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It wasn't supposed to be a big weekend of action in the Big Ten. No team was favored by single digits and only Wisconsin was a road favorite. That, however, didn't stop the league from generating plenty of excitement.
Iowa put quite a scare into the Buckeyes on the road. Michigan and Indiana set all types of records. Wisconsin cruised in a traditionally difficult rivalry game. And Minnesota won a game in Evanston that changed the complexion of the Legends Division race.
Here are the Big Ten's Week 8 Superlatives:
Offensive Players of the Week: Devin Gardner and Jeremy Gallon, Michigan
Gardner set Michigan records with 584 yards of total offense, 503 yards passing and five total touchdowns in the win over Indiana. Jeremy Gallon set a Big Ten record with 369 yards receiving on 14 catches, two of which went for touchdowns. His 369 yards are No. 2 in FBS history behind Louisiana Tech's Troy Edwards 405 yards in 1998. Michigan rolled up a school-record 751 yards of offense and scored nine touchdowns. Gardner came up two yards shy of a Big Ten record for total offense (Illinois' David Wilson, 585, 1980).
Defensive Players of the Week: Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, Michigan State
The other school in Michigan wins games in a completely different style and fashion than the Wolverines. The Spartans linebackers played well all afternoon and combined on one huge play to give the Spartans the lead for good early in the tigher-than-expected win over Purdue. Bullough finished with 10 tackles, two for a loss and a forced a fumble on a sack that was scooped up by Allen and returned 45 yards for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown. Allen finished with eight tackles and the Spartans fifth defensive touchdown on the season.
Team of the Week: Minnesota
Without their head coach, the Gophers were a near two-touchdown underdog on the road against Northwestern. But with Jerry Kill watching from a private suite at Ryan Field, Minnesota proceeded to knock off the division rival Wildcats with an excellent defensive performance. The Gophers controlled time of possession, won the turnover battle (3-0), registered three sacks and held on for the three-point win. The victory was Minnesota's first conference win of the season and puts the Gophers one win away from getting bowl eligible.
Coordinator of the Week: Tracy Claeys, Minnesota
The defensive coordinator-turned-interim head coach deserves a ton of credit for what the Gophers accomplished on Saturday. Minnesota allowed just 328 yards of offense to Northwestern and forced three huge turnovers, including an interception that was returned for a touchdown late in the third quarter that gave the Gophers the lead for good. Everyone is rooting for head coach Jerry Kill to get healthy and a win like this on the road over a good Wildcats team is something this fan base dearly needed.
Freshman of the Week: T.J. Simmons, Indiana
The freshman linebacker from Lakeland (Fla.) posted his fifth game of his career with at least seven tackles by making eight stops, two for a loss, a sack and a QB hurry against Michigan. Simmons is tied for 13th in the Big Ten in tackles and is leading all Big Ten freshman (49 total tackles, seven per game).
• Ohio State pushed the nation's longest winning streak to 19 games with the win over Iowa.
• Brady Hoke has yet to lose a home game as the head coach at Michigan, winning his 19th straight in the Big House this weekend. It was also Michigan's 18th straight victory over Indiana.
• Northwestern's Lou Groza candidate Jeff Budzien set a Big Ten record with his 127th consecutive converted extra point.
• Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon rushed for 142 yards and three touchdowns in the road win over Illinois. Gordon is third nationally with 144.6 yards rushing per game, second with 1,012 yards rushing and trails only Arizona State's Marion Grice and Boise State's Jay Ajayi for the nation's lead in rushing TDs (12).
• The Badgers rushed for 289 yards on 46 carries against the Illini. It was the fifth time UW topped 280 yards rushing this year and the fifth time it rushed for more than 6.0 yards per carry in a game (6.3). As a team, it leads the Big Ten with 24 rushing touchdowns.
• Dueces were wild for Ohio State's Braxton Miller. He completed 22 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns. He also carried 18 times for 102 yards on the ground. He had just five incomplete passes and didn't turn the ball over.
• Carlos Hyde chipped in with 149 yards and two rushing touchdowns for Ohio State on 24 carries in the win over Iowa.
• Iowa entered the weekend as the only team in the nation to have yet to allow a rushing TD. It gave up two to Ohio State in second half.
It was one of the craziest weeks in years in the SEC. The favorite lost in five of the six league games, with only Alabama holding serve with a 52-0 win over Arkansas. Elsewhere, Vanderbilt beat Georgia in Nashville, Auburn stunned Texas A&M in College Station, Tennessee rallied to defeat South Carolina in Knoxville, and Ole Miss topped LSU with a late field goal in Oxford.
SEC Week 8 Recap and Awards
Offensive Player of the Week: Tre Mason, Auburn
Mason was one of the bright spots for Auburn during a dismal 2012 season, rushing for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns on a healthy 5.9-yard average. Mason is once again having a fine season, but his play is being overshadowed by his team’s first-year coach (Gus Malzahn) and starting quarterback (Nick Marshall). On Saturday, Mason rushed for a career-high 178 yards and one touchdown on 27 carries to lead Auburn to a thrilling 45-41 win at Texas A&M. Mason’s lone touchdown, on a 5-yard run, put Auburn on top for good with 1:48 remaining.
Defensive Player of the Week: Michael Sam, Missouri
Missouri beat Florida 36-17 in Maty Mauk’s first start at quarterback, but the story of the day was the Tigers’ surprisingly dominant defense. Defensive end Michael Sam recorded three sacks — to increase his SEC-leading total to 9.0 — to spearhead a Mizzou defense that limited Florida to 151 yards of offense. Sam also leads the SEC with 13.0 tackles for a loss.
Team of the Week: Tennessee
After flirting with a breakthrough win two weeks against Georgia, Tennessee rallied to beat South Carolina in Knoxville, giving first-year coach Butch Jones his first signature win. The Vols’ offense struggled for much of the day — UT only averaged 4.2 yards per play — but they made a big play at the right time (see MarQuez North below) to win the game. Tennessee’s defense held South Carolina to 384 yards and three touchdowns, one week after the Gamecocks had 537 yards in a 52-7 win at Arkansas.
Coordinator of the Week: Bob Shoop, Vanderbilt
Yes, Georgia was short-handed due to injury, but Vanderbilt deserves credit for holding the Bulldogs to 221 yards of offense — their fewest since gaining 200 in a loss to Virginia Tech in the 2006 Chik-fil-A Bowl — and two offensive touchdowns in a 31-27 win in Nashville. The Commodores had allowed an average of 530.3 yards in their previous three SEC games. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, who averaged 287.7 yards in his first three games against Vanderbilt, was held to 114 yards — the second-fewest of his career — on 28 attempts.
Freshman of the Week: Marquez North, Tennessee
Sometimes a game comes down to one player making a great play. And that’s what North did in Tennessee’s 23-21 win over South Carolina. With the Vols trailing 21-20 and facing a 3rd-and-10 from their own 35-yard line with under three minutes to go, North made a spectacular 48-yard catch (with one hand) down the sideline that set Tennessee up for the game-winning field goal. North, a true freshman, caught three passes for 102 yards — the first 100-yard game of his career.
• Alabama has allowed one touchdown or less in five of seven games this season and in 40 of 61 games dating back to the beginning of the 2009 season.
• Last year, Auburn had a total of 1,881 yards in eight SEC games (235.5 ypg). This season, under first-year coach Gus Malzahn, the Tigers have 1,886 yards in four SEC games (471.5 ypg).
• LSU’s Zach Mettenberger threw three interceptions in the first half against Ole Miss; he had thrown a total of two in his first seven games.
• Florida averaged 2.5 yards per snap in its 36–17 loss at Missouri. The Gators have had seven games with under 4.0 yards per snap in Will Muschamp’s two-plus seasons as the head coach. They had three such games in 2010, Urban Meyer’s final season, and none from 2007-09.
• Bo Wallace threw for 346 yards in Ole Miss’ 27-24 win over LSU, and, more important, did not throw an interception in 39 attempts. Last year, Wallace threw for 310 yards but was intercepted three times in the Rebels’ 41-35 loss in Baton Rouge.
There’s nothing like the first reveal of the BCS standings to remind us that half a dozen teams are worthy of playing for two spots in the national title game.
Saturday evening ended with Florida State demolishing Clemson 51-14 on the road in a matchup of top five teams, putting FSU in a similar class as Alabama and Oregon. The Seminoles’ win was as complete as anything a national title contender has done to another top team this seasons, but FSU may have trouble getting into the coveted 1-2 scenario when the BCS is revealed Sunday night.
Alabama and Oregon have done nothing to be left out of the top two, but they were ranked higher earlier, so FSU may have to wait its turn.
If the eighth week of the season is any indication, though, the pecking order of top teams is anything but settled. Besides Clemson, top 10 teams Louisville and UCLA lost their first games of the season.
And that doesn’t touch on the carnage in the SEC. LSU, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Georgia all lost unranked teams, showcasing either the weakness of top teams or the depth of the conference, depending on your perspective.
College Football Week 8 Recap: Three and Out
Three Things We Learned from Florida State 51, Clemson 14
This Florida State team is different. Feel free to file that statement away for when the Seminoles lose to NC State, Syracuse or Wake Forest. But Florida State looked like it’s finally ready to carry the weight of a team to bring the Seminoles back to glory. A good portion of the credit falls on Jameis Winston, who leads the team with a charisma rare in college football and even rarer for a redshirt freshman. It doesn’t hurt that Winston finished 22 of 34 for 444 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. Florida State won every quarter and never showed a lapse that could have sparked an explosive offense like Clemson’s playing at home.
Florida State’s defense is nasty. Winston is a Heisman contender, for sure, but Florida State’s defense held Clemson down all night. First-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt with two first-year defensive assistants held Clemson and hotshot offensive coordinator Chad Morris to 326 yards of total offense and 3.8 yards per play. Clemson didn’t have a play of 20 yards, and Tajh Boyd wasn’t much of a factor with 164 yards of total offense with a touchdown and two interceptions. FSU defensive back Lamarcus Joyner finished with eight tackles, two forced fumbles, an interception and a sack.
Clemson still has hope. The Tigers don’t have much to salvage here. Clemson needed a touchdown in the final 30 seconds to avoid the first 40-point loss in the history of Death Valley to say nothing of a top-three team losing by 37 at home. This is a demoralizing loss that could wreck an entire season, especially with road trips against Maryland and Virginia in the next two weeks. But if Clemson returns to form through the remainder of the year, the Tigers can still be a strong candidate for at-large consideration in the BCS with a game at South Carolina to end the regular season. A top-10 finish for the first time since 1990 is still possible even if an ACC title and more are slim.
Three Signature SEC Moments
Butch’s big win. The Volunteers missed out on their big breakthrough under Butch Jones against Georgia when Pig Howard’s fumble at the goal line went out of the end zone for a critical touchback. When the second chance came, Tennessee pounced. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier burned his final two timeouts prior to a punt in the final three minutes, and Tennessee drove the ball 63 yards for the game-winning 19-yard field goal for a 23-21 win. Marquez North, a star in the making, had a one-handed 39-yard catch through tight coverage to set up the winning field goal. The victory was both Tennessee’s first win over a ranked team and first SEC win in October since a 31-13 defeat of South Carolina on Oct. 31, 2009 under Lane Kiffin.
SEC West offenses. The idea of Auburn going back and forth with the Texas A&M offense would have been unthinkable a year ago. Then, the Tigers lost 63-21 to the Aggies in 2012 and then went scoreless in final next two SEC games. On Saturday, the Aggies’ defense did its part in helping Auburn to a 45-41 win, but the turnaround is staggering. Auburn’s 251 points this season is 27 more than the Tigers scored all of 2012. Not a bad seven games for first-year coach Gus Malzahn. Auburn wasn't alone. Malzahn's pal Hugh Freeze led Ole Miss to 525 yards in a 27-24 upset of LSU. The Tigers hadn't allowed 500 yards in a game since giving up 533 in a win over a Geno Smith-led West Virginia in 2011. Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace had his best game of the season, completing 30 of 39 passes for 346 yards. LSU's Zach Mettenberger reverted to his 2012 form, completing 19 of 33 passes with three interceptions.
Vanderbilt’s win over a ranked team. James Franklin has done many things to make Vanderbilt relevant in football from reaching bowl games and recruiting at an SEC level. But until Saturday, he’d never earned a win over a ranked team. The Commodores. Vanderbilt used a 17-point fourth quarter to upset No. 15 Georgia 31-17. The win ended the Commodores’ 17-game losing streak to ranked teams, going back to a win over No. 13 Auburn on Oct. 4, 2008. Georgia’s offense has been riddled with injuries, but so was Vanderbilt on Saturday. Quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels left the game on crutches in the second quarter, but backup Patton Robinette led three scoring drives, going 9 of 15 for 107 yards with an interception and a rushing touchdown. Georgia helped Vanderbilt as two fumbles and a snap over the head of punter Colin Barber gave the Commodores the ball in Georgia territory three times in the fourth quarter.
