Handicapping week 1

We begin this week with the wisdom of the judiciary.

This past June, a Kentucky judge confirmed what Duke students and alums, have long known: “football” in Durham has sunk lower than President Bush’s favorability rating.

That hypothesis was proven out when the Blue Devils were sued by the University of Louisville for $450,000 in damages, because Duke pulled out of the final three games of its four game series against the Cardinals. According to the signed contract, $150,000 penalty for each game defaulted, was to be paid to Louisville if: “A team of similar stature,” could not be found to fill the date. The Duke lawyers argued that the Blue Devils performance on the football field is as weak as any in Division I (13-99 since 1999), and that “any” team would suffice as a replacement.

Judge Phillip J. Shepherd of the Franklin County Circuit Court agreed and ruled against Louisville. In his summary the judge wrote: “At oral argument, Duke persuasively asserted that this is a threshold that could not be any lower. Duke’s argument on this point cannot be reasonably disputed by Louisville.”

This weekend let’s see which other teams play like they want to appear on Judge Shepard’s docket, and which, the wise judge would pay to see.

No.20 Illinois vs. No. 6 Missouri in Kansas City (ESPN, 8:30 p.m.) Unlike his shortened tenure as the head man at Florida, where, as Steve Spurrier’s successor, the disappointed alumni almost immediately launched a web site: FireRonZook.com, the Illinois faithful are bubbly about coach “Zooker” in Champaign, Illinois.

The fighting Illini had last year’s biggest turnaround -which included a signature victory against then No.1, Ohio State, in Columbus. These Sons of Red Grange are directed by its scintillating junior signal caller Juice Williams. If he can improve on his passing accuracy (last season Illinois ranked 8th from the bottom in throwing the ball) – Williams could be a Heisman Trophy candidate. When he’s on, the QB has a road-running target in All-America wideout, sophomore Arrelious Benn, and gets assists from tailbacks Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard. The D, which sports a pair of All-Americas in corner Vontae Davis and end Antonio Davis, will be disruptive.

The “Show-Me” State showed the nation last season. Now the question in Columbia is: can they do it again? This year’s Missouri eleven may be the best, since coaching icon Dan Devine, was prowling the sidelines more than two generations ago. The Missou offense is powered by a trio of All-Americas in Heisman Trophy candidate senior quarterback Chase Daniel (33 touchdowns-11 interceptions) and another Heisman candidate in wideout Jeremy Macklin, and book ended by tight-end Chase Coffman. The D, which returns ten starters, isn’t as dynamic, but is resilient, led by a pair of All-Americas in backer Sean Weatherspoon and safety William Moore. The Champaign is popped by the Tigers, as Missouri toasts the beginning of what may be a very bubbly season.

No.18 Tennessee at UCLA Monday (ESPN, 8p.m.) Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer, fortified with a new seven year contract, knew it was time for a change. Despite a glittering 147-45 record, it has been 10 years since the Vols won its last SEC Championship, and in that same year added the National Championship. Fulmer went outside the “Rocky Top” family, and hired Richmond head coach Dave Clawson, with the mandate to open up the offense. This will not be your father’s Volunteers. The checkerboard faithful will see Tennessee operate out of four and five receiver sets, and run out of the shotgun. The whole operation will hinge on the arm of first year starter, junior quarterback Jonathan Crompton. He’ll be ably assisted by starry wideouts Gerald Jones and Lucas Taylor, and the bruising running of senior Arian Foster. The Vols D, led by All-America safety Eric Berry, will be the ultimate determinant for the success of the season in Knoxville.

The surfer-dude is back in his element, as coach Rick Neuheisel has returned to his Westwood alma-mater. His best recruiting moves involved his coaches. Coach Rick was able to convince D-coordinator DeWayne Walker to stick around, and brought former USC offensive wizard Norm Chow, back to the college ranks.

Unfortunately, the UCLANS were hit by a rash of spring injuries that included both quarterbacks, with projected starter Patrick Cowan gone for the season. The job will now fall to redshirt junior Kevin Craft. Neuheisel is hoping for the healthy return of tailback Kahlil to take the pressure off his untested QB. The D, led by tackles Brian Price and Brigham Harwell, will keep the Bruins competitive in all its games, while Neuheisel is developing some offensive rhythm. Despite the renewed interest and optimism in Westwood, it’s the Volunteers who throw an orange blanket on the Neuheisel beach party.

