Miami is getting a lot of love in the media and from the pollsters these days, as they’ve moved into the AP Top 10. And with good reason. The Hurricanes have played two good teams, in Florida State and Georgia Tech and beaten them both. They beat FSU on the road, a win that looks all the more impressive in light of the whipping the ‘Noles put on BYU last week. And when Miami got Georgia Tech on their home field, they were in command throughout. Quarterback Jacory Harris has been brilliant, and ESPN commentator Kirk Herbstreit has vaulted him ahead of Tim Tebow or Colt McCoy in the Heisman race. But the biggest games are ahead for Randy Shannon’s resurgent program. They play Oklahoma next week. And their top two rivals for the ACC’s Coastal Division title are still to come. The first one up is this week when they go to Blacksburg to take on Virginia Tech.
Virginia Tech was the preseason favorite in the ACC and their loss to Alabama really didn’t diminish that. The Hokies got a non-conference win they really needed against Nebraska. But they need to play significantly better on Saturday if they’re going to defend their homefield. They didn’t get any offense until late and it took several Nebraska mistakes for Tech to get the win. The Cornhuskers first missed the chance to put the game out of reach with bad execution and penalties around the goal line. And when the Hokies were pinned back in their own territory on the final drive, they needed a blown Nebraska coverage to get the big play that set up the winning touchdown. Something has to change if they are going to win this game. Miami’s defense has not shown itself as dominant. They won a shootout with FSU and gave up 17 points to run-oriented Georgia Tech. The Virginia Tech offense must find a way to exploit that. Because even if they turn in a good defensive outing on Saturday, I have to think it will still take at least 21 points to beat the ‘Canes.
It’s shaping up as a very good game, and I’m leaning Tech to pull it out. Miami has definitely been the better team to date, but the Hokies are at home. They have a way of scoring in unexpected ways. I like Frank Beamer more than Shannon in a big game. So I’m looking for Harris to play well, but not to explode to the extent the ‘Canes will need. Let’s call it Hokies in a 24-21 battle.
There’s one other contender in the Coastal Division that begs our attention and that’s North Carolina. The Tar Heels have a test of their own at Georgia Tech. So far, UNC has been good, but not overwhelming. If they win in Atlanta, it suggests they are ready to take the next step and compete with the Hokies-Canes winner for a spot in the ACC Championship Game.
Elsewhere on the East Coast, there’s a Big East-ACC Challenge Saturday set up and it’s highlighted by Pitt’s trip to N.C. State. The Panthers have looked very good in wins over Buffalo and Navy, both respectable midmajor programs. Now Dave Wannstedt needs to show he can beat a decent team from a BCS conference and establish that he’s ready to challenge Cincinnati in the Big East. For their part, this is N.C. State’s first test since they were shut down by South Carolina on the opening Thursday night of the season. It’s a chance for Wolfpack quarterback Russell Wilson to show the form that made him Conference Player of the Year last season.
Other games include South Florida-Florida State. This one looked better at the start of the season, before South Florida quarterback Matt Grothe was knocked out for the season. With him out, I can’t see a way for the Bulls to spring an upset, but it will still be interesting to see if the Seminoles have a letdown after the big win in BYU last weekend. And also keep an eye on Rutgers-Maryland. The Scarlet Knights had high hopes at the start of the year. The Terps at least had bowl hopes. Both are off to bad starts, particularly Maryland, which needed overtime to beat James Madison and lost to Middle Tennessee State at home. Both coaches are feeling the heat. When Maryland started slowly last year, there were calls for Ralph Friedgen’s head. A midseason turnaround and bowl trip quelled it for the time being. But the glow from that 2001 Orange Bowl bid has long since worn off in College Park and the Fridge needs a big win. Greg Schiano’s heat isn’t quite as severe, but Rutgers did build him a pricey new stadium and to date the program hasn’t lived up to it.
The week’s football action will actually kick off with the SEC and the Ole Miss-South Carolina game on ESPN’s Thursday night package. This is a very interesting matchup, as Ole Miss is one of those teams that we’re trying to get a handle on at this point in the season. The Rebs are ranked in the top five, although they haven’t played anyone of consequence yet. We must also note that they really haven’t looked the part of a national power, but I would rather wait and see how they fare against good teams. South Carolina is another team that’s hard to get a handle on. They won the aforementioned defensive battle with N.C. State to start the season. They lost a wild offensive shootout to Georgia. This is now the third nationally televised appearance for the Gamecocks and the best team they’ve faced. Are they good or mediocre? Are they an offensive firepower or a defensive lockdown team? We’ll know by the end of Thursday night. I’m sticking with my preseason pick of Ole Miss in the SEC West and predicting the Rebs live up to their press clippings in a decisive win.
Florida will be in the Saturday night ESPN slot (6 ET). I would hope we’ll see more defense in this featured game than we’ve seen the previous two weeks in this SEC showcase slot, which have been Georgia beating South Carolina and Arkansas by scores of 41-37 and 52-41. Some call that exciting. I call it poor football. If nothing else, the Gators will show that an inability to tackle isn’t really an SEC trait. Georgia’s fundamentally poor defense and excessively penalty-ridden squad hosts Arizona State in a night game in Athens. The combination of homefield and an inferior opponent mean the Dawgs have to wait for their comeuppance.
Another SEC team that can tackle is Alabama and they play the Razorbacks earlier in the day. The Tide have had tuneup games since their opening night win over Virginia Tech. They’re taking on a pretty decent team in this one, but the Hogs could not stop Georgia at home. Is there any reason to think they can stop Alabama on the road? I like Hog QB Ryan Mallet, who threw for over 400 yards and five TDs against the sieve Georgia calls a defense, but playing a legitimate D puts a big crimp in those numbers and he has a hard time keeping his team in the game in the fourth quarter.
We return tomorrow with a look at the Big Ten and Pac-10, whose schedules are almost all conference games.