With Auburn shaking off allegations its star player Cam Newton was purchased and Boise State's national title run on hiatus due to leap-frog BCS poll drama, the eyes of the college football world are firmly bolted to Rice-Eccles Stadium today where Utah hosts TCU.
The winner should be a shoe-in for a BCS game and possibly have a shot at a national title game, if the BCS was a fair affair.
Today matches two of college football's most intriguing coaches. They remain so because they are both planted with non-automatic BCS qualifying teams and are both so consistently good. Utah will rectify that for Whittingham next year in the Pac-12. It remains to be seen if Gary Patterson's TCU is headed for the Big East.
But I digress.
Here are five reasons why either TCU or Utah could win today:
TCU wins because of:
1. DEFENSE: The Frogs have a dominating defense; the kind Utah has not faced since Pitt, an overtime game when the Panthers had a rookie quarterback on the other side. It's not TCU's sacks; it's closing speed, reaction time in space, and the cluster rush to the ball that will disrupt the flow of Utah's speed passing game.
2. LUCK: Kicker Ross Evans isn't going to miss two key field goals as he did in 2008. If Evans had even been "average" two years ago in Salt Lake City, Utah wouldn't have made it to the Sugar Bowl.
3. QUARTERBACK: While Andy Dalton is struggling to match his passing accuracy of 2009, he is the more experienced quarterback. If there's one single advantage that can stand out quickly in a game like this, it is QB play and Dalton is superior to Jordan Wynn.
4. GIVEAWAYS: Turnover margin. The Utes rank 63rd after getting five turnovers at Air Force, where they went into the game ranked 96th. In this game, turnovers will determine the winner and possessions will be like gold.
5. STAR POWER: Take Jeremy Kerley vs. Shakey Smithson. Judge them on consistency, speed, a train of career-long impact moments and holding onto the ball, and Kerley is superior.
Utah wins because of:
1. COACHING: While Patterson and Whittingham are among the best around, Whittingham has a remarkable track record in coaching his team up for big games against ranked foes. Most notably is a 5-0 bowl record, part of Utah's glossy current 9-0 run. Given the stage, the stakes, the pressure, put your money on Whittingham to supersede in preparation and execution on national TV. Ask Alabama.
2. OFFENSE: While TCU has faced and defeated ranked Baylor, the Frogs have not faced an attack as diversified and productive as Utah's. If Wynn is on, the Utes can march downfield as fast and efficiently as anyone in college football. Strike force efficiency.
3. RUN GAME: Utah is capable of running its two-headed monster behind a proven O-line and that spells time of possession and asserting physical domination, even versus a stout Frog front. Using a tag-team of Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide, TCU's defense will be sorely tested to load the box and cover downfield seams. Then come the bombs.
4. D-LINE: Not very many college teams can shake out a platoon of three-deep linemen and use a rotation like that for fresh legs in the fourth quarter. This is when games are won or lost, especially the nail-biters. Kalani Sitake has planted the seeds, reaped the harvest and is enjoying the market.
5. THE MUSS: The Utah crowd has grown into a disruptive force for visitors and if you review TCU's visit to the Fiesta Bowl against Boise State, you can see how settings can distract the Frog offense. Defensively, it won't matter, but I think Dalton and Co. can be rattled.
This week's predictions:
Air Force 28, Army 21: The Falcons are adjusting to losing Jared Tew but showed against Utah, they are still the Force.
Wyoming 17, New Mexico 14: Boy, is this a game of marbles between two teams without a grasp. Go with the Cowboys because their quarterback can scramble.
San Diego State 34, Colorado State 17: Brady Hoke is on a run heading into the last month of the season. This is a tune up for an Aztec bowl game at the end of the line and a sure win before facing Utah and TCU.
BYU 27, UNLV 14: The Cougars have had an extra week to prepare, heal up and figure out a few more running plays to throw against the Rebels. It should work for six in a row over UNLV.
Utah State 24, New Mexico State 14: Nice 42-point run late against Nevada last week should set up a nice home victory for the Aggies.
Utah 24, TCU 21: Toss up. I place Dalton above Wynn and Utah's turnovers and sometimes slow starts against TCU's defense as Frog bait. I do wonder if Utah's great third-quarters and trickeration in the red zone will be enough. Utah had NFL talent on defense last year and gave up 50-plus at TCU. In the end, TCU meltdowns at Utah in 2008 and against Boise State in the 2009 Fiesta push me to pick the Utes.
Last week: 5-0, overall 50-8 (.862)
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