Thursday, September 3, 2015

College Football Returns

Rejoice,football fans! The 2015 season is upon us.

OK, if you're a fan of pro football, you still have a week to wait before the season begins, but if you like college football, the season actually began last weekend (but come on, that was Montana and North Dakota State).

This weekend, starting tonight, we get our first glimpses of the teams that are thought to be the nation's best.

  • #2 TCU at Minnesota, 8 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: The first time these schools met was in 1974. TCU's football program was a doormat in those days. Minnesota's wasn't much better, but, on that occasion, the Gophers managed a two–point win at home.

    They met for the second time last year, and the Horned Frogs, now nationally recognized, thrashed Minnesota in Fort Worth. That is misleading for a couple of reasons. The loss came early in the season, and Minnesota won five of its next six. Then the Gophers lost to eventual national champion Ohio State by a touchdown — and Ohio State, it is worth remembering, beat some pretty impressive folks by wider margins.

    But, of course, no team is identical to the one that preceded it. Other than rankings, there really isn't much to go on in these first few games. I will defer to the polls and pick TCU to win the opener, but don't be surprised if Minnesota puts up a fight.
  • Alcorn State at #16 Georgia Tech, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on Fox Sports South: I don't think these schools have ever met in football.

    And I'm inclined to think that few ACC schools should be ranked in a preseason poll that isn't about basketball — and Georgia Tech isn't one of them.

    But it is important to remember that Georgia Tech played in the ACC title game last year (which it lost), then beat Mississippi State (which had been ranked #1 for a time) in the Orange Bowl. I'll take Georgia Tech.
  • Texas–San Antonio at #22 Arizona, 9 p.m. (Central) on Pac–12: These teams played in 2013 and 2014, and Arizona won both games.

    I've neither seen nor heard any reason to think something different will happen tonight so I will pick Arizona to win.
  • #4 Baylor at SMU, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: These are old foes, having met annually as conference rivals between 1918 and 1995 — with the exceptions of the 1943 and 1944 seasons during World War II and the 1987 and 1988 seasons during the imposition of the NCAA's "death penalty" on the SMU program.

    Given their offseason woes, I don't know how long the Bears will remain ranked as high as they are, but this week I'm pretty sure Baylor will triumph.
  • #5 Michigan State at Western Michigan, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPNU: This is the 10th meeting between these schools, and Michigan State is undefeated in a series that dates back to 1918. However, all those other games were played at Michigan State. For the first time ever, the teams will play in Kalamazoo.

    Will that make a difference? Maybe, but I doubt it. I will take Michigan State in this one.
  • Washington at #23 Boise State, 9:15 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: These schools have met three times before but never on Boise State's turf. Washington won twice at home (including by 38–6 in 2013, the schools' most recent meeting), and Boise State's single win was its two–point victory in the 2012 Las Vegas Bowl.

    Most people are familiar with Boise State's recent success; fewer are likely to remember that Washington had a winning season last year. The Huskies struggled in the second half of the season, but they won their first four games. Boise State will be quite a challenge, though, and I will take Boise State at home, but Washington could surprise.
  • #20 Wisconsin vs. #3 Alabama in Arlington, Texas, 7 p.m. (Central) on ABC: This is the only game on opening weekend that matches two ranked teams, and it really ought to be the best game of the weekend. Or, at least, one of them.

    Alabama hasn't lost its season opener since dropping its 2001 debut against UCLA. The bad start carried over into the rest of the season, and the Crimson Tide went 7–5 (which was a distinct improvement over Alabama's 3–8 record the year before). It was a lot more recent for Wisconsin — last season, in fact, when the Badgers lost to LSU.

    Historically, these teams met once before — when Calvin Coolidge was president. Wisconsin won on that occasion (Nov. 3, 1928), 15–0.