No.24 Alabama vs. No.9 Clemson in Atlanta (Ch.5, 8 p.m.) In year two of his reign, wealthy St. Nick (coach Nick Saban) has the Tide faithful expecting Christmas in the fall. The size of the Tuscaloosa gifts, namely its bowl game, will be greatly determined by the consistency of its pugnacious senior quarterback, John Parker Wilson. He’ll be assisted by a veteran offensive line, featuring All-America tackle Andre Smith and a pair of quality backs in Terry Grant and Glen Coffee. Saban will also be counting on his two five-star wideout recruits Julio Jones and Burton Scott, to make an immediate impact, and provide a comfort zone for Wilson. The D, as with all Saban teams, will ferociously fly to the ball, and features backer Rolando McClain and corner Kareem Jackson.

The Clemson faithful have been impatiently waiting for an ACC Championship since 1991. Coach Tommy “Asbestos Pants” Bowden, he of the permanent hot seat, has 17 returning starters, and quietly believes that this team can finally quench that championship thirst. He has compiled an offense that may be unstoppable. It is led by the steady hand of senior quarterback Cullen Harper (27 touchdowns – 6 interceptions) and assisted by one of the nation’s best tailback and receiving tandems in the nation in: C.J. Spiller (who has 10 touchdowns of over 50 yards) and James Davis, and the field stretching pair of Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham. The D, directed by backer Scotty Cooper and All-America safety Michael Hamlin will be very aggressive. It’s always a risk going with a Bowden led team, they usually disappoint, but in a game that will set the tone for its season, we’ll take the Tigers.

No. 3 USC at Virginia (Ch.5, 3:30 p.m.) USC has better numbers than Elle McPherson, as old friend Pete Carroll has the Trojans “jacked and pumped” for yet another title run. Try these numbers on your daily lottery: USC has won 70 of its last 78. It also has won a pick six: namely; 6 consecutive PAC-10 Titles, top 4 or better rankings, and 11 win seasons. The Men of Troy are also 23-0 in November, 28-7 against top 25 teams, and during this reign, have claimed a pair of National Titles.

Tailback U is also back, with a plethora of runners, featuring the trio of Joe McKnight, Stafon Johnson, and C.J. Gable (injured in fall camp). The quarterback job was won by junior Mark Sanchez, (word is he is expected back), but if he can’t go, expect transfer Arkansas “whiner,” Mitch Mustain to start the opener. Whoever starts, he’ll rely on wideouts Patrick Turner and Vidal Hazelton for assistance. The D, who many consider the nation’s best, is programmed to attack, and is led by a foursome of All-Americas in tackle Fili Maoala, backers Rey Maualuga, and Brian Cushing, and safety Taylor Mays, who leads a secondary that may well be the best in the nation.

Virginia hasn’t seen opposition firepower of this magnitude, since the Civil War. Coach Al Groh’s offense is also hamstrung by the academic loss of his talented starting QB Jameel Sewell. The new director remains a work in progress and Groh has yet to name a starter, and may wait until the coin toss to reveal him. The Cavaliers success will be determined by its defense, which is led by a threesome of backers; Clint Sintim, Antonio Appleby, and Jon Cooper. The Trojans prove to be much better horsemen than the Cavaliers, as USC tunes up for its early season showdown with the Buckeyes.

Michigan State at California (regional Ch.5) Under the strong guidance of second year coach Mark Dantonio, much needed discipline and optimism has returned to the East Lansing campus. The potent Spartans offense will be commanded by senior quarterback Brian Hoyer, with a big assist from All-America tailback Javon Ringer, and his backfield mate, fullback Andrew Hawken. The D is fast and aggressive, and features a trio of punishing backers in Eric Gordon, Greg Jones and Jon Mish.

On the left coast, after last season’s collapse, the expectations in Berkeley are almost as low as the chances for a republican candidate. Golden Bears coach Jeff Tedford has made some changes. He surrendered the play calling duties to his newly minted offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti. The quarterback competition between senior Nate Longshore and sophomore Kevin Riley will remain fluid right up to kickoff, while the rest of the offensive production is in an unproven state. The D is also undergoing a metamorphosis, shifting to a 3-4 alignment, and will be anchored by backer Zack Follett. Tedford is at his best when expectations are at their lowest in Berkeley, but we think “Sparty” comes in and gets the job done.

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