barnes better hope Trent Johnson gets pissed off for no reason again.

Villanova, I completely passed on, and forgot that Jay Wright had gotten Wildcat teams to the Sweet 16 twice, now three times in four years as head coach. Oh well. Beating Siena wasn’t the hardest road into the 16, but who expected Villanova to be here right now?

Photo: AP/Chuck Burton

Take The Skinned and Headless Bowling, III.

USC 49, Illinois 17 – Essentially, the Illini fucked themselves; Juice Williams got squeezed with sacks and INTs, and when the Trojans made their few errors on plays, Illinois couldn’t take advantage of the opportunities — thus, the rout everyone expected came to fruition, and only fed fuel that the BCS selection committee couldn’t get it right yet again due to the insistence on conference selection. The Trojans racked up an astonishing 633 yards of offense.

Georgia 41, Hawaii 10 – Thus, Bizarro College Football season ends appropriately, with no unbeaten teams in the mid-major and big-time conferences. That it happened in such ugly fashion is another matter (and probably expected as much as USC’s dismantling of Illinois.)  Carping about being robbed of the BCS championship aside from the Georgia players (win your conference and we’ll talk), they took it out on Colt Brennan, sacking him eight times and rushing him into throws while running all over the Warriors defense. I’d really like to thank the BCS for its lame selection criteria — if they hadn’t stuck to their guns, we could have seen USC vs. UGA, and no one would have wanted that.

Michigan 41, Florida 35 – There’s a reason Florida was a three-loss team. I just didn’t ffigure that Ron English had figured out how to get his guys to defend 21st century offenses.  That said, this rode on the arm of Chad Henne and the hands of both Adrian Arringotn and Mario Manningham — as well as the usual play calling of “run Mike Hart up the middle.”  Florida’s weak spot all season on defense has been the secondary, and it turned into a shoot out that the Gators couldn’t pull out. Nice way to go out for the senior class — which hadn’t won a bowl game — and for Lloyd Carr.

Texas Tech 31, Virginia 28 – 14 points in under 4 minutes in the 4th quarter. Such are the ways of the Lubbock Pirate Academy.  After being shut down by the Cavaliers’ defense (giving up two safeties in the process), Graham Harrell and the Red Raiders made their way back via late turnovers and crucial defensive stops. Harrell threw for 407 yards on 44 completions (out of 69 attempts!)

Missouri 28, Arkansas 7 – You’d have been right to wonder if the Heisman Trophy candidate playing running back in this game wasn’t on Missouri rather than Arkansas. Tony Temple rushed for more than 200 yards and four touchdowns in a performance that turned star QB Chase Daniel into an afterthought.  McFadden did get into the end zone, but came out in the third quarter.

Tennessee 21, Wisconsin 17 – Vols QB Erik Ainge finishes with 345 passing and two scores to end his college career, and Tyler Donovan made a few mistakes along the way, including a fourth quarter pick on an attempt on a late drive in the Outback Bowl. The future for the Vols will be questionable as ususal — not for coach Phil Fulmer, but he’ll have to revamp his offensive staff yet again with David Cutcliffe and Trooper Taylor both bailing out.

Photo: AP/Mark J. Terrill