Thursday, August 29, 2013

College Football Kicks Off

Fifth–ranked Georgia and #8 Clemson
face each other in Saturday's season opener.

College football returns tonight, and, as is usually the case in the first week or two, predictions are largely based on reputation.

At least until the teams show us what they can do on the field. Until then, it's really all on paper.

To be fair, you won't learn much about most of the Top 25 teams from the games they play. Not naming any names, but most of the games look like foregone conclusions. The ones that get out of hand early are likely to resemble an NFL preseason game — with the starters sitting on the bench for most of it.

(Every college football fan can tell you about an upset or two that happened in the first few weeks of a season, though. It does happen.)

To be sure, there are some intriguing matchups on this weekend's schedule — which starts tonight and continues through Labor Day. There are even a couple of head–to–head battles between Top 25 teams. Fifth–ranked Georgia and #8 Clemson will play on Saturday night, as will #12 LSU and #20 TCU.

But, unless we see an upset or two, you can expect next week's Top 25 to look a lot like this week's.

Idle: #4 Stanford

  • North Carolina at #6 South Carolina, 5 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: These border rivals have played each other 55 times in the last 110 years, but this will be their first encounter since 2007, when South Carolina prevailed 21–15.

    And that was their first meeting since 1991.

    They played each other fairly regularly in the years before 1991. In fact, there were long stretches in which they played every season.

    Anyway, in the absence of any recent history in this series, I have to look at what the teams have done recently.

    North Carolina has had five straight winning seasons. South Carolina, on the other hand, hasn't lost more than it won since 2002, and the Gamecocks have now had two straight 11–win seasons. I pick South Carolina.
  • #24 USC at Hawaii, 10 p.m. (Central) on CBS Sports: This will be the ninth time these schools have faced each other in football, and the Trojans have won all eight of the previous meetings. No reason to expect anything different this time.

    Southern California should prevail.
  • Virginia Tech vs. #1 Alabama in Atlanta, 4:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Alabama has dominated this series, winning 11 of 12 meetings.

    But Virginia Tech's only victory over the Crimson Tide came when the teams met at a neutral site — as they are doing this year.

    Virginia Tech could be a deceptive opponent. Tech went 7–6 last year but won 10 or more games in each of the eight previous seasons. I think Alabama will win, but the Crimson Tide cannot afford to be complacent.
  • Buffalo at #2 Ohio State, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN2: This is the first meeting of these schools.

    Buffalo is coming off a 4–8 year. It was the school's fourth straight losing season, but it did indicate steady improvement. Buffalo was 3–9 in 2011, 2–10 in 2010.

    Ohio State, meanwhile, was 12–0 last year but ineligible for a bowl. The Buckeyes are eligible this year, and many folks are predicting that Ohio State and Alabama will meet for the national title in January.

    What's more, Ohio State has only lost 11 times at home since 2000. And those home losses usually come against acknowledged powerhouses from the Big Ten.

    I pick Ohio State.
  • Nicholls at #3 Oregon, 3 p.m. (Central) on Fox Sports: There can be no reason for most sports fans to watch this game.

    There will be other games being televised at the same time, and Oregon's starters should be on the bench by halftime.

    Oregon should win this one hands down.
  • #5 Georgia at #8 Clemson, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: There was a time when Georgia and Clemson played each other almost every year.

    Between 1902 and 2003, they met 57 times. Georgia leads the all–time series, 38–15–4, and the Bulldogs have won the last five meetings. In fact, the Tigers haven't won since 1990 — which also happens to be the last time the Tigers won at Clemson.

    Historically, Clemson has done better at home than on the road when playing Georgia. But that isn't really applicable, is it? These teams haven't played in a decade.

    This game may turn out to be more interesting than the LSU–TCU game. Clemson had a Top 10 offense last season; Georgia's offense was good, but it didn't even finish in the Top 20. Statistically, Georgia's defense was much better, and it may be prepared to make a season–opening statement, but only three starters return from last season.

    Some observers pick Georgia to play for the national title in January, but I am inclined to think that Clemson will win this game, perhaps ending such talk.
  • Rice at #7 Texas A&M, noon (Central) on ESPN: These two old Southwestern Conference foes meet for the first time since 1995. The Aggies own a 15–game winning streak over the Owls dating back to 1981, but Rice's last victory over A&M came at College Station in October 1980.

    There are lots of story lines surrounding the Aggies this season, and most of them have at least a connection to the SEC. It is taken for granted that A&M will win this game, even with Heisman winner Johnny Manziel on the bench for the first half — and next week's game against Sam Houston State — before the early season showdown with Alabama on Sept. 14. It will be a major upset if the Aggies lose either game.

    I think Texas A&M will win this game — and probably the one next week, too — but I need to give that third one some thought.
  • Toledo at #10 Florida: These schools have never played each other in football, but here's guessing Toledo will remember its trip to The Swamp.

    Unofficially the toughest place for a visiting team to play, The Swamp is known for the incredible noise generated by Gator fans. Not counting Florida's rivalry with Florida State, the Gators haven't lost at home to a nonconference foe since losing to Miami (Fla.) on Sept. 7, 2002 — and Miami went on to play for the national championship that year.

    If Toledo wins, it will be a huge upset. I don't think that will happen. Give me Florida.
  • #12 LSU vs. #20 TCU in Arlington, Texas, 8 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: TCU faces a considerable challenge in this game. LSU hasn't lost a regular–season nonconference game since falling to Virginia Tech in the 2002 season opener.

