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NCAA Tournament: The Sun Rises In The East

The East is a beast featuring last year’s champion Villanova, the team everyone loves to hate in Duke and four teams which aren’t getting enough respect heading into the tourney (SMU, Wisconsin, Virginia & Florida).

There’s an argument to be made (rightfully so) for the South being the hardest region (UNC, UCLA, Kentucky, Cincinnati), but the East gives us three teams that were ranked 1st in the nation at some point this season, another that is arguably the best in the B1G in Wisconsin and a team in Virginia that can shut down any offense at any time.

If Villanova can get past Wisconsin and Virginia, and Duke doesn’t stumble against Baylor or SMU we may end up with a Villanova vs Duke matchup in Madison Square Garden for a trip to the Final Four on the line.

Even if you don’t care about the basketball you can spend your time waiting to see if Grayson Allen has another meltdown, what custom suit Jay Wright is wearing, what fun things Wisconsin senior’s Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes will say and if Frank Martin has a complete meltdown on the South Carolina bench.

On the court your attention should be focused on Duke, who after winning four straight games against big time competition in the ACC Tournament comes into the NCAA Tournament finally looking like the team most national media members picked to win it all preseason. Harry Giles is starting to look like Harry Giles again, Jayson Tatum looks like the guy who’s the safest bet to succeed in the NBA in all of college basketball and Luke Kennard can get his shot off from any spot on the court at any time.

Even if the basketball turns out to be a bust there’s three letters that make this region better than any of the others…MSG. Anytime high level basketball leads to The Garden it automatically brings a level of excitement unrivaled by any other venue…hey, if the Mecca can prop up the overrated Big East Tournament it can surely do the same for some of the premier programs in college basketball.

(KenPom ranking in parenthesis)

(2) Villanova vs (212) Mouth St. Mary’s

Nova survived losing Arcidiacono and Ochefu from their national championship team and ran the Big East sweeping both the regular season and conference tournament on their way to a 31-3 record head into the NCAA Tournament. Josh Hart has been that dude while Jalen Brunson has blossomed into the floor leader during his sophomore campaign.

The NEC happens to be headquartered in my hometown so I’ll be pulling hard for MSM (to little or no avail). The Mountaineers won the regular season, going 14-4 before taking down the conference tournament. A 1 point win over New Orleans in the First Four earned them a date with Villanova, quite the reward. Three of their players score in double digits per game, led by sophomore Elijah Long at 15.1 (14.9 in conference). They don’t do anything particularly well that would make you think they have a shot in this one.

Time/TV: 7:10pm ET Thursday, CBS

Prediction: Villanova by 27

 

(23) Wisconsin vs (44) Virginia Tech

Wisconsin was my favorite to win the B1G before they hit a skid, losing 5 of 6 between February 12th and March 2nd. They have three players averaging double digit points, led by Bronson Koenig at 14.1 per game. Expect Koenig and Hayes to turn it up for the NCAA Tournament, both seniors have big time tournament experience. I not only like them to win this one but to also defeat Villanova in the round of 32. If anything, their soft seed hurt Villanova, who as a 1 will have to face such a good team in their second game of the tournament. The Badgers enter the tournament with the 8th best defensive efficiency in the country.

Va Tech finished the ACC regular season 10-8 with some nice wins over Duke, Virginia (2OT), Miami and a sweep of Clemson. They failed to beat up on any of the other ACC heavyweights and got their three largest wins (Duke, VA, Miami) at home. They have a shot at the upset due in part to their ability to knock down the outside shot (40.3% as a team), but in the end Wisconsin should end up being too much for them. The LeDay’s lead them in scoring (Zach 16.3 PPG, Seth 14.0 PPG) while four other Hokies also average double digit point totals per game. Their offense is legit, I just don’t think their defense makes enough stops to win.

Time/TV: 9:40pm ET Thursday, CBS

Prediction: Wisconsin by 9

 

(7) Virginia vs (59) UNC-Wilmington

Virginia enters the tournament touting the nation’s best defensive efficiency, and boy can they be boring to watch if you don’t appreciate grind it out basketball. Their adjusted tempo of 58.5 is dead last in the country, making them the slowest team in the nation. The Cavaliers are led in scoring by senior London Perrantes at 12.5 point per game and he’s the only Virginia player to have a double digit scoring average. Wilkins availability is up in the air for the UNCW game as of this writing.

UNC-Wilmington likes to play faster and touts the nation’s 18th best offense when it comes to efficiency.  They excel taking care of the ball and at shooting a high percentage from two-point range, but have had issues on the defensive end. The Seahawks are led in scoring by C.J. Bryce (entertaining dude to watch) who comes into the tournament averaging 17.6 points per game. Four total UNC-W players score in double digits per game, with three averaging at least 14.5 points per game. Kevin Keatts is a hot name in coaching circles right now, but in the end the Virginia defense will be too much for them to overcome.

Time/TV: 12:40pm ET Thursday, truTV

Prediction: Virginia by 12

 

(9) Florida vs (64) East Tennessee St.

Florida enters the NCAA Tournament coming off back to back losses to Vanderbilt. Prior to those losses, they had won 10 of their last 11 with the only loss coming on the road at Rupp. It’ll be interesting to see if they find their groove again, while they’ll get past ETSU, Virginia awaits in the round of 32. They do a nice job protecting the three-point line and enter the tourney with the nation’s 4th best defense based on efficiency. The Gators are led in scoring by KeVaughn Allen at 13.9 points per game, while Canyon Berry (12.1) and Devin Robinson (10.9) are also in double figures.

ETSU will rep the Southern Conference after winning both the league’s regular season and conference tournament. They shoot a healthy percentage (38.2%) as a team from deep, but expect Florida’s defense to negate their outside scoring. The Buccaneers will have to get to the line and do some damage inside to have any shot at the upset. The good news for anyone looking for the upset is their roster is experienced, boasting 13 upperclassmen. They’re led in scoring by T.J. Cromer at 19.1 points per game, while Desonta Bradford (10.6) is the only other ETSU player in double figures.

Time/TV: 3:10pm ET Thursday, truTV

Prediction: Florida by 9

 

(11) SMU vs (59) USC

The NCAA decided SMU couldn’t play in the NCAA Tournament last year so one would expect they’d come in hungry and on a mission. Their offense is legit and they boast two wins over a Cincinnati team with a stifling defense, including a 15-point victory in the AAC championship game. Their offense is balanced and they come into the tourney hitting 40.6% of their threes, good for 5th best in the nation. The Mustangs are led in scoring by Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye at 18.8 points per game, while three other players averaged double digits this season. SMU finished AAC play at 17-1 before running through the conference tournament, their only stumble a two-point loss at Cincinnati on January 12th. They sport length on the perimeter but lack it inside and will go small every occasionally, with Ojeleye at 6’7’’ their tallest player on the court.

USC overcame a double-digit deficit to defeat Providence in Dayton during the First Four. Their last win over a top 50 program came on January 25th as they took down UCLA at home. All year they’ve looked to be a couple of pieces short, and that should be the case again in this one. Not much stands out for them statistically on either side of the ball, just ball security where they only turn it over 15.6% of their possessions, good for 16th best in the nation. The Trojans are led in scoring by sophomores Bennie Boatwright (14.6 PPG) and Chimezie Metu (14.5 PPG). It’s interesting that the Trojans top two scorers are listed at 6’10’’ and up yet they only get 49% of their points from two-point range.

Time/TV: 3:10pm ET Friday, truTV

Prediction: SMU by 11

 

(12) Baylor vs (87) New Mexico St.

