Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Will UCLA Beat Stanford? Slim Chance

There's that line in the mournful ballad "Amazing Grace" that says something like: "I was blind but now I see." That's me.

I thought UCLA could whip Stanford last Saturday at the Rose Bowl. But the Bruiins were brutalized, 35-17. It was their worst licking of the season. That 43-17 loss to a bad Cal team doesn't count. In that one, the Bruins beat themselves, making a barrage of blunders, handing the game to the inferior Bears.

Looking at that Stanford game again on tape really opened my eyes. Face it. Stanford may be the best team in the country, as tough as the SEC's finest. They've beaten the elite of  the Pac-12, Oregon and UCLA. By the way, beating that fleet Oregon team on the road was a monumental achievement. I didn't give it enough weight. Could be that, being a Cal fan, I was blinded by my anti-Stanford bias.

UCLA lost last Saturday because they were going up against a monster team. Stanford won the game, where it's usually won, in the trenches. Sources tuned into NFL scouting say Stanford's front seven is as good at those impregnable units at Notre Dame and Alabama. That Stanford crew, claim these sources, has improved dramatically since the beginning of the season. Credit them with Stanford's No.1 ranking against the rush, surrendering only 71.4 yards per game and its No.11 ranking in scoring defense. The Cardinal also leads the country in sacks, racking up seven in the UCLA game last week.

Watching the tape of that game, you see the UCLA offensive line, which starts three freshmen, getting pushed around. The Bruins' line ranks near the bottom in sacks allowed, but that hasn't really hurt the team since QB Brett Hundley is such a crafty scrambler, he's still able to find time to pass. The Stanford front seven, though, was just too good, cutting off all his escape routes. They also limited the Bruins' exceptional RB Jonathan Franklin to 65 yards in 20 carries.

For UCLA to win last week, Hundley and Franklin, aided by home field advantage, needed to have super games. Also Stanford's redshirt freshman QB Kevin Hogan had to screw up. Well, the Bruins' offensive stars didn't shine and Hogan managed the game nicely. All he had to do was hand off to RB Stepfan Taylor, who piled up 140 yards in 20 carries, burning up clock in the process..The Bruins' defense couldn't stop that Stanford O line, which has blossomed into one of the best in the country

If you're betting, taking UCLA, a nine-point underdog, is a little risky. According to handicappers, if these teams played 20 times, Stanford would win 15. Also, Stanford hardly ever loses in November. Since late in that month in 2009, the Cardinal has won 12 of 13 November games. Here's another stat in the Cardinal's favor: since 2010 it's 22-9 against the spread.

Look for Stanford to win against UCLA, dominating in the trenches.

But if Hundley and Franklin soar, the Bruins might even beat the spread or, against a superior veteran team, eke out a victory. Smart money is on Stanford. But not having learned my lesson last week, I might just go out on a limb and take the Bruins.

Monday, November 26, 2012

In Defense of NY Jets' Coach Rex Ryan

New York Jet head coach Rex Ryan's job is hanging by a thread. Many Jets fans would actually like to see him hanging by a noose. But he's getting a raw deal, getting the blame for this Jets' mess. It's not his fault.

Sure, this 4-7 team is the laughing stock of the NFL. At their games, you half expect a clown car to pull up and the Jet players to spill out. In the embarrassing 49-19 loss to arch rival New England on Thanksgiving there was a hilarious play, the one where QB Mark Sanchez ran into his own lineman and fumbled the ball, which was run back for a TD. It was so ridiculous, so like something you'd see the kiddies do in Pop Warner football, you couldn't help laughing. These guys really are a laff riot.

Make no mistake, when the season is over, to clean up this mess, heads will roll.  Ryan, though, should be safe. He's just playing the hand he was dealt--and it's full of crummy cards.

In 2009 and 2010, when he had decent players, he guided the Jets to the AFC championship game. Just getting that far required excellent coaching. That was Ryan at his best. Those teams weren't packed with stars, but he made the most of a modestly-talented crew. Even then, Sanchez was the weak link. With a more capable QB the Jets might have gone farther.

This current team, though, team flat out stinks.  The Jets were doomed when two of its three best players, corner back Darrelle Revis and WR Santonio Holmes, were knocked out early with season-ending injuries. The offensive line, with the exception of center Nick Mangold, the Jets' other first-rate player, is awful. The WRs are a bunch of butter-fingered nobodies. And those aging linebackers, they're bad against the run and worse chasing down pass receivers. You can't get anywhere without a quality QB. Sanchez has been on a downward spiral since the 2010 AFC championship game.

