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The College Football Notebook

January 4, 2012 12:16 PM

Orange Bowl Preview

2011OrangeBowl.jpegA thrilling three-day run of major bowl games comes to an end tonight as Clemson meets West Virginia in the Orange Bowl (8:30 PM ET, ESPN). After the Rose, Fiesta and Sugar Bowls all came down to the last possession and the latter two going into overtime, the Orange will a tough standard to live up to as the Monday Night Football broadcasting crew of Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden descend on Miami. Here's a look at the path the Tigers and Mountaineers trod to get to this game and how they match up...

Clemson (9-3, won ACC Championship Game): Clemson won their first two non-conference games over in-state rivals, but the victories over Troy and Wofford were less than overwhelming. Troy had success moving the ball, and the game with Wofford was a one-point affair after three quarters. It was already apparent that the Tigers were going to be about offense, with the play of quarterback Tajh Boyd saving them from early embarrassment, while the defense was muscled for 437 yards on the ground in the two games.

As a result, it was tough to see what happened next. Clemson took on Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech and beat all three in rapid succession. Boyd jumped onto the list of Heisman darkhorses, while receiver Sammy Watkins emerged as one of the most exciting players in the ACC. The ground defense still left something to be desired, but the win over FSU put Clemson in control of the Atlantic Division and the win on the road at Virginia Tech, holding the Hokies to three points, sent a clear message that the Tigers were a national title contender.

Over the next three games, Boyd, Watkins and running back Andre Ellington continued to dazzle as Clemson beat Boston College, Maryland and North Carolina and averaged 50-plus points a game. They had some defensive problems against Terp quarterback C.J. Brown, who had a good day passing and a great day running and Clemson had to turn a 38-35 deficit after three quarters into a win. Because of the defensive concerns, it wasn't seen as a shock when they lost a prime-time battle to Georgia Tech 31-17, turning the ball over four times in the process.

The national title hopes may have been gone, but a visit from Wake Forest would still settle who controlled the ACC's Atlantic Division race down the stretch. On November 12, Clemson came out flat early on, but eventually rallied to win 31-28 on a last-second field goal. A notoriously soft Wake running game was able to gash the Tiger rush defense for 179 yards, but Boyd threw for 343 and the victory clinched the division.

With their date in the ACC Championship Game on December 3 assured and no national hopes, Clemson took two weeks off. They played embarrassing games in losing to N.C. State and South Carolina, looking completely inept in the process. If the Tigers look anything like this tonight, there's no point in analysis, so the Notebook is throwing those two games out. I don't like the fact that Clemson's play suggests mailing it in, particularly in a 37-13 loss to N.C. State (the loss to South Carolina was likely more about just facing an excellent SEC defense), but there's not much reason to think those games offer us any insight about what will happen in the Orange Bowl.

A big reason we can confidently dismiss those games is that Clemson turned the ignition back on for the ACC title game and hammered Virginia Tech 38-10, playing a mistake-free game and finding a run defense in shutting down ACC MVP David Wilson. Ellington was the rushing hero and Boyd showed precision and flawlessness.

West Virginia (9-3): Like Clemson, West Virginia didn't dazzle anyone in winning their early non-conference games. A win over in-state rival Marshall was nice, but the Mountaineers managed to trail Norfolk State at halftime before turning it on to win 55-12 and then they barely escaped a Maryland team that was on its way to a two-win season. A subsequent loss to LSU at home doesn't tell us a lot more, nor did an easy win over Bowling Green. The one thing that was apparent was how dependent the offense would be on quarterback Geno Smith. This wasn't a surprise, as Smith came into the year regarded as one of the top signal-callers in the Big East, but there were no signs of a running game to help him out. In spite of this, Smith produced this revealing stat--38/65, 463 yards against the LSU defense. He threw two interceptions, but that's still a very nice stat line against the best defense in college football.

Through the first four games of a seven-game Big East schedule, Smith continued to dazzle, piling up a couple more 400-yard games and delivering wins over defending champ UConn and Rutgers. But there was still no running game and the defense continued to be shaky, and that resulted in a blowout loss at Syracuse on a Friday night and a shootout defeat at Louisville, a team that's normally offensively challenged.

A 2-2 in the conference, Dana Holgorsen's team had it back to the wall and they responded with three thrilling wins down the stretch. The Mountaineers got a huge break when Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros was knocked out with broken collar bone early on their head-to-head game and it was enough for WVA to escape the Queen City with a 24-21 win that kept the Bearcats from pulling away in the Big East. A one-point win over Pitt on Black Friday was next and West Virginia ended the season with a 30-27 win over South Florida in ESPN's final Thursday night game of the year. Smith was outstanding, the rush defense was vulnerable and nothing had really changed. The Mountaineers ended the season in a three-way tie for the conference championship with Louisville and Cincinnati. The circular head-to-head tiebreaker saw everyone split and as the higher ranked team in the BCS standings, West Virginia got this bid to play tonight. As good as Smith was all year, whichever player knocked out Collaros in Cincinnati was the real hero.

The Matchup: Everything about this game screams scoring race, one that would be on a par with the Rose Bowl (83 points) and Fiesta Bowl (76 points in regulation). Las Vegas concurs with the total being set at 62.5, a high number. But it's apparent that Clemson is the much more balanced team, with Ellington being able to take some of the pressure off his quarterback. I can see him making some big plays in situations where they spread the field and then give him the ball up the middle and let him create. Ellington is also effective as a receiver. If he can make West Virginia's secondary come up close, it opens things up for Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins to get down the field. On the flip side, Smith has a great tandem of receivers with Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin and it's easy to see both of them getting 100-plus yards tonight. But top running back Dustin Garrison is out with a torn ACL, and even if he were playing, I don't know how much it would matter. West Virginia is also a little more nicked up defensively than their counterparts. Finally we come to the fact that Clemson's numbers in the ACC have to be given a little more credence than West Virginia's in the Big East. If you were to ask if I'd be shocked if West Virginia won, they answer would be no. Smith is more than capable of a huge night and this program has pulled upsets in major bowls before (2005 Sugar, 2007 Fiesta). But if you were to ask if I can find a logical reason to predict it in advance, then the answer is no. As long as Clemson doesn't go into hiding, they'll win this game and we should know that about five minutes in.

The SportsNotebook.com will live blog this game when it kicks off at 8:30 PM ET. Check the archives for the live blogs of the Rose, Fiesta and Sugar Bowls.

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January 3, 2012 12:50 PM

Sugar Bowl Preview

2011SugarBowl.jpgThe Sugar Bowl is on tap tonight and this one's all about pressure. Michigan and Virginia Tech both need to justify their inclusion in the BCS over Kansas State and Boise State. Virginia Tech needs to win a major bowl game against someone besides a Big East opponent (they won the 2008 Orange Bowl over Cincinnati, otherwise lost that same bowl in 2007 and 2010 and lost the Sugar Bowl in 2004). And the Sugar Bowl itself has a lot to live up to after the thrillers we saw yesterday from Pasadena and Glendale. So as the Notebook did for the Rose and Fiesta, we'll preview tonight's game by first following the path each team took to New Orleans and then looking at how they match up head-to-head.

