Okay. We can all take a deep breath now. We made it. We made it through our long national nightmare which I define as the period of time in sports between the NCAA National Basketball Championship Game and the first Thursday night of College Football Season. It’s over now after last night’s games.
ESPN is billing this – and we all know that they are just not into shameless self-promotion – as the Greatest College Football Kickoff Weekend ever. True, there are plenty of games worthy of watching including Oklahoma-Houston, LSU-Wisconsin, Alabama-USC, Georgia-North Carolina, UCLA-Texas A&M, Clemson-Auburn, and Florida State-Ole Miss. Sports’ most meaningful regular season gets off to an awesome start, but there are still the why would I get up at 7:30 a.m. to watch this kind of match-ups as in Georgia Tech playing Boston College in Dublin, Ireland. Nothing screams excitement like two 3-9 teams whose coaches are coaching for their jobs this season. Apparently, they don’t understand American Football much in Ireland. There were pictures circulating this week of shirts that had been printed in Ireland touting a match-up between “Georgia and Boston”. Whether they don’t understand whose playing, don’t care, or are more worried about soccer, I can’t say.
College Football is trying to make it’s season start off in a memorable fashion and in doing so it’s kind of gone back to the future. It used to be that teams were limited to 11 games until an enterprising group of people with the New Jersey State Athletic Commission hatched an idea in 1983 for a special kickoff game. On August 29, 1983 the first ever Kickoff Classic was held at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands between Number 1 Nebraska and Number 4 Penn State. It marked the first time that College Football was played in the month of August. Nebraska put a beat-down on Joe Pa and Penn State 44-6. The MVP of the game was Nebraska Quarterback Turner Gill, who spends this weekend as the Head Coach at Liberty University leading his team into tomorrow’s game at Virginia Tech. For the next 19 years, the Kickoff Classic was played the weekend before the rest of the teams could start their seasons. Over the years, teams like Miami, Auburn, BYU, Ohio State, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Notre Dame, and Florida State participated in the game as a way of getting a head start and a 12th game which the NCAA only allowed at the time if it was a sanctioned classic like the Kickoff Classic.
The Kickoff Classic was soon joined by two other games. The Pigskin Classic which began in 1990 and also ran through 2002. It was designed to be a West Coast version of the Kickoff Classic played at Anaheim Stadium and sponsored by Disneyland. If it was designed as the West Coast version the first match-up didn’t reflect it as Tennessee played Colorado to a 31-31 tie. The Pigskin Classic was only played in Anaheim through 1994 and in 1995 began moving around to various sites including Michigan Stadium and Soldier Field in Chicago. In 1997, the Eddie Robinson Classic was born. This game was held at a home stadium giving the host school an extra home game and of course extra revenue. The first game was in Columbus Ohio between Ohio State and Wyoming, Notre Dame hosted the game in 1999, and two of the last three games were held at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
In 2002, those games were all gone. That’s when the NCAA allowed college teams to play 12 regular season games. But, in 2008, they were re-born in a different form that exists today and will be prominently featured this weekend. Leave it to Chick-Fil-A to get it started. In 2008, the Chick-Fil-A Bowl (which is sometimes called the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl which makes no sense), hatched an idea for a neutral site game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. It was primarily designed to match an SEC team against an ACC Team, since both of those conferences are firmly entrenched in the South. Alabama played Clemson in the inaugural game. Alabama has played in the game 4 times, twice against Va. Tech, and once against Clemson and West Virginia. The Chick-Fil-A game has wandered outside the SEC vs. ACC more than once with mixed results. In 2011, they matched Boise State with Georgia, and in 2014 Boise State returned to play Ole Miss. That one didn’t go over so well as just 32,823 attended the game. This year, North Carolina will face Georgia in the final Chick-Fil-A Game to be played at the Georgia Dome. Next year, it moves to the Atlanta Falcons new Mercedez-Benz Stadium and matches Tennessee and Georgia Tech on Labor Day night.
