Articles By Braden Gall
Athlon's Steven Lassan, Nathan Rush and Braden Gall debate five burning questions for Week 14 in the NFL:
1. What is the best 8-4 team in the NFL?
Braden Gall: This is a particularly interesting question for the NFC where, at the moment, only two of the three 8-4 teams would make the playoffs. The best one, right now, would be the team left without a seat at the playoff table. But the Green Bay Packers will have a chance to prove they are actually the best of the bunch when they play the Giants in Week 16 — especially since they already beat the Eagles in Phily. Baltimore is the best 8-4 team in the AFC, so in a neutral field game between Baltimore and Green Bay, I lean the way of the Packers. We may have to answer this one again next week if Chicago (New England) and New Orleans (at St. Louis) both lose, creating total chaos in the NFC Wild Card race.
Steven Lassan: Out of the five 8-4 teams in the NFL, I think you have to consider the Ravens, Packers, Giants and Eagles as the best out of the bunch. Although the Chiefs are having a good season, I don’t think they are quite at the level the other four teams are. When the Giants get healthy in the receiving corps, I think they are the best 8-4 team in the league. The one-two punch of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw will be key for the playoff run, and the defense is best out of the five 8-4 teams in the league.
Nathan Rush: The Ravens are the easy answer because they shouldn’t even be an 8–4 option. Had Baltimore’s coaching staff — John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, in particular — played the percentages late against the Steelers, the Ravens would have an AFC North-leading 9–3 record. All Baltimore had to do was run the ball and the clock late against Pittsburgh. The worst thing that could have happened was a clock-killing three-and-out followed by a punt that would have flipped the field position on Pittsburgh, whose offense had been unable to sustain long drives up until that point. But, for some reason, Cameron called a high-risk, low-reward pass play in which well-known safety-blitzer Troy Polamalu went unblocked to crush Joe Flacco, force a fumble and regain possession with a short field for the Steelers. The rest is history. Baltimore has four losses — Pittsburgh (13–10), at Atlanta (26–21), at New England (23–20) and at Cincinnati (15–10) —by a combined 16 points. The Ravens are clearly the best 8–4 in the NFL.
2. Can the No. 3-rated defense in the NFL (Chicago) stop the NFL's top-rated passer (Brady) this weekend?
Braden: A Scott Boras-led Congressional filibuster couldn't stop Tom Brady right now. That being said, the Bears defense has been playing excellent football against excellent quarterbacks all season — it's amazing how a healty Brian Urlacher and a motivated Julius Peppers can cool any hot seat — with wins over names like Rodgers, Vick, Romo, Stafford and Favre. However, the quote from last week that stands out to me was Rex Ryan's "they have so many weapons" line concerning their MNF beatdown. This about a team that traded away Randy Moss — a scary thought. Brady and the Pats are clicking right now, and Bill Belichick will figure out a way to slow Mike Martz and Jay Cutler. Pats win.
Steven: Without a doubt, this is the marquee game for Week 14. Both teams have been on a roll recently, but the Bears will have their hands full trying to slow down Tom Brady and his receivers. Brady has at least 326 passing yards in three out of his last four games and hasn’t thrown an interception since October 17. The Bears' best defense might be their offense, which has started to run the ball better the last few weeks. Unless the Bears can force Brady into a couple of turnovers, I like New England to win.
Nathan: I think the Windy City gusting jet streams have a better chance of “slowing down” New England’s Tom Brady-led passing attack than the Monsters of the Midway defense does. Neither, however, will “stop” Brady and the Patriots from marching on offense. Bill Belichick’s crew is in a groove right now. Their energy is high, they’re calling creative plays and Brady is playing as good as he ever has. It’s cliché, but the Pats’ success has more to do with their own precise execution than who’s on the other side of the ball. They’ve been crisp, and I think that will continue against an inconsistent Bears team this week.
Athlon will be awarding postseason honors to each BCS conference in the country. Today we look at the Big East’s best for 2010.
For the sake of this exercise, the Heisman and Bednarik will function as MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards. The Outland will be given to the offensive lineman of the year while the Lombardi will be given to the defensive lineman of the year. Two fictitious awards, the Adrian Peterson Freshman of the Year honor and the Desmond Howard return specialist of the year award, will be given as well.
Heisman Trophy (MVP/POY): Jordan Todman, UConn
The UConn Husky led the league in carries (302), yards (1,574) and touchdowns (14). His 143.1 per game average was actually second only to LaMichael James nationally. In the five-game winning streak to finish the 2010 season, Todman rushed for 733 yards and six touchdowns en route to the school’s first-ever BCS bowl berth.
Chuck Bednarik Award (Def. POY): Jabaal Sheard, Pitt
The senior defensive end was second in the league in tackles for loss (14.5) and third in the league in sacks (9.0). He led the league in forced fumbles with four and finished with 43 total tackles. He also tallied one fumble recovery, four passes deflected and 15 quarterback hurries.
Davey O’Brien Award (QB): Geno Smith, West Virginia
The Mountaineer quarterback led the league in passer efficiency (149.71) in his first season under center. His 23:6 TD:INT ratio was by far the league’s best, and he was second in the league in yards with 2,567. He led his team to a 5-2 conference record — good enough for a co-Big East championship.
Doak Walker Award (RB): Jordan Todman, UConn
See Heisman Trophy above.
Fred Biletnikoff Award (WR): Armon Binns, Cincinnati
The Bearcat receiver led the league in receptions (75), yards (1,101) and receiving touchdowns (10). His only statistical competitor was teammate D.J. Woods (even though Jonathan Baldwin is probably the best wideout in the league).
John Mackey Award (TE): Cameron Graham, Louisville
Much like Binns, Graham dominated the stats at his position. He led the league in yards (439), receptions (37) and touchdowns (4) for a tight end.
Outland (O-Lineman): Zach Hurd, UConn
The resume includes leading the way the nation’s second-leading rusher — and Big East player of the year — Jordan Todman, winning a conference championship and being named first-team all-conference by the coaches.
Athlon will be awarding postseason honors to each BCS conference in the country. Today we look at the ACC’s best for 2010.
For the sake of this exercise, the Heisman and Bednarik will function as MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards. The Outland will be given to the offensive lineman of the year while the Lombardi will be given to the defensive lineman of the year. Two fictitious awards, the Adrian Peterson Freshman of the Year honor and the Desmond Howard return specialist of the year award, will be given as well.
Heisman Trophy (MVP/POY): Tyrod Taylor, Virginia Tech
Taylor had the most efficient season by any quarterback in the conference this year and never lost a game. He was also allowed to be more improvisational this season — as his 637 yards rushing nearly doubled his 370 from 2009. The 23 TD passes were second in the league and nearly doubled his career high of 13 from last year. He also had arguably his best career game statistically in the ACC title game victory over Florida State: 18-for-28, 263 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INT, 24 yards rushing and another TD.
Chuck Bednarik Award (Def. POY): Da’Quan Bowers, Clemson
With much mythical recruiting hype comes much actual pressure — and Bowers finally lived up to all the accolades he received as a high schooler. The monster defensive end led the nation in sacks with 15.5 and was second nationally in tackles for loss with 25. Both led the ACC, obviously. He added an interception, a forced fumble and 10 quarterback hurries to go with his 49 total tackles.
Davey O’Brien Award (QB): Tyrod Taylor, Virginia Tech
See Heisman Trophy above.
Doak Walker Award (RB): Montel Harris, Boston College
The junior tailback led the conference in carries by a wide margin. His 269 rushing attempts topped Anthony Allen (217), and was one of only two players to carry the ball more than 181 times. And he missed a game. He still managed to lead the conference in rushing with 1,243 yards (1,225 for Allen).
Fred Biletnikoff Award (WR): Leonard Hankerson, Miami and Torrey Smith, Maryland
Statistically speaking, it does not get any closer than this one. These two finished within one catch of each other (66 for Hankerson and 65 for Smith), within 40 yards of each other (1,085 to 1,045) and tied for the league lead in touchdown catches with 12.
John Mackey Award (TE): George Bryan, NC State
Three ACC tight ends were basically statistically even this fall. Cooper Helfet, Dwayne Allen and Bryan caught 34, 31 and 32 passes for 380, 356 and 344 yards, respectively. Yet Bryan scored the most touchdowns, was voted first-team All-ACC by the media this year and was Russell Wilson’s clutch target in tight spots.
Outland Trophy (O-Lineman): Rodney Hudson, Florida State
Hudson is one of 11 players in ACC history to win the top offensive lineman award. The four-time All-ACC lineman has made 46 straight starts for the Noles, and in 772 snaps this fall, he was penalized one time.
Athlon will be awarding postseason honors to each BCS conference in the country. Today we look at the Pac-10’s best for 2010.
For the sake of this exercise, the Heisman and Bednarik will function as MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards. The Outland will be given to the offensive lineman of the year while the Lombardi will be given to the defensive lineman of the year. Two fictitious awards, the Adrian Peterson Freshman of the Year honor and the Desmond Howard return specialist of the year award, will be given as well.
Heisman Trophy (MVP/POY): Andrew Luck, Stanford
A huge case can be made for Oregon tailback LaMichael James, but the quarterback position is dramatically more important and influential. And Luck was the league’s best by far. He completed 70-percent of his passes and led the league in passer efficiency (166.1). He also led the league in total offense at 290.75 yards per game. He was the only quarterback to top the 3,000-yard mark in the Pac-10 and proved to be a sneaky good athlete, finishing in 17th in rushing (51 att., 438 yards, 3 TDs). Luck could be the first pick in the NFL draft next spring and could be the single best football player on the planet not getting an official paycheck.
Chuck Bednarik Award (Def. POY): Stephen Paea, Oregon State
The big Beaver led the conference in forced fumbles with four while posting 10 tackles for loss and six solo sacks from his tackle position. His disruptive ability led to 32.5 total tackles and was one of the few bright spots on an otherwise underachieving defense.
Davey O’Brien Award (QB): Andrew Luck, Stanford
See Heisman Trophy award.
Doak Walker Award (RB): LaMichael James, Oregon
James led the league in rushing per game (152.9 ypg) — which also led the nation. His 1,682 yards also led the league and the nation. His 12 points per game topped Stanford kicker Nate Whitaker in scoring by a full 3.0 ppg. James also showed up in a big way for the big-time games: 134-2 against Oregon State, 239-3 against USC, 257-3 against Stanford and 134-1 against Tennessee.
Fred Biletnikoff Award (WR): Juron Criner, Arizona
No one caught more passes for more yards than Criner. His 73 receptions and 1,186 yards led the league and his 10 receiving touchdowns were third. His five 100-yard efforts came in big spots against the likes of Oregon State, Washington, UCLA and Oregon.
John Mackey Award (TE): Joe Halahuni, Oregon State
The Beaver led the league in receptions per game by a tight end (2.5) and yards (390). He scored six touchdowns — another conference best at his position.
Outland Trophy (O-Lineman): Tyron Smith, USC
Pete Carroll once called him the best offensive lineman he had ever coached. And he has coached some good ones. Was the Stanford O-line better this year? Yes, but three first-teamers make everyone’s job easier. Smith did it with (I can’t believe I am saying this) less around him than the Cardinal trio of Chase Beeler, David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin.
Dick Butkus Award (LB): Casey Matthews, Oregon
The Ducks defensive leader finished eighth in the conference in interceptions (3), led Oregon in tackles (56.5), posted 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. This position was virtually impossible to select as Akeem Ayers, Mike Mohamed and Mason Foster all deserved serious consideration. With Oregon headed to the national title game, Matthews got the edge.
Athlon will be awarding postseason honors to each BCS conference in the country. Today we look at the SEC’s best for 2010.
Heisman Trophy (MVP/POY): Cameron Newton, Auburn
The list of superlatives is endless. Newton was the dominant player on and off the field this fall. He is the clear-cut Heisman front-runner and led his team to an SEC title. He joined the 20-20 TD club (with Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick), became the SECs single-season rushing leader by a quarterback, and oh by the way, posted the most efficient season by a passer in NCAA history. His 188.16 QB rating tops Colt Brennan’s 186 as the NCAA all-time single-season mark.
Chuck Bednarik Award (Def. POY): Nick Fairley, Auburn
Much like Newton, the defensive lineman was a junior college transfer who had his polarizing moments. Fairley was the most dominant defensive player in the league, racking up a league-leading 21 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. He also knocked three quarterbacks out of the game, hurried the passer 21 times, forced a fumble, picked off a pass and recovered two fumbles.
Davey O’Brien Award (QB): Cameron Newton, Auburn
See Heisman Trophy above.
Doak Walker Award (RB): Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina
Lattimore is the most complete, most talented running back in the nation. So he certainly was the best the SEC had to offer. His 1,198 yards were second in the SEC to Newton, and he literally carried his team to the SEC title game — 37, 23, 29, 40 carries against Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Florida, respectively. He also finished with 26 catches for 365 and 19 total TDs.
Fred Biletnikoff Award (WR): Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina
Jeffery and Alabama’s Julio Jones were the only two wide receivers to get to 1,000 yards this fall. Randall Cobb was Jeffery’s biggest competition because of how versatile and important he was to his team.
John Mackey Award (TE): D.J. Williams, Arkansas
Williams was the league’s only tight end in the top 20 in yards and top 15 in receptions per game. The unanimous first team selection finished sixth in catches (4.08 rpg) and 12th in yards (49.1 ypg).
Outland (O-Lineman): Derek Sherrod, Mississippi State
Four-time SEC lineman of the week, Sherrod helped lead the Bulldogs to 215.8 rushing yards per game — second only to Auburn’s ridiculous 287 ypg and good enough for 16th nationally. Also, the MSU scoring, total and passing attack all improved in the rankings from a year ago.
Athlon will be awarding postseason honors to each BCS conference in the country. Today we look at the Big 12’s best for 2010.
