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Picks Column: The Alpine Start

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Miami running back Duke Johnson didn't fare well against top defenses last season, but he'll need to produce against Florida if Miami is to pull off the slight upset. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images.
Miami running back Duke Johnson didn't fare well against top defenses last season, but he'll need to produce against Florida if Miami is to pull off the slight upset. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images.

I swat at the floor next to my bed, eyes refusing to open.

Only one thing prevents me from rolling over and ignoring the incessant blaring of my phone alarm three paces across the room: If I don't silence it, it will wake my roommate. And it's 2 a.m.

Even with my proximity to the Front Range, less than two hours from Denver, that's what time I head to my car when I'm going for a summit. Ah, the alpine start. I'm pouting now, but when I see stars so concentrated they nearly form a single, glowing blob... when I hear a bear rustle through the aspens 500 feet away, but can't see past my feet and can't hear beyond my quickened breath... when I sit on top of a mountain and watch the sunrise with no one around for miles, it's worth every hour of lost sleep.

***

Peyton Manning is on pace for 112 touchdowns.

A meaningless statistical trick, I know. Manning and the Broncos destroyed a Baltimore defense that began it's Super Bowl defense rather defenseless. But we all know Manning won't come close to triple-digit touchdowns. He threw for a career-high 49 in 2004. His second-highest total came last year: 37. 

But meaningless is too strong. Manning threw seven touchdown passes last night, meaning he needs to average just two per game the rest of the season to equal last year's total. And he'll have at least a few games with three or four. The Broncos also helped their playoff odds tremendously with the 49-27 win.

I couldn't find updated data, but between 1978 and 2010, 53.0 percent of NFL teams that won their season opener made the playoffs. Win in Week 1 and your chances are better than a coin flip. Lose, and odds drop to 22.4 percent.

Take last season's biggest surprise teams, Minnesota and Washington. They beat Jacksonville and New Orleans, respectively, in their first game. Chances are this year's surprise playoff team will win this weekend.

***

I don't know the precise etymology, but "alpine" is a common prefix in several mountaineering terms. By itself, it means, generally, "concerning high mountains," as derived from the Swiss Alps. There's "alpenglow," describing the visual distortion of light, which forms a glow around the mountain when the sun is just below the horizon. There's also "alpine style," which is an emphasis on lightweight, minimal climbing to ensure speed and therefore safety by minimizing the time spent in dangerous conditions.

Thus, the term "alpine start" literally means "the kind of start necessary when you enter an alpine environment." In Colorado, for example, to climb one of the 14,000-foot peaks (14ers), it's often necessary to start up the trail hours before sunrise. During the summer, the golden rule is to tag the peak and descend below tree line by noon to avoid being on a featureless mountain during afternoon lightning storms. At other times, it's important to get up and down before the sun warms and softens the snow, which creates risk of avalanche and poor traction.

***

Though it's been debated, Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hours" rule, outlined in the book "Outliers," widely is accepted. The gist: Talent is overrated. Once you spend about 10,000 hours on a particular task, you become an expert. And how does one accrue that much time working on a skill? Start young. It's one proven strategy. Harken back to Tiger Woods and his silky-smooth putting before his third birthday.

***

Five of the last seven national championship teams, all from the SEC, won despite a loss. The 2007-08 LSU team lost two games. Then again, none of those teams lost in their first three games.

Georgia's national championship hopes are not gone. But the Bulldogs still have South Carolina, LSU, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech on the schedule, not to mention the SEC West champion if they win out.

Not that Vanderbilt ever was a national championship contender, but the Commodores' shot at surprising in the SEC East all but vanished with a conference loss to Ole Miss in their opener.

It's conceivable that the four best teams in the SEC East all could carry a loss by Sept. 7, leaving the conference mantle to LSU and the Alabama-Texas A&M winner. It will become reality if Georgia takes revenge on South Carolina and Miami knocks off Florida; both teams enjoy home-field advantage in close matchups.

Alabama or Texas A&M is guaranteed to lose next week. They play each other in College Station. By Sept. 14, we could be left with two unbeaten SEC contenders: the Crimson Tide-Aggies winner and LSU. Oh, and those two teams will play each other later in the season.

With so many arduous games left on the schedule — again, we're talking early September — we can expect most or all of those teams to lose again. An undefeated SEC team is rare enough when three or four programs get to November without a loss. Bottom line, the SEC's chances at an eighth-consecutive national championship could take a real, tangible blow this weekend. It just so happens that two of the three best games Saturday involve SEC powers.