Not to be outdone, and with a brand spanking new palace to show off, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones founded the Cowboys’ Classic a year later in 2009. The first game matched BYU and Oklahoma, but much like the Chick-Fil-A game, the most frequent participant has been Alabama. The Crimson Tide played in the game in 2012, 2015 and again this year against USC. This game is already scheduled through 2019. Michigan will face Florida next year, in 2018 it’s LSU vs. Miami, and in 2019 Oregon meets Auburn.
And as Texas is a football hot-bed, Houston is now in on the act with the ultra-modern NRG Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Houston Texans. The Texas Kickoff began in 2012 when Oklahoma State played Ole Miss. This year is probably the best match-up this game has had as Oklahoma faces Houston. Like the Cowboys’ Classic, this one is also scheduled for future years. In 2017, BYU meets LSU, it’s Ole Miss and Texas Tech in 2018, and in 2020 Baylor faces Ole Miss. To date, there is not an announced match-up for 2019.
There are other neutral site games that have popped up. Florida State will play Ole Miss in Orlando this weekend, and of course there’s the over-hyped Battle at Bristol next weekend between Tennessee and Va. Tech. In 2018, Tennessee will also play a neutral site game in Charlotte against West Virginia and West Virginia and Virginia Tech are scheduled to play next year at the Redskins’ Stadium in Landover, Maryland. This year, West Virginia plays BYU in Landover, Maryland and in the past USC has played Virginia Tech there as well.
With the 12 game schedule now firmly entrenched in college football, these neutral site games are a chance for teams to play a team they would not otherwise schedule in a home and home series. There’s no chance that Va. Tech and Tennessee play a home and home anytime soon, but for one day they can play on a field in the middle of a racetrack that you won’t be able to see. The other advantage is taking your team to the recruits instead of having them come to you, not to mention the money that comes with participating. But, college football fans are the winners because a Week 1 game between Oklahoma and Houston is a lot more interesting that a Week 1 game between Oklahoma and SE Missouri State.
Now as for this week. Well, I guess we learned a couple of things from the first Thursday. Tennessee’s offensive line sucks, and Bud Foster has to be licking his chops at the prospects of what he can dial up next week. Vanderbilt is still well, Vanderbilt finding a way to blow a 10-0 lead and lose to a team coached by Will Muschamp of all people. And, I hope Charlotte got paid well for that 70-14 beat down at Louisville.
There are all different types of opinions on the best games this weekend, but my two picks are UCLA at Texas A&M, and Florida State vs. Ole Miss in Orlando.
At Texas A&M, Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight makes his debut as the Aggies Quarterback. He left Oklahoma when he was beaten out for the job by Baker Mayfield. Keep in mind, that Knight was the MVP for Oklahoma when they just clobbered Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in 2014. Josh Rosen is UCLA’s sophomore quarterback returning after throwing for 3,670 yards last season.
Florida State faces Ole Miss on Monday night at the old Citrus Bowl in Orlando, now called Camping World Stadium. This is just the second ever meeting between the two schools. The last time they played was in 1961 when Ole Miss won 33-0 in Oxford, Mississippi. Deondre Francois makes his FSU debut as quarterback and Chad Kelly (the erstwhile former Clemson head case quarterback) returns for Mississippi. The difference here is that Florida State has Dalvin Cook and Ole Miss doesn’t. Cook returns having rushed for 2,699 yards in two (2) seasons.
The nickname match-up of the week comes in Fort Worth, Texas where the FCS Jackrabbits of South Dakota State face the Horned Frogs of TCU.
The Athletic Director should be fired for scheduling this game match-up comes in Ann Arbor, Michigan where Hawaii faces Michigan. Hawaii went all the way to Sydney Australia last weekend to get beat by 20 points against Cal, and now travel from Australia to Ann Arbor, Michigan where they are a 40.5 point underdog to Michigan. As goofy as Jim Harbaugh is, he’s just likely to run up the score if he gets a chance.
