By Jonathan Lowe
September 21, 2017
There are some interesting clashes involving Group of 5 schools this weekend. Houston hosts former Southwestern Conference foe Texas Tech. Toledo heads to Miami to face a Hurricanes team that hasn’t played in weeks thanks to one of its namesakes. Likewise, Central Florida returns to the field for the first time since Week 1 (they travel to Maryland). As the saying goes, though, I put those matchups aside to go “straight chalk” this time around. I’ll keep checking in on the Mid-Majors during the season. In the meantime, the bigger names will start to dominate the spotlight.
Michigan at Purdue: The bad news for the Wolverines is that they had a bit of a tense time putting away Air Force last week. The good news is that they won’t have to face that triple-option attack for the rest of the regular season. This upcoming matchup should be more to the Maize and Blue’s liking. However, I don’t know if I would sleep on the Boilermakers just yet. Purdue hung with Louisville deep into the fourth quarter in the opener. Last week, (sigh) they walloped Missouri on the road. Now, neither of those teams have the defense Michigan sports. But, if the Wolverine offense is still sputtering (5 offensive TD’s to Purdue’s 14), then we may have a tight game a little later than expected.
Alabama at Vanderbilt: In the SEC, late-September conference games between two undefeated teams isn’t unprecedented. It appears to be an annual norm, actually. One happened only days ago (LSU at Mississippi State). Multiple games will follow the same rules this weekend. It just so happens that one of them will occur in Nashville. For the Commodores, this is a position they haven’t been in too often. There have been 3-0 (and better) starts. Even with that past, when was the last time that an opponent of this magnitude came to Tennessee’s state capital with the home team having a shot at getting to 4-0?
For the Crimson Tide, this is old hat. The following is a Public Service Announcement to one Nick Saban…YOU COACH A JUGGERNAUT! It doesn’t matter that you don’t want to hear it. It doesn’t matter that you don’t want your players to hear it. Since your second season in Tuscaloosa (2008):
*Your program has won at least 10 games every season.
*Your teams have competed six premier bowl games.
*Your squads have taken part in the last two College Football Playoffs.
*You have led the school to four national championships.
Now, if we’re comparing your run against those of Knute Rockne, Bud Wilkinson, Tom Osbourne, Red Blaik, or Bear Bryant, then that’s a valid discussion. But, save one contemporary (Urban Meyer), you are the guy that has dominated the field since the mid-1990s. The other big-name programs (Ohio State, Michigan, USC, Texas, Oklahoma, Penn State, Florida, LSU, Florida St.) have had, at least, one brief lapse of mediocrity over the last ten years. You haven’t, because you coach a juggernaut. Does this mean you’re invincible? No. But your pretty durn close. And that makes a big difference going against a team that may be looking for the program’s biggest win in its 113-season (115-year) history.
USC at Cal: It’s nice to see some of the programs in the Pac-12 revive their glorious past (two of those examples are coming up later). Could the Golden Bears be one of them? There was a period about 10-15 year ago when the Berkeley school was producing a football program that had numbers next to their name and sniffs on conference title contention. You can pinpoint 2004 as the prime example. Aaron Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch, and the Bears visited Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, Lendale White, and the Trojans in a top-10 showdown. As much fun as it is to reminisce on that matchup, this instance isn’t the same. Justin Wilcox is in his first year running the Cal program. They’ve racked up wins over Ole Miss and at North Carolina. To get to 4-0, though, they might have to depend on a USC hangover after the Trojans’ OT win against Texas.
Penn State at Iowa: Are the Nittany Lions truly back? They’ve looked the part, with three dominant wins to start the season. There also seems to be a bit of overconfidence – arrogance, to some – coming from the sidelines. Whether James Franklin is throwing a wet blanket over a deep-seeded state rivalry or “icing a kicker” in a 56-0 pasting, something’s working. The reputation of a top-ten program has returned this season. The program has won 11 straight regular season games. Oh, and let’s not forget that they’re the defending Big Ten champs. This run won’t last forever. It very well may not even last the whole season. But going into conference play, the Nittany Lions are pouncing.
There’s a magic to night games in several locales. However, living in the Upper Midwest, you see Big Ten fans embrace contests under the lights. Whether it’s Columbus, State College, Madison, or others, these events are well-received. The same can be said for Iowa City, where the Hawkeyes have pulled off some special results (including last year’s upset of second-ranked Michigan). This is the third time I’ve featured a Hawkeye game in this weekly blurb. They smothered Wyoming and survived against Iowa State. Am I becoming a good-luck charm for them? As a Cyclone alum, I sure hope not.
Mississippi State at Georgia: In a conference full of Tigers, it’s a couple of Bulldogs that are making some early noise. The ones that hail from Starkville made a huge statement while hosting one of those Tiger squads (the Bayou one). The blowout win over LSU marked a potential spark of the magic that vaulted this program to a #1 poll ranking (for several weeks) in 2014. Just like that season offered a breakout campaign for QB Dak Prescott, this one looks to provide a similar path for signal caller Nick Fitzgerald. The next two weeks could do a lot to vault this team to their own top-five status.
The first matchup for the “Bell” Dogs comes Between the Hedges. The other ‘Dawgs are flying high after their victory at Notre Dame a couple of weeks back. That (plus a Week 3 win over Samford) vaults them into the league schedule to come. Now, as has been the case the last few seasons, UGA is a player for the East Division title. They just didn’t expect to be running alongside their current 3-0 counterparts. We knew that Tennessee or Florida would cannibalize the other early on. The fact, though, that Kentucky and Vanderbilt are the other unbeaten teams in the division is a bit surprising. This may be the shot for Georgia to make their push back to Atlanta…and beyond.
Washington at Colorado: Last season, it looked like a return to 1990. Around that time, these two “outpost” squads were prominent players in the national championship picture. It’s taken a while for the Huskies to get back to that level, but they appear to be close, if not there. This was signified last Winter, when the Huskies made a trip to the national semifinals. Chris Petersen hopes to reach loftier goals this season. The schedule, however, will come into question again this year. With Rutgers, Montana, and Fresno State in the rear view mirror, they’ll need the Pac-12 to really step up their game…as they try to shut their peers down.
The Buffaloes are seeking a measure of revenge. They lost to UW in last year’s conference championship. Perhaps the biggest feel-good story of the season, CU has also been on the fast track to program revival. Mike MacIntyre returned the favor for the time the university allowed him to build the program back up. And they’re trying to build off of the school’s first 10-win season since 2001. A win over the Huskies would provide a large building block in the program’s efforts to return to national contending status.
TCU at Oklahoma State: A couple of weekends ago, the Horned Frogs showed their road mettle with a win in Fayetteville. Last weekend, they turned around an early 19-7 deficit to run away from longtime, crosstown rival SMU. This weekend, they can crash the Big XII party, where the Oklahoma schools are set to stand above the fray of everyone else. It may be a bit troubling that the Mustangs were able to get 36 on that defense (it limited Arkansas to seven a week before). This is definitely the week you would want the defending 11 to shore things up.
The Cowboys haven’t really been challenged yet this season. Their offense put up its second straight 59-point effort last Saturday at Pitt. Of the schools that have played three contests, Ok State is trailing only one school in scoring at 54.0 ppg (that would be Oregon’s at 56.0 ppg). But we know this about the Pokes. Mason Rudolph is just another reminder of the explosive offense this program has. It’s about gaining more for Mike Gundy’s squad. It’s about national respect and conference supremacy. They received a taste of that in 2011, and the folks is Stillwater have waited a while for that sensation to return.