Returning To The Graveyard

Every year I tell myself I’m not going to go. After Ohio State has strung so many victories together over Michigan, I tell myself I don’t need to go.

And then, somehow without even thinking, I find myself doing the same things I’ve done for the past several years during the week before the OSU-Michigan game. My car almost drives itself past the unassuming white house on Cardiff Road. Then it’s on to Ohio Stadium and just a few miles north on Olentangy River Road to Union Cemetery. I always seem to arrive around dusk and the expanse of trees usually makes it seem darker than normal. But I’ve made this trip so many times, I could make it blindfolded.

It was a raw evening – cold, windy and wet with rain alternating between a fine mist and those huge pellets that splash on the pavement when they hit. But there are tall inviting trees in proximity to the black granite marker at Section 12, Lot 37, Space 4, and I take my place beneath the rustling pines.

I stood there, transfixed on the monument and began to read aloud the words etched on the stone.

“And in the night of death, hope sees a star, and listening love hears the rustle of a wing.”

As I pondered those words, and the wind continued to whistle through the trees, I was startled by what has become a familiar voice.

“Do you know who wrote those words?”

I whirled around to see the same stocky man I had seen a couple of years ago, standing just behind me. He always looked the same, wearing a red windbreaker, gray trousers and a stern look. A black baseball cap was jammed low over his gray hair, and he squinted at me through silver, horn-rimmed glasses.

“Well?” he said. “Do you?”

“Do I what?” I stammered.

“Do you know who wrote those words?”

I turned around to ponder the question, but before I could offer any reply the man already had the answer.

“Robert Green Ingersoll,” he said. “Great man, great orator. Great thinker. He was often very misunderstood but very principled. Knew what he wanted and wasn’t afraid to work hard to get it.”

“That sounds like someone else I can think of,” I said.

The man just stared back at me.

“Are you trying to patronize me, Son? Because if you think I don’t remember that you’re the sportswriter that comes around here every so often …”

“No, no, no. I meant it as a compliment,” I said.

He continued his glare before shaking his head and muttering something under his breath about my profession. Then he started to speak again.

“As a matter of fact, I’m glad for the company,” he said. “I’ve got a couple of things on my mind.”

“Such as?”

“Let’s start with the game being played this week. I feel no sense of urgency around here. I’ve even heard people saying the rivalry isn’t what it used to be anymore.”

“Yes, I’ve heard that, too,” I said. “I guess it’s because Ohio State has won so many games in a row.”

“Is it?” he shot back. “Well, let me tell you something. People who say that are goddamned fools, and if you believe it then you’re a goddamned fool, too. This is the greatest rivalry in sports. Not just football, mind you. All of sports. Always has been, always will be. When you begin to lose respect for the greatest rivalry in sports, then I don’t know what to say other than you’re a goddamned fool.”

“Well,” I said. “Michigan … um, I mean that other team is certainly having its problems again. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse defense. They’ve already given up more yardage and more points than in any season during their history.”

“And you think that means anything in this game?” he said. “That’s about what I’d expect from a sportswriter. I don’t know why I waste my time. Listen, Son. I don’t care how many points they’ve given up. This is a game where that kind of stuff doesn’t mean a damn thing.”

“I think it might this year,” I said. “Have you seen them play? They’re really not very good at all on defense.”

The old man rolled his eyes and shook his head again.

“That is just the kind of attitude I’m talking about,” he said. “Thinking you have the game won before it’s even played is the attitude of a loser.”

“I know they have a good offense and their quarterback is as exciting a player as I’ve ever seen play the quarterback position,” I said. “But do you honestly think Michigan has a chance? After all, it seems like Jim Tressel has won six in a row and eight of nine against them. That’s never been done before by any Ohio State coach in the history of the rivalry.”

“You’re talking to me about history? I know a thing or two about history.”

I could tell the man was getting a little agitated with me. His lips were stretched tight along his face and jaw seemed as if it was set in stone.

“Any Ohio schoolboy knows we have never beaten them this many times in a row. But do you know why?”

“No,” I answered. “Why?”

“Because it’s hard, that’s why. Goddamned hard if you ask me. I had some great teams over the years and couldn’t do it.”

