Wednesday, August 31, 2011

College Football's Return Brings a Couple of Blockbusters

Tomorrow is the first day of September, and college football is back — or, at least, it will be tomorrow night.

It doesn't feel like football season around here yet — how could it with daytime highs still cracking the century mark in most places in Texas? — but that doesn't change the fact that football is back, and that is definitely a psychological boost. It is an indication that better times are ahead — must be ahead.

Most of the matchups in the Top 25 are typical for this time of year. The ranked teams are at home against clearly inferior foes.

There are exceptions, of course. Mississippi State is ranked and will be on the road tomorrow night. Two other ranked teams — South Carolina and TCU — will be on the road against unranked opponents this weekend.

A Top Ten team — #5 Boise State — will be on the road against a ranked rival, #19 Georgia.

But the real treat for college football fans this weekend is a game that has no home field advantage — technically speaking — only a regional one.

Third–ranked Oregon and fourth–ranked LSU will square off at Cowboys Stadium on ABC Saturday night, and the winner could very well be playing for the national championship in January. Both schools have been there before — and it is even possible that they could be destined to meet in a rematch at the end of the season.

Of course, it is also possible that either or both of these schools could flame out. I have written here recently of the minefield of a schedule that awaits LSU, and, although only two other schools on Oregon's schedule (Stanford and Southern California, back to back in November) are ranked in the preseason Top 25, four others received some support in the Associated Press' first poll of the season.

It's all ahead of us, football fans. Let it begin.

  • UNLV at #11 Wisconsin, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Wisconsin has beaten UNLV three straight times.

    The schools have played each other fairly regularly — and on both campuses — in recent years. The Rebels' last victory over the Badgers came in 2003 at home. They've never won at Wisconsin.

    I'm betting it will stay that way. Wisconsin should win.

  • #20 Mississippi State at Memphis, 7 p.m. (Central) on FSN: They don't play each other every year the way they once did, but these schools resumed their series last year after an eight–year break, and they're continuing this year — and one thing has gone unchanged. Through good years and bad, Mississippi State has tended to beat Memphis.

    Last year, Mississippi State opened the season with a 49–7 win over Memphis. It was the first time they had played since Oct. 19, 2002, when Mississippi State won, 29–17.

    In fact, Mississippi State has beaten Memphis 11 straight times. Memphis' last victory in the series was in 1993, 45–35.

    Mississippi State should make it an even dozen.

  • #14 TCU at Baylor, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: When I was growing up, these schools were Southwest Conference rivals who met each year in what frequently amounted to a battle for last place.

    Times have changed. The Southwest Conference no longer exists. These teams are in separate conferences now, and TCU has been a factor in the national championship equation on several occasions, not unlike the days when my parents were children and TCU was a national power. Baylor has struggled, competing in a conference that includes Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech, but enjoyed something of a breakthrough season last year.

    The teams haven't played each other annually since their SWC days, but they have met occasionally — last year, for example, when Baylor came to Fort Worth and lost to TCU, 45–10. They played in Fort Worth to open the 2007 season as well — and with a similar outcome. TCU won that game, 27–0.

    Their last meeting in Waco, where they will play on Friday, was in 2006. TCU won a 17–7 defensive struggle that day.

    Prior to that, the teams hadn't met since the last Southwest Conference season in 1995. That game was played in Waco, and it was Baylor's last triumph over TCU, 27–24.

    TCU's last SWC win in Waco came in 1993, 38–13. I expect the Frogs to win there on Friday night.

  • Youngstown State at #17 Michigan State, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on Big Ten Network: I have found no evidence that these schools have ever played each other in football, but I really don't need any precedents to make this prediction.

    I expect Michigan State to prevail.

  • Tulsa at #1 Oklahoma, 7 p.m. (Central) on FX: The Sooners have won five straight against their instate rivals since 2001.

    Tulsa's last win in the series came in 1996 — on the same field where they will meet on Saturday. Before that, I think you have to go back to the FDR administration to find the last Tulsa triumph.

    Stranger things have happened, but I don't think Tulsa will reverse the trend against this year's Sooners. I'll take Oklahoma.

  • Kent State at #2 Alabama, 11:21 a.m. (Central) on SEC Network: I don't believe these schools have ever faced each other.

    But, really, does it matter? On the face of it, I expect Alabama to roll over Kent State.

  • #4 LSU vs. #3 Oregon, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Seldom does one see such a crucial contest so early in the college football season, but that's what the folks in Arlington, Texas, have in this one.

