The Weekend In Sports: College Football, NFL & MLB
It’s the first full weekend of football ahead, with both college & NFL action and the Notebook begins what will be its Friday schedule of setting the main TV lineup through both days. Each game previewed includes the Projected Vegas Score (PVS), simply the calculation if the final score landed on the pointspread and over/under total, with a little massaging done to make it a realistic football score.
Oregon State-Wisconsin (Noon ET, ESPN)
PVS: Wisconsin, 38-17
Wisconsin’s run defense was a big problem against UNLV last Thursday night, as the Rebels gained over 100 yards in the first half alone. But the Badger offense was so potent that it didn’t matter. Oregon State meanwhile actually lost to Sacramento State, so there’s not a lot of reason to think the Beavers can slow down the running attack of Montee Ball and James White. The Wisconsin pass defense will be tested in this game, with Ryan Katz looking to hook up with James Rodgers. I suspect it’s a similar result to UW-UNLV, in that Wisconsin’s too powerful to stop, but defensive holes continue to linger in Madison.
The other big game in the early window is Auburn-Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are getting respect from places other than the Notebook right now, as they’re actually favored by 6.5 points in the home of the defending national champs. I like them to win this game, but it’s closer than the experts say in a hard-fought defensive battle. For reasons I can’t figure out this game is not being nationally televised. In a world where every high school scrimmage can get TV time, the biggest game of the early Saturday time slot involving the defending national champs and a rising dark horse in the nation’s best conference, can’t get national coverage? Instead, national viewers can watch Florida Atlantic-Michigan State on ESPN2. The Spartans didn’t look good against Youngstown State last week nor were they inspiring against FAU in this spot a year ago. They won’t lose, but it will be interesting to see if Kirk Cousins and the MSU offense can blow it open.
Alabama-Penn State (3:30 ET, ABC)
PVS: Alabama 26-16
I think this is going to go down as one of the biggest games of the regular season and if Penn State can win it at home, the opportunity is there to run to the BCS National Championship Game. The Crimson Tide have the running game and defense, but sophomore quarterback A.J. McCarron has to show he can handle what’s going to be a very loud and hostile road environment. Penn State has a very experienced back seven and I’m looking for the Lions to get 2-3 interceptions. The other big issue is going to be who plays quarterback for Penn State. If Joe Paterno goes with Matt McGloin, I think he can make some plays to receivers Derek Bowe and Justin Bowe—not a lot, because the Tide defense is too good, but enough to pull a big upset. I’m going to lean to Penn State to pull it out, 20-17.
Channel-surfing is the order of the day in this middle time slot, because you’ve got one other big game and four more worth checking in on. South Carolina visits Georgia (4:30, ESPN) in an SEC East matchup. The Gamecocks defense has to be better than it was against East Carolina, because Aaron Murray is capable of putting up some big numbers. But the Bulldogs have defensive issues of their own, and now that Stephen Garcia looks to be back in Steve Spurrier’s good graces at quarterback, I look for him to hook up with Alshon Jefferey and for Marcus Lattimore to have a big day running the ball. It’s close and a lot of points fly between the hedges in Athens, but South Carolina gets a road win. Another SEC East team, Tennessee hosts Cincinnati (3:30 ET, ESPN2). The Volunteers are going to be a very improved team this year and show it with a decisive dismantling of the Bearcats.
TCU’s defense came back to earth in big way in their opener against Baylor, losing 50-48. Now they match up with Air Force (3:30 ET, Versus), and the Falcons option attack is going to challenge them. I look for Asher Clark to have a big day at fullback running between the tackles and that to set up quarterback Tim Jefferson going to the outside. The Falcons get a nice win at home. And then you have the WAC-Pac 10 battles going on in the Northwest. Hawaii beat Colorado last week and now talented quarterback Bryant Moniz goes into Washington (3:30 ET, FCS), who struggled past Eastern Washington. And Nevada pays a visit to Oregon (3:30, FX), with the Ducks looking to bounce back after the loss to LSU.
Notre Dame-Michigan (8 ET, ESPN)
PVS: Notre Dame 30-26
What’s not generally noted from Notre Dame’s loss to South Florida last week, as that the Irish actually moved the ball up and down the field and dominated the box score. But turnovers killed them in the 23-20 loss. If that was a fluke, ND will bounce right back. But you also have to wonder if the Irish will struggle with the fast-paced attack of Brian Kelly, of which high-risk, high-reward is a part of. I still have no confidence in the Notre Dame defense against a good opponent, and at least offensively, Michigan is that. Denard Robinson ate up ND in South Bend a year ago, and I expect him to do the same. As far as scoring goes, I think the PVS is about right on, but in the first night game in Michigan history, the Wolverines have the emotional edge and they pull out a 31-28 thriller.
A Pac-12 South game goes between Utah and USC (7:30 ET, Versus), with the Trojans needing a strong win after an unimpressive outing against Minnesota last week. Matt Barkley threw the ball well in the opener and he will do so again here, as USC gets the win. Then you have BYU-Texas (7 ET, ESPN2). The Longhorns have to show me they can get physical on defense after a 2010 in which they were beaten consistently up front. Their reputation as a passing team aside, BYU can run the ball with J.J. Di Luigi, and they pick up a close win in Austin that only aggravates Mack Brown’s problems.
