The College Football Spectacular: Week 4 Preview

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Lately I’ve been getting that panicky feeling in the pit of my stomach that lets me know the weeks are about to get really long. It’s a seasonal thing. Once baseball ends there is literally nothing to get us from Sunday night to Saturday morning. OK, not literally. Maybe you’ve got friends. Maybe family. But those things can’t fulfill you the same way. So my question this week is, how do non-baseball fans make it through July and August? Those months are already the worst of the year. If I didn’t have baseball to pass the time, I’d probably pay thousands to those lobbyists who want to make hibernation pills available to the public. And guys, I’m not even sure those lobbyists exist.

But I shouldn’t complain. Playoff baseball is about to start, the college football season is in full swing, and October has the best weather of any month in the year. This is the golden age. Let’s get to business.


THE BIG OLE GAME!

Man, tough call this week. The folks at Gameday chose no. 2 LSU at no. 16 West Virginia, which is indeed a doozy. No. 14 Arkansas at no. 2 no. 3 Alabama has a solid argument, and as a dark horse you can’t do better than no. 11 Florida St. at no. 21 Clemson. But I’m a little Seminole-weary after last week, and the SEC already gets too much attention. So this week’s BIG OLE GAME is:

no. 7 Oklahoma State at no. 8 Texas A&M

Oklahoma State is a strange team, right? The Cowboys have been strong recently, and it seems like they poke their head into the top 10 of the Associated Press poll every year. But can you guess the last time they finished a season there? Answer: 1984. In part, that’s because they can’t beat their rivals from Norman; they’ve dropped eight in a row to Bob Stoops and Oklahoma, and the past six of those have come on the final day of the season. That’ll hurt the ranking every time.

But they’re getting close, or so it seems. Last year they had a chance to win the Big 12 South outright against the Sooners, but dropped a wild home game, 47-41, and lost out on the conference championship after a BCS tiebreaker. The door’s not open yet, but they’re knocking.

So, is this the year? My answer is a cautious no. Oklahoma State’s early wins show that we’re dealing with the same team from the past decade. Lots of points, lots of passing, lots of excitement, and a porous defense. Brandon Weeden, the senior quarterback, has thrown for almost 1,200 yards in just three games. He’s a pure passer with a minimum amount of mobility, but he’s also thrown six interceptions to go along with eight touchdowns. Not a great early ratio against lightweight opponents, especially considering his 34/13 mark last season.

But the Cowboys also allowed more than 30 points to both Louisiana-Lafayette and Tulsa, which doesn’t bode well against defensive tough guys like Oklahoma who might limit their output. In fact, the Aggies should be licking their chops. Texas A&M put up 46 and 37 in their first two games, and there’s no reason they can’t reach a similar mark at home on Saturday. Their balanced attack, with runs accounting for 53 percent of all plays from scrimmage, will keep the Cowboys’ defense busy.

This game boils down to opportunity; no team except Texas and Oklahoma has represented the Big 12 South in the conference championship game since 1998. Whether they like to believe it or not, State and A&M are the little brothers of their respective states. But the little brother who wins this game will have a fighting shot at the big kids.

Other Clashes of the Ranked

Let’s start in Morgantown, W.Va., with no. 2 LSU at no. 16 West Virginia. All we keep hearing from Baton Rouge is how proud everyone is of quarterback Jarrett Lee. Sure, they say, he might not be exceptionally skilled, but his job is just to be cautious and not screw up, and he’s doing it well. The world-class Tiger defense will do the rest.

It reminds me a lot of the New York Giants, circa 2007-08. That year, nobody trusted Eli Manning. The team eked its way into the playoffs, and once there, the defense became exceptional. Eli spent the next month avoiding a big error, and the Giants stunned the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Four games in the NFL playoffs, with cold weather and a lot of luck, is one thing. But you cannot win a national championship with a prevent offense in college football. I’m taking a stand here. It’s not possible. Today I heard an analyst say any Jarrett Lee possession ending in a punt was a good one. Sorry, but that’s absurd. Unless he suddenly develops a dynamic arm and opens up the offense, that enforced caution will bite LSU in the end.

But will it happen against West Virginia? Sure, the Mountaineers are a questionable jewel in the flimsy crown of the Big East. But then again, why not? They score a lot of points, and they won a game that was tougher than it looked last weekend at Maryland. Mountain country is rabid, and knowing WVU fans, they’ll probably be throwing metal chairs on the field by the second quarter. If LSU can’t score, it won’t matter how well its defense plays. WVU’s Geno Smith is a very good quarterback, and he has four receivers who already have at least 100 yards receiving. What’s more, he’s only been sacked four times in three games. His unit won’t be kept off the board forever. LSU are six-point favorites, but I’m going with the ‘dogs.

Next, no. 14 Arkansas at no. 3 Alabama. We’re still in “I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it” mode with the Razorbacks. This is exactly the kind win they need to raise their profile, but it’s exactly the kind of win I don’t believe they can get. Last week’s narrow 38-28 home win over Troy highlighted the team’s many question marks and took the shine off their first two blow-outs.

Finally, no. 11 Florida State at no. 21 Clemson. Fantastic. Also, I just noticed that three of the four games mentioned so far kick off at 3:30 p.m. ET. That might end up being the best three and a half hours of my life. It’s going to be so amazing that I’ll probably spend the rest of my days trying to duplicate that same high. After Saturday, things are going to get real sad for ole Shane. But what a way to go out!

