Game of the Week: Alabama at Georgia

BY: BRENNAN MARKS, SZ CONTRIBUTING WRITER

     vs.    

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an SEC game for consecutive weeks, and yes, I already wrote about Alabama in their first game versus Clemson in an unpublished column (which obviously doesn’t mean anything to the readers because it was never published, but I have alluded to it in my previous columns).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: West Virginia @ East Carolina

By: Brennan Marks, SZ Contributing Writer

 

TV: ESPN, 4:30 PM ET

 

      vs.        

 

Last Week: West Virginia defeated Villanova, East Carolina defeated Virginia Tech

            College football began not with a bang but a whimper, especially compared to last year.  There were very few exciting games, no once in a lifetime upsets, and the marquee matchup turned out to be a 34-10 blowout. However, there was at least one upset, and that upset has set the stage for this week’s game of the week.

            East Carolina coached by Lou Holtz’s son Skip, out-“Beamered” the Hokies of Virginia Tech.  By out-“Beamered,” I mean that Virginia Tech, a team renowned for its special teams prowess under coach Frank Beamer, gave up the game winning touchdown on a blocked punt. Perhaps, this is just one aspect of the poetic justice currently being served to the ACC.  In case you don’t know, several years ago, the ACC greedily invited several teams from the Big East (namely Miami) to a) make more money and b) to become a deeper and more talented football conference to compete with the likes of the SEC and Big 12, instead of crowning Florida State as conference champions, perennially.  Although they have earned more money, their football part of the plan has backfired.  Miami and other former Big East “football powers” have struggled, and Florida State has been mediocre at best. Arguably, their two most formidable teams, Clemson and Virginia Tech, both lost to underdogs causing pundits to condemn their conference altogether, and for me personally, to question their right to have a BCS bowl birth for the conference champion over the champion of the WAC, MWC or Conference USA, especially if the champion of Conference USA beats one of their “elite” programs. Luckily, the ACC is one of the premiere basketball conferences in the nation, and programs such as Florida State and Miami have the ability to rise from the ashes and become prominent national football programs once again.

            The Big East is another solid basketball conference, which has had a rough start to the football season. Rutgers lost to a WAC team. Kentucky humiliated Louisville.  Northwestern dominated Syracuse.  Pittsburgh was embarrassed by Bowling Green.  In contrast to the ACC, however, the Big East’s one national championship contender is still alive, and that team is West Virginia.

            Led by Heisman candidate dual-threat quarterback Pat White, West Virginia enters its first full season under new coach Bill Stewart.  If you recall correctly, after Rich Rodriguez bolted to Michigan, Bill Stewart became interim head coach and led West Virginia to a Fiesta Bowl win over a heavily favored Oklahoma team.  If the first game is any indication, West Virginia will run a more pass-oriented offense than they were previously, as Pat White threw for five touchdown passes.  Personally, I don’t think that the first game was any indication of how their offense will look, especially considering the playmaking abilities of Pat White and running back Noel Devine on the ground.  Still, West Virginia looks to have a more balanced attack, and with a more balanced attack, perhaps a more potent and dangerous offense.

            On the other side of the spectrum, East Carolina wants to win three consecutive games against ranked opponents for the first time in school history (# 22 Boise State in Hawaii Bowl, # 17 Virginia Tech last week, and # 8 West Virginia).  Quarterback Patrick Pinkney, who went 19-23 for 211 yards with a passing and a rushing touchdown, leads the Pirates. They also appear to be strong on special teams, as they scored the game-winning touchdown vs. Virginia Tech on a blocked punt.

            This game means a lot for both teams.  For West Virginia, it is another stepping stone for their national championship hunt, and a loss here would not only hurt their team’s reputation as well as the Big East’s reputation, but also it would essentially eliminate their quest for a national championship. On the other hand, East Carolina has nothing to lose (except their coach) and everything to gain. By everything, I mean respect (moreso than their win vs. Virginia Tech, possibly a top 10 ranking and most certainly a top 15 ranking) and a distinct possibility of a playing in a BCS Bowl.

            On a side note, weather could interfere with the game as tropical storm Hanna is expected to hit the southeast this weekend.  However, it is unlikely, as East Carolina’s athletic director Terry Holland called rescheduling the game a “last resort.” Now on to the prediction…

            Prediction:  I’ve spent some time referring to each team’s offense, because neither team has much excitement of the defensive side of the ball. Defensively, both teams are prone to give up some big plays and touchdowns, but Pat White and company might be too hard for East Carolina to handle.  East Carolina does have home field advantage, but West Virginia has too much firepower.  I think it will be a fairly high scoring game with West Virginia winning 35-21. 

Look Back:  Last week, I wrote my first blog entry for the website: a preview of the Alabama – Clemson game. Unfortunately, the column was not posted due to technical difficulties. I’m not sure if it will be published “posthumously” so to speak (by this I mean after the game has “died,” not me), but in that article, I predicted Alabama to win 21-17.  Well, I was right about the team, but way off on the score.  However, I don’t think anyone expected Alabama to win in the manner in which they did. Time will tell on how each team’s season to progress, but Alabama certainly has a bright future ahead.


-Brennan Marks

SZ Contributing Writer

IMAGES COURTESY OF SPORTS.YAHOO.COM