Virginia Tech (11-1, lost ACC Championship Game):  The Hokies opened the season with a credible, albeit not overwhelming conference schedule. They played future bowl teams from the midmajors, beating eventual Sun Belt champ Arkansas State and Marshall, along with a win over East Carolina who's usually better than they were this year. To no one's surprise, the tone was set with defense and the running game as the key to these four wins. Sophomore quarterback Logan Thomas was in a definite get-your-feet-wet stage, while David Wilson's running led the way on offense and defensive coordinator Bud Foster again had a solid unit ready to keep the team afloat, as they started 4-0.

No one was overly impressed with Tech on a national scale and those doubts were vindicated when Clemson came to Blacksburg, took the game over in the second half and won 23-3. Even though Foster's defense did a decent job in containing dynamic Tiger quarterback Tajh Boyd, the team did nothing well offensively and it looked like a conference title was a pipe dream.

Virginia Tech had the advantage of being in the ACC's weaker division, a turnabout, as the Coastal had been the stronger entity the previous few years. Thomas stepped up with his breakout moment against Miami, completing 23 of 25 passes for 310 yards and leading his team to a thrilling 38-35 win that got the season turned around. Victories over Wake Forest, Boston College and Duke followed, with Wilson ruthlessly churning out 120-150 yard games. Even though they hadn't played well against Duke and needed three interceptions to preserve a 14-10 win, Tech seemed to be peaking as they played three games that would settle the division title.

Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Virginia, all division rivals and all bowl-bound were the final three games and the Hokies won them all. averaging 33 points a game in the process. Thomas continued to work both Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin into the passing game and while Wilson was "held" to 82 yards against Carolina, the running game continued to set the tone for games. For the season, Wilson rushed for 100-plus yards nine times, the same number of times Ferris Bueller skipped class in the Matthew Broderick movie.

With everything seeming to come together in Blacksburg what happened in the championship game rematch against Clemson came as a shock. Not that Virginia Tech lost, but that they were thrashed 38-10, as the Tigers again blew open a close game in the second half and became the first team to truly shut down Wilson completely, holding him to 32 yards. Boyd carved up the defense and Andre Ellington had a big night running the ball. Any weakness the Hokies had was exposed in the ACC Championship Game.

Michigan (10-2): Like their opponent tonight, Michigan opened with a non-conference schedule that provided enough of a test to be interesting, but not enough to stop them from going 4-0. The highlight was a thrilling home win over Notre Dame, where Denard Robinson threw the winning touchdown pass with two seconds left to cap off a wild fourth quarter. The Wolverines also played bowl teams in Western Michigan and San Diego State, and even Eastern Michigan stepped up and was an improved MAC team this year. Robinson singlehandedly carried the offense with his running. Only against Notre Dame did he have a big day passing, but he consistently put up anywhere from 100-200 yards on the ground. More importantly, new head coach Brady Hoke showed ability his predecessor Rich Rodriguez didn't have, and that was an understanding of defense. Michigan did a good job on pass defense against a solid Western Michigan quarterback in Alex Carder and only gave up nine points a game in the three non-ND games.

Big Ten play opened with wins over Minnesota and Northwestern as the offense averaged half a hundred a game (I love that phrase used by Rece Davis and Chris Fowler on ESPN. It sounds so much more dramatic than saying "50"). The offense was still Robinson's baby, although Hoke was clearly trying to get running back Fitz Toussaint involved in the offense.

The inability of the offense to do anything that didn't involve Robinson hurt them against Michigan State, a game that would ultimately settle the division title. The Wolverines got just 82 yards on the ground and in spite of winning the turnover battle 2-1 and having the Spartans commit 13 penalties, Michigan still lost by two touchdowns. That's being dominated at the line of scrimmage.

Over the course of the next three games, which were wins over Purdue and Illinois and a loss to Iowa, the Michigan offense that we should see tonight really came into focus. Toussaint had big games in both wins, averaging over 180 yards a game and the inability of the rush defense to stop Iowa's Marcus Coker underscored how important it would be for Michigan to win the battle of conventional running games if they were going to have success in the final two games to settle their fate.

A home game with Nebraska was a de facto game for this Sugar Bowl bid and both Toussaint and the defense were ready for the challenge. The running back had 138 yards, while the defense held Nebraska's Rex Burkhead to 49. A battle between two teams that had versatile quarterbacks while trying to integrate running backs into the attack and playing average defense, saw Michigan emerge with a big 45-17 win. Even though the defense played its worst game of the year against Ohio State one week later, surrendering 34 points to a lousy offense, Robinson did the job both running and passing, while Toussaint had 120 yards. Michigan scored 40 against a good defense, a demonstration of what they can do when firing on all cylinders.

The Matchup: Virginia Tech has caught most of the heat from the media regarding the undeservedness of the bid, although that overlooks the fact that Tech ranks higher in the BCS standings that Michigan (11th to 13th) and that's in spite of the fact that Michigan didn't have to play and lose a conference title game. And the Big Ten's bowl performance has been less than impressive in recent years, as the 1-9 record on January 1 the past two seasons demonstrates. Of course the ACC hasn't been a lot better, at least against top-caliber conferences, but since the ACC already takes its knocks, it's important to note that there is no real conference advantage in play here tonight.

If we base things on each team's last game, then Michigan obviously has a huge edge. But if there's one thing that is clear about the Wolverines its how important Toussaint is to the offense. If I'm Bud Foster I focus on taking him away and putting the game in Denard's hands. He's good, but he's not so outstanding that he'll win a game singlehandledly, unless Virginia Tech turns it over the way Notre Dame did back in September. Michigan's defensive task is straight forward. Stack the box, take away Wilson and dare Thomas to beat you. This one is much tougher to predict, because Thomas has ranged from looking brilliant to looking like a green sophomore, and there's no obvious patterns that tell us what he might do tonight. If he can make some plays to Boykin and Coale, it will open things up for Wilson and the Hokies will control the game.

The big X-factor in this game works against Tech though and it's that the kickers are facing legal and disciplinary issues. Yes, "kickers" was supposed to be plural. The top two are expected to be out tonight and that puts a huge burden on the rest of the team to not just win, but to make sure it doesn't come down to a kick either way. That's a big bar to reach, so while I think Tech will control the flow of play, as long as Michigan can make some red zone stops, they'll win the special teams battle and eke out a win.

The SportsNotebook.com will be live blogging this game throughout when it kicks off at 8:30 PM ET on ESPN, just as was done yesterday for the Rose and Fiesta Bowls.

