Saturday, September 08, 2007

Top 10 College Games of the Week

Heck of a Saturday for college football tomorrow, which is odd considering the second week of the season is typically a bunch of non-conference games between decent mid-majors and lousy BCS teams or good BCS teams and low-tier I-A or I-AA schools. But then again, after what Appalachian State pulled off last weekend, everyone’s radar is now on high alert.

But we’re not talking Cinderella when it comes to this Saturday’s slate; we’re talking about flat-out good games. We present you the top 10 games to watch this weekend, complete with Vegas lines, who to watch for and who to take. In descending order…

10. BYU (+7.5) at UCLA
6:30 p.m. EST, Versus

UCLA racked up 645 yards in an opening week beatdown of Pac-10 rival Stanford, blowing open a reasonably close 14-7 game at halftime with three Ben Olson touchdown passes in the second half. BYU went up 20-0 on Arizona before the Wildcats scored a late TD to make the final score a semi-respectable 20-7. So two Pac-10 patsies down, but now these teams will get a much better barometer of where they’re at. UCLA likes to think it’s the closest competition to cross-town rival USC in the Pac-10 (though Cal would certainly have something to say about that), and a win here against a solid Cougar team will strengthen their non-conference schedule should that come into play, say, in December.

Olson will face his former team here, so that certainly adds to the storyline here. The 24-year-old junior will face a fellow transfer, BYU sophomore Max Hall, who left Arizona State for the Mormon university. Both teams like to throw the ball, but Kahlil Bell, who ran for nearly 200 yards, will be the difference in a UCLA victory.

The pick: UCLA 29, BYU 20

9. Nebraska (-8) at Wake Forest

Wake Forest won the ACC title last year seemingly out of nowhere, but their title defense got off to a rocky start last week with a 38-28 loss at Boston College. Not exactly the easiest task to open the season, but it goes down as an “L” nonetheless. Now, Nebraska rolls into town fresh off a 52-10 pasting of Nevada. Marlon Lucky is still running toward the end zone for the ‘Huskers, who racked up 444 rushing yards.

Riley Skinner, Wake’s quarterback, threw three picks (to the same defender) before leaving with a separated shoulder. Brett Hodges performed pretty well in relief, and he’ll get the start vs. the ‘Huskers. Against a lesser opponent, this would be a textbook look-ahead game for Nebraska; after all, USC rolls into Lincoln next weekend. But on the road against a team that won its conference championship a year ago, don’t look for Bill Callahan’s squad to be taking Wake for granted.

The pick: Nebraska 31, Wake Forest 24

8. Boise State (-3) at Washington
3:30 p.m EST, Fox Sports Net

Last year’s bowl darlings won’t have anything to look ahead to here, either. The trip to Seattle is quite possibly the only test on their schedule before a trip to the islands the day after Thanksgiving to take on Hawaii. Washington came out strong on opening weekend with a 42-12 win at Syracuse, but then again, all things Orange are to be taken with a grain of salt. Boise State took down I-AA Weber State as they broke in new quarterback Taylor Tharp, who has more of a “Friday Night Lights” feel to his name than the man whose shoes he has to fill, Jared Zabransky (but hey, Zabransky does have Tharp in video game covers, 1 to 0).

Boise will have plenty of motivation on Saturday; they’ve played with the big boys before, but they’ve never beaten a BCS school on the road, going 0 for their first 12 tries. But Washington will be fired up for this one. The Huskies are in search of their first winning season since 2003, and with Ohio State making the trek to the Pacific Northwest next weekend, the Huskies will be looking at the Broncos as the perfect appetizer.

The pick: Washington 37, Boise State 31

7. Notre Dame (+17) at Penn State
6:00 p.m. EST, ESPN

Irish eyes aren’t smiling. They spent last Saturday squinting at their TVs in disbelief, watching Notre Dame get dismantled, 33-3, at home to previously unranked Georgia Tech. The Charlie Weis top-secret quarterback carousel got off to an even rockier start, as all three prospective signal-callers got a chance to play, each without much success. But despite being the third guy off the bench last weekend, star freshman Jimmy Clausen will be tossed to the Nittany Lions in State College. Notre Dame couldn’t run the ball last week, and that will be even more difficult against a Penn State defense that is among the nation’s best.

Penn State disposed of Florida International without breaking a sweat, and they’re eager for some revenge after losing 41-17 at Notre Dame a year ago. As even Ray Charles can see, much has changed for the Irish, but much has changed for Penn State too. Anthony Morelli looks like a different quarterback, and he has four quality receivers who can stretch the field. If Penn State can get its running game going early, those Irish eyes will be crying.

The pick: Penn State 40, Notre Dame 13

6. South Florida (+7) at Auburn
9:00 p.m. EST, ESPN2

The Big East has gone from laughingstock to possibly the third or fourth best conference in the country in just two years. Rutgers, Louisville and West Virginia can boast national championship aspirations while Cincinnati, Pitt and particularly South Florida are programs on the rise. The Bulls opened with a ho-hum victory over Elon, but this would be their first chance for a win over a non-Big East power. Not bad for a school that’s only had a football program for 10 years.

