Friday, September 23, 2011

Road Test 2: The Sequel

Arkansas' last win over Alabama — in 2006 — was a double–overtime thriller.

Last week was dubbed "Road Test Saturday" by sports TV's talking heads because so many of the top college football teams were playing in big road games.

I guess it was a grueling test because some Top 25 teams flunked it.

Defending national champion Auburn, ranked #21 in last week's AP poll, lost at unranked Clemson. The 15th–ranked Michigan State Spartans lost at unranked Notre Dame. Arizona State's 22nd–ranked Sun Devils lost at Illinois. And #17 Ohio State lost at unranked Miami.

Not too surprisingly, though, some did pass the test — Oklahoma won at Florida State, LSU beat Mississippi State, West Virginia handled Maryland, and Texas turned back UCLA (for the first time in 40 years).

Actually, this week is kind of like "Road Test 2: The Sequel." My alma mater, the University of Arkansas, is facing a road test of its own this week as the 14th–ranked Razorbacks travel to #3 Alabama.

So, too, is #2 LSU in its game at #16 West Virginia.

Seventh–ranked Oklahoma State is at #8 Texas A&M, and #11 Florida State visits #21 Clemson.

Just think. Conference play hasn't really started in earnest yet.

My friends back in Arkansas speak of LSU as the Razorbacks' primary rival now that the Arkansas–Texas rivalry with which I grew up is no more — or, at least, relegated to irregular meetings, not the annual battles I remember. I'm inclined to think of the Alabama game as the big one on my football schedule now. It's the one I look forward to.

In their pre–SEC days, the Razorbacks probably played LSU more often than they played Alabama. I know they lost once to Alabama when I was a student in Fayetteville — in the Sugar Bowl. Maybe that is what makes the game so meaningful to me — my memory of fervently wishing the Razorbacks would defeat Bear Bryant and his Crimson Tide and feeling devastated when they failed to do so.

Idle: #5 Stanford, #19 Texas

  • Missouri at #1 Oklahoma, 7 p.m. (Central) on FX: Going into last year's game in Columbia, Mo., the Tigers had lost six in a row to Oklahoma (including the Big 12 title game a couple of years ago, but they left the field with a rare victory over the Sooners.

    The Tigers haven't won in Norman since 1998. I don't think that will change, but I do think Oklahoma will win — by about nine points.

  • #2 LSU at #16 West Virginia, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: I know West Virginia would like to avenge its 20–14 loss in Baton Rouge in 2010 — for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the Mountaineers will be playing in front of their home fans.

    But I don't think it's going to happen.

    In Louisiana, Scott Rabalais writes in the Baton Rouge Advocate that there is a lot of excitement being generated by the expected return to the field of Russell Shepard, who was declared ineligible to participate in the first three games of the season because he apparently spoke with a teammate during the summer about his upcoming testimony to an NCAA investigator.

    I do believe LSU is overrated — and probably will be beaten a couple of times during conference play in October and/or November — but, right now, I think LSU can win this game by about 12 points.

  • #14 Arkansas at #3 Alabama, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: Alabama has a four–game winning streak against the Razorbacks, but that is misleading when it comes to this series.

    Since joining the SEC nearly two decades ago, Arkansas has a 7–12 record against Alabama — not too bad considering that the Razorbacks had never beaten Alabama before they joined the conference — and, when 'Bama's current winning streak began, Arkansas was on the brink of evening up the all–time series.

    In fact, until Alabama notched its fourth straight win over Arkansas last year, a four–game winning streak for either team in this series has been unheard of since they became conference rivals. History says it is Arkansas' turn. That's the good news, I guess.

    The bad news for the Razorbacks, though, is that they are 3–6 in Tuscaloosa, and they haven't won there since 2003.

    As long as I can remember, it has always been a challenge for a visitor to win in Tuscaloosa. Auburn did it last year (en route to a national championship), but, with the exceptions of a few mediocre seasons in the last decade, visitors have been struggling there since the days of Bear Bryant.

