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College Football Opening Weekend 2013: What to watch August 29, 2013

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Georgia-Clemson2013Note:  Rankings are based the ESPN-Coaches Poll, not the AP Poll as is usually the case on this blog.

Though many good games kick off the season on Thursday (hello, North Carolina @ South Carolina!) and Friday, the real action begins, as it always does, on Saturday (Aug. 31, in this case).  Let us cut through the clutter and focus on the good games to watch.

Noon (12:00 PM, EDT):  Let’s face it; in recent years, most noon games have been throw-away games (generally, lots of lower-tier Big Ten, ACC and Big East matchups).  This seems to be mostly the case this time around, too (case in point:  Florida International @ Maryland, which makes Louisiana Tech @ N.C. State look like a marquee game).  Yet one game in this time slot is rather intriguing, that being Purdue @ Cincinnati.  Both programs have new coaches.  Purdue’s Darrell Hazell is working diligently to breathe new life into a program that has underachieved since the 2003-2004 season.  Meanwhile, U-Cincy brought in Tommy Tuberville to provide some stability to a program that lost Brian Kelly to Notre Dame after the 2009 season, and just lost Butch Jones to Tennessee prior to this upcoming one.  From a business managerial standpoint, the two new coaches make for an interesting study in contrast in that Hazell’s role is clearly turnaround CEO, while Tuberville’s role is that of caretaker to a program that Kelly built up quite well and Jones did reasonably well in maintaining.  Talent-wise, it ought not to be close, as odds are the Bearcats could dust the Boilermakers.  Nevertheless, this game is far more interesting than the rest of the game fare offered at noontime, and it goes without saying that this game merits a nod for “Intriguing Coaching Matchup” award.

3:30 PM EDT:  Normally, one can always look forward to at least one strong SEC matchup during this time slot, but there are none to be had on this date.  Syracuse @ Penn State makes for a poor substitute indeed.  BYU @ Virginia is for more intriguing than that.  Still…next!

With that said, a potentially good game that few people are talking about occurs at this same time, that being Mississippi State at Oklahoma State.  The Bulldogs have grown in strength under head coach Dan Mullen, while the Cowboys have also grown in stature under Mike Gundy’s leadership (not to mention T. Boone Pickens’ money).  Seeing these two teams butt heads could be very engaging.

5:30 PM EDT:  Granted, this is not your traditional time slot for a Saturday game, but it’s the opening weekend, so who cares?  If anybody doubts that Atlanta is one of THE epicenters of college football, then they would be well-served to take not that No. 1 Alabama opens the season in the Georgia Dome against Virginia Tech.  On paper, it’s a decent matchup in that a top-tier SEC team is about to take on an upper-tier ACC team.  But as decent as the Hokies are, the game could very well be a bloodbath, as odds are the Crimson Tide is going to roll.  Still, it’s better than the 3:30 PM options.

7:00 PM EDT:  Washington State @ Auburn — now we’re getting somewhere.  We the fans are not treated to SEC vs Pac-12 matchups enough, in my estimation, so when it happens, it is always something to be relished.  What makes this game especially interesting is that the dread pirate Mike Leach is trying to turn around the Cougars program while Guz Malzahn has just been brought in to revive the Tigers’ very quick fall from grace.  Could be interesting, especially when one considers how a Pac-12 team not named USC can handle a hyper-hostile SEC stadium crowd.

The other interesting game that evening is the Western Kentucky vs. Kentucky game in Nashville, Tenn.  This too merits an “Intriguing Coaching Matchup” nod in that it also pits first-year coaches at both schools, both of whom came there under radically different circumstances.  Mark Stoops took the UK job as a top-rated assistant coach at Florida State, with the mission to turn around a perennially struggling Wildcats squad.  Thus far he has made lots of recruiting hype, but the actual product he can deliver on the field remains to be seen.  On the Hilltoppers’ end is Bobby Petrino, one of the best coaches in the business, but left his CEO job at Arkansas in disgrace and scandal.  The WKU job is a rung or two down the ladder from the jobs he has previously had, thus is objective is twofold:  maintain what predecessor Willie Taggart had already built (something at which he is more than adept), and also rehab his reputation.  Look out for a possible Hilltopper upset over the Wildcats, as it is always dangerous to give Petrino more than a week to prepare for a game.