Sanchez badly needed a shot of confidence. So what did the Jets do, but undermine him by bringing in a high-profile backup, Tim Tebow, who can't really play. Nervously looking over his shoulder at Tebow, Sanchez has gotten worse. Tebow, who's more celebrity than football player, is no help. All he's done is created resentment in the locker room, making the rest of the team angry that a guy who's ineffective at his position is a media darling.

The locker room, already fractured by an ugly Holmes-Sanchez feud and a conflict rooted in attitudes toward gay players, didn't need another distraction--which is basically what Tebow is. All this has sabotaged Ryan's coaching efforts.

He signed on to coach a football team and winds up coaching an NFL circus, teeming with lousy players.
Owner Woody Johnson and GM Mike Tannenbaum needs to clean house, dump Sanchez and Tebow, and start from scratch, signing quality players. And they can do it with Ryan at the helm. In a normal NFL environment he's an excellent coach. He's already proved that. He deserves another shot.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

UCLA and USC Win Tossup Games

UCLA (9-2) is a two-point underdog to Stanford today at the Rose Bowl, while USC (7-4) is a 6-point dog in its clash with undefeated, No.1 Notre Dame ( 11-0) crosstown at the Coliseum later in the day. Forget the point spreads. Both these games are really tossups. If you're betting  take the LA dogs. Here's why:

UCLA vs, Stanford:  After downing the Ducks 17-14 last week up in Oregon, Stanford, at the moment, is king of the conference. They wounded the Ducks, doing what seemed impossible, holding that scary offense to 40 points below its scoring average. Built like an SEC team, Stanford has a killer defense supported by a modest, run-oriented offense built around RB Stephan Taylor. Their strengths are their terrific linebackers, which are among the nation's finest and a run defense that's second best in the country.

UCLA's defense can't match Stanford's, but its front seven, guided by savvy coordinator Lou Spanos, gets better every week. Compare this crew today to what it was at the beginning of the season, and it's like night and day. The guts of this team, though, is a balanced offense headed by fab freshman QB Brett Hundley, both a superb runner and passer, and RB Jonathan Franklin, who's among the top three in the conference.

Expect the Bruins to set up a defense to bog down RB Taylor and dare freshman Kevin Hogan to beat them. The Cardinal's WRs aren't much but it does have super tight ends--Zach Ertz and Levine Toliolo. Can the Bruins defense put a lid on the Cardinal's offense? Can UCLA's offense dent the iron Stanford D? Can the Bruins overcome its major weakness, surrendering sacks (the offensive line is near the bottom in this critical stat)?

The answer to all three questions is yes. For Stanford to win, it has to, for the second week in a row, go into a tough team's hostile stadium and win, with a freshman QB, no less. Beating Oregon last week drained the Cardinal. A lot of its energy is still on the stadium floor in Oregon. Can the Cardinal, behind a baby QB, win another road crucial this week. Odds are against it. Bet on the Bruins.

USC vs. Notre Dame: Was there ever a weaker No.1 than Notre Dame?. On paper its schedule looks formidable, but nearly all these teams, like Purdue and BYU, are merely good to awful this year. The Irish squeaked by teams it should have routed. That OT win against lowly Pitt should have been a loss, just like that OT win against Stanford, which was aided by a questionable call. Notre Dame has impressive defensive stats, boasting the nation's finest red-zone defense, but it piled up these fancy figures against so-so offenses. They've faced just one first-rate passing team, Oklahoma, which trashed the Irish secondary.

Talented SC has been a major disappointment, mainly because turnovers and penalties have sabotaged their efforts. Notre Dame has a minor-league offense, run by a very ordinary QB, Everett Golson, that can be handled by SC, which has an edge in team speed. SC's big advantage is its super receiving corps, which could run roughshod over that mediocre Irish pass defense.Of course, Trojan QB Matt Barkley is out with a sprained shoulder, so inexperienced freshman QB Max Wittek is at the helm. Betting on SC is betting that he has an outstanding game and that SC's sack-happy pass-rushers can rattle QB Golson, who's been playing better lately.

Notre Dame, whose best player is Heisman candidate linebacker Manti Te'o, is very good but not great and is very beatable. If the Irish were in the SEC or the Pac-12, they'd be in third or fourth place, at best. There's another reason to take SC--the team has a hallowed history of beating undefeated Notre Dame teams. Betting on SC means gambling that it can clean up its act, cut down on turnovers and penalties, and that Wittek has a decent, fairly mistake-free game.