Heisman Trophy (MVP/POY): Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State
The most important player in this league could have easily been the quarterback for Baylor, yet for similar reasons, Weeden gets the nod. Weeden had his team within one score of a Big 12 title berth after shattering the single-season passing mark for the Cowboys. His veteran, mature presence undoubtedly helped with the 17 new starters.
Chuck Bednarik Award (Def. POY): Prince Amukamara, Nebraska
The league’s best coverman was the Prince from Lincoln. He led the league in passes defensed with 13, adding a sack and 47 total tackles. Teams consistently ignored his side of the field as he matched up with the opponent’s top wideout. Amukamara could be the top pure coverman in the nation and could be the first cornerback taken in the NFL Draft.
Davey O’Brien Award (QB): Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State
Weeden’s 4,037 passing yards were first in the league (until the title game when Landry Jones passed him with the extra game) and his 156.53 passer rating was the league’s best this season. His 32 TD passes were second only to Jones — who, again, had a extra game.
Doak Walker Award (RB): DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma
This was going to go to Kendall Hunter or Murray. Murray led the league in yards from scrimmage (1,716 yards) and trailed only Justin Blackmon in scoring by a non-kicker. Murray also finished in the league’s top ten in receptions per game (5.31). His final line of 257 carries, 1,121 rush yards, 69 receptions, 595 yards and 19 total TDs makes him the top RB in the league.
Fred Biletnikoff Award (WR): Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State
This one was a tough call. No, seriously. Blackmon was the nation’s best wideout, leading the country in receptions per game (9.27) and yards per game (151.4) and finishing first in the Big 12 in scoring by a non-kicker (fourth nationally with 10.9 ppg). Yet, Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles was deserving as well. They were the best two wide receivers in the nation, but you have to give the edge to a guy who had no fewer than 105 yards in every game he played.
John Mackey Award (TE): Michael Egnew, Missouri
The Tigers’ tight end trailed only Ryan Broyles and Justin Blackmon for catches per game in the Big 12 this fall (6.92). He was arguably the most productive pass-catching tight end in the nation as his 83 receptions were 29 better than next in line (Collin Franklin – 54). He finished second nationally in yards for a tight end with 698.
Outland Trophy (O-Lineman): Nate Solder, Colorado
The lone bright spot on the Buffalo squad, Solder led the way for Rodney Stewart and his 1,318 yards — good for third in the Big 12. With very little else around him on the offense, the fact that Stewart averaged over 100 ypg is extremely impressive. Look for Solder to be a first-round selection the upcoming NFL draft.
-by Rob Doster
Steelers Steal One in Charm City
It’s official: Steelers-Ravens is the best rivalry in football. The two teams staged a steel cage death match last night in Baltimore, a brawl that left Ben Roethlisberger bloodied with a broken nose and the Ravens’ division hopes bruised. Troy Polamalu’s decisive fourth-quarter strip-sack of Joe Flacco was the evening’s key moment, as LaMarr Woodley grabbed the loose ball and returned it to the Ravens 9-yard line to set up the Steelers’ only touchdown in the 13–10 win. “Everybody watching TV at home, everybody in the stadium, you all know it you see 43 at the line, four-minute offense, he's coming,” said Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs of the vintage Polamalu moment. “It was just like, I hope we have a plan. It just didn't feel good when I saw that hair at the line.” Think these two teams are evenly matched? I stole the following multi-part factoid from SI’s Peter King: Over the last two years, the Ravens and Steelers have played four times. Both have won twice. The Ravens have scored 67 points. The Steelers have scored 67 points. The Ravens have scored 7 touchdowns and 6 field goals; the Steelers have scored 7 touchdowns and 6 field goals.
Peyton “Pick-Six” Manning
Three weeks ago, the Colts were 6–3 and Peyton Manning was filling his perennial role as an MVP candidate. Three disheartening losses and a mind-boggling 11 interceptions later, the Colts are in free-fall. The low point came yesterday, as Manning tossed four more interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns and the last of which set up the winning field goal in Dallas’ 38–35 overtime win. Manning has never had a run of futility quite like this — not even when he was a wide-eyed rookie playing for a miserable team. He’s had back-to-back four-pick games for the first time in his career. He’s only the fourth quarterback in the last 20 years to have three straight three-pick games in a single season. The last? Aaron Brooks. Not the company you want to keep. “I don't make any excuses,” he said. “I’m continuing to throw, I’ll keep throwing. I hope I throw it to our guys.”
Speaking of the Cowboys, interim coach Jason Garrett is now 3–1, and he would be 4–0 if Roy Williams hadn’t been in such a giving mood on Thanksgiving. His counterpart in the Twin Cities, interim Vikings boss Leslie Frazier, moved to 2–0 with a 38–14 rout of Buffalo. That combined record of 5–1 for assistants thrust into high-profile, midseason job interviews just might get the attention of owners pondering a change. Clearly, their respective teams have responded to the staff shake-ups in a positive way. “You get challenged in the NFL every week and really get challenged every play,” Garrett said. “Certainly when you come to this place, against that team and that quarterback and those (pass) rushers, it’s going to be an all-day sucker for us. It didn’t surprise me that their team battled back and overcame some adversities, and we had to do the same to win this game.” Garrett and Frazier just might battle their way into some job security.
Did Matty Ice Home Field?
By now, Matt Ryan’s success indoors is well documented. It seems that if the Falcons can seal homefield advantage in the playoffs, you might as well stamp their ticket for Dallas. That seems especially true after yesterday, when the Falcons turned back their NFC South rivals the Bucs and moved to 10–2 without giving their best effort. Eric Weems’ 102-yard kickoff return was the jump-start, cutting Tampa’s two-score lead to 24–21, to set up Ryan’s sixth fourth-quarter game-winning drive of the season and atone for his otherwise pedestrian 18-of-36, two-interception game. “When you come out and you don’t play as well as you like, but you still find a way to win, those are signs of a good football team,” Ryan said. “We feel like today was a good example of that for us.”
MoJo Brings the Mojo to Tennessee
The Jags are known as a weak-willed, warm-weather team. Maurice Jones-Drew is doing all he can to change that perception. Jacksonville took control of the AFC South by imposing its will on the Titans in frigid Tennessee temperatures, controlling the ball for 40 minutes in a 17–6 win. Jones-Drew ran for 186 clock-draining yards as the Jags beat the Titans at their own game, outrushing them 258-57. “I only had to make one guy miss most of the time, and the guys were doing a great job of keeping guys off me,” Jones-Drew said. “That performance was a total team effort.” The kind of effort that wins division titles.
Athlon will be awarding postseason honors to each BCS conference in the country. Today we look at the Big Ten’s best for 2010.
Heisman Trophy (MVP/POY): Denard Robinson, Michigan
The definition of the Heisman is the “Most Outstanding Player.” While Robinson might not be the toughest or most efficient player in the league, he certainly was the most outstanding. He is the only player ever to rush for 1,500 and throw for 1,500 yards in a season — and he actually topped 2,300 and 1,600.
Chuck Bednarik Award (Def. POY): Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue
The Boiler defensive end led the conference in sacks (12.5) and tackles for loss (26.0) while posting 70 total tackles. In a conference loaded at the defensive line (JJ Watt, Cameron Heyward, Adrian Clayborne), Kerrigan showed up as the best one in 2010.
Davey O’Brien Award (QB): Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State
How can the MVP of the league not be the best player at his position? Because Robinson wasn’t the best quarterback in the league. In fact, this was a toss-up between Pryor, Scott Tolzien and Dan Persa. Tolzien was the most efficient and won a conference title. Persa was clearly more valuable but missed some time late. Pryor is easily the most talented, won a title and posted the most productive season (other than D-Rob). In a controversial decision, TP2 gets the nod as the best quarterback in the conference.
Doak Walker Award (RB): Mikel LeShoure, Illinois
I really wanted to vote Denard Robinson as the best running back in the league. He led the conference in rushing, leading LeShoure by nearly 300 yards. In the purest form, however, LeShoure was the best running back in the league. He was second in the league with 16 total touchdowns and helped carry/develop a freshman quarterback for a middle of the pack team.
Fred Biletnikoff Award (WR): Dane Sanzenbacher, Ohio State
The gritty, little (5-10, 180) wideout made the tough catches all season long. He led the conference with 10 TD receptions, was second in yards with 889 and sixth in catches per game with 4.3. He also had one of his best games of the year (6 rec., 102 yds) in a tough spot against Iowa.
John Mackey Award (TE): Lance Kendricks
This was one of the few easy selections as Kendricks is the best tight end in the nation. Despite missing time, Kendricks still led the highest scoring offense in the conference in catches (3.25) and yards (52.3) per game. His blocking is wildly underrated as well.
Outland (O-Lineman): Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
Carimi, a national Outland finalist, helped lead the Badgers to a conference-leading 45.2 ppg and 242.2 rush yards per game — the second time a team has averaged more than 45 points per game in conference play since 1936 (Penn State, 48.1 ppg, 1994).
Athlon's Steven Lassan, Nathan Rush and Braden Gall debate five burning questions for Week 13 in the NFL:
1. Two-part question: a) Should a team under .500 be allowed into the playoffs and (b) should a division winners be granted an automatic berth into the playoffs?
Steven Lassan: It’s unfortunate that a team under .500 could make the playoffs, but this is the first season in NFL history that it could happen. Although a team like Philadelphia, Green Bay or the Giants could end up missing the playoffs, I have no problem with the NFC West champion with a record under .500 getting into the postseason. Any talk of taking away a playoff bid to a team under .500 even when they win their division is a complete overreaction to this season. Any team that wins its division should earn an automatic berth into the playoffs.
Nathan Rush: a) Yes. (b) Yes. The current setup of four division winners plus two Wild Card berths for each conference is the most logical way to determine playoff teams. The four teams in every division play 14 common opponents. And while even those “common” opponents are not “identical” — this year, some teams played against Big Ben or Mike Vick and some got Charlie Batch or Kevin Kolb — it is the most similar road and most consistent measure of that quadrant of a conference. The final of the four in every division deserves a postseason berth, period. Since the NFL realigned to eight divisions with four teams apiece in 2002, there has never been a team with a losing record make the playoffs. There have been four division winners with an 8–8 record, however. Three of those four won their Wild Card game before losing in the Divisional Round. In 2008, the 8–8 Chargers controversially made the playoffs over the 11–5 Patriots and 9–7 Jets before knocking off the 12–4 Colts in the first round. The real question isn’t whether or not division winners (regardless of record) should make the playoffs. The question is whether or not those teams should have home field advantage in the first round.
Braden Gall: My inner sports geek tells me that no team in any sport should be allowed to compete for a championship in the postseason with a record below .500. Do you take away the auto-bid from division winners? I do not like that idea, but you cannot have losing teams hosting playoff games. The NFL could very simply make any team with a losing record inelegible for postseason play and award three WIld Cards too. The easier solution, especially since it has never happened before, is to simply reseed the teams and force the divison winner with a losing record to go on the road (an idea the league has already toyed with anyway).
2. Which game are you more looking forward to and why: Steelers-Ravens or Jets-Patriots?
Steven: Both games are must-see events from Week 13, but I’ll take the Steelers-Ravens. Both teams absolutely hate each other, producing one of the hardest hitting games the NFL has on the schedule. With the rate the NFL is handing out fines and the past history of this series, there could be quite a few from this game on Sunday night. This rivalry is arguably the best in the NFL over the last five seasons, with the last three matchups each decided by three points. With both teams at 8-3 and a potential AFC North title on the line, expect another close game – likely coming down to a field goal once again.
Nathan: Pittsburgh is 1–5 over its last six trips to Baltimore. Worse, Tom Brady has an 18–2 career record in regular season home games in December and January. But even if the Ravens and Patriots do keep trending at home, these are can’t-miss games. Personally, I lean towards the Steelers-Ravens matchup. They are two dinosaurs on their way to extinction due to Comet Goodell. If you can only watch one game, enjoy the pure, physical, traditional American tackle football of Steelers-Ravens while it lasts. These three hours could be among the final football games ever played. James Harrison knows. Ray Lewis knows. Expect both teams to play as if this is the last time they will ever play football — because in some ways, it could be.
Braden: I am leaning toward the AFC East on this one, but the talent level, storylines and weight of each game is remarkable. The Jets and Pats are No. 1 and No. 2 in the race for AFC homefield. The coaches are sexier (well, you know what I mean) and more volatile. Tom Brady has emphatically stated how much he hates the new rival. And then there is little Danny Woodhead, who has played for both teams this season. How could anyone not love The Woodhead! Plus, the Jets-Pats game doesn't come on during Boardwalk Empire.
SEC Championship Game, No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 18 South Carolina
This is an unfair comparison to South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia, and that’s because Garcia has developed this season into one of the SEC’s better quarterbacks. But, you know, when you’re going up against the likely Heisman Trophy winner, it’s difficult to keep pace.
The conference’s leader in rushing (113.3 yards a game) is also its leader in passing efficiency (185.6). Cameron Newton’s thrown only six interceptions all year. He can beat you in a variety of ways, but teams would still prefer to dare Newton to throw. Then again, Alabama did — and he worked the Tide in the second half.
Garcia fumbled twice in the fourth quarter of the first Auburn game and didn’t play the final six minutes as a result. Had to be a sickening feeling for the junior, who hasn’t looked back since then. In fact, he’s played his past three games turnover-free. South Carolina could use another similar effort from Garcia, the nation’s 14th-ranked passer, in this one. The run game wasn’t there in the first game. The potential is there that the rematch could play out in a similar fashion, thrusting the burden on Garcia’s shoulders. Can he handle it?
