Friday, November 17, 2006

College Football Week 12 Preview

It is extremely sad that on the eve of the Big Game between Michigan and Ohio State legendary Wolverine head coach Bo Schembechler passed away from heart failure. He was 77.
A fiery coach who guided Michigan from 1969- 1989, Schembechler was loved by his players and despised by other coaches. His friend & mentor , Ohio State coaching icon Woody Hayes, never really forgave Bo from going to coach "the enemy", but The Rivalry was at its best during the period from 1969-78, when Bo compiled a 5-4-1 record against his former teacher; before Bo's arrival in Ann Arbor Woody's boys had their way with the Wolverines to the tune of a 12-6 mark.

There will be heavy hearts on both sides of the field tomorrow. Schembechler was a giant in the college football world, not just at Michigan, as Ohio State coach Jim Tressel expressed in these thoughts: "This is an extraordinary loss for college football," Tressel said . "Bo Schembechler touched the lives of many people and made the game of football better in every way. He will always be both a Buckeye and a Wolverine and our thoughts are with all who grieve his loss." Amen.

So now the question on the minds of most fans has to be how does this tragic loss affect the kids at Michigan in regards to the outcome of the game? Bill Walton just brought this up on an ESPN
basketball game as I wrote it. My personal opinion: it won't matter. These kids have been so fired up for so long over this game that I really think they have the ability to block things out when they get on the field, and the loss will be in the back of their minds, but not on the field of play. Will the Wolverines play harder, tackle stronger, run faster just because a former coach has passed on? For Bo's sake that better not be the case. The kids were already prepared to give it their all, and nothing should be able to alter that focus and determination. Will they want to win a little bit extra for Coach Schembechler's sake? Possibly. Will they have a tad more adrenaline pumping, a few tears flowing, at the start of the game? Probably. But once the game is underway those two teams are prepared to leave it all out on the field. Because that is the way these teams play The Rivalry game every year. Thanks to coaches like Bo Schembechler.

On to the preview of the weeks top games. One may stand alone, but a few others matter, too (yes, I swear.) I'll start with the smaller games first, so you'll have to read on for the Big One.

17 Cal (8-2) @ 4USC (8-1) 8PM EST ABC
A mere three weeks ago this game was shaping up to be huge as well. Now, after surprising losses by both teams, it is merely big. For USC only. Cal was hoping to right their ship after a season-opening loss to Tennessee got them off track with a win over a (hopefully) undefeated Trojan squad. But those darn Men of Troy just couldn't keep up their end of the bargain as they suffered their first regular season loss in 3 years at Oregon State on Oct. 28th. That loss seemed to deflate the Bears, who in turn went out and got flattened by the Arizona Wildcats last week, rendering them spoilers in this one. Will a team that has no shot at the title for gear up to play a team which needs to win each of its final 2 games in order to have a shot at the National Championship? I say yes, because Cal still has a Rose Bowl berth to play for,which would be their first since 1959. Plus Cal believes they are better than SC- after all, they were the ones who handed the Trojans their last Pac-10 loss before the Beavers this year, and their offensive weapons measure up to USC's:
Booty(USC): 2142 yds, 20TDs
Longshore(CAL): 2393yds, 21TDs
Washington(USC): 674 yds, 8TDs
Lynch(CAL): 1090 yds, 9TDs
Smith(USC): 786 yds, 7TDs
Jackson(CAL) 811 yds, 9TDs

So you see Cal has the talent to beat USC. Marshawn Lynch is the leading rusher in the Pac-10, DeSean Jackson has the most TDs by a receiver in the conference & is an electrifying kick returner, and QB Nate Longshore leads the conference in passing efficiency, 2nd in yards and leads in TDs (by 1 over Booty.) But can they take that talent and turn in a season-making victory? Doubt it. SC is too tough, mentally & at home, to let a 2-loss Bear team ruin their shot at glory. I like a high-scoring game, with the Trojans coming away with a much-needed, revenge-tinged win.
MY PICK: USC 47, Cal 34