    Wisconsin beat Alabama's rival, Auburn, in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day a little over a month after Alabama beat Auburn in their traditional Iron Bowl showdown. Based on the rankings and recent history and after comparing the margins of victory against Auburn, I am inclined to pick Alabama, but it is a neutral site. Anything could happen. I'll stick with Alabama, though.
  • Louisville vs. #6 Auburn in Atlanta, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: These teams have met only once before, in 1974, when Auburn won at Louisville, 16–3.

    That, of course, is irrelevant, but this is not — Louisville went 9–4 last year (which includes losses to Clemson and Florida State). The year before that, Louisville was 12–1; the year before that, Louisville was 11–2. This is a good football program.

    It should be fun. Auburn has an explosive offense, and Louisville, in spite of its past reputation, has a stingy defense. Both teams have holes to fill if they are to meet or exceed their 2014 performances. I will take Auburn.
  • Eastern Washington at #7 Oregon, 7 p.m. (Central) on Pac–12: As nearly as I can tell, these teams have never faced each other before.

    Oregon played in the national championship game last January and lost to Ohio State. The Ducks also lost their quarterback, but enough talent returns that they're still in the Top 10. I'll go with Oregon to win its fifth season opener in the last six seasons.
  • Arkansas State at #8 Southern California, 10 p.m. (Central) on Pac–12: This is the first meeting between these schools. Southern Cal went through its time in the wilderness, but the Trojans seem to be back on track now.

    I'll stick with the home team in this one — Southern California.
  • Louisiana–Monroe at #9 Georgia, 11 a.m. (Central) on SEC: These schools have met three times before, and Georgia has won all three.

    But they haven't met in 10 years so, for all intents and purposes, this is a first–time encounter. The Bulldogs are one of the favorites in the brutal SEC, and I don't think they will be derailed in this one. I'll take Georgia.
  • Texas State at #10 Florida State, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPNews: These teams have never faced each other before, but, really, does it matter? Florida State won the national title year before last and was in the conversation last year. Texas State doesn't seem likely to have the horses to stay with Florida State until halftime.

    I'll take Florida State.
  • Texas at #11 Notre Dame, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on NBC: This matchup brings back memories of Cotton Bowls from my youth, back when a national champion could — and did — emerge from the Cotton Bowl.

    In fact, Texas has not beaten Notre Dame since the 1970 Cotton Bowl. Had there been ice on the ground for that game, as there was in the Cotton Bowl when the '70s were drawing to a close, that 1970 Cotton Bowl would have been college football's Ice Bowl. It followed a similar script. Like Green Bay in that legendary NFL championship game, the Longhorns trailed 17–14 late in the game and marched down the field for the winning touchdown. It was the pinnacle for Darrell Royal's vaunted Wishbone offense.

    Most of those times that the teams have faced each other, though, it hasn't been so dramatic, and the Irish typically win those games. This time, Texas seems to have a pretty good defense even if its offense is a bit of a mess, and that should be the challenge for the Irish. I'm thinking they will rise up to face the challenge. I take Notre Dame.
  • Wofford at #12 Clemson, 11:30 a.m. (Central) on ACC Network: You know, I could waste a lot of space on this, but what's the point? I expect Clemson to win.
  • Virginia at #13 UCLA, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on FOX: Historically, a basketball game between these schools would be more interesting than a football game. However, it was pretty good last year when they met for the first time, and UCLA emerged with an eight–point win.

    All of the Bruins' losses last year came at home, but those losses were to teams that ended up with winning records and bowl bids. One played for the national championship. And the Bruins hammered some pretty good times — Southern Cal, Arizona State — but struggled to beat some lesser ones.

    I will take UCLA, but be advised that Virginia could make it competitive again.
  • McNeese State at #14 LSU, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on SEC Network: These schools last faced each other in 2010, when LSU rolled to a 32–10 victory and remained unbeaten — until the next week, when Cam Newton and Auburn beat the Tigers by a touchdown.