You had some great teams?”

We had some great teams. I meant we had some great teams. Look, you can never go into any football game against any opponent and expect to win. You always have to expect the unexpected. That way you can adapt. You always have to adapt in this game. You start taking things for granted and pretty soon you’re through.

“You have to give the same kind of effort week in and week out if you’re going to be successful. Your opponent may be better than you sometimes. That’s just life. But hard work can make up for any lack of talent. There are going to be times when the guy across from you is just better, but if you work as hard as you can – really give it everything you have – then you have what it takes to be a champion. You might beat me but you’re not going to outwork me, and when I hear it said that this game is over before it is played … well, that just makes me sick to my stomach.

“Those seniors are going to be playing their last game in our great stadium. This game will be something they will tell their children and their grandchildren, and God willing, their great-grandchildren. You think they want that story to be about the time they lost to that school up north? And you’re playing for another championship. That’s what it’s all about. Every team wants to win a championship, but damn few have what it takes to actually win one.

“But you have to take this thing seriously. You have to understand that this game is the greatest game you will ever play in. Hell, it might be the greatest moment of your entire life. How you perform in this game will be a defining moment – now and forever. If you can’t understand that, you ought to get the hell out of the way and make room for someone who does.”

Off in the distance, I heard a familiar church bell chime the hour.

“Well,” the man sighed, “that’s what I think anyway. What I wouldn’t give for just one more time – one more time to be in that locker room, run out onto that field, smell that air, hear that band. Just look up and drink it all in. Experience all of that just one time in your life and then tell me how much this game doesn’t matter.”

He turned to leave, but as he walked away I called out, “Nice seeing you again.”

He waved but quickly stopped and turned to glare at me one last time.

“You tell ’em,” he said as he pointed a finger in my direction. “You tell ’em exactly what I said.”

I nodded.

“I always do, Coach,” I said. “I always do.”

Then, and only then, did I detect the faintest of smiles.

OSU-MICHIGAN TIDBITS

** Ohio State and Michigan will buckle it up tomorrow for the 107th renewal of what is known simply as The Game. The teams first met in 1897 and have played every season since 1918. The Wolverines lead the overall series by a 57-43-6 margin, including a 27-23-2 advantage in Columbus. However, the Buckeyes are 22-21-1 against their archrivals at Ohio Stadium.

** In the last 50 meetings overall, Ohio State holds a 26-22-2 advantage.

** The Buckeyes have won each of the last four games in the series played at Ohio Stadium. They haven’t enjoyed that kind of streak at home against the Wolverines since winning four in a row between 1968 and 1974. OSU has never won five straight home games in the series.

** Ohio State has won eight of the last nine games in the series for the first time ever. The Buckeyes are also gunning for an unprecedented seventh straight victory over Michigan.

** Since 1926, the overall series is dead even at 40-40-3.

** OSU head coach Jim Tressel is currently 8-1 against Michigan, and he is one of only four Ohio State head coaches in history with a winning record against the Wolverines. The others are Woody Hayes (1951-78) at 16-11-1, Earle Bruce (1979-87) at 5-4 and Francis A. Schmidt (1934-40) at 4-3. Hayes, Bruce and Schmidt are all members of the College Football Hall of Fame.

** Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez is 0-2 against the Buckeyes. He is the first head coach in school history ever to lose his first two games in the series against Ohio State.

** Tressel is 28-4 with the Buckeyes in November. Rodriguez has a November record of 3-7 with the Wolverines.

** This marks the 17th time in series history that Ohio State and Michigan have played after Thanksgiving. The Wolverines hold an 8-7-1 advantage after Turkey Day, but the Buckeyes prevailed the last time the two teams met post-Thanksgiving. That was a 26-20 victory in Ann Arbor in 2001, 310 days after Tressel made his now-famous speech shortly after being hired as OSU head coach.

** With a victory over the Wolverines, Ohio State would clinch at least a share of the Big Ten championship. That would be the program’s sixth title in a row, matching the conference record set by the Buckeyes from 1972 to ’77.

