Ah, college football. How we've missed you...
Helmet stickers. SEC fanboys. For all but 3% of the 128 FBS Division 1 teams, it's a season that can only end in a meaningless exhibition game, which serves as an elaborate corporate billboard on par with NASCAR's unashamed shilling. I mean, who wouldn't proudly display something called the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl trophy in their trophy case? The Pageantry, the tradition... the mango habanero wing sauce. And of course, no season can start without at least one program inexcusably covering up an egregious sexual assault...
Why do we come back for more of this insanity?
Because football is the king of American sport. Football is the big time. The college game, even with its very large and unsightly warts, is high and viscerally violent drama. The variation of offensive and defensive styles. College drum lines beating to the pulse of stadiums between downs. The fact that you can afford to attend a game without taking out a second mortgage on your home. The brevity of the season - 12 games, the shortest in all of sports. The bulk of the action taking place on the most convenient day of the week, Saturday, before giving everyone a full week off to recover.
John Lennon once said that America is the modern day Roman Empire. That statement never seems more apt than on autumn afternoons in coliseums full of people cheering on young men colliding into each other in suits of plastic armor for their enjoyment. "Are you not entertained!?!"
Opening Night Action
Thursday, September 3rd
North Carolina Tar Heels vs. South Carolina Gamecocks - Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC @ 5 p.m. (CT) - ESPN on TV & the Watch ESPN app via the web
They're calling this thing the "Belk College Football Kickoff."
After South Carolina bolted from the ACC back in 1971, these Carolina rivals still made a point to play each other on a semi-regular basis. However, when South Carolina joined the SEC in 1991 the rivalry came to a grinding halt. This matchup marks the second time in three years the schools have met to open the season. You see Kansas and Mizzou? If you hate-love something enough, it will always come back!
Both North and South Carolina come into this game right outside the Top 25 Polls, in "Others Receiving Votes" purgatory.
Michigan Wolverines @ Utah Utes - Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, UT @ 7:30 p.m. (CT) - Fox Sports 1 on TV & the Fox Sports Go app via the web
Throbbing forehead vein in khaki dad pants, Jim Harbaugh, makes his long awaited debut as his alma mater's coach against the team which essentially began the Harbaugh countdown in Michigan last fall. Utah rolled into Ann Arbor and then proceeded to roll the Wolverines in embarrassing fashion.
In the second part of Utah's home and home with Michigan, Harbaugh takes his team to Salt Lake City with hopes of returning the favor. If he succeeds in turning Michigan around, the countdown will then begin to see how quickly he'll bolt back to the NFL. Dude has sort of become the Larry Brown the football world.
#2 TCU Horned Frogs @ Minnesota Golden Gophers - TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, MN @ 8 p.m. (CT) - ESPN on TV & the Watch ESPN app via the web
The second ranked Horned Frogs begin their quest for a national title up in Minnesota as Frogs coach Gary Patterson takes on his good friend Jerry Kill's Golden Gophers for a second straight season.
Last season no one was sure what to expect from TCU. After a disappointing 4-8 campaign in 2013 that left people questioning whether or not TCU belonged in a power five conference, Patterson shocked the hell out of everyone by scrapping his proven and successful conservative system to run a version of the Air Raid. Patterson looked like a genius when his trigger man, quarterback Trevon Boykin, blossomed into a Heisman Trophy candidate and the Frogs' offense became damn near unstoppable.
But Kill and his Gophers are no slouches. Coming off of back to back eight win seasons, Kill has Minnesota headed in the right direction himself. Last season TCU ran out of the gates down in Fort Worth to bury the Gophers 30-0 before Minnesota even knew what hit them.
Minnesota has now had a full year to watch tape on TCU's high flying offense. Starting on the road, can TCU pick up where they left off in 2014?
Friday Night Lights Action
Friday, September 4th
Washington Huskies @ #23 Boise State Broncos - Bronco Stadium, Boise, ID @ 9:15 p.m. (CT) - ESPN on TV & the Watch ESPN app via the web
Much like Patterson has done with TCU in Fort Worth, Huskies coach Chris Petersen built Boise State up from a scrappy mid major into a perennial BCS bowl crasher.
During his time in Boise, Petersen piled up double digit win and Top 10 finishing seasons. He could have stayed there until they named the stadium after him. It was a bit of a surprise to see him leave the land of the blue turf to take the Washington job. Unlike TCU though, the Broncos have yet to parlay their success into an invite to a power five conference. So Peterson chose to head to Seattle and try his luck with the big boys.