It’s difficult to give Auburn the edge over Marcus Lattimore, but Lattimore is outnumbered here. In addition to Newton, who often fashions himself as a running back, the Tigers have between-the-tackles beast Michael Dyer and hit-the-edge speedster Onterio McCalebb. Both Dyer and McCalebb did damage in the first South Carolina game. Dyer had a very quiet 100-yard day, but it was a performance that helped the Tigers hang on to the ball for most of the second half. Speaking of that, McCalebb and Mario Fannin each fumbled in the first meeting. That won’t do, obviously — especially for Fannin, who has proven fumble-prone all season.
Lattimore is special, but he has to have somewhere to run. With 33 yards on 14 carries the first time, it wasn’t there earlier in the year. Has he learned any new tricks for Round Two?
This area works just like running backs. South Carolina has the best one, by far. But Auburn has better depth.
Alshon Jeffery is one of the top three receivers in the country. With 1,351 yards on 75 catches, he’s a Biletnikoff finalist. But the Tigers three top very good threats in Darvin Adams, Emory Blake and Terrell Zachery. They’re all slightly different, but speed is the common denominator. Throw in tight end Phil Lutzenkirchen, who has five touchdowns this season, including a late one against South Carolina, and the Tigers have weapons all over the field.
Tori Gurley showed he could be a legit target for the Gamecocks with 14 catches in the Vanderbilt game, but he has just eight in the five games since — including none the past two weeks. Ace Sanders is a speedy threat, but Steve Spurrier hasn’t used him too, too much against SEC opponents.
Spurrier just raved and raved after the first Auburn game about Jeff Grimes and Auburn’s offensive line. Newton’s individual ability shines, but the Tigers were incredibly physical against the Gamecocks back in September. They were big, particularly, in helping Dyer to his 100-yard evening. Left tackle Lee Ziemba is as good as it gets in the league.
South Carolina’s line has shown signs of improvement, even if it hasn’t been incredibly consistent. It followed the Auburn loss up with its finest showing, against Alabama. It very nearly helped pave the way for the first 100-yard rusher against the Tide in 40 games (Lattimore had 93 yards). Against a great Clemson defensive front last week, the Gamecocks kept Garcia from being sacked. That was a big, big point of emphasis coming into the season. This week will be a test to see if South Carolina has really improved.
Consider this the defensive equivalent of the running back and receiver breakdowns. Auburn has the best D-lineman, in tackle Nick Fairley, but South Carolina has the better overall line.
In truth, both D-lines are very, very good. But the Gamecocks are deeper and can therefore rotate players and stay fresher. That’s a big secret in their success against the run and SEC-leading 39 sacks.
Melvin Ingram has been a pleasant surprise as a junior who can play both end and tackle. Devin Taylor, at end, might be the most underrated player in the conference. Those players have 15½ combined sacks. Senior end Cliff Matthews, a captain, was hindered by a shoulder brace early in the season, including the first Auburn game. Rid of it, he’s playing much better.
Fairley has 9½, sacks himself, but no teammate has any more than 4½.
Advantage: South Carolina
Auburn’s Josh Bynes is the best linebacker in this game. It’s not even close. The 6-2, 235-pound senior is the big and physical prototype of a Tigers linebacker, leading the team with 68 tackles. He’s a big part of Auburn’s physicality in run defense.
As it turns out, the first Auburn game was the only one that junior leader Shaq Wilson would play this season, because of a hamstring injury. Wilson recovered two Auburn fumbles, but he was also several steps slow in pursuing Newton. The Gamecocks, in truth, would’ve been better off without a player who grabbed a medical redshirt shortly after that game.
The rotation of Rodney Paulk, Josh Dickerson, Tony Straughter and Quin Smith has worked well enough to support the defensive line in the run game. Are they physical enough for Newton, however?
One of the few spots on the field for which the appropriate question is, Who is worse? South Carolina is 99th in the country in passing defense (245.5 yards a game), but Auburn, at 106th, is even worse (255.2).
One thing both secondaries do not get credit for is their ability to help out in the run game. In fact, South Carolina’s top three tacklers are defensive backs — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Gamecocks often use their corners and safeties up near the line of scrimmage. All three safeties are among the top six tacklers. The three-man rotation of DeVonte Holloman, D.J. Swearinger and Akeem Auguste has worked to give the Gamecocks something different than what they had in the first game.
Holloman is playing well moving between the field and boundary safety positions. Don’t forget spur Antonio Allen with this group, also. He’s played exceptionally well the past month, including his pick six of Kyle Parker last week.
Similar story for the Tigers. Zac Etheridge, Neiko Thorpe and Demond Washington are among the top six tacklers.
Both defensive backfields have given up a ton of big plays. At least South Carolina’s secondary can say it’s played better in the past month. Still, this is a flimsy edge to project.
Advantage: South Carolina
Neither team has an extreme advantage in this area. Both have excellent kickers. South Carolina’s Spencer Lanning has made 15 of 20 field goals this season, including nine of his past 10 kicks. Auburn’s Wes Byrum has made a ton of clutch kicks in his career, and he’s 15 of 19 this season.
The difference is that Lanning has also developed into a very good punter. He had one of his best punting games last week at Clemson, averaging 43 yards a punt and knocking one out of bounds at the half-yard line. Lanning is averaging 43.8 yards a punt this season, compared to Ryan Shoemaker’s rather pedestrian 39.1 yards a punt.
Neither team has been particularly good in the return game. Auburn’s Demond Washington and South Carolina’s Bryce Sherman have proven to be middling men on kick returns, while the Gamecocks’ Ace Sanders and the Tigers’ Quin Carr have done little on punt returns.
Advantage: South Carolina
Quick math there says Auburn has a 5-3 advantage. And that makes sense when you consider the Tigers are 12–0 and the Gamecocks are 9–3. But, of course, these edges aren’t all there is to a game. Every fit of four quarters has its ebbs and flows, and South Carolina certainly has a chance to win. If the Gamecocks could grab a 20–7 lead and hang around for four quarters at Jordan-Hare, they’ve got what it takes to do it again on a neutral field.
Even if Newton doesn’t beat the Gamecocks with his legs, as he did the first time, there’s always the distinct possibility he could throw to beat a South Carolina secondary that’s had the propensity to give up a deep ball or two in every game. Keep an eye, too, on Lattimore. He couldn’t get going in the first game. In the Gamecocks’ four SEC wins with him (he missed one, due to injury), he rushed for 168 yards a game. In the three losses, including Auburn? Just 47.3 yards a game.
Turnovers, as they so often do, could determine this game of fairly even teams. South Carolina led the turnover battle 2-0 entering the fourth quarter in the first meeting. But it gave the ball away on all four fourth-quarter possessions.
Auburn beat South Carolina 35–27 in September via a fourth-quarter rally. The more things change …
AUBURN 35, SOUTH CAROLINA 27
ACC Championship: Florida State (9-3, 6-2 ACC) vs. Virginia Tech (10-2, 8-0 ACC)
Saturday, 7:45 p.m. ET in Charlotte, N.C.
Two teams that have reasons to wonder what might have been still have plenty to play for this week. No. 20 Florida State and No. 12 Virginia Tech meet for the conference title for the first time since the inaugural ACC championship game in 2005.
The Seminoles head to Bank of America Stadium with a three-game winning streak after defeating in-state rival Florida 31-7 last week. They are oh-so-close to being 11-1, with two of their losses coming to NC State (on a fluke fumble) and North Carolina (thanks to two missed field goals in the fourth quarter) in consecutive weeks.
The Hokies, meanwhile, have put together a 10-game winning streak since dropping their first two games of the season. Virginia Tech lost to Boise State 33-30 in its season opener, then sleep-walked through a 21-16 loss to Football Championship Subdivision member James Madison five days later. Since then, though, the Hokies have won by average margin of 21.1 points while playing just one game decided by 10 points or fewer.
Virginia Tech, which routed Virginia 37-7 last week, is playing in the ACC championship game for the fourth time in the six-year history of the event. The Hokies are the first team to go undefeated in ACC play since Florida State in 2000.
The Seminoles, who upset Virginia Tech 27-22 in the 2005 ACC title game, hope to continue their string of success in the series. Florida State leads the all-time series 22-11-1, including wins in 13 of the past 14 meetings.
Here’s a look at how the teams match up this time:
Quarterbacks: Florida State: Christian Ponder began the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate, but he didn’t put up the big numbers everyone expected. Still, he is third in the ACC in passing efficiency (137.6 rating) after throwing for 2,038 yards, 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Ponder had his troublesome right elbow drained again after last week’s win over Florida and says he will be ready to go against the Hokies.
Virginia Tech: Tyrod Taylor has rewritten the school record book, setting new marks for career passing yards (6,532) and total offense (8,682 yards). But he has been at his best this season, leading the ACC in passing efficiency (156.9 rating) after throwing for 2,258 yards, 20 touchdowns and four interceptions. The MVP of the 2008 ACC championship game, Taylor also has rushed for 613 yards this season.
Edge: Push. Taylor has had the better season in 2010 en route to earning All-ACC honors, but Ponder has plenty of big-game experience and is just as capable. Plus, the Seminoles have a dangerous weapon in backup E.J. Manuel if Ponder suffers an injury during the game.
Running backs: Florida State: Starting tailback Jermaine Thomas (484 yards, 6 TD) will miss his third consecutive game with a sprained knee, and Ty Jones (496 yards, 2 TD) could be limited after sitting out practice early in the week because he was “banged up.” That leaves Chris Thompson (686 yards, 5 TD), who averages an eye-popping 6.8 yards per carry and has ripped off three touchdown runs of at least 70 yards this season. Fullback Lonnie Pryor (4 rush TD, 3 TD catches) is a threat as a runner and receiver in the red zone.
Virginia Tech: Darren Evans (748 yards, 10 TD) has punishing power, David Wilson (573 yards, 5 TD) showcases blazing speed, and Ryan Williams (428 yards, 9 TD) offers the perfect blend of both. Williams continues to get closer to full strength after missing four games in the middle of the season with a pulled hamstring.
Edge: Virginia Tech. The Hokies might have the best trio of tailbacks in the country. Evans and Williams are former ACC Rookie of the Year winners who each have more than 2,000 career rushing yards, and Wilson is a threat to score every time he touches the ball.
Receivers: Florida State: Bert Reed (52 catches, 547 yards, 2 TD) is a threat to run after catching short throws, but he has dropped too many passes this season. Taiwan Easterling (35 catches, 462 yards, 4 TD) does a nice job on intermediate routes, and Willie Haulstead (33 catches, 500 yards, 6 TD) and Rodney Smith (27 catches, 408 yards, 3 TD) stretch the field vertically. Tight end Beau Reliford (15 catches, 171 yards, 1 TD) doesn’t get many opportunities.
Virginia Tech: Jarrett Boykin (45 catches, 728 yards, 5 TD) is fourth in school history in receiving yards (2,004), and he’s just a junior. Marcus Davis (16 catches, 213 yards, 2 TD) is a freakish athlete who has moved into a bigger role after the season-ending injury to Dyrell Roberts, and Danny Coale (26 catches, 497 yards, 2 TD) has a knack for getting open deep even though he lacks breakaway speed. The Hokies don’t throw the ball to tight end Andre Smith often, but five of his 17 receptions this season have gone for touchdowns.
Edge: Florida State. Boykin is the best all-around receiver on the field with his size, huge hands and blocking ability, but the Seminoles have more weapons. Rodney Smith, in particular, has emerged with 10 receptions for 224 yards in the last three games. He could be a star in the future, possibly as soon as this week.
Offensive linemen: The Seminoles have started six different combinations up front this season, primarily because of injury problems at right guard. All-ACC left guard Rodney Hudson won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the ACC’s most outstanding blocker for the second year in a row. Center Ryan McMahon, a second-team All-ACC pick, has made a school-record 51 consecutive starts. Bryan Stork has returned from an illness to start at right guard, and tackles Andrew Datko and Zebrie Sanders are solid.
The Hokies have started the same five players up front all year, a fact that has allowed them to develop chemistry and continuity after a slow start to the season. Right guard Jaymes Brooks and right tackle Blake DeChristopher made the All-ACC second team. Center Beau Warren, left guard Greg Nosal and left tackle Andrew Lanier all came to Virginia Tech as tight ends, so they have athleticism.
Edge: Florida State. The Seminoles feature what is regarded as the ACC’s best offensive line, and they are coming off a performance against Florida that their coaching staff called their best job of pass protection all season.
Defensive linemen: Defensive ends Brandon Jenkins (12 sacks) and Markus White (7.5 sacks) are two big reasons why the Seminoles rank second in the country in sacks (ACC-best 3.58 per game). Jenkins, a first-team All-ACC selection, is tied for third nationally in sacks and tied for 11th nationally in tackles for loss. Florida State is talented but young on the interior, with three sophomores and a freshman rotating at defensive tackle.
For the Hokies, Steven Friday was named to the All-ACC second team after ranking in the conference’s top 10 in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (14), and fellow defensive end Chris Drager has a big motor. Second-team All-ACC pick John Graves and Antoine Hopkins have done a nice job at defensive tackle after the Hokies lost Kwamaine Battle to a season-ending knee injury in September.
Edge: Florida State. Neither team’s front is impenetrable against the run, but the Seminoles get the nod here because of their pass-rushing ability.
Linebackers: The Seminoles have started the same three linebackers in every game this season. Kendall Smith and Nigel Bradham each rank among the top 15 tacklers in the ACC, and Bradham (4 sacks) is a threat to blitz from his weakside position. Mister Alexander plays the strong side for the Seminoles, who rank 23rd nationally and third in the ACC against the run (123.7 yards per game).
Bruce Taylor has been a stud all season, ranking among the ACC’s top 10 in sacks (6) and tackles for loss (15.5). After Taylor, though, there’s a decline. Lyndell Gibson has started losing playing time to redshirt freshman Tariq Edwards, and Jeron Gouveia-Winslow has struggled enough this season that defensive coordinator Bud Foster often replaces him with an extra defensive back. The Hokes are just 68th nationally against the run, allowing more rushing yards per game (156.9) than they have in any season since 1992.