** Should the Buckeyes win their sixth consecutive Big Ten title, it will mark the ninth straight season in which either OSU or Michigan has won or shared the conference crown. The last time neither team had at least a share of the trophy was in 2001 when Illinois took home the outright championship.

** Tressel is looking for his seventh Big Ten championship, which would tie him for fifth most on the conference’s all-time coaching list. Ohio State’s Woody Hayes (1951-78) and Michigan’s Bo Schembechler (1969-89) share the career record with 13 championships each. Fielding Yost of Michigan (1901-23, ’25-26) had 10, Henry Williams of Minnesota (1900-21) had eight, and Amos Alonzo Stagg (1896-1932) of Chicago, Robert Zuppke of Illinois (1913-41) and Bernie Biermann of Minnesota (1932-41, ’45-50) each had seven.

** Should his team earn at least a share of the championship, Tressel would join elite company. Only two other coaches have won at least seven Big Ten championships in their first decade in the league. Schembechler won eight titles in his first 10 seasons at Michigan and Bierman won seven during his first decade at Minnesota.

** With its victory last week at Iowa, Ohio State has become the first team in Big Ten history to record six consecutive years with 10 or more wins.

** The last time a ranked OSU team lost to an unranked Michigan squad was in 1993. The Wolverines rolled to a 28-0 victory in Ann Arbor, and that game marks the most recent shutout in the overall series. The Buckeyes haven’t recorded a shutout over U-M since a 28-0 win in Ann Arbor in 1962.

** Since Rodriguez took over in 2008, Michigan has produced a 6-17 record in the Big Ten. The Wolverines have not experienced a stretch of futility like that since the 1930s when they lost 18 of 24 games between 1934 and ’38.

** During a 13-year span from 1979 to 1992, the record for the team entering The Game with the higher ranking was 9-3-1. In the 17 games since, the higher-ranked team has managed only a 9-8 mark.

** Since the two teams met in 1923 for the Ohio Stadium dedication game, a total of 7,638,051 fans have attended The Game. That’s more than any other college football game in America. Fifty-nine of those 87 games have been sold out, including the last 42 in a row.

** The Wolverines have 19 native Ohioans on their roster while the Buckeyes have five players from Michigan.

** Here is how the teams stack up against one another in a variety of the national statistical categories:
Rushing offense – Michigan 10th (257.4); Ohio State 17th (216.2)
Passing offense – Michigan 30th (257.2); Ohio State 55th (230.0)

Pass efficiency – Ohio State 10th (158.4); Michigan 16th (154.6)
Total offense – Michigan fifth (514.6); Ohio State 18th (446.2)
Scoring offense – Ohio State ninth (39.6); Michigan 15th (36.8)
Rushing defense – Ohio State third (86.4); Michigan 92nd (181.3)
Pass defense – Ohio State fifth (155.1); Michigan 111th (263.9)
Total defense – Ohio State third (241.5); Michigan 112th (445.2)
Scoring defense – Ohio State fifth (13.9); Michigan 99th (33.6)
Net punting – Michigan 53rd (36.9); Ohio State 96th (34.0)
Turnover margin – Ohio State seventh (plus-12); Michigan 101st (minus-7)
Punt returns – Ohio State 39th (10.1); Michigan 94th (6.0)
Kickoff returns – Ohio State 12th (25.2); Michigan 67th (21.5)

** Ohio State is remarkably consistent on offense regardless of the down. This season, the Buckeyes have averaged 6.5 yards on first down, 6.7 on second down and 6.6 on third down. OSU has averaged only 5.3 yards when going for it on fourth down, but the Buckeyes have converted eight of their nine fourth-down tries.

** The Wolverines will be trying to score quickly and score a lot. They are 5-0 this season when leading at halftime and 7-3 when scoring 20 points or more.

** Don’t expect a close game. In the previous 106 contests between OSU and Michigan, only 17 have been decided by three points or less. The Buckeyes hold a 6-5-6 edge in those games.

** Ohio State had a decided advantage this year in the kicking game. Senior kicker Devin Barclay has made 16 of 19 field goals and all 54 of his PAT attempts this season. Michigan redshirt freshman kickers Seth Broekhuizen and Brendan Gibbons have combined to make only 4 of 13 field-goal attempts and 52 of 54 PATs.

** Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson ran for 121 yards during last week’s 48-28 loss to Wisconsin and established a new single-season record for Division I-A quarterbacks. Robinson pushed his season rushing total to 1,538 yards, breaking the old mark of 1,494 set in 1996 by Beau Morgan of Air Force.

** With his 2,229 yards passing this season, Robinson has also become the first quarterback in NCAA history to top 1,500 yards both rushing and passing in a single season.

** Robinson has 3,767 yards of total offense this season and needs 233 more to become only the fourth played in Big Ten history to top 4,000 in a single season. Purdue quarterback Drew Brees did it three times from 1998-2000, setting the league record with 4,189 yards as a senior. Also eclipsing the 4,000-yard mark were Purdue QB Curtis Painter (4,092 in 2006) and Northwestern QB Brett Basanez (4,045 in 2005).

** With 78 yards last week against Iowa, OSU quarterback Terrelle Pryor became only the 22nd player in school history to reach the 2,000-yard mark for his career. Pryor has exactly 2,000 yards on the ground and needs 67 more to move into the all-time top 20 past Jeff Logan (2,026, 1974-77) and Cornelius Greene (2,066, 1972-75).

** OSU tailback Dan “Boom” Herron can also join the 2,000-yard club soon. He needs only 68 more.

** Pryor’s 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Reid Fragel last week gave him 53 for his career, and he needs only five more to become the all-time leader at Ohio State in that category. Bobby Hoying (1992-95) is the career leader with 57 followed by Joe Germaine (56, 1996-98) and Troy Smith (54, 2003-06).

** Additionally, Pryor needs 264 more yards of total offense to become only the second player in school history to reach the 8,000-yard mark in that category. Pryor’s total of 7,736 ranks behind only Art Schlichter (8,850, 1978-81).

** Annual Senior Day festivities will be held prior to kickoff with 24 seniors suiting up in Ohio Stadium for the final time. They are Devin Barclay, Justin Boren, Bryant Browning, Chimdi Chekwa, Ricky Crawford, Aaron Gant, Cameron Heyward, Jermale Hines, Ross Homan, Garrett Hummel, Josh Kerr, Dexter Larimore, Chris Malone, Don Matheney, Jake McQuaide, Andrew Miller, Brian Rolle, Brandon Saine, Dane Sanzenbacher, Grant Schwartz, Scott Sika, Connor Smith, Devon Torrence and Taurian Washington.

** The Game will be televised for the 44th consecutive year and 55th overall time. The first OSU-Michigan game ever televised was a 21-0 win by the Wolverines in Ann Arbor in 1947.

** Kickoff for tomorrow’s game will be shortly after noon Eastern. The game will be televised nationally by ABC/ESPN using the reverse mirror. (Most fans will be able to see the game on their local ABC affiliate. Those who don’t can catch it on ESPN.) For the second week in a row, Sean McDonough will have the play-by-play, Matt Millen will provide color analysis and Quint Kessenich will file reports from the sidelines.

** The game is also available on Sirius satellite radio channels 125 (Ohio State) and 122 (Michigan) and XM satellite channels 102 (OSU) and 143 (U-M).

THIS WEEK IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL HISTORY

** On Nov. 23, 1984, Boston College quarterback hurled a 48-yard “Hail Mary” TD pass to wide receiver Gerard Phelan on the game’s final play, giving the Eagles a 47-45 win over Miami (Fla.) and sewing up the ’84 Heisman Trophy for Flutie.

** On Nov. 23, 1985, Iowa quarterback Chuck Long became the first player in Big Ten history to throw for more than 10,000 career yards when he led the Hawkeyes to a 31-9 victory over Minnesota.

** On Nov. 24, 1938, Texas scored a 7-6 upset win over Texas A&M, allowing the Longhorns to avoid a rare winless season.

** On Nov. 24, 1956, College Football Hall of Fame coach Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf made his final game a memorable one when his California team scored a 20-18 upset win over Stanford.