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January 2, 2012 12:56 PM

Fiesta Bowl Preview

2011Fiestabowl.jpgMonday night's Fiesta Bowl (8:30 PM ET, ESPN) is the best of the four BCS bowl matchups that lead up to the national championship game a week from tonight, as Oklahoma State meets up with Stanford. For Okie State, it's a chance to send a message to voters who preferred giving Alabama a second chance at LSU rather than sending the Cowboys to New Orleans. For Stanford, it's the final college game for Andrew Luck, the most anticipated NFL prospect I can recall. Here's the summation of how each team got here and how they matchup...

Oklahoma State (11-1): Oklahoma State didn't play heavyweights in their three weeks of non-conference play, but they fatten up on pastry either. UL-Lafayette and Tulsa were both bowl teams, while Arizona brought one the country's top quarterbacks in Nick Foles for a Thursday night game. OSU quarterback Brandon Weeden let it be known early on this was going to be a prolific year. He went over 350 yards in all three games, while running back Joseph Randle cleared the 120 mark in each one. The Cowboy offense would never stop firing.

You couldn't be as confident with the defense, which gave up big chunks of rushing yardage, particularly to Tulsa, who blasted them for 365 yards on the ground. It was a cause for concern as Okie State entered a four-game stretch in which they would play road games at Texas A&M, Texas and Missouri. Weeden gunned down all three, including a big comeback against the Aggies, with over 1,000 yards passing combined. While Justin Blackmon was his primary receiver, secondaries couldn't lock in on him, as Weeden consistently involved an array of receivers into the offense, a pattern that would continue throughout the year. While the problems defending the run didn't go away, the Cowboy secondary was turning into a ball-hawking unit, getting three interceptions apiece in all three road wins, which were sandwiched around a 70-28 blasting of Kansas at home.

In the Big 12, there's no rest for the victorious and coming home meant Baylor and Kansas State were waiting. Blackmon had two huge games, catching 26 passes for 377 yards, as the offense put up 111 points in a pair of dazzling wins. Randle kept churning out yardage on the ground, as you couldn't focus in on just one part of the Oklahoma State offense, lest another part bury you. While Oklahoma was still considered the top dog in the Big 12 at the time, it would be K-State and Baylor that would finish second and third in the league respectively, so in retrospect this was the point of the season were the Cowboys secured a conference title.

They were thinking a lot bigger, sitting at #2 in the national polls. But on a Friday morning they were to play Iowa State, tragedy struck the Oklahoma State community. A plane carrying the woman's basketball coach and his assistant crashed and a pall went over everyone involved with the game. To this day, I believe the game should've been suspended until at least the next day, but with ESPN's cameras on hand for a Friday night exclusive that wasn't happening. The Cowboys looked flat, Weeden threw three interceptions and the Cyclones won in double overtime. To their enormous credit, no one associated with Oklahoma State has ever used the tragedy as an excuse for the loss. But those of us who are in the outside can exercise some common sense and say that it had to have affected. They played the game the same day the news was reported!  In the end, though it may have cost Oklahoma State a national title shot, they have their honor intact, knowing they didn't use the deaths of those close to them as a way of angling out sympathy votes for a national title game berth.

Oklahoma State still got a Fiesta Bowl bid when they destroyed Oklahoma 44-10 in the season finale, with their secondary continuing to play well and Randle having a big game on the ground. It may not have gotten into the BCS National Championship Game, but I wouldn't expect a letdown--it's the program's first major bowl bid since the 1945 Cotton Bowl, when they matched up with St. Mary's (CA).

Stanford (11-1): Even with the departure of head coach Jim Harbaugh to the NFL, the return of Andrew Luck had everyone abuzz about Cardinal football and Luck gave little reason for anyone to question his undisputed status as not only the #1 pick in the NFL draft, but the best QB prospect in a generation. In a year where the NFL produced outstanding quarterback seasons from Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, it's not too much to suggest that Luck's presence in the NFL this year matched both of them, as lower-level teams raced for the bottom.

On the football field in Palo Alto, Luck's current team opened with easy wins over San Jose State and Duke, in which the basic offensive formula was established. Luck hit a high percentage of his throws, made few mistakes and spread the ball around, while getting 75-100 yards of ground support from Stephan Taylor. It set the stage for five easy wins to start the Pac-12 schedule. Stanford cruised past Arizona, UCLA, Colorado, Washington State and then hung 65 points on Washington. Luck threw 14 touchdown passes in these games against only two interceptions. The Stanford defense was respectable, if not overwhelming and Taylor had four 100-yard games.

Next up was a prime-time battle in Los Angeles against USC and it proved to be another one of college football's memorable battles of 2011, right up there with Wisconsin-Michigan State's regular season game. This one went triple overtime before Stanford won 56-48. Luck outplayed Barkley, but Stanford committed 11 penalties, a circumstance they can't afford to repeat tonight in the Fiesta Bowl.

After an easy win over Oregon State, it was time for an anticipated showdown with Oregon to settle the Pac-12 North and keep the Cardinal on track for an appearance in the BCS National Championship game. Playing at home for a prime-time audience, Stanford came up with a dud. They lost three fumbles and turned it over five times overall. Luck completed 27 of 41 passes, but Oregon effectively kept him underneath, making those completions add up to just 256 yards. Stanford couldn't stop LaMichael James on the ground and they were beaten badly, 53-30.

To the credit of head coach David Shaw, he kept his team focused for challenging games against improving Cal and Notre Dame to end the season, both of which Stanford needed if they wanted to make a major bowl game. The Cardinal didn't play their best game in either spot, but they were good enough to beat decent teams and the rush defense was solid both times out.

The Matchup: The Weeden-Luck showdown is what gets the media attention and I see the logic. But what I'm watching is the Randle-Taylor matchup. While Stanford played good rush defense against above average teams, they couldn't handle James, and if I'm Mike Gundy I absolutely think my running game is as good as Oregon's. In the case of Oklahoma State, when you have a team that can't stop the run, while intercepting passes left and right, doesn't that make committing to the ground an obvious choice? Taylor is one of the more underrated backs in the country and Stanford's physical nature is also underappreciated. If it's me, I'm pounding him early on and opening things up for Luck. As is the case with today's Rose Bowl, Las Vegas is expecting a shootout and the Over/Under is slotted at 74. I like Oklahoma State to get the win. The ability of the secondary to create some mistakes, combined with the general superiority of play in the Big 12 make the Cowboys the pick here.


The SportsNotebook.com will feature a live blog during the Rose & Fiesta Bowl games. Stop by during the game to watch commentary as it all unfolds.


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January 2, 2012 12:54 PM

Rose Bowl Preview

2011Rosebowl.jpgThe BCS games start today in the late afternoon and it kicks off with Wisconsin-Oregon in the Rose Bowl (5 PM ET, ABC) as Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit will be on hand to get us started on college football's showcase games. Let's look back on the path each team took to get here, and then see how they match up...