Three Seasons Gone Awry
Florida. By Saturday afternoon, it was tough to believe Florida was an AP top 10 team in the preseason and a legitimate SEC East contender two weeks ago. The Gators had their worst all-around games in decades in the 36-17 loss to Missouri. The 151 yards on offense was the fewest in a game for the Gators since 1999, and the 500 yards was the most since the 2007 season against Michigan in the Capital One Bowl. For the second consecutive week, Florida's injury-riddled offensive line was mauled, contributing to 92 passing yards and six sacks. Making matters worse, Florida’s secondary, considered one of the best in the SEC, gave up long pass plays all day. Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk, who ascended to the starter’s job after an injury to James Franklin, averaged 8.2 yards per pass. With games remaining against Georgia, Vanderbilt, at South Carolina, Georgia Southern and Florida State, the Gators may have trouble getting the two wins they need to be bowl eligible.
Northwestern. On Oct. 5, Northwestern was 4-0 and preparing for the biggest game in Evanston in years. Now, the Wildcats are wondering when they might find their first Big Ten win of the season. With Venric Mark and Kain Colter out, Northwestern lost to Minnesota 20-17, its third loss in a row. Northwestern’s offense was lost without its two starts, averaging 4.6 per play and turning the ball over three times. The Wildcats, once considered a Big Ten Legends contender, has no easy picks for a Big Ten win. The remaining schedule is at Iowa, at Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State and at Illinois.
Maryland. The Terrapins spent one week at No. 25 in the AP poll after starting 4-0. The good feelings were dashed in a 63-0 wake-up call to Florida State that including a thundering hit on C.J. Brown that kept the quarterback out for a week. The Terrapins escaped Virginia 27-26 a week later, but Maryland’s prospects for the remainder of the season are considerably dimmer. Brown has returned, but his standout receiving duo of Stefon Diggs and Deon Long were lost to season-ending injuries in a shocking 34-10 loss to Wake Forest. Diggs and Long had combined for 66 receptions for 1,078 yards. No one else for Maryland has more than 14 catches. Maryland (5-2) faces Clemson next week, but should be able to get a bowl game with home games against Syracuse and Boston College.
Moving the Chains
Stanford’s defense. The Cardinal may have a tough time getting back into the national championship race with a loss to Utah on the resume, but Stanford still has a defense good enough to win a title. The Cardinal held UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley to a career-low 219 yards of total offense, and the Bruins averaged 4.5 yards per play, down from 6.7 entering the game. Safety Jordan Richards had 10 tackles, two interceptions and a pass breakup while linebacker Shayne Skov corralled the UCLA run game.
South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney. The soap opera surrounding Clowney’s injuries and Steve Spurrier’s postgame frustration with the defensive end’s decision not to play against Kentucky has been a hot topic for talking heads. It should be put to rest after Saturday. Despite the loss to Tennessee, Clowney had his finest game of the season. In a matchup with one of the best tackles in the country in Antonio Richardson, Clowney finished with 2.5 tackles for a loss and two quarterback hurries.
Ohio State’s backfield. The Buckeyes got a complete game from its starting backfield duo of Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde just when they needed it. Miller missed three games with injury and struggled two weeks ago against Northwestern, a game in which Hyde lifted Ohio State with 168 rushing yards and three touchdowns. On Saturday, Hyde again displayed the physical run game and balance by running for 149 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries in a 34-24 win over Iowa. Miller also had his best game of the season, completing 22 of 27 passes for 222 yards with two touchdowns to go with 102 rushing yards. Ohio State needed every bit of it as Iowa flourished early in the passing game. The Buckeyes had already lost safety Christian Bryant to a season-ending injury, and cornerback Bradley Roby was ejected early due to a targeting penalty.
Texas A&M’s defense. The defense finally put the Aggies into a position where Johnny Manziel couldn’t come to the rescue. The Aggies offense kept giving A&M leads, including as much as 10 points in the fourth quarter, but the defense continuously opened the door for Auburn to answer. Even when field position was good, Auburn was able to drive down the field for four touchdown drives of 75 yards or more. Texas A&M gave up 379 rushing yards and 6.3 yards per carry in the 45-41 home loss. The Aggies gave up a total of 615 yards and have allowed at least 434 yards against each FBS opponent this season.
Washington. Is the top of the Pac-12 this good or is Washington drifting back into 7-6 territory? The Huskies will find out in the second half of the season, but after a 53-24 loss to Arizona State, it looks more like the latter. Washington played respectably in a loss to Stanford two weeks ago, but the Huskies have lost three in a row, the last two decisively. Arizona State outrushed Washington 314 to minus-5, thanks in part to six sacks of Huskies quarterback Keith Price and seven sacks overall. The Huskies already lost a chance at the Pac-12 North, but they’ll probably need to beat Colorado and Cal in the next two games to reach the elusive eight-win mark in the regular season.
SEC East injuries. The SEC East injury bug struck again. South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw left the loss to Tennessee with what was described as a strained left knee, and Vanderbilt quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels jogged to to the locker room in the second quarter but returned on crutches. Kentucky’s Jalen Withlow joined the injured list with an ankle injury earlier this week, and Missouri’s James Franklin missed his first start of the season. Georgia, already having lost No. 2 running back Keith Marshall and top two receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley, didn’t have Todd Gurley for the third consecutive week. And Florida has lost five starters to injury this season. The West wasn’t total immune either as Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri may be out for a significant amount of time with a knee injury.
Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M. Manziel’s place in the Heisman race may be unmoved despite a 45-41 loss to Auburn. Manziel completed 28 of 38 pass for 454 yards with four touchdowns, and for the second consecutive week, he returned from an injury scare to lead a touchdown drive. With 48 rushing yards, Manziel had the fifth game of at least 500 yards in his career. If there is any knock on Manziel, it’s his two interceptions against Auburn.
Bryce Petty, Baylor. Brett Hundley, Tajh Boyd and Teddy Bridgewater all slipped in the Heisman race after this week’s action. Expect Petty to take their place. Petty had another ridiculous stat line in a 71-7 win over Iowa State: He completed 23 of 31 passes for 343 yards and two touchdowns, giving him 14 yards per pass attempt this season.
Marcus Mariota, Oregon. Mariota probably remains the frontrunner, but it's worth noting Mariota had his first turnovers of the season with two fumbles against Washington State. Mariota hadn’t had a turnover since throwing an interception in a loss to Stanford on Nov. 17, 2012. Mariota still finished 23-of-32 for 327 yards with two touchdowns in a 62-38 win over the Cougars.
Michigan State against Purdue
Oklahoma against Kansas
Pittsburgh against Old Dominion
Three More Ridiculously Good Receivers
Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
Mike Evans, Texas A&M
Marquez North, Tennessee
Three Scary Good Tight Ends
Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
Eric Ebron, North Carolina
Nick O’Leary, Florida State
Interim coach records
Mike Bath, Miami (Ohio) (0-2)
Ed Orgeron, USC (1-1)
T.J. Weist, Connecticut (0-2)
Dang, They’re Good
Dang, They’re Bad
Best Games Next Week
Texas Tech at Oklahoma
South Carolina at Missouri
Stanford at Oregon State
115. Plays run by BYU in a 47-46 win over Houston. It was easy to overlook as the ranked SEC teams self-destructed Saturday afternoon, but BYU defeated previously unbeaten Houston in a wild 47-46 game. The Cougars ran 113 plays in a game decided in regulation. Bronco Mendenhall installed an up-tempo offense this season, running at least 90 plays against Virginia, Texas and Utah. BYU quarterback Taysom Hill accounted for 564 yards of total offense himself (421 passing, 143 rushing). Hill, who failed complete 40 percent of his passes in each of the first three games, is 79 of 121 (65.2 percent) in his last four.
751. Total yards for Michigan, a school record. The Wolverines needed every school record they set in a 63-47 win over Indiana. Jeremy Gallon set a Big Ten record with 369 receiving yards, the second-highest total in FBS history. Devin Gardner also set school records with 503 passing yards and 584 yards of total offense.
Buried on the Depth Chart
Connor Halliday’s record. Washington State’s quarterback set a dubious record with 89 pass attempts against Oregon, breaking Drew Brees’ record of 83 passes for Purdue in 1998. In a game settled early the third quarter, Halliday finished 58 of 89 for 557 yards with four touchdowns and four picks.
Joe Southwick’s broken ankle. Boise State quarterback Joe Southwick suffered a broken ankle on his first snap against Nevada. Once backup Grant Hendrick settled in, Boise State was just fine. The junior completed 18 of 21 passes for 150 yards with an interception and gave the Broncos a different dimension at the quarterback position with 115 rushing yards and two touchdowns on eight carries. Boise State will need more of that as Southwick probably won’t return anytime soon.
Kent State’s 2-6 start. The Golden Flashes were on the verge of an automatic BCS bid last year before losing to Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship Game last season. Now Kent State is on the verge of missing a bowl game. Kent State lost 38-21 to South Alabama to start 2-6 in Paul Haynes’ first season. South Alabama, though, is having a nice season for a second-year FBS program. The Panthers, who gave Tennessee fits three weeks ago, are 3-3 with the bulk of the Sun Belt schedule remaining. South Alabama went 2-11 in its first FBS season last year.
Three Surprise Undefeated Teams
Missouri (7-0). Texas A&M proved it would be a factor in the SEC last season, and now it’s Missouri’s turn. The Tigers moved to 3-0 in the SEC East after defeating Florida and Georgia in back-to-back weeks. Granted, the Bulldogs and Gators are beset by injuries, but Missouri knows as well as any team how injuries can derail a season. The Tigers had their own issues in a 5-7 season in 2012, including quarterback James Franklin’s shoulder injury. Franklin is hurt again, but that didn’t stop Missouri from starting 7-0 for the first time since 2010 when the Tigers upset a top-ranked Oklahoma team in Columbia. The reason for the start this season has been defense led by end Michael Sam, who’s had nine sacks the last four games.
Texas Tech (7-0). For a moment, Texas Tech looked like it would finally fall back to earth. About to go up by 17, the Red Raiders fumbled at West Virginia’s 1-yard line. The Mountaineers scored off the turnover and rallied to a 27-16 lead in the third quarter. But freshman Davis Webb, Texas Tech’s second rookie starting quarterback this season, led the way back for a 37-27 win. Webb was 36 of 50 for 462 yards with two touchdowns, and Jace Amaro, a matchup nightmare at 6-5 and 260 pounds, caught nine passes for 136 yards with three touchdowns. Texas Tech faces Oklahoma next week.
Miami (6-0). The moment the ACC has been seeking since expansion has finally happened. Miami and Florida State are both unbeaten and in the top 10 deep in to October. To say Miami deserves more skepticism than Florida State would be an understatement. The Hurricanes endured injuries to Duke Johnson and Phillip Dorsett and four interceptions from Stephen Morris to defeat North Carolina 27-23 on Thursday. The UM defense surrendered 500 yards to a 1-5 North Carolina team, but the bigger issue is turnovers. The Hurricanes have coughed the ball up 12 times in the last three games and have been minus-four in turnover margin during that span.
One of the NFL’s top current rivalries will renew acquaintances when the Baltimore Ravens take on the Pittsburgh Steelers this afternoon at 4 p.m. ET on CBS. Both teams have gotten off to disappointing starts, as John Harbaugh’s defending Super Bowl champion Ravens are just 3-3 and Mike Tomlin’s Steelers finally picked up their first win of the season last week.
These two teams are certainly no strangers to each other, as they have been in the same division since the Ravens’ first season in 1996. Pittsburgh leads the all-time series 19-15 during the regular season and also has won all three playoff matchups. Baltimore has won three of the last four regular-season meetings as well as the last three played at Heinz Field.
4 Things to Watch
Even though several of the names have changed, especially for the Ravens, this is still one of the NFL’s best rivalries going. Since the creation of the AFC North in 2002, Baltimore and Pittsburgh have combined to win 10 of the 11 division titles during that span. Five different times the Ravens and Steelers were either first or second in the same season and these two teams have combined to win three of the past eight Super Bowls. These are two of the most successful franchises over the past decade, so it should be no surprise that their head-to-head meetings have been so competitive and, more often than not, close. Eight of the last 10 regular-season games have been decided by three points. So don’t let the records fool you, both of these teams have a lot of pride and would like nothing more than to add to the others’ loss column. Cleveland may be in first place in the division right now, but everyone is within shouting distance, even Pittsburgh at 1-4. A win for the Steelers would not only pull them closer, it would mean a victory over the defending Super Bowl champions, while the Ravens would like nothing more than to put their arch rival in an even bigger hole. It may only be October, but don’t be surprised if this one feels like a playoff game.