** On Nov. 24, 1979, third-ranked Nebraska and No. 8 Oklahoma squared off for the Big Eight championship in a battle of the unbeatens. The Sooners, led by tailback Billy Sims and his 247 rushing yards, eventually prevailed with a 17-14 win for their fourth outright conference title in seven years.

** On Nov. 25, 1916, Ohio State took a 23-3 victory over Northwestern to cap a 7-0 season and earn the school’s first Big Ten championship. It was the first of a league-record 18 outright championships and 34 overall conference titles for the Buckeyes.

** On Nov. 25, 1920, Texas defeated instate rival Texas A&M by a 7-3 score in the first college football game ever broadcast live on radio.

** On Nov. 25, 1950, Michigan and Ohio State combined for a Big Ten-record 45 punts during a game played in a driving snowstorm. The Wolverines won the game 9-3 in what has become known as the “Snow Bowl.”

** On Nov. 25, 1961, Rutgers completed its first undefeated season since 1876 with a 32-19 win over Columbia. The Scarlet Knights overcame a 19-7 deficit after three quarters, roaring to the victory by scoring four times in the fourth quarter.

** On Nov. 26, 1955, Tennessee halfback Johnny Majors and backup halfback Al Carter each threw fourth-quarter touchdown passes to rally the Volunteers to a 20-14 victory over No. 19 Vanderbilt. The outcome prevented the Commodores from winning the SEC championship and securing a berth in the Sugar Bowl.

** On Nov. 26, 1988, for the first time in series history, Notre Dame and USC squared off undefeated and occupying the top two spots in the national polls. Irish quarterback Tony Rice rushed for 65 yards and a touchdown while cornerback Stan Smagala intercepted USC quarterback Rodney Peete and returned the pick for a score as No. 1 Notre Dame took a 27-10 victory.

** On Nov. 27, 1982, Auburn running back Bo Jackson rushed for 114 yards and led the Tigers to a 23-22 victory over Alabama. It was the final regular-season game for Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who finished a 38-year career with 323 victories. The game also marked a milestone for Auburn head coach Pat Dye. He became the first of 30 former Bryant assistants who had tried to beat the legendary coach since 1970.

** On Nov. 28, 1942, unranked Holy Cross scored a 55-12 rout of No. 1 Boston College, the most lopsided loss ever for a top-ranked team.

** On Nov. 28, 1975, Texas A&M protected its No. 2 national rating with a 20-10 win over fifth-ranked Texas, the Aggies’ first win at home over the Longhorns in eight years.

** On Nov. 28, 1981, No. 11 Penn State trounced No. 1 Pittsburgh by a 48-14 score, the largest winning margin in NCAA history for a ranked team over a No. 1 team.

** On Nov. 28, 2008, Eastern Michigan quarterback Andy Schmitt connected on an NCAA single-game record 58 of 80 pass attempts during a 56-52 victory over Central Michigan. The performance came six days after Schmitt went 50 for 76 in a 55-52 loss to Temple, and his 108 completions over a two-game span is also a college football record.

** On Nov. 29, 1935, Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger was named the winner of the inaugural Downtown Athletic Club Trophy as the outstanding college football player of the year. The following year, the award would be renamed the Heisman Trophy.

** On Nov. 29, 1958, Auburn protected its No. 2 ranking and extended its winning streak to 24 consecutive games with a heart-pounding 14-8 win over Alabama. The Tigers needed a defensive stop with 1:26 remaining in the game to preserve the victory.

** On Nov. 30, 1935, No. 2 SMU scored a come-from-behind 20-14 win over No. 1 TCU, giving the Ponies an undefeated regular season, the Southwest Conference title and a Rose Bowl berth. It would be another 71 years until a major conference had two unbeaten teams with records of at least 10-0 playing one another. That came in 2006 when Ohio State pulled out a 42-39 victory over Big Ten foe Michigan.

AROUND THE COUNTRY

** Auburn, Boise State, Oregon and TCU remain the only unbeaten teams at the Football Bowl Subdivision (a.k.a. Division I-A) level this week. How many will there be next week?