Edge: Florida State. Taylor’s productivity is impressive, but the Seminoles have the stronger (and more experienced) linebacking group as a whole.
Defensive backs: The Seminoles have some accomplished cornerbacks in Greg Reid and Xavier Rhodes, the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year. Rhodes leads the conference in pass breakups (11), and Reid is tied for second in that category (9). Safety Nick Moody, who is third on the team in tackles (60), returned an interception 96 yards for a touchdown to seal Florida State’s victory over Maryland. The Seminoles rank 30th nationally in opponents’ passing efficiency (115.6 rating).
All-ACC selection Jayron Hosley leads the nation with eight interceptions, continuing the Hokies’ tradition of outstanding cornerbacks. Fellow cornerback Rashad Carmichael (4 INT) sat out last week’s win over Virginia with an ankle injury, but he hopes to return this week. Even if he can’t play or is limited, the Hokies have a good replacement in true freshman Kyle Fuller. Second-team All-ACC safety Davon Morgan (72 tackles, 4 INT) is effective against the run and the pass, free safety Eddie Whitley has the versatility to play several positions, and backup Antone Exum is tied for second in the ACC with nine pass breakups.
Edge: Virginia Tech. The Hokies are seventh nationally in opponents’ passing efficiency (102.3 rating) and have recorded an ACC-high 20 interceptions. They have intercepted 12 passes over the last five games.
Special teams: For the Noles, Dustin Hopkins is one of the most talented kickers in the ACC, but he made just 17 of 23 field-goal tries this season. Among them, of course, was the 55-yard field goal as time expired that lifted the Seminoles past Clemson 16-13 on Nov. 13. Hopkins has booted 36 of his 74 kickoffs for touchbacks (second in the nation) to help Florida State lead the ACC in kickoff coverage, and that could be important because Virginia Tech leads the league in kickoff returns. Punter Shawn Powell ranks third in the ACC (43.9 yards per punt), and the Seminoles are fourth in the conference in net punting (38.4 yards per kick). Florida State hasn’t done much in the return game this season, but Greg Reid always is a threat to score.
The Hokies traditionally are strong in this area, and this season is no different. All-ACC kicker Chris Hazley is 19-for-20 on field goals, having made his last 19 attempts, and second-team All-ACC selection Brian Saunders leads the conference in punting (44.4 yards per kick). The Hokies also are explosive in the return game, where David Wilson leads the ACC on kickoffs (26.8 yards per return, 2 TD) and Jayron Hosley ranks second in the league on punts (13.5 yards per return). Virginia Tech is second and fifth in the conference in kickoff and punt coverage, respectively.
Edge: Virginia Tech. Hazley has been rock solid since missing his first field-goal try of the season, and Wilson and Hosley are extremely dangerous. As an added bonus, the Hokies always are a threat to block a kick.
Head coaches: Jimbo Fisher has sparked a nice turnaround in his first season replacing legend Bobby Bowden. Fisher already has recorded the most wins by a first-year coach at Florida State, surpassing Larry Jones’ 8-4 record in 1971.
Frank Beamer is ninth on college football’s all-time wins list with 239 victories. He has led the Hokies to seven consecutive 10-win seasons, the longest active streak in the country, and has guided his team to 17 consecutive bowl games.
Edge: Virginia Tech. Beamer has seen it all in his 24 seasons in Blacksburg. He doesn’t panic, and he feels no pressure to prove to anyone how smart he is.
Arizona State at Arizona, Thursday, 6:00 p.m. MT
A victory would give the Sun Devils their sixth win of the season, but they still may not be headed to a bowl game. Because Arizona State has played two Football Championship Subdivision opponents, it needs seven wins to qualify for the postseason. The Sun Devils have reportedly filed a waiver with the NCAA to allow it to play in a bowl game if they beat the Wildcats. Arizona State will be led by sophomore quarterback Brock Osweiler, who came off the bench to replace injured starter Steven Threet last Friday and was named Pac-10 Player of the Week after completing 27 of 38 passes for 380 yards and four touchdowns. Arizona, meanwhile, is likely headed to the Alamo Bowl no matter what the result. But the Wildcats, losers of three in a row, would like to go into the Dec. 29 game in San Antonio with a little momentum.
Oregon at Oregon State, Saturday, 12:30 p.m. PT
The stakes in this year’s Civil War have never been higher. The implications are simple. If the Ducks win, they will play in the Bowl Championship Series title game on Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz. On paper, it looks like Oregon should have no trouble completing an undefeated season and getting to the title game. The Beavers were hammered by Stanford last week and aren’t far removed from their embarrassing home loss to Washington State. But the game is in Corvallis, Ore., and rivalry games have a way of not following the script. The game will also be running back LaMichael James’ final chance to impress Heisman Trophy voters.
Washington at Washington State, Saturday, 4:00 p.m. PT
A couple of weeks ago, it didn’t seem like the Huskies were one of the conference’s top candidates to become bowl-eligible. They needed to win three in a row to close out the season, two of them on the road. Washington is two-thirds of the way there and has taken care of one of the road victories. The Huskies won a thrilling 16-13 contest at Cal on Saturday, scoring a touchdown on the game’s final play to register the victory. At first glance, it would seem beating the Cougars would be the easiest assignment of the final three challenges. But Washington State is coming off its first Pac-10 win in two years, a 31-14 triumph over Oregon State. The Cougars also have had back-to-back bye weeks to prepare for this game.
USC at UCLA, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. PT
It’s been a long time since this rivalry game has had less meaning. The Trojans are banned from a bowl game, so this will end their season. The Bruins were eliminated from bowl contention after their loss at Arizona State last week. Still, this matchup always has important implications for the players. Many of UCLA’s returning players will no doubt remember USC’s decision to throw a deep touchdown pass during the final seconds of last year’s game, despite the Trojans having the game well in hand. It could be a double-whammy of rivalry blues for USC, which fell to its other rival Notre Dame last weekend, 20-16.
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati, Saturday, noon EST
Pittsburgh Panther coach Dave Wannstedt has insisted his team is playing for more than pride when his team visits Cincinnati on Saturday. And he’s correct. If Pitt wins, it will earn a piece of the Big East championship for only the second time in school history.
That, of course, is window dressing during this holiday season. After falling 35-10 last week to West Virginia, the Panthers are all but out of the chase for the Big East’s BCS berth. Pitt would have to win at Cincy, then have Connecticut lose at South Florida and WVU fall at home to Rutgers to realize the dream. If the 6-5 Panthers lose, it would mark the program’s first non-winning season since 2007. Wannstedt’s job status has also been a matter of discussion in the Steel City.
“We’re trying to win Saturday,” said the coach. “I’m not concerned with [job security]. We’re just trying to beat Cincinnati.”
It’s something Pitt hasn’t done the last two seasons. Last year, UC won a wild 45-44 game to cap an undefeated regular season. This year, though, the Bearcats are 4-7 and out of bowl contention. Cincy will miss the postseason for the first time since 2005.
This game could be another high-scoring affair. Cincinnati, behind Big East passing leader Zach Collaros, has the league’s No. 1 offense. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has the league’s No. 2 passing attack and is going against a UC pass defense ranked last in the Big East.
Rutgers at West Virginia, Saturday, noon EST
If you break this game down, there’s not much that indicates 4-7 Rutgers will win. Perhaps the Scarlet Knights have the edge in special teams, but that’s about it. The Mountaineers are 20-point favorites and have hopes of a BCS bowl berth.
Yet WVU coach Bill Stewart knows his team was a 28-point favorite at home a few years back and on the cusp of a national championship game when it fell to Pittsburgh.
“[Rutgers] beat UConn,” Stewart said. “They lost by three to Syracuse. They lost by one to USF. That right there is more than enough for me to say that we should spend some time and watch these lads on film and figure out how to beat them.”
If WVU does defeat RU, it can land a BCS bowl berth if Connecticut then loses at South Florida. Otherwise, it looks like a Champs Sports Bowl for the Mountaineers.
On paper, it appears West Virginia should cover the spread. The Scarlet Knights have the Big East’s No. 7 scoring offense and will be going against the league’s best defense across the board. On the flip side, RU has the league’s No. 7 total defense, while WVU’s offense is No. 3.
Rutgers is 0-16 all-time in Morgantown and has lost 15 straight games to the Mountaineers.
Connecticut at South Florida, Saturday, 8 p.m. EST
This isn’t only the Big East’s game of the week. It’s the game of the season.
If Connecticut, a 2-point underdog, can defeat South Florida, the Huskies will earn a share of the Big East title and, more importantly, the conference’s BCS berth. It would be the first for Connecticut.
“The guys have put themselves in a position to accomplish the goals that they want to accomplish,” said UConn coach Randy Edsall.
They’ve done so by winning four straight games to move into a tie for first place at 4-2.
They’ve done so by defeating both West Virginia and Pittsburgh and securing tiebreaker advantages.
Now, however, they must down a South Florida team that’s won four of its last five games and is coming off an overtime victory against Miami, Fla. It’s important to note the game is played in Tampa, because Connecticut is 5-0 at home this season, but just 1-4 on the road. That one win, however, was just two weeks back against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.
As always, UConn, 7-4 overall, will rely on the running of Jordan Todman, the nation’s No. 2 rusher, averaging 148.1 yards per game. The Huskies have the Big East’s No. 1 rushing attack, but are last in passing.
The big question is whether South Florida can score. The 7-4 Bulls are next-to-last in the Big East in passing and sixth in total offense. Also, starting quarterback B.J. Daniels is suffering from a leg injury and may not be able to go. If that’s the case, freshman Bobby Eveld would get the start on senior day. Eveld did, however, step in last week against Miami and help lead the Bulls to the overtime victory.
Big 12 Championship: Oklahoma vs. Nebraska, 7 p.m., Saturday
Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Maybe the football gods are sentimental. In what — for now — projects as the final Big 12 championship game, Oklahoma and Nebraska come together for one more major matchup with big-bowl implications.
Next year, Nebraska will be banging heads with the likes of Ohio State and Michigan and Penn State for Big Ten supremacy, leaving behind long-term ties and rivalries, none richer than the one with the Sooners.
The two haven’t clashed as often on the big stage of late, with only 2006 featuring an OU-Nebraska title-game pairing in the Big 12.
But the two are used to high stakes games, meeting 20 times to end the season since World War II with the conference title on the line.
Of course, the 1971 “Game of the Century” remains the magical moment in the series, which OU leads 44-38-3. But many more memorable games both preceded and followed that one, typically sending the winner to a major bowl.
And so it is this time — one last time — with the winner earning a Fiesta Bowl bid. For old time’s sake.
Big 12 Breakdown:
Quarterback: OU’s Landry Jones has been labeled inconsistent, due to some measure of struggle on the road. Still, he’s thrown for 3,947 yards and 34 touchdowns, with just 10 interceptions. His yardage total ranks No. 2 at OU all-time, and he’s coming off a school record-tying 468 yards at Oklahoma State. The Huskers are unsettled at the position, with Taylor Martinez battling foot injuries and backup Cody Green more of a caretaker quarterback. Still, Green led Nebraska’s win over the Sooners in 2009, which also represents Jones’ worst career game as a Sooner. Edge: Sooners.
Running back: Nebraska’s two-pronged approach with Roy Helu Jr. (1,120 yards) and Rex Burkhead (822) ranks among the best combinations in the country, combining for 17 rushing touchdowns. Burkhead has also been a factor in the Wildcat formation, throwing for two TDs last week against Colorado. The Sooners counter with their own talented tandem, senior DeMarco Murray and freshman Roy Finch. Murray owns OU’s career records for total offense and touchdowns and is a threat as a receiver. Finch offers a change-of-pace as a shifty speedster. Edge: Huskers.
Receivers: Sooner wideout Ryan Broyles is a Biletnikoff finalist and a big-play threat who leads the nation in receptions per game. He must be accounted for at all times. Kenny Stills, Trey Franks and tight ends James Hanna give Jones more reliable targets in one of the nation’s top passing attacks. Nebraska’s receiving corps took a hit when leading receiver Niles Paul went down with a foot injury in practice a week ago, forcing him to miss the Colorado game and leaving him unlikely to play against OU. Without Paul, the pressure shifts to Brandon Kinnie, Kyler Reed and Mike McNeill to make plays. Edge: Sooners.
Offensive line: The Sooner and Husker offensive fronts are opposites with differing strengths. OU’s line is strong in pass protection, yet struggles to provide consistent running lanes. Nebraska’s front specializes in run blocking, but can allow pressure, a problem if Martinez doesn’t play or is at less than 100 percent. Edge: Huskers.
Defensive line: This isn’t the same Husker front that dominated with Ndamukong Suh wrecking game plans, but it remains solid, led by standout tackle Jared Crick, who leads the team with 7.5 sacks. And pressure is the key against Jones, who becomes erratic when hurried. The strength of the Sooner line is outside, led by end Jeremy Beal, voted Defensive Lineman of the Year by the league’s coaches. Edge: Even.
Linebacker: OU’s Travis Lewis is a run-stopping fool, working on a third straight season of leading the team in tackles. The return of Austin Box seems to have solidified the unit as a whole for the Sooners. For the Huskers, Lavonte David, the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, has been a major addition, leading the team in tackles and ranking among the leaders in almost every major stat category. Edge: Even.
Secondary: The Huskers boast one the nation’s top units, led by Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and Thorpe Award finalist Prince Amukamara at cornerback. Safety DeJon Gomes ranks second on the team in tackles and nickel back Eric Hagg has made 32 career starts. The Sooner DBs are solid, with safety Quinton Carter an AFCA All-American who plays physical, a necessity against Nebraska’s power running game. Edge: Huskers.
