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The College Football Report: Show Some Mercy

To date, the 2013 college football season has produced only seven Top 25 match-ups, such as the blockbuster #1 Alabama vs. #6 Texas A&M rematch in Week Three, and #23 Arizona State vs. #5 Stanford, the lone game featuring two of the Top 25 last week.

With so few big games in the first four weeks, the story this year hasn't revolved around high-profile teams, but instead on the woebegone Directional Creampuffs, i.e., schools from the FCS.

Three results last week exemplify the issue: Florida A&M, Florida International and Savannah State lost by a collective margin of 218 points. By comparison, the 54-6 drubbing #8 Florida State administered to Bethune-Cookman looks restrained.

Louisville coach Charlie Strong struggled to explain the #7 Cardinals' lopsided (72-0) box score over Florida International: "I know this: They had a lot of injuries over on that side of the football, and we weren't trying to embarrass them."

But a glance at the play-by-play tells a different story. In the fourth quarter, Louisville took the ball leading 58-0 and proceeded to call five passing plays, scoring again to extend the lead to . . . 65 points. After a series by FIU that netted -6 yards, U of L ran the ball exclusively on the ensuing possession but still saw fit to call a timeout to regroup prior to punching in the game's final touchdown.

Coaches from big-league squads offer one of the following explanations for such one-sided affairs: players need practice; backups deserve to see action; and the games give younger guys a chance to develop. In reality, however, blowouts give coaches and players a chance to pad the stats: UL starting quarterback Terry Bridgewater, a Heisman candidate, was still firing away in the third quarter with his squad ahead by 51 points.

The rationale behind scheduling such games is simple: FBS schools play the little guys to guarantee a W. The FCS teams show up, take a pounding, and collect a six-figure check for their troubles. Yet the games aren't necessarily a foregone conclusion, as this season has shown. Upsets like the 53-21 win by McNeese State over USF give big-time coaches the willies. Jimbo Fisher of Florida State summed up the favorite's mindset: "You know in big games, players will be aware. But when you're a favorite, especially a prohibited favorite, you to put them in the mindset of the team coming in here."

So take note, Top 25 teams. If you are heavily favored, or prohibited in Jimbo's lingo, you had better pile on the points. Who knows, the explosive Florida A&M Rattlers' offense might get hot and go on a 83-point run.

At least Miami (#16) showed a modicum of decency in its 77-7 win over Savannah State. The coaches agreed to a running clock in the fourth quarter, and the Hurricanes ran the clock down on offense. Then again, "The U" never punted. Not one punt. The 'Canes went for it every time, going 2-for-3 on fourth-down conversions.

We propose the following solution to avoid such humiliations: give the underdog an opportunity to invoke the mercy rule at any point (or just the fourth quarter, if you're stingy) in the second half. With the consent of the opposing coach, officials would allow the clock to run after incomplete passes, first downs, and other results that would halt play, much like in high school football blowouts. The rule would preserve the integrity of the game, in that the stats would still count, yet allow the losers some measure of dignity. We like the idea that much more because the spotlight falls on the bully if the request is denied. How would the victors respond in postgame interviews after brazenly trouncing the concept of good sportsmanship? We would like to see Coach Strong make his argument in that position.

Most head coaches overlook a legitimate opportunity during blowouts to practice two components key to winning close games: kicking and punting. Why not kick in a real environment rather than waiting until you need a clutch field goal? Ohio State, leading 55-0 in the third, could have attempted a field goal on 4th-and-4 from the FAMU 33, but picked up the first down instead. Up by 62, OSU had an opportunity for a try from the 13-yard-line. That's a 28-yarder, a gimme - unless your guy hasn't kicked a field goal outside of practice in a few weeks.

In the fourth, with the score 69-0, Ohio State could have gone for a pooch punt from the FAMU 40 to pin down the opponent. Nope. Better to get the first, continue the drive, and tack on a humiliating final TD, bringing the final to 76-0.

Setting aside the question of class, putting your kickers through real-game scenarios would, as it turns out, help the other side save face. Here's hoping the Buckeyes, Hurricanes and Cardinals all lose by three or less this weekend.

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Match-Ups of the Week

#23 Wisconsin (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) vs. #4 Ohio State (4-0, 0-0)
Ohio State hasn't played anyone yet. The Buckeyes are a combined 210-61 so far, with the only legit W coming against Cal, 52-34, in Week Three. QB Braxton Miller, likely out of the Heisman race after missing the last two games with a strained MCL, will return for OSU on Saturday. Miller's health will decide the game: if he can create on the run and shake off the rust, the Buckeyes will win, but it's far from a sure thing as Wisconsin enters the game better seasoned and with a sound offensive game plan.

OSU should expect the Badgers to run, and run, and, to mix things up, fake the pass and run again. Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, with help from backups James White and Corey Clement, leads a grinding ground attack that has totaled 1,399 yards and an 8.0 yards-per-carry average, good for third in the country in yards per game. Melvi (his friends call him Melvin) saw his YPC fall from 12.9 to 11.8 after amassing a mere 147 yards on 16 touches last week against Purdue. The Badgers start some large mammals on offense, and guard Kyle Costigan (6'5", 315lbs) and tackles Ryan Groy (6'5", 320) and Rob Havenstein (6'8", 327) will lead the way for Gordon & Co. (As uwbadgers.com points out, that's pronounced "HAY-ven-stine". Got it? Not "hay-ven-STINE", like something out of a Mel Brooks movie.)

