By Brennan Marks SZ Contributing Writer

     Some of you might recognize me from my weekly college football columns. I love college football, but if there is any sport I love more than college football, it is college basketball. Therefore, I will periodically write columns about college basketball, and hopefully, they will appear on this blog.

     Now, the college basketball season is quickly approaching, and I do not have enough time, or expertise to write a comprehensive preview of every possible facet of the season. Instead, this column ranks the preseason tournaments from worst to best as far as quality of teams goes. The basis in my selection for tournaments was ranking all of the tournaments on this web page: http://www.sportsline.com/collegebasketball/story/10932089 , and I am sorry if any other tournaments were left out. This article is strictly based on my opinions and assumptions on the teams, but that does not mean that some of the lower ranked tournaments will provide less exciting games. Anyway, here is the list.

 

10. Great Alaskan Shootout

     The Great Alaskan Shootout has a name reputation, but that’s about all it has this year. When the headliners are Louisiana Tech and San Diego State, you know you’re in trouble. Maybe Sarah Palin will show up, though.

 

9. Cancun Challenge

     From cold Alaska, we move to a more ideal climate in Cancun, and the Cancun Challenge itself is a bit more ideal than the Great Alaskan Shootout. Still, Cancun features a decent SEC team in Vanderbilt, last year’s regular season media darling in Drake, a solid C-USA team with UCF, a team with the hottest coach in America with VCU, and good New Mexico team. That may sound good but compared to some of the other tournaments, it’s nothing.

 

8. Legends Classic

     The Legends Classic does not excite me very much, but it does have a lot of depth and good teams at the top. There are four teams from four different BCS conferences (Mississippi State- SEC, Washington State- Pac 10, Texas Tech- Big 12, and Pittsburgh-Big East), and assuming one of those teams wins the tournament (like I said, a lot of depth but not many quality teams), they could make a statement for their conference.

 

7. Anaheim Classic

     This should be a good tournament. Arizona State features one of the best players in the nation in James Harden and will compete with UCLA and USC for the Pac-10. Baylor will compete for the Big 12. UTEP is in upper-tier of C-USA. St Mary’s has a more than legitimate shot to compete with Gonzaga in the WCC and make the NCAA tournament. Wake Forrest is on the rise in the ACC. Charlotte and Providence have decent programs as well. It’s a testament to rest of the tournaments that this tournament is ranked 7th.

 

6. Paradise Jam

     This tournament features two highly ranked teams in Connecticut and Miami and features some other solid teams, like Wisconsin, Southern Miss, and San Diego. But the strength of the tournaments rests on the quality of UConn and the U.

 

5. Puerto Rico Tip Off

     Many college basketball fans are wowed by the so-called “one-and-done” freshmen, or the players who would have gone to the NBA straight out of high school but were forced to go to college for one year because of an NBA rule. The Puerto Rico Tip Off features two of those freshmen with Demar Derozan of Pac 10 competitor USC and Tyreke Evans of national runner-up and perennial C-USA favorite, Memphis. Compound that with Xavier, Virginia Tech, Missouri, and Seton Hall, and you’ve got quite the formidable tournament.

 

4. Maui Invitational

     Well, it features the # 1 ranked team in the land in North Carolina, but in case you haven’t heard, their star player and preseason national player of the year/All-America, Tyler Hansbrough might not play because of an injury. Not to worry, this features another preseason All-America in Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody. Not to mention Texas, Alabama, Oregon, St. Joe’s, a depleted Indiana, and of course, Chaminade.

 

3. Coaches vs. Cancer

 

     Much like the Paradise Jam, this tournament features two highly ranked teams with Duke and UCLA. The difference is that this tournament has a lot more depth and features other solid teams such as Michigan, Houston, and Southern Illinois.

 

2. NIT Season Tip Off

 

     This tournament is probably the most well-known preseason tournament, and unlike the Great Alaskan Shootout, it lives up to its name recognition. The favorites are Oklahoma, Purdue, Boston College, Arizona, Davidson, and UAB. It also features Georgia and St. John’s. Personally, I’m rooting for Davidson to make it to Madison Square Garden (they would likely have to beat Oklahoma, at Oklahoma) and play against UAB (they would likely have to beat Arizona, at Arizona) in the semi-finals. That game would present a match-up of two of the best, if not the two best, 3 point shooters in college basketball in Davidson’s Stephen Curry and UAB’s Robert Vaden. Even if that does not occur, the games will surely feature some name and quality teams.

 

 

1.  Old Spice Classic

     This is an amazing tournament, and every team has a legitimate shot to make the NCAA tournament (although it’s not likely that a couple of them will). There’s not really much to say about this; it just features great teams. How did they get a field with Georgetown, Maryland, Gonzaga, Michigan State, Siena, Tennessee, Oklahoma State, and Wichita State? It’s simply amazing.

 

By: Brennan Marks, SZ Contributing Writer

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Game of the Week: Florida vs. Georgia in Jacksonville, Florida

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By: Brennan Marks, SZ Contributing Writer

TV: CBS, 3:30 ET

Last Week: Georgia beat LSU, Florida defeated Kentucky

     There are two big games this week. The headliner is another battle of unbeatens in the Texas-Texas Tech game. The other game used to be officially referred to as the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” and features two one-loss divisional rivals in Florida and Georgia. I decided to write about the other game.