    LSU should have no problem on this occasion, either.
  • #15 Arizona State at Texas A&M, 6 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: I've been hearing a lot of things about the Aggies, and I always try to take such talk with at least a grain of salt. In north Texas, one must deal with many A&M graduates, and they aren't usually without a bias of some kind.

    But some of the talk I take very seriously.

    I've heard talk of some position players who have improved in the off–season, and the Aggies will be unveiling the new Kyle Field. In my upset special, I take Texas A&M.
  • Tennessee–Martin at #17 Mississippi, 11 a.m. (Central) on SEC Network: I have found no indication that these schools have faced each other before, but a history really isn't necessary. For awhile last year, Ole Miss was regarded as one of the best teams in the nation. Tennessee–Martin was not, and there would have to be a dramatic dropoff in talent for Ole Miss to be the underdog in this game.

    I pick Mississippi.
  • Texas–El Paso at #18 Arkansas, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPNU: Arkansas is my alma mater, so I know what I will be doing on Saturday afternoon.

    These schools have played twice, and the Razorbacks won both. Those games were played in Arkansas. The first meeting, in 1989, was in Little Rock; the second meeting, in 2010, was in Fayetteville, like the one on Saturday. The Razorbacks' average margin of victory has been two touchdowns. I think Arkansas will win by at least that many points this time.
  • Akron at #19 Oklahoma, 6 p.m. (Central) on Pay–Per–View: These schools have never met before, and, frankly, I have had far more exposure to Akron's basketball program than its football program.

    That really isn't surprising. Akron's football team hasn't won more than it lost in a single season in a decade.

    Everyone knows OU's reputation in football. In fact, it was that very reputation that had me excited when I began a four–year teaching gig at OU — but then the Sooners proceeded to have probably the four worst consecutive seasons in their history.

    They're a lot better now, and my guess is Oklahoma will win without too much trouble.
  • #21 Stanford at Northwestern, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: These schools faced each other six times between 1933 and 1994 — but this will be their first encounter since fighting to a 41–41 tie in Chicago almost 21 years ago.

    It was a competitive series. Stanford won three times, Northwestern won once, and there were two ties. Northwestern's only win in the series came in Chicago in 1958.

    Outside of that Alabama–Wisconsin game, this one looks like it might be the most competitive game.

    It is worth remembering, though, that Northwestern has only one win over a Pac–12 team in the last 20 years, and I don't think the Wildcats will win this one. I pick Stanford.
  • Southeast Missouri State at #24 Missouri, 3 p.m. (Central) on SEC Network: I really can't think of a reason why the Tigers would lose this game. I pick Missouri to prevail.
  • Bowling Green vs. #25 Tennessee in Nashville, 3 p.m. (Central) on SEC: I guess a lot of folks think the Volunteers haven't been worthy of a ranking since Peyton Manning played there. But that, after all, was in the late 1990s. Since Peyton went on to the NFL, Tennessee has finished with 10 or more wins four times and nearly did it a few other times.

    Of late, though, the Vols have struggled. They finished 7–6 last year, but, mostly, they've had losing records in the last seven years.

    Bowling Green has enjoyed some success during that time, but double–digit victories in a season have been rare.

    This is the first time these teams have played, but that massive stadium in Knoxville, along with a rejuvenated Volunteer squad, should be too much for Bowling Green. I pick Tennessee.
  • #1 Ohio State at Virginia Tech, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: What a way to kick off a season of Monday night football games. Defending national champion Ohio State travels to take on the only team to beat the Buckeyes last year.

    Virginia Tech was full of contradictions last year. In their second game, the Hokies beat the eventual national champions on the road — but then lost to East Carolina and Georgia Tech at home the next two weekends. In 2014, the Hokies were 3–2 on the road (one of those losses was to lowly Wake Forest) but only 3–4 at home.

    Given the Hokies' poor home record last year — along with the fact that the Buckeyes haven't lost a regular–season road game since Nov. 26, 2011, I'll pick Ohio State to win.

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