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Picks Column: Stratego And Chess

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Northwestern has some darn good football players, including running back Venric Mark, but Ohio State is just a little bit better. Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images.
Northwestern has some darn good football players, including running back Venric Mark, but Ohio State is just a little bit better. Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images.

Being a master of the concept of relativity (as opposed to the theory of relativity; all due respect, Albert Einstein), I know someone out there in these great United States can defeat me at Stratego. That's despite the fact that I'm undefeated all-time in dozens and dozens of matches.

Stratego is to board games what golf is to sports. It takes some solving, but once you figure it out, you can repeat it, more or less. It's a medieval capture-the-flag concept replete with spies, scouts and bombs. Half the battle is in how you arrange your pieces during set-up (think strategized Battleship).

I used to own the game, crushing younger siblings and cousins and aunts. Later, I bought the game for my ex-girlfriend and proceeded to regularly taunt and destroy her and her family members. But I don't feast on inferior competition and then believe I'm the best, or get an inflated sense of self-worth.

As a child, one of my good friends was a chess nerd. (Yes, I was a member of the chess team in elementary school and Bughouse chess, or "Bug," was a feature at my birthday party at about 10, so I suppose I'm not excluded from the nerd category.) His name was Jordan. He reminded me of a good-natured, less egotistical version of Peyton Manning with his Southern drawl, dirty blonde hair and sort of campy sense of humor. And he was a killer on the chess board.

No one at our school came close to beating Jordan. I played him only a handful of times and I'm pretty sure he put me in checkmate within 10 moves. He dominated the local tournaments and spearheaded our school's best four-man team.

Jordan was a bright student who also excelled at math and out-smarted most of the enrichment kids. At recess, instead of joining the all-out war we called pickup football (featuring quarterback John Parker Wilson, future Alabama star and Atlanta Falcons third-stringer and perhaps a dozen future Division I players), he brought a yellow flag and volunteered to officiate.

We all thought he was one of the best chess players in the nation. One of us made an outlandish comment one day about his abilities. I remember we all respected his opinion: nerds, jocks, lazy kids, everyone. His response stuck with me.

"You know, there are a lot of people who are better than me. In the grand scheme of things, I'm not really that good."

We mistook his local dominance of elementary school kids to mean he could give Garry Kasparov or IBM's Deep Blue a real run.

The truth? Jordan was a darn good player who undersold himself to us out of humility, but he wasn't even in the top 10 percent nationally.

I think a lot of upstart college football programs will learn that about themselves this week. Schools like Northwestern, Washington and Maryland. All three have forged their way into the Top 25 (Northwestern started the year No. 22) and are a combined 12-0. Their best wins? Boise State and West Virginia.

All three could and should fall this week to teams in our Power Dozen.

It's perspective and relativity.

To all Wildcats, Huskies and Terrapins fans, don't get too excited and prepare for a letdown. On the other hand, take heart, even if you aren't BCS-worthy teams. You're still pretty stinking good.

Thursday Special

Kickoff: 10 p.m. ET (Salt Lake City)

No. 12 UCLA 35, Utah 31

I could've gone Texas-Iowa State here, but those teams stink (Texas should roll even without starting QB David Ash). At least UCLA is watchable. Utah is a solid 3-1 with an overtime loss to Oregon State. I'm not buying into the Bruins as the No. 12 team in the country. Utah's wins over Utah State and BYU are worth more than UCLA's drubbing of Nebraska, to be frank. The young Bruins secondary is susceptible to big plays and Utah's defense is improved, but the Utes did give up 46 points and more than 400 passing yards in regulation to the Beavers. Quarterback Brett Hundley is the difference in this one.

Four-Star

Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Evanston, Ill.)

No. 3 Ohio State 31, Northwestern 27

If I have to read Ohio State has won 28 of the last 29 meetings one more time I may yell. This is a different Northwestern team. The Buckeyes faced Wisconsin last week, a tough win, while the Wildcats prepped for OSU. Vaunted running back and punt returned Venric Mark apparently is healthy after missing three games due to a "lower-body" injury (the speculation is hamstring). Some are surprised, but our Joe Coughlin touted them this summer, pegging them for nine or 10 wins. This Ohio State defense isn't invincible. Top corner Bradley Roby struggled last week and Northwestern has three solid receivers. Part-time quarterback Kain Colter, a strong runner, is a good matchup against the Buckeyes. The Wildcats must sustain long drives and finish red zone opportunities with touchdowns. They have a chance, but Urban Meyer-led teams show up and execute in big games, and the slight talent edge will translate into a slight edge on the field.

Kickoff: 10:30 p.m. ET (Stanford, Calif.)

No. 5 Stanford 28, Washington 17

To a lesser extent, this game has a similar storyline. Program struggles for years, then emerges as a legitimate Top 20 team, but must beat the powerhouse to be viewed as a serious player. (Can you believe we're saying that about Stanford? Remember, they had seven consecutive losing seasons from 2002-08, including a 1-11 year.) But wait, there's a twist: Washington already beat Stanford last year. For all the hype behind Keith Price, Bishop Sankey and Washington's offense, Stanford (41.3 points per game) actually has outscored them and against better competition. The Cardinal have totaled 34, 34, 42 and 55 points and no longer are a team reliant on an elite defense. The Pac-12 North may be the only division in football that can rival the SEC West this year, and as improved as Washington is, they may not even be third-best in the division. Stanford hasn't gotten much national hype, but they're legitimate BCS title contenders.

Under The Radar

Kickoff: Noon ET (Tallahassee, Fla.)

No. 8 Florida State 35, Maryland 27

The "No. 25" before Maryland's name hasn't changed the dynamic of this game one bit. Everyone still expects a runaway win for the Seminoles (the Vegas line favors FSU by more than two touchdowns). I say nay. A bye week in college football may be worth more than in the NFL because at this level football isn't a full-time job, so extra hours of preparation can make a difference. Also, Florida State's defense lost a lot of talent. It's still loaded, but the Seminoles have yet to be tested despite Boston College putting up 34 points last week. Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown averages 333 total yards of offense per game and has the speed to contend with FSU. Unfortunately for Maryland, the Terps don't have the defense to stop Florida State. Everyone is focused on Jameis Winston (73.6 percent completion rate, 11.5 yards per attempt), but the Seminoles' offense is much more than its quarterback.

The Rest

Navy 31, Air Force 17
Miami 31, Georgia Tech 27
No. 6 Georgia 28, Tennessee 14
No. 11 Oklahoma 35, TCU 17
Notre Dame 28, Arizona State 27
Baylor 62, West Virginia 10
Ole Miss 28, Auburn 24
Missouri 28, Vanderbilt 27
Hawaii 35, San Jose State 31
Virginia Tech 23, North Carolina 13
Ohio 28, Akron 21

Season: 60-14
Last Week: 13-2

All rankings refer to Football.com's Power Dozen.