** Should Auburn QB Cam Newton win this year’s Heisman Trophy, today’s game between Newton’s Tigers and Mark Ingram’s Alabama team would feature the fifth matchup of Heisman winners in a rivalry game. The others: Gino Torretta of Miami (1992) and Charlie Ward of Florida State (1993); Earl Campbell of Texas (1977) and Billy Sims of Oklahoma (1978); Gary Beban of UCLA (1967) and O.J. Simpson of USC (1968); and John Huarte of Notre Dame (1964) and Mike Garrett of USC (1965).

** Iowa is 7-4 and all four of its defeats have come on late fourth-quarter touchdowns – at the 3:57 mark to Arizona, 1:06 to Wisconsin, 1:22 to Northwestern and 1:47 to Ohio State. In case you have forgotten, the Hawkeyes were ranked ninth in the Associated Press writers’ preseason poll.

** When Penn State took a 41-24 victory over Indiana last weekend at FedEx Field, it marked the 66th different venue in which Joe Paterno had coached the Nittany Lions.

** Evidently Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure enjoys running in one direction for the entire game. During his team’s 49-27 win over Northwestern last Saturday at Wrigley Field, Leshoure set a new single-game school record by rushing for 330 yards. As you probably know by now, both teams were forced to play offense in the same direction after Big Ten officials decided a padded brick wall in the Friendly Confines was too close to the end zone. Leshoure eclipsed the single-game of 315 yards set in 1996 by Robert Holcombe during a 23-21 loss at Minnesota.

** Bad economy? What bad economy? Fox, which lost the BCS to ESPN and then fell short to ESPN again in an effort to telecast ACC games, made a preemptive bid for the new Big Ten championship football game. Fox will pony up at least $120 million over the next six years to broadcast the game, pumping an additional $20 million into conference coffers each year for just one game.

** With victories tomorrow, Michigan State and Wisconsin would clinch shares of the Big Ten championship. The Spartans haven’t taken home a conference title since 1990 while the Badgers haven’t won one since 1999.

** Notre Dame killed two birds with one stone last Saturday. The Fighting Irish became bowl-eligible in their first season under Brian Kelly with a 27-3 victory over Army at the new Yankee Stadium. And the Irish helped the two-year-old facility set an attendance record. With extra bleachers installed in the left and right field areas, the attendance of 54,521 established a new record for a sporting event held the facility which opened in 2009.

** The Irish are now 18-5-3 against Army in New York City ballparks that have hosted the World Series. That list includes old and new Yankee Stadium as well as three other venues that have fallen victim to the wrecking ball – the Polo Grounds, Shea Stadium and Ebbets Field.

** Count Ole Miss as one team that’s not afraid to play Boise State. The Rebels have contacted to play the Broncos in the 2014 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game to be played in the Georgia Dome.

** In case you missed it, former Michigan All-American running back Rob Lytle died last Saturday of a heart attack only eight days after his 56th birthday. A native of Fremont, Ohio, Lytle was a consensus All-American in 1976 and finished third behind Pittsburgh RB Tony Dorsett and USC running back Ricky Bell in that year’s Heisman Trophy balloting. He went on to a seven-year NFL career with the Denver Broncos, and holds the distinction of being the first player ever to score a touchdown in the Rose Bowl and a Super Bowl.

** On HBO’s “Real Sports” program this week, Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma was asked to outline his goal in life. The response: “My goal in life is to find some little scar on you, a little something, and I just want to pour some salt in there, rub some vinegar in it, then have some fun.” Look up the word “ass” in the dictionary and you will likely find a picture of Auriemma.

FEARLESS FORECAST

It was another spectacular week for the straight-up picks. We were 9-1, missing only the Upset Special when Michigan failed miserably – again – on Senior Day against Wisconsin. That is two Upset Special misses in a row, and either we’ll fall into one soon or we’ll stop picking upsets. The season record SU is now 106-19.

Against the spread, we have avoiding a losing streak all season – until now. Last week’s season-low mark of 3-6-1 was the second losing week in a row, and although we are still 72-48-5 for the year, we need to stop the bleeding.

Here are the games we’re watching this week.