    And, as much as I would like to see my alma mater win the game, common sense tells me that Alabama probably will win this time.

  • Tulsa at #4 Boise State, 7 p.m. (Central) on CBSSN: Boise State is 5–0 against Tulsa since 2001.

    Make that 6–0.

    Tulsa came up short by a touchdown or less in the last three clashes with Boise so Tulsa is capable of keeping it close, but, when the dust settles, I think Boise State will win — perhaps by a double–digit margin for the first time since 2002.

  • South Dakota at #6 Wisconsin, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on Big Ten Network: I just don't see how South Dakota can be competitive in this game.

    It's being played in Wisconsin, where the Badgers rarely lose. Sure, Wisconsin does lose at home from time to time, but usually to a Big Ten rival.

    Wisconsin hasn't lost a nonconference game at home since 2003, and I don't think the Badgers will lose this one, either. I expect Wisconsin to win by several touchdowns.

  • #7 Oklahoma State at #8 Texas A&M, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: There are really two stories to tell about this series.

    1. Since they became members of the same conference in 1996, Texas A&M is 10–5 against Oklahoma State.

    2. Oklahoma State owns a three–game winning streak in the series.

    So which will prevail — A&M's overall dominance of the series or OSU's recent domination of it?

    My guess is that it will be close, but I will go with the home team, Texas A&M, by a couple of points.

    College Station, you see, is a lot like Tuscaloosa. It's a very tough place for a visitor to win.

    Last year, for example, the Aggies had to host three teams that eventually won 10 games or more — Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska — and only Missouri left College Station with a victory.

    And, although the Aggies struggled in the years prior to the 2010 campaign, College Station has always retained its mysterious hold over visitors. A much better Texas team lost there in 2007. OK, a bitter rivalry overrules things like records and talent. Bitter rivalries are fueled by emotion. But how about that time in 2003 when a much better Utah team lost at Kyle Field? Or the year before, when 5–3 A&M defeated previously unbeaten Oklahoma?

  • #9 Nebraska at Wyoming, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on Versus: This will be the first meeting between Nebraska and Wyoming in nearly 20 years.

    Their last meeting came on Oct. 1, 1994, when Nebraska beat Wyoming in Lincoln, 42–32.

    Nebraska was en route to an undefeated season at the time. Wyoming wound up breaking even.

    Ten years before that, in the 1984 season opener, Wyoming came to Lincoln and lost, 42–7. And, in 1983, Wyoming came to Nebraska and lost, 56–20.

    They played prior to that time — in 1934 and 1968 — but two things were always the same in the series: Nebraska was always the home team, and the Cornhuskers always won.

    This year, for the first time, Wyoming will be the home team. Will that change the outcome? I don't think so. I'll take Nebraska by a wide margin.

  • #10 Oregon at Arizona, 9:15 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: Oregon has won three straight against Arizona, and the Ducks are 14–4 against the Wildcats since 1993.

    But three of those losses came at Arizona.

    I think Arizona is clearly on an upward trajectory — but the Wildcats haven't reached Oregon's level yet. I pick Oregon to win the game.

  • #11 Florida State at #21 Clemson, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: In the last four seasons, the home team has prevailed when these teams have met.

    And, in the last 10 years, each team has beaten the other five times.

    It would be an understatement to say that this is a competitive series. And it would be foolish to overlook the role the home field plays in it.

    Ira Schoffel writes in the Tallahassee Democrat, that Florida State's players believe the Clemson crowd is the noisiest they will encounter away from home. If FSU quarterback E.J. Manuel is able to play, though, that will help keep the noise level down.

    But I wouldn't be too quick to say FSU will win simply because the Seminoles are ranked higher than the Tigers.

    Nevertheless, I will pick Florida State to win by about a touchdown. I'm just not sold — well, not entirely — on Clemson. Not yet.

