College football kicks off tonight and with it the game-week previews here at TheSportsNotebook do as well. South Carolina and Vanderbilt don’t get anything in the way of adjustment time. Their game in Nashville is a key game between SEC East foes who each made a bowl game last year. The Gamecocks-Commodores game is one of three key major conference games for the holiday weekend overall, as it’s also a big week in the ACC. We’ll look at these games, plus several notable matchups on the Saturday undercard as TheSportsNotebook previews college football Week 1…
THE CONFERENCE BATTLES
South Carolina-Vanderbilt: For the long-term the key thing to watch will be the lateral movement and breakaway ability of South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore. The SEC’s most talented back since Herschel Walker (Georgia, 1980-82) had knee surgery midway through last year and we need to see how he’ll respond. For the short-term, I want to see if Vanderbilt’s offense, with some continuity from last year in place can move the ball against a retooled Gamecock defense. My guess is that the answer will be no—South Carolina’s played pretty good defense in the Steve Spurrier era. Both teams need this game. If the Gamecocks are a championship-caliber team they need to win competitive road games. If the Commodores are going to be for real as a bowl team, they need to take care of their homefield. I like South Carolina tonight, although that 6.5 point spread in Las Vegas looks a little large.
Miami-Boston College: Miami’s got freshman and sophomores littered throughout their two-deep as Al Golden tries to rebuild the program. This is a game there to take for BC, who, even though they had a losing year in 2011, finished the season strong. The Eagles will be without quality tight end Chris Pantale, hurting the ability of their ball control offense to convert on third and short. But they have experience, they have homefield, and they’re even getting a couple points from a betting market that I think is too high on Miami. The last time the city of Boston had good news in the sports world it was the NBA playoffs in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, when Paul Pierce buried a three-pointer to beat Miami. We’ve come full circle to another Boston-Miami game, this time on the gridiron.
Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech: I respect Virginia Tech and Frank Beamer a lot, but they are completely rebuilding the offense around sophomore quarterback Logan Thomas. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, is stacked and loaded. This is why I like the Yellow Jackets to win, in spite of their being better than a touchdown underdog in Blacksburg on Monday night. If Virginia Tech is to prove me wrong and the linesmakers right, they need to exploit a soft Georgia Tech defensive front four. That’s easier said than done when a new offensive line is playing its first game together and the Jackets have quality support in the back seven. The winner of this prime-time Labor Day battle takes the early upper hand in the ACC’s Coastal Division. Thus, it’s quite likely Week 1’s most significant game.
Other weeknight games…
Washington State-BYU: This is the second part of tonight’s doubleheader after South Carolina-Vandy and it’s an important one. BYU has the talent to reach a major bowl, but with a tough schedule ahead, they have to win games like this at home. And Washington State is no pushover. The Jeff Tuel-to-Marquess Wilson passing combo is prolific and head coach Mike Leach will win here as surely as he won at Texas Tech.
Tennessee-NC State: On Friday night in Atlanta, it’s the warmup to the Michigan-Alabama Saturday night game that we’ll preview here at TheSportsNotebook tomorrow. Derek Dooley needs to show he can win in Knoxville and taking care of an ACC team is an imperative. The Wolfpack are good, but they did lose a starting corner to suspension and the conference “exchange rate”, if you will, doesn’t work well here. In a climate-controlled environment, Vol quarterback Tyler Bray should be able to have a big night.
Boise State-Michigan State: This is the kind of game it would have been fun to see in a bowl game last year. But now, in spite of Boise’s track record of winning games like this lately (Virginia Tech in D.C., Georgia in Atlanta), all the pressure is on Michigan State. Boise is in a major rebuilding effort and while the Spartans are looking to stabilize the quarterback spot, they’re in good shape everywhere else for the Friday night opener in East Lansing.
Kentucky-Louisville: A Sunday afternoon affair, both rivals have been competitive programs in recent years under the leadership of Joker Phillips and Charlie Strong respectively. Both are young teams, but a lot of Louisville’s youth was already in starting jobs a year ago. If the Cards can’t win this game, we have to assume a Big East team just can’t beat an SEC one.
And other games worth checking out on Saturday…
Southern Miss-Nebraska: This would have been more interesting if Larry Fedora was walking the sidelines for the Golden Eagles instead of being at North Carolina, where he’ll start his ACC career with a tuneup game against Elon. But even if Southern Miss is rebuilding, this is still a consistently competitive program who won Conference USA last year. It’s a credible opponent for Nebraska to open with in a year where the Huskers are thinking Big Ten title.
Marshall-West Virginia: I’m very high on Marshall in the MAC this year, but whether that translates into competing against the big dog in their home state is another question. The Thundering Herd should be able to move the ball against a soft Mountaineer secondary and linebacking corps, but they will never slow down the WVA offense. Geno Smith is a versatile quarterback who’s going to be well-protected up front and has an array of targets to work with. They might not hang 70, like in last year’s Orange Bowl, but half a hundred should be well within reach.
Eastern Michigan-Ball State: This is another conference game, with both teams being in the MAC East. Eastern Michigan has a nice returning cast of talent, and Ball State isn’t far behind. Neither is favored to win the division, but in a conference that’s wide-open, the winner here gets a leg up.
The Big Ten vs. The MAC: It’s always the time when the varsity takes on the junior varsity in the Midwest these first couple weeks, but the Ohio-Penn State game offers a chance for an upset. You know about the turmoil that has hit Penn State. You may not know that Ohio is a good football team who won a bowl game a year ago, has a good cast of talent back is led by versatile veteran quarterback Tyler Tettleton (you may remember his father Mickey, a power-hitting catcher with the Detroit Tigers). I’m thinking upset in this game. Other games include Western Michigan, an early favorite in the MAC, going to Illinois. Iowa is rebuilding and has to take on defending MAC champ Northern Illinois. And Miami of Ohio and their prolific quarterback Zac Dysert are in Columbus to start the Urban Meyer era. What I’m interested to see is if the MAC can win at least one of these games and whether they beat the Vegas line in two or three.
The Top Teams: The big game at the top of the polls is Michigan-Alabama, which we’ll feature tomorrow. LSU opens the season with North Texas. I like the Mean Green, with second-year head coach Dan McCarney…but let’s get real about any chance of making this game close. Oklahoma plays Buffalo. Whether it’s the MAC school or the Bills, I’m not sure if it matters. Landry Jones will put on a show. And USC plays Hawaii on Saturday night, a game FoxSports will cover. Former Trojan offensive coordinator Norm Chow makes his debut as Rainbows head coach, but given USC’s talent, that’s about the only interesting storyline there is.