For most of the nation’s 128 FBS teams, this is the final weekend of the Regular Season. There are still some Big-12 regular season games next weekend (like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State for the Big-12 title) as well as a handful of games in the SunBelt Conference, but with conference championship games scheduled in the Big-10, PAC-12, ACC, SEC, Conference USA and the MAC, this is it.
This final regular season weekend is full of those intrastate rivalries like Georgia-Georgia Tech, Florida-Florida State, South Carolina-Clemson, and of course, Virginia and Virginia Tech.
A Virginia Tech win would be the 13th straight over Virginia and puts the Hokies into next weekend’s ACC Championship game against Clemson in Orlando. That would also mean a 9-3 season and by all measures (except maybe his own), the job done by first year coach Justin Fuente has been impressive. The key was of course getting a quarterback that could actually play football something they haven’t had in Blacksburg since Michael Vick. I will say that Bryan Randall did a good job, but otherwise, Va. Tech fans had to endure the slow footed Grant Noel, the much overrated inaccurate, and inconsistent Logan Thomas and Michael Brewer, who was just garbage.
But, lost in the shuffle of the fact that Virginia Tech is finally good at Quarterback, is the fact that Fuente’s off-season program which he dubbed “hard, smart, tough” did in fact make the team tougher. The offensive line (minus some boneheaded play from the centers) has played better than they have in a long time and the entire team plays with a physicality that disappeared during the final years of the Frank Beamer era. There is no substitute for a mentally and physically tough team and if you don’t think they are, just use last Saturday’s two 17-point comebacks on the road at Notre Dame as Exhibit “A”.
While Virginia Tech appears to be trending back up in Fuente’s first year, the opposite is happening at Virginia in Bronco Mendenhall’s first year. A loss Saturday and U.Va. will finish this season at 2-10. Now before I go writing off the Bronco Mendenhall hire as a mistake let’s be fair. He inherited a basic dumpster fire, a smoldering pile of trash left by Mike London and thus didn’t have much to work with. What he did have to work with however, he sort of bungled. Mendenhall – from just my distant observations – is a quirky character who takes Sunday’s off (unheard of in College Football at any level) and reportedly disappears for at least an hour every day to be alone with his thoughts. That’s okay and I admire the fact that he makes both his religion and his family a priority, but quirkiness works better when you are winning and they are not. He made players earn their numbers through performance in the preseason and screwed the pooch on the quarterback deciding to start the guy with the most game experience in the 11th game. How in God’s name a Division one football program doesn’t have an at-least serviceable place kicker is another mystery. My guess is that the veterans in the program didn’t really buy in to Mendenhall’s methods and that’s resulted in just two wins.
The fact that Virginia football is bad is not a new story. They’ve been bad for most of their playing history, although the school did turn out the first player to be inducted in both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame in Bluefield’s Bullet Bill Dudley. From 1953 – 1981, Virginia had just two winning seasons, in 1968 and 1979. Two times (1959 and 1960) they failed to win a single game, and won just one game in 1975 and 1981. Virginia never went to a Bowl Game nor won an ACC Title and in that time span employed some real clowns as head coach like alum Sonny Randle who in two seasons went just 5-17 before later in life embarking on a broadcasting career marked by his failure to prepare, know any of the players, and constantly talking over his play-by-play announcer. Once a clown, always a clown I guess.
In 1981, Virginia finally made the best decision it ever made with its football program. The school fired coach Dick Bestwick who won just 16 games while losing 49, and hired George Welsh from the Naval Academy. For the next 19 seasons, Welsh won 134 games, lost 83 with 3 ties, took the school to its first ever bowl game, a 1984 Peach Bowl win over Purdue, and won two ACC Titles. He also did something with Virginia football that even the Virginia Tech Jihadists have to acknowledge. In 1990, Virginia was ranked number one in the A.P.’s Top 25. Say what you want, but Virginia Tech has number been ranked number on in the A.P. poll.
Welsh did it in part by recruiting the best players in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The best high school quarterback in the State in 1985, Martinsville’s Shawn Moore went to U.VA., so did two of his Martinsville teammates Nikki Fisher and Mark Cooke. Danville’s Herman Moore matriculated to Charlottesville before playing in the NFL. Two high school All-Americans from Tabb High School (near Williamsburg in Eastern Virginia) Running Back Terry Kirby and Defensive End Chris Slade both went to Virginia. Welsh also successful recruited twins Ronde and Tiki Barber from Roanoke’s Cave Spring High School and both would play in the NFL. And, his staff out recruited everyone in grabbing coveted Running Back Thomas Jones from Powell Valley High School in Big Stone Gap, the heart of Southwest Virginia’s Coalfields. While not from the State of Virginia, Welsh and his staff also recruited and coached the school’s first unanimous All-American in Offensive Lineman Jim Dombrowski.
