Thursday, August 1, 2013
Highlights of College Football’s Opening Weekend
With the college football season set to kick off in a little more than a month, many fans and nearly every preseason publication likes to peruse through the schedule to see what the most intriguing, compelling, or critical matchups might be. Of course there always are the major conference clashes like the big rivalry games near the end of the year and those interdivision battles that foretell of possible rematches in conference title games, and there are the handful of "games of the year/decade/century" that occasionally dot the non-conference slate.
So, in keeping with the spirit of tradition, I propose to you the top six games (in no particular order) to keep an eye on during the first weekend of action.
Boise State @ Washington
This game actually has more on the line for the Huskies than the Broncos. Husky fans most certainly remember the heartbreaking 28-26 loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl last season, and the Dawgs have shown marked improvement over the past couple of seasons. Opening 2013 with a win over the Pac-12's biggest nemesis will not only give the team a boost heading into the next game in Chicago against Illinois, but could also be an indicator of what type of team UW will actually be. Picked by most pundits to finish in the middle of the Pac-12 North, a convincing win over another great Boise State team would put the rest of the division on notice that they'd better watch out for the Purple and Gold.
Meanwhile, another season of high expectations for the Broncos could start in bitter disappointment with a loss in Seattle. Granted, a loss on the road against a tougher conference opponent, even if it's a middle-of-the-road contender, is nothing that can't be recovered from. After losing last year's season-opener to Michigan State, Boise State still ended the season at 11-2, so dropping this one to UW would not be the end of the world.
Georgia @ Clemson
This matchup is arguably the most high-powered one of the season's first tilts. Georgia is picked by just about everyone to win the SEC East, while Clemson has the same expectations put upon them in the ACC Atlantic. Georgia is ranked slightly ahead of Clemson in just about every major publication, but the Tigers have home field advantage, having lost only once in Memorial Stadium in the past two seasons. The Bulldogs, however, could argue that they have history on their side.
The last time these two teams met was in Clemson back in 2003, and the Dawgs romped to a 30-0 victory. But that was 10 years ago, and this isn't the same Clemson team as back then.
What this game will prove is that the winner will have a great shot at landing fairly high in the BCS standings once they come out in October, of course providing there isn't a hiccup along the way. With that in mind, this game will most likely mean more to Georgia than Clemson since the Bulldogs will have South Carolina and LSU to contend with before the eighth week of the season (first BCS rankings), while the Tigers don't have any real tests until Florida State on that eighth week.
North Carolina @ South Carolina
Speaking of the aforementioned Gamecocks, they haven't met their namesake rivals to the north since 2007 when they won by a mere six points. The Tar Heels have been a consistently good team over the past few years, but were disappointed in missing a bowl game last season despite finishing 8-4. North Carolina is predicted to finish behind Florida State in the ACC Coastal division, while South Carolina is expected to end up right behind Georgia in the SEC East.
Now the Gamecocks are ranked way above the Tar Heels in the preseason publications, but a good showing by the Chapel Hill bunch — or even an upset win — would put the rest of the ACC on notice that they're ready to play. Just as with the rest of these high-profile matchups, more rests in the balance for South Carolina than their opponents.
After this tilt, the Garnet and Black head to Athens to take on Georgia in what could amount to the SEC East division championship and an upper hand in the always SEC-crowded BCS. Going into that game off of a win would be a big boost for USC, and depending on what happens with Georgia against Clemson, they might be facing a Bulldog team licking its wounds.
TCU vs. LSU (Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas)
The Tigers are six years removed from their last BCS championship and it's been two years since they lost the rematch to hated rival Alabama in the national title game. So getting off on the right foot against a TCU team that might not be as good as it has been in recent years is critical to gathering early momentum before heading into the buzz-saw that is the SEC. The Horned Frogs, meanwhile, are hoping to assert themselves as a legitimate Big 12 team after faltering in their inaugural season. Coming away with a win over an SEC power would do wonders for their confidence.
The last time LSU played a non-conference game in Cowboys Stadium they manhandled a pretty good Oregon team in what amounted to a home game for the Tigers. This time, though, they're facing a TCU team with a lot to prove and that's just a stone's throw away from their campus. Whether or not the crowd will be decidedly in TCU's favor might not be a factor in this game, but getting them on their side early on might be an advantage.
Again, like with the other closely matched nonconference games, much hangs in the balance for both teams. A Tiger loss will have them plenty fizzed heading home for three marginally easy games before traveling to Georgia, while a TCU win would give them a huge confidence boost also going into three winnable games before hitting the road to Oklahoma.
Virginia Tech vs. Alabama (Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Georgia)
College football fans can look at this game in one of two ways: either it will be yawn, "Another Alabama blowout is on tap," or "OKay, so how good will this year's Tide team be?" On the flip side, Virginia Tech fans could have similar thoughts toward their team. "Are we going to be underachievers yet again, or will we actually live up to expectations and win a title?" A lot will be decided by this game, whether or not Alabama is still the juggernaut that everyone says they are (and on paper, there's no reason to doubt they won't be), or whether or not VaTech is ready to take the reins in the ACC and make some noise in the BCS.
But, just like two years ago when 'Bama lost to LSU in the regular season and then got a rematch with the Tigers in the BCS title game, shutting them out, a loss by the Tide to the Hokies won't necessarily dash their hoped for a three-peat. What it could do, however, is give the rest of the SEC (and maybe the entire college football universe) hope that someone other than a team from Tuscaloosa has a shot at winning the championship.
Washington State @ Auburn
I know, you're all thinking, "How can this game be of any significance in comparison with those other games you mentioned?" Okay, so it's not exactly a matchup of national prominence or even importance, but to both of these programs, it could be a pivotal turning point in an upward direction, or it could signal yet another dismal season for a once-proud program. I'll give you the argument that WSU has never been on the level of Auburn (yes, I remember that the Tigers have a couple of national championship trophies in their possession), but this was a program that had set the record for consecutive 10-win seasons just a decade ago.
If the Cougs go to Auburn and get their proverbial tails handed to them, it could mark a quick demise for the Mike Leach era in Pullman. But if they come away with a win, then all the talk of a much-improved team might actually be true and WSU could be the 6-6 team that everyone is dreaming about. Auburn, meanwhile, is under pressure from its fans to not dare to lose a home game to a patsy like Washington State. If the Tigers can win convincingly against a Cougar team that promises to be better than in recent memory, it could give them a much-needed confidence boost under a new head coach in spite of recent struggles. Auburn fans will take hope that their team is back on the SEC map.
Sure, there a few other interesting intersectional games on the schedule, including Syracuse at Penn State, Florida State at Pittsburgh, BYU at Virginia, and Purdue at Cincinnati, but the previously mentioned half-dozen games are the ones that I'll be watching with much interest. After all, the outcomes of these matchups could very well form the landscape of the 2013 college football season.