Getting Back to the Basics
These two teams are similar in several ways – they have Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, solid defenses who are usually among the best units in the league, and they pride themselves on being physical on both sides of the ball. Both teams usually are able to run the ball consistently too, but that has not been the case this season. Entering Week 7, Baltimore was 27th in the NFL in rushing offense and Pittsburgh was second to last. Both the Ravens and Steelers are averaging less than 73 yards rushing per game and are gaining no more than 3.1 yards per carry. Baltimore’s Ray Rice, who has averaged more than 1,260 yards rushing per season over his last four, is currently on pace for 591 yards and has yet to post a rush of more than 20 yards. The Steelers’ season high for rushing yards in a game by any player thus far is 57 by rookie Le’Veon Bell and the team has a total of two rushing touchdowns. The lack of success running the ball has put more pressure on the quarterbacks and is a big reason why these offenses aren’t scoring a bunch of points and the teams are a collective 4-7. The Ravens’ defense has done a better job than the Steelers’ of stopping the run, but both offenses have to figure out some way to get something going on the ground, even if it’s just to help set up the play-action game. It’s a cliché, but chances are whichever team wins the battle in the trenches on offense, will probably come out on top on the scoreboard too.
Joe Cool vs. Big Ben
Both Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger have won a Super Bowl, have risen to the occasion more than once and also come up short numerous times in their careers. While each quarterback’s running game, defense and special teams will play an important role in this game, there’s no question that the spotlight will largely fall on them. Each has already had to carry their offense early this season because of the struggles on the ground, and their numbers to this point are somewhat of a mixed bag. Although Flacco’s Ravens are 3-3, last year’s Super Bowl MVP hasn’t been at his best. Through six games Flacco is seventh in the NFL in yards passing (1,702), but he has more interceptions (8) than touchdowns (7), and he is just 26th in completion percentage (57.9) and passer rating (76.2). Meanwhile, Roethlisberger’s Steelers have just one win despite him being seventh in completion percentage (65.6) and 15th in passer rating (88.8). Some of Flacco’s issues can be attributed to the offseason trade of wide receiver Anquan Boldin and the season-long absence of tight end Dennis Pitta (dislocated his hip in training camp), leaving wideout Torrey Smith as his most established, not to mention familiar, target. Roethlisberger has gotten even less support than Flacco from the running game, and the Steelers’ offense as a whole has struggled on third down and in the red zone. The Steelers are scoring a touchdown when they are in red zone less than 40 percent of the time. The only team in the NFL that has a lower percentage right now is the 0-6 Jaguars. Both teams’ offensive issues are well documented and go well beyond the quarterback, but fair or not, in the NFL the buck stops with the guy under center.
Who Wins on Third Down?
Another way in which Baltimore and Pittsburgh are similar, especially this season, is how they have performed on both sides of the ball on third down. While each offense may be struggling to convert its opportunities, both defenses rank among the best when it comes to preventing opponents from picking up the first down. On offense, the Ravens and Steelers have both been successful less than 36 percent of the time on third down. On defense, the Ravens entered this week ranked fourth in the NFL (31.2 percent) in third down prevention, while the Steelers were tied for ninth (36.2). While this trend could likely continue this afternoon, the offense that is able to get the job done on third down should be well positioned to get the win. As has already been documented, the majority of these games have been close in recent years, meaning one prolonged drive that includes a third down pickup or two could be the difference between victory and defeat.
Baltimore Key Player: Terrell Suggs, LB
Ray Lewis has retired, Ed Reed is in Houston and several other defenders from last year’s Super Bowl team are no longer with the Ravens. In fact, six of the starters from February’s title game in New Orleans left after winning the Lombardi Trophy. With all of the changes on Baltimore’s defense, one of the few constants that remain is Suggs. The unit’s unquestioned leader, Suggs has made his presence known both on and off the field. He already has seven sacks on the season, which was good for fourth in the NFL entering Week 7 and accounted for nearly a third of the team’s total of 22. The Ravens have the second most sacks of any team, and no doubt getting to Ben Roethlisberger will be important in this game. Roethlisberger has a reputation for being able to move in the pocket and then make something out of nothing when it breaks down, but he’s also been sacked 19 times already. The Steelers have had trouble running the ball, which only makes Roethlisberger’s job more difficult. As one of the longest-tenured Ravens on the roster, Suggs is very familiar with this rivalry. That’s why you know his focus when he’s on the field will be making sure that Big Ben doesn’t get too comfortable in the pocket.
Pittsburgh Key Unit: Offensive Line
Similar to last season, the Steelers’ offensive line has been plagued by injuries. This season it started when Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee in the Steelers’ first possession in the season opener at Tennessee. Pouncey’s loss has had a domino effect along the entirety of the line, as a replacement at center had to be added and the depth chart has seen changes on almost a weekly basis. The end result has been a line that has yet to play a game at 100 percent and is struggling to open holes in the running game and giving Ben Roethlisberger enough time in the pocket. Baltimore’s defense is fourth in the league in sacks and has held up fairly well against both the run and pass. It’s up to Pittsburgh’s patch-work line of tackles Marcus Gilbert and Kelvin Beachum, guards David DeCastro and Ramon Foster, and center Fernando Velasco to come together and put forth its best collaborative effort of the season, or else the Steelers are in real danger of falling to 1-5.
When it comes to Baltimore and Pittsburgh, you can pretty much throw the records out and count on both teams leaving it all out on the field. That said, there is quite a bit riding on this game, as the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens are trying to avoid falling below .500 through their first seven games for the first time since 2005. The Steelers are already off to their worst start in 45 years, yet a win tonight would keep them in striking distance in a crowded AFC North.
Both teams haven’t been able to run the ball consistently, which has put even more pressure on Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger. Consequently, each quarterback’s production has suffered somewhat, and while the defenses have been solid, they haven’t been as dominant as in years past.
The difference this afternoon will be a combination of capitalizing on opportunities and experience. Roethlisberger will get just enough time to make some big, critical plays in the passing game, as the Steelers’ pass-catchers win more of the one-on-one battles against the Ravens’ “new” secondary and linebacking corps. The experience factor also shows up in that many of these Ravens are “new” to this rivalry with the Steelers, so I think they will have a hard time adjusting to the increased intensity that comes with this game. Like most of the recent matchups, this one will be close, but in the end the “old” Steelers knock off their arch rival for their second win in a row.
Pittsburgh 17, Baltimore 13
Peyton Manning’s much-anticipated homecoming will be at the forefront of everyone’s mind when he leads his Denver Broncos against the Indianapolis Colts tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC. This also is a matchup of first-place teams as the Broncos (6-0) look to stay undefeated and atop the AFC West, while the Colts (4-2) will try to maintain their lead in the AFC South.
Manning has 160 regular-season victories in his career, but this will be his first game against the team that drafted him and he spent 14 seasons with. Andrew Luck, who like Manning was a No. 1 overall pick in the draft, put together one of the most productive rookie seasons by a quarterback in 2012 and has already shown improvement through the first six games of his sophomore campaign.
3 Things to Watch
Colts’ Quarterback Lineage on Display
Even before Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay stirred the pot with some surprising and ill-timed comments earlier this week, everyone knew that this game was going to be all about the quarterbacks. Peyton Manning went from the No. 1 overall pick of the 1998 draft to a four-time NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion during the 13 seasons he played for the Colts. He is largely responsible for the 141 regular-season victories the Colts enjoyed during his tenure, along with the eight division titles and 11 total playoff appearances. Despite the circumstances surrounding the end of his relationship with the Colts, Manning’s place among the greatest to ever play for the franchise is secure. Indianapolis was very fortunate in that it was able to move on from Manning by finding its next franchise quarterback a little more than a month after releasing its previous one. Luck was taken with the first pick of the 2012 draft and immediately proved his worth by leading the Colts to a nine-game turnaround (2-14 in 2011 to 11-5 in ’12) and a playoff berth. Luck also broke the NFL record for passing yards (4,374) by a rookie and earned an invite to the Pro Bowl. Manning and Luck have repeatedly said they are friends and not rivals, but the comparisons between the two are inevitable and pretty much unavoidable. Manning went 7-15 in his first 22 career games with the Colts, Luck is 15-7. Luck is considerably more mobile than Manning, but No. 18 has considerably more experience under his belt and is off to the greatest statistical start of his Hall of Fame career this season. There’s no argument that both are critical to the success of their teams’ offenses, although they go about their business in different ways. Regardless of which quarterback finishes with better numbers tonight, we should just sit back and enjoy watching a Hall of Famer and one of the league’s brightest young stars ply their craft on national TV.
It’s Miller Time
With his six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy finally over, Denver’s defense is closer to being whole with the return of Von Miller. The All-Pro linebacker finished second to Houston’s J.J. Watt in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year last season after registering 68 total tackles, 18.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, an interception and a touchdown. Miller is the Broncos’ most dangerous pass-rusher and he has the ability to make a game-changing play on every down. His mere presence on the field brings a different dynamic to this defense and also helps deepen a linebacking corps that is dealing with a neck injury to starter Wesley Woodyard. Because of the piles of points the offense is scoring, the defense hasn’t had to shut out anyone, which is why the unit’s statistics are somewhat skewed. While the Broncos are allowing the most passing yards of any team in the NFL, the defense is No. 1 against the rush. Miller’s return will help both aspects, but it’s his ability to put pressure on the quarterback that could have the most impact, starting tonight. Miller’s been waiting six long weeks for this game, so don’t be surprised if he makes his presence felt early and often against the Colts.
No Lack of Talent on Offense
While all the attention will be on the quarterbacks, neither Manning nor Luck is winning this game all by themselves. For one, Manning needs his teammates to catch his passes, while the Colts aren’t one to just let Luck drop back and sling it all over the field. Denver’s passing offense, with wide receivers Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker and tight end Julius Thomas sharing the wealth, is far and away tops in the league, averaging nearly 50 yards more per game than the No. 2 team (Atlanta), but the Broncos also are averaging 115 yards rushing per game. Knowshon Moreno has staked his claim as Denver’s No. 1 running back, and he has made the most of his opportunities. He’s averaging 4.7 yards per carry and leads the NFL with seven rushing touchdowns. The Colts are eighth in the league in rushing at 130.7 yards per game, but have dangerous pass-catchers of their own in wideouts Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton and tight end Coby Fleener. Running back Trent Richardson has gotten off to a slow start with his new team, but he’s capable of breaking off a big play at any point. There’s no doubt that Manning and Luck will play huge parts in deciding the outcome of tonight’s game, but they won’t be alone. There are talented playmakers at each skill position on both offenses. It’s entirely possible that one of them, and not Manning or Luck, ends up being the biggest star in this game.
Denver Key Player: Champ Bailey, CB
As important as linebacker Von Miller’s return (see above) to the starting lineup is for the Broncos’ defense, Bailey’s season debut last week shouldn’t be overlooked. After missing the first five games because of a foot injury, Bailey picked up six tackles and three passes defended last week against Jacksonville. Denver’s defense is last in the NFL in passing yards allowed (337.7 ypg), but it’s sure to get better with the return of the seven-time All-Pro cornerback. Last season, Bailey had two interceptions as the Broncos finished third in the league in passing defense. They clearly have a long ways to go if they want to repeat that success this season, but getting Bailey back in the secondary is a good start.
Indianapolis Key Player: LaRon Landry, S
Landry is a linebacker who plays safety, as evidenced by the 26 total tackles he racked up in the first two games of the season. Those also are the only tackles he collected in his first season with the Colts, as Landry has missed the past four games because of an ankle injury. He practiced fully this week and will be back out there tonight, just in time to add his physical presence to the Colts’ secondary. Indianapolis defensive backs know they have their work cut out for him going up against Peyton Manning and his stable of pass-catchers. But rest assured that wide receivers Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker, and tight end Julius Thomas, as well as running back Knowshon Moreno will be well aware that Landry is on the field. Any Bronco that has the ball will have their head on a swivel, knowing that Landry is ready, willing and able to lower the boom.
Despite his curious comments earlier in the week, Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay said that Peyton Manning would be honored by the Colts before the game begins. All Manning really cares about, however, is what happens after kickoff. Manning is 82-32 in his career in Indianapolis, but this will be his first game at Lucas Oil Stadium as a visitor. He may not come out and say it, but you have to think that he really wants to win this one.
Andrew Luck and the Colts have grabbed the lead in the AFC South thanks to a renewed commitment to running the football and a stingy defense. Both the offense and defense will be tested tonight, as the Colts just don’t have the firepower that the Broncos have on offense, while Denver’s defense has been the best in the NFL in stopping the run and it is getting another key piece back in All-Pro linebacker Von Miller.
Manning and the Broncos won’t blow the Colts out in this one, but No. 18 turns in another memorable performance in front of his former fan base and wins his first game against the only NFL team he has yet to defeat. What other outcome were you expecting from his homecoming?