     Why, you might ask, in a million years, would you choose to not write about what appears to be the last regular season game between two undefeated teams this year? Although the Texas-Texas Tech game is monumental in shaping the Big 12 and national championship picture, I have my reasons for choosing to write about the Cocktail Party, as always, I will share them with my loyal reader(s) in order to justify my decision.

     I have three reasons for choosing this match-up. First of all and most importantly, this game has conference and national championship implications as well. The winner of this game pretty much locks up the SEC East title, and if the winner wins out, including the SEC championship game, that team will have a legitimate shot to play in the national championship game (depending on the results of the rest of the nation, of course). It is necessary to mention, however, that running the table will still be difficult, with non-conference rivalries (Georgia vs. a new look Georgia Tech and Florida vs. a re-energized Florida State) and the SEC title game, looming large.

     Secondly, not only does Florida want revenge for losing the game last year, but also, the Gators remember the stunt coach Mark Richt and Georgia pulled on them last year. Now, in my last column, I mentioned that “we’re too deep in the season…for that abstract stuff to really matter (at least in most cases).” It would appear that I’m contradicting myself here, but because of my wily usage of parenthesis, I can claim that this is one of those few cases that deviates from the norm (although in retrospect, I probably should have used the term external instead of abstract). But back to the “stunt.” Last year, after scoring their first touchdown, Georgia head coach Mark Richt ordered his entire team to celebrate in the field and told them he would be disappointed if they did not receive a penalty. You can watch a video of that at this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJAQjqZg_zI. Since then, Richt has apologized and has claimed to regret his decision. Still, that unsportsmanlike action remains center stage in the minds of Gator nation and of course, the actual football team.

     Lastly, this is one of the most competitive and fun rivalries in college football. Florida and Georgia, along with Tennessee, have been the class of the SEC East throughout the 90s and 2000s. This almost always means something. Plus, it’s just plain fun. With the cocktail party and all, I always try to tune in to this game, and I’m not a fan of either team. Yes, the Texas Tech – Texas game will be fun as well, but come on, this is the cocktail party.

     Well now that the explanation is finally done, I can actually discuss the game itself. On paper this game could at least sniff the offensive numbers that are bound to be put up by the Texas-Texas Tech game. We all know the players: the cult-hero, dual threat, “system,” Heisman-winning quarterback Tim Tebow and the shifty, versatile, and fast WR/RB Percy Harvin for Florida; the incredibly accurate, precision passer, pro-style quarterback Matthew Stafford and flashy, strong, and athletic running back Knowshon Moreno. With an additional group of playmakers on each team – for Florida an improved running game with backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey, for Georgia a talented group of wide-receivers with AJ Green and Mohamed Massaquoi – and respectable offensive line units, both offenses are bound to put up gaudy numbers, especially for the defensive-minded SEC.

Because of the potent of each offense, I believe that the team who can make a few more defensive plays as far as forcing turnovers, outplaying the other team’s offensive line or just get a few lucky breaks will be in the best position to win. Now it is possible for one defense to dominate the game (like Alabama did against Georgia for most of the game), but I believe the progress each team’s offense has made throughout the season will make that scenario unlikely. Still, the defense that can create the most opportunities, in my opinion, will win the game. Statistically, that does not bode well for the Bulldogs. The Gators are ahead of the Bulldogs in all defensive statistical categories, including total defense, scoring defense, sacks by, rushing defense, passing defense, and of course turnover margin (Florida leads the SEC in turnover margin and Georgia ranks 6th). Regardless, Georgia has some good playmakers on their defense, especially at linebacker, and should still be able to make this game competitive.

Secondly, not only does Florida want revenge for losing the game last year, but also, the Gators remember the stunt coach Mark Richt and Georgia pulled on them last year. Now, in my last column, I mentioned that “we’re too deep in the season…for that abstract stuff to really matter (at least in most cases).” It would appear that I’m contradicting myself here, but because of my wily usage of parenthesis, I can claim that this is one of those few cases that deviates from the norm (although in retrospect, I probably should have used the term external instead of abstract). But back to the “stunt.” Last year, after scoring their first touchdown, Georgia head coach Mark Richt ordered his entire team to celebrate in the field and told them he would be disappointed if they did not receive a penalty. You can watch a video of that at this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJAQjqZg_zI. Since then, Richt has apologized and has claimed to regret his decision. Still, that unsportsmanlike action remains center stage in the minds of Gator nation and of course, the actual football team.

Lastly, this is one of the most competitive and fun rivalries in college football. Florida and Georgia, along with Tennessee, have been the class of the SEC East throughout the 90s and 2000s. This almost always means something. Plus, it’s just plain fun. With the cocktail party and all, I always try to tune in to this game, and I’m not a fan of either team. Yes, the Texas Tech – Texas game will be fun as well, but come on, this is the cocktail party.

Well now that the explanation is finally done, I can actually discuss the game itself. On paper this game could at least sniff the offensive numbers that are bound to be put up by the Texas-Texas Tech game. We all know the players: the cult-hero, dual threat, “system,” Heisman-winning quarterback Tim Tebow and the shifty, versatile, and fast WR/RB Percy Harvin for Florida; the incredibly accurate, precision passer, pro-style quarterback Matthew Stafford and flashy, strong, and athletic running back Knowshon Moreno. With an additional group of playmakers on each team – for Florida an improved running game with backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey, for Georgia a talented group of wide-receivers with AJ Green and Mohamed Massaquoi – and respectable offensive line units, both offenses are bound to put up gaudy numbers, especially for the defensive-minded SEC.