While South Florida may have coasted to a victory against a I-AA team, Auburn found itself unable to move the football for most of three-and-a-half quarters in its opener against Kansas State. Were it not for a few questionable calls, the Wildcats could have easily walked out of Jordan-Hare Stadium with a victory. Brandon Cox, who threw two costly interceptions against KSU, will have to improve if the Tigers are going to beat a much tougher opponent in the Bulls. Look for freshman running back Mike Ford to get more than six carries against Auburn, after having burned Elon for 83 yards on those limited carries.

The pick: South Florida 23, Auburn 19

5. Miami (Fla.) (+10.5) at Oklahoma

This is a dangerous game for Oklahoma. They’re coming off a 79-10 thrashing of North Texas and have to think they’re on top of the world offensively. Miami didn’t look spectacular in a win against Marshall, but established a solid identity running the football, something they’ll have to do more of if they’re to hang with the Sooners.

For the Hurricanes, this is their chance to reestablish their identity of dominance under new coach Randy Shannon. If they can go into Norman and knock off a top 5 team that arguably looked more dominant than anyone on opening weekend, the disaster that was last season will be forgotten almost as soon as it happened. Stopping Sam Bradford’s passing attack and a tailback attack that has four capable runners will be no easy task, but Miami’s Calais Campbell and Kenny Phillips are two of the best defenders in the country. Freshman quarterback Kirby Freeman will be the key to this one. If he delivers, the ‘Canes will have a chance. If not, it’s back to the drawing board in Coral Gables.

The pick: Oklahoma 28, Miami 20

4. Oregon (+8) at Michigan

This might be the most intriguing game in the country just for the train-wreck factor. Does Michigan rebound after the most embarrassing loss in school history? Or do the players, back in school and primed for a national championship run that ended before it began, let the Appalachian State loss hang with them? Everyone will be curious to find out, because if Michigan lets this one get away, the season may truly be a train wreck.

And wouldn’t you know it – Oregon has the same type of attack that tortured the Wolverines last week. Dennis Dixon is a mobile quarterback who can make plays with his legs and his arm, and the Ducks have speedy wideouts who can do damage on the perimeter. The problem for Oregon is its defense. Despite beating Houston by three touchdowns in Eugene last week, the Ducks defense gave up 545 yards of offense. The Wolverines, for all that can be said about them, still have an offense with as many weapons as any attack in college football. Dixon and his troops may have to pace themselves up and down the field in this one, because the last thing the Oregon defense wants to see is Chad Henne, Mike Hart and Mario Manningham on the field more than necessary.

The pick:
Michigan 41, Oregon 24

3. South Carolina (+4) at Georgia
5:45 p.m. EST, ESPN2

This has to be one of the strangest lines in recent memory. South Carolina wins by a lackluster 28-14 margin against Louisiana-Lafayette, while Georgia smokes chic upset pick Oklahoma State 35-14. The Gamecocks couldn’t score a point at home against the Bulldogs last year, yet somehow come into this game being given just home-field advantage points from Georgia.

Blake Mitchell is back at quarterback for South Carolina after serving a one-game academic suspension last week, and while he did come on strong at the end of last year, he also struggled big-time early in 2006, including, you guessed it, against Georgia. Meanwhile, Matthew Stafford looked like the star recruit that he once was in the ‘Dawgs opening win against Oklahoma State and Georgia’s defense shut down the Cowboys completely in the second half. A lot will depend on Mitchell’s return to the lineup, but Spurrier’s previously feted offenses have come up remarkably short in big games since he’s been in Columbia. Don’t expect that to change in this one.

The pick: Georgia 22, South Carolina 10

2. Virginia Tech (+12.5) at LSU
9:15 p.m. EST, ESPN

LSU rolled to a 45-0 win against Mississippi State in the kickoff to the 2007 college football season, intercepting Bulldogs quarterback Michael Henig six times. It was a clash of one of the game’s top defenses, LSU, against far and away one of the sport’s worst offenses, so it’s a bit premature to be drooling over how good the Tiger defense truly is.

That said, it isn’t exactly getting the ’99 Rams rolling into Baton Rouge this week. Quarterback Sean Glennon and the Hokies’ offense looked sluggish at best in their opening victory over East Carolina. And while you could blame some of that on the emotional tone of playing the team’s first game in Blacksburg since April’s senseless shootings, that excuse is out the window for this one. All-conference running back Brandon Ore will have to do better than his three yards-per-carry average if Virginia Tech is to hang with the Tigers. On the other side of the ball, LSU didn’t quite light things up against Mississippi State offensively. And the Hokies have quite a stout defense themselves, to go along with their always stellar special teams. A blocked punt or field goal could turn the tide down on the Bayou.

The pick: LSU 20, Virginia Tech 13

1. TCU (+9) at Texas
7:00 p.m. EST, Fox Sports Net

This is what we like to call a measuring stick game. Lesser program gets its shot at a big boy to measure where it’s at as a team. South Florida vs. Auburn is sort of on that level, but this one is different because it’s an intrastate clash. If TCU beats Texas in Austin, Longhorns fans may not care if they beat Oklahoma and win the rest of their games. They’ll have to live with having lost to a lesser program, from the same state, in their house, for, well, the foreseeable future. The two aren’t currently scheduled to meet again.