Special teams: There may be no better dual-threat kicker than Nebraska’s Alex Henery, who is 66-for-74 in career field goals and is adept at dropping punts inside the 20-yard line. OU punter Tress Way is one of the nation’s best, but placekicking has been a major problem for the Sooners, particularly anything beyond 35 yards. With Paul ailing, neither team’s return game is anything special. Edge: Huskers.
Bottom line: This game offers intriguing matchups of strengths on strengths. Nebraska’s great secondary against Jones and Broyles and Co. The Sooner run stoppers against Helu Jr. and Burkhead. Injuries, however, could swing the outcome decidedly one way, with Martinez needed to offer an added element to the Husker attack. Without him, the Huskers are in trouble.
The Heisman Trophy is college football's most prestigious trophy, so the editors here at Athlon take the voting for the 13.5-inch, 25-pound award very seriously. Each week, the ballots are collected and tallied from inside the walls of Athlon Sports. Each editor votes for five players (unlike the official three), and a first-place vote is worth 5 points, a second is worth 4 points so and so forth down to the fifth-place vote earning 1 point.
Follow our voters on twitter: Charlie Miller (@AthlonCharlie), Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch), Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden), Rob Doster (@AthlonDoster), Nathan Rush (@AthlonRush) and Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman).
by Braden Gall
1. Cameron Newton, QB, Auburn (35 pts, 7 first place votes)
Gary Danielson said during the second quarter of the Iron Bowl (and I am paraphrasing here) that if Newton could bring the Tigers back from a 24-0 deficit and win, there wouldn't even be a reason to vote. Just give him the award. And GD might be right. Newton, with a lot of help from his defense, led his team to three straight scoring drives wrapped around halftime to bring Auburn back to within three. He then threw the game-winner with around 12 minutes to go in the fourth. It wasn't just that he was able to bring his team back from the dead, but how he was able to do it — with his arm, not his legs. The big signal-caller finished the game with 39 yards rushing on 22 carries, but was 13-of-20 for 216 yards and three scores through the air. I am pretty sure GD nailed it.
What's Next: A trip to Atlanta to take on South Carolina in the SEC title game. A loss on Saturday would probably eliminate the Tigers from national title contention, but nothing could take this trophy away from Newton — except maybe the NCAA in 2012 after a 22-month investigation.
2. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford (20 pts)
The Stanford passer was by far the biggest mover in this week's voting. The Pac-10's most efficient passer (seventh nationally) jumped from fourth to second in our balloting as Luck turned in arguably his best performance of the season. In his final game of the year, he connected on 21 of his 31 pass attempts for 305 yards and four TDs — without a turnover. The rout of Oregon State pushed the Cardinal to fourth in the BCS standings.
What's Next: A trip to Tempe to battle with the winner of the Big 12 title game in the Fiesta Bowl is the most likely scenario. Luck is likely to leave school early and should be the first overall pick in the draft. He is the best amatuer football player on the planet, but did he do enough to earn the trophy, a conference title or national title berth? Most likely not, but he will take the paycheck, rest assured.
3. LaMichael James, RB, Oregon (20 pts)
On a per-game basis, James still leads the nation in rushing at 154.8 ypg. After a sub-par showing against Cal, the Duck running back was back to normal in the big win over Arizona. James carried 28 times for 126 yards and a pair of scores in the Pac-10 Championship-clinching game for Oregon.
What's Next: The Civil War in Corvallis, Ore. This has been one of the top rivarlies in the nation due to the importance of the game of late. While the Beavers limp into the game (can a Beaver limp?), the Ducks still have a chance at a national title, and Mike Riley would love nothing more than to spoil the party.
1. Should a one-loss BCS team play in the title game over an unbeaten TCU?
Mitch Light: If it is Oregon, no. If it is Auburn, no, but only because Auburn's one loss will have come in the SEC Championship Game, and I don't think a team that did not win its league should have a shot at the national title. Is TCU better than Stanford? Wisconsin? Ohio State? Who knows. The point is moot, though, because TCU is ahead of those three teams in the BCS Standings and will remain ahead of them barring some drastic shifts in the two human polls. TCU is very, very good and has proven on the field that it is one of the elite teams in the nation this season.
Braden Gall: There is a large grey area in this question — and I believe it applies to all polls or rankings anywhere. How do we reconcile what we know/think to what we have seen on the field? Is James Madison a better football team than Virginia Tech? Of course not. Do I believe that Auburn might be a better football team than TCU? Probably. Do they deserve the right to play for the national championship if they cannot even win their own conference? Absolutely not. I also do not believe you can bring a one-loss Auburn into the discussion without also including Stanford, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State. How do any of us know what would happen if those six (with TCU) "played-off" for a right to face Oregon? The final issue could be allowing the "mid-major" its shot this year to get it over with. If TCU plays Oregon and gets smoked, we could end the non-AQ talk all together.
Steven Lassan: If Auburn or Oregon loses this Saturday, TCU should get a spot in the national championship game over a one-loss team. Sure, the Mountain West isn’t as strong as the SEC or Pac-10, but the Horned Frogs are undefeated and deserve a chance to play for the title. The Tigers certainly have a strong resume, but I’ve never been a fan of allowing a team that doesn’t win its conference to play for a national title.
2. Did TCU make the right move by joining the Big East?
Mitch: Probably. You can argue that the school should have waited around for a few years to jump on board possible expansion in the Big 12, but it's hard to turn down an invitation to a conference with an automatic tie-in to a BCS bowl. We all want a playoff (or most of us do), but we are stuck with the BCS for the foreseeable future, so you can't expect a school from a non-AQ conference to turn down a bid to the Big East.
Braden: I do not know if any conversations have taken place between Big 12 commish Dan Beebe and the powers that be at TCU, but I would have held out for their offer. The Big 12 will have to expand at some point in order to keep up with the rest of college football, and TCU would have been my first phone call. The competition might be easier in the Big East than the Big 12, and the Frogs have expanded their recruiting base some. However, the roster will still be made up largely of kids from the Lone Star State. And in reality, does the Big East really give an unbeaten TCU a better shot at making the national title game? See the 2009 Cincinnati Bearcats.
Steven: I think so. The Horned Frogs get an automatic bid to the BCS and join a better league. If the Mountain West was composed of BYU, Utah and Boise State, then a strong argument could have been made that moving to the Big East was the wrong move. However, without BYU and Utah, the Mountain West isn’t looking as strong. The geographic fit may be imperfect and 17 basketball schools will be odd, but this gives the Horned Frogs a better opportunity to play for a BCS bowl every year and increases their profile for a potential move to the Big 12 – if it decides to expand.
3. Does firing Randy Shannon send the wrong message?
Mitch: It sends the message that Miami wants to win more football games. The school isn't giving the next coach the green light to return to the renegade days of the '80s and '90s. Randy Shannon did a great job cleaning up the program's image, but he simply didn't win enough games. Can you win big at Miami and do so with guys who stay out of trouble? That remains to be seen. It is still a great job with an unbelievable recruiting area, but it's not the job it was 10 or 20 years ago. But to specifically answer the question: I don't think firing a coach who didn't win games sends the message that all you care about is winning. It's not that simple.
Braden: Miami is a tricky beast. There is very little fan support, the facilities need upgrading and the stadium is 30 minutes from campus, but they want to compete for national titles every year. Randy Shannon was an excellent ambassador for the University. I also believe, had his starting quarterback not gotten hurt and was given more time, that Miami would be competing for ACC titles (which isn't really too far from what they were doing already, come to think about it — their record of 5-3 this year was third to only the Hokies and Noles). I commend Shannon for how he conducted business and the example he set for his players while still competing at a high level. Was it 34 straight wins good? No, but be careful what you wish for. Is a national title worth gang warfare on the field, actual murder and strapped defensive backs returning gunfire in his frontyard?
Steven: This firing certainly shows that no matter how well your team does in the classroom or how quiet it is in the police blotter, you have to win games. Although Randy Shannon did a lot of great things at Miami, the Hurricanes expect to compete for ACC and national championships. College football is a business and Miami wasn’t satisfied with a 7-5 record, especially with poor fan support all year. Whoever takes over in Coral Gables will be in good shape next year, with plenty of young talent on the roster. Although Miami was disappointed with how 2010 worked out, had Shannon coached this team in 2011, there’s a good chance the Canes would’ve played for the ACC title.
The 2010 college fantasy season is over…
After that very serious moment of silence and a single tear, I will put the college fantasy season behind me with one office championship (BCS-only) and one runner-up finish (120-league). So one final longing glance back at the stars of the college fantasy season is in order. Here were the top performers by position of the 2010 college fantasy season:
Quarterback was an interesting position this season. First of all, the No. 1 overall pick was lost for the season before it really even got started. Dwight Dasher’s gambling issues caused major first-round heartburn. Colin Kaepernick lived-up to the hype and finished as the No. 3 overall player in the draft. A new system at East Carolina, packaged with a Boston College transfer, delivered a sterling season for Dominique Davis owners. It was a blast to see Robert Griffin stay healthy, and he rewarded gambling owners with a top-10 season in his return to the gridiron.
But after it was all said and done, it was two new dual-threat starters at two college football powers that topped the charts. Cam Newton’s numbers, and clutch play, speaks for itself as he finished as the top player in the nation. Shoelace Robinson became the first player in NCAA history to post a 1,500-1,500 season (or 2,000-1,500 for that matter) and could have finished at No. 1 if not for knee-head-finger injuries keeping him out large chunks of multiple games.
1. Cameron Newton, Auburn (434.06 Total Fantasy Points)
2,254 yards, 24 TDs, 6 INTs, 1,336 rush yards, 18 TDs, 2 rec., 42 yards, TD
2. Denard Robinson, Michigan (390.94 TFP)
2,316 yards, 16 TDs, 10 INTs, 1,643 rush yards, 14 TDs
3. Colin Kaepernick, Nevada (381.44 TFP)
2,671 yards, 20 TDs, 7 INTs, 1,026 rush yards, 17 TDs
4. Dominique Davis, East Carolina (349.68 TFP)
3,687 yards, 36 TDs, 14 INTs, 142 rush yards, 9 TDs, 2-pt conv.
5. G.J. Kinne, Tulsa (332.18 TFP)
3,307 yards, 28 TDs, 10 INTs, 557 rush yards, 7 TDs, 2-pt conv.
6. Russell Wilson, NC State (316.62 TFP)
3,288 yards, 26 TDs, 14 INTs, 394 rush yards, 9 TDs, 2 rec., 27 yards
7. Bryant Moniz, Hawaii (313.16 TFP)
4,229 yards, 32 TDs, 10 INTs, 47 rush yards, 2 TDs
8. Robert Griffin III, Baylor (312.30 TFP)
3,195 yards, 21 TDs, 8 INTs, 591 rush yards, 8 TDs, rec., 9 yards, 2-pt conv.
9. Ryan Aplin, Arkansas State (304.26 TFP)
2,934 yards, 21 TDs, 11 INTs, 477 rush yards, 11 TDs
10. Alex Carder, Western Michigan (296.56 TFP)
3,334 yards, 30 TDs, 12 INTs, 226 rush yards, 6 TDs
11. Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State (292.04 TFP)
12. Andrew Luck, Stanford (290.30 TFP)
13. Austin Davis, Southern Miss (286.22 TFP)
14. Landry Jones, Oklahoma (284.24 TFP)
15. Kyle Padron, SMU (282.94 TFP)
… And it’s Tolzien by a nose.
Now that the Big Ten season is in the books (all except Illinois’ final contest), it’s time to hand out the end-of-season awards …
Most Valuable Player: Scott Tolzien, QB, Wisconsin
It’s a crowded field, with Michigan’s Denard Robinson and Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor not far behind the Badgers signal caller. Voters may give Robinson style points for setting a new NCAA rushing mark for a quarterback, but I felt Robinson failed to excite in his team’s biggest games. Tolzien, on the other hand, was consistent throughout the year. He owns the nation’s best completion percentage and the fourth-highest QB rating. And while it’s clear John Clay was replaceable in Wisconsin’s run-first offense, I doubt the same can be said of Tolzien.
Defensive Player of the Year: Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
The Badgers’ J.J. Watt has picked up momentum at the end of the year due to some outstanding play, but Watt has more help surrounding him than Kerrigan, who might as well play on an island at Purdue. In terms of statistics, Kerrigan dominated the league like no other; he led the Big Ten in sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles and posted a respectable 70 tackles. His 12.5 sacks rank second nationally.
Top Freshman: Nathan Scheelhasse, QB, Illinois
Another Badger — James White — will be the frontrunner for this award, but the fact that fellow backup running back Montee Ball put up similar numbers to White in the final month of the season should scare voters. Scheelhasse played a bigger role in getting his team to the bowl season. The first-year signal caller has a two to one touchdown-to-interception ratio (16 to 8), with 12 touchdowns and just one interception in the past five weeks. And he’ll finish the season among the top 10 in the conference in rushing yards.
Coach of the Year: Bret Bielema, Wisconsin
Little room for debate here. Bielema guided his club past No. 1 Ohio State at home, then went to Iowa City the following week and knocked off the Hawkeyes. Throughout the year Bielema kept his club prepared and focused and he refused to look ahead. Voters may deduct points if they believe Bielema is guilty of “piling it on” in games against Austin Peay, Minnesota, Indiana and Northwestern.
Best Game: Illinois at Michigan, Nov. 6
Fans will remember the score — a 67-65 Michigan victory — but the three-overtime game was exciting for the simple fact that neither team owned more than a seven-point lead at any point in this game. It was back and forth from the start. Illinois held Denard Robinson to just 3.3 yards per carry; too bad they couldn’t stop the Michigan passing game: 419 yards and five touchdowns. The win gave Michigan its sixth win, earning the program bowl eligibility after a two-year layoff.