Because of the potent of each offense, I believe that the team who can make a few more defensive plays as far as forcing turnovers, outplaying the other team’s offensive line or just get a few lucky breaks will be in the best position to win. Now it is possible for one defense to dominate the game (like Alabama did against Georgia for most of the game), but I believe the progress each team’s offense has made throughout the season will make that scenario unlikely. Still, the defense that can create the most opportunities, in my opinion, will win the game. Statistically, that does not bode well for the Bulldogs. The Gators are ahead of the Bulldogs in all defensive statistical categories, including total defense, scoring defense, sacks by, rushing defense, passing defense, and of course turnover margin (Florida leads the SEC in turnover margin and Georgia ranks 6th). Regardless, Georgia has some good playmakers on their defense, especially at linebacker, and should still be able to make this game competitive.

Special teams wise, both teams offset each other for the most part. Florida has an excellent punt return game but Georgia leads the SEC in punting. Both Florida and Georgia have good kick return games, but both also have mediocre kickoff coverage units. However, it is important to note that Florida features one of the SEC leaders in the return game with the electrifying speedster Brandon James, and he could be a formidable foe for the Georgia special teams units.

As far as intangibles go, I think Florida has an advantage. The Gators obviously want revenge from last year and are extremely motivated to beat the Bulldogs. Georgia also is the most penalized team in the SEC (Florida ranks 2nd). However, intangibles are just intangibles and what really matters is the plays the players make.

Prediction: This, as usual, is an extremely tough game to call. I think Georgia has had too many issues and injuries this year, and Tebow is a lot healthier than he was at this point last year. I say Florida 41-38. If you were betting, though, you should probably bet against me because I have been wrong for the past several weeks in my predictions.

Look Back: Well, we can be thankful that Ohio State is officially eliminated from the national championship picture (knock on wood). But now, we could have a whole different problem on our hands. Penn State won in a defensive, traditional Big-10 battle and remained undefeated. But if they remained undefeated and more than 1 other team remains undefeated, we will, once again, have chaos. Thank you, BCS.

 

By: Brennan Marks, SZ Contributing Writer

Game of the Week: Penn State at Ohio State

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By: Brennan Marks, SZ Contributing Writer

TV: ABC, 8:00 PM ET

Last Week: Penn State beat Michigan, Ohio State defeated Michigan State

            So last week I did write a game of the week column for this website, but luckily it wasn’t published. I say luckily because the subject of that column was the Ohio State-Michigan State, and I picked Michigan State to win by a small margin. I was originally planning to write about the Texas-Oklahoma State game because I did not want to write about the same team two weeks in a row. However, since the column never was published, it would appear that I’d be writing about Texas two weeks in a row, and sometimes appearances mean more than realities. So for the fact that my OSU-MSU column was (fortunately) not published and the fact that if I wrote about Texas it would appear that I was writing about the same team two weeks in a row, I decided to write about the Ohio State – Penn State game. Not to mention, it’s a pretty big and possibly season defining game with national championship and Big 10 championship implications.

            The Big 10 and national championship implications are really the only important factors in the magnitude of this game. This isn’t like other weeks, where a win for team x implies such and such about their program’s progress or loss for team y implies such and such about that program. We’re too deep in the season for that abstract stuff to really matter (at least in most cases). All we care about now is about championship contenders, and because of that, I will refer to BCS rankings rather than AP or another poll (for the most part) from now on.

            Both Ohio State and Penn State were included in the top 10 of the initial BCS standings, with Penn State at # 3 and Ohio State at # 9. So, we have our first “legitimate” BCS top 10 match up on our hands this week. As for how they got there, both teams have their own story.

            Ohio State began the season with lofty expectations and the possibilities of reaching their 3rd straight national title game. They were the clear favorite to win the Big 10 and had a strong chance of running the table. Although analysts and fans admitted that Ohio State could lose a conference game, they typically believed only one true hurdle stood in the Buckeye’s way: USC. We all know now that that hurdle turned into a massacre and Ohio State plummeted in the polls worst than Wall Street has in the past two months. But, unlike the stock market, Ohio State has risen from the ashes with the emergence of the heralded Terrelle Pryor at quarter back and the return of running back and team leader Beanie Wells to full health. Currently, the Buckeyes sit atop the Big 10 and like many people expected, undefeated in conference play. Even with they loss, they have outside shot to get the national championship game if some things they can’t control go their way.

            In that last paragraph, I neglected to mention that Ohio State is not the only team at the top of the Big 10. The other team undefeated in conference play is – you guessed it- the Penn State Nittany Lions. Penn State has a completely different story than Ohio State. Although once a prominent and proud football program, the Nittany Lions fell into obscurity in recent years with a few exceptional or noteworthy seasons such as when Michael Robinson played quarterback for them a few years ago. They began the season unranked or at a low position in the polls but have worked their way up to the top of the rankings by simply winning every game they have played. Granted, the schedule appears to have been weak so far, but they did dominate Oregon State, who beat USC, who destroyed Ohio State, if that means anything (which it shouldn’t, just interesting to note). No matter the weakness of the schedule, however, Penn State has done all it has been capable of by winning its game and controls its own destiny for the rest of the season.