TODAY’S GAMES

Ohio at Kent State: Back in September when the Bobcats were getting rolled by Ohio State, no one expected them to be where they are today. After starting the season 1-3, Frank Solich’s team has rattled off seven victories in a row and needs only to beat the Golden Flashes today to sew up its second straight MAC East title. Ohio has been able to right the ship because of an offense that relies heavily on a multi-pronged rush offense that averages 180.0 yards per game. That, however, plays into Kent’s strength. It leads the MAC and ranks No. 8 nationally against the run, allowing only 101.5 yards per game. Trouble is, the Golden Flashes sometimes have trouble putting points on the scoreboard. They have been held to 14 points or less in four games this season – all losses – and it’s difficult to see how they can score many more than that against the Bobcats … Ohio 21, Kent State 13. (11 a.m. ET, ESPNU)

No. 2 Auburn at No. 11 Alabama: Talk about no respect. The Tigers have cruised to 11 straight victories and the SEC West title, they have the Heisman Trophy frontrunner in quarterback Cam Newton, and virtually no one gives them any chance to beat the Crimson Tide in the 75th Iron Bowl this afternoon. Part of that, of course, is the continuing investigation swirling around Newton. But part of it is because despite its two losses Alabama remains the defending national champion and to be the man you’ve got to beat the man. And to beat the man, the Tigers have to fly in the face of the fact that the Crimson Tide has won 20 straight home games and features a young, attacking defense that leads the nation with 21 interceptions. The last time Auburn visited Tuscaloosa, it got taken to the woodshed during a 36-0 Tide romp. Still, somehow, we’re not feeling the upset. This has been a magical season so far for the Tigers and we think it continues … Auburn 27, Alabama 24. (2:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Colorado at No. 15 Nebraska: While Auburn has been dealing with the Newton mess for some time, the Cornhuskers have had a week of controversy after head coach Bo Pelini blew his top last week during a 9-6 loss to Texas A&M. Pelini developed a bad case of the you-know-what because he thought the Big 12 officials had it out for his team, and that boiled over to an unfortunate public chewing-out of quarterback Taylor Martinez, who was hurt and could not play. On the other sideline, the Buffaloes have already dealt with their off-the-field problems and have won two in a row since head coach Dan Hawkins was fired. A lot of people are picking the upset here, but Pelini should get his team back on the same page this week despite the short turnaround … Nebraska 27, Colorado 14. (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

No. 21 Arizona at No. 1 Oregon: Although nearly everyone is passing the Ducks straight through to the national championship game, they seem to be taking nothing for granted. This week, they entertain the upset-minded Wildcats, who may have the best defense the Quack Attack has faced to this point. Cal served up the blueprint on how to slow down Oregon’s offense two weeks ago by playing man coverage in the secondary and putting a safety to spy on QB Darron Thomas. Look for Arizona to do the same thing, but for that scheme to be successful the Wildcats are going to have to shore up their run defense. They gave up 422 yards rushing in losses to USC and Stanford, and Oregon features tailback LaMichael James, who leads the nation with an average of 158.0 yards. An upset of Auburn and big game from James in this one could throw a monkey wrench into the Heisman Trophy race, and these two teams have played some wild games the last couple of years. Fasten your seatbelts … Oregon 45, Arizona 38. (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

No. 4 Boise State at No. 19 Nevada: Speaking of thrill rides, this game should provide plenty of entertainment. The Broncos know they have to keep winning to keep their national championship aspirations alive, and the Wolf Pack would like nothing more than to stomp on that dream. And don’t be fooled into thinking a Nevada win would be a major upset. The Pack certainly has the talent to pull off the upset with dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick (3,396 yards of total offense), running back Vai Taua (1,241 yards, 16 TDs), who just happens to be the NCAA career leader with 24 games of 100 or more rushing yards, and DE Dontay Moch, who is the active NCAA leader with 60½ tackles for loss. And yet, with all of that individual talent, the Pack falls short of the overall depth of Boise and that will make the difference … Boise State 35, Nevada 14. (10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN)