Texas looked less than inspired in its opening win against Arkansas State, and needed what the Big 12 later admitted was an incorrect call on an onsides kick to ensure victory. Colt McCoy looked subpar again after having closed an otherwise remarkable freshman season poorly. The Horned Frogs have beaten Oklahoma and Texas Tech in the past two years, and adding the Longhorns to their list may just elevate their program to another level. One of the nation’s best defenses expects star defensive end Tommy Blake back for the game after he sat out the Frogs opener against Baylor, and they’ll need him. Don’t expect McCoy to struggle again.

The pick: Texas 27, TCU 25

Bonus locks of the week: San Jose State (+17.5) at Kansas State
Arizona State (-15) over Colorado
Georgia (-4) over South Carolina

Friday, September 07, 2007

NFL preview, part IV

Our seasons hinge on the potentially shaky play of our quarterbacks, but we’ll never admit it

18. Tennessee Titans

The Titans were outscored by nearly five points per game last season, and for all the accolades he received, Vince Young threw more interceptions than touchdowns and had a quarterback rating of 66.7, not quite Steve Young-esque. But possibly more so than any other player in the league, stats don’t always tell the true story with Young. Sure, interceptions are killers in any language, but Young can win games throwing for 87 yards, as he did during an October win over Houston, or 85 yards, as he did in a December victory over the Jaguars (granted, the Titans scored five touchdowns via defense or special teams in those games, but Young did not turn the ball over).

But when you’re either sneaking out wins or getting blown out, 8-8 can seem a bit hollow. And Tennessee didn’t exactly inspire a load of confidence that they can improve either area with their offseason. Pacman Jones, of course, started things off with a bang (no pun intended) by getting himself suspended for the entire year. Travis Henry was cut after not agreeing to take a pay cut, and now the three-headed tailback monster of LenDale White, Chris Brown and rookie Chris Henry roams the backfield. Bobby Wade and Drew Bennett left via free agency, and the starting receivers are now unproven Brandon Jones and 34-year-old Eric Moulds.

On defense, Nick Harper was brought over from division-rival Indianapolis and Ryan Fowler, who played sparingly in Dallas, will now start at middle linebacker. The team has Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch up front to get into the backfield, and they’ll need to with their shutdown corner having been shut out of the season by commissioner Roger Goodell.

Young is capable of carrying a team on his back, but with the lack of playmakers around him, defenses will be able to go all out in containing him. Look for spies all over the field from the opposition and teams throwing blitzes from every possible angle at the second-year QB. Expect the Titans to slide from last year based on reality catching up with them, and don’t be surprised if Young is at or near the top of the league in turnovers.

Best case: One of the tailbacks emerges as a legit replacement for Henry, one of the two rookie receivers forces his way into the lineup, defense continues to create turnovers
Worst case: Young suffers a sophomore slump, White, Brown and Henry continue to split carries, loss of Jones kills the return game
The verdict: 7-9, third in the AFC South
17. New York Jets

The Jets were the surprise of the league a year ago. Almost universally picked to be one of the three worst teams in the NFL, they rallied under first-year head coach Eric Mangini and made the playoffs. But much like Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben told him, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Or, in the NFL equivalent of Uncle Ben’s dying words, “with a great season comes a difficult schedule.” That is just one of the challenges the Jets will face, but perhaps the most important is their situation at quarterback.

Chad Pennington has never had the world’s strongest arm, and with shoulder problems that have bothered him in recent years, it’s only gotten worse. The Jets have two fast receivers in the starting lineup, Jerrico Cotchery and Laveraneus Coles, and Pennington’s pop-gun arm makes it a bit difficult for the team to utilize the speed of their two best wideouts.

The Jets made a solid move to bring in Thomas Jones in the offseason, who should give them Curtis Martin-like stability in the backfield. Well, maybe not that good, but better than throwing Cedric Houston out there. Leon Washington, the team’s leading rusher a year ago, should provide a nice third-down option and adds the speed the Jones may lack.

The defense picked up what should be a great one with the drafting of Pitt cornerback Darrelle Revis. It might take a year, but he should be able to lock down his half of the field for the next 10 years. Kenyon Coleman comes over from Dallas to line up opposite Shaun Ellis at defensive end, and the mammoth DeWayne Robertson mans the nose in the Jets’ 3-4 setup.

The season will come down to how effective Pennington can be. Kellen Clemens, the team’s second-round draft pick from Oregon, looked sharp in the preseason and raised more than a few eyebrows that he should be the starter sooner rather than later. But Pennington has the respect of his teammates and is a strong presence in the locker room. A few critical interceptions though, and Mangini might at least have something to think about.

Best case: Jones’ calf muscle isn’t a problem, Revis helps out on special teams and is a starter at corner, Pennington doesn’t make major mistakes
Worst case: Injury-prone stars live up to their billing, D’Brickashaw Ferguson doesn’t turn into a franchise left tackle
The verdict: 8-8, second in the AFC East

16. Jacksonville Jaguars

Not many teams cut a former first-round pick who had been their four-year starting quarterback as long as he’s been healthy with just one week to go before the start of a new season. But the Jaguars have always been a little bit different. This is a team who took a college quarterback in the first round two years ago and almost immediately made him their No. 1 receiver.