Whether you root for or revile the SEC, there will be high drama the second weekend of the regular season. And in the final season under the BCS system, it matters.

Four-Star

Kickoff: Noon ET (Miami)

Miami 24, No. 11 Florida 21

Miami isn't as tough as their past dynasty teams, but Stephen Morris and Duke Johnson are great and the Hurricanes returned 14 starters. The Miami offense should be the rare unit that forces Florida to open its playbook a bit and take some chances. (Florida's defense allowed more than 20 points in just two of its last 16 games.) Florida looks like the same team that went 11-1 last season, while we're used to Miami flushing away season after season. Don't let the past cloud your perception.

Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel showed nothing last week to prove he's more than the conservative game manager he was last season. Running back Matt Jones returns for the Gators after missing the season opener, but Florida's offense isn't explosive, which means Miami should keep this one close. Both starting running backs will hammer opposing defenses all day, three or four yards at a time.

Morris against cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy (suspended for the season opener) will be fun to watch, but Miami will make just enough big plays passing the ball to win. Enjoy this in-state gem while you can. It's been 13 years since the last meeting, and with a nine-game conference schedule possibly on the horizon for the SEC, another long break is coming.

Kickoff: 4:30 p.m. ET (Athens, Ga.)

No. 10 Georgia 28, No. 6 South Carolina 20

This game would have more luster if Georgia beat No. 5 Clemson last week. Still, it's the first of a three-team round robin that will decide the SEC East (Florida). Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks, built on running the ball and defense, have fallen more in line with SEC tradition than his pass-happy Florida squads. But Marcus Lattimore is gone, as are several defensive players to the NFL. Connor Shaw is a solid quarterback who can run, but he should be able to make plays throwing against a young Georgia defense that yielded 38 points last week.

Don't expect the Bulldogs to throw out half the playbook out of fear, as Jadeveon Clowney forced North Carolina to do. Georgia's offensive line gave up an uncharacteristic four sacks to Clemson. "Aaron Murray chokes in big games" has some imperial merit, but it's the latest forced narrative in our attempt to understand what in reality is a random string of sub-par games. 

But the difference in this one? Todd Gurley. He will gash the inexperienced South Carolina linebackers, tire the susceptible (based on last week) Clowney and churn for more than 100 rushing yards as the Gamecocks wear down late.

Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Ann Arbor, Mich.)

Notre Dame 24, Michigan 23

This wild rivalry dating back to 1887 is ending after this season. Michigan is a slight favorite, but Notre Dame retread quarterback Tommy Rees seems much improved. Taylor Lewan, Michigan's left tackle, Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame's defensive end, and Louis Nix III, Notre Dame's nose tackle, are potential Top-10 picks in April's NFL Draft and headline two of the most talented lines in the country. If you like Big Boy football, watch this game.

Notre Dame may not be more talented, but they have more experience in big games and have something to prove after January's debacle against Alabama and the offseason suspension of quarterback Everett Golson. These matchups usually are crazy, but Notre Dame's elite defensive front will slow the Wolverines enough to pull off the upset.

Under The Radar

Kickoff: Noon ET (Kent, Ohio)

Bowling Green 27, Kent State 17

I did not expect Bowling Green to make this space two weeks in a row, but the Falcons crushed defending C-USA champ Tulsa. Meanwhile, Kent State disappointed in a 17-10 win against Liberty, an FCS program. Dri Archer (ankle), the most dynamic player in college football you've never heard of, is expected to play, but will he be healthy enough to dent a Bowling Green defense that looked impenetrable in the opener? The Golden Flashes have won three consecutive in the series, including the de facto MAC East title game last year. If either of these teams wants to usurp Northern Illinois in the conference, it must win this game. Kent State has a few tremendous skill players, but Bowling Green's team defense is too good.

The Rest

Tennessee 31, Western Kentucky 24
Cincinnati 30, Illinois 20
Oregon 49, Virginia 14
Northwestern 28, Syracuse 13
Texas 28, BYU 17
Oklahoma 35, West Virginia 14
Stanford 27, San Jose State 14
Colorado State 24, Tulsa 23
Kansas State 31, Louisiana-Lafayette 27
Indiana 38, Navy 21
Utah State 27, Air Force 20

Last Week: 13-2.
Season: 13-2.

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