Thursday, September 29, 2011

Conference Competition Is Under Way

There are a few exceptions, but, for the most part, nonconference games have ended and conference competition has begun.

Here in north Texas, for example, there are a couple of noteworthy nonconference games on the agenda — in a game that has clear national implications, Texas A&M and Arkansas will meet in what is a nonconference game in 2011 but, apparently, will be a conference game in 2012, and SMU and TCU will meet in an old rivalry that almost certainly has more meaning locally than anywhere else.

And, in the remaining two months of the regular season, there will be, from time to time, other nonconference games that are old rivalries — like Notre Dame–USC and Florida–Florida State — but not conference clashes.

They are among the best examples of the rich tradition of college football, and I hope they won't be casualties of the movement toward "super conferences." But those games will be in a distinct minority.

Not that the conference games won't be intriguing. Some unexpected contenders will emerge — and some that were expected to contend will fade.

But, in my opinion, you just can't top an intense rivalry. It's what makes college football what it is.

Idle: #5 Oklahoma State, #9 Oregon, #23 Florida State

  • #16 South Florida at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Some of South Florida's players must be wondering what they have to do to get some respect.

    They beat Notre Dame on the road. They are 4–0 and ranked in the top 20. But the Tampa area has been mesmerized of late by the Rays' quest to win the AL Wild Card. Since that has been resolved, attention may now turn to the Bulls.

    But don't count on it. It may take some convincing for folks in Tampa — who have suffered through many painful seasons with the Buccaneers — to jump on the bandwagon.

    And, even when/if they do, that attention isn't necessarily going to be positive positive. The Bulls are good, concedes Joey Johnston in the Tampa Tribune, but there is still much work to be done.

    As they prepare to start Big East play against Pittsburgh, Johnston observes, "USF is perfect ... [b]ut this is an imperfect team."

    And that was Johnston's assessment just after a four–touchdown USF win.

    No offense to UTEP, but Pittsburgh will provide the best gauge to date for how far USF has come — better even than Notre Dame. Sure, South Bend is a legendary place to play a football game, but the Irish no longer enjoy the advantages of playing there that they did under Rockne and Parseghian and Holtz. From 2003 to 2010, they were 27–23 in their home stadium — a winning percentage of less than 55%.

    Pitt is 5–3 against South Florida since 2001 and has won the last three contests.

    This will be one of those games that will tell us if South Florida really is worthy of its Top 25 ranking.

    And I'm inclined to think the Bulls will fall short by about three points. I pick Pittsburgh.
  • Kentucky at #1 LSU, 11:21 a.m. (Central) on SEC Network: Since these schools play in separate divisions, they do not meet every year, and this will be their first clash since 2007.

    Kentucky won that game, by the way. It was one of only two losses in LSU's most recent national championship season.

    That game was played in Kentucky, though. The Wildcats haven't beaten the Tigers in Baton Rouge since 1998.

    And I don't expect the Tigers to lose this time. I pick LSU to win by four touchdowns.

  • Ball State at #2 Oklahoma: These schools may have played each other in basketball at one time or another, possibly in the NCAA Tournament, but I don't believe they have ever played on the gridiron.

    And I have seen nothing that suggests that OU will face any kind of challenge in its final pre–Texas warmup. I think Oklahoma will win handily.

  • #3 Alabama at #12 Florida, 7 p.m. (Central) on CBS: As non–divisional SEC opponents, these schools don't meet every year. But, thanks to the SEC Championship games of 2008 and 2009, this will be the fourth consecutive season they have played.

    Both of those title games were played in Atlanta. In regular–season clashes, Alabama has done pretty well at home, but the Crimson Tide hasn't won in Gainesville since 1999 — and that was by a single point. Before that, you have to go back to 1986 to find Alabama's most recent win at Florida.

    That is the nature of the challenge facing Alabama on Saturday. Often, the Alabama mystique is enough to put the fear of God in a foe, but, in recent years, both 'Bama and Florida have won national titles and Heisman Trophies.

    Florida isn't likely to be intimidated by Alabama, especially not at home.

    The Gators lost three times at home last year, which was very unusual for them. They only lost a total of three home games between 2005 and 2009.

    I'm not quite sold on Florida this year. The Gators might well be in the SEC title game this year, but their record won't be unblemished. I expect Alabama, with its powerful defense, to beat Florida by about five or six points.

  • Nevada at #4 Boise State, 1:30 p.m. (Central) on Versus: Nevada handed Boise State its only loss last year, but that makes the challenge of traveling to Boise that much more difficult this year.

    Before that, Nevada had lost 10 straight to Boise State, and Boise has won six straight against Nevada at home.

    I think Boise State will make that seven straight wins at home.

  • UCLA at #6 Stanford, 9:30 p.m. (Central) on FSN: In their last 20 clashes on the Stanford campus, both teams have won 10 times.

    Neither team has enjoyed a lengthy edge there. Stanford won there in 2009, but UCLA came away with victories in 2005 and 2007.

    It's been an entirely different story in Los Angeles, where UCLA has a 14–5–1 record against Stanford in the same time span.

    If the game was being played in L.A., I might be tempted to take UCLA, but with the home crowd in its favor, I pick Stanford — and by an uncharacteristically healthy margin in this series.

  • #8 Nebraska at #7 Wisconsin, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: This will be an historic game for the Cornhuskers. It will be their first conference game as members of the Big Ten.

    It won't be the first meeting between Nebraska and Wisconsin. They played each other in 1973 and 1974, with both teams winning at home. They had a similar arrangement in 1965 and 1966 except Nebraska won both of those games.

    I think it will be a competitive game, and I agree with Tom Oates of the Wisconsin State Journal, who believes this could be a preview of the very first Big Ten championship game.