SC, which has won nine out of its last ten games with Notre Dame, can wash away its bad season with a win today.  This victory would go down as one of the biggest in school history. So SC has to be really motivated. Betting on the Trojans is worth the gamble.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Why Alex Smith Should Start For the 49ers

I can't believe I'm saying this, but QB Alex Smith should be starting for the San Francisco 49ers, not Colin Kaepernick.

I haven't been Smith's biggest fan. In fact I've accused him of holding back the offense. With Smith at QB, the Niners don't score very often and are backed into many close games, often by inferior teams. But the Niners have one of the top five defenses in the league. They win with defense, David Akers field-goal kicking (though he did blow the Rams game in OT) and their modest offense, with RBs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter grinding out 2-6 yard gains while eating up the clock. That's their formula. That's how, with Smith at QB, they came within two Kyle Williams blunders of going to the Super Bowl early this year.

But now, since Smith suffered a concussion on Nov. 11, young backup Kaepernick is in the mix. He performed creditably in the Rams game, which was a tie instead of a Niners' blowout due to defensive lapses. Then Kaepernick, in front of a national TV audience on Monday night, led to Niners to a rout of the tough Bears, who may have the league's best defense. Kaepernick passed for 184 yards in the first half. Smith doesn't usually rack up that many yards in an entire game.

A running threat, Kaepernick spreads defenses, opening up lanes for the runners. Unlike Smith he also throws long, with startling accuracy, which also spreads defenses. With Kaepernick at QB, the Niners' offense is much more dangerous, more likely to score points and make life easier for the defense. He also allows offensive coordinator Greg Roman to tap into his creativity and experiment with various wrinkles.
Then there's Smith, who can't do half of what Kaepernick can do. Smith is a lead-footed runner who can't throw long very well. With him at QB defenses put more players close to the line, hampering the runners as well as the short passing game. All this keeps the score low, putting more pressure on the Niners' defense.

Sounds like an argument for Kaepernick, doesn't it? Well, it's not. Smith should retain his starting job. First and foremost, a player shouldn't lose his job through injury. That's a rule that all pro football teams follow. Coach Jim Harbaugh shouldn't break it in this case. Also in Smith's favor is that he's a winner. With him in charge, despite his deficiencies, the Niners have turned into one of the best teams in the NFL. That's partly because he does not, as he did early in his career, make mistakes. This year is one of his best. He's not only hitting passes at a league best 70% clip but he also has a gaudy 104.1 rating, third in the NFL. How can you bench a guy who's playing that well?

Harbaugh may not have a choice this Sunday. Smith may not be cleared by doctors to play in New Orleans against the Saints. But if not this Sunday, sooner or later Harbaugh will have to make a choice.

The coach brought this upon himself. From the start he should have said Smith is my QB and when he's cleared to play he'll regain his starting position. But by saying nothing he inadvertently started a QB controversy.

That can fracture a team, like it did a few decades ago when the Niners had both an aging but still effective Joe Montana and a young Steve Young. If Harbaugh is smart, he'll save himself and the team a lot of grief by giving Smith his starting job back.

Anyway, Smith deserves it.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Why UCLA Will Whip USC

Look for UCLA to whip USC this Saturday and finally obliterate the stench of that 50-0 shredding they suffered in SC's house last season.

SC has owned UCLA this century, winning 12 of the last 13. The lone UCLA ray of sunshine was that shocking 13-9 win in the Karl Dorrell era. Well, after this Saturday, the Bruins will have something else to crow about.

UCLA (8-2) has a better record than USC (7-3) and a slightly higher national ranking, No. 17 to SC's No. 18. No surprise. That's because UCLA is the superior team.

SC is the favorite ( by 3.5-4.5 points) only because bettors still haven't wised up to USC. Wearing those rose-colored glasses, these gamblers are still willing to bet on the Trojans to beat spreads. Here's the reality. SC isn't a powerhouse, just an upper echelon Pac-12 team. Oregon is better, so is Stanford, so is Arizona. Remember, SC is 7-3, having lost to those three teams, not 10-0. That undefeated Trojan juggernaut was a fantasy, built around another fantasy, that Matt Barkley is the best QB in college football, the second coming of Andrew Luck. Nonsense. Barkley isn't even the best QB in the Pac-12. That honor belongs to Oregon's Marcus Mariota, who's a monster. UCLA's Brett Hundley isn't far behind.