15 Auburn (9-2) @ Alabama (6-5) 3:30 CBS
Rankings? Throw 'em out. Home field? Doesn't matter. Past history? Trash it. When Auburn & Alabama get together for the annual hookup known as the Iron Bowl it's really true that records, titles, stats and history don't matter. All that matters is that two bitter rivals are getting together for the next installment of their Intrastate Hatefest, and everything in Alabama comes to a screeching halt until the dust settles. This game defines the fever over football in the state. From high school to their beloved collegiate squads, football is life in this state, and the Iron Bowl is the life blood of all fans. Recently Auburn has pounded their neighbors by winning 4 in a row in the series. But to be fair 'Bama has been rebuilding behind new head coach Mike Shula and Auburn has been pretty awesome these past few years, challenging for the SEC & National title while cranking out NFL players like Pez. This year has been a major disappointment for the Tigers, though, after suffering home losses to Arkansas in early October and then a humiliating 37-15 defeat to 6-4 Georgia last week. So they will be mighty hungry in this one. 'Bama meanwhile has played erratically, winning and losing quite a few close games but failing to beat any of the conference heavyweights; Arkansas, Florida, LSU & Tennessee have all beaten the Tide. So this would really be their signature win, and a career-defining victory for Coach Shula. Papa Don will be present, and it would be nice if the son could finally start living up to his father's legacy.
MY PICK: Bama 22-21

The Game of the Century, Decade, Year, Millennium, Second...
2Michigan @ 1 Ohio State 3:30 ABC at the Big Horseshoe in Columbus It's finally here. The game everyone has been looking forward to for weeks, ever since both teams cleared potential hurdles en route to this meeting of undefeated titans in Columbus, has finally arrived. Fitting that the team that has been number 1 all season long and has already played in one epic 1V2 battle this season (vs Texas on Sept.9, the first regular season 1vs2 since 1996) bookends the season with another unprecedented match. This is the first time in the history of the storied rivalry that both teams will be undefeated and ranked 1 & 2 in the country and the first time there have been two 1v2 showdowns in one season since 1945 (Army/ND, Army/Navy.)
Michigan comes into the game unbeaten on the strength of their defense, especially their proficiency at stopping the run. The unit is allowing a mere 29.9 rushing yards per game, which if that holds up (guarantee-it won't) against OSU will be the lowest per game total in 47 years. One team, Minnesota with 108, has rushed for more than 60 yards against the Wolverines, and RB Mike Hart has more carries by himself (278) than all of Michigan's opponents combined (249.) That's what you call a stout rushing defense my friends. But Ohio State has a pretty good one in the backfield-Antonio Pittman- who will put those stats to the teat. Pittman is a stocky runner who eats yards up in chunks and has totalled 1032 yards on the ground with 12 TDs. But if the Buckeyes can't run it they will be perfectly content to throw the ball, utilizing their Number 1 weapon, QB Troy Smith, along with their receiver tandem of Tedd Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez. Those two have combined for 1,310 yards and 15 TDs, while Heisman lock Smith has used both his arm (2191 yards, 26TDs) and legs (221 yards, TD) to destroy opponents. Plus the Buckeye defense has been better than expected after losing 9 starters. The unit is led by punishing LB James Laurinaitis and sack-master DT Quinn Pitcock (8 sacks.) Their job will be to stop the Wolverine offense, led by QB Chad Henne, who may not be a Heisman candidate (1932 yds, 18 TDs) but is an effective & efficient leader of the team. The reason his stats aren't bigger is that he does a lot of handing off to Hart (1373yds, 11TDs), the 2nd leading leading rusher in the Big 10, and he missed speedy wideout Mario Manningham (538yds, 9TDs) for 3 games when he was out due to injury. His counterpart Steve Breaston tried to take up the slack from Manningham's loss, but the Wolverine offense is a much deadlier machine with Manningham in there.

So what does all the hoopla & hype mean. It means that the top two teams are playing each other at the end of their seasons for the right to go to the Fiesta Bowl and play for the BCS National Championship. The loser will get the consolation prize of the Rose Bowl, something that was the be all & end all in this rivalry for many decades.

In my opinion Ohio State is the superior team- in all of college football- and should handle the perennially overrated Wolverines down enough to take the win. Sure Michigan has a great defense, but they have yet to test that defense against the best team in the country. Ohio State is the most balanced, dangerous and proficient offense in the NCAA, and Michigan can try to plug all the dikes as the start to leak but sooner or later that wall is gonna burst, and the Buckeyes are going to go tumbling into the end zone. Smith is too talented and athletic to be stopped all day, and his experience in big games, including two Texas matches as well as winning 2 of these rivalry games, will leave him unfazed by the surroundings.

Troy will sew up his Heisman, Ohio State will be headed to Arizona,and Tressel will solidify his OSU legacy by running his record to 5-1 against the Maize & Blue. Meanwhile Michigan will be hoping for a rematch in the Fiesta, which they might get as long as they keep it close.

MY PICK: Ohio State 27, Michigan 17

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