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Pregame stretch, 09.09.11

September 8, 2011 - Ray Eckenrode
Alabama vs. Penn State

3:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC

Announcers: Brad Nessler, Todd Blackledge and Holly Rowe

Annoyance factor: We actually prefer Nessler and Blackledge to Musburger/Herbstreit but that’s offset here by the presence of Rowe, who is, quite simply, bad. We’ll also be interested to see if the “Todd’s Taste of the Town” segment, where Blackledge is shown sampling some local delicacy, has been mercifully put to rest.

Line: Alabama -10

Smarts say: With an over/under of 42, Vegas sees this one somewhere between Alabama 27-14 and Alabama 27-17.

Quick hits:

+ Any scenario where Penn State wins this game likely starts with a big day from blossoming star Silas Redd BUT that won’t be easy. Alabama is second in Division I, having allowed only nine 100-yard rushers since 2005. Boston College is first with eight while Penn State is fifth with 17.

+ We talked about the talent disparity between these two teams when they played last September and that played out with the Tide having three first-round selections in the 2011 NFL Draft while Penn State, of course, had none. Looking ahead, that gap only seems to have widened as ‘Bama will have four likely first rounders on the field Saturday -- safety Marc Marron, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and running back Trent Richardson – while the Nittany Lions might not have a player selected in the first three rounds. Again, that doesn’t mean Penn State can’t win, just gives you an idea of how all those mediocre recruiting years are manifesting themselves.

The pick:

We sometimes play hunches in our picks or say we have “a feeling” about something, but for the most part we like to abide by the tried and true axiom: past performance is the best indication of future behavior. So we’ll start this prediction with a rhetorical question: Can anyone, anywhere cite any specific instance of past Penn State performance that indicates a future where the Nittany Lions beat Alabama? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Cory Giger did a great job putting the numbers to it in the Mirror this week (see link below) but deep down we’ve known it all along: Penn State doesn’t beat good teams anymore. Alabama is most certainly a good team … Tide (-10) 31, Nits 13.

Last week:CORRECT straight up and vs. spread, 1-0, 1.000 pct.

Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore

1 p.m. Sunday, CBS

Announcers: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms

Annoyance factor: What a mixed blessing. Simms is one of the smartest analysts in the game and Nantz can barely contain his anti-Steelers bias. Keep your radio handy just in case.

Referee: Tony Corrente

Competence factor: Considered by most to be a top half white hat, he certainly didn’t help himself in that regard last year in Buffalo when he called a penalty on James Harrison for “landing on the quarterback with his full weight.” Hopefully, Mike Tomlin has Sir Isaac Newton on speed dial this time.

Line: Baltimore -1.5

Smarts say: Line opened at -2.5 for the Ravens and moved a full point within a day, meaning bettors don’t trust Joe Flacco either. Check out the Las Vegas Hilton’s Supercontest picks (link below, they usually post Saturday afternoon) to see who the smart bettors are on in this game.

Quick hits:

+ We predicted it last Saturday and it predictably came to pass: The banged up Ravens, who have such an inferiority complex when it comes to playing the Steelers, pretended they’re at full strength (much like the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail, link below), placing no players – none, nada, zip, zilch – on their league-mandated injury report on Wednesday afternoon. This despite the fact that center Matt Birk is coming off knee surgery in early August and did not play a preseason game and despite the fact that deep threat Lee Evans was in a walking boot last week. No worries, mere flesh wounds.

+ In case you’re not aware, these are not the same old Ravens. Ozzie Newsome has orchestrated an influx of new players during the offseason, some young and athletic, some old and crafty, but all selected almost entirely because it’s expected they’ll help Baltimore deal better with Pittsburgh. And that’s not an unusual strategy in the NFL (matching personnel with your division leader), but the extent to which the Ravens went (20 new players, seven new starters) is a bit, um, extreme. They added veteran offensive linemen to try and stop the “one big sack” the Steelers always seem to come up with against Baltimore. They completely overhauled their secondary, save Ed Reed, to try and figure out how to stop Ravens Enemy No. 1 Ben Roethlisberger. And they added Lee Evans for the sole purpose of keeping the Steelers defenders one step deeper in their setups. (If Evans catches a TD pass vs. Pittsburgh, it’s gravy. He’s there primarily to stretch the field vertically and open things up for Ray Rice.) And perhaps most importantly (and it’s a move that’s drawn possibly the least attention), they replaced a good fullback in Le’Ron McClain with a great one in Vonta Leach. Will any or all of it work? We’ll find out, but it’s a lot more likely to work later in the year after all the new players have gotten to know each other better. Which brings us to…

The pick

The Steelers have owned the Ravens to such an extent in big games in recent years (and Baltimore is still such an unknown quantity), that “experts” everywhere are all over Pittsburgh in this game. And that’s scary because if anything's certain in the NFL, it's that consensus picks almost always turn out to be wrong. But heeding our own advice from the Penn State pick above, there's plenty of past behavior to predict the Steelers future performance here will include a win Sunday. In the end, we talked ourselves into it with this logic: While the Ravens are still getting to know each other, this is as healthy as Troy Polamalu anad Rashard Mendenhall will be all year. We expect game-changing plays from each and, with great trepidation, we're going...Steelers 23-17.

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James Harrison will have to watch his "full body weight" Sunday in Baltimore with Referee Tony Corrente wearing the white hat.


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