Hundley is not just a much more accomplished scrambler and runner than Barkley, but also a more skilled passer. NFL scouts are finally figuring that out too. Hundley is piling up impressive passing stats with a corps  of so-so wide receivers. Barkley, on the other hand, is blessed with brilliant WRs--Robert Woods and Marquis Lee, the BEST player in college football. Without those gems, Barkley, who can be rattled into making terrible decisions and bad throws, would be a very good college QB, nothing more.

UCLA should win Saturday but it won't be easy. The USC passing attack will account for plenty of TDs. Bruin corners Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price will be worn out by those talented SC receivers. But Hundley, partly with passes to giant TE  Joseph Fauria, will brutalize SC's mediocre defense. He's the kind of QB--both quality passer and runner--that the Trojans can't handle. He's backed up by slippery RB Jonathan Franklin, the nation's No. 6 rusher, who should have a big day, particularly if it's raining.

Rookie coaching marvel Jim Mora has supremely boosted the Bruins, pumped them up to the point where they're maximizing their potential. The previous coach, Rick Neuheisel, never came close to getting the best out of his players. SC coach Lane Kiffin doesn't get maximum effort out of his players either. He has twice the talent the Bruins have and should have a significantly better team. But he doesn't.

SC is an undisciplined team that beats itself by making stupid penalties and turnovers in critical situations. Well-coached teams don't make such errors. Do you see units run by Bama's Nick Saban or LSU's Les Miles constantly killing themselves with penalties and turnovers? Never. As usual, SC will be shooting itself in the foot quite often on Saturday.

UCLA should beat the odds and SC, bolstered by those critical intangibles--desire and motivation. The Bruins are desperate to defeat USC, to end the Trojans' reign of terror. An afterthought at the beginning of the season, the Bruins have, with modest talent, turned what promised to be a losing season into a winner, propelled by Mora and his coaching staff and a whopping dose of desire and motivation.

They didn't have those intangibles only once this season, and stumbled to an unfortunate loss to Cal. You just know their cagey coach has used that loss as a teaching tool. They haven't lost since. They won't lose on Saturday either.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Hiring Coach Mike D'Antoni--Another Laker Blunder

The LA Lakers have done it again. They just hired the wrong coach, Mike D'Antoni. He's replacing Mike Brown, who was dumped last week because the Lakers finally realized they had, you guessed it, hired the wrong coach.

A narrow-minded defensive coach, Brown force-fed his snail's-pace system to the Lakers, who spit it up. The losses piled up. After last week's fiasco in Utah, in which it was clear he'd lost the team, the owners canned him. With this new hire, around midnight on Sunday, they went totally in the opposite direction, handing the job to D'Antoni, who's just as narrow-minded--but focused totally on offense.

Can't think of a dumber move.

D'Antoni is famous for his racehorse Phoenix Suns teams of the 2007-08 seasons. They'd run and shoot but play no defense. It was fun to watch but his teams would flame out in the playoffs, where half-court sets and  gritty defense rule. Next, he took his act to New York, coaching the Knicks for four years. Again the teams, much less talented than his Suns' units, were fun to watch, but were never a power in the defense-minded Eastern conference.

To successfully execute D'Antoni's offense you need what the Lakers' don't have--young, athletic, speedy shooters and a solid bench full of quick gunners to spell exhausted starters. The Lakers are fossils, the second oldest team, after the Knicks, in the NBA. They're not physically able to run an uptempo offense.

Point guard Steve Nash, who led D'Antoni's best Phoenix teams, is nearing 39. He's in top shape but his age is starting to show. Currently out for a few weeks with a slight shin fracture, he's already breaking down--and this was while he was playing in Brown's slow-down offense. How is Nash, who's critical to the success of D'Antoni's offense, going to survive operating at a blistering pace? At least Brown's system protected Nash. D'Antoni's doesn't.

Nor will this new offense be great for star center Dwight Howard, who's only about 80% after back surgery. Expect him, after sprinting up and down the floor game after game, to break down regularly. Don't expect the other thirtysomething starters, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol, to thrive in this offense either.

The owners are eager to bring back a modern version of the Lakers' flashy, "Showtime" championship teams of the '80s. Good idea--if you have the players.

After bringing in one-dimensional Brown and seeing that didn't work, why bring in another one-dimensional coach? Without the proper personnel for his system, D'Antoni is destined to flame out even worse than he did in New York.