Baylor has mastered being more talented than most of their opponents and outplaying them for 35 minutes. They should have enough to get into the round of 32, but they have a lot of toughness questions to answer if they plan on advancing beyond their expected opponent of SMU. As usual, they excel on the offensive glass and do most of their scoring on the inside. They play at a slow pace and do an awful job taking care of the ball, but their talent alone should carry them in this one after a quick exit last year in the NCAA Tournament. Motley who hurt his finger in their last contest is probable for their first tourney game.

NMSU enters the tourney representing the WAC (which had a down year) after finishing in second during the regular season and defeating Cal St. Bakersfield (regular season champion) by 10 in the title game. The Aggies get a large percentage of their points from the free throw line and will have to get there a ton to have any shot against Baylor. The Aggies are led in scoring by Ian Baker (16.6 PPG). It’ll be tough for them to take down Baylor without Sidy N’dir who they’ve been missing for all but 9 games this season.

Time/TV: 12:40pm ET Friday, truTV

Prediction: Baylor by 7

 

(32) South Carolina vs (29) Marquette

South Carolina comes into the tourney riding a two-game losing streak, a loss at Ole Miss and a first-round SEC tournament loss to Alabama. Senior Sindarius Thornwell leads them at scoring with 21 points per game, while two other Gamecocks averaged double digits this season. They make their living on the defensive end, as they enter tourney play with the 3rd most efficient defense in the nation. Their issues have been on the offensive end as they’ve shot poor percentages from both three point and two-point range.

Marquette enters the tournament with some nice wins (vs Vanderbilt, at Xavier, at Creighton, vs Villanova) and some head scratching losses (at St. John’s by 14, at Georgetown by 18). The Golden Eagles shot a nation best 43% from deep this season, and are top 50 in two-point field goal percentage, but have allowed their opponents to shoot high percentages from both as well. They’re led in scoring by freshman Markus Howard (13.2 PPG) and sport a balanced offense as 4 other Golden Eagles averaged double digits this season. Their offense is the 8th most efficient in the nation, it remains to be seen if they’ll get enough from it to carry their defense against South Carolina. Center Luke Fischer is listed as probable for the South Carolina matchup.

Time/TV: 9:50pm ET Friday, TBS

Prediction: South Carolina by 2

 

(13) Duke vs (136) Troy

Duke comes in as hot as can be having won four straight (including wins over Louisville, UNC and Notre Dame) to win the ACC Tournament. Harry Giles is close to returning to the player everyone touted pre-injury and Jayson Tatum seems to have finally realized how good he is. Their offense has been fine, it’s the defensive end where they tend to slip up, especially against athletic guards who can drive. Luke Kennard (20.1 PPG) led them in scoring while 4 other Blue Devils averaged double figures. I have them going to the championship game, but it’ll depend largely on Tatum and Giles and whether Grayson Allen has re-found his stroke.

Troy won the Sun Belt tourney after only finishing 10-8 in conference play during the regular season. They avoided UT Arlington in the conference tourney, but did defeat 2 seed Georgia St. on their way to the championship. Keep an eye on sophomore Jordon Varnado (16.5 PPG) and junior Wesley Person (14.8 PPG) for the Trojans. They don’t do anything extraordinarily well, and should have a tough time with all the weapons the Blue Devils possess.

Time/TV: 7:20pm ET Friday, TBS

Prediction: Duke by 28

 

Overall Predictions:

Round of 64

Villanova over Mount Saint Mary’s

Wisconsin over Virginia Tech

Virginia over UNC-Wilmington

Florida over East Tennessee St.

SMU over USC

Baylor over New Mexico St.

South Carolina over Marquette

Duke over Troy

 

Round of 32

Wisconsin over Villanova

Virginia over Florida

SMU over Baylor

Duke over South Carolina

 

Sweet 16

Wisconsin over Virginia

Duke over SMU

 

Elite 8

Duke over Wisconsin

 

Champion

Duke

 

The Cartel and the Mid-Majors, Why Scheduling Matters

Imagine pulling for a team that can’t possibly win a championship, and not just because they aren’t good enough.  In College Football, it might literally be impossible to even qualify for a championship based on the company we keep.  Because of that, and that alone, it falls on the schedule-makers at Nobody U to make said program outside the Cartel relevant to the national conversation.

That’s not to say any of the participants from “non-qualifying” conferences ever really diluted the product, quite the opposite, in fact.

Boise State was the nation’s only unbeaten team from the 2006 season. The Broncos had to ‘settle’ for that historic Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma.   Meanwhile, one-loss Florida took down Ohio State in the bigger game on that same field in Arizona a week later.  After Boise State’s 43-42 overtime win over Oklahoma, their quarterback was asked if they deserved a title shot, and he said he thought so.  He wasn’t wrong, but he wasn’t quite all-the-way right either.

That perfect Boise State squad scheduled Division I-AA Sacramento State, a 10-win Oregon State team, Wyoming, and Utah in a down year, out of conference. None of their Western Athletic Conference rivals were ranked at the time of their game against the Broncos or the end of the season, so it was very difficult to argue their body of work against that of Ohio State’s or Florida’s for a spot in the two-team playoff.  Being undefeated basically became the standard for the Broncos, but even non-league wins over Oregon, Virginia Tech, and Georgia were not enough for National Championship consideration.  Playing other mid-majors in 8 or 9 contests per year, it impresses no one.

What are the contenders in the American, Conference-USA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt doing to chase down more than just small conference glory? What type of 2016 schedule might qualify these nobodies for the very exclusive tournament that College Football uses to crown its champion?

American Athletic Conference

The geography of this league lends itself to some really good non-conference games, as SMU gets backyard games with TCU and Baylor, but the team with a schedule worthy of national consideration is Houston.  Sure, they’re playing Lamar, and I will not support any playing of FCS opponents by teams that want to be the best of the FBS, but I’ll let it go for Oklahoma and Louisville.  The Sooners and Cardinals will both play Houston in Houston, which should be good enough if they survive the AAC.

Conference USA

Texas-San Antonio (UTSA) is going to attract the big boys to the Alamo Dome, but they will usually have to reciprocate with a road game. This year, they host Arizona State in September and take a trip to College Station, where Texas A&M will host them in November.  Don’t expect competitive games.  I might like Marshall’s gauntlet of ACC adversaries, if they weren’t coming immediately after an opening slate of Morgan State and Akron. Like Marshall, Western Kentucky will be taking on Louisville, but we’re focused on their Week 2 matchup. They’ll tussle with Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide, so should there be a running of the table, the Hilltoppers may get to dance.

Mid-American Conference

There might be a case to be made for Northern Illinois, but Bowling Green accompanies their visit to Columbus to play Ohio State with solid mid-major matchups against Middle Tennessee State and Memphis. They’ll see both NIU and Toledo in conference play, games they need to win for anyone to take them seriously, especially if Ohio State doesn’t boat-race them in the opener.

Mountain West

Boise State will make headlines in some markets with their Pac-12 opponents, at home against Washington State and in Corvallis versus the Oregon State Beavers, but BYU may give them their biggest challenge. However, it is the much traveled Hawaii Rainbow Warriors that play Cal, Michigan, and Arizona.  Those are all long-ish to long road trips against 2016 teams that are much better than their 2015 counterparts.

Sun Belt

If I skipped this section or listed FCS schools in this paragraph, would you even notice?