So Byron Leftwich is out and David Garrard is in. Neither is a great quarterback, but Garrard is a better fit for this team. He’s slightly more accurate, but most importantly, far more mobile. And with a team that has a bunch of big, slow wideouts, that’s an important factor. Dennis Northcutt was brought in from Cleveland to make an impact in the return game and at receiver, and he’s somehow worked his way to the top guy on the depth chart. Northcutt was a colossal disappointment in Cleveland, and that speaks more to what a disaster Reggie Williams and Matt Jones have been than anything else.

Ernest Wilford has developed into a decent red-zone threat, but he still only had two touchdowns a year ago. Jones may be listed behind Wilford simply because he’s their fastest receiver and is better suited for the slot.

The backfield is a strength, with the great-if-healthy Fred Taylor and jack-of-all-trades Maurice Jones-Drew. If Taylor’s groin acts up, which, along with Columbus Day, seems to occur annually in October, the Jags finally have a dependable backup at tailback. Tight end Marcedes Lewis, like Jones-Drew a product of UCLA, could break out in his second year if Jack Del Rio decides to utilize him more than the 13 times he caught the ball a year ago.

The defense is excellent. Reggie Nelson, the hard-hitting rookie safety from Florida, should step right into the lineup and Rashean Mathis is one of the three or four best corners in the league. The linebackers aren’t spectacular but the defensive line has the best tackle combination in the league with Marcus Stroud and John Henderson.

At least Garrard knows he’s the guy going into the season. Ever since Leftwich missed a few weeks in 2005 and Garrard filled in admirably, both guys have been looking over their shoulders. But if Garrard goes down, there’s not really anyone behind him.

Best case: Garrard benefits from starting a full year, Jones-Drew becomes even more of a running threat, one of the receivers steps up
Worst case: Taylor finds himself sidelined, Dennis Northcutt actually plays regularly, Lewis is ignored in the passing game
The verdict: 8-8, second in the AFC South
15. Cincinnati Bengals

Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when they…. Sorry, force of habit. The Bengals are actually some of the league’s more well-behaved citizens these days. After having nine players arrested in a women’s average gestation period, the Bengals then went five whole months getting only one player cuffed. And that was almost three months ago. Of course, that figure serves only as the number of players arrested, not the number of arrests, which, thanks to wide receiver Chris Henry’s indiscretions, is too high for us here at Give and Go to count. It should be noted, however, that Eric Steinbach, arrested for your run-of-the-mill BUI (boating under the influence), has taken his act, er, services, to Cleveland. Lake Erie boaters beware.

But back to Henry. While he’s only the third receiver on the Bengals’ roster, and is behind maybe the best 1-2 wideout punch in football, there is virtually no depth behind Henry, so his being suspended for the first eight games of the season could be a bigger problem than some may think. In addition, the aforementioned Steinbach is gone and Rich Brahm retired. Second-round pick Kenny Irons went down with an ACL tear in the team’s first preseason game, so there goes Rudi Johnson’s change-of-pace back. And if someone should happen to roll up on Carson Palmer’s leg this year? The backup is newly acquired Harvard grad Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Now, the defense. The pass defense was the worst in football a year ago and didn’t do a whole heck of a lot to patch things up. Leon Hall was drafted in the first round but he didn’t look like much of a savior in the last two games in his college career. Justin Smith is about the only guy in the front seven who is able to get consistent pressure in the backfield, but he’s a good notch below the league’s top-tier defensive ends.

So what’s actually to like about the Bengals? Still the passing game. Palmer is one of the three or five best quarterbacks in the league and he’s got two stars to throw to in Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Rudi Johnson is one of the league’s most consistent if unspectacular running backs. They’ll put up enough points to win their share of games in spite of their defense. But it’s unrealistic to think this is a division champion considering their off-the-field problems and lack of ability to stop the pass.

Best case:
Tab Perry becomes reliable as the third receiver in Henry’s absence, the secondary steps up
Worst case: Fitzpatrick is seen without a headset and a clipboard, Rudi Johnson starts to show signs of wear and tear, the line drops without Steinbach and Brahm
The verdict: 8-8, third in the AFC North

14. Carolina Panthers

Jake Delhomme has looked awfully human since nearly leading the Panthers to a great comeback in Super Bowl XXXVIII against New England. His numbers haven’t been bad, but he got banged up toward the end of last year and has had some injury issues in the preaseason, although they don’t appear to be serious. And Delhomme will be 33 by the time the playoffs roll around, which is hard to believe considering he’s only been the Panthers’ starter for four years since being a fixture on the bench in New Orleans.

The Panthers signed David Carr to give themselves a solid option behind Delhomme, but what it may turn into is a good, old-fashioned quarterback competition. Delhomme hasn’t had anyone competent looking over his should until now (sorry, Chris Weinke).

This is still a talented team, and they were a chic pick to make it back to the Super Bowl last year before being derailed by injuries. There are two talented running backs behind whomever’s under center, the injury-waiting-to-happen DeShaun Foster, and second-year-breakout-candidate DeAngelo Williams. Look for Williams to emerge as the prefix back of choice whether Foster stays healthy or not. Steve Smith is the most explosive receiver in the league, but the problem is finding a complement to his speed. Dwayne Jarrett was drafted in the second round to replace former possession receiver of choice Keyshawn Johnson, and Keary Colbert and Drew Carter have shown some potential in their brief careers.