            But how did Penn State win their games? They simply dominated on the offensive side of the ball. The Nittany Lions have scored at least twenty points every game and lead the Big 10 in scoring offense at 45.4 points per game. They are led by quarterback Daryll Clark who has thrown 11 touchdowns with only 2 interceptions and ranks 2nd in the Big 10 in passing efficiency. They have a pretty good running back in Evan Royster, who has 10 rushing touchdowns and leads the Big 10 in yards per carry and two senior receivers in Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood, who rank among the leading receivers in the conference.

            Ohio State does not have as statistically as good of an offense as Penn State does, but you certainly have heard of their players. In fact, I’m tired of talking about the attributes of Beanie Wells and Terrelle Pryor because fans already know the importance of those two players to the Buckeyes. I will focus on defense instead.

Led by two potential first round draft picks in linebacker James Laurinaitis and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, the Ohio State defense can strike fear in most opponents.  Consider this: they held former national leading rusher, Javon Ringer, to 67 yards on 16 attempts and no touchdowns. They also rank 2nd in the conference in pass defense 3rd in scoring defense 2nd in total defense and 1st in rush defense.

          But Penn State’s defense isn’t too shabby either. In fact, they somehow managed to rank ahead of Ohio State in all of those categories except for rushing defense (they are 2nd in the Big 10).

          Also interesting to note, Penn State ranks 1st in 3rd down conversion and 1st in opponent 3rd down conversion. Such intangibles could be crucial. Still other intangible might play a larger role. For instance, the game is at Ohio State, and Penn State has not won their since the 1970s.

 

Prediction: This is a really difficult game for me to predict, but I will stay conservative and go with the Buckeyes, 38-35. I feel like owe it to them since I picked them to lose last week, but more legitimately, Penn State hasn’t proven anything to me yet. Yes, their statistics are amazing and their coach is hall of famer, but they haven’t beaten a quality opponent yet. Now, Ohio State hasn’t really beaten anyone noteworthy either, but they have dominated the Big 10 the past couple of years even if they’ve choked in prominent national games. That, plus the fact that the game is at Ohio State has convinced me to pick the Buckeyes.

 

Look Back Last Week: Nothing to say, I was completely wrong. Michigan State is pretty much a fraud.

 

Look Back Two Weeks: The Red River Shootout turned out to be quite the shootout. Even though Texas won by 10 points, it was close throughout; Texas just made a few more big plays, and those plays were the difference. As for Oklahoma, they still are in good shape. They fell about 3 spots in the polls and still have a change for the Big 12 title and a remote hope for the national championship game. Texas controls its own destiny for a BCS title, but at least on paper, they have a difficult road ahead, starting this week with Missouri. PS: Don’t be surprised if Texas appears in this column again next week, depending on what happens on Saturday.

 

By: Brennan Marks, SZ Contributing Writer

Game of the Week: Oklahoma vs. Texas, in Dallas, Texas

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By: Brennan Marks, SZ Contributing Writer

TV: ABC, 12:00 PM ET

Last Week: Oklahoma defeated Baylor, Texas beat Colorado

            After a one-week hiatus, the game of the week column is back with a vengeance.  This column will preview what’s bound to be a season-defining game, the Red River Shootout. But first, I would like to thank SportsZone producer and blog editor Sean for permitting a college football segment in the 10/06 episode. I’m not sure if it was a critical success, but I definitely enjoyed discussing college football with my two co-hosts, Steve and Amanda. Now on to the game…

            The Red River Shootout is always a big rivalry game with a lot of interesting connotations, but this year, its vastness is compounded by the fact that Texas and Oklahoma are both undefeated and in the Top 5. You might think that with the incredible qualities and histories of these storied programs that top 5 matchups would be a fairly recurring occurrence, but in reality, it will be only the tenth time in a 103 year history that the series can brag of that fact.

            But in spite of the obvious reasons for this being a big game (classic rivalry, top 5 matchup, national and Big 12 title implications), this game appeals on multiple other levels as well. First of all, I believe that this is the first true Big 12 conference game. Currently, every Big 12 team has played at least conference game, but this is where the real season for the Big 12 begins.

            The Big 12 features 6 currently ranked teams, with 4 in the top 10 and 3 in the top 5. None of them have played each other until now. In fact, to me, the story of the second half of the 2008 season will be who emerges from the Big 12. Because no one has played each other and none of the teams have truly played anyone special out of conference (one of the ranked teams, Kansas, lost to South Florida in their “marquee” non-conference matchup), the rest of the season will determine the “contenders” and “pretenders” in the conference, and the Red River Shootout is just the tip of the iceberg.

            In addition this game could have a muscular impact on the Heisman Trophy Race. Two candidates, one on each team, faceoff on Saturday, and they won’t compete against each other correctly because they are both on the offensive side of the ball (and play the same position). Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford has slightly more prolific numbers than Texas QB Colt McCoy, but McCoy is a bit more mobile, with 317 rushing yards to Bradford’s negative 23. However, Bradford is a full-fledged contender, while McCoy is more of a dark horse. Still, both are excellent quarterbacks and if one of them outperforms the other (with a stellar performance of course), he could make a major case for the Heisman.