On a serious note, Troy plays Clemson, which is cool, but it’s off-set it is by playing the dregs of the FBS in Idaho. Austin Peay and Southern Miss don’t move the needle for me either, looking at the Trojans schedule. However, our eye is on Appalachian State.  The team best known for upsetting Michigan in 2007 is going FCS-free in ‘16, visiting the best Tennessee Volunteers team anyone has seen in years, and they convinced The U to come to Boone, North Carolina. The Mountaineers have already won, if you ask me.

At the end of the day, if we’re talking about those four lines and those two semi-final games, to open our game’s championship up to the anyone outside of the Cartel, it’s probably Houston.

E-mail Jeff at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @ByJeffRich.

(featured photo via Sporting News.com)

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Conference USA’s Best Football Games of 2016

Conference USA and the Mid-American Conference were pretty similar in that they both had one team which basically did whatever it wanted. In C-USA that team was Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers rolled through the conference undefeated, averaging 50 points per game in conference play.

However, Western Kentucky has just 11 starters returning, and the starting quarterback is not one of them. In general, the conference sees many of its top teams from last year returning very few starters, while the teams that finished at the bottom bring back quite a few. It should make for an exciting year for Conference USA and could open the door for a dark-horse candidate to break through. These ten games will help decide if we see two new teams in the conference championship game in 2016.

10. Charlotte at Louisville (Thursday, September 1)

Last year was Charlotte’s first season in the FBS, and just its third season fielding a football team. They struggled, as expected, going 2-10 but actually beat a Georgia State team in the opener that would go on to make a bowl game. I don’t think Charlotte will be able to knock off Louisville, but with 17 starters back can they hang around for a while? The final score of this game will show if the 49ers can possibly make a bowl game this year, or if the team is still years away.

9. North Texas vs. Southern Methodist University (Saturday, September 3)

This is an intriguing non-conference game between Group of Five schools. Both schools will have coaches with little experience. Chad Morris is in his second year at SMU and North Texas will be in its first year under first-time coach Seth Littrell. Littrell and Morris will have some familiarity with each other, as both were offensive coordinators at ACC schools. With two offensive minds at the helm, it could provide an entertaining game to start the year.

8. Southern Mississippi at Kentucky (Saturday, September 3)

Southern Miss went 7-1 in conference last year but lost all three games it played against Power 5 teams. Though Kentucky isn’t a world-beater, defeating the Wildcats, an SEC team, in the season opener would certainly help with recruiting (ESPNU at 7:30 pm est).

7. Old Dominion at Charlotte (Saturday, October 1)

Old Dominion and Charlotte combined to go 3-13 in conference play last year. So why is their matchup on this list? For starters, both teams return 17 starters in a conference where most of the good teams return a lot fewer. Additionally, these teams have been part of the Football Bowl Sub-division for two years or less. This game will show which team is closer to becoming a respectably competitive program.

6. Rice at Western Kentucky (Thursday, September 1)

We will see right off the bat what this Western Kentucky team looks like after losing so many key players from last year’s dominant team. They’ll get Rice at home on the season’s opening night in a conference clash that will tell us if Rice is ready to step up and challenge for their own division.

5. Florida International vs. Indiana (Thursday, September 1)

FIU will get back-to-back chances to start the year for a nice non-conference win. Indiana did make a bowl game last year but I don’t think anyone would be shocked if they laid an egg against a Group of Five school.

4. Florida International vs. Maryland (Saturday, September 10)

There aren’t a lot of winnable games for Conference USA against Power 5 competition, but this would be one of them. Maryland was abysmal last year and the Florida International Panthers get the Terps at home in the September heat.

3. North Texas at Rice (Saturday, September 24)

Louisiana Tech was the only school besides Southern Miss to finish above .500 in the West division. With LA Tech returning just nine starters, the spot is wide open as main challenger to the Golden Eagles. North Texas and Rice are two of those teams vying for that spot and this early season match-up will determine who has the early leg up.

2. Florida Atlantic at Florida International (Saturday, October 1)

Both teams will look to get over the .500 hump after going 3-5 in conference play a year ago. Florida Atlantic won eight of the first nine games between these two rivals, but the series has been pretty even since. Both teams return 14 starters so we should see a pretty heated battle.

1. Rice at Southern Mississippi (Saturday, October 1)

Southern Mississippi was in the conference championship game last year and Rice will be looking to take over its spot, with 16 starters returning this year. They’ll be extra motivated to get Southern Miss back for the 65-10 drubbing it put on the Owls last year.

E-mail Jason at or follow him on Twitter @JLindy87

Featured image courtesy

The American Athletic Conference’s Best Football Games of 2016

The AAC has been looked at as little more than a mish-mash of former Big East teams. One season has changed all that. Nobody expects them to move up to the level of a Power 5 conference, but they can’t be looked at as mere push-overs.

Last season, Houston achieved program-altering success and that momentum, along with their schedule, gives them an outside shot at the Playoff in 2016. It wasn’t just the Houston Cougars earning the AAC respect. Temple, Navy, and Memphis were all in the Top 25 at one point during the season. While a couple of those teams may fall back a bit with the loss of quarterbacks, other teams are primed to improve and make sure Houston doesn’t just waltz through the conference schedule.

Who will those teams be? There are some early season games among the ten best that may show which AAC team can challenge the Cougars for the top spot.

10. Temple vs. SMU (Saturday, October 1)

The conference opener for both teams, Temple will try to pick up where it left off last year. A year ago, SMU put up 40 against a Temple defense that allowed the second fewest points in the conference. The Mustangs still fell 60-40.

9. Cincinnati vs. Houston (Thursday, September 15)

Cincinnati was a disappointing 4-4 in the conference last year but was 5-1 at home, where they’ll get the Houston Cougars this year. The Bearcats only lost by three at Houston last year, and this Thursday home game early in the year will give them a chance to derail Houston’s conference and playoff hopes. This match-up will also provide the AAC’s two best quarterbacks in Greg Ward Jr. and Gunner Kiel.

8. SMU vs. TCU (Friday, September 23)

SMU didn’t exactly put a scare into TCU last year, but a 56-37 final made it closer than the Horned Frogs would have liked. Now the Mustangs get Gary Patterson’s crew at home, and we’ll have a good chance to see how far Chad Morris can bring his team in his second year as head coach.

7. Connecticut at South Florida (Saturday, October 15)

South Florida won seven of its last eight regular season games last year. Included in that stretch was a one-score victory over UConn. If the Huskies are going to improve on their six-win season and stay in the race for the AAC West, it starts here.

6. Temple at Connecticut (Friday, November 4)

This will be a big game in the AAC West race. Connecticut’s offense was abysmal last year, but Huskie fans hope there will be improvement with ten starters back. Temple will be trying to replicate the success of their 10-win 2015 after having just 12 total in the previous three seasons.

5. Houston at SMU (Saturday, October 22)

This should be a fun one. SMU struggled in Chad Morris’ first year as head coach but it shouldn’t take him long to get the offense rolling. The defense will have problems stopping Houston’s Greg Ward Jr. led offense, but the Cougars lost all four starting defensive backs so this game should see plenty of points.

4. Temple vs. South Florida (Friday, October 21)

The East division is Houston and everyone else this year, but the West will be up for grabs. This game could determine who plays the Cougars in the conference championship game. Temple and South Florida were the two best teams in the West last year and the winner of this one will have a leg up in the division race.

3. Houston vs. Connecticut (Thursday, September 29)

Houston gets Connecticut on a Thursday night at home, where they will try to avenge their only loss from the 2015 season. It won’t be easy though, with the Huskies returning a conference-high 16 starters.

