Another college football kicks off tonight, and while the Thursday-Friday games aren’t bad, they aren’t on a par with what we got last week when LSU beat Mississippi State. There’s N.C. State-Cincinnati on Thursday, as the Bearcats try and show the Big East can defend its home field, something that will become an even bigger topic for ABC’s Saturday showcase. And on Friday, the Central Florida-BYU game might have been a good under-the-radar battle before both teams lost last week. So we’ll jump right into the Saturday previews, looking at how the day unfolds on television. The Projected Vegas Score (PVS), a combination of point spread and over/under is included…
Notre Dame-Pitt (Noon, ABC)
PVS: Notre Dame 30 Pitt 24
I’ve really seen nothing with Pitt that suggests they’re ready to compete with the Irish. They struggled against weak teams their first two weeks and then the defense coughed up a big lead at Iowa—the same Hawkeye team that’s rebuilding and had lost to Iowa State. The Panthers aren’t going to be able to stop Notre Dame. Granted, no one else has either, and it’s a reasonable hope that the Irish might shoot themselves in the foot enough to allow for an upset. But I think this mismatch is big enough that ND can turn it over 3-4 times and still win. Pitt just can’t keep up in a shootout.
Two other games worthy of notice in the early window are North Carolina-Georgia Tech (Noon, ESPN), a matchup in the ACC’s Coastal Division. Tevin Washington has the Yellow Jackets’ triple option already in gear and they need the home win to compete for a division that’s still up for grabs, so long as Virginia Tech can’t find an offense. And Brady Hoke hosts his old school, as San Diego State comes to Ann Arbor. So far the Aztecs haven’t looked as good as I expected, and while I think they’ll give Michigan a game, I haven’t seen enough to pick an upset. There is one other major TV game on ESPN2. If you insist, feel free to watch Eastern Michigan-Penn State on ESPN2. My remote will be programmed to miss that one.
Then the late afternoon window has three big conference battles…
Arkansas-Alabama (3:30 ET, CBS)
PVS: Alabama 31 Arkansas 19
As far as I’m concerned the Crimson Tide are the team to beat nationally, head and shoulders above the rest until proven otherwise. A.J. McCarrron has settled into the quarterback job quickly, and the running game and defense were never question marks. Arkansas isn’t the Sugar Bowl team they were a year ago, and even that team still lost at home to the Tide. This one’s a ruthless dismantling for Nick Saban’s troops.
Oklahoma State-Texas A&M (3:30 ET, ABC)
PVS: Texas A&M 37 Oklahoma State 33
Now you’re talking. This is one of the big games of the season, two teams that I rated as the best possibilities for dark horse runs to the national championship. Both have everything you could want offensively. One possible difference could be at receiver, where A&M is good, with Jeff Fuller leading the way, but Okie State has a gamebreaker in Justin Blackmon. But the biggest difference is homefield advantage and I also just trust Mike Sherman more in a big game than his counterpart Mike Gundy. The points go flying here, but A&M gets the win.
Florida State-Clemson (3:30 ET, ESPN)
PVS: Clemson 27 Florida State 24
The hosts really getting some respect by being favored over a Florida State team that was the solid favorite to win the Atlantic Division. Is this is an overreaction to last week, when Clemson beat Auburn, while FSU lost at Oklahoma? It’s possible. The Tigers still have defensive problems, and they didn’t get Andre Ellington into the flow of the game against a defense that had issues of its own. On the flip side, they still scored 38 points and quarterback Tajh Boyd answered a lot of questions. Florida State’s offense showed they are still from championship-caliber, but the defense did match up with OU. The possibility of post-big game hangover goes both ways here, and I think FSU’s defense, with Brandon Jenkins pressuring Boyd, while lead the way to a road win.
Then we cap off the night in Morgantown…
LSU-West Virginia (8 ET, ABC)
PVS: LSU 28-21
I don’t see a lot of respect being given to the LSU defense in this Vegas number. The Tigers shut down a Mississippi State offense that had been playing very well and Les Miles has had a long week, with nine days to prepare. West Virginia is showing a lot offensively, with Geno Smith having a huge day in a win over Maryland. But scoring 37 points on the Terps is just a little different from the speed Smith will face here against the third-ranked team in the nation. I’m looking for LSU to establish the run with Spencer Ware and Michael Ford, dominate the game defensively, force some turnovers and salt this one away early.
Also in prime-time is #1 Oklahoma’s home date with Missouri. A year ago, Mizzou upended OU when the Sooners were at the top of the polls, but that game was in Columbia, and Blaine Gabbert is now in the NFL. I think there’s enough of a post-Florida State letdown that Missouri can hang, and can get receiver T.J. Moe and tight end Michael Egnew into the passing game but not enough to ultimately slow down the Sooner Schooner.