Wisconsin (10-2, won Big Ten Championship Game): The Badgers came into the season with high expectations after signing transfer Russell Wilson to play quarterback. I can't ever recall a summer transfer being this hyped, but there were a lot of unique circumstances. Because Wilson had been released by N.C. State after completing his undergraduate work and playing minor league baseball, he was eligible to play immediately. He was stepping into a team that had gone to the Rose Bowl the previous year, had almost everybody back, but had a glaring weakness at quarterback. Put that into the summer news vacuum, and you've got the hype machine in full gear.

Wilson proved to be worthy of all of it. Wisconsin won their four tuneup non-conference games. No one will ever accuse them of ambitious scheduling and wins over UNLV, Oregon State and South Dakota went along with a win over eventual MAC champ Northern Illinois. The running game with Montee Ball was wasn't really rolling at this point and Wilson completing better than 75 percent of his passes with only one interception was the highlight. We should also take note that NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish is similar in style to Oregon's Darron Thomas and the Badger defense had little trouble with Harnish. There's obviously a huge speed difference between Harnish and Thomas, so I'm not suggesting that this automatically translates into success today. What I am suggesting is that there's no negative evidence against the UW defense to be taken from this game.

The same couldn't be said for the Wisconsin run defense. UNLV gashed them on opening night for 146 yards and that would prove to be a problem in otherwise impressive wins to open the Big Ten schedule. The Badgers hammered Nebraska 48-17 in a Welcome To The Big Ten game for the Cornhuskers against a national audience, and then blasted Indiana. But Nebraska was able to run the ball and had it not been for Taylor Martinez throwing three interceptions that dug his team an early third quarter hole, that game might have been different. The alarm bells went off further against Indiana, when Stephen Houston piled up 135 yards on the ground.

Wisconsin's defensive concerns came up and bit them in epic back-to-back losses against Michigan State and Ohio State, both on long touchdown passes the closing seconds. The Michigan State game was settled on a Hail Mary toss that's been one of college football's most repeated highlights of 2011, while Ohio State's Braxton Miller threw a late score in a 33-29 win. The UW rush defense gave up an average of 243 yards on the ground and each game was marred by a blocked punt and poor kick coverage at key moments. As a Wisconsin fan, I'm one of the few that doesn't think "Our only two losses came on the last play. " I think "Why don't we hire a bleepin' special teams coach?" (Seriously, Wisconsin doesn't have one. Bret Bielama handles it himself).

With their conference title hopes hanging by a thread, Wisconsin ripped off wins over Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois, as the offense became more about Montee Ball's rushing than Wilson's passing. Both were good and the change was subtle, but for those of us who watched each game and then if you review the box scores, the change is obvious. Ball had started the late-season push that would get him to the Heisman ceremony. During this stretch, the scandal at Penn State broke, an unfocused Lion team lost a game to Nebraska and it opened the door to create a head-to-head battle in Madison for the division title in the Thanksgiving weekend finale.

I had the good fortune to be in attendance at Camp Randall on that rainy Saturday afternoon and it was no contest. Against a good defense, Ball rushed for 156 yards and turnovers helped Wisconsin pull away to a 45-7 win. It moved them into the conference championship game at Indianapolis against Michigan State. This one was a classic, as good as the first game. The offenses were dominant, every notable skill player had a good game and Wisconsin ultimately pulled it out 42-39.

Oregon (10-2, won Pac-12 Championship Game): Oregon started the season with even higher expectations, ranking in the Top 5 after losing last year's national championship game to Auburn on a last-play field goal. The Ducks opened the season with a road-neutral game against LSU in Dallas, the most hyped game of Labor Day weekend. Turnovers killed Oregon, as they lost three fumbles in a 40-27 final, a game in which Thomas was not able to get the ball to his receivers in the passing game. But short of playing the Alabama defense or the San Francisco 49ers defense, it was only going to get easier for Oregon's offense, with Thomas and elite running back LaMichael James.

Over the next four games, Oregon's offense was hitting on all cylinders, as they closed out non-conference play with an impressive 69-20 win over bowl-bound Nevada, hammered Missouri State and then took out Arizona and Cal to open Pac-12 play. Oregon scored 224 points in these four games and in the two Pac-12 matchups James rushed for a total of 527 yards. Like Wisconsin, the defense was a cause for concern. Nevada running back Mike Ball had a 99-yard game, Arizona quarterback Nick Foles lit them up for 398 yards passing and didn't throw a single interception. Cal's back Isi Sofele had 119 yards.

The first key test in league play was Arizona State. At the time, the Sun Devils were playing good football, were seen as the probable Pac-12 South champs and had a legitimate dark-horse chance to be in the Rose Bowl. Oregon beat them 41-27 even without James in the lineup as backup Kenjon Barner rolled for 171 yards.

Oregon kept rolling right along with wins over Colorado, Washington State and Washington, and the offense showing no signs of letup, averaging 40-plus points a game even with James missing two more games and Thomas being out against Colorado.

Now the stage was set for their big battles against Stanford and USC, both in a Saturday night prime-time showcase. In the first game at Palo Alto, Oregon likely ended Andrew Luck's Heisman campaign, as they intercepted him twice, recovered three fumbles and rolled to a 53-30 win, a victory as impressive as anyone in the country had all season. The Ducks were in control of the Pac-12 North and appeared to have the inside track to a spot in the BCS National Championship Game. Defensive problems caught up to them, as Matt Barkley threw for 323 yards and USC stole a 38-35 win in Eugene.

The Ducks wrapped the season up with a win over Oregon State that secured the division and then an anti-climactic win over UCLA in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game. The threefold combination of USC's probation preventing a rematch, Pac-12 rules giving Oregon homefield edge and UCLA firing Rick Neuheisel the week of the game all made the Ducks' win seem inevitable and they did win easily 49-31.

The Matchup: It doesn't require deep analysis to look at how these teams played and say that offense should rule the roost in the Rose Bowl. Las Vegas agrees and the Over/Under for this game is 72 (most of these lines are in the 40s or 50s). In a lot of cases, I tend to go with the Under in big games, because defenses are often underrated, as was the case in last year's national title game, a 22-19 final when the O/U was in the 70s. But this isn't one of those spots. The defensive deficiencies of both teams are real, and their offensive firepower is completely legitimate. Playing tight is the only thing that will keep this game lower-scoring, and it will take a minimum of 42 points to win.

Oregon's strength is that Wisconsin's problems with the run mean the Ducks don't have to shy from coming straight at the Badgers with James. In Wisconsin's case, Oregon's vulnerability in pass coverage indicates that UW might want to shift back to their early-season emphasis on Wilson throwing the ball. Arizona, Cal, Washington state, Stanford, USC and Oregon State all threw for 250-plus yards and Wilson is a high-percentage thrower who avoids mistakes and creates problems outside the pocket. Another area to keep an eye on is penalties--Oregon had three games this year, including the Pac-12 title game, where they drew double-digit flags. In a close game, hidden yardage can add up. On the reverse side, the Ducks can get their intangibles through kick returns and I would expect to see them try for a blocked punt more than once.