            As for the game itself, as alluded to in the quarterback discussion, both teams have a powerful, high-octane offenses, which is a trend in the Big 12 this year. But both teams can play defense as well. Texas has a scoring margin of 35.8 points per game while Oklahoma averages the exact same number (The Sooners score about two more points and allow about two more points than the Longhorns do). Texas is # 1 in scoring defense in the Big 12, and Oklahoma is # 2 (same for sacks by). Oklahoma is # 1 in total defense and Texas is # 2.

            Teams appear to be fairly even in special teams with a slight edge to Texas. Neither team has kicked many field goals but they have made all the ones they have attempted.  Texas leads the conference in punting while Oklahoma is near the bottom in punt returns. Plus, Oklahoma has missed two PATs while Texas has been perfect in that regard.

            A quick note about these offenses: I already talked about how great the quarterbacks were, but these teams can run the ball as well. Whoever can establish the run better can set up more effective play action plays, and that could be a key factor in the outcome of the game.           

Other than that, there’s not much left to say; the game is so important that not a lot truly needs to be said. And, unlike Alabama who has surprised many fans with its success, these teams are known commodities. All there’s left to do is just sit back and enjoy the game.

Prediction: The winner of this game will be in the driver’s seat for the national championship game. However, they will be driving on a bumpy road.  For Texas, this game begins a difficult four game set against 4 out of the 6 ranked Big 12 teams (and Texas is included in that 6). Oklahoma will not have such an arduous task, but they will have some difficult games down the road.  As for the prediction, you would expect this one to live to its “shootout” billing, at least on the offensive side of the ball, but sometimes expectations do not come into fruition, and these teams have the defenses to subdue the powerful offenses. Still, I believe it will be a relatively high scoring game with Oklahoma winning 28-24. Justification: Oklahoma has never trailed this entire season, and that’s impressive, no matter the competition.

Explanation: I did not write my column last week for a few reasons. First of all, I had a lot of work.  Nevertheless, I still had plenty of opportunities to write, and the reason I didn’t was because I could not interest myself in the game I intended to write about, Ohio State-Wisconsin. I did turn out to be a good game, and we learned two things: Wisconsin is really mediocre, and people still are going to push for Ohio State to play in the national championship if they have one loss and things go their way because Beanie Wells did not play vs. USC and Terrelle Pryor wasn’t the full time starter.  We’ll see what happens with the Buckeyes and the Big 10. But, sorry to anyone who hates this column and thought that I had quit writing it, because I believe I will continue to write.

Look Back Two Weeks: So, I was glad I was wrong about the Alabama-Georgia game. That game shows the importance of the offensive line. John Parker Wilson had a great game, but struggled the next week vs. Kentucky, and ask any NFL scout, he would rather have Matthew Stafford. Alabama has great running backs, but Knowshon Moreno is a special talent. Without their incredible offensive line and Georgia’s young one, I do not think Alabama would have one. As for Georgia, they still could win the SEC east. As for Alabama, they probably have been the most surprising and impressive team of the 1st half of the season. They have 4 of their 6 remaining games at home, and with the decline of Auburn and Tennessee, the only game they will be an underdog will be at LSU (depending on what LSU does). They are a serious national championship contender, but they must avoid upsets and play consistently.

By: Brennan Marks SZ Contributing Writer

IMAGES COURTESY OF YAHOOSPORTS.COM

Game of the Week: Alabama at Georgia

BY: BRENNAN MARKS, SZ CONTRIBUTING WRITER

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TV: ESPN, 7:45 PM ET

Last Week: Georgia defeated Arizona State, Alabama beat Arkansas

     Ray Charles once had Georgia on his mind. This week, the entire scope of the college football nation will have Georgia on their mind because of a top 10 conference match-up between traditional college football powerhouses (so-to-speak), Alabama and Georgia. For the two people who actually read this column: yes, I did say that I would probably write about an SEC game for consecutive weeks, and yes, I already wrote about Alabama in their first game versus Clemson in an unpublished column (which obviously doesn’t mean anything to the readers because it was never published, but I have alluded to it in my previous columns). Also, I must now admit that I actually am an Alabama football fan. Despite my biases, however, it is clear that this is THE game of the week. For example, CBSSports.com has a countdown clock to the game on its college football section of the website (http://www.sportsline.com/collegefootball ), and the game is not even on CBS. Of course, it is necessary to mention that the program which can arguably claim to be the primary indicator for magnitudes of games will be in Athens on Saturday, ESPN’s College Gameday.

     Now that I have established that this game does indeed merit “game of the week” status, it is important to note why this game is so big. Well for starters, it is a match-up between the # 3 (Georgia) and # 8 (Alabama) ranked teams in the country (who are both undefeated, by the way) and a conference game. But, beyond that, both teams can make a statement by winning this game. Georgia began the season ranked # 1 in the preseason polls but fell to # 3 from a combination of lackluster game performances (despite winning all of their games) and impressive victories by the current # 1 -2 teams, USC and Oklahoma. If Georgia wins an a monumental fashion, it strengthens their case for a chance to move up in the polls, which has a direct effect on whether or not they will play in the BCS title game and will obviously keep the Bulldogs undefeated, which is even more important for Georgia’s ability to play for the championship.