Then there are the teams that I closely follow and will do so all year beginning in Blacksburg where for the first time in 29 years a person other than Frank Beamer will lead Va. Tech onto the field as the Hokies play Liberty University for the first time. The last time a coach other than Frank Beamer led a Tech team out of the tunnel and into Lane Stadium was the late Bill Dooley who did so on November 15, 1986 against Vanderbilt. I was there and the game was awful. Va. Tech won 18-0 on six (6) Mickey Thomas Field Goals. The last 4 Va. Tech coaches have lost their first game at Lane Stadium as head coach. The last to win was Jerry Claiborne all the way back in 1965. Beamer lost his first game to Clemson in 1987. Fuente’s assignment is a little easier in FCS Liberty. The Flames are from the Big South Conference. It’s also believed to be the first time that a Junior College Transfer in Jerrod Evans will start at quarterback for Va. Tech
Up the road in Charlottesville, Bronco Mendenhall makes his debut as Virginia’s Head Coach after winning 99 games at BYU. He also faces an FCS team in Richmond, but his assignment is a little more difficult that Fuente’s. Richmond is ranked pre-season number 4 in the FCS and made the National Semi-Finals in FCS a year ago. Mendenhall is 8-3 in 11 season openers as a head coach. The last time he lost in a season opener was at Virginia in 2012, 19-16.
Next to Morgantown, for one of the underrated games of the weekend as West Virginia hosts Missouri. This is West Virginia’s 125th year of college football and their first home opener against a team from the SEC since they met Vanderbilt in 1962. WVU has won 12 straight home openers, last losing in 2013. They are clearly playing for their coaches’ job this season as the general thought is that Dana Holgerson has about 12 more games as WVU’s head coach. He would have already been gone but for a large buyout which drops to a measly $3 million this season. Whether that’s fair or not is not for me to say, but there are no excuses for not at least being competitive. WVU has 14 Senior Starters in the line-up and 20 seniors total on its two-deep, the most in the Big 12. WVU last played Missouri in the Insight Bowl in 1998 when Don Nehlen was still the head coach, a game Missouri won 34-3. Missouri leads the all-time series 3-2.
There are a lot of FCS-FBS match-ups as you would expect in Week 1 so for our FCS game of the Week, it’s the opening of a new era for Southern Illinois as they head to Boca Raton, Florida to face the Florida Atlantic Owls. New SIU Coach – and former quarterback – Nick Hill makes his debut in the first meeting between these two schools and only the 32nd time Southern Illinois has ever faced an FBS School. The Salukis are 3-28 lifetime against FCS opponents, but two of those wins came in 2006 when they beat Indiana in Bloomington, and in 2007 with a win over Northern Illinois. The Quarterback in both of those games was none other than Nick Hill.
Our Division II game of the week would normally feature last year’s National Champion, but Northwest Missouri State played last night so we go to the home of last year’s Runner-up Shepardstown, West Virginia where Shepard opens the season against West Virginia Wesleyan. The Rams lost to NW Missouri in last year’s title game, but are pre-season ranked number 6 with head coach Monte Cater beginning his 30th season at the school, having won 70% of his games. This is a Conference Game as they all are in the Mountain East Conference. The league has 11 football playing schools leaving no room for non-conference games.
Division III doesn’t feature the defending National Champion but is instead a tribute to CBS’s Verne Lundquist who begins his final season calling SEC Games tomorrow. His alma-mater is Texas Lutheran who hosts East Texas Baptist. Texas Lutheran is coming off a 8-2 season and is participating in its final season as a member of the Division III Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference. Next year, they’ll return to their original home in the American Southwest Conference. Texas Lutheran has won three straight conference titles, but there are only 4 teams in their league and rather uniquely the conference teams (like basketball) play each other twice in the regular season. East Texas Baptist is coming off a 7-3 season, their first winning season in over a decade.
And the NAIA game of the week does feature the Defendant National Champion and it’s an inner-city rumble in Indianapolis between defending NAIA champion Marian University and the University of Indianapolis. The NAIA season actually began last week so both teams are 1-0. Marian, which didn’t even field a football team until 2008, opened with a 56-10 slapping over Saint Xavier of Illinois last Saturday. Marian has won 2 of the last 4 NAIA Titles.
Enjoy the weekend because the nightmare is over. But, it will return quicker than we want.