    I could be, though — if the Tigers turn back the Seminoles.

  • Vanderbilt at #12 South Carolina: South Carolina has thoroughly dominated Vanderbilt since joining the SEC in the early 1990s, winning 15 of their 19 encounters.

    The Gamecocks struggled a bit last year, winning 21–7 without freshman of the year Marcus Lattimore, who had an ankle injury. But Greg Sullivan of The Tennessean warns readers that Lattimore is at full strength this year and "should have plenty of opportunities to impact the game."

    Doesn't sound promising for Vandy. I think South Carolina will win by three touchdowns.

  • #13 Virginia Tech at Marshall, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBSSN: This will be the fourth time these schools have met since 2002. Tech won the previous three.

    Virginia Tech should win again.

  • #15 Florida at Kentucky, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Practically never in college football has one team dominated another the way Florida has dominated Kentucky.

    The teams have been playing every season since 1967, and the Gators have won the last 24 in a row. Kentucky's last victory over Florida was on Nov. 15, 1986.

    Fact is, the Wildcats won their share of games with the Gators during the 1970s, but, for nearly a quarter of a century, the series has been lopsided (like the scores in many of their games). Kentucky hasn't lost by less than 10 points since 2003, when Florida narrowly turned back a struggling Kentucky team by a field goal, but I have a feeling this one will be close.

    I pick Florida by a touchdown.

  • Rice at #17 Baylor, 6 p.m. (Central) on FSN: Once regular rivals in the Southwest Conference, Baylor and Rice renewed their series last year for only the second time since the demise of the SWC.

    Baylor won both encounters by wide margins.

    In fact, Baylor won its last three SWC games with Rice — and won 15 of its last 20 SWC games with Rice.

    Logic tells me that Baylor will win this game, too, and Rice will leave Waco still looking for its first victory over Baylor since 1992.

  • Texas–El Paso at #18 South Florida, 6 p.m. (Central) on I don't believe these schools have ever met, but I doubt it will matter.

    I expect South Florida to win it easily.

  • Portland State at #20 TCU: Like the UTEP–South Florida game, I don't think the participants in this game have ever met.

    And, once again, I don't think it will matter. TCU should win by a wide margin.

  • San Diego State at #22 Michigan, 11 a.m. (Central) on Big Ten Network: San Diego State came to Ann Arbor in 2004.

    SDSU wound up 4–7 that year. Michigan went 9–3 and beat Texas in the Rose Bowl.

    Yet, on that mid–September day, Michigan won by a field goal.

    I say this from a historian's point of view: History really does have a way of repeating myself.

    And I say this from the perspective of a college football fan: Michigan should win this game — but it could be closer than a lot of people expect.

  • #23 USC at Arizona State, 9:15 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Arizona State hasn't beaten Southern California since before the dawn of the 21st century.

    ASU's last win in the series came in 1999, when both schools finished 6–6. That game was played in Los Angeles. The Sun Devils't last win over USC at home was a few years before that.

    I think Arizona State will bounce back from its stumble in Illinois last week and win this game by perhaps a field goal.

  • Western Michigan at #24 Illinois, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on Big Ten Network: I've seen betting lines that have established Illinois as a double–digit favorite.

    Recent history suggests that you should take Western Michigan and the points — because these teams have played twice since 2004, and both games were decided by a touchdown or less.

    What's more, Western Michigan won when it traveled to Illinois in 2004.

    I don't think that will happen this time. I expect Illinois to win. But don't be surprised if the score is close.

  • North Carolina at #25 Georgia Tech, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: Since 1980, this series has been about as close as a series can be — 15–15–1 — but it's been leaning in Tech's favor at home, where the Yellow Jackets have won their last six against North Carolina.

    North Carolina has been touted as the ACC's dark horse this year. If the Tar Heels are going to live up to expectations, this is where it needs to begin. In what will likely be regarded as an upset, I'll go with North Carolina.
Last week: 20–3.

Season: 58–8

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