The defense should be strong as usual. The key will again be the health of the defensive line. Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker when healthy, are three of the better pass rushers in the league on the defensive front, but they have had seasons derailed by injury in the past. The same can be said for the man in the middle behind them, Dan Morgan, whose entire career has been one big injury. Morgan’s fellow alum from “The U,” first-rounder Jon Beason should help solidify the linebacking unit.

But something doesn’t feel quite right about this team. You wonder if they remember how to win. They’ve been so fragile since their Super Bowl year that they haven’t gotten a full year from their stars, save for Steve Smith, and it seems unrealistic to assume they can all stay healthy again.

Best case: Delhomme reverts to 2004 form, Colbert or Jarrett stars as the “other” receiver, Beason makes an early impact
Worst case: John Fox finds himself picking between QBs, injuries start to roll in, Williams doesn’t take the job away from Foster
The verdict: 8-8, second in the NFC South

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

NFL preview, part III

We play in the NFC, so we know we have a chance!

23. Detroit Lions

There is finally something resembling optimism in the Motor City, but it’s safe to call that a very, very guarded optimism. The Lions didn’t have the first pick in April’s NFL Draft, but they wound up with the best player, Georgia Tech wideout Calvin Johnson. Johnson is the fourth receiver taken by the Lions in the first round in the last five drafts, and two of those are no longer with the team (Charles Rogers is no longer in the league). It appears they finally have things right on the perimeter though, with Mike Martz’s pass-happy system and three solid pass-catchers (Johnson, Roy Williams and Mike Furrey) to guide the team down the field.

But then the question marks start to roll in. Jon Kitna is being counted on to get those aforementioned receivers the ball, and to his credit, he did so with great regularity last year. However, if there’s ever been a quarterback who also tends to give the ball to the other team with great regularity, it’s Kitna, who has thrown 126 interceptions and fumbled the ball 83 times in 108 NFL games. He turned the ball over 31 times last year, and unfortunately for Detroit, when that happens, something called the Lions defense is forced to come onto the field.

The defense allowed the third-most points in the league last year, then traded its best defender, cornerback Dre Bly, to Denver for running back Tatum Bell. They did make an underrated free agent signing in getting defensive end Dewayne White from Tampa Bay, but this is a unit that needed more of a turnover than what they got. They did draft three cornerbacks, a defensive tackle and a linebacker, but none of those rookies looks ready to help immediately.

Ernie Sims is definitely a solid presence in the middle of the defense, and it looks like, gasp!, Matt Millen may have gotten a first-rounder right in the midst of his wide receiver fetish. But the secondary, minus Bly, is going to be a major concern.

Also hanging over this team is the strange sense that the offensive coordinator, Martz, is actually running the team rather than its head coach, Rod Marinelli. Martz speaks to the media and is generally given credit for what the team actually does right, but then again, most of what’s right with the team is the part for which he’s responsible.

Best case: Kitna throws for 4,500 yards and protects the ball (somewhat), Tatum Bell or Kevin Jones emerges as a solid back, the Steel Curtain in its prime replaces the Lions’ current defense
Worst case: The defense doesn’t improve, Johnson is more Mike Williams or Charles Rogers than Roy Williams, Kitna gets turnover happy
The verdict: 6-10, last place in the NFC North

22. Arizona Cardinals

For the past two years it’s been supposed to click for the Cardinals. First, it was the acquisition of Kurt Warner to go along with Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald and “stud” rookie runner J.J. Arrington (isn’t he the guy who created Lost?). Then it was the drafting of Matt Leinart and the addition of Edgerrin James. This year, it’s the drafting of a stud right tackle, Levi Brown, to protect southpaw Leinart’s blind side, along with new head coach Ken Whisenhunt, an offensive guru, and assistant Russ Grimm to help guide the offensive line.

Notice not one defensive player mentioned in that last paragraph? While the Cards have been wheeling and dealing to come up with the greatest show on field turf on offense, defense, well it hasn’t exactly been a priority in the desert. They did draft Alan Branch in the second round of the draft, and he should be a fixture on the defensive line for years to come. They also took Florida State linebacker Buster Davis in the third round…and he didn’t make the team. That was it during the draft as far as defense for the Cards.

They added marginal safety Terrence Holt (from the Lions!) and marginal corner Roderick Hood in free agency, but pass rushing specialist Chike Okeafor may miss the entire season with a biceps tear. So things aren’t likely to get better for the Cards on defense.

The offense has the potential to be explosive. Leinart came on strong at the end of last year and he has two of the best receivers in the game to throw to in Boldin and Fitzgerald. Leonard Pope should emerge as a nice safety blanket at tight end, and he certainly has the size and speed to go downfield. What the team needs is James to bounce back and look more like he did with the Colts in terms of his ability to carry tacklers and control the football. He was a pass-catching threat with the Colts as well, and that dropped off drastically last year. If he can consistently provide Leinart with a safety valve underneath, the Cardinals could be the most complete offense in the NFC.