Anyway, this is a study in contrasts. Clemson is riding high after its dominant home win against Auburn, and FSU is riding awfully low after blowing a chance to regain its ’90s swagger against Oklahoma. But are these teams actually in the same ballpark? Before the season, you would have said no. Now? Put it this way: I called E.J. Manuel a “veteran” in an earlier column, and a few folks on Twitter jumped all over me. Well, the season has borne them out. He certainly hasn’t played like a senior. In fact, he’s playing like a freshman who can’t make a big decision. And Clemson looked explosive as hell last weekend. The Tajh Boyd-Sammy Watkins combination is one of the most lethal of the early going.

It’s telling that FSU opened as three-point favorites, and now Clemson is favored by two. Like everyone else, I think they can win. Unlike everyone else, I think it might be lopsided.

Upset Watch

I was 1-2 on my upsets last week, and my one win was not technically an upset. (Despite Auburn’s ranking, Clemson was favored. I took Clemson.) Not a banner day for me, and this week offers the slimmest of pickings. Take these with a giant lump of salt. That being said, here are three:

1. Vanderbilt at no. 12 South Carolina. If the Gamecocks can almost lose to Navy, they can lose to a team that just smoked Ole Miss 30-7, right? This is the upset I like best, and that’s saying something, because I hate it. I do think the Commodores will beat the 16-point spread, but a win looks pretty far-fetched.

2. San Diego State at no. 22 Michigan. Folks, San Diego State won at Army. You know the last time that happened? Never. The U.S. Army has never lost a war on home soil. (Please don’t question my logic. Move on.)

3. no. 9 Nebraska at Wyoming. The Broncos Cowboys are 3-0, and MAN did they look good against Texas State! This team could contend for a national title!

Okay, fine, I don’t necessarily think they have a shot in hell at winning. But a 25-point spread? Out in Big Sky country? That’s not the America I know. (Like I said, slim pickings.)

The Most Significant Insignificant Game

Toledo At Syracuse. When I was a kid, the great Cy Ellsworth was captain and guard for Syracuse, and my family had season tickets. Ellsworth was from my hometown, and he played alongside Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison. He had to block dudes like Miami’s Warren Sapp. Those were heady days. The last decade hasn’t been so good for Syracuse, and my thoughts strayed from the Carrier Dome. But hey, the Orange might be getting good! They’re 2-1, and they even made (and won) a bowl game last season, the first time that’s happened since 2001. Also, what’s the deal with Toledo? They’re everywhere. First Ohio State, then Boise State, and now Syracuse. Toledo is like that one friend who somehow has the cell phone numbers of a bunch of famous people. What’s his secret? Is he their “supplier,” or something? Will Toledo be in prison in five years?

The (Possibly Ignorant) Football Theory of the Week

Did you ever notice how on the last play of a one-score game, when a team absolutely needs a touchdown, players will often get tackled without trying to lateral? Is anything more frustrating? Even if I’m rooting against the team with possession, I still get mad. Why would you ever get tackled with the ball in that situation? At least fumble it as you’re going down.

So, this week’s theory: At least seven games in the past 20 years would have ended in dramatic victories if a player had tried a desperation lateral as time expired.

I defy you to disprove that one. In honor of laterals, enjoy this video:

Does it get any better than that hoarse color announcer?

The Keith Jackson Energy Infusion Call

“Hellooo Heisman!”

The Conference Rundown

Here are the best games, not previously mentioned, from the six major conferences.

ACCNorth Carolina at no. 25 Georgia Tech. There are three teams in the ACC Coastal Division with a real chance to make the conference title game, and these are two of them. While UNC has survived the first three weeks and watched Bryn Renner develop into a strong young quarterback with solid instincts, Georgia Tech has forced its opponents into submission with the triple option. The winner here will challenge Virginia Tech for division supremacy.

Big 12Missouri at Oklahoma. This was the only one left after OSU-A&M. But hey, it won’t be the first time Oklahoma wins by default.

Big East — We’re still not quite in conference play, so this goes to Notre Dame at Pittsburgh. It’d be Big East if this was basketball, at least for another year. In some ways, this one’s a season maker/breaker for both. Notre Dame needs to atone for its collapse at Michigan, and Pittsburgh needs to do the same for last week’s disaster in Iowa.

Big 10 — Again, conference play is a week away, so Western Michigan at no. 24 Illinois. If the Illini win, which they should, they might head into conference play with a top 20 ranking. I didn’t think we’d be seeing that in 2011. Or in the 2000s in general, to be honest.

Pac 12no.23 USC at Arizona State. I love when ESPN puts great games on late (this one’s at 10:15). Just when you think Saturday’s over for another week, and you start to daydream about that hibernation pill, BAM! The west coast comes through. USC can’t make a bowl game this year due to NCAA punishments, and sometimes teams like that are the most fun to watch. They’ve got nothing to lose, and the coaches often trick them into thinking they should be angry. ASU was ranked until they fell to Illinois last week, and they’ll be trying to climb back into the rankings at home. The winner here might emerge as that third elusive Pac 12 contender.

SECno. 15 Florida at Kentucky. The Gators have slipped under the radar so far this year, but with their win last week against Tennessee and South Carolina’s troubles against Navy, they’re looking like the SEC East favorite. Kentucky shouldn’t be too much trouble, but it’s a nice road test for Florida before things get real tough with consecutive games against Alabama and LSU.

And that’s that. The best part about early college football is that it keeps getting better week to week. It’s like a never-ending bag of red Sour Patch Kids, each one more tart than the last. You know, if you’re into that kind of thing. Enjoy Saturday.


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Filed Under: Alabama, Arkansas, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Kentucky, LSU, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, Syracuse, Texas A&M, USC, West Virginia, What You Should Be Watching

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

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