Happy football season, fans and fanatics! Welcome to the glorious escalation of regional pageantry known as college football season. And this week, the NCAA is busting a longtime truism in spectacular fashion.
For years, the refrain has been constant. “The (insert conference here) doesn’t play anyone but cupcakes early in the year.”
For a long time, that was true. College football fans have for decades been forced to endure powerhouse programs like Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, USC, and Notre Dame playing the tiniest schools imaginable, creating massive blowouts that left even the most hardcore fans bored and disappointed.
And then everything began to change.
In 2007, America was facing its normal buffet of banality on the opening weekend, including a little-heralded game in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Wolverines were hosting a tiny school out of North Carolina–the Appalachian State Mountaineers. That was also the first weekend that the Big Ten Network was on the air, and Michigan-App. State was the first game it broadcast. Although we were in Ohio running a college football event and all the televisions were tuned to the Ohio State vs. cupcake annual season opener, as the game progressed more people were watching the ticker for Michigan-App. State updates than the yawn-fest 10,000-0 Buckeye game.
Halfway through the third quarter, a man garbed head to toe in scarlet and gray asked that one TV be turned onto the Big Ten Network. With about eight minutes to go in the game, all the televisions had abandoned the massacre in Columbus and hundreds of people were actively cheering for the Mountaineers. If that’s not an example of true rivalry, we don’t know what is.
Everyone was mesmerized by this game. The Wolverines were ranked #5 in the nation preseason with a powerful offense and veteran defense. But what few people knew was that Appalachian State was a defending national champion in its own right, having won the D 1-AA title three years in a row heading up to that momentous first day of September. This was a team comprised of young men who were accustomed to winning and who weren’t intimidated at all by the legendary stature of the Big House. And that was the first time an FCS team upset a ranked FBS team.
What made the difference for that game? Videos of the fan reaction throughout the country to that final score:
Videos like this exploded across the Internet. The powerhouses were not invulnerable. And because of that game, slowly the NCAA began to move away from the games where opponents were plucked from a bakery and toward more marquee matchups. Some schools have traditionally played bigger matchups on opening weekend, granted. My own school has played first game home and homes with Oklahoma, Oregon, NC State, and Notre Dame in recent memory. And some like Florida have had woeful first opponents–Bowling Green, Toledo, New Mexico State, and UMass is the chosen victim this year.
But this year is different. This opening weekend we’re looking at the best line-up of ranked teams vs. ranked teams in NCAA history. This weekend’s slate boasts reigning national champion Alabama vs. USC; Ole Miss vs. FSU; Houston vs. Oklahoma; Georgia vs. North Carolina; Notre Dame vs. Texas; Clemson vs. Auburn; Wisconsin vs. LSU; and Texas A&M vs. UCLA. These are all huge games, with national championship and conference title implications. It’s a feast of fun instead of that banality buffet we mentioned earlier.
We like this trend. We like the NCAA’s insistence that P5 teams start to play out-of-conference games against other P5 programs. And sure, most big state schools will continue to play the smaller programs in their state in order to give those teams a financial boost that allows them to continue to play college sports. But getting Ohio State away from Buffalo or Tulsa can only improve the opening weekend experience not just for Ohio State fans, but for all college football fans.
So while for a long time the thought that P5 behemoths always played OOC cupcakes was fact, now it’s no longer entirely so. And if the NCAA continues this trend, we’ll be pleased to call this trope fanatic—and enjoy the games even more.
Alabama vs. USC – This might have been a great matchup if USC hadn’t just barely survived a year of absolute turmoil. Although Alabama is replacing not only a QB, but the two-deep roster at RB and a star center, they will dominate on the line and score against the Trojans’ suspect defensive line. And the Tide’s defense will suppress the Trojans’ offense as well. USC is also starting a new QB, although they have veterans at other key offensive positions. USC will improve as the season goes on and gets to a good bowl game.
But this game just isn’t in the cards. Alabama 21 USC 10
Ole Miss vs. Florida State – This could be the best game of the weekend. Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly is poised for a huge year. FSU RB Dalvin Cook is getting a lot of love. I think in the end, this game comes down to the classic battle between the quarterback and the opposing secondary. FSU’s secondary is fast and dangerous, but Kelly is a wily QB with great down field accuracy. Deondre Francois is an unknown quotient, but if FSU is going to win the offense is going to have to be more than handoff-left/right/middle. If the Seminoles don’t establish the passing game, Ole Miss will stack the box with big, mean Land Sharks and shut them down. But if Kelly goes cold, or the receivers aren’t helping him out, this could turn into a rout.
We’re betting on the Noles with the big win. Florida State 28 Ole Miss 24
Oklahoma vs. Houston – Oh, this game has all the earmarks of a classic that we like best. David vs. Goliath, Group of 6 vs. Power Five, national title implications, and the dean of the conference in Bob Stoops against the young upstart Tom Herman. If Houston wins, Oklahoma’s national title hopes may be shattered before they even start to make a run. If Oklahoma wins, it doesn’t matter how Houston does the rest of the year–they will not play in either a New Year’s bowl or the Final Four. Both teams have high-powered, big offenses. Both teams have revamped defenses after post-season attrition. Both teams have a lot to prove.
We’re suckers. We’ll take David in a shootout. Houston 38 Oklahoma 35
Georgia vs. North Carolina – This game is a wildcard. UGA coach Kirby Smart named SR Greyson Lambert the starting QB, which has Dawg Nation sputtering in speechless disbelief. Their hopes and expectations were pegged on true freshman Jacob Eason to come in and magically achieve David Green-like status. That may happen, but not for a few games unless Lambert is just awful. Last year his stats were pedestrian, and UGA’s reliance solely on the (outstanding) run game caused them to lose key games.
The Tarheels, behind another outstanding RB, Elijah Hood, will pressure Georgia early and often, and their QB Mitch Trubisky is a lot like Lambert–solid as opposed to stunning, protecting the ball and rarely turning it over. The giant elephant in the locker room doesn’t come from Tuscaloosa, but back from rehab. Is Nick Chubb really at 100%? We’ll find out this weekend in what’s shaping up to be a battle decided by the play of the lines on both sides of the ball.
We don’t know if Chubb’s at 100% but if he’s at 80%, that’s good enough in a match that might be closer than expected. Georgia 28 North Carolina 21