2. Houston vs. Louisville (Thursday, November 17)

The Cougars get another chance to make a statement with this oddly scheduled non-conference game late in the year. If the Cougars lose to Oklahoma in the opener, no one will give them much credit unless they show up big in this one. This might be the best defense Greg Ward Jr. and company face all year.

1. Houston vs. Oklahoma (Saturday, September 3)

Houston heads into 2016 with a ton of hype after going 13-1 with a win over Florida State in 2015. We’ll see if they can sustain that success right off the bat when they play the Sooners in the season opener. With Greg Ward Jr. back, the offense should hold its own. This game will be about which rebuilt defense can get enough stops (Noon est, ABC/ESPN).

E-mail Jason at or follow him on Twitter @JLindy87

Featured image courtesy

Teams Poised to Improve in 2016

Every year there are teams that under- or over-perform compared to expectations. Sometimes teams are just bad. Whether it’s injuries, a bad record in close games, or an unusually tough schedule, some fan bases find themselves thinking it’s just not their team’s year. It often sets up for that team to exceed expectations the following year. The following teams are ones which I think should improve their win-loss record drastically from last year’s finish.

Maryland Terrapins

The Terrapins were about as bad as any Power 5 team this side of Kansas last year. They only left the field victorious three times and one of those was against Richmond. There are reasons for hope entering 2016 however, and by hope I mean they should at least be competitive in most games. Maryland only returns 12 starters, but one of them is the starting quarterback. Perry Hills isn’t going to be confused for Peyton Manning (ok, pre-2015 Peyton Manning), but he rushed for over 90 yards in four games and gives the offense a dual-threat quarterback that can keep defenses off-balance. Then there’s the schedule. The Terps played Bowling Green and West Virginia in the non-conference last year, two offenses they didn’t have a chance of keeping up with. The 2016 non-conference slate consists of Howard, Florida International, and Central Florida and crossover games against Wisconsin and Iowa have been replaced with much more manageable foes in Purdue and Nebraska. Maryland won’t be battling for a conference championship anytime soon, but with any luck it can find its way to a bowl game this fall.

LSU Tigers

LSU certainly isn’t going to surprise anybody this upcoming season, especially when you consider they are likely to find themselves in the top ten of the pre-season polls. I still think they are a team that could be much better than they were last year. I don’t think the Tigers were as good as their 9-3 regular season record would indicate and to increase their win total by even two games in 2016 would be a significant improvement over the 2015 squad. LSU only has four true road games and most importantly, none of those are in Tuscaloosa. If Brandon Harris can hold onto the starting job, he should improve on a season where he threw only six interceptions. Part of the reason was he spent most of his time handing off to Leonard Fournette, but if Harris can be even an average passer it will make the LSU offense exponentially better. Then there’s the defense, one which looked nothing like the Tigers’ stop unit we’ve come to expect. The Tigers’ run defense was gashed in their three losses. That should change this year with the arrival of new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Aranda led a Wisconsin Badgers defense that has been near the top statistically each of the past few seasons. With 18 starters returning, it’s no wonder the Bayou Bengals are on the short list of title favorites in 2016.

Louisville Cardinals

The Cardinals finished a disappointing 7-5 last year after some had pegged them as an ACC sleeper. That was shot down early as the ‘Ville started off 0-3 before rattling off some wins through the easier part of its schedule. The opening game loss against Auburn looks bad, but they only lost by a field goal to both Houston and Clemson, who each finished as top ten teams. The Cardinals could never really get consistent QB play, and that will be the key to a turnaround. Lamar Jackson is dynamic, if not the passer Bobby Petrino is accustomed to. Petrino will lead a 2016 team that returns 18 starters, tied for most in the country. Jackson’s dual-threat ability combined with a defense that should be one of the best in the country provide a team that has the talent to hang with almost anyone on a given Saturday. But the passing game will need to show more consistency if that improvement is going to show up in the win column. With a schedule that will have them favored in at least nine of their games, there are no excuses.

SMU Mustangs

Chad Morris had plenty of success as the offensive coordinator for Clemson, but after leaving to become SMU’s head coach. He had to watch the Tigers march all the way to the title game while enduring a 2-10 2015 season in Dallas. The Mustangs have a lot of things working in their favor heading into this season however. It usually takes time for a new coach to get things going, so the team should see improvement across the board just from being in Morris’ system for the second year. This is especially the case for an offense that returns nine starters, including quarterback Matt Davis. Davis won’t be throwing for 500 yards a game anytime soon, but after the opener against Baylor, he didn’t have a single game with multiple interceptions the rest of the year. The offense should keep the team in games in 2016, when the schedule lightens up quite a bit. Not only did the Mustangs face Baylor and TCU in the non-conference last year, they also had conference games against Houston, Temple, Navy, and Memphis, all teams who were much better than anyone could have anticipated. All six of those teams are on the schedule again this year but Temple, Navy, Memphis, and TCU will all likely be worse than their 2015 editions. With improvements for the Mustangs and the rest of the conference falling back to the pack, we may see Chad Morris’ squad bowling in just his second year on the job.

Featured image courtesy John McStravick

Five You Must See: Week 11

#2 Alababma (8-1) at #17 Mississippi State (7-2) Saturday 3:30pm on CBS

Alabama made a loud statement last week by shutting down LSU completely.  Mississippi State, who’s lost to those Tigers and the Aggies of A&M, has since rattled off four straight wins during the midseason lull in their schedule.  Winning here would give them, Ole Miss and LSU new life in the crowded SEC West race.

This game features two of my favorite offensive players in the country.  Alabama running back Derrick Henry, fresh off a 210-yard, three-touchdown performance, is finally getting some Heisman hype of his own.  Most everyone was focused on Leo Fournette this time last week, but by out-rushing the former frontrunner by 179 yards, Henry has shifted the attention to him.  It’s time for him to follow it up with another stellar game on the ground to let everyone know he’s for real.

On the other side, watch out for (who else) quarterback Dak Prescott.  He’s really the only hope the Bulldogs have in this game.  The senior leads his team in passing and rushing yards, and I’m sure he would lead in receiving too if they had someone who could throw it to him consistently.  He’s also been responsible for 25 touchdowns this season.  For his team to have a chance in this one, Prescott has to go off.

This is the best chance all you Alabama haters have to see the Tide slip up again.  Tune in to hear Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson on the call.

#21 Memphis (8-1) at #24 Houston (9-0) Saturday 7:00pm on ESPN 2

Memphis ruined any shot they had at the playoff by losing to Navy last week.  Meanwhile, Houston’s 20-point win over SMU was much closer than the score suggests.  This matchup will likely be a battle of two great junior quarterbacks.

Memphis’ Paxton Lynch is getting some mention as a top QB in this year’s draft class if he decides to declare.  It’s hard to argue that based on his body of work.  He’s one of eight guys in the country who’ve thrown for more than 3000 yards.  He’s ninth in completion percentage at 68.9.  And with 19 touchdowns on just two interceptions he takes care of the ball too.  A signature game in front of a national audience would validate his high draft stock.

Greg Ward Jr. is just as prolific, though his game is much different.  Ward is that dual-threat that we’ve seen open up the NFL to new possibilities.  At 70.4 percent, he ranks second in completion rate.  He’s the top rushing quarterback in the nation outside of Navy’s Keenan Reynolds who has an unfair advantage, running the triple option.  To average 92 yards per game on the ground as a QB is just sick.  The Tiger defense is going to have to keep a spy on Ward all night if they hope to hold him in check.