     If Alabama wins, they obviously will be able to realistically continue to compete to play in the national championship, but perhaps more profoundly, they will reveal how good of a team they truly are at this point in the season. No one is truly sure what to make of them right now. They began the season at the bottom of the top 25, destroyed preseason top 10 team Clemson in the first game and have essentially dominated the other opponents on the schedule. Theoretically, it can be argued that Alabama deserves its current # 8 AP ranking based on their performance in their first four games. However, observers might question the strength of each opponent on the schedule, even Clemson, especially in comparison to Georgia and other SEC competition. Georgia figures to be the Crimson Tide’s first true test on the schedule, and the outcome of this game will say a lot about the progress Alabama is making under second year head coach Nick Saban.

     The game itself has many interesting storylines as well in addition to the underlying importance of the outcome of the game to each team. Alabama’s defense has surprised many football fans so far. It has yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season and has allowed 3 touchdowns total (all, coincidentally, on 4th down attempts). Many believed the defense was too young and inexperienced to pose a serious threat to top tier SEC teams, but perhaps they underestimated the newcomers in the secondary, the speed of the defense overall, and undeniable impact of 365 pound JC transfer nose tackle, Terrence Cody, affectionately called Mt. Cody by many Alabama fans. In the previous games, Cody has been able to consistently take on two blockers which has allowed other players on the defense to pressure the quarterback and make plays, and he has clogged the middle which has hurt the opponents inside running game. Of course, it is unfair to say that Cody has been solely responsible for the reemergence of the Tide’s defense this season. The 10 other men on the field have made big plays when needed (four timely interceptions by the secondary against Arkansas was crucial to the victory), and Cody cannot play on every play for conditioning reasons. Still, his impact has been profound, and this week, he will be lined up against a freshman center (Ben Jones).

     Perhaps that will be the most intriguing battle within the game: Will Alabama’s defensive line be able to beat Georgia’s young but talented offensive line? Of course, the line of scrimmage battle always has an effect on the outcome of the game, and if, hypothetically, Alabama’s defensive line can get pass the offensive line, can Georgia’s skill players find a way to win the game? It will depend on just how well Alabama’s d-line plays. For instance, if their performance can be described as “dominating,” then Georgia’s skill players will likely have had a rough day. But if not, even if Alabama “wins” the battle, Georgia’s offensive skill players are among the best in the country and can make plays in open and sometimes closed space.

     Which players am I talking about? Analysts consider quarterback Matthew Stafford one of the best, if not the best, NFL prospect in the country and arguably the best pure quarterback in the SEC (ranks 1st in pass efficiency within the conference and 2nd in passing yards per game). Heisman candidate Running back Knowshon Moreno leads the SEC in touchdowns and is 2nd in rushing yard per game. Freshman WR AJ Green has made a case for SEC offensive freshman of the year through the first few games. So, yeah, Georgia has some pretty skilled skill players on the offensive side of the ball.

     Alabama has some talented offensive players as well, most importantly the offensive line and running backs. The Tide currently leads the SEC in rushing. Georgia, however, appears to be the team to stop the Crimson Tide, as they lead the SEC in rushing defense. This game will be a measuring stick for the quality of Bama’s rushing offense and Georgia’s rushing defense. One might argue that Georgia has played against opponents who do not utilize the running game often or effectively, and Alabama has not played against a team who was poised to stop their power running game. If Georgia can stop Alabama’s running game, it will be interesting to see what senior quarterback John Parker Wilson can do.

     Despite breaking multiple passing records at Alabama, Wilson’s career has been defined by crucial mistakes in games and a mediocre overall record. So far this year, he has been mistake free and has won all his games, but his passing numbers are down. This, of course, is because of the emergence of the running game, but if Georgia can force Alabama to pass the ball, it’s nearly impossible to foresee what Wilson will do. Luckily, he is facing the 11th ranked pass defense in the SEC (albeit the numbers are inflated because Georgia has played pass-happy teams, just like the numbers for Georgia’s rushing defense are possibly inflated in the opposite direction) and is helped by talented receivers including two senior tight ends, and freshmen sensation Julio Jones (Julio was typically ranked # 1 by recruiting services, AJ Green was # 2). If , and a big if at that, Wilson makes the right decisions and makes accurate throws, Georgia could be in for a long day, even if they stop the run.

     As always, special teams and intangibles can have a huge impact on the game. As far as special teams goes, I don’t have much to say. Both teams have poor kickoff coverage units, but I’d give the edge to Alabama in the return game, with electrifying return man Javier Arenas fielding kickoffs and punts. As far as intangibles, basically all are in Georgia’s favor. (The only one not in their favor is penalties, as Alabama is among tops in the SEC in fewest penalties and penalty yards, whereas Georgia is a cellar-dweller in that statistical category). First of all, Georgia plays at home, which always has an effect on the game. Secondly, their legendary radio broadcaster, Larry Munson, retired earlier this week, meaning he called Georgia’s last game vs. Arizona State but abruptly decided to call it quits before the Bama game. Perhaps his retirement will lead to an even more emotionally charged Bulldog team. Lastly and most intriguingly, Georgia will don black jerseys for the third time in school history. Coach Mark Richt called for a “blackout” asking the fans to wear black while the team wears black as well. The previous occasions where Georgia has worn black include two blow-out victories versus Auburn and Hawaii last year, so theoretically, history is on their side. Now, I don’t think Alabama’s players will be extremely affected by Georgia’s fashion statements, but it is another interesting aspect of this monumental early season college football game.