Being in Wisconsin over Christmas and New Year's the question I've gotten is "Does Wisconsin have any chance?" The good people of the Badger State aren't optimistic about this game. But I am. Biased though I may be, take the Badgers, a 5.5 point underdog as of this morning, to win a 48-45 shootout.


TheSportsNotebook.com will be doing a live blog during the Rose and Fiesta Bowls today, along with the Sugar and Orange Bowls the next two nights. Stop by during the game to get reaction as the games unfold.

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December 6, 2011 9:46 AM

Coach Of The Year Choices

BillSnyder.jpgIts awards week in college football as we build toward the Heisman ceremony in New York City on Saturday night and the bowls don't begin until December 17. Today the Notebook offers its choices for Coach of the Year, both in the major conferences and nationally, as well as paying tribute to some notable efforts done at the midmajor level.

ACC: The two division-winning coaches, Dabo Swinney at Clemson and Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer each deserve their kudos. Clemson overtook favored Florida State in the Atlantic and this was supposed to be a rebuilding year in Blacksburg that instead ended up in yet another ACC title game. But no job was better than the one Mike London did in Virginia, where the lack of a passing game and any real elite talent didn't stop him from winning eight games and competing for the conference title to the final week of the regular season. London is a rising star and should be ACC Coach of the Year.

Big Ten: Michigan football is back and Brady Hoke is the man who did it. A lot of observers, myself included, thought it might take a year or two to get transitioned back from the Rich Rodriguez spread-style offense and into a more conventional style, but Hoke made it work, won ten games and got a Sugar Bowl bid. Trips to Indianapolis and competing for a Big Ten championship are going to be in Michigan's immediate future under Hoke.

SEC: Do we have to debate this? Les Miles is a runaway choice and not by default. Steve Spurrier did one of his best coaching jobs at South Carolina this season, losing quarterback Stephen Garcia and then running back Marcus Lattimore, the most talented Gamecock runner in over thirty years, yet still won 10 games. But Miles, without a lot of offensive weaponry ran the table and turned the Tigers into a consensus #1 team. Miles gets the nod, although not without another honorable mention choice: Georgia's Mark Richt. The job Richt did, winning 10 games and taking the SEC East should be noted by every shortsighted moron who wants to fire a coach after a rough year or two. Richt overcame all the rumblings about his job status and turned the Bulldogs around. If you've got a good guy on the sidelines, ride through the tough times with him. And Richt is a coach who knows what he's doing.

Big 12: Speaking of shortsighted morons, Texas A&M ran Mike Sherman out of town after a disappointing year filled with mostly last-minute losses. Other disappointments include Oklahoma, where Bob Stoops lost three games after starting the season ranked #1. I'd also include Texas and Mack Brown, who played good defense and won seven games, but the lack of offensive punch at a school with the Longhorns' recruiting reach is mystifying. But there were some great coaching jobs done too. Art Briles kept the building going at Baylor, Mike Gundy produced the league's best team in Oklahoma State and no job done was more spectacular than what Bill Snyder turned in at Kansas State. The Wildcats had only quarterback Collin Klein to build the offense around, they played in what I think is the nation's best conference this year and they went 10-2 and quite frankly deserved a Sugar Bowl spot over either Michigan or Virginia Tech. Snyder deserves the award in the Big 12.

Pac-12: It's got to be Lane Kiffin, who's quickly got USC back on the national map after a 10-2 season that included an overtime loss to Andrew Luck and Stanford, along with a big win at Oregon. It would have included a rematch with Oregon in the conference championship game if not for the Pete Carroll-induced probation. USC's off probation next year and it looks like Kiffin has them ready to roll.

Other noteworthy jobs include...

Gary Patterson (TCU): He graduated virtually the entire defense from the team that had gone 24-0 the previous two regular seasons, still won 10 games and stunned Boise State to win the Mountain West title.

Charlie Strong (Louisville): The 7-5 record doesn't dazzle, but the Cardinals were playing the best football in the Big East at season's end and shared the league championship with West Virginia and Cincinnati. Strong is this conference's top coach and more titles are around the corner.

Dave Christensen (Wyoming): A great job in putting together the defense that carried the Cowboys to eight wins in the Mountain West while breaking in freshman Brett Smith behind center.

Bronco Mendenhall (BYU): I have my doubts that this whole independence thing is going to work for BYU, but Mendenhall got them off to a good start, going 9-3 and producing a team that clearly got better as the year wore on. They could've folded up after a blowout loss to Utah in September, but didn't.

Hugh Freeze (Arkansas State): Freeze took the Red Wolves to the top of a conference that Florida International looked to have a firm grip on in the Sun Belt and was rewarded with a move up. On Monday, Ole Miss announced that Freeze will be its new coach.

Willie Taggart (Western Kentucky): Just as Freeze did, Taggart has a program moving up the ranks in the Sun Belt, finishing in second place.

For the overall national award, I would choose Bill Snyder, with the top five being filled out by Patterson and the SEC trio of Miles, Spurrier and Richt. Eventually Kansas State will have to figure out a way to keep their program going without Snyder, but for now, life is good in Manhattan as they prepare for a Cotton Bowl date with Arkansas. 


Dan Flaherty is the editor of www.thesportsnotebook.com

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December 5, 2011 12:09 PM

Closing Thoughts On The BCS Matchups

BCS.jpgThe BCS matchups are set, and here are some closing thoughts...

*On the main controversy of the day, I unequivocally side with Oklahoma State. I am opposed to rematches in general, but especially within the conference. An argument pro-playoff supporters often make is that we need to settle this all on the field. What's a more fair way of settling it on the field than a complete eight-game schedule followed by a championship game? If that isn't a reasonable way of eliminating 11 of 12 teams, why should a one-and-done postseason bracket be? Pro-bowl people remind us that the purpose of the current system is to create elimination games every week. So much for that. The Game of the Century LSU and Alabama already played was apparently The Warmup Scrimmage Of the Century.

As to the argument that these are the two best teams in the country, regardless of conference, I'm not even persuaded of that. Oklahoma State's only loss came on the very day the athletic department was rocked by tragedy with the plane crash that took the life of the women's basketball coach. Who's to say they couldn't beat Alabama? And if Okie State would get a crack at LSU and lose decisively when Alabama went to the Sugar Bowl and pounded someone, then fine--they can be the best two teams in the country in the final poll. But at least we'd have settled it on the field and given everyone who earned a shot a chance to prove it.