All of a sudden Memphis finds itself third in the division, needing a win here and a Navy loss to have a shot at the AAC West crown.  Houston, on the other hand, still has dreams of an undefeated season and a playoff spot.  This is easily the biggest game in the AAC’s brief history.

Oregon (6-3) at #7 Stanford (8-1) Saturday 7:30pm on Fox

Oregon is finally playing well.  They’ve won three in a row, but a fourth will be difficult.  Stanford is really good.

The Cardinal calling card has always been a stout defense.  Now that they’ve added offensive firepower to their arsenal they’re an absolute nightmare of an opponent.  They can, and will, pound you between the tackles with Christian McCaffrey who averages 134 yards per game.  That’s made life so much easier for Kevin Hogan who’s completing 66 percent of his passes now that most of them come off a play action fake.

The Ducks are finally getting the production they need from Vernon Adams, which is good news because they’re going to have to outscore the Cardinal to win this one.  In the last three games he’s thrown 10 touchdown passes and just three interceptions.  Like McCaffrey does for Hogan, Royce Freeman opens up opposing defenses for Adams.  The sophomore standout has rushed for at least 100 yards in seven of nine games this fall, with a pair of touchdowns in four of those seven.

It’s been a disappointing season for the Ducks but they’ve still got a chance to spoil Stanford’s playoff party plans.  There should be a fair amount of bad blood in Palo Alto.

#12 Oklahoma (8-1) at #6 Baylor (8-0) Saturday 8:00pm on ABC

The Baylor Bears have been waiting to prove themselves all season, but the Sooners have needed to prove themselves since taking a terrible loss to Texas.

This is the first of three gauntlet games that round out Oklahoma’s schedule.   They’ve got TCU coming to town next week and they’re headed to Stillwater for Bedlam against Oklahoma State in two weeks.  All three are huge obviously, but a loss here would significantly detract from the next two.  A quick note on quarterback Baker Mayfield: he’s completing 70 percent of his passes and averaging 10 yards per attempt.  That combination is astounding and needless to say, no one else is even close to that sort of production.

Baylor’s offensive machine is now operating with a backup quarterback.  Freshman Jarrett Stidham has the keys now after Seth Russell was injured two weeks ago.  He exceeded expectations last week against a formidable Kansas State defense.  He’ll need to be even better against hands down the best defense the Bears have seen all season.

Baylor also has a bumpy road ahead with trips to Oklahoma State and TCU, and a game against Texas on conference championship weekend that looks like the perfect opportunity to trip them up if they’re somehow still standing.  The odds are stacked against them, but that’s pretty much what they asked for.  Let’s see how they handle it.

Washington State (6-3) at #19 UCLA (7-2) Saturday 10:45pm on ESPN

Don’t pass out early.  The nightcap should be fun too.

Washington State has been entertaining this year.  At an astronomical 56.9 attempts and 417.3 yards a game, nobody throws it around the lot like the Cougars.  What else would you expect from a Mike Leach offense?  Luke Falk is another one of those guys completing passes at a 70 percent clip, but when you air it out 56 times a game it brings a whole new meaning to the stat.  UCLA’s defense has been banged up all season.  Falk and company will be aiming to take advantage.

UCLA is still alive despite back-to-back losses to Arizona State and Stanford.  They still control their own destiny with games at Utah and at USC after Wazoo.  Sure it’s tough to ask them to go out and win those last two, but that’s what championship teams do.

Josh Rosen has become a must-watch player for me.  He can make all the throws.  It’s clear he’s got the talent.  Now it’s a matter of him progressing as a quarterback, not just a thrower.  He has to learn how to diagnose defensive schemes and figure out how to consistently move his team down the field in order to take that next step.  I’m excited to see if he can do it.

Do the Bruins come out flat and fall on their faces again, or have they gotten their act together?  Stay up late to find out.

Week 3 Rundown: SEC Steals the Show

We start this week on a sad note, where Texas can’t get out of its own way. If Texas isn’t turning itself into a circus off the field, it’s putting its fans on a roller coaster that gets stuck at the top. After somehow battling back from a 3 touchdown fourth quarter deficit with an offense that has been anemic all year, the Longhorns scored what should have been the game-tying touchdown only to miss the extra point. Fast forward to 1:35 of the video if you’d like to see the carnage.

Another team that left its fans with heartbreak, albeit in a different fashion, was the USC Trojans, who did what USC always does in losing a game they weren’t supposed to. Before the season started this loss wouldn’t have been crushing, but after Stanford lost at Northwestern in the opener USC fans had to have expected a win here. But the Cardinal continue to have the Trojans’ number at The Coliseum and leave USC with little room for error the rest of the way. Also not a good sign, Southern Cal gave up 41 to Stanford, who has one of the worst offenses in the Pac-12. On the other side of the country, Clemson avoided doing what they usually do in fending off Louisville on Thursday night, squeaking by with a three point victory. They certainly won’t get any style points for this one, but I think anytime you can get a road win in a Thursday night game you just take it and move on.

Barely escaping was a common theme in the ACC this week. Along with Clemson, Florida State slugged their way to a 14-0 win at Boston College in a Friday night contest. The Seminoles offense continues to be hit and miss and will have to hope they can find some consistency as they move deeper into ACC play. Florida State’s rival Miami almost had a disastrous loss on Saturday. After dominating the whole game and entering the 4th up 33-10, Miami should have been able to cruise in the final quarter. Well they did a little too much cruising and not enough pedal to the metal, allowing the Cornhuskers to claw their way back and force overtime. Luckily the defensive backfield, one that appears light years ahead of where they’ve been the previous few seasons, intercepted Nebraska’s opening pass in OT, allowing Miami to just need a chip shot field goal to seal the win.

Georgia Tech was not able to escape with a win, albeit against significantly better competition than the rest of the ACC played. Even with QB Malik Zaire lost for the season, Notre Dame showed they are a complete team who will be in the playoff race all year. That defense is good, and they have a playmaker in the backfield with CJ Prosise and at wideout with William Fuller. In two weeks the Irish go on the road to play Clemson in what might be this year’s first playoff elimination game.

While Notre Dame was making their statement as a playoff contender, a couple other contenders were doing their best to look anything but. Ohio State sleep-walked through last week’s game against Hawaii before pulling away, and this past Saturday walked an even finer line in beating Northern Illinois by just a touchdown. I’m not sure if the Buckeyes aren’t nearly as good as last year’s team or if they’re just going through the motions because they’re so much better than the teams they have been playing. Either way they’ll need to have things rounding into form before they play Michigan State later in the year. TCU is the other member of the preseason Top 2 and they are struggling as well. Though I’m not sure the outcome was in doubt, the Horned Frogs gave up 37 points at home to SMU. Because of injuries, that defense is in shambles and will be hard to overcome in a conference that has seen Baylor, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State putting up points at will. I have the Horned Frogs on upset alert next week at Texas Tech.

It’s amazing that I’ve gotten this far without discussing the SEC. Might as well save the best for last right? Speaking of the best, LSU RB Leonard Fournette might be the best RB (or player in general) in the country. That dude is scary. Even though most college football fans know about his beastly running skills, it’s still amazing to watch when he puts on a display like the one he did against Auburn on Saturday. LSU pounded Auburn, who has quickly turned into a dumpster fire but is still somehow ranked. We wouldn’t want voters to be too flexible with their preseason opinions on teams now would we?