    The teams have been in the national spotlight in recent years, and both have played for a national title, but this will be their first head–to–head meeting since 1977, when LSU hammered visiting Oregon, 56–17. Obviously, that won't give you much insight into this year's contest. The guys who played in that game are in their 50s today.

    I think the LSU squad of 2011 is good but overrated. I think Oregon is talented as well — and may well be the better team, but I'm not sure that Oregon will be able to prove that in the opener, especially after traveling through two time zones to play the game. LSU's weaknesses are more likely to be revealed in the course of a brutal conference campaign.

    But, this week, I'll take LSU. If nothing else, the Tigers should be better prepared for the anticipated 99° conditions.

  • #5 Boise State at #19 Georgia, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: These schools last met on Sept. 3, 2005, in Athens, Ga., and the Bulldogs won the game, 48–13.

    Trevor Amicone of the Deseret News says it is one of the 10 must–see college football games this year.

    That 2005 game is the only time since Boise State (originally a community college) moved up to Division I–A that the schools have faced each other. There isn't much history to go by. But I'll pick Boise State in an upset.

  • Louisiana–Monroe at #6 Florida State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPNU: Let me start by saying that I think Florida State is a good team — but I also believe the Seminoles are overrated.

    That isn't likely to matter against Louisiana–Monroe, but it probably will make a lot of difference later in the season.

    Well, that is something to worry about at another time. For this week, Florida State should have little trouble.

  • San Jose State at #7 Stanford: I'm not sure why, but these two schools did not face each other last season.

    They met in 49 of the previous 51 seasons, and some of the games were pretty close, but most of the games have been lopsided in Stanford's favor — like their last encounter in 2009, a 42–17 home win for Stanford.

    San Jose State hasn't won at Stanford since 2000 and has lost six in a row there since. Make that seven. I'll go with Stanford.

  • Louisiana–Lafayette at #9 Oklahoma State: This will be the eighth time these teams have faced each other since 1986.

    There was a time when they played each other on a reasonably regular basis, but, until last year, they had only played once since 1999.

    OSU, it is safe to say, cruised to victory last season, and I expect the same this season.

  • Chattanooga at #10 Nebraska: Big changes are happening in Lincoln, Neb., this season.

    The biggest, of course, is the Cornhuskers' jump to a new conference. If you've been a college football fan as long as I have, you can't help but feel a little sad at the thought of Nebraska leaving behind its rivals, old and new, especially its series with Oklahoma.

    In the days of the Big Eight, the Oklahoma–Nebraska series was one of the great annual rivalries in college football, and it was still a big deal, even if it was reduced to an occasional thing in the Big 12.

    Many times, Nebraska and Oklahoma had teams that were ranked in the Top 10 at the same time, and their regular–season battles often played prominent roles in bowl bids and national championships. Once, the teams were so good and their regular–season meeting was so thrilling and so intense that they were invited to play in a rare postseason rematch in the Orange Bowl.

    It's a new era now, though, and Nebraksa begins it with an opponent the Cornhuskers have never faced — Chattanooga. The Lincoln Journal Star reports that the coaches are taking a businesslike approach to the game — as they should. Nebraska may be thinking down the road to its Big Ten opener, but it should stay focused long enough to dispose of Chattanooga.

  • #12 South Carolina at East Carolina, 6 p.m. (Central) on FSN: It's been more than 10 years since these schools, located about four hours apart, met on the gridiron.

    In that last meeting, on South Carolina's field in 1999, East Carolina prevailed, 21–3.

    Two years earlier, on the same field, East Carolina lost, 26–0.

    They met just about every year between 1985 and 1997 — and South Carolina won about two–thirds of the time, although East Carolina had the upper hand in the early 1990s. Who has the upper hand now?

    Well, considering that South Carolina is coming off what was its most successful season since joining the SEC — and East Carolina is coming off a 6–7 season that was capped with a Military Bowl loss to Maryland — I'm going to predict that South Carolina will win.

  • Appalachian State at #13 Virginia Tech, 11:30 a.m. (Central) on ACC Network: Most people know only one thing about Appalachian State's football team. Four years ago, the Division I–AA team from North Carolina traveled to Ann Arbor, Mich., to take on the Michigan Wolverines — and won in a shocking 34–32 upset.

    Appalachian State tried to duplicate that accomplishment the following year when the Mountaineers took on LSU — but the Tigers prevailed, 41–13.

    I'm inclined to think Virginia Tech will win this one as well.

  • Missouri State at #15 Arkansas, 6 p.m. (Central) on Missouri State was once known as Southwest Missouri State.