8:00 PM EDT:  No. 5 Georgia @ No. 8 Clemson — easily the biggest game of the day, if not the whole weekend.  Head Coach Mark Richt takes a loaded Bulldogs team led by talented QB Aaron Murray (no relation, sadly) in to Clemson to take on a Tigers program that Dabo Swinney has slowly yet quietly strengthened over the past several years (they did beat a strong LSU team in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, after all).  This will be a great opening test for the Bulldogs, who are no doubt looking to eventually unseat Alabama at the number one spot in both the conference and the nation.  Odds also are that you will be “looking LIVE, at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C.,” as in all likelihood this will be the game that Brent Musburger calls along with Kirk “Herbie” Herbstreit, folks!

9:00 PM EDT:  No. 12 LSU vs. No. 20 TCU in Dallas (Arlington, Texas, specifically).  Just as Atlanta has its season kickoff Peach Bowl with a SEC-ACC game, over the past few years, Dallas has endeavored to do the same thing with a season kickoff Cotton Bowl of sorts, usually bringing in an SEC and a Big XII team (though there has been the occasional SEC vs Pac-12 game thrown in sometimes, read:  LSU vs. Oregon in 2011) as is the case this time.  Les Miles almost always has the Tigers up for big games, while it will be a quasi-home game for the Horned Frogs as they have but a half-hour drive (at the most) from their home base in Fort Worth.  Moreover, Gary Patterson has built up a strong program over the course of more than a decade, even recently taking TCU to a Rose Bowl just a couple of seasons ago.  Moreover, though the Horned Frogs are ranked lower than the Bayou Bengals, they have the good fortune of playing LSU at the beginning of the season, which is historically when the team is most vulnerable to a loss.

10:30 PM EDT:  No. 22 Northwestern at California.  Normally, the only game one might find on the cable tv guide this late at night is a home game at Hawai’i.  Not this time, though.  This time, head coach Pat Fitzgerald takes his nimble Wildcats westward from Evanston, Ill., to the west coast.  The rankings could be deceiving.  Yes, on paper, Northwestern could possibly crush Cal.  But that could easily be nullified because of geography.  Take a team in the eastern or even central timezone out to the Pacific timezone, and strange things happen to them.  Pro teams do not have this issue (say, the New York Giants journeying out to Seattle to play the Seahawks), because they’re older, more mature, and, well, professionals.  But in the college game, folks*, you’re dealing with 19-20 year-old kids, who are far more apt to be out of their element when traveling such a distance.  Let us also not forget that Northwestern’s internal clock will still be on Chicago time (9:30 PM), not San Francisco time (7:30 PM), which could also make a difference.  One could therefore expect a close, hard-fought game, if not even an upset by the Golden Bears.  That said, Pat Fitzgerald is one of the most underrated coaches in the business, and has proven to be very adept, time and again, at not only recruiting decent players into a school with the most academically-rigid standards in the Big Ten Conference, but also coaching them up to be competitive in that conference and in bowl games, too.  No doubt he’ll have a trick or two up his proverbial sleeve to try to nullify the problems of geography and time discrepancy.  We shall see soon enough, as that is why they line up and play.

* Another Musburger-ism, in case you missed the reference!

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Teams that could beat Notre Dame November 22, 2012

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Sports.
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From the latest edition of Sports Illustrated. The Latin phrase at the top translates to “The Miracle of Our Lady 2012”

In case some dear readers have been hanging out in a cave for an extended period of time, Notre Dame is now the no. 1 college football team in the nation for the first time in 19 years to the month.  Given the national following the Fighting Irish have, there has been more than a bit of hoopla over this development.  Without going into obscene details, I can see Regis Philbin and other ND-loving celebrities losing control of themselves right about now.  But just because the Irish are no. 1 by default, does not mean they are invincible?  Of course not.  Yes, they are undefeated; yes, they have beaten some decent teams.  To be fair, Notre Dame is formidable.  Brian Kelly has done an incredible job of bringing in a talented receiving corps for the offense while massively upgrading the team’s talent defensively.  Their front five and front seven are both sufficiently physical to compete with anybody.  But there are teams out there that would give ND fits, if not ruin their season outright if the two played each other.  I therefore submit this list of teams to a candid world:

Practically sure things:

LSU:  Without a doubt, LSU would give Notre Dame all it would want and then some.  Over the past decade, there is no team that has been known to show up in big games and win them like LSU.  Yes, they lost at home to Alabama this year.  Yes, they lost the national championship game to Alabama at the end of last season.  Yet ought these not to be a strong commentary on the Crimson Tide’s prowess rather then to the Bayou Bengals’ detriment?  The Tigers have won two national titles within a decade.  Aside from the BCS game this past season, they have won almost all of their bowl games*.  Stretch the scale of time back to 15 years, and every time the Irish have played the Tigers in a bowl game (the 1997 Independence Bowl, the 2006-’07 Sugar Bowl), LSU has won both games handily.  The odds, talent, and the mindset are all in LSU’s favor.  Notre Dame ought to pray that the two teams do not meet anytime soon.