Indiana 34, Purdue 31
Michigan State 28, Penn State 22
Ohio State 37, Michigan 7
Minnesota 27, Iowa 24
Wisconsin 70, Northwestern 23
Penn State comeback falls just short
It was a valiant effort, but Penn State came up just short against Michigan State on Saturday. The Spartans held a 21–3 lead entering the fourth quarter, and a 28–10 lead with less than nine minutes to play, but Penn State kept fighting. The Nittany Lions actually had more total yards and committed fewer turnovers, but that wasn’t enough.
Hoosiers take home the Bucket
Freshman Mitch Ewald nailed a 26-yard field goal with nine seconds remaining to help his Hoosiers send their game with Purdue into overtime. There Ewald made a 31-yard field goal that earned Indiana the Old Oaken Bucket. The Hoosiers celebrated for a day until coach Bill Lynch was fired after a 5–7 season.
Clay plays, not needed
Star running back John Clay was healthy but his team did not need him in its win over Northwestern. In fact, the coaching staff did not insert Clay into the game until the second half when things were already in hand. He carried four times for seven yards after missing two games with a bum knee.
Team of the Week: Wisconsin
No one believed Northwestern would have a chance without Dan Persa in the lineup — and for good reason. The Wildcats were never in this game. The Badgers forced six of the Wildcats’ seven turnovers, and outgained their opponent, 559 to 284. Wisconsin scored 70 points, all in the game’s first three quarters. Total domination.
Disappointment of the Week: Iowa
If you didn’t know better, you’d think Iowa tossed in the towel this week. Sure, Floyd was probably a big motivator for a Minnesota team with nothing to lose, but how could Iowa play so poorly? They gained just 3.4 yards per rush against the conference’s worst run defense. They allowed the Gopher offense to convert nine of 16 third downs. And Iowa lost the time of possession battle, 36:06 to 23:54. Ugly, plain ugly.
Offensive Player of the Week: Terrelle Pryor, QB, Ohio State
The numbers don’t suggest it, but Pryor had a magnificent day in Ohio State’s win over rival Michigan. He made difficult passes to sustain drives, and found Dane Sanzenbacher and DeVier Posey for second quarter touchdowns. And Pryor’s feet did some work, too — 49 yards.
Defensive Player of the Week: J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
Watt’s effort against the Wildcats may have been the best defensive performance of the season. He stripped quarterback Evan Watkins of the ball early, leading to a Badger fumble recovery. Then he pressured Watkins into an interception. On another down, Watt chased down the ballcarrier from behind and stripped the ball for another fumble. Oh yeah, and he blocked an extra point.
Freshman of the Week: Rob Henry, QB, Purdue
It may have come in a losing effort, but Henry’s performance was still noteworthy. He posted season bests of 252 yards and three touchdowns and led his club in rushing. Henry has much to learn, but he will give the Purdue coaching staff reason to consider their options at quarterback when spring camp opens in a few months.
The Week Ahead
Player to Watch: A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois
The junior has caught a touchdown pass in three of the past four games. In a week when the passing game will be important to Illinois’ success, Jenkins will be a key figure in his team’s hopes for a seventh victory.
When Illinois and Fresno State met at the end of the 2009 season, the Bulldogs won thanks to a last-second touchdown pass from Ryan Colburn to Jamel Hamler. Fresno State decided to go for the win instead of the tie and was successful on its two-point try in the 53–52 win.
Fresno State ranks 82nd in the country in points allowed per game (29.7). The Illini rank 29th in the country in scoring (32.9).
Fresno State 31, Illinois 24
Isn’t it absolutely wonderful in life when things live up to their hype? So rare, but so delightful. And it was a week of met expectations, when you think about it.
Thanksgiving lunch and dinner and leftovers? Check. Check. Check. Iron Bowl? Check.
When Alabama jetted out to a 24–0 lead, did anyone turn the channel? No. First of all, nothing else was on. Secondly, Auburn has taught us lessons all year about starting (extremely) slowly and coming on fiercely. Why would the biggest game of the Tigers’ season play out any differently?
The Tide left a whole bunch of points on the field, no doubt. But those turnovers didn’t cause themselves. As South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier pointed out Sunday, the Tigers might give up a bunch of yards and points, but they always seem to make a play when necessary.
It’s no fluke if you navigate an SEC schedule with a 12–0 record. Especially in a division that features two other 10-win teams — and a nine-win team that won the national title a year ago.
Cam Newton and the Tigers have one more hurdle to clear — one that it’s already cleared once. The Gamecocks were pesky back on Sept. 25, for sure. They led Auburn 20–7 in the second quarter at Jordan-Hare before Newton went into unstoppable mode for, really, the first time all season.
It’ll be interesting to see if that furious rally in Tuscaloosa took anything out of Auburn. That could mean anything at all, mentally or physically.
Auburn has had an amazingly interesting season. But winning so many tight games does take a toll. It has to. Right? Have the Tigers got enough left for one more and then a month to breathe before Oregon or TCU?
Auburn 28, Alabama 27
Tennessee 24, Kentucky 14
Arkansas 31, LSU 23
Florida State 31, Florida 7
Mississippi State 31, Ole Miss 23
South Carolina 29, Clemson 7
Wake Forest 34, Vanderbilt 13
Georgia 42, Georgia Tech 34
BCS championship game: Auburn vs. Oregon
Sugar Bowl: Arkansas vs. Ohio State
Capital One Bowl: Alabama vs. Michigan State
Cotton Bowl: Louisiana State vs. Oklahoma State
Outback Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Penn State
Chick-fil-A Bowl: South Carolina vs. Florida State
Gator Bowl: Florida vs. Iowa
Liberty Bowl: Georgia vs. Central Florida
Music City Bowl: Tennessee vs. North Carolina
Compass Bowl: Kentucky vs. Pitt
• When Arkansas lost Greg Childs for the season, some basically wrote off the Razorbacks’ offense. Or, at least many presumed it would lose a step or two. Sophomore Cobi Hamilton, though, has negated the effect of the loss. Hamilton had 85- and 80-yard touchdowns against LSU on Saturday, providing a Childs-like deep threat for Ryan Mallett. Don’t underestimate, too, what running back Knile Davis has done. Saturday’s 152-yard day gave him four consecutive 100-yard game and fifth in six games. Consider it took Davis, a sophomore, the first four weeks to get to 100 yards. The Hogs are left rooting this week for Auburn. If the Tigers are in the national title game, there’s a good chance that puts Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl.
• No truly impressive wins, but just the fact that Derek Dooley held Tennessee together enough to reach a bowl game is impressive in and of itself. After a 14-point loss at South Carolina, the Volunteers had lost four in a row and six of seven. Dooley made the bold (and correct) move of going with freshman quarterback Tyler Bray, and immediately Bray breathed life into one of the league’s worst offenses. Bray, who had 354 yards and two scores in increasing UT’s win streak against Kentucky to 26, gives Tennessee fans reasons to be hopeful about the future. That didn’t seem possible a month ago.
• Happy trails to Vandy coach Robbie Caldwell, who decided the head job with the Commodores just wasn’t suited for him. Caldwell seems like a genuinely good dude who, like all those before him, wasn’t up for the impossible task of trying to win at Vandy. Caldwell should land a good O-line job somewhere, if he still wants to coach.
• Seven-win teams never turn down bowl bids, but Florida should consider it. The Gators have gotten progressively worse since beating Georgia in overtime a month ago. A month that Florida has owned in recent years featured two utter embarrassments, to South Carolina and Florida State. Urban Meyer has a pretty pedestrian 16–8 record in games he’s coached at UF without Tim Tebow at quarterback. Makes you wonder about 2011, doesn’t it? Meyer should strongly reconsider sticking with the status quo and Steve Addazio. Meyer conceded after the game that the Gators “are down a little bit.”
• Now that the regular season is done, it’s worth noting just how bad the East was, as a whole. Congrats to South Carolina and everything, because the Gamecocks did what they had to do. But, really, it is unbelievable how down the division was, relative to the West. The East won just three games head to head against West teams. And two — by Vanderbilt and Tennessee — were against an Ole Miss team that finished in the West cellar. Without South Carolina’s signature victory against Alabama, No. 1 at the time, the East would’ve looked even worse. Extending the previous thought about Florida, wonder what this division will look like in 2011. South Carolina, you’d think, will again be in good shape, with Alshon Jeffery and Marcus Lattimore back. But what about the rest of the East? SEC Least again?
Stud of the Week
Knile Davis, Arkansas RB. The sophomore is the biggest reason why the Hogs are suddenly in the BCS picture — even more than QB Ryan Mallett.
Dud of the Week
Kentucky. The Wildcats might have to wait another quarter-century for another chance this golden to finally beat Tennessee.
The Holiday Bowl representative who came to the Washington-Cal game on Saturday may not have been thrilled with what he saw. But at this point, he may want to be satisfied simply having a Pac-10 team in the game at all.
Because of the unique dynamic of the conference — two national title contenders, seven so-so teams and one on NCAA probation — the bowl games with Pac-10 tie-ins don’t exactly have a large pool to choose from this season. The conference has arrangements with six bowls, and as few as one Pac-10 team could fill those slots this season.
Oregon appears headed for the Bowl Championship Series national championship game — a win over Oregon State in Saturday’s Civil War will punch the Ducks’ ticket to Glendale, Ariz. Stanford moved up to No. 4 in the BCS standings this week. The Cardinal’s regular season is over, and unless another team jumps over it, it is guaranteed a spot in one of the BCS games based on the top-4 finish. But it likely won’t be the Rose Bowl. If Auburn and Oregon meet in the BCS title game, the Rose Bowl is obligated under BCS rules to invite TCU, because the Horned Frogs are an automatic qualifier from a non-BCS conference.
So under that scenario, neither of the Pac-10’s top two teams would play in the Rose Bowl this season.
But wait, there’s more. There are five other bowl games that have contracts with the Pac-10 — the Alamo Bowl, Holiday Bowl, Sun Bowl, Las Vegas Bowl and Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Entering the weekend, Arizona is the only other conference team that is bowl-eligible. If it remained that way, the Wildcats would go to the Alamo Bowl and the other four bowl games would have to start searching for bowl-eligible teams from other conferences.
There are three other Pac-10 teams that could become bowl-eligible this weekend. Washington appears to have the best chance. The Huskies were 3–6 at one point and needed three wins in a row to close out their season to qualify. After Saturday’s exciting yet uneasy-on-the-eyes 16–13 win at Cal, Washington is two-thirds of the way there. Now, all the Huskies have to do is beat Washington State in Saturday’s Apple Cup. The Cougars are just 1–7 in conference play, but that win came in their last game over Oregon State.
Washington State has had two weeks off to prepare for the Huskies.
Arizona State and Oregon State each need a win Saturday to become bowl-eligible. The Sun Devils have a legitimate chance at Arizona, which has lost three in a row. The Beavers, meanwhile, don’t figure to stand much of a chance against the Ducks.
Even if Washington and Arizona State both win, they would only fill slots in the Holiday Bowl and Sun Bowl. That would still leave the Las Vegas Bowl and Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl without a Pac-10 representative in their games this year.
Arizona State 55, UCLA 34
Oregon 48, Arizona 29
Washington 16, California 13
Stanford 38, Oregon State 0
Notre Dame 20, USC 16
Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore may have seen his Heisman Trophy support wane after the Broncos’ overtime loss to Nevada on Friday. With Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck gaining momentum at the same time, this season’s Heisman ceremony could have a strong Pac-10 flavor.
While many still believe Auburn quarterback Cam Newton is the favorite despite widespread reports that question his eligibility, the next two top candidates appear to be Luck and Oregon running back LaMichael James. Depending how players like James and Moore fare in their regular season finales this weekend, there could be just three players invited to New York for the ceremony on Dec. 11. Two of them could be from the Pac-10.
Nothing to lose
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said he never even thought about going for the tie at the end of Saturday’s win over Cal.
Faced with 4th-and-goal at the Bears’ 1-yard line, Sarkisian called timeout with one second left and the Huskies trailing 13–10. Instead of attempting a field goal that would have sent the game into overtime, Washington went for the win. Running back Chris Polk easily scored, setting off a wild Husky celebration while the Bears slowly trudged off the field with their season having abruptly come to an end.
Filling the hole
With top big-play receiver Chris Owusu out with an undisclosed injury, Stanford’s Doug Baldwin has been stepping up his production in recent weeks. The senior caught five passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns during the Cardinal’s 38-0 rout of Oregon State last week. In the three games Owusu has been sidelined, Baldwin is averaging 6.7 catches for 105.3 yards in receptions. He’s also scored three times.
Randy Shannon helped Miami’s football program make big strides with regard to discipline and academic achievement. Unfortunately for him, those positives weren’t enough to outweigh some noticeable negatives: not enough victories and not enough fans in the stands at Sun Life Stadium.
A few months after giving Shannon a contract extension, Miami athletics director Kirby Hocutt decided Saturday that Shannon no longer was the right man to lead the program. Hocutt fired him in the wake of a 23–20 overtime loss to South Florida that took place in front of 26,369 people and dropped the Hurricanes to 7–5 this season.
Hocutt said he didn’t base his decision on the final game, but this much is undeniable: When the tradition-rich program located in South Florida loses at home to an unaccomplished program called South Florida (located in Tampa, by the way) led by a freshman walk-on quarterback, there’s a problem.
In many ways, Shannon fell victim to the championship expectations that he helped create. He was a linebacker at Miami from 1985-88 and served as an assistant coach at his alma mater for 13 seasons, playing a role on three of the program’s five national championship teams.
Shannon restored Miami as a premier destination for the nation’s elite high school talent, bringing in highly rated recruiting classes. Fans and alumni expected those classes to turn Miami back into “The U,” but the Hurricanes have yet to play for an ACC title since joining the conference. So as Miami continued to fall out of contention for championships despite having talent that analysts agreed was championship-worthy, someone had to pay the price.
