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by Al McMordie - 11/11/2010
Look out! Or I should say, "Look ahead." While analyzing what game a team is playing each week, it's also important to look at what game it played last week and what's on tap the following week. Pro and college teams have bye weeks, for example, that allow coaching staffs extra time to prepare and players to spend two weeks resting their bodies and getting healthy. Teams can often have several edges with two weeks to prepare.
Other facets of scheduling are key games and cupcakes. Many times, a team can look past an opponent when a more important game is on tap the following week. For example, earlier this season TCU had its Mountain West Conference opener on deck after a Thursday night game at SMU -- the Horned Frogs' final game outside the Mountain West Conference. That came one week after playing Baylor of the Big 12.
TCU failed to get the cover in a 41-24 win in a game that was a lot closer. The Horned Frogs allowed their most points, most yards (361), most yards rushing (192), had their fewest sacks (one) and lost the turnover battle. It was a national TV game that meant a lot to SMU, too, an 18-point dog. "We took their best shot and came out with a win," Coach Gary Patterson said at the time. "I'm very happy to get to 4-0."
Sometimes a cupcake on the schedule doesn't turn out to be so. A few years ago Memphis had an apparent easy game against Arkansas State. The talented Tigers were a 25-point favorite. Yet, Arkansas State got the cover easily, even leading 35-26 late in the game before Memphis rallied for a 47-35 win. When one looked at the schedule, one saw that Memphis had its first Conference USA game on tap coming up against UAB. It's clear the Tigers were more focused on UAB than Arkansas State – and nearly suffered a colossal upset.
Sometimes you can find coaches and players in local newspapers admitting they're not 100% focused for an upcoming contest. I recall a coach admitting that he and his staff were drawing up plays and watching game films of an opponent two weeks down the road, even though they were playing a different (and easier) team that week.
This is something to keep an eye on at this point in the season as teams can shift from playing a weak opponent to a game for the conference championship. Or, perhaps, a non-conference game is on the schedule right before a conference game. A few years ago Rutgers was off a big win over Michigan State. The following week it played Division 1-AA New Hampshire, which – on the schedule – looked like a breeze of a game. Yet, the overconfident Scarlet Knights lost the game straight up. Clearly their focus was not on the field that afternoon.
Fresno State had a terrible situational spot earlier this season, traveling from the West Coast all the way to Mississippi in the Southeast to play an SEC team, their second straight road game, too. The Bulldogs came up with their worst defensive performance in years, a 55-38 loss. Maybe the offense wasn't road weary, but the defense seemed to be, giving up 425 yards rushing, and 578 yards overall!
Other times you can anticipate when a coach might empty his bench late in a cupcake game when they have a far more important battle on tap the following week. For handicapppers, you can use the schedule to get a sense of when a backdoor cover is more likely.
One season the Georgia Bulldogs had what is called a "sandwich" game on the schedule against Marshall. Georgia rallied to beat South Carolina, then played Marshall before taking on SEC rival LSU the following week. Non-conference Marshall was "sandwiched" between two key conference opponents.
In the end, Georgia only scored 13 points against Marshall, winning 13-3 as a 19-point favorite. Again, it was clear the Bulldogs were more focused on their two SEC games than they were of playing Marshall. This wasn't surprising, either, with LSU on deck, the defending national champion at the time.
And this week, an example of a sandwich spot is Michigan traveling to West Lafayette to take on Purdue. Last week, the Wolves qualified for a Bowl berth with a 67-65 overtime win at home vs. Illinois, and U-M has a home game against Wisconsin on deck. No one would be surprised if Michigan suffers a letdown vs. Purdue. Good handicappers know that you don't always just look at this week's games to find potential trip-ups and look-ahead spots. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie. And don't miss any of my NCAA Football Winners this week, including a huge NCAA Roadkill play (8-0-1 our last 9 Football Roadkills), and our NFL Total of the Month (24-7 our last 31 NFL Totals).