Thursday, December 31, 2009

Let the (real) games begin

Now that such compelling matchups as Minnesota-Iowa State and Marshall-Ohio are out of the way, we can get down to the good stuff: four equally meaningless games -- but with really good teams involved -- followed by one game for all the marbles.

I don't have the time or energy to do an in-depth preview of all five BCS games in one sitting, so let's go through them one day at a time. First up: Oregon-Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and Cincinnati-Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

On a related note, why are there four shitty games on January 2? The post-New Year's Day period used to be reserved for one or two elite games, and now we're being presented with a full day of games that includes a total of ONE ranked team (Oklahoma State finished 19th). I don't have a huge problem with playing 34 bowl games, but at least give us some semblance of order and save the best games for last.

Anyway ... Oregon and Ohio State. If you're looking for two polar opposites, look no further. On one side you've got a light-speed spread running game, super-modern uniforms, a (relatively) young and inexperienced coach and a generally average defense. On the other side you've got a dominating defense, an old-school coach who has no interest in doing anything worthwhile offensively and about 100 years of tradition. I guess both schools like the letter "O," but that's about all they've got in common.

Actually, there is one other thing: Both coaches want to run the ball. The difference, of course, is that Oregon actually does so very successfully. It's kind of ironic that the star QB in this game -- Jeremiah Masoli -- is the one nobody had ever heard of until 18 months ago. He might not be Dennis Dixon, but Masoli has always been a weapon with his legs (he has 659 yards and 12 touchdowns this season) and has developed into a surprisingly effective passer (58.9%, 15 touchdowns and just five interceptions). In other words, Masoli is a 5-foot-11 version of what Terrelle Pryor could have been had he gone to Michigan or Oregon, which were two of the four finalists -- along with Ohio State and Penn State -- in his ridiculous recruiting saga.

You know about Oregon's offense; it's awesome. The Ducks haven't scored fewer than 37 points in a game since beating UCLA 24-10 back in the second week of October (when Masoli was injured) and are ranked sixth in rushing offense, 25th in total offense and seventh in scoring offense. Since the bizarre debacle against Boise State in the season opener and the emergence of freshman LaMichael James as the starting running back, nobody has been able to stop Oregon's running game. It won't hurt that LeGarrette Blount returned against Oregon State and showed that he hadn't lost much in his time off (all future running back recruits should take note and add a "La" or "Le" prefix to their first name).

Howeva ... no team on Oregon's schedule had a defense even remotely comparable to Ohio State's, which is as dominant as ever. OSU is currently fifth in the country in total defense, scoring defense and -- perhaps most importantly -- rushing defense, allowing an average of 83 yards per game on the ground. That's pretty good, and it includes impressive performances against the quality spread run offenses of Michigan, Penn State and Illinois, none of whom reached 100 yards on the ground.

Here's the problem for Ohio State: The offense just isn't good. It's easy to look at the stats and say, "OSU finished 19th in the country in rushing! That's pretty good!" And that's true in a very general sense, but when you look at the next category and see that it took a whopping 512 team carries to get to that number, you realize that the run game was very average (4.66 yards per carry) on a down-to-down basis.

The reason they run twice as much as they pass, of course, is Terrelle Pryor's tendency to arm-punt; some of his throws look like they're intended for either a teammate on the bench or an invisible man about 5 yards in front of the nearest receiver. If OSU falls behind and has to rely on Pryor's passing to get back in the game, it'll be ugly. I wouldn't be surprised to see a little bit of the zone-read offense OSU broke out (with good success) against Michigan. Jim Tressel has to know that his defense isn't gonna hold Oregon to 10 points, and trying to run the ball down the Ducks' throat usually doesn't work -- just ask Jahvid Best and Jacquizz Rodgers.

So who wins? As much as I love Ohio State's defense, I can't see Oregon's offense getting completely shut down to the point that OSU's typical 20-point performance will be enough. I realize OSU averaged 29 points a game this year, but against teams with a pulse on defense -- Wisconsin, Penn State, Iowa, Michigan (debatable) and USC -- they had 10 touchdowns in five games. That's pretty bad.

I think it'll be a very good game if for no other reason than the extreme contrast in styles and strengths, but from a simplistic standpoint, a team that's great on one side of the ball and average on the other side obviously has an advantage over a team that's great on one side of the ball and terrible on the other side. In other words, Ohio State will have to play one of its best offensive games of the year (or get three non-offensive touchdowns, like against Wisconsin) to have a realistic chance of winning.

Prediction: Oregon 27, Ohio State 23.

A few hours later, we'll be treated to the Urban Meyer Drama Hour ... I mean the Tim Tebow Farewell Tour ... I mean Florida-Cincinnati, which includes about 100 bizarre storylines. Cincinnati has already lost its coach permanently and will lose its interim coach, Jeff Quinn, to Buffalo after the game. Florida is about to temporarily lose its coach -- with no specific idea of when he'll be back -- and will lose defensive coordinator Charlie Strong to Louisville after the game. Oh, and arguably the greatest quarterback in the history of college football will play his final career game, which will probably be mentioned by the announcers at some point.

I'm gonna be honest: Without Brian Kelly, this game just doesn't have the same intriguing vibe. I know the up-and-coming offensive coordinator (Quinn) will still be going against the up-and-coming defensive coordinator (Strong), and we'll still get to see Tony Pike (or Zach Collaros) and Mardy Gilyard against Carlos Dunlap, Brandon Spikes and Joe Haden, but is there any chance Florida doesn't take control of this game by the third quarter? Between the players wanting to send Meyer and Strong out with a win and all the "end of an era" talk surrounding Tebow's last game, it just seems like the emotions are gonna be overwhelmingly in Florida's favor.

And it's not like they'll need the help: Florida was pretty damn good at everything this year (except passing, which was rarely necessary). Unless the UF players are distracted by all the craziness and just don't really care -- which seems doubtful, even if they are disappointed not to be in the national title game -- a Cincinnati team playing without its coach and playcaller will be facing by far its toughest test of the season. This seems like a bad confluence of events.

I don't think it'll be the complete massacre a lot of people are predicting, but Florida is just a terrible opponent for Cincy to get matched up against. I can't find a single area where Cincinnati can realistically expect to have an advantage. Even the Bearcats' awesome sixth-ranked passing game has to face the Gators' third-ranked pass defense, while the other side of the ball sees Florida's 10th-ranked rushing offense facing Cincinnati's 59th-ranked rush defense.

I'm not really sure what else to say. All things considered, this is one of the easiest picks of the bowl season; anything other than a relatively comfortable Florida win would be a shock. Prediction: Florida 34, Cincinnati 20 ... and the Superdome will get awfully dusty afterward for Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer.

It might not be the end of Florida's dominance in college football -- Meyer has turned the program into a recruiting juggernaut -- but you don't just lose the guy who's been the focal point of your entire offense for the past three seasons without a significant drop-off and a difficult transition. There's a lot of uncertainty facing Tebow (in the NFL), Meyer (regarding his health) and Florida's future ... but not for one more day.


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