SATURDAY’S GAMES

Virginia at No. 16 Virginia Tech: The Hokies are shooting for their first 10-game winning streak since 1999, and that’s not too bad for a team left for dead after season-opening losses to Boise State and I-AA James Madison. Tech has already clinched a spot in the ACC championship game, and the Cavaliers will likely be just a speed bump on the way. They come into the game with a 4-7 record and losers of three straight. UVA also has a losing streak going in this series – six in a row by a combined score of 185-72. It’s difficult to see how that trend changes much tomorrow, especially with the Cavs ranking 107th nationally against the run and the Hokies featuring the 19th best rushing offense in the country … Virginia Tech 34, Virginia 10. (12 noon ET)

Northwestern at No. 7 Wisconsin: With quarterback Dan Persa controlling the offense, the Wildcats would have at least had a puncher’s chance at taking out the Badgers. But since Persa ruptured his Achilles tendon two weeks ago, NU is a completely different team. More succinctly put, their chances for the upset are slim and none – and Slim isn’t on the travel squad to Madison. The only question is how much of a score does Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema want to run up on the Wildcats. The Badgers will probably get leading rusher John Clay back this week after he missed two games with a sprained knee. Not that his team has missed him much. UW rushed for 357 yards last week during a 48-28 win over Michigan and rolled up 338 two weeks ago when the Badgers bullied Indiana, 83-20. Look for more of the same against the Wildcats, who rank a lowly eighth in the Big Ten against the run. Without Persa to at least give them a fighting chance, NU can do virtually nothing to prevent Wisconsin from punching its ticket to Pasadena … Wisconsin 55, Northwestern 21. (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN)

No. 24 Iowa at Minnesota: Things set up pretty well for a Golden Gophers victory here. The Hawkeyes really have nothing left to play for. After all, when you started your season with national title hopes, does it really matter if you wind up in the Gator Bowl or the Insight Bowl? The point is you may have a bunch of Iowa players simply going through the motions. For Minnesota, there is a lot more going on. It will be Senior Day at TCF Bank Stadium, and interim head coach Jeff Horton will try to make a case for getting the fulltime job. To be brutally honest, though, this game is a mismatch of talent. Despite their well-chronicled fourth-quarter collapses, the Hawkeyes still rank sixth in the nation in scoring defense. That is a category in which the Gophers rank 101st. What more do you need to know? … Iowa 35, Minnesota 17. (3:30 p.m. ET, BTN)

No. 3 TCU at New Mexico: Pity the lowly Lobos who go into tomorrow’s game knowing the Horned Frogs need style points to keep alive their hopes of playing for the national championship. TCU ranks among the nation’s top 10 in nearly every major statistical category, including No. 1 in total and scoring defense. Conversely, New Mexico ranks 100th or lower in nearly every category, including 118th in total offense, 119th in scoring defense and 120th in rushing defense. Considering the fact there are only 120 schools playing football on the Division I-A level, you begin to see how this could get out of hand very early … TCU 54, New Mexico State 7. (4 p.m. ET, Versus)

Michigan at No. 8 Ohio State: If you had no affinity whatsoever for the rivalry, it would be easy to dismiss this year’s version of The Game as an overhyped mismatch. What else could it be since the Buckeyes possess the No. 9 scoring offense in the country and Michigan possesses the worst defense in … well … the worst defense in Michigan football history. How bad are the Wolverines on defense? Three weeks ago, they actually celebrated after giving up 65 points against Illinois. Granted, it was after a three-overtime win, but celebrating after you had given up 65 points? Bo Schembechler’s 1972 team surrendered only 57 total points in 11 games. How bad can this one get? It all depends upon how bad Jim Tressel wants it to be, and the OSU coach simply has too much respect for the rivalry to let things escalate too much. Still, you can’t exactly tell your team to stop playing when those ugly winged hats are on the other side of the line of scrimmage … Ohio State 41, Michigan 14. (12 noon ET, ABC/ESPN)

Here are the spreads for the above games: Ohio (-3½) at Kent State; Auburn (+5) at Alabama; Colorado (+17½) at Nebraska; Arizona (+20½) at Oregon; Boise State (-13½) at Nevada; Virginia at Virginia Tech (-21½); Northwestern at Wisconsin (-23); Iowa (-14) at Minnesota; TCU (-43) at New Mexico; Michigan at Ohio State (-17).

Enjoy the games.

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