Buckeyes Have Best Boot
GameNight: In the Ohio State-Michigan showdown, Mel Kiper Jr. gives the big edge in the kicking game to the Buckeyes.
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Tuesday, March 8

Last obstacle for Buckeyes: Michigan

NEWS & NOTES: Nov. 20

Editor's Note: Come along for the ride as Mel Kiper Jr. previews these key weekend games: Michigan-Ohio State, Kansas State-Missouri, Texas Tech-Oklahoma, USC-UCLA and Auburn-Alabama.

MICHIGAN-OHIO STATE
What could be better for Ohio State (12-0) than playing at home in Columbus against rival Michigan (9-2) knowing that a victory means a trip to the Fiesta Bowl to play for the national championship?

The problem is, coach Jim Tressel's Buckeyes are just 4-10-1 in their past 15 games against the Wolverines. And Michigan has really started to click offensively with the emergence of QB John Navarre, RB Chris Perry, FB B.J. Askew, WR Ronald Bellamy, WR Braylon Edwards and TE Bennie Joppru.

Top Conference?
Think Big 12
When you try to identify the top conference this season, take a close look at what the Big 12 has accomplished.

Heading into this week's action, the conference has produced seven teams with seven wins or more and eight teams that are already bowl-eligible.

Oklahoma State would qualify for a bowl game with a victory over Baylor on Saturday, while Missouri will be looking for its sixth victory and thus eligibility for postseason action (against favored Kansas State).

If you do the math, we're talking about 10 Big 12 teams that are legitimately bowl-caliber, with Baylor and Kansas the only exceptions.
-- Mel Kiper Jr.

In such a monumental battle, special teams usually play a critical role. This is where Michigan has had its share of ups and downs. While things may appear to be all bad for coach Lloyd Carr's Wolverines in this area, that really hasn't been the case. Junior Jeremy LeSueur has accounted for 524 kickoff-return yards, breaking the school mark previously held by Desmond Howard.

In addition, sophomore punter Adam Finley was enjoying a solid year (42.4 yard average) until he struggled when punting into the wind this past week against Wisconsin.

Also keep in mind that over the past three games, Finley has stepped in to handle the placekicking duties. Previously, Philip Brabbs, who is now only the kickoff man, and Troy Nienberg were a combined 5-of-14 on field goals. Finley has converted 3-of-6 opportunities, with the misses coming from 34, 35 and 40 yards out.

Despite Finley's presence, the Wolverines are just 8-of-20 on field-goal attempts on the season.

If the game is close heading into the fourth quarter, Lloyd Carr will have his fingers crossed any time the Wolverines line up for a field goal -- while Tressel has a proven entity in sophomore Mike Nugent. Senior Andy Groom also gets high grades in the punting department for the Buckeyes.

KANSAS STATE-MISSOURI
Unless Missouri (5-6) defeats Kansas State (9-2) in Columbia on Saturday, the Tigers would certainly head the list of teams on the rise that missed a postseason bowl opportunity.

Coach Gary Pinkel's young and talented Tigers came ever so close to putting together an outstanding season. Instead of sitting at 5-6 entering the K-State game, the Tigers could have easily entered Saturday with a winning record.

They lost by just a TD against Oklahoma, with the Sooners needing a fake field goal for a TD late in the fourth quarter to pull out the victory. The following week against Nebraska in Lincoln, the 'Huskers needed a punt return for a TD by DeJuan Groce to key a 24-13 victory. Prior to Groce's TD, the Huskers led just 14-13 midway through the third quarter. Against Iowa State on the road, the Cyclones needed a TD with just 30 seconds remaining to pull out a hard-fought 42-35 victory. Then, just two weeks ago, the Tigers fell to Colorado in overtime by an identical score of 42-35.

In addition to these games, their other two losses were by 13 points to Bowling Green and 14 points to QB Kliff Kingsbury and Texas Tech. This week, the Tigers look to snap a nine-game losing streak against coach Bill Snyder's Wildcats, although three of the last four games in Columbia have been decided by six points or less.

Even if they're unable to pull off the upset, there's no question that the Missouri Tigers will be a team to watch in 2003.

While standout senior WR Justin Gage (80 catches, 12.7-yard average, nine TDs) will move on to the NFL, gifted redshirt freshman QB Brad Smith is slated to return, along with bruising junior RB Zack Abron and all five starters on the offensive line. Abron leads the Big 12 with 15 TDs and is eighth nationally in scoring.