*Something has to be done to prevent teams from being penalized for reaching conference championship games, but losing. Michigan State finished with a better conference record than Michigan, had a 10-2 regular season and beat the Wolverines head-to-head. But a championship game loss to Wisconsin handed the Spartans a third loss and dropped them out of the Top 16 where they needed to be eligible. Michigan moved up by default. The Spartans deserve the Sugar Bowl nod against Virginia Tech over and above the Wolverines (Kansas State does too for that matter, but that's a different topic).

*Speaking of Kansas State, while I felt they deserved an at-large BCS slot, their Cotton Bowl game with Arkansas on Friday, January 6 is no small consolation prize. This is the best of the non-BCS games.

*Before we continue endless talk about reforming the national championship process, how about reforming the minor bowl selection process, an issue that would exist whether we have a playoff or the BCS. TCU and Boise State just missed qualifying for a major bowl, which I am okay with. But the drop-off is way to severe. Boise State plays Arizona State, a collapsing 6-6 team that fired its coach, in the Las Vegas Bowl prior to Christmas Day. Why can't the Broncos take 6-6 Washington's place in the Alamo Bowl against #12 Baylor? Kellen Moore and Robert Griffin III going toe-to-toe would be a great game. And TCU plays WAC champ Louisiana Tech, who is at least an underappreciated team. But let's move the Horned Frogs past Northwestern and into the January 1 Meineke Car Care Bowl against Texas A&M. The Aggies are in disarray, but they still have talent and there's no reason the entire Big Ten and SEC have to occupy New Year's Day. In short, let's set up secondary and tertiary level BCS-style selection formats, where good midmajors can play their way past mediocre major conference teams.


Dan Flaherty is the editor at www.thesportsnotebook.com

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December 1, 2011 11:34 AM

The Big East's Wild Finish

GenoSmith.jpgIt wouldn't be Big East football if it wasn't wild and woolly down to the end. The conference gets the ESPN spotlight this evening when West Virginia goes to South Florida (8 PM ET) and has two more nationally televised games on Saturday with Syracuse-Pitt (Noon, ESPN) and UConn-Cincinnati (Noon, ESPN2). Three teams have shots at the conference's automatic BCS berth (likely in the Orange against the Virginia Tech-Clemson winner), yet none control their own destiny. Every team is still bowl eligible and seven of the eight could make it.

Let's start with tonight's game and the championship picture. Louisville (5-2, 7-5 overall) is one of two teams that have completed its season (4-3, 8-4 Rutgers being the other). The Cardinals hold a ½ game lead on West Virginia (4-2, 8-3) and Cincinnati (4-2, 8-3). If this race ends in a three-way tie than West Virginia will win, based on higher BCS ranking. So even if they win tonight, the Mountaineers still need to root for a Cincinnati win on Saturday. By the end of tonight, the Bearcats will either be out or will control their destiny--they win a two-way tie with Louisville based on a head-to-head win. Louisville is guaranteed to still have a rooting interest in Saturday. As long as Cincinnati loses, the 'Ville wins either a tiebreaker with West Virginia, or would obviously claim the crown outright if both teams lose. Got all that?

The three contenders, along with Rutgers are already locked up for bowl eligibility. The remaining four are all 5-6 and face win-and-you're-in spots. South Florida's back is to the wall tonight. UConn faces the same situation on Saturday. Syracuse-Pitt is a head-to-head battle for a bowl spot. The Big East has six bowl tie-ins, including the BCS, but keep in mind that Notre Dame is included in their pecking order and at 8-4 the Irish are in good shape to get the Champs Sports Bowl nod, the first non-BCS game. So depending whether extra bids open up at the bottom of other leagues, the Big East may have seven eligible teams fighting for five available slots.

That's the landscape, now let's get to the matchups...

West Virginia-South Florida: I expected more from WVA last week in their narrow escape over Pitt 21-20. The defense did come up big at the end with three sacks on the last Panther drive, but given how poor Pitt's pass protection is, I would not expect that to repeat itself. Mountaineer quarterback Geno Smith is the best skill position player in this conference, both throwing and running the ball and I expect him to find a way to pull it out against a Bulls team that's been up and down all year. But this one will be a nail-biter and a good way to get the final weekend of the regular season kicked off tonight.

Syracuse-Pitt: The Panthers have played their best football in the second half of the season, even given the pass protection issues noted and the October loss of running back Ray Graham for the season. Head coach Todd Graham deserves a lot of credit for getting this team to improve in its first year. Syracuse lost badly at home last week to a Cincinnati team playing without starting quarterback Zach Collaros. So who am I taking? It was going to be Pitt, but then I remembered a key life lesson I learned in eight years spent in the Steel City--Pitt football always rips your heart out. Somehow, 'Cuse QB Ryan Nassib will have his best game of the year (realistic), Pitt counterpart Tino Sunseri will be under pressure all day long and make mistakes (realistic) and the Panthers find a way to kick a bowl bid away.

UConn-Cincinnati: As mentioned, the Bearcat stepped up big with Collaros out and kept their title hopes alive. UConn came through and derailed Rutgers' title hopes last week though and I'm looking for the Huskies to do the same here. They've won three of their last five, all in conference play, and can control tempo with 1,000 yard back Lyle McCombs running the ball. Call a road upset for UConn.

My scenario sends Louisville on the Orange Bowl. A 7-5 BCS participant, along with the realignment issues damaging the league will hopefully be the final death knell for this league's preferential treatment in major bowl selection.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of www.thesportsnotebook.com

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November 28, 2011 5:41 PM

Oklahoma State Deserves A Chance

OkieStateBCS.jpgThe race for the BCS National Championship Game on January 9 in New Orleans looks all but settled. Alabama appears locked into the #2 spot at worst, and LSU's hold on #1 is so strong that BCS experts it's virtually impossible to imagine them slipping below #2 even if they lose the SEC Championship Game. The Notebook protests both situations.

I'm a believer that a team must win its conference title to compete for the national championship and I think the logic behind it speaks for itself. I have no problem with a two-loss Georgia team playing for #1 and if it were up to me, Georgia-LSU on Saturday would be winner-take-all for a spot in the title game.

But on the flip side, why should LSU have to risk its position on Saturday night while Nick Saban and Alabama can sit comfortably at home and just start preparing for the rematch with the Tigers? Here, it's not even about my ideological rejection of teams that don't win their leagues. I simply don't see why Alabama is just automatically presumed to be the undisputed second-best team in the country. They lost at home while not scoring a touchdown in the process. Their best non-conference win at Penn State was decisive, 27-11, but they handle the Nittany Lions nearly as well as Wisconsin did on Saturday in a 45-7 blasting. If you want to argue that Alabama, thanks to their stout defense is the #2 team in the country, I can certainly see the argument. But to argue that this status is so far beyond a reasonable doubt that no other team should be given a crack at LSU is something not rooted in reality. And for that reason, Oklahoma State should get first dibs on the second spot in New Orleans.