Our pick: Ohio State 31, Wisconsin 27

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#6 LSU (4-0, 1-0 SEC) vs. #9 Georgia (2-1, 1-0 SEC)
LSU entered the season at 14-1 odds to win the BCS, which may have been generous given a brutal schedule that, following Georgia, includes #20 Florida, #21 Ole Miss, #1 Alabama, and #10 Texas A&M. But the Tigers can get the ball rolling with a win over the Bulldogs. Now that Zach Mettenberger looks like an honest-to-gosh SEC quarterback (we were hating on him this time last year), LSU should be in every game.

Adding to the mix, Mettenberger will be facing his former teammates. Georgia coach Mark Richt dismissed Mettenberger in 2010 as a freshman after he was charged with underage possession of alcohol, disorderly conduct, obstruction, two counts of having a fake ID, and last but hardly least, two counts of misdemeanor sexual battery. Mettenberger, on how the crowd will receive him on Saturday: " . . . they're gonna boo the crap out of me. I might get a freaking brick thrown at my head, who knows?" We don't know either, but bricks sound excessive. Not unwarranted, but excessive.

Commentators will point to the Georgia defense (allowing nearly 30 points per game) as a deciding factor, but we believe success running the ball will determine the outcome. Georgia RB Todd Gurley may have a slight edge over LSU RB Jeremy Hill.

Our pick: Georgia 37, LSU 34

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Temple (0-3, 0-1 ACC) vs. Idaho (0-4)
Short of an Act Of God, not that we're ruling that out, someone will get a win. The odds favor Temple, but the Owls are fresh off a stunning defeat to the Fordham Rams. A last-second touchdown gave the "cupcake" Rams the win, the program's first over an FBS opponent since reinstating the football program in 1970. If you missed it (chances are, you missed it), check out the Hail Mary toss by Fordham QB Michael Nebrich. You can be the 324th viewer on YouTube. (We were 320, 321, 322, and 323.) That said, Idaho is still Idaho, which is in Moscow . . . Idaho.

Our pick: Temple 29, Idaho 20

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Rivalry of the Week

#14 Oklahoma (3-0, 1-0 Big 12) vs. #22 Notre Dame (3-1)
Notre Dame has Oklahoma's number. The teams have played 10 times, total. Like, ever. The Irish own a 9-1 record in the series, which dates back to 1952, and have played the spoiler against Oklahoma in a number of match-ups, most memorably in a momentous upset in 1957.

Oklahoma won the title in '55 and '56, and was on a 47-game winning streak, an NCAA record. The Irish entered the games off back-to-back losses and were a heavy underdog, getting 18-points on the road at Norman. Retired player Dick Prendergast, on Notre Dame's chances: "I think deep down we thought we were going to get our fannies kicked."

But an encounter at an Oklahoma City hotel reportedly fueled the Irish to pull off the upset. The manager refused to take in the squad, including black halfback Aubrey Lewis, because the hotel was whites only. Pendergast again: "By this time, our feelings were getting emotional. It had an effect on us . . . We were really pepped up for this game."

Pepped up, indeed. With a dramatic fourth-and-goal touchdown, the lone score of the game, the streak was broken along with Oklahoma's hopes to repeat as champion.

The Sooners should shake off the jinx this weekend. Up-and-coming quarterback Blake Bell presents a challenge to the Notre Dame defense. "The Belldozer" specialized in the run last year, but has opened eyes with his arm, and raised his national visibility as well: he appeared on the "watch list" for the Maxwell Award this season, a first for the junior. The "D" for the blue-and-gold struggled to stop Michigan's Devin Gardner, a similar dual-threat quarterback, and we think the -3.5 point spread (in favor of OU) may give the ND home-field advantage too much credit.

Our pick: Oklahoma 31, Notre Dame 21

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Consulting The Sacred Chicken
The College Football Report Free Range Chicken steps to the window for the first time this weekend. The Chicken spent the offseason touring with the Vestal Virgins, and returns to us as The College Football Report Free Range Sacred Chicken (TCFRFRSC). Whatever other terms the Chicken agreed to, abstaining from wagering wasn't included, and for that, we are thankful.

#5 Stanford (-9.5) vs. Washington State
Does anyone else realize Stanford is in the Top 5? Has anyone seen the WSU running game? (The Cougars are in 119th place in yards per game.) Washington State holds an undefeated (4-0) record against the spread, which may explain why the number has crept down from -10 or -10.5 (depending on the book), but the Cardinal still looks good.

#11 Oklahoma State (-19) vs. West Virginia
The Mountaineers announced that someone named Clint Trickett will be playing quarterback on Saturday. Trickett, who sounds like he's on furlough from the Florida Georgia Line backup singers, will be the third starting QB for WVU this season. This will get ugly.

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Mike Luce is our man on campus. He welcomes your comments.

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