Pittsburgh-Baltimore (1 ET, CBS)
PVS: Baltimore 19-17
I picked the Ravens to reach the Super Bowl, and we’ll know right away if they’re a real contender. This matchup has become about defense in recent years—even in last year’s 31-24 Steeler win in the playoffs, it was defenses setting up touchdowns with turnovers. The regular season games were low-scoring wars and this one’s not going to be any different. What I’ll be watching for is how Baltimore runs its offense. If they stay physical with Ray Rice and look for chances to go over the top to Lee Evans and Anquan Boldin, they can win. If they try to get too pass-happy, it’s going to be a problem and the Steeler linebackers will tee off on Joe Flacco. On the other side of the ball, I expect Pittsburgh to have a lot of problems running the ball all year and Sunday certainly won’t be an exception to that rule. Whether the Steelers can do anything at all depends on getting pass protection for Ben Roethlisberger and him then exploiting a vulnerable secondary to Mike Wallace deep and Hines Ward to keep drives going. That PVS looks about right to me.
Atlanta-Chicago (1 ET, Fox)
PVS: Atlanta 23 Chicago 20
Chicago’s offensive line was a big liability a year ago and they’ll be tested right away by a Falcon defensive front that brings Ray Edwards and John Abraham off the edge and Justin Babineaux up the middle. Atlanta’s problem is in the secondary, but Jay Cutler won’t get the time, nor does he have the weapons to really exploit that. Chicago’s defense will play well enough to keep this game reasonably competitive, but Atlanta’s got too many choices on offense—they can spread the field with Roddy White and rookie receiver Julio Jones. They can go underneath to tight end Tony Gonzalez and they can run the ball with Michael Turner. Atlanta gradually pulls away and wins by double digits.
NY Giants-Washington (4 ET, Fox)
PVS: NY Giants 20-17
It’s a mostly quiet late window, with CBS having U.S. Open coverage, so every game late is on Fox and except for those of us who are ‘Skins or Giants fans, this won’t be an incredibly compelling game. The Giants are getting old up front, but the Redskins don’t have the personnel to really exploit that. A key to this game will be whether the Washington secondary can stay at home and prevent big plays from Eli Manning to Mario Manningham or Hakeem Nicks. With new strong safety Oshiomogo Atogwe, last year’s defensive captain in St. Louis, there’s a good chance that will happen and I think Mike Shanahan is going to have a team that had a training camp free of questions about Albert Haynesworth or Donovan McNabb ready to play. Since I’m a partisan Redskins fan I’m forgoing a pick here, but I’m feeling confident about our chances here.
Dallas-NY Jets (8 ET, NBC)
PVS: NY Jets 21-17
One of the question marks surrounding the Cowboys this year is whether they’re tackles can give Tony Romo time to throw the ball. We’ll get some early answers quickly as Rex Ryan won’t be shy about bringing the heat. It’s going to be important for Cowboy head coach Jason Garrett to run some misdirection plays to speedy running back Felix Jones, who can get loose if New York overpursues. The Garrett-Ryan battle of Xs and Os is a big-time matchup in its own right. Rex’s brother Rob is now defensive coordinator for Dallas, and he’ll bring the heat on Mark Sanchez. The problem the Cowboys have is that they don’t have a lockdown corner like Darrelle Revis to save them on occasions the blitz doesn’t work. Come to think of it, they’re completely vulnerable altogether, and while I’m not a Sanchez supporter, he’ll make some plays to Plaxico Burress in man coverage and enable the Jets to win, by maybe a little more than the PVS.
BOSTON & ATLANTA BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHES
It was just Monday that the Notebook opined that seven of MLB’s playoff spots were all but sewn up. I’d still stand by that, but this weekend presents the opportunity for a couple of races to become interesting. Tampa Bay has closed to within 6.5 games of Boston in the AL wild-card race, while St. Louis is 7.5 back of Atlanta. These teams go head-to-head this weekend and the Red Sox and Braves have to rely on some untested pitchers to try and hold off their challengers.
A precondition to any kind of September collapse is a lack of pitching depth in the rotation and this is an area that has to be sending off some alarm bells in both Boston and Atlanta. The Red Sox, already crossing their fingers on Clay Bucholz’s return, will see Josh Beckett miss his weekend start due to a sprained ankle. There’s nothing suggesting this is anything more than a sprain, but you have to wonder how a power pitcher will respond to even a mild injury to his push-off ankle. And in the short-term it means Terry Francona turns to Kyle Weiland, a 24-year old from Notre Dame making his third career start on Saturday night. Atlanta has seen Tommy Hanson go to the disabled list, while Jair Jurrjens struggles and they send 21-year old Randall Delgado out to the mound tonight for his second career start. Nice way to get introduced to big league life, facing Pujols, Berkman and Holliday. Then both the Red Sox and Braves have their unreliable veterans—John Lackey goes Friday night for the Sox, while Derek Lowe gets the ball Saturday for the Braves.
Both teams realistically only need to win one game this weekend to keep their comfort zone in the race. And in a baseball environment where it seems almost any Red Sox game makes national television, neither game will go on Fox or Sunday night on ESPN. Instead it’s the Cubs-Mets. That’s a missed chance for baseball on TV, because there’s a sliver of hope for Tampa and St. Louis and the pitching situation means the leaders have to batten down the hatches in September.
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