I find it astonishing that media focus on Oklahoma State's one loss has only been on the fact that it came as a 28-point favorite over Iowa State. There's no reference made to the fact the Cowboys had to play that game the very day they heard about the tragic plane crash that took the life of the women's basketball coach and their assistants. The team spent most of the day grieving and it remains a mystery to me as to why the powers-that-be didn't postpone the game. It was scheduled on a Friday night on ESPN and the decent thing to do would be at least push it back a day, perhaps even to Sunday. They didn't, Okie State looked lethargic and lost in overtime. They deserved first dibs on a second chance and the ensuing run of upsets opened the door. If it were up to me, Oklahoma State's game against Oklahoma would be to punch the Cowboys' ticket to New Orleans, with Virginia Tech next in line, at least among BCS conferences. I'm also sympathetic to the notion of giving unbeaten Houston a crack at LSU, but that's so far beyond the scope of reality that I'll leave it for another day.

That's where the Notebook stands. In the real world, this is how I'd project the BCS games shaking out...

BCS National Championship: LSU-Alabama
Fiesta: Oklahoma State-Houston
Sugar : Stanford-Michigan
Rose: Wisconsin-Oregon
Orange: Virginia Tech-West Virginia

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November 26, 2011 9:37 AM

College Football TV Saturday

Thumbnail image for CollegeGameDay.jpgFor most conferences today is the last day of the regular season, so there's national championship, major bowl, bowl eligibility and division championship battles throughout the day. If you're ready to grab some leftover turkey and sit down in front of the TV here's how your day shapes up...


EARLY

Ohio State-Michigan (Noon ET, ABC): Michigan hasn't won this rivalry battle since 2003 and if this isn't the year, I don't know when their year could possibly come. Brady Hoke has the Wolverines improving defensively and running the ball well, while Ohio State's Braxton Miller has simply made no progress as a passer this year. Playing on the road, the Buckeyes own good defense isn't enough and Michigan wins a game they must have to stake their claim to a major bowl bid.

Georgia-Georgia Tech (Noon, ESPN): Georgia is set up to play LSU for the SEC title in Atlanta next week, so this rivalry game could end up being a lookahead spot. But keep in mind, if the Bulldogs win, it keeps them alive as a possible darkhorse shot to play for the national championship if they pull the upset next week. I expect this game to be close, as it's likely to mean more for Tech this year, and Tevin Washington can present any defense with problems as he runs the option. But the Dawgs are better balanced and more battle-tested in the SEC and they get the win.

Rutgers-UConn (Noon ET, ESPN2): Yawn if you want, but this is the biggest game of the early time slot. Both teams are in the mesh of teams tied for first in the Big East and could be your Orange Bowl viewing fare against the ACC champ. Rutgers is a vastly better team and only a two-game hiccup when they insisted on experimenting with freshman quarterback Gary Nova prevents them from being in the driver's seat. The defense carries the Scarlet Knights to a solid win in Storrs.

Iowa State-Oklahoma (Noon, FX): Oklahoma must win this game to ensure they have a Big 12 title snot next week in Oklahoma State. The Cyclones are coming off last Friday's epic double-overtime win over Okie State, but going on the road to face a team that won't be dealing with tragedy, as the Cowboys were last week, spells Sooner blowout here.

Rice-SMU (Noon, FSN): SMU reaches the end of a disappointing season and tries to get to 7-5, while the game means nothing for Rice.


MIDDLE

Alabama-Auburn (3:30 ET, CBS): Based on current BCS projections, Alabama locks up a spot in the national title game with a win here, even as they come in second to LSU in the SEC West. But it would behoove the Tide to win this one decisively, with the 21-point spread Las Vegas has posted being a good benchmark. The reason? The last time conference rivals were set to rematch for a national crown was 2006 after Michigan lost to Ohio State. The Wolverines held down the #2 spot at this point on the calendar, but their season was over and there was a groundswell for Florida in the SEC that built over the following week. With Oklahoma State and potentially a one-loss Virginia Tech in action next week, there's time for voters who don't want to replay the SEC schedule in January to reconsider. 'Bama needs to provide them the reasons to stay the course.

Virginia Tech-Virginia/.Oregon State-Oregon (3:30 ET, ABC/ESPN2): The Hokies-Cavs battle in Charlottesville is for a spot in the ACC Championship Game against Clemson and as noted above for Tech, it's about keeping alive their shot at a national title. But to me, Virginia just seems on a miracle run. They won close games against Georgia Tech, Miami and Florida State. They run the ball well with Perry Jones and take good care of the football. They play good defense. They've got a firey leader in Mike London. Now if the Hokies' sophomore quarterback Logan Thomas continues his improvement and is able to make some plays in the passing game, Virginia can't keep up and none of that will matter. But Thomas is still a kid and still been inconsistent and this kind of road atmosphere may rattle him. If this one's tight in the fourth quarter, Virginia pulls the upset and I believe that's what will happen.

Oregon needs to win clinch the Pac-12 North and a matchup with UCLA in the inaugural conference title game next week. The Pac-12 also awards homefield advantage for its championship game, and that's also there for Oregon. They overmatch their in-state rivals and have everything to play for.

Penn State-Wisconsin (3:30 ET, ESPN): Regular readers know I'm a Wisconsin fan and as I type this I'm getting set to get in the car and head to Camp Randall. So I can't make an unbiased pick, but as a Badger fan here's what worries me--while UW has an infinitely more explosive offense and the ability to blow the game open, Penn State can play tough defense and they should be able to run the ball with Silas Redd. That's a formula for keeping a game close and the Badgers have yet to win a close game this year, mainly because their punt and kickoff teams are terrible. I'm confident, but not overly so as these two teams play for the right to meet Michigan State next week in Indianapolis.

Missouri-Kansas (3:30 ET, FSN): Missouri s playing to climb up the bowl ladder in the Big 12 and cap off a nice season and there's nothing that suggests the Jayhawks can prevent them from doing that in this traditional rivalry game at Arrowhead Stadium.

PRIME-TIME

Florida State-Florida (7 ET, ESPN2): At 7-4, Florida State could use a win to make a case for a spot in the New Year's Eve Chick-fil-A Bowl, the ACC's top consolation prize and offering a date with a good SEC team--a spot the 'Noles took advantage of last year when they beat South Carolina and went into the offseason on a high note. Florida's playing to have a winning season. I like Florida's running game, homefield and SEC pedigree to prevail here.

Clemson-South Carolina (7:15 ET, ESPN): It's the third of the trio of SEC-ACC rivalry games that traditionally play on this day, and I'll take the SEC to run the table. Clemson seems to have peaked offensively a few weeks ago and Tajh Boyd hasn't been the same. South Carolina has quietly adjusted very well to the loss of their offensive weapons and is playing some rock-solid defense that continues here and makes it a 3-0 sweep for the SEC.