Shannon finishes with a 28–22 record, including 0–2 in bowl games, in four seasons as head coach of the Hurricanes. That ledger includes a 16–16 mark in ACC play, including a 10–10 mark against Coastal Division opponents Duke, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech.
Shannon made some mistakes during his tenure, most recently when he started true freshman Stephen Morris at quarterback against South Florida after originally saying that Jacory Harris would be his starter when Harris returned to health from his concussion.
But Shannon also did plenty of good things, which Hurricanes fans will realize in the years to come. Just check out Miami’s depth chart leading up to the South Florida game: Only five of the 25 offensive players on it are seniors, and just seven of the 24 defensive players listed are seniors. The offensive line loses just one of its top 10 players next season, and the defense loses just three starters.
Bottom line: The next coach — whoever that is — will take over a Miami program in better shape than the one Shannon inherited. And no one should be surprised if the Hurricanes win big in 2011.
The only question will be whether Shannon could have done the same if given the opportunity.
Boston College 16, Syracuse 7
South Florida 23, Miami 20, OT
Virginia Tech 37, Virginia 7
Florida State 31, Florida 7
Maryland 38, N.C. State 31
North Carolina 24, Duke 19
South Carolina 29, Clemson 7
Wake Forest 34, Vanderbilt 13
Georgia 42, Georgia Tech 34
Championship Game Set
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher probably said it best when he described Saturday as “a perfect day for Florida State football.” Two games were important to the Seminoles, and both produced the result that the Seminoles desired.
First — and most important in Fisher’s mind — Florida State ended its six-game losing streak against rival Florida by thumping the Gators in convincing fashion. Minutes later, Maryland wrapped up a victory over NC State to give the Seminoles the Atlantic Division title and send them to the ACC championship game for the first time since 2005.
Florida State (9-3, 6-2) will take on Virginia Tech, which extended its winning steak to 10 games with a dominating victory over Virginia, on Saturday night in Charlotte. The Hokies (10-2, 8-0), who became the first team to go through ACC play undefeated since Florida State in 2000, have won 10 games for a nation-best seventh consecutive season.
The flip side to the thrill of victory for Florida State and Virginia Tech was the agony of defeat for NC State. The Wolfpack (8-4, 5-3) would have played in the ACC championship game for the first time had they defeated the Terrapins, but they couldn’t hold on after taking a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
NC State resembled a team of destiny down the stretch when it pulled out wins over Florida State and North Carolina thanks to an improbable fumble recovery and a touchdown pass that coach Tom O’Brien called “a prayer.” But dropped passes, including a couple that could have been touchdowns, and an inability to contain Maryland’s passing game prevented the Wolfpack from grabbing one more close victory.
“We had all those chances, and guys who usually take advantage of those chances didn’t make the plays,” O’Brien said. “It’s just a tough way to end a heck of a season and what could have been a chance to keep going. But it didn’t turn out the way we would have liked.”
Smith Enjoys Record Day
Maryland wide receiver Torrey Smith saved his best performance for the final game of the regular season. Smith posted career highs across the board against NC State with 14 catches for 224 yards and four touchdowns. He tied a school record for receptions in a game and became the first player in Maryland history to catch four touchdown passes in a single game.
Smith’s effort helped Maryland overcome its lack of production in the running game. Quarterback Danny O’Brien completed 33 of 47 passes for a career-high 417 yards, the first 400-yard passing game for a Maryland player since Scott Milanovich in 1993, as the Terrapins (8-4, 5-3) finished with a net minus-9 yards rushing.
“Torrey has been able to make big plays all year long,” Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin said. “We saw early on that he was kind of hot, so we wanted to feed the hot hands. They’re a good defense, and we weren’t able to run the ball consistently enough, so at some point you just have to go with what’s working.”
Smith’s big day also paved the way for some individual milestones near the end of his junior season. He became the second player in school history to go over 1,000 receiving yards in a season, set a single-season school record for touchdown catches (12) and broke the school record for career all-purpose yards (5,183).
BC’s Williams runs … and runs … and runs
Andre Williams entered the weekend with 34 carries in his brief college career. Then Boston College’s true freshman tailback surpassed that total in one afternoon.
Filling in for injured star Montel Harris, Williams rushed for 185 yards and one touchdown on a school-record 42 carries to lead the Eagles past Syracuse.
“I’m a little tired, but I feel fine,” Williams said after helping Boston College (7-5, 4-4) earn its fifth consecutive victory. “Coach now knows he has more than one back and he can be comfortable with me in the game.”
Williams spent a large portion of this season as Boston College’s third-string tailback, but unforeseen circumstances allowed him to show his talent in the regular-season finale. Backup Sterlin Phifer left the team last month, leaving Williams as Harris’ backup. Then Harris, who leads the ACC in rushing and has more career rushing yards than any junior in ACC history, suffered a knee injury last week against Virginia.
Williams rushed for 108 yards on 12 carries in relief of Harris against the Cavaliers, and he moved into the starting role against Syracuse after Harris had arthroscopic surgery Monday.
“I can’t say Andre surprised us because we knew he had that ability,” Boston College left tackle Anthony Castonzo said. “I’m sure you saw him bursting through those holes. He just runs with no fear. It was impressive. He was running like a man possessed.”
Tigers Turn To Boyd
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney changed quarterbacks after Kyle Parker threw an interception that South Carolina’s Antonio Allen returned 37 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter. Redshirt freshman Tajh Boyd entered the game, giving the Tigers a glimpse at their future.
“I was a little surprised to get the call,” said Boyd, who completed 10 of 18 passes for 73 yards. “I felt like I didn’t have a lot of opportunities and a lot of reps this season, so this really helped me out a lot. It was really a confidence booster.
“We have a lot to look forward to with this young team. We have a bowl game coming up, and we have to help the seniors go out victorious.”
Parker tossed a 45-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins on Clemson’s first possession, but he struggled for the rest of the night. He completed just 7 of 17 passes for 117 yards in his final regular-season game. Parker is just a sophomore in terms of football eligibility, but he is likely to pursue a professional baseball career next year.
“I always want the best for Kyle,” Boyd said. “I wish he could have finished his last game here, but I think everything happens for a reason. Hopefully this will lead to some good things.”
The Tigers (6-6, 4-4) were short-handed once again in the backfield, with leading rusher Andre Ellington still bothered by his toe injury. Ellington, who missed Clemson’s previous three games, carried just one time for no yards against the Gamecocks because his foot still didn’t feel right.
Ellington will have surgery soon and won’t play in Clemson’s bowl game.
• Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers has to wait for a bowl game to get another chance to break the school’s single-season sack record. Bowers, who had recorded a sack in a school-record nine consecutive games heading into the weekend, had none against South Carolina. He has 15.5 sacks this season, just shy of Keith Adams’ school-record 16 sacks.
• Four turnovers and Scott Blair’s first missed extra-point attempt in 78 tries short-circuited a dominant effort by Georgia Tech’s offense in the Yellow Jackets’ loss at Georgia. The Yellow Jackets racked up 512 total yards, including 411 rushing yards, and a season-high 38:14 of possession time. Georgia Tech also ran 92 plays and picked up 32 first downs, its highest totals in those categories since 2000.
• Miami senior Leonard Hankerson became the third player in school history to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards in a single season, joining Eddie Brown in 1984 and Andre Johnson in 2002. Hankerson, who had nine receptions for 127 yards against South Florida, went over 2,000 yards receiving for his career.
• North Carolina dominated Duke — just not on the scoreboard. The Tar Heels outgained the Blue Devils 519-275, amassing more than 500 yards of offense for the first time since 2004. North Carolina also controlled the ball for a season-high 39:33 of possession time en route to beating Duke for the 20th time in the last 21 meetings between the teams.
• NC State’s run defense was strong in the month of November. The Wolfpack, who held North Carolina and Maryland to a combined minus-16 rushing yards in the last two games, allowed a total of 140 rushing yards on 132 attempts (1.06 yards per carry) in four November games. NC State helped its cause in those games with 16 sacks, which count against rushing totals in college football.
• Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor enjoyed his final game at Lane Stadium, completing 13 of 23 passes for 176 yards and a touchdown against Virginia. Taylor became the school’s all-time leading passer (6,532 yards), surpassing the previous record of 6,508 yards set by Bryan Randall from 2001-04.
• Wake Forest snapped its nine-game losing streak thanks in part to two blocked punts against Vanderbilt. The Demon Deacons blocked two punts in a game for the first time since Nov. 29, 2008, their last game against the Commodores.
Oklahoma vs. Nebraska: One More Time
Anybody for an encore?
Since 1921, Nebraska and Oklahoma have been together, sharing a conference and mostly sharing the spotlight as league rivals and championship contenders.
The Big 12 is breaking up, in number if not in name. Nebraska and Colorado head for the exits after this school year. So, fitting it is that the Sooners and Huskers ready for one final showdown in the Big 12.
That’s the matchup — Saturday, 7 p.m., Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas — in what is being billed as the league’s last championship game. A wild, surprise-filled season sending out new-era vibes eventually returned an old-school matchup, as Oklahoma and Nebraska clinched division titles on the final weekend.
The Huskers tied with Missouri in the North, but advances based on their head-to-head win over the Tigers, after rolling Colorado 45-17 in the regular-season finale. The Sooners emerged from a three-way tie with Oklahoma State and Texas A&M in the South based on the BCS standings, after surviving a wild Bedlam game in Stillwater, 47-41.
So now it’s on, Oklahoma-Nebraska, again.
Overall, the Huskers own 43 conference crowns; the Sooners 42. And 20 times previously since World War II, the OU-Nebraska game were all but de facto conference title game, whether in the Big Six, Big Seven, Big Eight or Big 12.
“It doesn’t get any better than Oklahoma and Nebraska for the Big 12 championship,” said Sooners linebacker Travis Lewis. “The rivalry goes way back to even before the Big 12 started. Who better to play than Nebraska?”
Texas A&M 24, Texas 17
Nebraska 45, Colorado 17
Oklahoma 47, Oklahoma State 41
Missouri 35, Kansas 7
Kansas State 49, North Texas 41
Texas Tech 35, Houston 20
Player of the Week: Cyrus Gray, RB, Texas A&M. The Aggies back ran for a career-high 223 yards on 27 carries in A&M’s win over the Longhorns. It was the most yards by an Aggie back against Texas and the fifth-best rushing day in school history.
They call it Bedlam when Oklahoma and Oklahoma State meeting in anything. The tag started with football. And it played out Saturday night, with the Sooners finally prevailing in a game that featured 31 points in the final 4:06.
“Wow, what a game,” said OU coach Bob Stoops.
And then some.
The Sooners ran a school-record 107 plays and quarterback Landry Jones tied the OU passing record with 468 yards.
And still it nearly wasn’t enough.
The Cowboys kept coming, making big plays to stay in the game, including an 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by freshman Justin Gilbert to make it 40-38 with 2:34 to play, after the Sooners had seemingly delivered a knockout blow with a third-and-long, 86-yard scoring pass to Cameron Kenney.
Then came another blow, with Jones finding tight end James Hanna running free for a 76-yard scoring pass.
Again, the Cowboys weren’t finished, marching to a field goal that pulled them within the final score and set up an onside kick try with 36 seconds left.
Only then, when the Sooners’ Ryan Broyles secured the kick, did OU breathe easily.
Throughout the Big 12 schedule, Nebraska and Colorado embarked on farewell tours of sorts, before both head off to new conferences for 2011. Friday in Lincoln, the tours came together, signaling the end of what became a solid rivalry.
It wasn’t the classic showdown like many before, but it was important, with Nebraska seeking the North title and the Buffs battling to become bowl-eligible.
The Huskers prevailed behind the passing of running back Rex Burkhead, who rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown, but also passed for two more scores out of the Wildcat formation, with starting quarterback Taylor Martinez sitting out with an ankle injury.
“Nothing Rex Burkhead does surprises me,” said Huskers coach Bo Pelini. “He’s what a football player is supposed to be. They ought to put his picture next to it in the dictionary. He just does so many things to help you.”
Colorado couldn’t help itself, with three second-half turnovers a killer after a late-season rally under interim coach Brian Cabral, who replaced Dan Hawkins with three games to go, two of them wins.
The Buffaloes need a coach to lead them into the Pac-10. Maybe Cabral made a case to be that coach.
“Would I like to be the next head coach? Yes, but that’s not up to me,” Cabral said after the game. “I just had a wonderful ride these last three weeks. I had the best seat in the house for three weeks.
“There isn’t a Buff alive that wouldn’t give anything for that. I just feel so privileged to have been in this position. Where this goes, only God knows.”
Texas Two Step
The Lone Star showdown sent Texas A&M and Texas in different directions. And into different scenarios, drastically different than we’re used to, or we even expected as few as six weeks ago.
A&M’s 24-17 win kept the Aggies streaking, the Longhorns reeling.
Once 0-2 in the Big 12, A&M won six straight to close the regular season, finishing in a tie for first in the Big 12 South and positioning itself for a possible Cotton Bowl berth.
For the first time since 1998, the Aggies beat two Top 10 teams (Oklahoma and Nebraska) and were a major player in November.
“We set out at the beginning of the season to do this,” A&M senior center Matt Allen said. “Beat Texas and win in November.”
The Longhorns won but once in November (and that was against Florida Atlantic) on their way to a 5-7 finish, the worst of the Mack Brown era. Texas had won at least twice as many games every season since 2001.
“We’re sick of this,” Texas offensive lineman David Snow said. “We’re not used to this, and I for darn sure do not want to stay used to this, so it’s going to get fixed.”
At the beginning of the season, Connecticut was looked upon as a dark horse to win the Big East football title. Today, the Huskies are the front-runners.