Denver 34, Indianapolis 24
Arian Foster, C.J. Spiller and Zac Stacy are all listed on their respective team’s injury report for Week 7, but are expected to play. Here’s the latest on their situations and what their fantasy owners should expect from them today.
Arian Foster and Ben Tate, RBs, Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs
Foster keeps adding to his list of ailments, as the Texans’ workhorse did not practice on Thursday because of a hamstring injury. However, the official injury report lists him with a thumb injury and Probable to face Kansas City. So while the hamstring may not appear to be a big deal, the matchup with the Chiefs is another matter entirely. KC has the No. 1 DST in fantasy and the Texans are starting Case Keenum in place of Matt Schaub at quarterback. Foster is sure to get plenty of touches and he’s coming off of 198 total yards against the Rams, but don’t be surprised if he doesn’t put up RB1 numbers today. His backup, Ben Tate, is still dealing with an elbow injury, but he too is Probable and should be out there. Tate’s bigger problem is that he has struggled lately, losing a fumble in Week 4 and 5 and picking up a total of 12 yards on 10 carries last week, although he did have a touchdown. The Texans figure to run the ball plenty with Keenum making his first career start against a nasty Chiefs pass rush and secondary, but Tate may not even see enough touches, because of his ball-security issues and recent lack of production, to enter into the flex discussion this week.
C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins
Despite being listed as Questionable last week, Spiller (right) suited up against the Bengals and finished with 55 yards on 10 carries. He is Probable for today’s game against Miami and head coach Doug Marrone on Friday said Spiller will be on the field. So while Spiller’s ankle should be even closer to 100 percent this week, it doesn’t change the fact that he has been splitting carries with Fred Jackson. If the ankle is getting better, the big-play potential should be a factor against the Dolphins, but that also could be what it takes to get Spiller to RB1 production this week rather than RB2/flex.
Zac Stacy, RB, St. Louis Rams at Carolina Panthers
After averaging 78 yards rushing over the past two games, it looks like Stacy will get the majority of the carries for the Rams from here out. Stacy has also showed some of his toughness, as he has played last week with a chest/ribs injury. The injury still shows up on the team’s report, but Stacy practiced fully both Thursday and Friday and is Probable to face the Panthers. Carolina is fourth in the NFL in rushing defense, so this could be a tough matchup for the Rams’ rookie, but with Benny Cunningham already ruled out because of an ankle injury, Stacy shouldn’t have much competition for carries. Stacy is averaging nearly five yards per carry over the last two games, so even with him going up against the Panthers DST, he should still be able to gain enough yards to merit RB3/flex consideration.
Willis McGahee, RB, Cleveland Browns at Green Bay Packers
McGahee was held out of practice some this week, but the team said it was to allow him to rest his surgically repaired right knee. He is Probable for today’s game, but let’s not forget he will turn 32 on Monday and joined the Browns after the start of the season. He’s never been the model of health during his career, and hasn’t exactly torn it up on the field since his return. He’s averaging 2.8 yards per carry and his longest run has been 16 yards. Green Bay is third in the NFL in rushing defense, so if you own McGahee or are thinking of picking him up, I hope you set your expectations no higher than RB3/flex.
Joique Bell, RB, Detroit Lions vs. Cincinnati Bengals
Bell has a rib injury that is not believed to be serious or a long-term thing. It has limited him practice, however, which is why he’s Questionable this week. The bigger issue with Bell, however, is how he has not been nearly as involved in the Lions’ offense since Reggie Bush’s return from a knee injury. Through the first four games, Bell was averaging 10 rushing attempts and about five receptions per game. In his last two he has run the ball a total of 12 times and caught just five passes. Once a legitimate every-week flex option, Bell now is probably more of a matchup or bye-week fill-in candidate.
Even though today is Sunday, you can’t forget about the game that will happen on Monday night, especially if you are an Adrian Peterson owner or just recently added Brandon Jacobs. Here’s the latest information on their outlooks, along with some other key running backs entering Week 7 action.
DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar, RBs, Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles
Murray (right) left last week’s win over Washington with a sprained left knee. He was considered a longshot to face Philadelphia, which is why his Doubtful designation should come as no surprise. Rookie Joseph Randle is expected to get his first career NFL start and is an intriguing fantasy option against the Eagles defense. One person Randle doesn’t have to worry about in terms of stealing touches is Lance Dunbar. Dunbar will miss his second straight game because of hamstring injury. That leaves Phillip Tanner as the only other running back on Dallas’ roster. There’s no question Randle is the Cowboy back you want to own/use this week.
Bilal Powell, RB, New York Jets vs. New England Patriots
Powell left last week’s game against Pittsburgh with a shoulder injury, but insisted to reporters after the game that he was not hurt. Turns out he was telling the truth, sort of. Powell is listed on the injury report with a shoulder injury, but it must not be too serious as he is Probable to face New England. Powell hasn’t done a lot over his last three games, but he’s catching the Patriots at the best time possible. New England will be without four of its defensive starters (Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Aqib Talib and Tommy Kelly), so there’s a chance the Patriots’ run defense could be vulnerable. Powell also doesn’t have to worry about sharing touches with Mike Goodson, who tore his ACL last week and is done for the season. Powell busted out for 149 yards rushing in Week 3 against the Bills, so it’s possible he has another RB2/flex effort in him, especially against a depleted Patriots defense.
Steven Jackson and Jason Snelling, RBs, Atlanta Falcons vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Apparently three games and the bye week were not enough time for Jackson’s hamstring to heal, as the veteran has already been ruled Out and will miss his fourth straight game. Snelling, who has been sharing the backfield duties with Jacquizz Rodgers since Jackson’s injury, sustained a concussion in the Falcons’ last game, a Week 5 home to loss to the Jets. But the bye came at just the right time for him, as he returned to practice this week and is Probable for today’s game. Rodgers is probably the better fantasy option, but Snelling is capable of doing things as both a rusher and receiver. The caveat for both Atlanta backs, however, is that the Bucs are 29th in fantasy points allowed to RBs this season. If you are going to fly with either Rodgers or Snelling, it probably should only be as a flex in deeper leagues.
Looking Ahead to Monday Night:
Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson didn’t practice on Friday because of tightness in his hamstring, but he was back at it on Saturday. Peterson is Probable for the Monday night matchup with the Giants and there’s no reason to not expect him to play. The Giants are 26th in the league in rushing defense, but it’s not like you are ever sitting Peterson in the first place.
Meanwhile, the Giants will be without David Wilson, who has already been ruled Out because of a neck injury. Brandon Jacobs, who gashed the Bears last week for 106 yards and two touchdowns, is officially listed as Questionable because of a hamstring injury. The Vikings have allowed the third-most fantasy points to opposing running backs, but the Monday night time slot adds more risk when it comes to waiting on Jacobs. Unless something more definitive comes out before today’s 1 p.m. ET kickoffs, it may be best to avoid Jacobs altogether and put someone else in your lineup. After all, it’s not like you are going to wait on Jacobs and then turn to newest Giant Peyton Hillis instead, are you?
Calvin Johnson appears to be on the mend, while the Packers, Jaguars and Patriots are dealing with injuries among their wide receiving corps. Which targets can you count on in Week 7?
Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions vs. Cincinnati Bengals
Johnson played last week, sore knee and all, but he clearly wasn’t himself. He was targeted eight times, but caught just three for 25 yards against the Browns. Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden also should get some of the credit for Johnson’s slow day, as Matthew Stafford finished with four touchdown passes in the Lions’ win. But as far as Johnson goes, the best news for his owners is that he was able to practice in a limited capacity all week and is Probable for today’s game. Considering he was Questionable the past two weeks, this seems to indicate that he is making progress with his knee. The Bengals’ secondary is pretty banged up in its own right, so maybe this is just what Johnson needs to get rolling again. Besides, as long as he’s on the field, you’re playing Megatron, right?
Randall Cobb and James Jones, WRs, Green Bay Packers vs. Cleveland Browns
Last week’s win over Baltimore was a costly one for the Packers. Both Cobb and Jones (right) left the game early with injuries, and Cobb will be out for at least eight weeks after breaking his fibula. Jones sustained a less serious knee injury, but he did not practice all week and is listed as Questionable. Because he didn’t practice, it seems highly unlikely that Jones will play against the Browns. With a late afternoon (4:25 p.m. ET) start, it would be best to leave Jones on your bench and look elsewhere for help. Jordy Nelson will move into the No. 1 spot in Cobb and Jones’ absence, while Jarret Boykin is expected to start alongside Nelson and serve as the Packers’ No. 3 WR once Jones returns. Boykin is unproven, but Aaron Rodgers targeted him six times last week, so the opportunity and potential is there.
Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts, WRs, Jacksonville Jaguars vs. San Diego Chargers
Few, if any, wide receivers have been hotter than Blackmon over the past two weeks. Since returning from his four-game suspension in Week 5, all Blackmon has done is post 19 catches for 326 yards and a touchdown – in two games. Last week, Blackmon hauled in 14 passes for 190 yards in the Jaguars’ loss in Denver. Blackmon injured his hamstring during the game, which kept him out of practice on Friday and is why he is listed as Questionable. However, head coach Gus Bradley said he fully expects Blackmon to play, which is all you need to know to put him in your lineup. The only thing keeping Blackmon from every-week WR1 status is the Jags’ quarterback play, and even that may not be an issue some weeks. Some of Blackmon’s heavy workload last week can be attributed to Shorts injuring his shoulder on the Jags’ first possession. The diagnosis is a sprained shoulder and it wasn’t serious enough to keep Shorts from practicing on a limited basis. Some reports have described it as a pain tolerance situation for Shorts, but the official Questionable designation should be enough to cast doubt on him being able to get on the field. As productive as Shorts has been, Blackmon’s emergence has cut into his value somewhat. Shorts is still a legitimate WR2/WR3, but there’s definitely a risk associated with starting him this week. This game kicks off at 1 p.m. ET so there should be plenty of time to make a final decision on Shorts before then. Just don’t short-change yourself on time or options should you decide to leave this Jaguar in his cage.
Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, WR, New England Patriots at New York Jets
Amendola just can’t catch a break. After missing three games because of a groin injury, he finally returned in Week 5 against Cincinnati. Then last week against New Orleans, Amendola took a big hit, resulting in a concussion. Prior to the hit, he had caught two passes for one yard and got one carry for one yard, much to the chagrin of his owners. He didn’t practice all week and was ruled Out by the team on Friday. His frustrating season continues for him, not to mention those who have him on their roster. Edelman figures to be the primary beneficiary, as he was Tom Brady’s favorite target when Amendola was sidelined earlier, but he is dealing with his own thigh injury. Edelman is listed as Questionable, but there has been nothing to come out to suggest he’s in serious danger of missing today’s game against the Jets. You probably just want to make sure he’s in the Patriots’ lineup before the game kicks off at 1 p.m. ET, but otherwise I would use Edelman as you did earlier this season. Other than the thigh injury limiting him, something else that could impact Edelman’s usage this afternoon is the apparent return of tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Donnie Avery, WR, Kansas City Chiefs vs. Houston Texans
Avery’s shoulder isn’t back to 100 percent, as he is listed on the injury report, but he is considered Probable and should be out there against the Texans. The timing of this matchup isn’t ideal, however, as Avery caught just two passes for a paltry six yards last week and Houston’s defense has given up the fewest yards to opposing wide receivers. Alex Smith has shown a preference to throwing to Avery over Dwayne Bowe early on, but given Smith’s conservative decision-making in the pocket and the matchup with the Texans, both appear to be risky plays this week.
All of these wide receivers are dealing with some sort of injury according to the Week 7 official team reports. However, in some cases, their injury may not be the biggest obstacle they face this week. Here’s the latest on several wide receiver injury situations across the NFL.
Andre Johnson, WR, Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs
Johnson practiced fully and is Probable for today’s game in Kansas City, so it appears his shin injury isn’t that big of a deal at this point. Unfortunately, Johnson can’t seem to catch a break, as he will have Case Keenum and not Matt Schaub as his quarterback. Keenum is making his first career NFL start, against the Chiefs, the top-scoring fantasy DST. Johnson is a bona fide WR1, even with Schaub’s struggles, but no one has any idea of what to expect with Keenum pulling the trigger. Brace yourselves Johnson owners; it could be a bumpy ride.
Julio Jones and Roddy White, WRs, Atlanta Falcons vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jones’ (right) season is over after being placed on injured reserve during the Falcons’ bye week due to a foot injury he sustained in the Week 5 loss to the Jets. White, who has been basically invisible this season because of a high-ankle sprain, injured his hamstring in his last game. White has already been ruled Out this week, which will snap his streak of consecutive games played at 133. It also means that Matt Ryan will have as his starting wide receivers against the Bucs Harry Douglas and, most likely, Drew Davis. The Falcons signed free agent Brian Robiskie and added practice squad member Darius Johnson to the active roster this week to fill out its depth at the position. While it’s possible any one of these guys could burst on the scene and become an immediate, impact fantasy option, the guess here is that Douglas may become a legitimate WR2/WR3, as he and tight end Tony Gonzalez are clearly Ryan’s most established weapons. Unfortunately for Ryan owners, these two also may be his only weapons.