    I don't know where that game will be played or if these teams will be playing in it, but I predict the host team, Wisconsin, will win this time.

  • Auburn at #10 South Carolina, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: This is a rematch of last year's SEC Championship game.

    That was the first time the teams had played for the conference crown. But, counting that game, Auburn is 6–0 against South Carolina since the Gamecocks joined the SEC. South Carolina hasn't beaten Auburn since 1933, and I don't think South Carolina has ever beaten Auburn at home.

    But I think South Carolina will top Auburn on Saturday by about nine points.

  • #13 Clemson at #11 Virginia Tech, 5 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: Clemson has lost its last five in a row to Virginia Tech and hasn't beaten the Hokies since 1989 — which also happens to be the last time Clemson beat Tech on the road.

    Clemson has become something of a media darling in this first month of the college season, but I'm inclined to think that Virginia Tech will win this game. Clemson has been tested too often this September and really needs a breather right now, not a game against the 11th–ranked team in the nation.

  • #14 Texas A&M vs. #18 Arkansas at Arlington, Texas, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: These old Southwest Conference rivals — and soon–to–be SEC rivals — resumed play two years ago. Arkansas beat the Aggies in 2009 and 2010.

    Prior to that, the teams hadn't played each other since their SWC days. A&M won the last SWC contest between the two back in 1991.

    This will the third and final game in what can be seen — in the context of this series — as an interlude between relationships as conference rivals. The Hogs are banged up after losing to Alabama, but the Aggies are a bit woozy, too, after losing a one–point decision to Oklahoma State.

    I expect this one to be close, but I'll pick Arkansas by a field goal.

  • #15 Baylor at Kansas State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Baylor is 2–5 against Kansas State since the teams became conference rivals in the mid–1990s.

    But that record is somewhat misleading. Baylor was 8–72 in its first decade of Big 12 play. The Bears were 0–4 against K–State in that time.

    Baylor is 2–1 against K–State since 2006, but the Bears' only loss came at Manhattan, Kansas — where Baylor has never won.

    Frankly, I see this one as being dead even. It could even go into overtime.

    I'll give a slight edge to the home team, Kansas State, and Baylor's frustration in Manhattan will continue.

  • #17 Texas at Iowa State, 6 p.m. (Central) on FX: Until last year, Texas was 7–0 against Iowa State since 1979, but Iowa State ended that skid with victory in Austin that started a four–game Texas losing streak.

    I think it is safe to say that the returning Longhorns have a score to settle. And Trey Scott writes in the Dallas Morning News that the formula for victory is a fast start followed by clock control.

    If the Longhorns can do what they did against UCLA, Scott suggests, they should win. But they have more often been, in the words of senior center David Snow, "a late–quarter team."

    I don't know how the Longhorns will play against Oklahoma next week, but I think Texas should be able to avenge its loss to Iowa State.

  • Minnesota at #19 Michigan, 11 a.m. (Central) on Big Ten Network: Michigan has won 19 of its last 20 contests with Minnesota — but that single loss came in Ann Arbor in 2005.

    I give Minnesota's coach all the credit in the world for putting the welfare of the football program ahead of his own needs, but I don't think the Gophers can stay with the Wolverines.

    I pick Michigan by about three touchdowns.

  • #21 Georgia Tech at North Carolina State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Georgia Tech usually beats N.C. State, but the Wolfpack won last year.

    And Tech (4–0) has been impressive, scoring more than 60 points twice (all right, they were both home games — and they were against Western Carolina and Kansas) while N.C. State (2–2) hasn't been.

    Consequently, there really is no good reason for doing what I'm about to do — except that it's a gut feeling I have (as well as the fact that the Wolfpack have won eight of their last nine home games).

    It may be regarded as an upset, but I will take North Carolina State.

  • SMU at #20 TCU, 7 p.m. (Central) on CBSSN: This game, which has been played almost every year, has come to be known as the "Battle for the Iron Skillet." Fittingly, it has been a hotly contested game for years.

    TCU currently has a four–game winning streak in the series — which just about accounts for TCU's all–time lead (44–39–7). The Frogs have also won 10 of the last 11 games between the schools, with SMU's only victory over TCU since 1998 coming at SMU in 2005.

    The Mustangs haven't beaten TCU in Fort Worth since 1993, though, and I'm not inclined to think that will change this weekend. I expect a fairly close game, but I believe TCU will prevail.

  • Bowling Green at #22 West Virginia: These schools last played in 1991, when Bowling Green came to visit and lost by a single touchdown.

    Before that, Bowling Green visited West Virginia in September 1988 and lost, 62–14.

    The Mountaineers have had to play some stiff competition of late. No offense to Bowling Green, but I don't think this will be much of a test. West Virginia will win — probably not by seven touchdowns but by a comfortable margin.

  • Northwestern at #24 Illinois, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN2: In the last 30 years, this series has been pretty close — Illinois has won 16 times, Northwestern has won 14.

    And I think this year's edition will be close, but I think that has more to do with the fact that I never seem to know what to expect from Northwestern. When I was a boy, the Wildcats were always bad, but, in recent years, they've been pretty good — good enough to get into the Rose Bowl once.

    I thought the Illini were more predictable in recent years, but maybe not. I mean, here it is, the end of September, and Illinois is in the Top 25. Not too long ago, Illinois managed one, two, maybe three wins a season.

    Maybe Illinois is this year's Northwestern. OK, I'll pick the Illini to win by a field goal.

  • Oregon State at #25 Arizona State: Oregon State comes into this game having won the last three meetings, but OSU's dominance is a rather recent development. Before that streak began, ASU had won 13 of the previous 16 contests.

    And Arizona State has the better team — by about 17 points.
Last week: 17–2

Season: 75–10

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