 

Prediction: I really, really, really, want to pick Alabama to win this game. I do think they can because of the strength of their offensive and defensive lines. I’m not really sure how well they can play against Georgia, but I expect them to because they are playing with a ton of confidence and swagger. However, Georgia is an extremely talented team- there’s a reason they were ranked # 1 in the preseason. I’ll pick Georgia to win 24-17. Not only are they the safe pick and the home team, but also, I don’t want to be seen as an “Alabama homer,” even though I’m a fan. I still seriously considered picking them.

Look Back: Well it wasn’t the defensive struggle I projected, but it was an entertaining game and I got the winning team right. Auburn will need a lot of help to get back into the SEC championship picture, while LSU looks like they might have a quarterback.

 

BY: BRENNAN MARKS, SZ CONTRIBUTING WRITER

IMAGES COURTESY OF YAHOOSPORTS.COM

Game of the Week: LSU at Auburn

By: Brennan Marks, SZ Contributing Writer

 

     vs    

TV: ESPN, 7:45 PM ET

Last Week: Auburn defeated Mississippi State; LSU beat North Texas

     This week marks a change in the nature of this blog. For the past columns, I have examined non-conference match ups as “games of the week.” This week’s column will look at a conference game, LSU at Auburn. Because many of the more intriguing non-conference games have been played, the trend will likely continue. (Note: You might also see more columns concerning SEC games because a). There are currently 5 top 10 teams in the SEC and b). I have more inherent knowledge of the SEC than any other conference. Of course, I will try to shake things up and look at some other conferences if there are marquee games, but don’t be shocked if you see another SEC preview next week…)

     Anyway, LSU-Auburn intrigues me (and hopefully other college football fans) on several different levels. Obviously, the fact that this is a top 10 match up makes it worthy of this column. As well, this game has been quite fascinating historically. For instance, in 1988, LSU defeated Auburn on a late touchdown, and the eruption from the LSU fans (the game was played in Baton Rouge) was so intense that it literally caused an earthquake. More importantly, this game is huge for divisional implications in the SEC West as both teams were predicted to be and should be the class of the SEC West. The winner of the SEC typically plays role in the national championship picture, and the winner of this game will have a clearer path to become the SEC champion. First, however, a slight review of each team’s path to the game is necessary.

     Both teams opened the season with uncertainty at the quintessential quarterback position. Last May, LSU coach Les Miles dismissed likely starting quarterback and dual-threat player Ryan Perriloux for multiple violations of team rules and “not fulfilling his obligation” as a student-athlete. The Perriloux situation gave way for inexperienced quarterbacks Andrew Hatch (transfer from Harvard) and Jarrett Lee to compete for the starting positions. Both have played this season, with Hatch starting. In Auburn’s case, the major shift with their team occurred largely with the coaching hire of offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, who runs a spread offense. He actually arrived at Auburn a few weeks before the Chick Fil-A Bowl versus Clemson and installed his offense in preparation for the game. Then freshman Kodi Burns, another dual threat quarterback, shared snaps with then senior Brandon Cox and stole the spotlight by scoring the game winning touchdown in overtime. With the win, excitement rushed through the hearts of Auburn fans as the spread offense appeared to be the answer to some of Auburn’s offensive woes. However, the pre-season brought about a quarterback controversy with the emergence of junior college transfer and former Texas-Tech commit, Chris Todd. Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville announced that both quarterbacks would play but did not announce who would be the actual starter until right before Auburn’s first game against Louisiana Monroe (Kodi Burns).

     Despite these concerns, critics and coaches both believe that each team merits a top 10 ranking, and perhaps the most important factor contributing to each team’s respective rankings derives from the quality of their defensive units. Auburn ranks first in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing 5 points per game, and LSU gives up 8 points per game. Auburn comes in 3rd in total defense, and LSU is 4th (in the SEC). So, based on statistics alone, these teams are pretty good on defense. Now, the statistics are possibly slightly inflated due to the level of competition they have faced, but recent history and actual observation indicate that these teams have pretty good defenses.

     But back to offense. So far this season, Auburn has struggled mightily on offense. Kodi Burns did start the opening game, but Chris Todd usurped the starting position from him (in part because of a slight injury but Burns can still play). Neither QB has accomplished anything noteworthy this season, nor has there been any return on the investment of Tony Franklin’s spread offense. Auburn is ranked 11th in passing offense in the SEC and has thrown for one touchdown and two interceptions. They are a bit better in the running game averaging 204.7 yards per game but have lost six fumbles in three games this season. Their turnover ratio is – 2, and that’s only because their defense has forced 6 turnovers. (To illustrate the imbalance of Auburn’s offense-defense ratio, I have included this clip of their 3-2 win over Mississippi State. You can call it a “lowlight” video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDdt3UBAi_Y).

     On the other hand, LSU’s offense has been slightly better. They are tied for the SEC lead in points per game and are 1st in rushing offense. Still, their passing game is a bit suspect. Each of their quarterbacks has thrown one interception, and neither of them has been particularly impressive. In addition, LSU has not truly been faced with a tough test all year. Their two games (North Texas and Appalachian State) were both at home, and LSU must travel to Auburn.

     On special teams, both teams have been adequate, although Auburn has missed a few field goals. There really isn’t much to say here, but one thing I do want to discuss quickly is intangibles. Last year, LSU was behind by one point late in the fourth quarter and could have advanced the ball and called a timeout to attempt the field goal. Instead, in a controversial call, Coach Les Miles decided to try a long pass to the end zone. LSU receiver Demetrius Byrd made a miraculous catch in the end zone, giving LSU the win. So karma theoretically is in Auburn’s favor as they are due for some type of miracle. Recent history is on Auburn’s side as well: the home team has won the past 8 games in the series.

