College Edition: Rivalry Week

The big action this week will be in Florida, where the Gators meet the Seminoles.
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Last week we were 5-4, bringing our season record to 44-36 (55%). Thanks to all of the readers who took the time to email us nice comments on the analysis of the Nebraska-Kansas State game.

This week is rivalry week. Those of you who are alumni of universities with major college football programs know what rivalry week means. You can take most of the statistics and chuck them into the garbage can -- because miserable teams miraculously rise up to defeat their rivals who are often looking ahead to a bowl game. The rivalry game with the greatest national significance, and which

TSC

readers indicated they were most interested in (

see the poll), is the

Florida State-Florida

game. Once again, we have an "opinion" on the game, so we will dissect it stat by stat as we did for last week's Nebraska-Kansas State game.

We start as we always do, with the relative schedule strengths of both teams and conclude that Florida State has played a slightly more difficult schedule:

On offense, Florida averages 164 yards rushing per game (4.8 yards per rush), while the Seminole defense gives up 103 rushing yards per game (2.8 yards per carry). Florida has passed for 270 yards per game, an average of 7.5 yards per pass attempt, with a completion percentage of 56%. Florida State gives up an average of 188 passing yards per game, an average of 6.2 yards per pass attempt, and permits 53.1% of the passes to be completed. We think Florida will be able to run against the Florida State defense -- and that will open up the passing game to a limited extent for the Gators.

On the other side of the ball, Florida State has a mediocre rushing game, averaging only 127 yards per game (3.5 yards per rush), while Florida shuts down the run almost as well as Nebraska, permitting only 72 rushing yards per game (2.2 yards per carry). If Florida State is to win this game, it will be through its passing game, where Florida State is averaging 307 passing yards per game and Florida is giving up 246 passing yards per game. Florida State has the only gamebreaker in the contest in receiver Peter Warrick. Surprisingly, however, the Seminole pass completion percentage and its average yards per pass attempt are virtually identical to those of the Gators: 53.1% and 6.2, respectively. Florida State is a slightly more efficient team than Florida, having a net yards per point differential of 7.9 while the Gator figure is 5.2.

Florida State also has a better kicking game than Florida, with an average net yards per punt of 39.8 to 36.5, and a superior place kicker in Sebastian Janikowski.

In our estimation, Florida State is slightly better than the Florida team on a talent and performance level. Florida State is a 3-point favorite in this game for two main reasons: First, it is undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country (not to mention being perceived by the majority of football fans as the best team in the country).

Second, Florida has apparently played ineptly the past two weeks, beating

Vanderbilt

at home by a 13-6 margin and beating 0-9

South Carolina

on the road, 20-3, far less than the point spread. The question for us to determine is whether these performances were due to Steve Spurrier "playin' possum" or a Florida offense that is truly struggling. We're going to bet that Spurrier was seeking to lull Florida State into a state of overconfidence, and that the coaching staff of the Gators has spent the past three weeks preparing for Florida State and creating plays that will not be available on the game films of their previous games.

"The Swamp" provides one of the strongest home-field advantages in college football, and is worth 6 points in our estimation. The Gators have lost only two games there in the past six years. In their most recent two meetings against Florida State at the Swamp, the Gators beat the Seminoles 32-29 as 5-point underdogs in 1997 and 35-24 as 3-point favorites in 1995. We think Florida will win this game straight up and will make a small bet on the money line, taking 7-5 odds, in addition to taking the 3 points, for our "official bet."

This Week's Other Games

Purdue (minus 12) over Indiana

In previous columns, we have noted that coaching matchups are often key to our handicapping of a game. In this intrastate rivalry game,

Purdue

has beaten

Indiana

by scores of 65-7 and 52-7 in the past two years, suggesting to us that Joe Tiller has a substantial coaching edge over Cam Cameron. Both the Boilermakers and the Hoosiers field teams are similar to last year's. Indiana allows 36 points per game and permits opposing teams to complete 60% of their passes. We don't see how the Hoosiers will be able to stop Drew Brees and the prolific Purdue passing attack. The Boilermakers are allowing 25 points per game this year, but only 140 yards per game on the ground (3.6 yards per carry). This will be a high-scoring game, but in light of the results of the past two years, we do not see Indiana staying within two touchdowns of a Purdue squad that will put 40 to 50 points on the scoreboard, assuming the weather in Bloomington is semi-decent, which appears to be the case as of the time this column was written.

Tennessee (minus 12) over Kentucky

Earlier this season, Florida was a 20-point favorite over

Kentucky

in Lexington.

Tennessee

was a 2 1/2-point underdog to Florida in Gainesville. If Tennessee had not lost last week, the line for this game would have been 21. Obviously, the oddsmaker expects a letdown by Tennessee in this game. We disagree. The Kentucky offense has been sputtering in its last two games. Florida easily contained the Wildcats, and we believe that the Volunteer defense is better than that of the Gators. While Kentucky's defense is improved this year, it will not be able to hold the Volunteer offense below 40 points. In the past three years, Tennessee has beaten Kentucky, 56-10, 59-31 and 59-21. We see more of the same this week. The Vols are still in the hunt for a New Year's Day bowl game, and although they must be dispirited about their loss last week to

Arkansas

, it should not have affected the line by 9 points.