    Arkansas and Missouri State have met three times in the last 11 years. Two years ago, the Razorbacks opened the season with a 48–10 win over Missouri State. In 2005, the Razorbacks kicked things off with a 49–17 win over Missouri State. In 2000, they blanked Missouri State in the opener, 38–0.

    Oddly enough, even though the schools are less than two hours from each other, I have found no evidence that they ever played in football when Missouri State was known as Southwest Missouri State.

    That really doesn't matter, though. The Razorbacks will be breaking in a new quarterback, and the running back who was expected to shoulder much of the responsibility for the ground game has been lost for the season, but I still expect Arkansas to win the game.

  • South Florida at #16 Notre Dame, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on NBC: These schools have no history on the field, but, intriguingly, South Florida's coach, Skip Holtz, is the son of Lou Holtz, who was the last coach to lead Notre Dame to a national championship.

    Skip Holtz went 8–5 last year in his first year coaching South Florida, and he beat Clemson in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

    Brian Kelly is starting his second year at Notre Dame. He also went 8–5 last year, winning the Sun Bowl against Miami.

    It ought to be a good game — and a good indication whether Notre Dame is on the path back to national prominence. It would be a great story if Lou Holtz's son defeated his father's former employer, but I don't think it will happen. I think Notre Dame will win at home.

  • Akron at #18 Ohio State, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: The last time Akron played in Columbus, the offense didn't score. Ohio State won their 2007 encounter, 20–2.

    They haven't played each other regularly. They met in 2001, with Ohio State winning that one, too, 28–14, but I have seen no evidence that they played each other before that time.

    Series history doesn't really mean anything in this one — but offseason developments almost certainly will mean something to this year's Buckeyes. There's a new coach in town, and team leader Terrelle Pryor, who once spoke about returning for his senior year to protect his collegiate legacy, instead will be serving his five–game suspension in the NFL.

    By mid– to late October, I expect Ohio State to tumble from the Top 25 — after facing Miami (Florida), Michigan State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. As Stewart Mandel observes in Sports Illustrated, "Even a program as stacked as OSU isn't immune to a down year."

    Well, I expect it to be a down year for the Buckeyes. But, for now, I expect Ohio State to win.

  • Miami (Ohio) at #21 Missouri, 11 a.m. (Central) on FSN: When these two schools met last season, I believe it was the first time they had faced each other on the gridiron.

    Predictably, Missouri won, 51–13.

    They will be playing on the same field this year, in Columbia, Mo., and I expect pretty much the same result. I'll take Missouri.

  • Florida Atlantic at #22 Florida, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPNU: Florida Atlantic has only been playing football since 2001, and it has only been a Division I–A team since 2005, but it does have a record against some of the heavyweights in college football — including the team it will face on Saturday, Florida.

    They met in November 2007. Tim Tebow, who would be presented with the Heisman Trophy a few weeks later, led the Gators to a 59–20 victory.

    No reason that I know of for expecting a different outcome this Saturday. I predict Florida will win easily.

  • Utah State at #23 Auburn, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN2: If these schools ever faced each other before, I have found no evidence of it.

    Utah State has played teams from the SEC before but never — apparently — Auburn. That's understandable — Utah and Brigham Young are the Utah schools with the football reputations. Utah State hasn't had as many wins as losses since 1997 and hasn't won a bowl game since 1993.

    Auburn isn't as good as it was last year, but the Tigers will be good enough. Auburn will defeat Utah State.

  • Minnesota at #25 Southern California, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Last year, these teams met for the first time in 30 years, and USC won, 32–21.

    I expect pretty much the same outcome this time. I think USC will win.
  • SMU at #8 Texas A&M, 6:30 p.m (Central) on FSN: The last time these schools met in College Station, the Aggies rolled to a 66–8 victory. That was in 2005.

    That was the first time the teams had faced each other since 1995, when they were still Southwest Conference rivals, but you have to go back to the mid–1980s to find SMU's last victory over A&M, a 28–20 triumph at Texas Stadium.

    SMU's last win over A&M at College Station was in 1983, 10–7.

    Longtime SWC followers will recall that '83 and '84 were years when SMU was a national contender — thanks to the NCAA violations for which the school would be penalized severely a few years later. SMU is not as good as it was then, and A&M is better than it was. That, along with the home field advantage, should be enough to power A&M to victory.

  • Marshall at #24 West Virginia, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: This is the sixth straight season that these instate rivals have faced each other, and West Virginia won all five of the previous meetings.

    Most of the time, West Virginia has cruised to victory, but Marshall made it interesting last year, losing by 24–21 at home.

    This year's game will be played at West Virginia, however, where the Mountaineers have won by an average of 31–7.

    And I expect West Virginia to win by approximately that margin this time.

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