It’s the first normal weekend of college football. No wall-to-wall run through Monday, just your normal Thursday night game, followed by a full card of action on Saturday. In today’s column, I’m going to run through several games on the undercard, before coming back tomorrow to take a look at the prime matchups.
Thursday night’s ESPN show is Clemson-Georgia Tech, for those who don’t want to tune into the NFL’s Steelers-Titans opener going on over at NBC. The Tigers and Yellow Jackets were among the few ACC teams that won their openers, although beating Middle Tennessee State and Jacksonville State respectively, isn’t going to open too many eyes. Clemson has played surprisingly well since Dabo Swinney took over from Tommy Bowden in the middle of last year. Some pundits have speculated that the Tigers will shift from being the highly rated team that disappoints to the under-the-radar team that catches everyone off guard. If so, this spot would be the place to start showing it. I don’t think they will. Tech is well-coached, under Paul Johnson, their option attack is hard to prepare for and they are playing at home.
Around the rest of the undercard is…
*East Carolina at West Virginia—ECU pulled a big upset of the Mountaineers here last year. West Virginia should have revenge on its mind, but are they good enough to do something about it? They struggled past Liberty in their opener. I’m looking for this game to be at least an even showdown, and for Skip Holtz’s crew to pull another upset. If they do it, they join BYU, Utah and Boise State on everyone’s short list of BCS-busters. Anything short of a decisive win for West Virginia heightens the grumbling against Bill Stewart.
*Pitt at Buffalo—another “watch it” spot for a team from a BCS conference. Turner Gill’s Buffalo program won the MAC a year ago and kicked off ’09 by beating UTEP. Do the Panthers have the focus to make sure they take care of business on the road? Whether they do so or not gives us some hints as to whether they have the mental toughness and talent to challenge Cincinnati in the Big East.
*North Carolina at UConn—the matchup everyone thought they would get in the NCAA basketball final last March is a game between two rising programs. UConn beat an Ohio U team that a lot of people were high on. And if the Tar Heels are a program ready to win a conference championship, they will win this battle in Storrs.
*Syracuse-Penn State—no doubt who’s going to win this game, but closeness is something worth watching. The ‘Cuse showed it could play even up with a mediocre Big Ten team at home last week against Minnesota. If PSU puts another beating on the Orange like they did last year, it would suggest that the early polls which rate them as their league’s best are close to right, and the Notebook, which says they are overrated, is wrong.
*Marshall-Virginia Tech—another case where I can’t see an upset happening. But this is Tech’s game right in between Alabama and Nebraska. If they were on the road, an upset might be feasible, but being in Blacksburg saves them from an inevitable case of the doldrums.
*Stanford-Wake Forest—If you’re looking at conference middle sections around the country, this is actually one of the more interesting games on the board. Wake Forest was upset by Baylor last week. Was this a sign that the Bears are that improved or that Wake is falling apart? The answer to that has ripple effects on how we view the Big 12 South and a potential one-loss team from the division in the race for the national championship Stanford showed a surprisingly strong rushing attack in dispatching Oregon State. Can they do it against a respected program from another league? A win here would be a feather in the cap of the Pac-10, which will affect how we view a potential one-loss USC team at season’s end. One point to watch—will Stanford suffer from a bad “body clock” making the long trip to the East Coast, the way Cal did at Maryland last year when they fell behind 21-0 before waking up. I’m looking for Wake to rebound and win this one, primarily because of the travel problem.
*Western Michigan-Indiana—All observers, myself included, gave Michigan credit for beating up on Western Michigan the way they did. If Indiana, easily the worst program in the Big Ten, turns around and beats up on the Broncos, we have to rethink that.
*Iowa-Iowa State—I picked Iowa to win the Big Ten at the start of the year. I’m willing to cut them some slack for one awful showing last week. But another narrow escape against a lousy in-state team, and I’m cutting them loose faster than a politician getting rid of an adviser trapped in scandal.
*Air Force-Minnesota—This is the kind of game no one pays attention to when evaluating the midmajors, but these are crucial tests of strength. If the fourth-best team in the Mountain West can win on the road against a respectable Big Ten team, that has to rebound to the benefit of BYU or Utah in voting. Air Force pounded Nicholls State 72-0 in its opener and I think they will beat the Gophers, even as Minny debuts its new on-campus stadium.
*Purdue-Oregon—The Ducks disappointed a lot of people with their non-performance against Boise State last Thursday. Failure to beat Purdue knocks them down further and suggests that the program will decline in the post-Mike Bellotti era.
*Fresno State-Wisconsin—I don’t just write this because of my personal passion for Badger football, but this is a very good game to keep an eye on. Last year, Fresno was seen as a possible BCS-buster before a Week 2 loss to UW deflated them and set the tone for a mediocre year. If the Bulldogs can pull an upset in Madison, it sets them up for a big showdown a week from Friday at Boise State. Fresno came here back in 2002 and lost a nail-biter. But Wisconsin’s quarterback play was better than expected in the opener against Northern Illinois, and it enables them to win another tight game here.
*UCLA-Tennessee---two young coaches who’ve been lightning rods for controversy, in Rick Neuheisel and Lane Kiffin. The Bruins upset the Vols out west early last season. If Tennessee is going to be viable once SEC play starts, they win this home game decisively.
*Two conference games are going on the SEC. Mississippi State plays at Auburn and Vandy plays at LSU. Both home teams are programs with expectations of competing for the SEC West title. Auburn blew out a well-regarded Louisiana Tech squad, while LSU struggled to beat a poorly regarded Washington team. If either one is ready to play with Alabama or Ole Miss, they would need to show it by taking care of their home turf.
*Finally we check in on the Big Two. Florida plays host to Troy. I liked Troy at the beginning of the year, and they still may win the Sun Belt. But they lost to Bowling Green in Week 1, and even my most optimistic projection of Levi Brown & Co. never gave them a chance in the Swamp. Texas goes up to Wyoming. No chance of a loss there, but interesting to see if the Longhorns can hang a blowout on the Cowboys.
Be back tomorrow with a look at the day’s biggest games.