The new coach has another serious problem, one that's not his fault. He'll forever be in the shadow of  ex-Laker coach Phil Jackson, who was supposed to get his old job back. But, after setting up the fans over the weekend for Jackson's return from retirement, the Lakers decided, late Sunday night, to hire D'Antoni instead. Jackson, who led the Lakers to five titles, felt mistreated. Rightly so.

Jackson was severely dissed (punked, some insist) by the owners, who could have rejected him in a respectable way. Many fans felt just as let down as Jackson. These Phil followers are going to be slow to warm up to D'Antoni, who's going to be measured against some impossible standards. Unless D'Antoni leads the Lakers to a title, fans will always gripe that, had Jackson been hired, he would have guided the team to another championship.

Hiring Jackson would have made more sense. For one thing, his triangle system, which doesn't require a first-rate point guard, would be more suitable to an aging Nash. Its read-and-react style, which allows for defensive pressure, makes the team more likely to advance in the playoffs. A system, like D'Antoni's, that pays no attention to defense, is just plain idiotic.

Just as idiotic as the Lakers' latest choice for head coach.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

USC's Deflated Ball Scandal--Lies, Lies

USC coach Lane Kiffin owes dethroned Laker coach Mike Brown an expensive bottle of champagne.. When the Lakers finally dumped Brown Friday, the shocking news rocked Los Angeles, pushing aside USC's ugly deflated ball scandal, which had been gathering media momentum. The Trojan misstep has slipped out of the spotlight, which is firmly on the Lakers. Brown's pain has been Kiffin's gain.

Apparently Kiffin, famous for bending rules during his short stay at Tennessee, is up to his old dirty tricks. And he got caught. Don't blame athletic director Pat Haden. He's trying to run a clean ship. The problem is the ship is being run by a captain who's used to playing dirty.

What happened at USC is disgraceful. The Pac-12 has fined USC $25,000, charging that a student manager, who hasn't been named, had deflated balls used by SC in last Saturday's game against Oregon, which won 62-51. Those balls gave USC a boost, since throwing and catching a lighter ball is considerably easier. Though SC lost, their prolific passing kept them close. Kiffin swears that manager acted on his own, that the coaches and players knew nothing about this transgression.

Bullcrap. Who is he kidding? Does he think we're all stupid?

Three different sources close to the team report that not only did several coaches know about the deflated balls but so did QB Matt Barkley. What's more, the sources add that a well-executed cover-up has buried the truth and set up the student manager as the scapegoat. That really smells. No way would a manager take it upon himself to do something that might open the school to penalties and embarrassment. That kind of flagrant violation by an underling doesn't happen without somebody upstairs knowing about it.

What's worse, this isn't the first time this has happened. It's just the first time SC was caught. The word in the sports underground is that USC has done this before and has done it so well they've evaded capture. So SC's glossy passing stats, which put Barkley and WR Marquis Lee in college football's elite, are tainted. Unfortunately, those passing stats aren't the only thing about SC football that's tainted.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Lakers: The Crippling Kobe-Coach Brown Feud

The LA Lakers are a mess, off to a horrible 1-4 start, blowing games they should have won. They have more talent than the Utah, yet the Jazz bullied their way to a 95-86 win over the Lakers Wednesday night, Things are getting messier by the minute.

The reason? Star shooting guard Kobe Bryant hates coach Mike Brown.

Two sources close to two players report that what's undermining the team is the tension between Bryant and Brown. Quite simply, Kobe loathes Brown's new system, which is a form of the slow-as-molasses Princeton offense. The Kobe-Brown hostility, claim the sources, is ruining practices. Without fruitful practices and being caught up in the storm of this player-coach animosity, the team is playing badly. None of the players like the system but Kobe really, really hates it. For that reason, he's making Brown's life miserable and, in the process, disrupting the team. When Kobe is unhappy, the team suffers. Team officials have kept the lid on the tension so far but it's becoming tougher and tougher. For instance, that glare of disgust that Kobe shot at Brown at the end of the Utah loss. Some people saw it and, no doubt, are questioning what's behind it. Kobe's "everything's fine" comments after he cooled down don't ring true.

This hostility toward the coach, from Kobe, and to a lesser extent, the other players, is killing the team. They're not playing hard. They're lazy on defense. They're so unfocused they're constantly throwing the ball away, creating awful turnover stats. This is a mentally crippled team, with no remedy in sight..

But there are other problems. One is that point guard Steve Nash has been injured and could be out for at least a month. The backups, headed by Steve Blake, are modestly skilled journeymen. The Lakers might have three all-stars--Kobe, center Dwight Howard and forward Pau Gasol--but they're much less effective, particularly Gasol, without a first-rate point guard managing the offense. Also, the Lakers have a mediocre bench, which squanders or can't hold leads. Even if the players loved Brown and his system, this team, with a hole a point guard and a bad bench, would probably be struggling..