Best case: Leinart takes the leap, James averages more than 3.4 yards per carry, the defense doesn’t have to be on the field very often
Worst case: One of the wideouts gets injured, Brown and Branch don’t help, James looks like he’s lost another step
The pick: 6-10, last place in the NFC West

21. Washington Redskins

The Redskins gave up more yards last year than any NFC team, somewhat hard to believe for a team with such a solid secondary, and considering the unit was the ninth best in the league in 2005. And that secondary got better in the offseason, adding corners Fred Smoot, Jerametrius Butler and David Macklin, and the real coup, stud rookie safety LaRon Landry from LSU.

The problem is the defensive line, which couldn’t generate any pressure last season and returns virtually intact in 2007. Adding London Fletcher at middle linebacker is nice, but he’s more of a cover guy in the middle. The depth at corner is now excellent should Carlos Rogers or, more likely, Shawn Springs get injured. And the safeties, Landry and Sean Taylor, are the best duo in the league.

Jason Campbell started seven times last season and looked serviceable if not exceptional. But whereas a Redskins team with a stout defense three or four years ago might have relied on its quarterback to simply manage the game, this version of the squad needs its quarterback, and his speedy receivers, to make plays.

Clinton Portis held up well in his first four years in the league before breaking his hand last year. This summer he’s had some knee tendonitis, but Ladell Betts is solid insurance should Portis not be able to give it a full go. That being said, Portis is still the Redskins’ best and fastest ball carrier, and if they’re to have any success in 2007, he’ll have to be relatively healthy.

The receivers are quick but inconsistent. Santana Moss had seven games in which he posted less than 40 yards last season after having an All-Pro-caliber 2005. Antwaan Randle El and particularly Brandon Lloyd were disasters last year after signing as free agents. Campbell will rely heavily on tight end Chris Cooley, who’s really an H-back but has done just fine over the middle the last few years.

You have to wonder whether Joe Gibbs still has the ability to coach effectively as he did nearly two decades earlier. Since coming back, he hasn’t shown it, but then again, Daniel Snyder wasn’t running things when Gibbs was winning Super Bowls either.

Best case: Portis stays healthy, Randle El contributes big on special teams, defensive line finally gets some pressure in the backfield
Worst case: Campbell’s receivers abandon him, corners are again forced to spend all day covering opposing wideouts
The verdict: 6-10, third in the NFC East

20. Minnesota Vikings

Of all the shaky quarterback situations in the NFL, Minnesota’s might be the most likely to register on the Richter scale. Second-year QB Tarvaris Jackson is the guy, but no one knows what to expect from him. He looked pretty bad in four appearances and two starts in 2006. Perhaps coach Brad Childress was just adding some insurance in his recent acquisition of veteran Kelly Holcomb, or maybe he’s going to have a short leash with Jackson and wants a guy who has proven he can fill in for a decent length of time.

On the plus side for Jackson, he has Chester Taylor and stud rookie running back Adrian Peterson to hand the ball to. On the downside, with Jackson being essentially a rookie starter, teams are going to crowd the box with eight or nine guys, and with good reason: he’s unproven and his receivers are one of the league’s worst units. But hey, with the drafting of Sidney Rice in the second round, the Vikings now have not one, but two, former South Carolina Gamecocks catching passes! The other, of course, is professional bust Troy Williamson, who Minnesota took with the seventh overall pick in 2005. If he’s not ready to step up this season, he might as well be written off.

Defensively, the Vikings were impossible to run on in 2006, allowing an amazing 61 yards rushing to lead the league by a mile. Then again, they allowed the most passing yards in the league, so maybe teams just didn’t even think of running the ball, instead salivating over their maligned secondary.

The good news is the secondary should improve. Antoine Winfield is a solid presence at corner and second-year man Cedric Griffin has improved greatly in the offseason. Darren Sharper is a good guy to have at safety, and adding Mike Doss should help add some depth in the defensive backfield.

Losing defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin to the Steelers will hurt big-time, as it remains to be seen if Brad Childress is cut out to be an NFL head coach. He doesn’t seem to have earned the respect of his players, and with a young team on offense, that could be a situation to monitor as the year progresses.

Best case:
The secondary gets to the middle of the pack and doesn’t let QBs feast on them all day, Rice and Williamson start catching passes, Peterson looks so good he limits Taylor’s carries
Worst case: Jackson looks lost and Childress refuses to turn to Holcomb, the run defense proves to have been a fluke, the team turns on Childress
The verdict: 6-10, third in the NFC North

19. Green Bay Packers

You get the feeling that like Joe Paterno, Brett Favre is sticking around hoping for one more big winner. Of course, Paterno is 80, and with Favre having turned a mere 73, maybe he’s got a few years more than JoePa left to wait.

In all seriousness, Favre’s accuracy is slipping, his interceptions are rising (though he was much better taking care of the ball last year as opposed to his unfathomable total of 29 picks in 2005), and his decision-making is eroding.

Ahman Green is gone to take the load off Favre, and replacing him is Brandon Jackson, a third-round pick from Nebraska, along with holdover Vernand Morency. Neither is going to remind anyone of Barry Sanders. But at least one of them will have to develop into a reliable back on first and second downs in order for this team to have any sort of balance. Otherwise, it’ll be Favre slinging the ball downfield 40 times a game, sometimes to Donald Driver, and most of the rest of the time, to the other team.