Kansas State (minus 23 1/2) over Missouri

This game is the same scenario as the Kentucky-Tennessee game. As we know,

Kansas State

is a bully team with a 39-14-1 against-the-spread (ATS) record at home. It's 8-1 ATS the week after the

Nebraska

game.

Missouri

has been routed the last two weeks by a combined score of 91-14 and starts a true freshman quarterback this week. While the Wildcats may come out a bit flat after last week's loss to Nebraska, they will eventually return to form and Coach Bill Snyder will run up the score to get the best possible bowl bid, including a shot at a New Year's Day bowl game.

Stanford (minus 10 1/2) over California

This is known as the "Big Game" on the West Coast.

Stanford

needs to win the game to get into the Rose Bowl. This is

California's

bowl game. Normally, we would be all over California in this game. The road team is 7-0 ATS in this game, and the Golden Bears are 9-4 ATS as a road underdog in their last 13 games. The major handicapping factor for us, however, is that Cal is starting its third-string walk-on quarterback in this game, since the first- and second-string QBs are sidelined by injuries. California is a poor offensive team, and despite the fact that Stanford's defense is rated as the second-worst in the nation (113th of 114 Division 1 teams), we think the Cardinals will be able to hold California to less than 14 points in this game. The Cal offense is easily the worst that Stanford has played against this year, and we just can't see a fifth-year senior walk-on being able to put points on the scoreboard. Stanford scores against everyone, and even though the Bears are a good defensive team, we do not see Cal being able to hold Stanford below 30 points -- since the Bear defense will be on the field for most of the game due to the team's inept offense.

UCLA (plus 7) over USC

Two lousy teams are duking it out in this rivalry game. Both teams have had their starting QBs knocked out of this game by injuries.

UCLA

is starting a highly recruited freshman, Ryan McCann, at the quarterback spot. UCLA has beaten

USC

eight straight times in this game, and USC running back Chad Morton publicly "guaranteed victory" over UCLA earlier in the season. The quote has found its way to the UCLA bulletin board. The Bruins played an inspired game last week, beating

Washington

and dimming the Huskies' Rose Bowl hopes. We are not enamored with Trojans Head Coach Paul Hackett, whose team has blown big leads all season. USC may get its long-awaited victory in this game, but we'll take the Bruins plus the points.

Utah (plus 6 1/2) over BYU

In reading the Salt Lake City newspapers this week, you get the feeling that

Brigham Young University

suffered an emotional letdown with last week's loss to

Wyoming

.

Utah

, on the other hand, will be sky-high for this game. One of the big factors in handicapping this rivalry game is the coaching style of both teams. The Cougars' LaVelle Edwards is cerebral and unemotional, while his Utah counterpart, Ron McBride, is a fiery, emotional coach. Visiting teams are 6-1 straight up and 7-0 ATS in the past seven games of this series, and the Utes are 22-11 ATS as road underdogs under McBride. BYU has several players who are injured, including running back Luke Staley, who is questionable for the game. The Utes will start backup QB T.J. Croshere, who has played almost as much as the injured starter Darrell Arceneaux and will be up to the task in Provo. Once again, while BYU may win the game, we like the comfort of the 6 1/2-point cushion.

Washington State (plus 14) over Washington

This game is known as the Apple Cup. While there is a large talent disparity between these two teams, we believe

WSU

will hang within the two-touchdown margin this week. The Cougars are 6-1 ATS in the last 7 Apple Cups and have been steadily improving all season. Washington is still trying to make the Rose Bowl, but a victory by Stanford this week will relegate the Huskies to second in the PAC-10. The weather is going to be lousy in Seattle this weekend, and Washington has a penchant for turning the ball over this season. Look for the Cougars to be the more fired-up team and keep this game close until the end.

Auburn (plus 3 1/2) over Alabama

The fact that

Alabama

clinched a spot in the Southeastern Conference title game last week and

Auburn's

impressive blitz of Georgia last week have us convinced that Auburn will be the more fired-up team for this game. We love Tommy Tuberville as a coach and think he will outcoach Mike DuBose this week at Jordan Hare Stadium, where the Tigers are 4-0 SU against the Tide. Auburn still needs a victory to become bowl-eligible, and the team has the defense to control Alabama's banged-up offense. We can see DuBose playing this game conservatively to ensure a healthy squad for its showdown with Florida in the SEC championship game in two weeks. We'll take the points as insurance.

Side Dish

Which two teams would you like to see in the National Championship game in the Sugar Bowl on January 4th?

Nebraska vs. (the Florida State-Florida winner)

Virginia Tech vs.(the Florida State-Florida winner)

Virginia Tech vs. Nebraska

Florida State vs. Florida (part 2)

Who's gonna care? I still won't have recovered from New Year's Eve by then.

Barry Lieberman is the general counsel for a Las Vegas gaming company and an associate of James Padinha. He's been an amateur gambler for more than 20 years and welcomes your feedback at

barrylieberman1@prodigy.net.