The NFL will draw the attention of most football fans tonight with the Bears-Packers game with possible supremacy in the NFC North ultimately on the line. But for those who also like college football it’s a good night to either go to sports bar, like I’m doing, or at least be ready to audible down at commercial time, because ESPN’s Thursday night college game of Rutgers-South Florida might be the one that decides the Big East title and with it an automatic spot in a BCS bowl game. It’s a good way to kick off college football Week 3 and this game leads our look at the weekend undercard.
South Florida is coming off a thrilling 32-31 come-from-behind win at Nevada last week and what’s most impressive is that it was a breakout game for quarterback B.J. Daniels. The mobile quarterback has not always been consistent throwing the ball, something that’s the big question looming over the Bulls this season, but Daniels came through against a good Nevada team. He now goes against a Rutgers defense that has dominated lesser competition and has run the ball with Jawan Jamison. Now it’s Scarlet Knights’ quarterback Gary Nova, who has to prove he’s worthy of essentially being gift-wrapped the starting job (the reward for being a touted recruit) even though backup Chas Dodd outplays him every time he gets the chance. The game will be at South Florida, and unless Nova does a drastic turnabout, I don’t think a Skip Holtz-coached team will miss this opportunity on their homefield.
The Rutgers-South Florida game is one of a few conference games that will be significant in the bigger picture. Looking ahead to Saturday, the ACC has two big ones in Wake Forest-Florida State and Virginia-Georgia Tech, each intra-divisional matchups on opposite sides of the conference alignment. Wake got a win last week over North Carolina, but Tanner Price was not at his best, something that’s going to be a big problem against a much faster Florida State defense playing in its backyard. The Seminole issue will be focus—they can’t get caught looking ahead to Clemson next week. As to Virginia-Georgia Tech, a Yellow Jacket win is necessary given they’ve already lost to division frontrunner Virginia Tech. The Cavs have to produce more offense than they did last week at Penn State, since I don’t expect Georgia Tech to butcher four field goals the way the Nittany Lions did.
Based on television exposure, I suppose I should save Alabama-Arkansas (3:30 PM ET, CBS) for tomorrow’s preview of Saturday’s marquee games. But given Arkansas’ loss to UL-Monroe and a shaky win over Jacksonville State prior, plus the fact quarterback Tyler Wilson is questionable, I almost feel guilty for mentioning it at all. This game is the equivalent of the Red Sox-Yankees baseball series going on right now—it’s a matchup that can get your attention, but only one of the participants is actually any good. Other conference games are at the midmajor level and are rounded with East Carolina-Southern Miss in Conference USA and Bowling Green-Toledo in the MAC. With Bowling Green having pushed Florida, and Toledo pushed Arizona and beaten Wyoming, this game could be a good launching pad for someone.
Moving to non-conference games, Cal pays a visit to Ohio State, one of two interesting road tests for Pac-12 teams. The Golden Bears have not looked sharp thus far, but the Buckeye offense was a little sluggish last week against Central Florida and the running backs are banged up for this week. We’ll get a better look at Braxton Miller against a major conference opponent who is at least respectable. And Arizona State, fresh off that big win over Illinois, goes to Missouri. The Tigers can’t be licking their wounds after losing to Georgia in the SEC debut or the Sun Devil passing game will make them pay for it.
North Carolina-Louisville is one of two games on the 3:30 PM ET ABC card, and with the other being Navy-Penn State, these might be the worst marquee matchups since…well, since this year’s presidential election. All we can really learn is whether Louisville can join both Syracuse and the Rutgers-South Florida winner as a championship contender in the Big East, and just how bad Penn State is going to be. And a couple halfway interesting storylines are in the ACC. Virginia Tech plays Pitt, a renewal of what was once a Big East rivalry (I attended the best game of this series back in 2003 when Pitt drove the distance and won on a TD pass to Larry Fitzgerald) and will be an ACC game next year. And Maryland coach Randy Edsall takes on his old team in UConn, including most of the players he recruited to Storrs. It’s also a rematch of the schools that played for the Final Four in 2002 when Maryland won the NCAA title, by way of bringing in a meaningless outside storyline.
There are four games at the mid-major level that at least warrant some attention. We can start with Miami (Ohio) going to Boise State. We’ve seen Chris Petersen’s rebuilt Bronco defense do well against a run-first offense against Michigan State. Now they’ll take on a pass-first offense led by Zac Dysert. Boise, playing at home against a less-talented opponent than the Spartans should win, but I’m curious to see how well they pressure the passer and cover. A great quarterback battle looms in the Ohio-Marshall game between Tyler Tettleton and Rakeem Cato (Did I just say “great quarterback battle” in an Ohio-Marshall game? I desperately need to get a life). Houston goes to UCLA, and with the soft Cougar defense the real question is not whether Bruin back Jonathan Franklin gets his yards, but whether he will actually get tackled. And rebuilding Northern Illinois has looked pretty decent so far this year, but if the defending MAC champs are going to make another title run in a competitive league, they will demonstrate such by taking care of Army in a trip to West Point.
We’ll wrap it up with our list of games where a mid-major team playing a power conference foe at least has a chance to make it interesting.
*Put simply, the Big Ten is mostly a disgrace this year. The only one I’m sure will win on Saturday is Nebraska, though I do want to see how the Cornhusker defense, fresh off getting smacked in the mouth at UCLA, fares against an offense that will spread the field.
*I’m not sold that UL-Monroe’s win over Arkansas was a fluke. Kolton Browning was a prolific passer before he came to Little Rock, Arkansas had problems and Auburn does too. Although the element of surprise is gone and we have no idea how long it took the Monroe kids to stop the celebration and refocus on football. Oklahoma State’s secondary was lit up by Arizona and Lafayette signal-caller Blake Gautier can do the same. And can the best in the Sun Belt match up to below-average SEC team? We’ll find out in the Western Kentucky-Kentucky game.
Friday’s feature will hone in on the three best games of Saturday—Notre Dame-Michigan State, Florida-Tennessee & USC-Stanford.