I should mention Georgia as well, if for no other reason than QB Greyson Lambert set an NCAA accuracy record by completing 96% of his passes on 25 attempts. This game probably says more about South Carolina than Georgia. The Gamecocks have fallen swiftly from their run of three straight 11-win seasons. Georgia has looked good, but considering their history no one is going to take them seriously until they win a big game. Ole Miss definitely won’t have that problem after going into Tuscaloosa and beating the Crimson Tide. They’re now top five in both polls and have much easier contests the next few weeks so they should be able to build even more momentum going into the stretch run. It’s hard for me to decide what I should take away from this game. On one hand you think of the two somewhat fluky long touchdowns the Rebels scored which had huge impacts on the game. But they also had multiple drives in the 2nd half where there was a ton of pressure on them to stave off the Alabama comeback, and they made the plays on both offense and defense when they had to. Either way, the Rebels are legit.

Losing at home is always a disaster for the Tide, but isn’t it a little impressive that they managed to only lose by one score in a game that they lost the turnover battle 5-0? That should show just how good they still are and certainly aren’t out of the race yet. However, they will definitely need help with Ole Miss having to lose two conference games in order for Bama to have a chance to make it to the SEC Championship game. Right now the SEC West has been turned upside down with pre-season frontrunners Alabama and Auburn losing to Ole Miss and LSU. We’ll see if the Rebels and Tigers can keep it up as the year goes on.

Top 4

Ohio State
Ole Miss
Michigan State
Baylor

First Five/Last Five – Week 1: Wake me up When it’s all Over

Welcome to the First Five/Last Five. Each week, (hopefully) I’ll write a little blurb about 10 teams: those at the top of the AP Top 25 and those at the bottom of the AP Top 25. The first week is a little weird because all the games are spread out, so you’ll have to come back for my thoughts on Ohio State, but in a perfect world, this is published Saturday night or super early on Sunday. I’m sacrificing my body for you. So, I hope you appreciate this. E-mail me directly at [email protected] or follow me on Twitter @damienbowman.

First Five

No. 1: Ohio State

Ohio State plays Virginia Tech Monday evening in Blacksburg. Check back soonish after the game for my thoughts.

No. 2: TCU

TCU played Minnesota on Thursday night in a surprisingly close match. TCU gets a ton of respect for opening a probable playoff-appearing season with a true road game against the Gophers. The biggest takeaway for the Horned Frogs was the offense just wasn’t very consistent. Even against a Big Ten opponent such as Minnesota, Gary Patterson and gang should have been able to score more than 10 points in the first half. The good thing for TCU, as Seth says, is they won’t face many defenses [if any] as good as Minnesota in the Big 12.

I often wonder if any team plays defense in the Big 12.

Up next: Stephen F. Austin who faced Northern Arizona this week. The only expectations for TCU are a convincing victory, as in it should be a significantly better performance than the game they gave us versus Minnesota.

No. 3: Alabama

https://twitter.com/SBNationGIF/status/640323296622309376

That’s Derrick Henry above. If you forgot, he was splitting time in 2014 with someone who no longer matters, but is the feature back of the Alabama offense in 2015. He’s big, fast, and isn’t afraid to go at a defensive line. Alabama’s offensive line – which may have been questionable before Saturday – is solid. The line was able to create holes for Henry, and also gave Jacob Coker enough time in the pocket to probably tie his shoes and toss the ball 20-yards after.

Speaking of Mr. Coker, yeah he hasn’t started a game since his senior year of high school in 2010. The senior transferred from Florida State and sat last year because of transfer rules, but after facing tons of adversity showed the nation last night that he’s the real deal. Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban wasn’t ready to say that Mr. Coker was the starter going forward, but it’s hard to imagine they go any other way.

Up next: Middle Tennessee who beat Jackson State 70-14 in their opener. Assuming Mr. Coker starts again, the goal will be to continue to find rythym for he and the rest of his offensive cohorts. The conference schedule won’t be nearly as easy as the game against Wisconsin ‘appeared’, but if that game was any indication then there’s no reason Alabama shouldn’t be playoff bound in 2015.

No. 4: Baylor

What the actual EFF was that? I didn’t expect SMU to lay down to Baylor, but then again, I didn’t expect Baylor to lay down to SMU. It would be a little ridiculous to assume the Bears won’t get better on offense, but one has to assume the defense will get better at some point. Right? Or is Baylor’s goal to just simply outscore every opponent this season? Have to say, that strategy may work in the regular season, but as Oregon can tell you, defense means a bit more once we get to December and January. The one thing that is super impressive about Baylor is their receivers. Meaning, SMU might be one of the tougher teams they face defensively all season. On top of that, the Bears’ defense committed stupid penalty after stupid penalty. If you held a gun to my head, I’d say Baylor has no chance at making the playoff at this rate.

Up Next: Lamar. Right, I don’t know them either. Baylor HAS to play better in this game than they did against SMU.

No. 5: Michigan State

The bottom line for Michigan State is that their defense needs to continue what it has done the past few years without the luxury of having Pat Narduzzi to guide it. The reality of their game versus Western Michigan is that didn’t happen. The offensive line is good and everyone else is average. Sure, first game jitters and all that, but Sparty was up 24 in the 3rd quarter and won by 13. Spartans running back Madre London ran for two touchdowns, and quarterback Connor Cook showed why (in my opinion) he’s the best quarterback in the Big Ten. After the game, head coach Mark Dantonio said he thought his defense could improve. They have no choice if they expect to contend for the Big Ten title or make the playoff.

Up next: No. 7 Oregon. If the defense and special teams play as they played against the Bronco’s it will not be a good game for Michigan State. I kind of hope they were playing down to Western Michigan, but even that is no excuse. I should also say I have Michigan State winning the Big Ten and making the playoff. Beating Oregon certainly helps my cause.

Last Five

No. 20: Wisconsin

The Paul Chryst era at Wisconsin started with a loss. No biggie. There was nothing getting through Alabama’s defensive line in Arlington on Saturday evening. At one point, Wisconsin totally abandoned the run game and threw something like 14 of 15 straight plays. Let’s be 100% real about Alabama, other than Ohio State last season, no other team has been better in college football for maybe the past 10 years.

The good for Wisconsin: Mr. Chryst is willing to use all the offensive playmakers without reservation. I’m no Wisconsin expert, but I believe their sole, or almost sole, reliance on the running backs and wide receivers has hurt them the past few years.

The bad for Wisconsin: the defense isn’t experienced enough. The middle of the defensive line is young and losing a play maker like Micahel Caputo certainly didn’t help matters at all. The good part of this equation is that Wisconsin doesn’t face Michigan State or Ohio State in the regular season and obviously won’t see Minnesota until the end of the season. That means there’s plenty of time for the defensive line to figure it all out.

Up next: Miami of Ohio.

No. 21: Stanford

https://twitter.com/SMerenbloom/status/640233383964991488

That’s Seth, and he pretty much runs things around here. ‘Disappointing’ is probably the nicest adjective he could have used, and cleanest. I said this in our double-secret Slack chat, that as much as I’m not in favor of a preseason, games like this show teams should be able to scrimmage FCS teams a few weeks before the season starts. If Stanford were to play Northwestern even three weeks from now, I have no doubts Stanford would win easily. Exactly – so, what?

The story of this game was Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan who was ruffled all day by Northwestern’s defense. Northwestern amassed 255 yards rushing while Stanford ran for a paltry 85 yards, and Stanford’s defense refused to stop the run … or pass … or anything from Northwestern.

I wouldn’t totally be surprised to see Stanford drop from the Top 25 this week only to work their way back in later in the season. Northwestern is a quality team, and Pat Fitzgerald has only lost one of his previous 9 opening games, so we shouldn’t be totally surprised Northwestern won. But, really…who saw that coming? I didn’t.