Prediction: If a significant amount of offense occurs in this game, it will be the biggest shock since Pearl Harbor. LSU wins 4-2. LSU gets two safeties; Auburn gets one. (Of course, that was a rather silly prediction; I just wanted to emphasize the defensive ability relative to offensive ability of each team. I would still pick LSU and a score of 10-7 would be more reasonable).

Look Back: Ohio State has been exposed again. I know I picked a fairly close game with USC winning 35-28, but if I had any guts, I would have picked a USC blowout. Hopefully, Ohio State will not end up in the national championship game (sorry Buckeyes fans), even if they run the table for the rest of the year. As for USC, two things will hinder them on a quest to a national championship: a slip up a la Stanford last year or multiple undefeated teams who possibly have a better resume than USC. The second situation is unlikely, but even if it does occur, USC still might end up in the championship game because they are likely to be ranked # 1 in the polls.

 

By: Brennan Marks

SZ Contributing Writer

IMAGES COURTESY OF YAHOOSPORTS.COM

Game of the Week: Ohio State @ USC

By Brennan Marks, SZ Contributing Writer

 

    vs.    

 

TV:  ABC, 8:00 PM ET

Last Week: Ohio State beat Ohio; USC had a bye.  USC defeated Virginia week  1.

It’s finally here. The most anticipated nonconference matchup of the season has arrived. In case you didn’t know (or didn’t read the title), I’m talking about the top 10 matchup between the Buckeyes of Ohio State and the Trojans of USC.

Instead of being a rebel and choosing an avant-garde game of the week, say Kansas at South Florida or UCLA at BYU or any game from a myriad of other intriguing matchups, I have sided with the status quo and will blog about the game everybody else is blogging about.  If you wanted originality, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Basically, here’s the premise.  Ohio State, two time defending national runner-up and epitome of everything that’s wrong with the BCS system, is, once again, in the national championship picture. If they are in the national championship picture at the end of the season, some of the poll voters (depending on the details of the regular season, of course) might boycott Ohio State and promote another contender, which could have an important effect on the BCS poll, which directly affects who plays in the national championship. 

On the other hand, USC sits atop both major polls right now and is currently the “darling” of college football, so-to-speak.  As far as football goes, USC’s strength is their defense.  In their game against Virginia, they gave up one touchdown. Of course, their offense put up 52 points, so I guess I should say they are extremely balanced.  QB Mark Sanchez, a question mark going into the season, passed for 338 yards and three touchdowns in the game versus Virginia. It is necessary to note that one game does not make a season, but many pundits believe that he will be a huge asset and nowhere near a liability.  He does have a running game to help him out, and with playmakers like Joe McKnight and CJ Gable in the backfield, his help is in full supply.

Moving back to Ohio State, they are a traditional Big-10 type team.  By that, I mean the pound the ball down your throat and play extremely defense -oriented football.  They can afford to do that with a playmaker like James Laurinaitis at linebacker.  Still, they have fairly good offensive players as well. The foremost among them is a running back named Chris “Beanie” Wells.   Because of a toe injury, no one knows whether or not he will play or if he does play, how long will he be able to endure the physicality of the game, but whatever his status is, his situation has stolen a lot of the hype for the actual game itself, a game which happens to have critical national implications.

One more interesting tidbit about the game involves Ohio States quarterbacks Todd Boeckman and Terrelle Pryor.  Boeckman is the experienced starter and top-notch quarterback, but he has not performed well in big games, like last year’s national championship game, for instance.  Pryor is the freshmen sensation, top recruit in the nation, dual threat quarterback who everybody (media, fans, and some players) are hyping up as the be-all, end-all and the “chosen by God” quarterback who can’t possibly lose or make any freshmen mistakes.  And even if he does make mistakes, (which won’t happen), his pure talent will cancel them out.  Now, personally, I’m not buying that much hype, but I’m buying a little, and I think he is very talented. Whether he should play or Boeckman should play- I think the course of the game should determine that.

Prediction: Before I give my prediction, I want for all readers to pray that this game will live up to the hype as far as excitement goes, and it won’t be a blowout by either team. Now, personally, I believe USC will win 35-28.  First of all, USC has home field advantage.  Secondly, I think they are a better team. Here’s what will happen after the game: Ohio State will win all of their remaining games; USC will somehow lose to weaker Pac 10 opponents. The two -loss winner of the SEC will dominate Ohio State in the championship game.  Such is the consequence of the BCS. (Note: that wasn’t really a real prediction about the rest of the season, more of an observation.)

Look Back: Last week, the ECU-West Virginia game was the game of the week.  My prediction was horribly wrong, as  ECU destroyed West Virginia. ECU has created a national storyline; if they run the table in Conference USA, which is harder than it probably sound, they should at least play for a BCS Bowl, and depending on the other elite teams, they could play for the national championship. That’s something to keep an eye on.  As for West Virginia, I hope they can regroup and get back into contention for a BCS bowl birth.  I’m not a fan of West Virginia, but I am a big Pat White fan, and I hope he can get back on track.

 

By Brennan Marks

SZ Contributing Writer