FIGHTING FOR .500
The attention of the baseball world is rightly focused on who’s going to survive in these races for the wild-card in both leagues with a little side debate on MVP and Cy Young voting, but there are teams outside the realm of the playoff race that deserve a little recognition as the season hits its final week. Six teams are still battling to secure a .500 record or better. We won’t count Cincinnati (76-80) or the Chicago White Sox (76-79) since both expected to be at the forefront of the big conversations at this time of year. But before we shift into playoff mode here, let’s give a nod to the other four…
Toronto (78-77): If the Blue Jays had some pitching they could really make some noise, because the everyday lineup has become very solid. Anchored by Jose Bautista, they’ve made quality additions with Colby Rasmus, acquired from St. Louis at midseason to play centerfield and young third baseman Brett Lawrie. This record is even more impressive when you consider that the Jays play 54 games against the Yanks, Red Sox & Rays. If they pull out a winning record against this, Bautista deserves the same kind of credit from MVP voters for that achievement as others will for being on playoff teams.
LA Dodgers (77-77): Really an amazing job by manager Don Mattingly to keep this team afloat amid their aging and injuries on the field and ownership chaos off it. Rookie shortstop Dee Gordon looks like a cornerstone player and Matt Kemp, like Bautista, has MVP numbers that deserve a boost in the voting if the Dodgers get over the .500 hump. Clayton Kershaw leads the National League in ERA and may have pitched him to the top of the Cy Young race when he won his 20th game.
Cleveland (76-78): It all depends what benchmark you want to use when evaluating this team’s record. Certainly if you look at the early season when they bolted to a seven-game lead, or the trade deadline when they went out and got Ubaldo Jiminez, it’s disappointing for Cleveland to be at this level of discussion. But if you look at the start of the year, the only really valid measuring stick, and what expectations were, a winning season would’ve been a big deal. Just go 6-2 down the stretch and the Tribe have that goal.
Washington (75-79): It’s going to be tough for the Nats to get their first winning season, needing to win seven of their last eight. But they’ve made it interesting, winning 8 of 10 just to have a shot. If nothing else, there’s a lot of young talent here—first baseman Michael Morse, second baseman Danny Espinosa, closer Drew Storen and now Stephen Strasburg being back in the game. The future looks bright for a team with a good core of youth and money to spend in the free agent market.
LIONS FACE ROAD TEST IN MINNESOTA
It’s been a long time since the phrase “key NFC North game” could be used in any sentence involving the Detroit Lions. Probably the last one they played was the season finale game of 2008 at Green Bay, and that was only because losing it meant the Lions became the first team ever to go 0-16. But Detroit’s now 2-0 and their visit to Minnesota on Sunday is seen as litmus test in whether the Lions have the maturity to be a playoff contender.
Detroit showed in Week 1 they can win on the road, beating Tampa Bay, a team who won in the Twin Cities last week. Detroit then showed they could manhandle a bad team, when they buried Kansas City 48-3 last week. This week is about showing they can maintain focus against a team they should be able to beat. Minnesota’s offense is struggling and Donovan McNabb isn’t in a groove. Adrian Peterson remains as good as ever, but the running game alone isn’t enough to win NFL games unless you get help on turnovers or plain lack of focus from the opponent. And that’s what we’re watching for with Detroit.
Can Matthew Stafford continue to show the kind of consistency he has in the first two games? Can Detroit get the kind of running game it takes to survive in a road atmosphere? The Lions have relied on the pass thus far, and I know I just downgraded the importance of the run in the Viking portion of this post, but to do what Detroit wants to do this year—make the playoffs—is going to require balance.
Injuries might also play a role in this one. Detroit is beat up at some key defensive spots, including Cliff Avril at defensive end, with a bad ankle. At the other end, Kyle Vanden Bosch is listed as a question mark on CBS Sportsline’s depth charts due to some personal issues. Free safety Louis Delmas is questionable, as is linebacker DeAndre Levy. I’d expect the latter two, along with Avril to play, but don’t know what to expect in terms of effectiveness. If they aren’t up to par, a lot will come down to whether McNabb can get the ball to Percy Harvin consistently or if he’ll be rifling balls into the turf all afternoon, as the QB’s wont, when he gets out of rhythm.
I certainly don’t mean to imply this game is must-win for Detroit—not when they’re 2-0 and getting their second road game off the schedule on Sunday. But it is a game that will tell us where they’re at focus-wise and whether they can show the necessary consistency to make the postseason.
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