There aren’t any juicy Top 10 showdowns this week, like we had the first two weeks with Alabama-Virginia Tech and USC-Ohio State, but there are plenty of games with intrigue. One of them will be in Blacksburg, on regional ABC-TV at 3:30 EST. Virginia Tech gets a second chance at making a national statement when they play host to Nebraska. This is also an opportunity for the Cornhuskers. There is a perception nationally—backed up by the recent record—that when one speaks of Big 12 power, one really means the Big 12 South. Teams from the North Division haven’t fared quite as well. They’ve won the conference championship two times this decade (Colorado in ’01, Kansas State in ’03), but both of these were upsets. The fall of Nebraska as a legitimate national power is the principal reason for the decline, and when they lost to the Hokies 35-30 in Lincoln last season, perhaps the unkindest cut was that no one was all that surprised.
But this proud program that won national championships in 1994-95, and 1997, and contended every year through 2001, has shown signs of life. In his first year as head coach Bo Pellini won eight games in the regular season, closing strong with four straight victories. Then they went and beat Clemson in the Gator Bowl. Nebraska has started this year off with two warm-ups against Florida Atlantic and Arkansas State. But there is not a lot of experience on this team and Blacksburg is not an easy venue to play. Virginia Tech is a program with a considerable amount of pride themselves, and the Hokies want to think of themselves as a national team, not just an ACC contender. Losing to Alabama on a neutral field could be overlooked. But a loss at home to a team probably no better than third or fourth in its league? If that happens, it will be another blow to a conference that’s already off to an awful start. But the betting here is that Tech makes a few of its patented plays on special teams, and Nebraska isn’t going to be able muscle the Hokies up front as easily as ‘Bama did. Let’s call it Virginia Tech in a 24-17 type game.
While Tech looks to make a statement on the ACC’s behalf, Miami and Georgia Tech battle in a big conference game on Thursday night. Both teams already have a key league victory under their belt, against Florida State and Clemson respectively. The Hurricanes and Yellow Jackets are (along with Va Tech) in the same division, so this game is one that’s going to loom very large in November as teams joust for a spot in Tampa on December 5. Georgia Tech has the homefield advantage, and I’m not sold that Miami beat a very good team in Florida State. The Seminoles did trail Jacksonville State in the fourth quarter last week, a team Georgia Tech beat easily in the opener. Give Georgia Tech the edge in this ESPN showdown. Another conference game will be Boston College-Clemson. The Tigers need a bounce-back game after losing to Georgia Tech and they get it against a BC program in decline.
Another ACC team, Florida State, goes to BYU, a game that observers quickly pointed to after the Cougars upset Oklahoma. FSU’s subpar start to the season has quelled that a little bit, and this is no longer a statement opportunity for BYU. Instead it’s become a game they must win decisively if they want to maintain their strong national perception. I think the Coogs win Saturday night—I wasn’t overly impressed with their win against a young Bradford-less Oklahoma team that was overrated to begin with, but they way they hammered Tulane one week later was the sign of a team on a mission. But BYU doesn’t have the talent to kill Florida State and the game will be competitive.
BYU’s opportunity is just one of those in front of midmajor teams this week. Utah gets an ABC regional spot at 3:30 ET against Oregon. The Utes haven’t been overly impressive so far. They’ve had ho-hum wins against Utah State and San Jose State, not really putting up dazzling numbers in doing so. This is a young Utah team, not at all ready to be as good as last year’s unbeaten squad. But Oregon has does none nothing to show themselves ready to take advantage. The Ducks were embarrassed in Boise and barely got by Purdue at home. Look for the Utes to win a forgettable game here.
But the biggest midmajor show is a prime-time WAC showdown on Friday night. Boise State will go to Fresno State. The home team should have beaten Wisconsin on the road last week. It’s also worth remembering that Pat Hill’s Fresno program was out challenging and competing with top major conference powers well before it became fashionable to be in love with the midmajors. Is it at all galling to Hill that Boise and Utah have been the biggest beneficiaries of his work in setting the table? He’s got a revenge opportunity here. If Fresno can win this game and run the table, they might still get a BCS bid at 11-1, particularly given how weak so many power conferences are this year. And even if that’s beyond their reach, winning this game gives them the inside track to the WAC title and a measure of national respect. I think Fresno’s offense is going to open the eyes of the national TV audience, particularly it’s junior quarterback Ryan Colburn, and win this game.
Wrapping up a look at some interesting games just below the national radar, we turn our attention to Notre Dame-Michigan State and Navy-Pitt. In the former game, telecast at 3:30 ET on NBC, the Irish absolutely must win this game. The Spartans lost last week to Central Michigan. Notre Dame’s lost six straight in South Bend to MSU. If they make it seven, it all but assures Charlie Weis won’t be around to make it eight. But if they put on another offensive show and win, then they are set up to be 4-1 when USC comes to town. And the Midshipmen have a chance to show that their near-miss in Columbus wasn’t just a result of Ohio State looking ahead to USC. Navy runs the ball well, and Pitt’s had a way of not showing up in home games like this. I lived eight years in the Steel City and made it to a few Panther games, and they do not enjoy a big homefield edge. Heinz Field has a pro football feel to it and that’s where the city’s passion goes. Navy’s ground attack has little problem taking the crowd out of it, and they roll to a big win.
Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the national TV games involving the Big Three, Texas, Florida and USC.