The defense allowed its fair amount of yardage last year, but only Baltimore and Chicago forced more turnovers. Quite a surprise for a unit that has historically resembled one of the more well-known varieties of cheese that Wisconsin produces. Odds are the Packers won’t force 38 turnovers again though, so more of those drives that ceased as opponents entered the red zone will result in points this year.

And that means gun-slinging Favre will be back this year. Rookie James Jones has had a strong preseason and Greg Jennings had a great first half last year, so defenses won’t be able to key on Driver as much. But after all those years, and all those consecutive starts, will Favre’s body hold up this fall as he turns 38? With Aaron Rodgers itching to prove himself after spending his first two years holding a clipboard, maybe Favre hitting the bench with a pulled groin wouldn’t be the worst thing for the Cheeseheads.

Best case: The two skill position rookies produce, Favre takes care of the football, the turnovers keep on coming
Worst case: Team struggles to find a running game, Favre struggles and stays in the lineup, defense returns to regular Packer form
The verdict: 7-9, second in the NFC North

NFL preview, part II

It doesn’t look good, but SOMEONE always goes from the outhouse to the penthouse…right?

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

It’s safe to say the honeymoon is over on the Gulf Coast for Jon Gruden, who has led the team to a 27-37 record since the start of the 2003 season after winning the Super Bowl in his first year in Tampa, 2002. Injuries played a key role in the team’s failures in 2006, with Chris Simms’ ruptured spleen three games in leading the way. The franchise has been in a perpetual state of malaise under center, even winning their Super Bowl despite featuring one of the two or three worst starting quarterbacks to win the big game. Luke McCown, Brian Griese, Simms and Bruce Gradkowski have now given way to free agent Jeff Garcia, who, at 37, is a Band-Aid at best for the Tampa passing game.

The worst thing that can be said about a non-contending team in the NFL is that they’re old, and that is exactly what the Bucs are. Their two defensive stalwarts for the past decade, Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber, are past their primes, and they just signed over-the-hill Jeremiah Trotter to join Brooks in the linebacking corps. Joey Galloway, their most efficient offensive threat, is their leading receiver, but he’s 35, and is bound to start becoming less effective quickly considering his most valuable trait is his speed. David Boston peaked six years ago and Ike Hilliard has been past his prime for a while. Maurice Stovall is in his second year, but he’s the lone young threat at wideout.

Cadillac Williams fell off last year after a solid rookie season, though a weak offensive line certainly had something to do with his drop in production. He’ll need to be a lot better if the Bucs are to have much of a chance offensively, but with the lack of threats at receiver, he’ll be facing eight-man fronts consistently.

Cato June and Kevin Carter were signed to improve the defense, but Simeon Rice was cut, partially due to injury and partially because he didn’t want to take a pay cut. Gaines Adams, the team’s first-round draft pick, should help make up for the loss of Rice, but this isn’t the dominant Bucs’ defense of five years ago.

Best case: Garcia’s mobility provides a spark the other QBs couldn’t, Williams rebounds, Adams looks like a young Rice
Worst case: Age at major positions shows, players become more disenchanted with Gruden
The verdict: 5-11, last place in the NFC South

26. Miami Dolphins

You have to wonder what the Dolphins would look like had they made the decision to sign Drew Brees rather than trade for Daunte Culpepper in March 2006. Culpepper was a bust last year and is now an Oakland Raider, while Brees was a Pro Bowler in his first year in New Orleans. Miami’s offensive line has been bad since before Dan Marino retired, and the unit will break in three new starters this year.

Ronnie Brown, part of Auburn’s vaunted running back tandem in college along with Cadillac Williams, didn’t really improve last year, and his yards per carry average was slightly worse than his rookie year. Now, Cam Cameron-favorite Jessie Chatman appears to be 1B to Brown’s 1A on the depth chart. With the line either will be running behind, it may not matter much who is toting the ball.

Aside from Nick Saban’s practically overnight departure to Tuscaloosa and the subsequent hiring of Cameron, the biggest news to come out of south Florida this offseason was the team’s decision to pass over Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn to select Ohio State kick returner, umm, wide receiver, Ted Ginn Jr. The thinking was that with the way guys like Devin Hester have been changing games with their kick return abilities, Ginn could make the difference in close games for the Dolphins.

Unfortunately, Cameron forgot that Hester was selected at the end of the second round, not in the top 10 of the entire draft. And, oh yeah, the team Hester went to was already pretty good. Miami did get its signal-caller of the future in the second round in BYU’s John Beck, who is already 26 years old. The present belongs to 37-year-old Trent Green, brought over from Kansas City after a courtship longer than those preceding some marriages.

The defense is aging but still effective, at least concerning the front seven. Jason Taylor had his best year as a pro in 2006, and Zach Thomas is a stalwart at middle linebacker. Joey Porter, past his prime but still capable of producing a big play here and there, came over from Pittsburgh. But the secondary is shaky, meaning Taylor and company will need to get consistent pressure or else this defense will be giving up quite a few big pass plays.

