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College Football

The Road to the College Football Playoff Week Two: Aegean Combatants and Birds

NCAA Football: Jacksonville State at Michigan State

Michigan State visits Oregon, in the 2014 season’s first great power conflict. The Spartans’ defense finished top five in yards/play allowed the past three years. The Ducks’ offense finished in the Top 11 in yards/play every year since 2010. Neither unit is quite at its apogee. Though, considering recruiting input, this could be a collision of the best college coaching achievements on either side of the ball.

Oregon returns most of its 2013 attack, barring a couple torn ACLs. QB1 Marcus Mariota is healthy and among the early Heisman favorites. The Ducks have strong running back depth and experience on the offensive line. Receiver losses are significant, but sustainable.

MSU underwent more transition on defense. The Spartans lose four guys from their seven-man defensive line rotation, two All-Conference caliber playmakers at linebacker in Denicos Allen and Bullough and first-round cornerback Darqueze Dennard. Stars such as Shilique Calhoun and Trae Waynes come back. The unit should still be formidable. But, in a system that places a heavy emphasis on players making reads and adjustments as a group, will they be fully operational in week two?

How about the players behind them? Oregon’s speed wears down defenses in normal conditions. The forecast for Eugene on Saturday is 95 degrees and sunny. The game kicks off in mid-afternoon. Michigan State should have to go deeper down the depth chart than normal. While the Spartans have recruited well, many of those players have hardly played.

That said, Michigan State may have the coaching advantage. Pat Narduzzi, the architect, is on the sideline for Michigan State. Oregon is run by Chip Kelly’s apprentices. His glowing residue is fading with each passing year. Running a system is one thing. Being able to tweak it creatively mid-game is another. Don’t discount the intimidation factor from Mark Dantonio’s withering stare.

Proceedings on the other side of the ball should interest as well. Longtime Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti retires. The Ducks also turn over a not that impressive defensive line. MSU improved from heinous to not so bad offensively at warp speed last season. But, they lose three multiple-year starters along their line. Inveterate gamer Connor Cook walked a tight rope at times and ranked outside the Top 50 last year in passer rating and yards/attempt. Few would expect stupendous efforts from those units. But their competence, for both teams, could make the difference between 9-3 and playoff contender.

Ramifications from this game could be grave for the Big Ten. The conference has faded in perception, for all but the delusional and openly partisan. In the playoff era, that perception will be all that matters. The committee “just knows a hard schedule when they see it.” The ACC may be the fifth best of the “Big Five.” That won’t matter for Florida State. The SEC champ is a lock. That leaves the Pac 12, Big 12, B1G and the SEC runner up fighting for two places.

Losing narrowly would be okay. Few would begrudge Michigan State covering the spread away at Oregon. But, a decisive loss could be a disaster. It would all but eliminate MSU. Going 8-0 in a watered down B1G won’t alter the narrative. With Wisconsin duffing it against LSU, any champ but an undefeated Ohio State would likely see the B1G shut out. Even in that scenario, would a 13-0 Ohio State against a soft schedule definitely get in ahead of an 11-1 Auburn or LSU that lost to Bama? That team would have a number of marquee wins. In the committee room, someone will be making that hard to refute argument.

Brady Hoke angry during Penn State overtime

Other Games

Michigan at Notre Dame… Another fierce rivalry fans enjoy bites the dust. Michigan has a trio of road rivalry games – Notre Dame, Michigan State, Ohio State –  that will define Brady Hoke’s season (and potentially future). This may be the best opportunity for him to steal one. Critics will note Hoke is 6-9 away from home during the regular season at Michigan. The best win came against a 6-7 Northwestern team in 2011. Both teams looked excellent the first week, but neither played anyone. This should be where we find out whether Michigan’s offensive line, featuring a 270-pound true freshman left tackle, can offer more than smoke and mirrors. Michigan has won six of the last eight in the series. Though the last trip to South Bend was…ugly. Four of the last five have been decided by one score.

USC at Stanford… The Trojans embark on a new era, after washing off the Kiffin. The Cardinal are rebuilding on both lines. History, for what it’s worth, suggests this game will be close. USC upset Stanford 20-17 last November, the fourth game in a row decided by one score. Steve Sarkisian’s last two Stanford games at Washington were decided by one score as well. The Trojans would make a strong statement with a win here. Stanford, with an absurd schedule, may need one. This is the first of five games the Cardinals have against teams ranked in the present Top 20. The other four are on the road. That doesn’t include an additional road trip to Chris Petersen’s Washington. Stanford could be a top 10 to 15 team and finish 8-4.

Virginia Tech at Ohio State… The Hokies should be Ohio State’s most robust opponent until hitting East Lansing in early November. OSU’s offense, particularly the line, looked unconvincing for three quarters against Navy. Their defense, after one game against a triple option, is still a mystery after fading hard at the finish last year. We can presume Bud Foster’s defense will be good to very good, despite substantial departures up front. Though Tech’s offense, spearheaded by freshmen and a transfer who lost the Texas Tech job, is another matter. If the Hokies can spring the upset here, the schedule will be mediocre at best through the ACC title game. Frank Beamer back to double-digit wins?

marcus mariota oregon texas

Picks

We went 3-2 last weekend. Ohio State over the Navy spread by half a point on a busted coverage and a fumble return for a TD will happen. Moving forward…

Oregon (-12) vs. Michigan State… Michigan State’s defense hasn’t faced an offense of this caliber. They will do so with a number of inexperienced starters, in hot weather, across the country. Their offense ranked ninth in the Big Ten last year in yards/play against FBS teams. Even the best Dantonio teams have delivered some absolute turds on the road. (2010 – Iowa, 2011 – Notre Dame and Nebraska)

Vanderbilt (+20) vs. Ole Miss... Derek Mason’s defense played well against Temple, stopping 15/17 third downs. The Commodores’ offense turned the ball over seven times, and spotted Temple five drives within 40 yards of the end zone. Ole Miss can’t run the ball. This would be Bo Wallace throwing against a much better pass defense on the road. We’ll take the home dog in the SEC to keep it low scoring.

San Jose State (+32.5) at Auburn… Oddsmakers have lost a lot of money on Auburn over the past year. The course correction is coming. San Jose State can score. The Auburn defense is not that formidable. The Tigers take their foot off the gas and don’t give Bill Snyder much to look at and win by four touchdowns.

East Carolina (+16.5) at South Carolina… South Carolina’s defense looked inept against Texas A&M. All seven touchdowns came on sustained drives. East Carolina has a very good quarterback in Shane Carden. The Gamecocks improve and probably win. But, we don’t feel good about South Carolina covering big numbers when they are playing well.

UMass (+17) vs. Colorado… Colorado has not beaten an FBS team by 17 points since 2011. They haven’t done it outside the state of Colorado since 2007. They are fresh off another loss to Colorado State. It’s UMass, to be sure. But that’s just too many points on a long road trip.

[USA Today Sports]

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