As you might expect, Laker fans are fuming. They're still caught up in great expectations. In the off-season, with the addition of Howard and Nash, the hype machine revved into overdrive, insisting that this unit could win the NBA title. So far, including preseason, the Lakers have, shockingly, won just one game, mauling the pathetic Detroit Pistons, who'd have trouble beating a top college team.

How to fix this mess? Kobe won't be happy until Brown junks his questionable system, which isn't going to happen. What about firing Brown? But is that fair with the team missing such an important piece--Steve Nash? With him healthy, Brown's system might work and the team might be winning..

In Brown's favor is that a six-game home stand, mostly with non-playoff teams, looms. Even with point guard and bench woes, the Lakers should win 3 or 4 of these. But if they don't and this friendly Staples-Center stretch is a bust, it just may be bye, bye Brown.

Friday, November 2, 2012

BIg Game Saturday--Bama and Oregon Should Win

Alabama at LSU, Oregon at USC. Because of these two monster games, this Saturday is the day college football fans have been waiting for all year. Each game, though, has a little less luster. This was supposed to be the battle of the unbeatens. But LSU has one loss and USC has two. Both games, though, should still be bone-crushing battles.

Oregon (8-0) at USC )6-2):.

Picked by many in the pre-season as the No. 1 team, USC  isn't even the No.1 team in the Pac-12. That honor, easily, belongs to Oregon. The Trojans, it turns out, are full of holes. First of all, this team is thoroughly undisciplined, the Oakland Raiders of college football. USC leads the nation in penalties. Last Saturday, in the 39-36 loss to Arizona, the Trojans reached a penalty peak, being flagged 13 times. Coupled with the five turnovers, USC did a bang-up job of beating itself.

In the 21-14  loss to Stanford, USC didn't beat itself.  The bruising Cardinal did the whipping. Stanford's two beefy, rugged lines simply out-muscled the Trojans. After that game, the bloom was off the SC rose. It was clear they weren't tough enough to be the nation's No.1 team. It was also clear that QB Matt Barkley, who couldn't pull his team out of that hole, wasn't quite Heisman caliber. He's not even the best player on the team. That's WR Marquis Lee, who caught 16 passes for a staggering 345 yards against Arizona. Lee just might be the best player in the country.

Another problem. SC doesn't have a championship defense. Arizona's QB Matt Scott, who's not even top-notch, destroyed the SC pass defense. If Arizona can do that imagine what QB Marcus Mariota and that super-speed Oregon offense will do. Arizona is a fast team, but Oregon, with sprinters Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas at running back, is even faster. Oregon, by the way, ripped Arizona apart, 49-0.

Skeptics say Oregon hasn't been tested. But they've blown out all their opponents. Typically Oregon has mangled teams by the end of the first half. Sometimes the issue is settled by the end of the first quarter. They usually take their foot off the pedal early, or else they'd crack 100 against the weaker teams. Oregon doesn't have a great defense, but it's pretty good, certainly solid enough to keep a team like USC in check. The Trojans' strength is their passing game, which should account for at least three or four TDs. But the USC defense isn't sturdy enough to slow down the high-flying Ducks. Oregon. a 7-8 point favorite, wins this one, by a TD or two.

Alabama (8-0) at LSU (7-1):

Another boring battle of impenetrable defenses? Probably. Neither team has an explosive offense. LSU's, run by so-so- QB Zach Mettenberger, is pretty weak. Bama's is better but it's still just average. But Bama has a QB, A.J. McCarron, who's cool under pressure, doesn't make mistakes and can deliver a few TDs. With that ferocious D crippling most offenses, that's all the nation's No. 1 team needs to win most games.

Bama hasn't lost a game but it's had an easier schedule, featuring Michigan and Mississippi State, than LSU, which has had to battle Florida and South Carolina. LSU's resume has a lone blemish, that 14-6  loss to Florida, 14-6. The Tigers' problem is generating offense. In fact, the Tigers will be lucky to score against Bama. Look for the Bama offense, which boasts the country's best O line, to create running room for the Tide's RBs. And you can be sure that the Bama defensive line, with nose tackle Jesse Williams clogging the middle, will make it impossible for LSU backs to do very much.A 9-point favorite, Bama should win what shapes up as another low-scoring contest.