Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Saturday Slate: Week Three (Part One)

Welcome to "Show Me Somethin' Saturday" in the Pac-12. This is perhaps the biggest set of non-conference games the Pac-12 has played in a decade. Four marquee match ups with the Big Ten with two in Pac-12 stadiums and two at Big ten stadiums. The games include a pair of top 26 showdowns and a chance for one of the Pac-12's lower tier programs to make a major statement against the Big Ten's best. In other action, the SEC and the ACC will each send a representative to the west coast while game two of the Pac-12 conference schedule will kick off late tonight. This is the big one folks, by the time we all go to bed at the end of the night, the Pac-12 will either be firmly in place as the lone challenger to the SEC's dominance, or it will fall back to the pack or even behind the likes of the Big Ten, Big 12, or ACC. Today is huge and it all gets started bright and early...

All times are Pacific

#16 UCLA at #23 Nebraska (-3), 9:00 AM on ABC

All the national attention is being placed squarely on the Alabama-Texas A&M game but, there is another all top-25 showdown taking place as the Bruins visit the Huskers. Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini has talked a big game all week about how Nebraska "owes them (UCLA) for last year." You might remember that 370 days ago, UCLA upset then #16 Nebraska 36-30 at the Rose Bowl behind 653 yards of total offense. Brett Hundley had his coming out party on a national stage with 305 yards and four touchdowns passing as Jim L. Mora got his first signature win as head Bruin.

Unfortunately for Pelini, his mouth might be writing cheques that his defense can't cash. Nebraska has struggled mightily on defense. The Huskers were very middling on defense finishing 35th in yards allowed per game and 58th in points allowed per game last year. Its numbers were poor as is however, Nebraska was aided by playing in the offensively anemic Big Ten. Had Nebraska played a Big 12 or Pac-12 schedule, the numbers would have been a lot worse. Nebraska gave up over 600 yards to Wyoming (yes that Wyoming) in Week One before shutting down hapless Southern Miss (the only 0-12 team last year) one week ago. I'm guessing the Nebraska defense that shows up today will look more like the unit that got sliced by Wyoming and that's bad news against a loaded UCLA offense.

Nebraska has a very good offense led by fifth year senior QB Taylor Martinez, a four year starter. Martinez has been at the butt end of many jokes in the college football blog-o-sphere over the years for his ugly throwing motion and poor mechanics. However, Martinez has slowly improved his passing ability over the years and posted a respectable 62% completion percentage. He's been very good so far this season, completed 32 of 45 passes for 325 yards, six touchdowns, and only one interception in about a game and a half. His passing has gotten better but he has always been an elite runner, see 2972 yards (that includes yards lost due to sacks) and 31 TDs on the ground for his career. UCLA has a dominant front seven that should be able to keep Martinez in the pocket and prevent star tailback Ameer Abdullah from ripping off big gains. The concern for UCLA is the secondary facing Martinez and All-Big Ten wideout Kenny Bell. The Bruins have four new starters in the secondary and a game against run heavy Nebada and a bye week has provided no answers one way or another about UCLA's coverage abilities.

The biggest concern for UCLA might be the absurdly early start time. You might remember that the last time a Pac-12 team played a power conference foe at 9:00 AM, it didn't go so well. The fortunate thing for the Bruins is they had a perfectly timed bye week. Thanks to having the last week off, UCLA has been practicing at 8:00 AM every day for two weeks now so the players body clocks will be ready and prepared for the early kickoff. I think UCLA will struggle out of the gates but it will be more from being unnerved early from playing the first road game of the year in a very loud and hostile environment. The Bruins will struggle at times against Martinez and the offense might stall early while it figures out how to combat the crowd noise. Ultimately though, I think the Bruins defense will rise to the challenge and Nebraska's defense will struggle mightily to run with UCLA's offense. I'm going to take the points and pick UCLA to win outright, 38-31.

#5 Stanford (-30) at Army, 9:00 AM on CBS Sports Network

After a solid opening performance against San Jose State last week, the Cardinal get a significant step down in competition as they go across the country to face the Black Knights. Thanks to being a service academy that requires all of its players to serve in the armed forces after graduation, Army has significant size limitations for its players. Army averages about 250 pounds per player on both the offensive and defensive lines and will be giving up about 60-70 pounds per player to Stanford's lines.

Army runs the old triple option and runs the ball on nearly every play. The Army offense is predicated on running to all angles of the field and testing a team's ability to maintain gap integrity, assignments, and tackle in space. the horrible news for Army is that in addition to being significantly larger, Stanford also excels in these three areas. There's not much to break down here, Stanford should physically dominate and out man Army on both sides of the ball and blow them out. I have Stanford winning this one big, 41-3.