Stevie Johnson, WR, Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins
Johnson’s back injury prevented him from taking the field last week, but he is expected to return this week. His Probable designation on the injury report only reinforces this belief. Thad Lewis threw two touchdown passes in his Bills debut against Cincinnati, so perhaps Johnson can get some productive looks from his new quarterback against the Dolphins. That would be a welcome change, as Johnson has totaled three catches for 18 yards in his last two games. Hopefully you are not relying on Johnson as anything more than a WR3/flex.
Mike Williams, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons
Williams is still dealing with a hamstring issue, but he was able to practice fully on Friday and is listed as Questionable. However, that’s the same designation he had before he was a late scratch last week against Philadelphia. At best, Williams is probably a WR3, so he’s probably not going to make or break your lineup. Still, rookie quarterback Mike Glennon has put up decent numbers in his first two starts and gets a Falcons defense that has struggled stopping the pass. It’s an early game, so you should have plenty of time before deciding to stick with Williams or not this week.
Miles Austin, WR, Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles
Austin returned from a two-game absence last week and proceeded to catch nary a pass against Washington. Austin’s hamstring isn’t completely healed, as he missed practice on Friday, but he is Probable and is fully expected to suit up against the Eagles. While I would much rather have Terrance Williams than Austin at this point, this could be one of those weeks it doesn’t matter which Cowboy wide receiver you use. After all, the Eagles are allowing the most fantasy points to opposing wideouts, so there could be enough to go around for Dez Bryant, Austin and Williams to post fantasy-relevant numbers. This also is good news for Tony Romo owners obviously.
Eddie Royal, WR, San Diego Chargers at Jacksonville Jaguars
Royal injured his toe this past Monday night against Indianapolis. He was spotted wearing a protective boot this week and didn’t practice at all. Even though he is listed as Questionable, he seems to be a longshot at best for this week. In fact, longshot may be the best word to describe his fantasy outlook as well. Rookie Keenan Allen has become the Chargers’ top wide receiver with Vincent Brown slotting in behind him. Royal got off to a ridiculous start, with 10 catches and five touchdowns in his first two games, but he’s had a total of eight receptions since then, including none against the Colts. I’m pretty sure Royal started on the waiver wire this season before catching fire. It’s probably time to return him there.
While Philadelphia and Houston are a few of the teams that won’t have their starting quarterback under center in Week 7, Tennessee could get theirs back sooner than expected. Here’s the latest on the QB injury front.
Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia Eagles vs. Dallas Cowboys
Vick is officially Questionable, but he has already come out and said he needs another week for his hamstring to fully heal. While the final decision rests with Chip Kelly and his staff, for all intents and purposes it looks like it is Nick Foles’ gig for a second straight week. He was among the top fantasy scorers at his position last week after totaling four touchdowns (3 pass, 1 rush) against the Buccaneers, so I have no issue with throwing Foles out there against the Cowboys this week.
Jake Locker, QB, Tennessee Titans vs. San Francisco 49ers
After injuring his hip in Week 4, Locker was expected to be out anywhere between four to six weeks. Well, apparently someone didn’t tell Locker this, as he returned to practice and although he is listed as Questionable, reports have come out indicating he will start this afternoon’s game. Some of Locker’s speedy recovery can be attributed to Ryan Fitzpatrick’s poor play. Fitzpatrick has accounted for two touchdowns and four interceptions in his two starts, both losses. Still, even if Locker does play, he probably will be a dreaded game-time decision for a 4:05 p.m. ET kickoff, and let’s not forget the Titans play the 49ers. San Francisco’s defense has been dominant over the past three games, taking its early-season frustrations out on Sam Bradford, Matt Schaub and Carson Palmer. If you are a Locker owner, you are no doubt very happy to hear that he’s coming back, but all you really want out of him in this game is to finish it healthy. Locker should be nowhere near your starting lineup this week.
Quarterbacks Already Ruled Out:
Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville Jaguars – Gabbert will miss his second straight game because of a hamstring injury. Chad Henne will get the start against the Chargers and could be an option for 2-QB leagues. He threw for 303 yards against Denver last week, but tossed two interceptions and no touchdowns. Still with, Justin Blackmon (Probable, hamstring) and Cecil Shorts (Questionable, shoulder) at his disposal, Henne’s capable of posting some decent numbers.
EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills – The Bills’ first-round pick remains out with a LCL sprain in his knee. Thad Lewis (Probable, foot) is expected to start against Miami. Lewis wasn’t horrible (216-2-0, rushing TD) against the Bengals last week, but he’s probably still too risky and unproven to rely on in fantasy.
Matt Schaub, Houston Texans – Schaub won’t have to worry about being booed by the fans this week, as the Texans have ruled him out against Kansas City with an ankle injury. Case Keenum will make his first career NFL start on the road against the Chiefs, fantasy’s No. 1 DST. And that’s all you need to know about Keenum for this week.
Tom Brady may finally have his favorite tight end back on the field in Week 7. Here are some of the other key injury situations at the position.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots at New York Jets
Could it be? Is our national nightmare finally over? And no, I’m not talking about the federal government shutdown. Gronkowski has finally (and I emphasize FINALLY) been medically cleared to return to the field by his doctors. Gronk is listed as Questionable, but with Danny Amendola (concussion) already ruled out and Julian Edelman (thigh) officially Questionable, surely Tom Brady can convince his big target to be out there, right? With all of the media attention this soap opera has generated, I would be very surprised if No. 87 doesn’t make an appearance at MetLife Stadium this afternoon. If you have held on to Gronk for this long, you may as well start him and see what happens.
Vernon Davis, TE, San Francisco 49ers at Tennessee Titans
Davis is still listed here for two reasons. One, it’s to report that his hamstring injury is pretty much a non-issue at this point, as he is Probable for this afternoon’s game against Tennessee. Second, it’s to acknowledge his performance over the past two games. He has 11 catches for 268 yards and three touchdowns in the past two weeks. In case you didn’t have a calculator handy, that’s 24.4 yards per reception. Davis has vaulted himself into the top five at his position, so just sit back and enjoy this ride as long as it lasts.
Martellus Bennett, TE, Chicago Bears at Washington Redskins
Bennett has been playing through a knee injury for a while, so I wouldn’t let his Questionable designation this week worry you too much. He’s been a top-10 fantasy TE for his new team and caught six passes for 68 yards last week against the Giants. If you have him, I see no reason why you shouldn’t start Bennett against the Redskins, who have allowed four TD catches to opposing TEs.
Greg Olsen, TE, Carolina Panthers vs. St. Louis Rams
Olsen’s foot injury didn’t keep him from playing last week, but it should be noted that he had his worst game of the season. Olsen caught just two passes for 19 yards against the Vikings in a game that Cam Newton tossed a season-best three touchdowns. Olsen practiced fully on Friday and is Probable, so it appears that his foot injury may just about be a thing in the past. Olsen still is a top-15 fantasy TE, so if you own him, you roll him out against the Rams and hope for better results this week.
Injuries took a toll on Maryland’s quarterbacks last year, with converted linebacker Shawn Petty finishing the season as the starting quarterback. The injury bug has continued into 2013 for the Terrapins, this time affecting the receiving corps.
In Saturday’s 34-10 loss to Wake Forest, receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long both suffered leg injuries and will miss the rest of the 2013 season.
Diggs and Long formed one of the top receiving duos in the nation, and their absence will be felt by Maryland’s offense.
With Diggs and Long sidelined, Levern Jacobs, Malcolm Culmer, Nigel King and Amba Etta-Two are the Terrapins’ top receiving options. Needless to say, none of those players are as established a receiving option as Diggs or Long.
Maryland still needs one more win to get bowl eligible, and there’s not a guaranteed victory on the schedule.
And without Diggs and Long, the Terrapins’ will have a tough time just getting to the six-win mark.
#Terps best receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long both lost for the season with leg fractures, will undergo surgery.— Jeff Barker (@sunjeffbarker) October 19, 2013
Stanford freshman receiver Kodi Whtifield might have made one of the top plays of the 2013 season with an unbelievable one-handed touchdown grab against UCLA.
It’s safe to say college football’s new targeting rules aren’t popular among fans, coaches and players. And after Week 8, there should be no doubters about how ridiculous the penalties actually are. There were a couple of questionable ejections, and the 15-yard penalty that still stands even if the ejection is overturned is ridiculous.
In perhaps the worst targeting call of 2013, Georgia defensive end Ray Drew was ejected for this hit on Vanderbilt quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels.
Perhaps Drew’s hit was roughing the passer, but in no way should that be a targeting penalty. And the worst part of this play? It was upheld on replay.
We are all for player safety. But a little common sense is needed with this rule. Unfortunately, college football is stuck with this until the end of the season.
Tennessee scored a huge upset victory over South Carolina on Saturday, and freshman receiver Marquez North made a couple of crazy catches to help the offense keep the chains moving throughout the game.
North delivered with his most important catch of the day with just under three minutes remaining, as Tennessee needed to convert a third and 10 with the game on the line. Despite a heavy pass rush, quarterback Justin Worley tossed a perfect pass to North on the sideline, which the freshman reeled in with a nifty one-handed grab.
The ACC is home to college football’s premier matchup for Week 8, as Florida State travels to Clemson for a huge conference showdown with national title implications. With both teams ranked inside of the top five in the latest Associated Press poll, this matchup could be the biggest in the history of the ACC. Prior to Saturday’s game, only three times have two ACC teams met when they were ranked among the top five nationally in the Associated Press poll.
Last season’s meeting between these two schools decided the Atlantic Division champion, and the winner of this game should decide who represents the division in Charlotte this December. But the stakes on Saturday night aren’t limited to just team goals. Quarterbacks Tajh Boyd (Clemson) and Jameis Winston (Florida State) are squarely in the Heisman mix, and both players can inch closer to Oregon’s Marcus Mariota or Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel for the No. 1 spot in the early straw polls.
Most of the pregame hype will focus on this year’s matchup, but there’s an underlying theme of program trajectory at work. With a senior quarterback (Boyd), a receiver likely to leave for the NFL (Watkins), and an offensive coordinator (Chad Morris) expected to be in the mix for head coach jobs this offseason, this is Clemson’s best shot to play for the national title, at least for the next couple of seasons. For Florida State, one could argue the program is slightly ahead of schedule. The Seminoles had quite a bit of roster turnover in the offseason, so most expected 2013 would be a rebuilding year, with an eye on 2014. However, Florida State hasn’t suffered a setback this season and is clearly one of the top-10 teams in the nation.
This annual Atlantic Division matchup has blossomed into one of the ACC’s best rivalries. Florida State has won three out of the last five, but Clemson has claimed five in a row in Death Valley. The last time the Seminoles won at Clemson was 2001. Florida State won last year’s contest 49-37, but two out of the last three meetings in this series have been decided by five points or less.
Florida State at Clemson
Kickoff: 8 ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Florida State -3
Three Things to Watch
Florida State’s Offensive Line vs. Clemson’s Defensive Line
A classic battle in the trenches is shaping up on Saturday night. Florida State’s offensive line returned four starters this season and has allowed just nine sacks through six games. Clemson’s defensive front is aggressive, as evidenced by its 61 tackles for a loss, which ranks No. 1 nationally. The Tigers rank second nationally in sacks, recording 24 through six contests. End Vic Beasley is the headliner, recording 12 tackles for a loss and nine sacks, as well as a touchdown on a fumble recovery. But Clemson’s defensive line isn’t just limited to Beasley. Tackle Grady Jarrett is an underrated player, and there’s depth at end with junior Corey Crawford and freshman Shaq Lawson. There’s no easy way to slow down Florida State’s offense with Jameis Winston at the helm. However, getting pressure on Winston is crucial, as he is capable of scrambling and hitting big plays downfield when things break down in the pocket. If the Tigers don’t get to Winston, he will hit big plays in the passing game. Coordinator Brent Venables and coach Dabo Swinney have to be concerned about their secondary, especially after Garry Peters was ruled out for this week's game with a foot injury.
Clemson’s Other Playmakers
It’s no secret Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins is one of the best in the nation. But what about Clemson’s No. 2 and No. 3 options? Florida State’s pass defense has allowed only four passing plays of 30 yards or more, which is tied for third nationally. The Seminoles have allowed only six passing scores, and opposing quarterbacks are completing just 53.5 percent of their throws against this defense. Even with the departure of cornerback Xavier Rhodes to the NFL, this unit hasn’t missed a beat. Senior Lamarcus Joyner is the headliner, and freshman Jalen Ramsey is having a standout season, but sophomore P.J. Williams and senior safety Terrence Brooks also deserve plenty of credit for the performance of the secondary. Considering Florida State will devote some extra attention on Watkins, Clemson needs big performances from receivers Adam Humphries and Martavis Bryant. Humphries ranks second on the team in receptions (24), and while Bryant has been inconsistent at times, he’s a big play waiting to happen (18.6 ypc). Watkins will have his opportunities to make plays, but will Bryant and Humphries deliver?