Texas Tech-Baylor (7 ET, FSN ): Texas Tech is 5-6 and needs this one to get bowl-eligible and could catch Baylor in a letdown spot after the Oklahoma win last Saturday night. Red Raider quarterback Seth Doege played his best game in a month last week and looks ready to get into a shootout with Robert Griffin III. It'll be close, but in the end the homefield edge for the Bears allows them to scrape out a win and move to 8-3 as they continue their best season since a 1980 Cotton Bowl appearance, when the Cotton was still a major bowl.

Notre Dame-Stanford (8 ET, ABC): Stanford's still in the hunt for a national title shot with one loss and they'll  know by kickoff whether Oregon lost and handed the Cardinals the Pac-12 North title and right to host the conference championship game. Regardless of the championship pictures, both nationally and in conference, a Stanford win here seals a second straight major bowl bid and they can't lose sight of that. The Notre Dame defense cannot stop the physical Cards running game with Stephan Taylor and Andrew Luck will be able to carve up the secondary. This one won't be close in the fourth quarter.

UCLA-USC (10 ET, FSN): UCLA clinched the Pac-12 South after Utah's loss to Colorado yesterday, so the only meanings this game has are the rivalry factor, the USC "this is our bowl game" factor due to their probation and, something that would be nice for the Pac-12, if UCLA wins they would be division champs over USC without the help of the Trojans' probation (both would be 6-3 in the conference with a head-to-head Bruin win). Frankly none of that's a reason to stay up late in the East or Midwest unless you're a displaced fan of either team, and in either case, USC is playing too well to be stopped by a mediocre UCLA defense.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of www.thesportsnotebook.com

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November 25, 2011 8:11 AM

Black Friday Football Slate

LSUArkansas.jpgIt's time for some Black Friday football, with wall-to-wall action, so without further adieu, the Notebook looks at the games...

EARLY

Iowa-Nebraska (Noon ET, ABC): These teams may be out of the division race. The winner realistically wraps up a spot in one of the three Big Ten-SEC bowls on New Year's Day (Capital One, Outback, Gator), while the loser is in danger of sliding further down the ladder. I wasn't impressed with Nebraska's defense prior to last week and was even less so after Michigan's Fitz Touissant finished running roughshod over them. I think Marcus Coker should be able to do the same, and Iowa can also get the ball downfield, with James Vandenberg throwing to Melvin McNutt. With Nebraska now in the Big Ten, this game is set up to be a traditional Farm Belt rivalry to end the season and Iowa wins the first installment.

Louisville-South Florida (Noon ET, ESPN2): Louisville is in a five-way tie for the Big East title even though they're only 6-5. South Florida needs to win to get bowl-eligible, but it's looking like quarterback B.J. Daniels will miss the game. I like way Louisville has improved throughout the year under Charlie Strong and a strong defensive effort gets them a road win. Since this is the Cards' final game of the season a win clinches a share of the conference championship, with the BCS bid still to be determined as tiebreakers shake out.

Houston-Tulsa (Noon ET, FSN): This is the most underrated game of the day and the one I'll watch in the early time slot. Its winner-take-all for the C-USA West title and a date with Southern Miss in next Saturday's conference title game. For unbeaten Houston even more is at stake, as they are now virtually a lock for a major bowl game if they win out. Case Keenum gets deserved media attention for the way he leads a prolific passing offense, but Tulsa's G.J. Kinne is an excellent passer himself and has a good running game with Ja'Terian Douglas and Trey Watts. Furthermore, Houston hasn't blown out the respectable teams on its schedule, namely UCLA and Louisiana Tech. Finally consider this--while Tulsa has three losses, the defeats came at the hands of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise State. The Golden Hurricane is primed for home win today.

Another game to check at ESPNU is Eastern Michigan-Northern Illinois. NIU is playing to clinch the MAC's Western Division with all-everything quarterback Chandler Harnish. Should Eastern Michigan--a respectable team at 6-5--pull the road upset, the door opens for Toledo.

MIDDLE

Arkansas-LSU (3:30 ET, CBS): This is the latest SEC game everyone's waiting for. A Razorback win creates a three-way tie, including Alabama for the SEC West title with the best BCS ranking among the trio getting the nod for Atlanta in next Saturday's conference championship game. This game is in Baton Rouge and LSU is a 12-point favorite, a number I consider excessive. As good as the LSU defense is, the Arkansas passing game led by Tyler Wilson will test this secondary in a way Alabama couldn't. And while the Hog defense is suspect, at least by national championship standards, it's no less so than the LSU offense. At the end of the day I do like LSU to win, with their secondary making a couple more plays than Wilson and his receiving corps, led by Jarius Wright, are able to make. But it comes down to the wire in a 20-17 final. One twist to consider here is that with two of the three SEC contenders in good position to still play for the national championship an LSU loss might only drop them to #2 behind Alabama, so the Tigers could repeat their 2007 "feat" of losing this traditional Black Friday rivalry game and still winning the national championship.

Boston College-Miami (3:30 ET, ABC): If you want to watch endless highlights of Doug Flutie's 1984 Hail Mary pass that stunned on Black Friday, tune in. Otherwise, there's little reason to watch.  Miami is playing at home, is vastly better and neither team has anything to play for.

Colorado-Utah (3:30 ET, FSN): Utah still has a shot to win the Pac-12 South. If they win this game here, they'd need Arizona State to lose at Cal later tonight and UCLA to lose to USC tomorrow (both very realistic, and remember USC's probation eliminates them from consideration) and it would get the Sun Devils a shot at Oregon next Friday night in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game.  Utah's played its best football in the second half of the season and taking care of the lowly Buffs shouldn't be a problem. Regardless of what happens elsewhere, a win here makes the Utes a prime candidate for the Alamo Bowl against a Big 12 opponent.

PRIME-TIME

Pitt-West Virginia (7 ET, ESPN): Both teams are part of the five-way tie in the Big East race, so a conference championship and possible Orange Bowl bid will add to the juice of The Backyard Brawl. Pitt has improved a lot over the last several weeks, but is still playing without running back Ray Graham, out for the season. West Virginia's offense, led by Geno Smith, is more than capable of opening this game up and I believe they'll do just that. WVA generally matches up pretty well in this rivalry, with the exception of a memorable Pitt upset in '07 that cost the Mountaineers a shot at the national title, and Smith should lead this team to a 35-24-type victory.

Cal-Arizona State (10:15 ET, ESPN): Like Utah, Arizona State has a shot at the Pac-12 South and would win a three-way tie. So the Sun Devils will root for Utah this afternoon, then against UCLA tomorrow. More importantly, they might try playing some football themselves tonight. ASU has faded badly thanks to poor defensive play, while Cal is coming along. I like the Golden Bears to win here and put a knife in a disappointing Sun Devil season.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of www.thesportsnotebook.com

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