So quirks or not, the challenge for Mendenhall and his staff is to keep the State’s best players in the State again. That is also the challenge for Fuente and Va. Tech as well. The best are no longer staying home and are heading out-of-state to places like Ohio State, Florida State, and Michigan. The positive for Virginia fans is that Welsh only won two games in his first season, but unless Mendenhall and staff can show they can recruit Virginia’s best back to the “grounds” in Charlottesville, Virginia football is destined to be irrelevant again for years to come and Mendenhall and his quirks headed somewhere else.
So it appears that the weekend’s biggest game comes in Columbus, Ohio on Saturday when Ohio State and Michigan play a defacto College Football playoff Quarterfinal game. Ohio State is second in the CFP Rankings, Michigan is third. Michigan leads the all time series 58-48-and-6, but Ohio State has won 4 straight and 11 of the last 12. The interesting thing about this game is that if Michigan wins, they clinch a spot in the Big 10 Championship game, but if Ohio State wins, and Penn State wins, Penn State goes to the Big-10 title game as the result of a win over Ohio State earlier this season. If I’m Ohio State, that’s the best thing that can happen. A win all but clinches a spot in the CFP, and you don’t have the burden of preparing for and the risk of losing the Big-10 Championship game.
The other interesting game occurs on Friday afternoon in Pullman, Washington where Washington State hosts Washington for the PAC-12 North Championship. The fact that Washington State is even in this position is remarkable considering they opened the season with back-to-back losses to FCS Eastern Washington and Boise State. Washington really needs to win the PAC-12 title to get any consideration for the Playoff, and they won way to do that is to find a way to beat the Cougars for the 4th straight time.
Washington and Washington State play for the Apple Cup, Virginia and Virginia Tech for the Commonwealth Cup, but it’s hard to top the two Big-10 Trophy Games this weekend. Purdue and Indiana play for the “Old Oaken Bucket” Saturday at Noon in Bloomington, Indiana. The Hoosiers can clinch 6 wins and another bowl game with a win while Purdue is finishing out another disaster of a season at 3-8 and have lost 6 straight games. The Bucket game dates back to 1925 when the Chicago alumni chapters of both schools decided the annual game needed a traveling trophy. A group of Indiana alums found the bucket in a well on a farm in Southern Indiana and it’s been the trophy for the game ever since.
Meanwhile, Minnesota and Wisconsin play for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. This trophy has been awarded every year since 1948 after the initial “traveling trophy” between these two schools known as the “Slab of Bacon” was lost. Tradition has always held that the winning team goes straight to the sideline grabs the axe and ceremonially chops down the goalpost of the losing team. That stopped after a skirmish between the teams in 2013 when the Minnesota players surrounded the goalpost preventing Wisconsin from chopping it down. Wisconsin has won the Axe 12 straight years and needs a win to not only secure the Axe, but a spot in the Big-10 Title game next week. As for the original “Slab of Bacon” trophy it was eventually found in a storage room on the Campus of the University of Wisconsin and put on permanent display in the Stadium.
It’s playoff time in the FCS as there are 8 first round games with 8 teams on byes until next week. Our Game of the Week comes from San Luis Obispo, California where the 7-4 Cal Poly Mustangs host the 9-1 Toreros of the University of San Diego. Cal Poly is one of 4 teams from the Big Sky Conference in the 24 FCS team field. San Diego earned the automatic bid from the Pioneer Football League. These two played earlier this season with Cal Poly winning 38-16. Among Cal Poly’s alums are NFL Hall of Fame Coach and Broadcaster John Madden and a musical legend in Wierd Al Yankovic.
Division II moves into the second round this weekend and our Game of the Week comes from Super Region II where the 8-1 Lions of North Alabama host the 10-1 Braves from UNC-Pembroke in Florence, Alabama. Super Region II is upset city as the 5th, 6th and 7th seeds all pulled first round upsets. North Alabama won three Division II Titles in the 1990s under coach Bobby Wallace, who parlayed that success into an FBS job at Temple. That didn’t go so well as his best record was 4-7 twice. He went winless in his final season in 2005. He returned to North Alabama in 2012. UNC-Pembroke is a Division II Independent who didn’t start playing football until 2007. They won their first ever playoff game last weekend and now try to beat North Alabama for the first time in 4 attempts.
Finally, for Division III we go Alfred, New York for a battle of unbeaten teams between the 11-0 Alfred University Saxons and the 11-0 Golden Bears of Western New England University. Alfred has won a school record 11 games this season while Western New England won its first-ever playoff game last weekend. Western New England is from Springfield, Massachusetts, the birthplace of basketball and appropriately enough among its alums is former NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien, for whom the NBA Championship Trophy is named.