The Quarterback Duel
It’s a little obvious, but we’d be remiss if we don’t highlight the duel between Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Florida State’s Jameis Winston. If you were to make a list of the top 10-20 players in the nation so far, both Boyd and Winston should be on it. Winston doesn’t have an All-American at receiver, but the freshman might have a deeper overall group than Boyd. Kenny Shaw, Rashad Greene and Kelvin Benjamin are averaging at least 17 yards per catch, while tight end Nick O’Leary has five touchdown grabs. Boyd is completing 66.5 percent of his throws and has tossed only two picks in 185 attempts. The senior was sharp against Georgia, completing 18 of 30 passes for 270 yards and three scores. An underrated part of Boyd’s game is his mobility, especially in short-yardage situations. Through six games, Boyd has five touchdowns and 187 yards on 66 attempts. As with any big game, mistakes will be magnified. Which quarterback will blink? Or will both players play a mistake-free game? Either way, the stage is set for one of the best quarterback duels in college football for 2013.
Key Players: Roderick McDowell, RB, Clemson/Devonta Freeman, RB, Florida State
We usually focus on one player in this section, but this week, let’s highlight the running backs for both teams. Clemson’s Roderick McDowell has only one 100-yard effort (Georgia) but averages 4.9 yards per attempt. Freeman leads Florida State with 54 attempts and 385 yards, but Karlos Williams and James Wilder Jr. will contribute. Freeman is an underrated pass blocker, and Wilder Jr. should be ready for a bigger role after dealing with a shoulder injury earlier this year. Both teams have been susceptible to the run at times. Can McDowell or Freeman get on track on Saturday night? If they can, it could be the difference in the game.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: This game should live up to the hype. Clemson and Florida State are two of the nation’s top-10 teams, and there’s very little separation between these two programs right now. And despite the small gap between these two teams, the loser of this game is likely done in terms of national title aspirations.
Both offenses will have their share of highlights, with quarterbacks Tajh Boyd and Jameis Winston making a handful of huge plays. But which defense will make the play that turns the game? Clemson’s pass rush has been better, and the Tigers have forced more turnovers than Florida State (15 to 7).
On paper, Florida State is the better team. However, homefield advantage and the aggressive front four on defense is the difference for Clemson.
Prediction: Clemson 38, Florida State 34
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish and USC Trojans renew their rivalry amidst disappointing seasons for both programs. Both teams are 4-2, yet expectations were bigger for two teams full of talented players. They will face off on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend on NBC.
The Trojans appeared rejuvenated last week under interim head coach Ed Orgeron, earning a 38-31 victory over Arizona. It's the 85th meeting in the series, with the Irish holding a 44-35-5 edge, including wins in two of the past three games. Last season, the Irish completed a perfect regular season with a 22-13 victory against the Matt Barkley-less Trojans in the Coliseum.
Three Things to Watch
Tre Madden & Company vs. McDaniel-Atkinson III
Both teams like to run the football and both do it well. The Trojans boast a four-headed monster of Madden, Justin Davis, Javorius Allen and Silas Redd. Madden leads the team with 611 yards, while Davis has six touchdowns and Allen averages 5.8 yards per carry. The four backs average a staggering 5.6 yards per carry. Notre Dame's running backs are no slouches either. Atkinson has been a home run threat for the Irish. He has a game-breaking 80-yard touchdown against Oklahoma, a game in which he rushed for 148 yards on 14 carries. Cam McDaniel is the Irish's tough, inside runner. He piled up 82 rushing yards against Arizona State, picking up key first downs all along the way. Whatever rushing attack can dictate tempo and keep pressure of their inconsistent quarterbacks will likely see their team come out victorious.
Health of Marqise Lee and Morgan Breslin
USC was without its best offensive and defensive player last week, as Lee missed due to a knee injury and Breslin sat out due to a hip problem. Both remain questionable for this week, but if they can play, it would be a huge boost for the Trojans. Lee will be able to give Cody Kessler an option opposite Nelson Agholor against a questionable Irish secondary. Breslin is the Trojans' best pass rusher and a key presence to get consistent pressure versus a tough Irish offensive line.
Kessler or Rees?
Both quarterbacks weren't the first option for these programs in the offseason; however, both have been forced into significant action this season. Kessler finally edged out Max Wittek a few weeks into the season, while Rees is playing because of the suspension of Everett Golson. Both quarterbacks have had their troubles with turnovers; however, each has played well at times. Kessler threw for a season-high 297 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. USC will try to lean on its strong running game, which averages five yards a rush, but could struggle against Notre Dame's stingy front seven. This is a major reason that opposing teams throw the ball 57 percent of plays against Notre Dame. If this is the case, Kessler could be asked to make more plays than usual. Rees has been the definition of inconsistent as he has three games with a combined six interceptions and three games without any. He must protect the ball for Notre Dame to stay in control of this game.
Key Players: TJ Jones and Davaris Daniels, WR, Notre Dame
With all the talk about USC's wide receivers, many forgot the talented corps that Notre Dame has. Jones has 33 catches for 481 yards and four touchdowns, while Daniels has 25 catches for 385 yards and four touchdowns. Both are big play threats as Jones averages 14.6 yards per catch and Daniels averages 15.4 yards per reception. Jones is coming off an eight-catch 135-yard game against Arizona State in which he caught an eight-yard touchdown.
Even though USC looked much more loose under Ed Orgeron, they aren't as complete a team as the fighting Irish. The Irish have all the skill players the Trojans do, but Notre Dame also has a talented front seven on defense led by Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix. I think Notre Dame stuffs the USC running game and forces Kessler to beat them, which is bad news for Trojans fans.
Prediction: Notre Dame 24, USC 17
Coming off a last-second 41-38 victory at Ole Miss, the Aggies return to College Station for a four-game home stand. Surprisingly, Auburn has the same record (5-1, 2-1 SEC) as Texas A&M, as the Tigers' program has been reborn under first-year coach Gus Malzahn. The Tigers lost to No. 6 LSU but picked up SEC West wins against Ole Miss and Mississippi State. The teams will be fighting for third place in the West, behind Alabama and LSU.
Three Things to Watch
Return of Auburn QB Nick Marshall
The junior quarterback sat out Auburn's 62-3 blowout of Western Carolina last Saturday due to a knee injury suffered a week earlier against Ole Miss. Marshall struggled with consistency and turnovers in his first four games; however, he played his best against Ole Miss. Marshall finished that day with two rushing touchdowns, 238 yards of offense on his own and avoided any turnovers. Marshall has been the x-factor for Auburn's renaissance season, and his dual-threat abilities will keep the Aggies' defense off guard.
Texas A&M receivers
This is one of the deepest and most physically talented receiving corps in the nation. It all starts with 6'5" Mike Evans, a matchup nightmare for every defensive back in the country. He has five touchdowns and 737 yards and averages an SEC-best 23 yards per reception. He is joined by Malcome Kennedy, Derel Walker and Sabian Holmes. Kennedy ranks second among A&M wide receivers in both touchdowns (four) and receptions (30) and third in receiving yards (331). Auburn's defense has been rather suspect, allowing 445.8 passing yards per game.
Auburn's three-headed rushing attack
This is the nation's seventh-ranked rushing offense, averaging 287 yards per game on the ground. Three running backs see time, and quarterback Nick Marshall also adds a running dimension. Auburn ran for 511 yards on 43 carries and had 30 first downs last week against Western Carolina. The Tigers also run the ball well against top competition, averaging 210 rushing yards per game in SEC contests. Tre Mason is the Tigers' lead back, rushing for 515 yards and seven touchdowns. The change-of-pace backs are Cameron Artis-Payne, who has 389 yards and three touchdowns, and Corey Grant, who averages 10 yards per carry and has three touchdowns. All of these backs are quick and explosive, all having rushes of over fifty yards on the season.
Key Player: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Is this really a surprise? The reigning Heisman winner hasn't slowed down in his redshirt sophomore campaign. He has combined for over 2,200 all-purpose yards and 19 touchdowns, completing an impressive 73 percent of his passes while averaging 6.5 yards per rush. Manziel broke out in the ground game last week, rushing for 124 yards and two touchdowns against the Rebels. If Auburn wants to win, it has to stop one of the nation's best players.
This will be an absolute track meet. Expect a shootout for two of the most explosive offenses in the nation. Auburn has a chance in this game solely from their outstanding rushing game. If the TIgers control the clock and keep Manziel off the field, Auburn could pull an upset. Texas A&M's defense struggled mightily against the Ole Miss offense giving up 38 points and stopping the run has been an issue all season. If the Aggies had problems with the Rebels, they will likely find the Tigers, who defeated Ole Miss earlier this year, to be a tough opponent as well. Ultimately, I'll stick with the team that has the best player on the field.
Prediction: Texas A&M 38, Auburn, 27
Seven weeks into the season, the road to Atlanta runs through Columbia, Missouri. The Tigers are off to a 6-0 start with impressive conference wins on the road against Vanderbilt and Georgia. But Missouri's SEC title hopes were dealt a serious blow last week when quarterback James Franklin separated his shoulder. Franklin, having a career year for the Tigers, will be out three to five weeks. Gary Pinkel needs a big game from backup quarterback Maty Mauk, while Florida looks to put themselves back at the top of the SEC East despite dealing with a handful of season ending injuries. Just this year, the Gators have lost Jeff Driskel, Dominique Easley, Matt Jones, Andre Debose and Chaz Green for the season. This conference matchup pits two of the nation's most productive defenses against a pair of unknown signal callers.
3 Things to Watch
Redshirt freshman Maty Mauk gets the call for the undefeated Tigers. Mauk was a Parade All-American in high school where he broke national prep records in passing yards, touchdown passes, completions and total offense. Last week, he led two touchdown drives to hold off the Bulldogs’ comeback bid and win 41-26. Mauk will try to keep things going for an offense that averages 45.7 points and 515.7 yards per game. The freshman certainly has plenty of weapons surrounding him with the trio of L'Damian Washington, Marcus Lucas and Dorial Green-Beckham catching passes and Henry Josey running the ball. The Gators know how Missouri felt as they also lost their starting quarterback earlier this year. Jeff Driskel was lost for the season against Tennessee, and junior Tyler Murphy has started the last three games for Florida. Murphy looked good in his starts against Kentucky and Arkansas, completing 78 percent of his passes for 396 yards and four touchdowns. However, he struggled against LSU. He was sacked four times and threw for just 115 yards. Florida has called 274 rushing plays and only 143 pass attempts this year. They will look to build upon their NCAA-leading time of possession at over 37 minutes per game.
Florida’s rushing offense vs. Missouri’s run defense
The big news out of Gainesville this week was the loss of their second leading rusher, as halfback Matt Jones has been ruled out for the season after suffering a knee injury against LSU. The Gators ground-and-pound mentality will not change; however, as the Tigers can expect a large dose of junior Mack Brown and freshman Kelvin Taylor (son of former Gator Fred Taylor). Missouri may be up for the challenge, as the Tigers rank third in the SEC against the run, allowing fewer than 130 yards per game. Florida's game plan will be to take the pressure off of Murphy by relying on their running game and extremely strong defense. The Gators will try to make this game a slugfest.
One would think that Florida, with its collection of ball hawks in the secondary, would be near the top of interception rankings; however, Missouri actually leads the country with 13 interceptions. In fact, Missouri has created at least one turnover in 36 consecutive games. The Gators are no slouches either, with eight interceptions thus far. Cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Vernon Hargreaves III form one of the best duos in the entire country and will look to feast off the mistakes of an unproven quarterback. Florida's defense is perhaps the best in the entire country, allowing just 13 points per game. The Gators still have not allowed a passing touchdown in 2013. Florida hasn’t given up more than 24 points in a Southeastern Conference matchup in more than two years, a span of 16 games. In fact, only three opponents have even reached 20 points, and none since Tennessee on Sept. 15, 2012. Look for a big turnover in the second half to swing momentum and ultimately decide the outcome of this game.
Key Player: Michael Sam, DE, Missouri
A big reason for Missouri's high turnover rate is the play of Sam. The senior leads the SEC in sacks with six and tackles for loss. For his stellar play, Sam has earned back-to-back SEC Defensive Line Player of the Week awards.
This game will be a sloppy affair. Don't expect any high-flying offensive numbers to be showcased in this one. Florida's offense is struggling and its defense is spectacular. Missouri, on the other hand, has a good offense, but will be handcuffed with the loss of Franklin. I think Florida eeks out an ugly win in this defense struggle.