Fresno State at Colorado, Postponed

Colorado was eager for a big measuring stick game against arguably the best non-AQ team in college football however it will have to wait, perhaps forever. Due to severe flooding throughout Colorado but especially in Boulder that has reportedly already claimed four lives, this game has been postponed indefinitely. The two schools are targeting conference championship weekend (Dec.7) as a make up date. You may recall that Oregon State used these exact same logistics last season to make up a postponed game against Nicholls State after Nicholls was unable to travel out of Louisiana due to Hurricane Isaac. However, The Mountain West Conference is staging a conference championship for the first time this season and Fresno is a strong contender to play in it. As a result, the two schools are trying to swap bye weeks with a third team in order to guarantee the game will take place.

The health and safety of thousands is far more important than any football game so I'm glad to see this game postponed after University officials originally announced on Thursday that the game would proceed as planned. Stay safe out there Colorado friends, and make sure you keep Ralphie high and dry.

Boston College at USC (-14), 12:00 PM on Pac-12 Network

The good news for USC is that the Trojans are finally halting their game of musical quarterbacks and have settled on one full time starter. The bad news is that USC's full time guy is Cody Kessler who has completed just 56.3% of his passes for 136 yards with a pair of interceptions. As bad as Kessler has been, he is the right call which is entirely an indictment of Max Wittek who has looked awful since coming off the bench for an injured Matt Barkley late last season. Kessler has struggled but he has led more productive drives than Wittek and has thrown USC's only touchdown pass this season and scored the Trojans only touchdown last week with his legs. USC's offense as a whole has been entirely short on confidence and many have tied that to Lane Kiffin flip flopping his QBs. Picking one passer should provide a shot of swagger for Kessler and we'll see if it has a positive effect on the rest of the offense. Then again, this unit might be broken beyond repair and beyond saving through motivational tactics.

As for this game, don't watch it because USC will likely be just as stifled offensively as before. While BC has been at least somewhat competent offensively (5.59 yards per play compared to 4.07 for USC), the Eagles have done it against mostly sub par competition and do not have nearly enough talent to score consistently on the USC defense. I think the Trojans will be able to put together a few scoring drives and even a small improvement offensively combined with another stellar defensive effort should be enough. But, I'm not sure if I trust USC to score 14 points total, never mind beat any team by two touchdowns. I'll take the points and I won't watch a second of this snoozer that USC will win 20-13.

Tennessee at #2 Oregon (-28), 12:30 PM on ABC

Oregon returns home from a big win over Virginia and welcomes in another foe from a big time conference as SEC program Tennessee comes to Autzen Stadium. This is the second game of a home-and-home series between the Ducks and Volunteers. In the first game back in 2010 Tennessee raced out to a 13-3 lead on the then #7 Ducks and had Oregon on upset alert. However, Oregon proceeded to reel off 45 unanswered points and scored on offense, defense, and special teams while turning the game into a 48-13 rout.

Three years have passed and a lot has changed for both programs (each has changed coaches for starters) but I anticipate a similar result. Tennessee's lines are bigger, stronger, and more physical than anything Oregon has seen since the Fiesta Bowl in January. That being said, the Vols defensive front has already taken a big hit as senior defensive tackle Maurice Couch has been suspended for this game. Couch is one of five players who allegedly took money and other gifts from an agent and that violates the NCAA's rules on amateurism. As a side note, Athletes in Space hates the NCAA as an organization and its hopelessly antiquated and nonsensical rulebook. I sincerely hope that Couch did take the money and I hope he gets away with it.

The Vols fronts might give the Ducks some trouble early and that might keep them in the game but don't kid yourself into thinking Tennessee has the overall depth and talent at all positions to hang with Oregon past halftime. The SEC may be known for its play in the trenches but Oregon is equally adept at dominating the line of scrimmage. Oregon is allowing just 2.78 yards per rush and has recorded eight sacks so far this season while allowing none.

The Oregon offense should be unstoppable as always but I expect Marcus Mariota to improve his accuracy in the passing game while the Ducks produce the same dominance on the ground. Tennessee can play with the Ducks for a little while but I anticipate Oregon turning on the afterburners and leaving the Vols in the dust. I'll take Oregon to cover the big spread and win 52-17.

Last Week Against the Spread: 7-2

Last Week Straight Up: 8-1
This Season Against the Spread: 12-7

This Season Straight Up: 15-4

Part Two will be posted in a little while.

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