Best case: Green gets back in rhythm after missing much of ’06, Ginn does more than see the field, Taylor plays like he did a year ago
Worst case: Offensive line fails to jell, Chris Chambers continues to disappoint, secondary gets burned too often
The pick: 5-11, last place in the AFC East

25. Atlanta Falcons

After having gone through perhaps the most tumultuous offseason in the history of the NFL, everyone has written off the Falcons, and perhaps with good merit. The face of their franchise is facing hard time for dog-fighting, new coach Bobby Petrino has never been an NFL head coach, and now, the reason he was brought in is on his way to a federal penitentiary. Hey, at least Falcons owner Arthur Blank can’t really have a short leash with Petrino, considering the circumstances.

But the Falcons haven’t lost all of their bite offensively (and that concludes the bad dog-fighting pun section of this preview). Jerious Norwood was impressive as a rookie in a backfield that includes perennial jitterbug Warrick Dunn. The problem has been at receiver, where Michael Jenkins and Roddy White have been disappointments considering both were picked in the first round. Veteran Joe Horn was brought in to add some consistency to the passing game, which is now being led by Joey Harrington.

Like his new core of receivers, Harrington certainly didn’t live up to his lofty draft status in Detroit. But he showed some signs of improvement last year in Miami, which hasn’t exactly been a quarterback’s best friend either. He’s certainly a fiery guy who would give anything to succeed, and he should have more of a chance to do that in Atlanta than he ever did in Motown.

The defense is average but not a unit without some playmakers. Gone is defensive end Patrick Kerney, who spent eight good years in Atlanta, but was beginning to slip a bit. Ed Hartwell, who had a disappointing year after coming over from Baltimore, is now a Bengal. The team drafted Arkansas end Jamaal Anderson in the first round, and he’ll be a starter from day one. The perpetually overrated DeAngelo Hall leads the secondary. By no means is he a bad player, but he’s certainly not the all-knowing, lock-down guy that he thinks he is. He won’t see many passes thrown his way anyway with journeyman Lewis Sanders patrolling the other side in the secondary.

Best case: Harrington finally puts it together, Horn plays younger than 35 and helps the other receivers, Norwood breaks out
Worst case: Vick situation proves too much to overcome, running game goes south, Anderson can’t make an impact immediately
The verdict: 6-10, third in the NFC South

24. Buffalo Bills

If the Bills played in the NFC, they’d have a decent shot of making the playoffs. But they don’t, and here at Give and Go we judge teams by wins and losses, and they’re not going to win very many games. Their schedule is beyond brutal, particularly early, when they play six 2006 playoff teams in their first eight games (and the other two are against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, which could have easily joined that group). And if there’s one thing this team needs for its confidence, it’s a good start.

The Bills’ offensive line is coming together nicely, with the additions of Derrick Dockery and Langston Walker to go along with converted tight end Jason Peters, who came on strong last year in western New York. And now that Willis McGahee is in Baltimore, they’ll have a newer, shiftier back to block for in rookie Marshawn Lynch. Lynch, however, struggled mightily in the preseason, but let’s see how he looks once the games matter before we go bashing that pick.

Lee Evans is the most underrated receiver in football, and J.P. Losman, who early on looked exactly like the hotheaded problem child he often was at Tulane, actually had a nice year in 2006. When Losman had a quarterback rating above 90, the Bills were 6-0. There isn’t much behind Evans at receiver, with Peerless Price back for a second, much less successful tour of duty with the team, and Josh Reed and professional kick returner Roscoe Parrish behind him.

Paul Posluszny was a steal in the second round for the Bills, as he will run the defense from his middle linebacker position right away. Unfortunately, gone are Nate Clements, Takeo Spikes and London Fletcher. The Bills weren’t much more than an average defense with those three, so it’s not realistic to expect this unit to be any better this year. With that said, this isn’t a bad team, but it still has holes to fill and with their schedule, 2008 is what they should look toward.

Best case: Lynch has a 1200-yard rookie season and the Bills turn into a ball-control offense, Losman doesn’t make mistakes, Posluszny is defensive rookie of the year
Worst case: Evans is again a one-man show on offense, loss of Clements and the two linebackers is too much to make up for
The verdict: 6-10, third in the AFC East

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Top 25, Week of 9/4

We'll get back to the NFL preview countdown tomorrow, but as for now, here is my top 25 ballot after the first week of the college football season.

1. USC
2. LSU
3. West Virginia
4. Louisville
5. Oklahoma
6. Florida
7. Wisconsin
8. Texas
9. California
10. Virginia Tech
11. Penn State
12. Ohio State
13. Georgia
14. Rutgers
15. UCLA
16. Nebraska
17. TCU
18. Arkansas
19. Georgia Tech
20. Auburn
21. Tennessee
22. Michigan
23. Hawaii
24. Boise State
25. Oregon

Just missed the cut: Clemson, Texas A&M

- Florida State had no business being ranked going into the week and proved it tonight against Clemson. That being said, Clemson was on its way into the poll before a dreadful second half and near-collapse against the 'Noles. I continue to be impressed with Oregon, and am very interested to see how the Ducks handle what should be a wild matchup in Ann Arbor this week.