Prediction: Florida 15, Missouri 13
1. Is riding at the back really Talladega’s key to success?
Jeff Gordon won the fall 2007 race at Talladega Superspeedway in a way that has seemed to permanently skew impressions of restrictor plate racing. Leading just one lap, Gordon stormed from the back in the final laps — he averaged a running position of 28th throughout the day — to score the win.
The idea of riding at the back and charging at the end of a race at Daytona or Talladega wasn’t new then, but the fact that Gordon worked the system to such success lent even more credence that a successful strategy involves racing at half-throttle for 450 miles to stay out of the inherently dangerous lead pack.
Statistics don’t bear that assumption to fact at Talladega.
Since Gordon’s 2007 win — it was his most recent at the track — just one of the 11 race winners have averaged a running position lower than 20th. Only three of have led less than 10 laps.
In fact, the average winner in those 11 races has led 16 laps while averaging an on-track position of 13th. What’s that mean? Talladega seems to produce winners who race up front for periods and are otherwise struggling to get a footing right squarely in the middle of the pack. Expect more of the same Sunday.
2. David Ragan, other underdogs have last best shot of 2013
David Ragan was an outlier in the recent trend of Talladega race winners. He ran around 20th most of the day in the spring race and led just four laps before taking the surprising win.
It was the perfect outcome for his Front Row Racing team as teammate David Gilliland finished right behind him in one of the four races each year where just about anyone with a decent car can snatch a win. You can bet underdog drivers just like Ragan and Gilliland have circled Sunday’s race as their chance to shine.
Using 2013 as a barometer, Marcos Ambrose may just be in contention for an unexpected win. In July at Daytona, Ambrose was racing side-by-side for the lead with Jimmie Johnson before contact on the backstretch sent the No. 9 spinning with three laps left.
Others include Michael Waltrip, rounding out his four-race restrictor plate schedule this year, who has two top-5 finishes at Daytona and Talladega this season and was battling for the lead when he was blocked by Tony Stewart on the last lap a year ago. Jamie McMurray hasn’t won since 2010 but has three career restrictor plate wins to his credit. Even Casey Mears, boosted by a top 10 at Daytona in July, may have a chance.
3. Chase shake-up not such a given
Sunday’s race has been penciled as the last great hope for fans with drivers desperately trying to catch Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. They’ve been simply too consistent on NASCAR’s “normal” tracks to think the Homestead-Miami Speedway finale will be anything but a Matt and Jimmie winner-take-all cagematch.
But what’s the reality of those two either suffering trouble or getting soundly beat at Talladega? Not much, judging by their performance on restrictor plate tracks this season.
Together, Kenseth and Johnson have combined to lead more than 65 percent of the 553 laps turned at Daytona and Talladega this year. Johnson has led more laps and has two wins (both at Daytona), but Kenseth led 142 laps in the spring Talladega race and would have been a player at the finish of the Daytona 500 until he blew an engine after leading 86 of the first 149 laps.
Of course, it only takes one bad move or one unavoidable crash to toss the Chase into chaos. But without that turn of events, Kenseth and Johnson should be factors at the finish.
4. Todd Parrott substance abuse suspension leaves questions about Kvapil discipline
NASCAR suspended Todd Parrott, the longtime NASCAR crew chief now working with Aric Almirola’s No. 43 Ford, for an indefinite period Thursday after he failed a recent drug test. The cause of his suspension wasn’t detailed and it’s safe to assume he’ll be back to the Richard Petty Motorsports operation after a long period that will include an abuse and counseling program.
But just a week after the sport let a Sprint Cup driver stay in the seat after an arrest for domestic violence, the penalty structure seems awkward.
NASCAR has rightfully enacted a zero tolerance policy on substance abuse. Just last year, it snared AJ Allmendinger and cost him a job at Penske Racing thanks to what he claims was a one-time use of an unprescribed prescription drug. Other more grievous offenses — like former driver Jeremy Mayfield testing positive for methamphetamine — have also been revealed by the program.
Yet Kvapil, still facing charges and still yet to issue a denial in a case that alleges he struck his wife, will be in the cockpit again Sunday for BK Racing at Talladega.
The cases aren’t perfectly symmetrical and Kvapil hasn’t been officially convicted of his accused crimes. Still, it feels like NASCAR has a questionable gulf of distance between what offenses are immediately punishable and what isn’t immediately punishable.
5. Single-file racing may dominate parts of Sunday’s raceThe fall event at Talladega comes at a time when the sport’s frontrunners mostly wish it wouldn’t: the central point of the championship race. It’s a chess match of “hoping to avoid trouble” and “be there at the end in the name of scoring points” that are only available when the checkered flag falls.
The result, as the fall race at Talladega has shown a few times in recent seasons, is that drivers can get very content with racing in a single-file manner through the race’s middle portions and until the final pit stop. The result can be frustrating for fans to watch and frustrating for drivers who want to move up.
The physics of Talladega and a high-level of grip in the inside lane can make outside passing tough to pull off.
“When you get single-file at the bottom, sometimes it’s hard to get a lane on the outside with enough good cars to get something going,” said Kyle Busch. “It can be frustrating, at times, because of that.”
For drivers keeping that calm, however, it makes the race a little less hectic.
“If you can be a contender and stay in line on the bottom, you can make it a pretty easy and safe race, “ Busch said. “Normally, guys are not content doing that, so that’s when it starts to get crazy.”
Of course, a late restart — like the one in the spring race — can toss those ideas of easy and safe out the window, too.
In a rematch of Game 2 pitchers, Michael Wacha of St. Louis and Clayton Kershaw of Los Angeles, it’s difficult to foresee anything more than a good old-fashioned pitchers’ duel. In Game 2, Kershaw pitched around a leadoff triple in the first inning, and Wacha avoided a big inning in the sixth when he struck out Yasiel Puig and Juan Uribe with the bases loaded, preserving the shutout. There will be few scoring opportunities, and the team that capitalizes with a run or two will likely win.
Keys for Los Angeles
Maintaining a one-game-at-a-time approach. There is no tomorrow without a win tonight. Patience at the plate could be key. They must force Wacha to make multiple pitches and not miss what few mistakes he might make.
Keys for St. Louis
Getting back to St. Louis should be a lift for the Redbirds, but having to win just one of two could cause them to lose a sense of urgency, something the Dodgers will have no trouble finding. The Cardinals must also forget losing three straight to San Francisco last season. Again, playing at home this year should give St. Louis an edge it didn’t have in 2012.
Dodgers to Watch
Second baseman Mark Ellis has been under the radar all series. In addition to playing solid defense, he has been gritty at the plate. He singled in the first inning off of Wacha in Game 2 after a seven-pitch at-bat. He saw 15 pitches from the Cardinals’ young righthander in his first three plate appearances, and seems to be locked in on Wacha.
Cardinals to Watch
In the next two games, the Cardinals could really use some production from Matt Adams. The big lefty-swinging first baseman is 2-for-14 off lefthanders in the postseason with no extra-base hits. Lefthanders Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu (if the series goes seven games) will not hesitate to pitch around righthanders in order to make Adams beat them.
There were a scant seven hits total and just one run (unearned) in the entire game when these two pitchers opposed one another in Game 2…In that game, the teams combined to use eight pitchers…The Cardinals were 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position, the Dodgers 0-for-6…After going 5-for-10 in the Game 5 loss, the Cardinals now sit at .310 with runners in scoring position in this series…The Dodgers are batting .216 in those situations…In 17 at-bats each in this series, Yadier Molina, David Freese and Andre Ethier have no RBIs.
National League Championship Series – Game 6
Los Angeles at St. Louis
8:07 ET TBS
Clayton Kershaw (16-9, 1.83) vs. Michael Wacha (4-1, 2.78)
For the second time in a little more than a month, AFC East rivals will meet when the New England Patriots match up against the New York Jets at 1 p.m. ET Sunday on CBS. The Patriots (5-1) are in first place in the division and riding high following last week’s dramatic win over the Saints, but also are dealing with several key injuries. The Jets (3-3) are hanging tough at .500, but need to rebound after managing just six points in last week’s home to loss to the Steelers.
The Patriots beat the Jets 13-10 in Foxboro back in Week 2 despite Tom Brady throwing for just 185 yards and the offense scoring one touchdown and picking up nine first downs. New York rookie quarterback Geno Smith had three interceptions in that game, all of them coming in the fourth quarter, which spoiled an otherwise impressive performance by the Jets defense.
4 Things to Watch
What Has Geno Learned Since Week 2?
Geno Smith looked and played the part of inexperienced NFL quarterback in his first game against New England back in Week 2. Making just his second career start, Smith completed 15 of 35 passes for 214 yards and tossed three costly interceptions. All of his picks came in the fourth quarter with the Jets trailing by just a field goal. Since then, Smith has gone through the expected highs and lows of being a rookie starting quarterback. He had his first 300-yard game in a win over Buffalo in Week 3, followed by a four-turnover disaster on the road against Tennessee. Smith bounced back in a big way the following week, as he completed all but four of his attempts (16-of-20) and tossed a career-best three touchdowns, as the Jets knocked off the Falcons in their own building on “Monday Night Football.” Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to build on this game, as the Steelers picked the rookie off twice in last week’s 19-6 defeat at home. The Jets not only hung with the Patriots on the road in their first meeting, they may have been able to leave Gillette Stadium with a victory if not for Smith’s late miscues. He has to show that he has learned from these mistakes and play more like he did against the Bills and Falcons if he wants to give his team a chance to win on Sunday.
The Return of Ridley?
Stevan Ridley had a breakthrough 2012 season, finishing seventh in the NFL with 1,263 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns. He got off to a brutal start this season, picking up a total of 174 yards on 47 carries (3.7 ypc) and no touchdowns through the first four games. Ridley missed the Patriots’ Week 5 loss to the Bengals with a knee injury, but returned with a vengeance last week. He was instrumental in the Patriots’ comeback victory against the Saints, finishing the game with 96 yards and two scores on a season-high 20 carries (4.8 ypc). Due to his early-season struggles, Ridley had been ceding carries to LeGarrette Blount. After some early success Blount too has struggled, which kept the door open for Ridley to re-establish himself as the Patriots’ top ball-carrier. With the injuries New England is dealing with to its receiving corps and the uncertainty and confusion surrounding Rob Gronkowski’s playing status, the Patriots need to be able to run the ball to help open things up for Tom Brady. Ridley was the man for the job last season, and if last week’s performance was any indication, he’s ready to handle the load once again.
Patriots Digging Deep on Defense
New England’s defensive depth chart has undergone significant changes in just the past three weeks alone. The first blow came in Week 4 when All-Pro defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, the anchor of the Patriots’ line, was lost for the season after tearing his Achilles. Then last week, came the double-shot of linebacker Jerod Mayo tearing his pectoral muscle and cornerback Aqib Talib injuring his hip in the win over New Orleans. Mayo, the team’s leading tackler and one of the defensive captains, is done for the season, while Talib may not be play on Sunday because of his hip flexor injury. The Patriots have already lost two of their defensive stalwarts and leaders and could be down a third, meaning others on the roster will have to step up. Wilfork, Mayo and Talib rarely left the field, so several Patriot defenders will see increased playing time this week and moving forward, but with that comes additional responsibilities. New England has allowed 341 or more yards of offense in each of its last three games, and it will need sizable contributions from largely untested players if it hopes to reverse that trend.
Quarterbacks Can’t Do It All
Brady truly was “Tom Terrific” in the game-winning drive against New Orleans last week, however, even he knows that he can’t do it all by himself. He needed clutch catches from Julian Edelman to get into the red zone and then one from Kenbrell Thompkins to finish the drive. With Amendola likely to miss this game because of a concussion, and no one knowing what Gronkowski’s status is, the other Patriot pass-catchers will need to do their part. In the first game against the Jets, Brady was 19-of-39 for 185 yards and a touchdown. Edelman led the way with 13 catches for 78 yards, while the rest of the team combined for six grabs (on 21 targets) for 107 yards and a touchdown, a 39-yard hookup with Aaron Dobson. For the Jets, Smith also needs his weapons to make plays for him, especially with Santonio Holmes (hamstring) and Kellen Winslow (suspension) not available. Stephen Hill leads the team with 18 receptions for 300 yards and a touchdown. Fellow wideout Jeremy Kerley has 16 catches and a score and tight end Jeff Cumberland is tied for the team lead with two touchdown receptions. The Patriots’ pass defense may be a little more vulnerable on Sunday with Mayo out and Talib dealing with a hip injury. It’s just a matter of Smith making a good throw and whichever Jet it is on the other end finishing the play.
New England Key Player: Dont’a Hightower, LB
Linebacker and defensive captain Jerod Mayo is done for the season after tearing his pectoral muscle in last week’s win against New Orleans. Hightower, the 25th overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft, is expected to take Mayo’s spot on the field and the second-year pro also will wear the communication device in his helmet. A consensus All-American in 2011 as a junior at Alabama, Hightower’s talent is obvious but he has yet to have much of an impact in the NFL. Now, not only will Hightower get more playing time, he also will attempt to fill Mayo’s leadership role in the defensive huddle. The Patriots know what they had in Mayo, a tackle machine whose impact on the field went beyond his statistics. It’s Hightower who now has the opportunity to show why he was a first-round pick two drafts ago.