With only three games remaining within the conference, three teams remain alive for the coveted BCS berth. Five could still lay claim to a share of the conference championship. There are all kinds of possible outcomes in regard to the title. An outright winner could be crowned. There could be three different two-way ties. There could be a three-way tie. Heck, there could even be a five-way tie.
But all eyes will be on UConn this weekend. Because in this case, the Huskies hold the reins.
The men of coach Randy Edsall are in a three-way 4–2 league logjam with West Virginia and Pittsburgh. However, Connecticut holds tiebreaker advantages over both the Mountaineers and Panthers.
The Huskies put themselves in that position by downing Cincinnati 38–17. They also received help from WVU, which drubbed the former first place team, Pitt, by 35–10. Now the task for Connecticut is to win at South Florida this Saturday in an 8 p.m. game.
“It’s on the road, but you know what? It’s what you want. This is why you play the game, to be in this position,” said Edsall.
This past weekend, the Huskies pulled away in what had been a close game late in the second quarter when defensive end Kendall Reyes intercepted a pass at the Connecticut 16-yard line as Cincy tried to tie the game before halftime. Reyes returned the pick 79 yards to set up a UConn touchdown that made the score 24–10 at the break. Back Jordan Todman, the nation’s No. 2 rusher averaging 148.1 yards per game, had two of his three touchdown runs in the second half. Todman had 175 yards to help lift Connecticut to 7–4 overall.
Beating South Florida, however, may not be easy. The Bulls, now 7–4 overall and 3–3 in Big East play, surprised Miami, Fla., this past Saturday 23–20 in overtime. Quarterback Bobby Eveld came off the bench in the second half to manage two touchdown drives, including one that was capped by his own 1-yard scoring run to tie the game with two minutes left in regulation.
If USF can win, West Virginia, 8–3 overall, will benefit after picking up its third straight win. The victory over Pitt in the 103rd Backyard Brawl not only gave WVU hope, but also seemingly cooled the seat of Mountaineer coach Bill Stewart.
“I can’t tell you how big of a win this is for West Virginia, for this staff and for me personally,” Stewart said afterward.
West Virginia QB Geno Smith threw three touchdown passes against Pitt, but, once again, the Mountaineer defense was the story, forcing three first-half turnovers and holding the Panthers to 78 rushing yards on the day.
The Mountaineers need to defeat Rutgers at home this weekend and hope Connecticut loses in order to snatch away the BCS berth.
In other league play last weekend, Louisville defeated RU 40–13 to finish 6–6. The Cardinals’ victory makes the team bowl-eligible for the first time since defeating Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl after the 2006 season.
U of L running back Bilal Powell had two touchdown receptions and a touchdown run before two minutes had been played in the second quarter. He finished with 123 rushing yards. Scarlet Knights freshman running back Jordan Thomas had a career-high 120 yards.
Syracuse, meanwhile, ended its regular season at 7–5 after a 16–7 non-conference loss to Boston College at the Carrier Dome.
Louisville 40, Rutgers 13
West Virginia 35, Pittsburgh 10
South Florida 23, Miami, Fla. 20, OT
Connecticut 38, Cincinnati 17
Boston College 16, Syracuse 7
All weekend there were rumors that West Virginia coach Bill Stewart was retiring at the end of the season. On Sunday, he straightened out those rumors. “First and foremost, let me begin by saying the reports of my retirement are greatly exaggerated,” he said via a teleconference call. “In fact, you’re hearing it directly from me, Bill Stewart, I have no intention of walking away. I’m not focusing on retirement. Lastly, and most importantly, I’m focusing on Rutgers.”
The Big Four?
South Florida’s football program still isn’t considered at the level of the Sunshine State’s Big Three of Florida, Florida State and Miami. But the Bulls are making progress. Last season, USF defeated then-No. 18 Florida State 17–7 in quarterback B.J. Daniels’ coming-out party. Then, Saturday, the Bulls upended Miami in overtime. “This is a big win for the program,” said USF coach Skip Holtz. “This is the level we aspire to be.”
Connecticut running back Jordan Todman injured his right shoulder against Cincinnati and sat out a few series in the first half, but re-entered the game. Rutgers back Joe Martinek tried to play against Louisville, but his high ankle sprain didn’t allow for much success. Martinek may be done for the season. Cincinnati wideout Vidal Hazelton, who tore his ACL early in the season, was cleared to play but did not against Connecticut. He could play against Pitt. Meanwhile, Bearcats receiver D.J. Woods was limited against the Huskies with ankle, knee and shoulder injuries. Also, Syracuse senior Delone Carter left his team’s loss to Boston College with an undisclosed injury. He had a bruised hip earlier in the season.
When Connecticut defeated Cincinnati, it was senior day. The family of Jasper Howard, stabbed to death last year, was in attendance. Huskies coach Randy Edsall said after the game he couldn’t talk about the presence because “I’ll break down.”
The Heat Is On
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano is feeling heat after his team’s 40–13 rout at the hands of Louisville. The Scarlet Knights have now lost five straight games, and the loss snapped RU’s streak of five consecutive bowl appearances. Rutgers quarterbacks have been sacked 55 times this season, which leads the nation.
The heat is on, part two
Fans of the Pittsburgh Panthers are likewise unhappy with coach Dave Wannstedt after his team’s 35–10 home loss to West Virginia. Pitt fumbled six times, turning the ball over four times, against the Mountaineers. The preseason favorite to win the league is now 6–5 overall.
Hitting the canvas
When reigning back-to-back Big East champions Cincinnati fell to Connecticut, it not only bruised the Bearcats’ egos, but it also meant they would not appear in a bowl after four straight. Cincy is assured of its first losing season since 2005.
Powell packing punch
Louisville’s Bilal Powell is the nation’s 10th-leading rusher, averaging 120.91 yards per game. His 123-yard effort against Rutgers gave him seven 100-yard games this season, tying the school record previously set by Frank Moreau in 1999 and Walter Peacock in 1973. He’s third on the U of L all-time rushing list with 1,330.
Quote of the week
From South Florida coach Skip Holtz on his true freshman walk-on quarterback Bobby Eveld, who helped the Bulls upset Miami: “If a dog’s going to bite you, he’ll do it as a pup.”
A Cut Above
Jay Cutler seems to alternate between moments of brilliance and displays of sheer knuckleheadedness and incompetence. Yesterday, he had plenty of the former and virtually none of the latter, outshining Michael Vick in the Bears’ 31–26 win over the Eagles. Cutler maximized his 14 completions, tossing four TD passes and avoiding the costly interception that has been his calling card during his five seasons in the league. “I don’t know for him personally but me playing with Jay, this has to be in the top five games that I've seen him play,” said receiver Earl Bennett, whose history with Cutler extends to their two seasons together at Vanderbilt. The talented but hard-headed quarterback is on the cusp of his first winning season in the NFL and first playoff appearance — but don’t pop the champagne just yet. There’s still time for him to screw it up.
Dome Sweet Dome
With their 20–17 win over the Packers in the best game of the day, the Falcons moved to 6–0 in the Georgia Dome, where they hope to be playing meaningful games in January. Atlanta made a statement with another money performance in a pressurized atmosphere, winning on Matt Bryant’s 47-yard field goal with nine seconds left. Quarterback Matt Ryan moves to a nearly unfathomable 19–1 within the confines of the Georgia Dome; expect that number to get significant coverage if the Falcons sew up homefield advantage in the playoffs. “I have no plans of going to Lambeau Field in January,” said receiver Roddy White. “I plan on staying right here and sleeping in my own bed in the playoffs.” He might just wake up in Dallas come February 6.
Up Goes Frazier
Conventional wisdom says you don’t fire a coach in midseason. Conventional wisdom isn’t always right. The Vikings responded to the removal of their unpopular coach and the insertion of interim boss Leslie Frazier with a spirited performance in a 17–13 road win over the Redskins. Brett Favre looked particularly spry for a grandpa, scrambling for a key first down. “He looked like he was 38 on that run,” quipped Adrian Peterson, who injured his ankle and couldn’t do much to help. AD’s teammates had his back — Favre threw no interceptions, Toby Gerhart rushed for 76 yards and the Minnesota defense shut down Donovan McNabb and the Redskin offense. “He's well-respected,” Peterson said of Frazier. “It felt like when he talks, guys’ ears are pinned up; they listen to everything that's coming out of his mouth.” Let’s see if they keep listening as the Vikes play out the string.
What’s wrong with Peyton Manning? The Colts quarterback threw four interceptions against San Diego, two of which were returned for decisive touchdowns in the Chargers’ 36–14 win in Indy, their fifth win over the Colts in the last six meetings. The normally unflappable Manning, who has tossed seven interceptions in his last two games, visibly wilted under the pass rush, even though he was sacked only once. His postgame comments shed little light on just what went wrong. “San Diego did a good job,” Manning said. “Offensively, we didn’t do a real good job. I didn’t do a real good job. Everybody needs to play better, I need to play better, our execution needs to improve.” Well, I’m glad that’s cleared up. Fortunately, the Colts play in the AFC South, where a 6–5 record gets you a share of the division lead. But with three key division games left to play, Manning & Co. had better get something figured out.
Texans in a TKO
The Titans’ motto this season seems to be, when you think you’ve hit rock bottom, grab a jackhammer. The only fight that Tennessee put up yesterday in a pathetic 20–0 loss to the Texans came in the form of some fourth-quarter fisticuffs between Titans instigator Cortland Finnegan and Texans good guy Andre Johnson — and even that went the Texans’ way, as Johnson landed a couple of unimpeded shots to Finnegan’s elegantly coiffed melon. Titans coach Jeff Fisher seemed intent on proving that he could win via the arm of his rookie quarterback; Rusty Smith tossed 31 mostly errant passes, while Chris Johnson got only seven carries. Granted, those seven carries produced only five yards, but Johnson has proved throughout his career that if you keep feeding him the ball, eventually he’ll break one. The Titans’ inexplicable game plan, combined with Arian Foster’s gashing runs, resulted in a two-to-one advantage for the Texans in time of possession. The one true professional on the Titans’ sideline yesterday (atrocious gameplan aside): Offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, who postponed cancer treatment to put in one last week of work. Godspeed, Mike.
Athlon's Steven Lassan, Nathan Rush and Braden Gall debate five burning questions for Week 12 in the NFL:
1. Did Brad Childress deserve to be fired?
Braden Gall: Childress got a raw deal. The inmates were running the asylum up in Minneapolis, and any good businessman knows that a clearly defined chain of command is imperative to success. Let's look at some facts. Childress improved the Vikings by two wins every season (from 6 to 8 to 10 to 12) in his first four years and was one bad pass away from the Super Bowl last fall. His starting quarterback didn't participate in the preseason. His star wideout mistakenly put off surgery and cost himself half of the season. Finally, I have had bosses that I did not get along with, but I never went to the media bitching and crying about how mean he was to me. Chilly was the boss and carries the burden of responsiblity ultimately, but the Viking players need to be held accountable for their play on the field as well.
Steven Lassan: After going 6-10 in Childress’ first season, the Vikings improved their win total each year until the disappointing 3-7 start in 2010. Although the performance on the field improved, Childress clearly lost the support in the locker room this season and it was time for a change. The Vikings have an uphill battle to make the playoffs and this gives Leslie Frazier a chance to earn the job for next year or allow the team to look outside of the organization for the next head coach. Childress can’t be blamed for all of Minnesota’s problems, but when the players disrespect their head coach, something has to give.
Nathan Rush: Yes. Brad Childress lost control of that team a long time ago. He probably should have been fired after his unilateral decision to release Randy Moss following the Patriots loss of Week 8. At that point, Childress was in panic mode, desperately trying to salvage his respect within the locker room — after both Brett Favre and Moss tore him down publicly as a strategist and as a man. But the team still had half a season to play, including two division games (at Chicago, vs. Green Bay) that have since been lost. At 3–7, the season is all but over for interim coach Leslie Frazier. But if Childress left with Moss a month ago, things might have been different.
2. Jeff Fisher or Vince Young. Which side are you on?
Braden: For starters, neither are perfect and both probably have regrets on how they have handled this quagmire. Also, an owner should have no say in who starts at QB. Fisher's ego and stubbornness are apparent, and at times, maybe unfair. But he is a Super Bowl-caliber coach that has a 17-year track record that is as good as any in the league. In his 15 full seasons of coaching, he has four losing seasons. He has a golden repuation for looking out for his players almost to a fault. And the laundry list of Vince Young decisions that were directly detrimental to his team's success is as long and (un) distinguished as his throwing motion. The bottom line is that Young has never dedicated himself to being a professional quarterback. Professional being the key word. Maybe this will shake him back to reality — which is 2010 in Nashville (for now), not 2005 in Austin.
Steven: I know Jeff Fisher doesn’t trust Vince Young and that may have held the Titans back since he was drafted, but there’s no way anyone can defend the quarterback in this case. Young may be competitive, but there are over 1,000 players in the league that share that same characteristic, yet know how to handle themselves after a loss. Think Peyton Manning liked losing to the Patriots on a late interception? Did he throw his shoulder pads into the stands after the game? I know Young gets credit for being a winner, but he’s an average quarterback with a great running game and offensive line in front of him. There’s a reason why Fisher is the longest-tenured head coach in the league and the Titans would be foolish to choose an immature quarterback over him. It’s time for Tennessee to say goodbye to VY.
Nathan: I’m on owner Bud Adams’ side. Jeff Fisher is a proven coach and Vince Young is a winning quarterback. These two guys need to work it out. Fisher can’t hold a grudge against V.Y. because he wanted to draft Matt Leinart back in the day and resents the fact that Adams hand-picked the Houston hero as Steve McNair’s heir. And Young needs to stop being so sensitive to criticism from his coach or the home crowd. Fisher and Young don’t have to be best friends or go out for a beer together after the game; they just have to act professional — which neither of them is doing right now.