Up next: Central Florida who lost to Florida International on some kind of weird field goal incident. Luckily for Stanford, almost every other team in the Pac-12 North got their bell rung, so there’s still a shot at respectability. That all goes out the door if they struggle with UCF next weekend.

No. 22: Arizona

The biggest news from this game isn’t that Arizona won, it’s that Scooby Wright was injured. The better news is that appears that as of right now – Saturday evening – that the injury is not season-ending. Arizona did not look spectacular against Texas-San Antonio, but they won. Somehow. Anu Soloman scored three touchdowns – which, thank God for him – because otherwise this season could be in the toilet pretty fast.

UTSA was able to convert on each of its third- or fourth-down attempts, which is not a good indicator of how Arizona’s SWAT defense will perform this year.

Typically I would say Arizona fans should worry, but the long and the short is that it’s too early. If Wright is out for an extended period of time, then worry, otherwise, iterate and improve. Depending on what goals and expectations Rich Rodriguez has set, the Wildcats will be fine.

Up next: Nevada. Again, the Wildcats are fine.

No. 23: Boise State

Boise State will be fine. A near miss against Washington is something to improve upon for sure, but the play calling in the game is something that confused me. I’m not a great X’s and O’s guy, but to not even try and mix in a pass doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense to me. Two running plays, and short pass that doesn’t convert then a punt won’t keep the attention of many this season.

On the other side of the ball, the Bronco’s have one hell of a defense. As in, maybe top-10 among the teams I saw this weekend that played other Power 5 teams. I don’t believe Washington crossed the 100-yards of total offense mark until the fourth quarter.

Up next: BYU. Unsurprisingly the game versus BYU will be one of five (FIVE) that might be decent the entire weekend. BYU lost quarterback Taysom Hill for 2015, but Tanner Magnum looks like he’s ready to step up. Saturday at 10:15 p.m. EST. Appointment television if you’re awake. Or sober.

No. 24: Missouri

I’ve seen enough of Maty Mauk to know that I’m done with Maty Mauk. I know, hyperbole and I didn’t even believe my own b.s. until I saw TRUE freshman Drew Lock. He’s the real deal, or at least as real as Missouri is going to get right now. I’m not really sure why head coach Gary Pinkel decided to burn that redshirt, but I have to assume it’s because he – like me – believes that Lock is better than Mauk. I think Pinkel will do right by Mauk and let him work his way out of the starting job, but if Pinkel had absolute faith in Mauk, why burn the redshirt?

Right, it makes zero sense to me either. It’s tough to take a lot away from this game since Missouri played Southeast Missouri State, but the defense obviously looks very good, as did the offensive line. Both Mauk and Lock had tons of time to throw. The best down for Mizzou’s offensive line might have been Lock’s cross-body, cross-field 78-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Hunt.

Mauk who?

Up next? Yep, It’s true, Missouri will travel TO Arkansas State. Arkansas State opens in California versus Southern Cal. For the sake of next week’s game, I hope that Southern Cal game is great.

No. 25: Tennessee

Bowling Green is no joke. Sure, they got their butts kicked in the Mid-American Conference Championship last season, but they showed up in Nashville to play and play they did. The Volunteers opened the season ranked for the first time since 2012, and I expect they’ll begin week 2 in a higher spot. Is two spots out of the question? Volunteers quarterback Josh Dobbs threw for two touchdowns and ran one in as well. Jalen Hurd had three touchdowns in the first half. Yeah, the first half.

Tennessee’s defense and special teams left a lot to be desired in the first half, but an 80-minute weather delay seemed to help get them in order.

Up next: Oklahoma at Neyland. Oklahoma crushed Akron 41-3 so next week will feel like real football for both teams. 6:00 p.m EST. Yep, appointment television.

E-mail Damien at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @damiEnbowman.

College Quickie: It’s Finally Here

OMG THERE’S COLLEGE FOOTBALL TODAY. That was roughly my thought and corresponding excitement level when I woke up this morning. There’s so much to look forward to with a new season starting. So many unknowns. Last year a Top 10 South Carolina team got embarrassed by Texas A&M only for the Aggies to end up having a fairly dismal season themselves. It doesn’t look like there will be a game like that this year, not on opening night anyway. Minnesota should hang with TCU for a while, but it’s hard to see them pulling the upset.

Everyone knows about the bigger matchups of Week 1; Alabama-Wisconsin, Louisville-Auburn, Utah-Michigan, and Ohio State-Virginia Tech are a few big-time games that most, if not all college football fans will be interested in for one reason or another. But there is plenty more goodness on the dish for this weekend. Here are some other things to look for.

Friday Night Lights

Baylor kicks off their season on Friday at 7:00 eastern time on national tv against in-state foe SMU. The Mustangs aren’t exactly a huge challenge, but hey at least Baylor is playing a non-conference game on the road right? If Baylor is the playoff contender many think they are (myself included) they should handle this game fairly easily. New SMU coach Chad Morris led some prolific offenses at Clemson, but doesn’t have nearly the talent at SMU. Maybe he can scheme his way to being a pain in the you-know-what of Baylor for a quarter or two.

The night-cap on Friday (10:15 eastern time) sees Chris Petersen return to Boise leading the Washington Huskies against the Broncos. Boise State is expected to be the top Group of 5 team once again. Even though the Huskies lost most of their defensive stars from a year ago, Boise will be breaking in a new QB. Maybe Petersen can whip up some magic against his old team.

Graduate Transfers

Though Oregon and Florida State are only facing Eastern Washington and Texas State respectively (both 8:00 eastern kickoffs on Saturday night), that doesn’t mean these games aren’t worth keeping an eye on. It will be interesting to see what transfer quarterbacks Everett Golson and Vernon Adams can do in their first start with new teams. They both may pile up stats, but the key will be to see how comfortable each is in their new offense and if they are on the same page as their WRs, particularly Adams who leads the Ducks into East Lansing in Week 2.

Playoff Contenders

Michigan State (Western Michigan), Georgia (UL-Monroe), UCLA (Virginia), Oklahoma (Akron), LSU (McNeese St), and USC (Arkansas State) are all popular playoffs picks for this year who open against vastly inferior opponents and thus find themselves as large favorites. Four of these teams are breaking in new quarterbacks, so it doesn’t mean their teams can’t improve throughout the season, but I’ll be interested to watch just how these teams perform. It would be easy, even in a season opener, to just show up and sleepwalk their way to a win. If a team means business, it will be dialed in and ready to bring it even against these lowly opponents.

A couple other good games are Arizona State against Texas A&M and Texas against Notre Dame. I actually think Arizona State might be in the toughest spot of all the Top 25 teams in Week 1. They already play in the impossible Pac-12 South, and start the year against a quality Texas A&M team in what will basically be a road game. Though many expect the Sun Devils to win and be a playoff sleeper, they’re still underdogs against an Aggie team that isn’t even ranked. You know what else I wouldn’t like? Going against a Kevin Sumlin offense that has had all off-season to prepare for this game.

Notre Dame is in a bit of a tough spot as well. They are definitely expected to win even though Texas should be improved. A dominant effort here could also springboard the Irish into a possible playoff run. On the other hand if they struggle in this one, it’s going to be a long season in South Bend considering the strength of ND’s schedule.

What else to watch for? How about everything. We have waited eight months for this day. Get your favorite energy drink, stock the chips and salsa, set up four TVs and enjoy it. Before you know it, it’ll be Monday night and we’ll be counting down the days until Week 2.