    That's 34 consecutive regular–season nonconference wins for LSU — so far.

    These teams have faced each other eight times, including once in the Sugar Bowl, but they haven't faced each other since Lyndon Johnson was president. In the absence of any recent history between these two teams, I have to go with my gut, and I expect LSU to win.
  • Mississippi State vs. #13 Oklahoma State in Houston, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: These teams have met four times in the past, and the winner of this game will take the lead in the series.

    It will also be the first time they have played in a truly neutral site. They played once in Jackson, Miss., which is about 100 miles from Mississippi State's campus, but that isn't much, considering it is nearly 500 miles from Oklahoma State's campus. Houston is another matter.

    This could be a really close game. I pick Oklahoma State.
  • Temple at #14 Notre Dame, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on NBC: When last we saw them, the Fightin' Irish were being destroyed by Alabama in the BCS Championship Game in Miami on Jan. 7.

    The crowd in South Bend should be much friendlier, and Temple, which went 4–7 last year and lost five of its last six games, should be easier to handle than the Crimson Tide.

    I've heard a lot of people say that Notre Dame wasn't the most appropriate foe for Alabama in that game, and the outcome of the game would tend to support that. The Irish will have a lot of work to do to prove themselves in 2013. I expect Notre Dame to win the opener, but I doubt the Irish will prove much by doing so.
  • New Mexico State at #15 Texas, 7 p.m. (Central) on Longhorn Network: These teams have met four times — always in Austin — and the Longhorns have won all four.

    I suspect their ranking is based on history — and not recent history, either. Texas is 22–16 in the last three seasons. But it's taken New Mexico State nearly a full decade to win 22 games.

    And I don't think these Aggies will be able to leave Austin with a win. The Longhorns have a lot to prove, but they won't prove anything in this game. I pick Texas.
  • Louisiana–Monroe at #16 Oklahoma: I'm inclined to be skeptical of Oklahoma and Texas when I see them in the rankings these days.

    Well, not so much Oklahoma. The Sooners have had 10 wins or more in every season but two in the last 13 years.

    I guess it's their postseason record that is the cause for concern. The Sooners have barely won more bowls than they've lost in those 13 seasons.

    Consequently, I suppose, Sooner fans should be concerned in December or January — not August.

    Besides, it's hard to see Louisiana–Monroe causing much trouble in Norman. I have to go with Oklahoma.
  • Central Michigan at #17 Michigan, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on Big Ten: The Wolverines won their first two games against Central Michigan, both of which were played in Ann Arbor.

    Historically, Michigan beats Central Michigan by about 30 points. That sounds about right to me. I pick Michigan.
  • Wyoming at #18 Nebraska, 7 p.m. (Central) on Big Ten: These teams have played each other half a dozen times in the last 80 years, and Nebraska has won them all.

    Most of the games have been, like this year's, at Nebraska. But the teams did meet in Wyoming two years ago. Nebraska prevailed, as usual. And I don't expect Wyoming, which has had nine losing seasons since the start of the 21st century, to reverse that this week.

    Nebraska will win.
  • #19 Boise State at Washington, 9 p.m. (Central) on Fox Sports: This is a rematch of last year's Las Vegas Bowl, which Boise State won, 28–26.

    I think it will be another close game, but I'm going to give the edge to the home team, Washington. Not so long ago, the Huskies were hard pressed to win a handful of games each season (they even went winless one year), but they've put together three straight winning seasons.

    I think they're ready to move to the next level.
  • Nevada at #21 UCLA, 9 p.m. (Central) on Pac–12 Network: These schools are only about 400 miles apart. You'd think they would play each other if not frequently then at least with some regularity.

    But the truth is the two have never met in football.

    I'll give the advantage to UCLA.
  • #22 Northwestern at California, 9:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: These teams have only faced each other once — in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day 1949.

    Obviously, there isn't much insight you can gain when two teams are about to meet for the first time in more than 60 years, but last year's numbers aren't much help, either. Northwestern was better than California on both sides of the ball, but neither team was terribly impressive. Cal went 3–9 and lost its last five games. Northwestern was 10–3 and won five of its last seven games, including the Gator Bowl.

    I'll take Northwestern.
  • Massachusetts at #23 Wisconsin, 11 a.m. (Central) on Big Ten: These teams have never faced each other in football.

    Last year, UMass was 1–11, its only win coming against Akron (also 1–11). Wisconsin was 8–6, destroyed Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game and lost to Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

    I'm comfortable picking Wisconsin to win.
  • Eastern Washington at #25 Oregon State, 5 p.m. (Central) on Pac–12 Network: I don't know much about either team, but I saw some of Oregon State's games near the end of last season, and I was impressed.

    I have to go with Oregon State to win this one.
  • Ohio at #9 Louisville, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Next Sunday, the NFL will be back.

    But this week, the only football game in town will be the first–ever meeting between Ohio and Louisville.

    Ohio has enjoyed some success in recent years, but it really can't compare with what Louisville had in 2012. Louisville beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl last January, finishing the season 11–2.

    And Louisville did things the old–fashioned way last season — with a defense that was ranked 23rd in the nation.

    Ohio actually had a higher–ranked offense than Louisville last season, but its defense was ranked 55th.

    I'll give the edge to Louisville at home.
  • #11 Florida State at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Historically, this should be an interesting game.

    These two teams do have a limited history. They've played eight times, and Pitt has won five of them.

    On the other hand, this will be their first meeting in 30 years — so Pitt's three–game winning streak doesn't mean a lot.

    I pick Florida State.

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