New York Key Player: Bilal Powell, RB
Since rushing for a season-high 149 yards against Buffalo in Week 3, Powell has gained a total of 134 yards on the ground over his last three games. The Jets are 1-2 in that span, and need more from their leading rusher if they want to beat the Patriots. In the first meeting with New England back in Week 2, Powell had 48 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries, while Chris Ivory led the way with 52 yards on 12 attempts. All told, the Jets had 129 yards rushing compared to the Patriots’ 54. Ivory injured his hamstring in Week 3, which caused him to miss one game and allowed Powell the chance to seize the lead back role. Since his return, Ivory has gotten four carries in each of the past two games, which is why Powell needs to lead the way against a Patriots rush defense that is without a pair of Pro Bowlers in defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo.
The hope for Jets fans is that Geno Smith is not the same quarterback who threw three fourth-quarter interceptions in his first game against the Patriots. One thing that could help Smith in this respect is that he will be facing a short-handed New England defense that could be without its three top players.
However, the Patriots still have a healthy Tom Brady and even though he has yet to play a game with all of his weapons, he has continued to find ways to win. Brady is 18-4 in his career in the regular season against the Jets, with the last loss coming in Sept. 2010. To put it another way, the last time Brady lost to the Jets during the regular season Smith had yet to turn 20 years old and he was in his first season as the starting quarterback at West Virginia.
The Patriots are really hurting, and the Jets’ defense is pretty solid, but there’s a reason Brady has 141 victories in the regular season and three Super Bowl rings. Chalk up another W for the “old” veteran, as Smith’s roller coaster rookie season continues with a few more bumps in the road.
New England 23, New York 17
The Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles will get together on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on FOX with first place in the NFC East on the line. While their records may be a bit disappointing, the Cowboys and Eagles sit atop their division at 3-3. With the rest of the division struggling mightily, both teams have a huge opportunity to gain a major leg up in the division race. Thus far, the Eagles appear much improved under Chip Kelly as their offense is one of the league's best. They rank second in the NFL in net yards per attempt and first in yards per carry. On the other side, the Cowboys are getting a career year from Tony Romo and Dez Bryant continues to emerge as one of the NFL's most dangerous weapons.
3 Things to Watch
Cowboys Weapons vs. Eagles Secondary
Romo is having perhaps his best season of his career, completing 70.2 percent of his passes for 1,693 yards, 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions. His 108.6 quarterback rating ranks third in the NFL behind only Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers. The Cowboys offense ranks second in the league in points per game (30.5), 11th in passing yards per game (265.0) and 14th in total yards per game (349.8). The Eagles secondary, which ranks 31st in the league in passing yards allowed per game (314.5), will struggle. Cary Williams, Brandon Boykin and Bradley Fletcher haven't been consistent this year, while their safeties are a question mark after Patrick Chung re-injured his shoulder last week. Nate Allen and Earl Wolff will likely start. The combination of Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Terrance Williams should tear up the Eagles. Bryant ranks 14th in the league in receiving yards, with 459, but is tied for third in touchdowns, with six.
No Michael Vick
Many feared that Chip Kelly's offensive system wouldn't work without the versatile Vick. After injuring his hamstring two weeks ago against the Giants, Nick Foles took over and so far, he has shined. Foles was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week after completing 22 of 31 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns, plus rushing for a score in Philadelphia's 31-20 victory at Tampa Bay last Sunday. That followed the second-year quarterback's strong second-half performance after Vick got hurt in Week 5 against the Giants. Foles has done a great job of spreading the ball around, hitting eight different receivers last week. DeSean Jackson has seen a reemergence this year as he is second in the NFL in receiving yards with 589 and has five touchdowns. Since assuming the starting job, Foles has compiled a 127.9 passer rating, while Vick's sits at 90.6. A win over division foe Dallas could signal the start of Foles supplanting Vick as the Eagles' quarterback.
LeSean McCoy versus Dallas front seven
McCoy has already made some defenders look absolutely ridiculous this year with his juking abilities. McCoy leads the NFL in rushing thus far, with 630 yards at a 5.1 yard per carry clip. Dallas gave up 216 yards rushing against the Redskins last week. The Cowboys’ defensive line is extremely thin heading into this contest. Jay Ratliff was just cut, while DeMarcus Ware is likely out with a quadriceps strain. Jason Hatcher and George Selvie have been limited in practice all week and, if they play, will not be at 100 percent. The Eagles will look to exploit a Dallas defense that gives up 4.4 rushing yards per attempt, which ranks them 25th in the league in that category.
Key Players for Philadelphia: Brandon Graham and Trent Cole, DEs
The only way the Eagles are going to stop an onslaught from Tony Romo is if these guys can get to him. Connor Barwin does have three sacks on the season, but the Eagles need another pass rusher to emerge.
Key Player for Dallas: Dez Bryant, WR
Running back DeMarco Murray suffered a sprained MCL Sunday night against Washington and is unlikely to play against the Eagles. His absence hurts a Cowboys rushing attack that already ranks 25th in the NFL at just 84.8 yards per game. Dallas will turn to rookie Joseph Randle, who had 11 carries for 17 yards against the Redskins, and third-year pro Phillip Tanner against a solid Philadelphia run defense. The same can't be said for the Eagles' pass defense, however. The Cowboys' No. 1 wide receiver leads the team in targets (54), catches (34), yards (459) and touchdowns (six). He is averaging 13.5 yards per reception and has 188 yards after the catch (YAC). Bryant has produced all season and Philadelphia has struggled to stop the pass. Sounds like a recipe for success for the Cowboys, provided Bryant does his part.
The Eagles need to run the ball to win this game, while the Cowboys will certainly be passing. Philadelphia's tempo won't play to a strategy of keeping the opposing offense off the field, so Dallas will have its chances. I don't expect there to be much defense in this game; however, the Cowboys' have a stronger unit. I think an interception by Nick Foles will swing the momentum in this game.
Dallas 34, Philadelphia 24
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports posts on the web for Oct. 18.
• Halloween's still almost two weeks away, but NFL cheerleaders are already in the spirit of the season.
• Leave it to the good people of NASCAR: a milkshake made from beer and bacon courtesy of the Texas Motor Speedway. Combining the best stuff on earth.
• Steve Spurrier is a master troller of his rivals, but he saves some of his best work for Tennessee.
• Ten people who have been banned from Saturday Night Live for life. You wouldn't like Lorne Michaels when he's angry.
• Fire up the Mack truck: Gaping plot holes in sports movies. I'd forgotten about the palm trees in "Teen Wolf", which is set in Nebraska. Takes you right out of an otherwise realistic story.
• When most NFL offensive linemen retire, they rapidly exceed 400 pounds and become fused to the couch. Matt Birk is a different story.
• Late to this, but Ole Miss coed Shelby Herring was the week's Internet breakout star.
• By the numbers: The SEC's best skill players by position at the season's halfway point.
• Robert Griffin III thinks he could play Olympic-level ping-pong. Some youth ping-pong players want RG3 to put his money where his mouth is.
• Watch Jason Kidd get his jersey retired by the Nets. Well deserved.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
At the midpoint of the 2013 college football season, the Big Ten’s Legends Division is still one of the toughest leagues to predict.
Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State are considered the frontrunners, with Northwestern slightly off the radar with an 0-2 start in conference play.
Nebraska has experienced a roller-coaster ride this season, losing to UCLA 41-21 in early September, which created a firestorm of criticism on coach Bo Pelini. However, an easy schedule has helped the Cornhuskers get back on track, as Nebraska is 5-1 and is back on track to have a top-25 finish in the final polls.
Michigan and Michigan State have also experienced their share of struggles. Michigan barely beat Akron and UConn and lost to Penn State last Saturday. Michigan State’s offense struggled mightily early in the year but has found a spark behind quarterback Connor Cook.
With the first half of the season in the books, let’s turn the page to the second half of 2013. Athlon’s editors debate: Who will win the Legends Division?
Michigan, Nebraska or Michigan State: Who Wins the Legends Division?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
After seven weeks, there’s not much clarity to the Legends Division. Michigan was my preseason pick, but after losing to Penn State, I think the Wolverines will finish out of the top spot. There’s not much separation between Nebraska and Michigan State right now, as both teams suffered a non-conference loss in September and are 2-0 in Big Ten action. Deciding between these two teams is essentially a coin flip, but I give a slight edge to the Cornhuskers. Nebraska has one more tune up (at Minnesota) before its brutal November schedule. All five games in November will be tough for the Cornhuskers, but three – Northwestern, Michigan State and Iowa are all at home. Trips to Michigan and Penn State are winnable. However, playing on the road in the Big Ten is never easy. Even if Nebraska loses two games in conference play and beats Michigan State, that should be enough – provided the Spartans lose once (Michigan or at Northwestern). After a rough showing against UCLA and talk of coach Bo Pelini being on the hot seat, what a turnaround it would be for Nebraska to play for the Big Ten title.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
I had Nebraska winning the division in the preseason so I will stick with the Cornhuskers. They avoid Wisconsin and Ohio State altogether this season and get both Northwestern and Michigan State at home. The road trip to Ann Arbor to face Michigan will be brutal, but with the Wolverines already having a conference loss and have remaining games at Michigan State, at Northwestern and Ohio State at home still. So even a loss to Michigan likely won't hurt the Huskers too much. Nebraska's defense has shown marked improvement since entering Big Ten play and Taylor Martinez' turf toe should be close to 100-percent by the time November rolls around and Nebraska is faced with its first tough conference game (Northwestern, Nov. 2). This is one of the quietest one-loss teams in the nation.
Coach Bill Mallory, former head coach of Miami (Ohio), Colorado, Northern Illinois, Indiana and current voting member of the Legends Poll:
Out of those three teams, the one that surprised me recently, was Michigan State. They have been playing really good defense but struggling on offense. Against Indiana this past weekend, their young quarterback, Connor Cook, came into his own. I would not count them out of the race to win their division. They played an impressive game and look to be headed towards being the team to beat.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
This is going to be a wild finish, but I’d tend to favor the two teams that are already 2-0 in the division, Nebraska and Michigan State. The Cornhuskers took plenty of criticism for their bad defense early in the season, but Nebraska allowed fewer yards to Illinois and Purdue combined as it did to Wyoming. Purdue’s offense is awful, but Illinois’ is not. Let’s give a little bit of credit here. The Huskers have their injury concerns with Taylor Martinez’s toe and the season-ending injury for offensive lineman Spencer Long. But Ameer Abdullah has proven capable of carrying the Nebraska offense for the time being. Nebraska also has the most beneficial schedule of the four big contenders, facing only Minnesota and Michigan on the road.
I was a big Northwestern supporter before the season started, but the Wildcats already have two conference losses and a rough November ahead of them. That leaves the Michigan schools and Nebraska. The Wolverines lost last week to Penn State in four overtimes and their season finale with Ohio State puts them at a disadvantage in my opinion. That brings us to the Spartans and Cornhuskers. One team has offensive issues, the other has defensive flaws. Too bad we can't combine them into one squad. That said, as hard as it may be to believe, it looks like Bo Pelini's team is sitting in the catbird's seat here. While the Cornhuskers still have to go to Ann Arbor, they get the Spartans (and the Wildcats) at home. Take care of business in Lincoln and then in University Park, Pa., against Penn State the following week, and Pelini will have plenty to say to all those who were calling for his head earlier this season. Then again, the Spartans could muster up enough offense to win the division, or the Wolverines could put it all together at the right time. Even Northwestern, despite its 0-2 conference mark, isn't completely out of it yet, not with three games in a row in November against the aforementioned trio. The Big Ten may have lost some of its luster this season, but the last month of conference play is shaping up to be, well, legendary.
Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB), CollegeFootballTalk.com and Crystal Ball Run
As we reach mid-October the Big Ten Legends Division looks fairly wide open to me, and I do not feel overly confident about any of the options to choose from in this one. With Northwestern having already dug a hole in the division, I don't like their chances with games against Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State still to come. I think Iowa keeps things interesting but ultimately I expect them to fall back at some point in the race. For me it is a three-team race between Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State. I have no faith in Michigan State's offense but do believe they have the best defense. Michigan has failed to impress me even before that loss to Penn State. I'm going with my preseason pick in the division, Nebraska, even though I may like their schedule the least.
Road games at Michigan and Penn State could go either way, but I think a split for the Huskers is all they will need out of those two games. Getting Northwestern, Michigan State and Iowa at home will turn out to be pivotal for the Huskers this season and help them maneuver their way to the top of the Big Ten Legends Division.