IT is almost here

Admittedly, the college football season snuck up on me this year.  Double check that calendar.  We’re now only a fortnight away from having our Saturdays booked for the foreseeable future.

The dog days are all that separate us from weekly 12-hour cycles of football.  All we’ve got to do is survive and we’ll be back to doing what we all love.  Here’s a little something to help you pull through:

Gone are the days of boring opening weekends.  Because of the playoff format, any college football team with championship aspirations needs to take full advantage of every opportunity to build their resume and impress the committee.

After enduring more than a decade of suffering under the tyranny that was the BCS, where the ‘play it safe’ mentality rewarded powerhouse programs for beating up on the Little Sisters of the Poor, we’ve finally been enlightened.  Now we can expect to see many meaningful football games each and every week, including the first.

This season’s opening night, Thursday, September 3, won’t ease us back into the groove of a college football weekend.  It will catapult us headfirst into a brick wall of big games.

At six o’clock, North Carolina and South Carolina kick-off the season with a battle for bragging rights.  These two haven’t been meeting expectations in recent seasons.  You can bet they’ll both come out looking to begin with a bang.  I wouldn’t put it past the Head Ball Coach to dial up a deep shot on the Gamecocks’ first play from scrimmage.  Plus, things tend to get interesting when schools from neighboring states get together.

Oklahoma State has a strange road game scheduled at Central Michigan, which starts an hour later, at seven.  I say strange because MAC schools rarely host prominent out-of-state programs in week one.  The Chippewas were behind the wildest bowl game finish of the 2014 season.  Mike Gundy is still a man, although he’s now 47 (hard to believe this was so long ago).  Anyway, this should be a quality contest.

At eight, Vanderbilt hosts Western Kentucky.  Normally, Sun Belt teams don’t stand a chance against SEC foes, but we could see an ‘upset’ here.  This one will warrant some attention, especially if the first two games don’t hold your interest.

A half hour after that, Michigan kicks off the Jim Harbaugh era at Utah.  And the Wolverines had better watch out.  The Utes’ last game was a 45-10 win over Colorado State in the Las Vegas Bowl.  Talk about a tough task for Harbaugh as he begins his tenure at his alma mater.  If he and his team can emerge victorious it will provide an enormous confidence boost.

The main event of the opening evening is TCU at Minnesota, which starts at nine.  The last time we saw the Horned Frogs they were belittling Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl.  They’ve got a Heisman hopeful quarterback in Trevonne Boykin, who will be looking to follow up on his coming out party.  Some still argue that TCU was snubbed by the committee last season and there’s sure to be a whole heap of hype surrounding them this season because of it.  Minnesota is no slouch either.  The Gophers have been steadily improving for two seasons.  Boy, could they use a big win after all that’s come out about their former Director of Athletics this summer.  I can’t wait to see how this one plays out.

Friday night will not be a lull in the action as it usually is.

The participants from last season’s Sugar Bowl both hit the road to start their 2015 campaigns.  Baylor is at SMU, and Michigan State travels to Western Michigan.  Neither should have too much trouble with their opponent, but then again, you never know.  Both are scheduled for a seven o’clock kick.

For the night cap, Washington heads to the blue turf of Boise State.  These two programs have stagnated in recent years.  U-Dub continues to tread water in the depths of the crowded Pac-12.  Boise State now carries the Mountain West’s torch as opposed to the WAC’s.  Despite the switch, the Broncos remain the best team in their league, by far.  Stay up late and watch.  Chances are you won’t regret it.

Then, at long last, when you wake up on Saturday morning and turn on College Gameday, you’ll realize it’s officially football season.  Stock plenty of food and beverages, invite over some fellow college football junkies, and tell everyone else you’ll be busy for the day.

The most intriguing noon start is Stanford at Northwestern.  The Cardinal’s David Shaw and the Wildcats’ Pat Fitzgerald are two of the ‘good guys’ in college football.  They run tight ships, and you hardly ever hear about any internal problems.  If you like to watch smart kids play football then look no further.

Make sure your remote is ready for the 3:30 slate.  Virginia vs. UCLA, Louisville vs. Auburn, and BYU vs. Nebraska are all mid-afternoon starts.  With so much simultaneous action you can let your interests direct you.  There are plenty of reasons to get excited about all these contests, and you really can’t go wrong here.

If, for whatever reason, you’re not satisfied, you can flip over to Bowling Green at Tennessee, at four o’clock.  UT is entering a season unlike any it’s had in a long while.  This year, there are some actual expectations being put upon them.  The first quarter of this game will likely tell you all you need to know.  If the Vols start off hot, they should roll.  If they struggle at first, it could turn into a long day for them.

Both UL Lafayette vs. Kentucky and Arizona State vs. Texas A&M start at seven.  Kentucky, like Vanderbilt, runs the risk of discrediting the SEC every time they take the field against a team from a smaller conference.  Not to mention, UL Lafayette isn’t a bad team.  The Ragin’ Cajuns won nine games last year, including the New Orleans Bowl.

The Sun Devils are a scary team to see on your schedule this fall.  They took a leap forward in 2014, while the Aggies were shoved backwards.  This is the only Pac-12- SEC matchup in week one.  The outcome here will hold extra weight with many suggesting the caliber of football out west is now comparable to the down south brand.

Texas is at Notre Dame, at 7:30.  The Longhorns are still looking for answers after one bumpy season with Charlie Strong at the helm.  They struggled against good teams in 2014 with a 1-5 record versus ranked opponents.  Notre Dame, meanwhile, got off to a torrid 6-0 start, only to drop five of their last six regular season games.  Needless to say, neither of these two proud programs is where they’d like to be.  It’ll be fun to watch them battle for that first win of 2015.

In the ‘Better as a Basketball Game’ of the Week, Iowa State hosts Northern Iowa.  Iowa State does not have a good football program.  They won only two games last year, neither of which were conference contests.  Northern Iowa, on the other hand, won nine games and finished tenth in the final FCS Coaches’ Poll.  This is a rare instance where an FBS team will be a significant underdog against an FCS opponent.  The game starts at eight, but there’s just way too much good football on to justify watching this unless you’re a diehard Cyclones or Panthers fan.

The primetime fixture on Saturday night is Wisconsin vs. Alabama at eight.  The Badgers lost a close game to LSU in the 2014 opener.  Things only get tougher here with Alabama.  The Tide was last seen being outclassed by Ohio State, who had spanked Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten championship to earn that last spot in the playoff.  Don’t expect Bama and Wisky to bond over their common enemy.  This one will be a big boy football game.

The late game on Saturday night features Arkansas State and USC.  Basically, you should watch because you’re not ready to go to bed yet, and Arkansas State is decent enough to justify staying awake.

They’ve even scheduled us a game for Sunday afternoon.  Purdue at Marshall certainly doesn’t excite me, but I’ll watch if I don’t have anything to do at three.

Of course, we finish off the weekend with everyone’s favorite leftover: football on Monday night.  Ohio State has a lot to play for in this rematch against Virginia Tech.  This time it’s under the lights, at Tech.  That’s always been a key ingredient for an interesting game in the past.  The Buckeyes will have some key players sitting out due to suspensions.  Of course, they lost to the Hokies in week two last season and went on to win the national championship.  Something tells me they will not want to start off the same way this year.

So, how could you not be positively giddy about the opening weekend of the 2015 college football season?  We’ve got power conference showdowns, upset possibilities, and plenty of storylines to follow.  All we have to do is wait a couple more weeks.