Friday, September 11, 2009

7 hours of football worth watching

So ... there are basically two games this weekend that are of interest on a national level: USC at Ohio State and Notre Dame at Michigan. I never thought the Notre Dame-Michigan matchup would be this hyped a week ago, when I was terrified of everything about UM's season, but here we are.

If you've been listening to the talking heads on ESPN, you've heard something like this: "The Big Ten's reputation is at stake! No speed big games Jim Tressel Rich Rodriguez hot seat blah blah blah." But really, I don't think there's much of a downside this weekend for the conference as a whole. Both Big Ten teams are underdogs despite playing at home, so if both lose, the national sentiment will basically just stay the same: Ohio State can't win a big game and the middle of the Big Ten is somewhere between mediocre and poor. It'd be hard to argue either of those points.

But if either team wins, the positive attention would mean a lot for both the schools and the conference. UM would be staring at a near-certain 4-0 start (Eastern Michigan and Indiana are next on the schedule) and a possible eight- or nine-win season with a victory over the Irish, while an Ohio State win over USC would not only quiet a lot of the big-game criticism but also remove the Buckeyes' most significant hurdle to an undefeated season. Other than Penn State, I don't see a very serious challenge in Big Ten play.

Big games are all the general public really pays attention to, so the Big Ten's perception meter could potentially swing from "sucky" to "respectable" with a win or two this weekend, and those wins could have an even bigger effect on each team's season.

Looking at the USC-Ohio State game, here are the storylines that Brent Musburger will drill into your head for a solid four hours:
  • USC freshman quarterback
  • Terrelle Pryor runs a (fake) 4.3
  • Matt Barkley is a freshman
  • Terrelle Pryor is fast
  • Matt Barkley
  • Terrelle Pryor
  • Matt Barkley
  • Terrelle Pryor
Soak it in. While I'd like to provide you with some unique and intriguing insight, I have to agree with the general consensus that Barkley's performance will decide the game. Pryor still isn't consistent enough as a passer to threaten USC's back seven, and despite the inexperience on defense, USC's athletes will be able to contain him on the ground. I don't think Ohio State scores more than 21 points.

The OSU defense is a lot better than it looked against Navy (a few big plays in the fourth quarter skewed the numbers), but the Trojans' running game will be able to produce against anybody. So what I'm getting to is that if Barkley can effectively move the ball -- I'm thinking around 200 yards and at least one touchdown -- while not throwing any costly interceptions, USC will win. If the Buckeyes get any points out of their defense or special teams, Ohio State will win. There won't be as much scoring as people think, and while I was leaning toward toward OSU earlier in the week, I just can't pick against USC in a big nonconference game. I'll say 23-16 Trojans.

As for TraditionFest 2009 in Ann Arbor ... man, I just don't know. What I do know is that Michigan's offense is about 10 miles ahead of where it was last year. The obvious difference is that UM now has QBs who can run AND throw, as opposed to neither one, but the unit as a whole just has a far better grasp on the little things (blocking on bubble screens, finding holes in zone coverage, etc.) and has even added a few wrinkles (like pulling the tight end around on zone-read plays to seal the backside defensive end). And based on the way Michigan moved the ball last year -- in monsoon conditions in South Bend -- I can't see UM being held to fewer than 20 points unless the freshman quarterbacks just struggle to consistently hit receivers, which is possible because they're, you know, freshmen.

The defense also looked shockingly good against Western Michigan's solid Tim Hiller-led passing game, but Hiller is not Jimmy Clausen and Juan Nunez certainly isn't Michael Floyd or Golden Tate. UM's linebackers and safeties are suspect in pass coverage, so I'm concerned that there will be at least a couple of big pass plays for the ND offense. But if that's all UM gives up -- if the defensive line can pressure Clausen consistently and shut down the Irish running game without much help from the back seven -- Michigan will win.

Unfortunately, I don't have enough faith in all those things happening -- not yet, anyway. I love the fact that it's at home, but I think Notre Dame's experience advantage will be just a little bit too much. I'm going with a 27-24 win for the Golden Domers, meaning that unless they blow two of their three remaining toss-up games (Michigan State, Pitt and Stanford), Charlie Weis will probably be around for at least another year.

And to anyone who's seriously debating whether this game means more to Weis or Rich Rodriguez, it's not close: A loss would put Weis in must-win mode from here on out, because anything less than nine wins will end his tenure at Notre Dame. RichRod could certainly use a win, but mostly because of what it would mean for UM's season outlook -- as mentioned above, a victory over ND would likely mean a minimum of seven wins this year (possibly a few more) and comfortable bowl eligibility, which would spin the media coverage 180 degrees and have everyone talking about how quickly Michigan has become Michigan again.

Your statistic of the week (which I can only hope repeats itself) comes courtesy of ESPN: This will be only the second time in the history of the series that Michigan has been unranked and Notre Dame has been ranked at the time of their meeting. The previous occurrence was in 1985, when Michigan won and went on to finish 10-1-1. Notre Dame finished 5-6 and fired coach Gerry Faust. Hmmmm ....

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