On Saturday, Smith should become just the second player in NCAA history to throw for more than 2,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 in a season (former Clemson star Woodrow Dantzler was the first to do so, in 2001). Smith has rushed for 999 yards and seven TDs while throwing for 2,207 yards and 15 TDs (and five interceptions).

Up front, junior center A.J. Ricker and junior OT Rob Droege rank among the elite players at their positions in college football. Defensively, seven starters are slated to return next season for the Tigers, highlighted by sophomore LB James Kinney and redshirt freshman LB Jason Simpson.

TEXAS TECH-OKLAHOMA
With the winner of this game claiming the Big 12 South, all eyes will be on record-setting Red Raider senior QB Kliff Kingsbury against a rugged Oklahoma defense that is looking to make amends for its sub-par performance against Texas A&M. In that game, Aggies freshman QB Reggie McNeal created all kinds of problems, torching the OU deep patrol with 219 yards through the air.

With their prior struggles this season against Missouri QB Brad Smith, it seems that the Sooners (9-1) run into difficulty against an elusive, scrambling signal-caller who can avoid pressure and provide a pass/run option.

While Kingsbury has decent mobility, he won't usually beat a defense with his legs. Even so, he's still a dynamite QB who could end up starring at the pro level. With all this in mind, there's no question that the duel between Kingsbury and the OU defense is one of the most intriguing matchups this week.

On the injury front, the Sooners are reportedly in the best shape they've been in a number of weeks. Super blue-chip sophomore DT Tommie Harris is back at full strength, as is sophomore Dan Cody, a top-flight DE backup.

The Red Raiders are equally fortunate in terms of their injury situation. The only key performer who could be out of action is senior wideout Anton Paige. He didn't suit up last week against Texas and is regarded as questionable for Saturday.

Even though OU senior RB Quentin Griffin might not be in the top five in the Heisman race, his production leads to the argument that he should be. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in every Big 12 game this season. If he does so in the remaining two, against Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, Griffin will become just the third player in school history to accomplish the feat. The two Sooner RBs to rush for more than 100 yards against every Big 12 opponent are Steve Owens and Billy Sims, both of whom won the Heisman.

USC-UCLA
The Trojans (8-2) are looking for their fourth straight victory in this crosstown rivalry after dropping eight straight to UCLA (7-3) from 1991 through '98.

Last year, USC rolled to a surprisingly easy 27-0 upset, marking the first shutout in this series since 1947. After being dominated in this manner, coach Bob Toledo's Bruins are expected to bring their "A" game. They figure to be extremely motivated.

USC senior QB Carson Palmer continues his ascent up the draft board, with the possibility that he could end up being the No. 1 overall selection in April's 2003 NFL draft.

The emergence of senior RB Justin Fargas has helped Palmer in recent weeks. A hard-nosed former transfer from Michigan, Fargas doesn't need the offensive line to hold blocks for long. Just give him a crease and he blasts through, combining quickness with a tenacious running style. Against Arizona State this past weekend, Fargas rushed for 125 yards on 26 carries while turning two receptions into 48 yards.

In that game against the Sun Devils, heralded freshman wideout Mike Williams was slowed by an ankle sprain that limited him to just one catch. But Williams reportedly has worked his way back to near 100 percent and is ready to play.

AUBURN-ALABAMA
While QB Tyler Watts and RBs Shaud Williams and Santonio Beard have received most of the national attention for the Crimson Tide offense, it's the five guys on the O-line who deserve a ton of credit.

In my opinion, the standout performer in the trenches has been senior center Alonzo Ephraim. A quality, veteran anchor, Ephraim has been a model of consistency from start to finish this season.

Defensively, the Crimson Tide have been dominating the opposition, allowing 14 points or less in seven of the past nine games. Senior blue-chippers Jarret Johnson, Kindal Moorehead and Kenny King set the tone with their ability to disrupt things in the trenches, but coach Dennis Franchione also has a number of stars to build around in 2003.

Heading that list are sophomore DE Antwan Odom (second in the SEC behind Georgia's David Pollack with eight sacks), junior LB Brooks Daniels (just six tackles away from 100 stops for the second straight season) and junior FS Charles Jones, who has delivered solid performances in the deep patrol.

Alabama, which is on probation and not eligible for a bowl, is 9-2 heading into this contest. Auburn is 7-4.

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