*LSU’s only bowl losses were to a tough Texas team in the 2003 Cotton Bowl, and inexplicable losses in the Capital One Bowl to both Iowa (30-20 on Jan. 1, 2005), and Penn State (19-17 on Jan. 1, 2010).

Stanford:  Don’t laugh.  Yes, they already lost to Notre Dame this year, but by that same token, let us put things into perspective.  A), the game was in South Bend, B) the weather was horrible, C) what did the Cardinal in was two consecutive horrible play calls on the goal line in overtime.  Now imagine the two teams playing each other again, this time on a neutral field, and reasonable weather.  Stanford has the personnel to fight the Irish effectively on the line on both sides of the ball.  They sport a very physical front seven, and their offense is ground-and-pound.  This approach was two horribly-called plays shy of working under very adverse circumstances on the road.  Imagine how well it would work in, say, Glendale, Ariz., or Pasadena.

Texas A&M:  The Aggies have proven that they can move the ball on tough defenses.  Quarterback Johnny Manziel has gotten better and better as the season has progressed.  They moved the ball effectively on Alabama, after all.  Moreover, Coach Kevin Sumlin has proven to be an excellent motivator in getting his men ready for big games.  Some of their margins of victory are impressive.  For example, they beat a respected Mississippi State squad 38-13, and then turned around the following week and beat then-no. 1 Alabama.  What this tells me is that you can count on consistent play from A&M at this stage of the season.  That, plus quick defense and superior quarterback play add up to being too much for the Irish to handle.

Ohio State:  Yes, Brian Kelly has proven to be one of the best coaches in the college game.  But so has Urban Meyer, and his resume of winning big games with more teams, one could argue, trumps Kelly’s.  Never count out Meyer in big games.  Moreover, once he brings in more of his own style of players, they will execute his spread offense all the more effectively.  True, the Buckeyes were playing some teams too closely for comfort earlier in the year.  After all, they only scored 29 points on abysmal UAB, of all teams!  But lately the offense runs like a well-oiled machine.  During their last games, they have averaged scoring 49 points each.  Their lower scores during that span were 29 points (where Purdue’s defense actually showed up) and 21 points against Wisconsin’s traditionally stout ‘D.’  Notre Dame has not encountered anything like Ohio State’s offense throughout this memorable season of theirs.

Questionable teams:

Florida:  Yes, their defense is practically impregnable.  Good luck moving the ball on the Gators.  The problem is on the offensive side of the ball.  Jeff Driskel is a mediocre quarterback at best, and Notre Dame’s defense will not play dead simply because they are facing such a vaunted program.  The game would be very low-scoring, with the outcome depending on how well Driskell executes, which is a crap-shoot.

South Carolina:  On paper, this team should be a very formidable foe for the Irish.  A strong running game, one of the best QB’s in college football in Connor Shaw, and defense with potential NFL talent, anchored by Jadeveon Clowney.  The problem lies in consistency.  The Gamecocks blew out a tough Georgia team earlier in the year, only to embarrass themselves at Florida a few weeks later.  After that, they played an awful Tennessee much more closely than the game should have been, again, on paper (they won that game only 38-35).  The Ol’ Ball Coach triumphing over the hot-headed Irish Coach will depend on the team that gave Georgia its only loss of the year to show up.

Georgia:  The Bulldogs have an incredibly talented offense led by experienced, highly-rated quarterback Aaron Murray.  On paper, the offense would give Notre Dame’s talented defense all they could handle.  Defensively, Georgia sports a typical talented, ultra-quick SEC defense.  The problem, like that of South Carolina, is consistency.  Yes, they could theoretically take Notre Dame, but it all comes down to which team shows up against them:  the team that beat Florida handily on an ostensibly neutral field, or the team that lost badly earlier on to South Carolina?

Alabama:  Easily the least-questionable team within this category.  The only reason they are in said category as opposed to the above one is that Texas A&M exposed a chink or two in their impressive armor.  Their defense is talented, but young, and their offense is not the most imaginative of teams at their level.  But let us say that the two – Bama and ND – end up playing each other in the BCS national championship game.  Give Nick Saban a month to prepare – a luxury no team has had thus far, to be sure – and he is practically unstoppable.  Advantage, Crimson Tide.

If any dear readers think other teams merit being added to the list, I would be more than happy to entertain suggestions!  (P.S.: Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!)