Meanwhile, back in Boise, the Broncos kept chugging along under new head coach, and Boise State alumnus, Bryan Harsin. The Broncos went 12-2 in wrapping up another Mountain West Conference title and then taking down #11 Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl.
Petersen will be leading his Huskies into Boise as 13 point underdogs. Will a win over a Top 25 Boise State by coach Pete put his Huskies on the road to a solid season while damaging the Broncos' hopes of returning to a big time bowl? Or will Boise make Peterson wish he'd never left?
Saturday, September 5th
#16 (FCS-Coaches Poll) South Dakota State Jackrabbits @ Kansas Jayhawks - Memorial Stadium, Lawrence, KS @ 11:00 a.m. (CT) - Fox Sports Net on TV & the Fox Sports Go app via the web
In the widespread predictions of the Kansas Jayhawks winning just one game in 2015, this is the game everyone circled as THE win. Easy now. These SDSU Jacks are no scrubs.
Ranked 16th in the preseason FCS Coaches Poll, the Jackrabbits are coming off a nine win 2014 campaign that saw them reach the round of 16 in the FCS playoffs. The Jacks started last season on the road against the 24th ranked Missouri Tigers. They hung around with the eventual SEC East champs, finding themselves down just 21-18 in the third quarter before Mizzou finally pulled away.
This is the second time in four seasons the Jacks have traveled down to Lawrence to play the Jayhawks in the season opener. Back in 2012 the Charlie Weis era started with a 31-17 victory that was much closer than the score would indicate.
The game started with Dayne Crist throwing a 43 yard bomb to Kale Pick on the first play from scrimmage. It would prove to be his best pass of the year, and the victory over the Jackrabbits the 'Hawks' lone W of the season.
Man those Weis years were rough to watch... And thankfully SDSU's stud runner, Zach Zenner, from the video above now plays for the Detroit Lions.
BYU Cougars @ Nebraska Cornhuskers - Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, NE @ 2:30 p.m. (CT) - ABC on TV & the Watch ESPN app via the web
This game would have been a monster of a non-con season opener... in the 1980s. As it stands now, it's still a gem of an early season game. Two football institutions looking for a return to nationally significant success.
The Huskers parted ways with the mad gum chomper, Bo Pelini, after seven seasons. Pelini averaged nine wins a season, but his abrasive personality coupled with the Husker fanbase's perennial national title expectations made it time for him to go. In his stead, Nebraska brings in Mike Riley and his west coast offense... What year is this? 2004? Sounds an awful lot like when Nebraska dumped Frank Solich in favor of west coast disciple, Bill Callahan. Unlike Callahan though, Riley at least has college game experience. He's the winningest coach in Oregon State Beavers' football history.
Back in the 1970s and 80s, BYU ran a wide open passing offense while the rest of the nation's best programs were still ground and pound option oriented. Nowadays the spread passing game has come to dominate the sport and last year, utilizing the Tim Tebow-esque talents of tough as nails quarterback Taysom Hill (2938 passing, 1344 rushing, and 29 total TDs in 2013), BYU went to a sort of hyper-veer read option running offense. Makes the Cougars sound like the football equivalent to hipsters. "We were passing before everyone else... OMG, we are so over that now." But hey, it worked.
BYU came out of the gates absolutely crushing people en route to a 4-0 start before Hill was lost for the season. Hill is back and ready to roll.
Both BYU and Nebraska find themselves starting 2015 right outside the Top 25 polls, and will look to use this solid non-conference match-up to vault themselves into the rankings.
Texas Longhorns @ #11 Notre Dame Fightin' Irish - Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame, IN @ 6:30 p.m. (CT) on NBC
Texas fans wanted Mack Brown - the second winningest coach in the program's history - out after 2013. His replacement, Charlie Strong, came in and led the Longhorns to an up and down 6-7 season of mediocrity.
High blood pressured leprechaun Brian Kelly's Notre Dame squad comes into 2015 loaded up and seen by many pundits to have a shot to reach the College Football Playoff. It will be a tough road though, as the Irish, as always, have a brutal schedule. The first few weeks of the season most teams load up rummies to bully around in over-glorified scrimmages. Texas is a bit down, but they are still a football institution that gets their pick of players they want and this matchup carries with it a ring of nostalgic weight even if the Irish should run right over this current incarnation of the 'Horns. But you never know. Anything can happen.
#20 Wisconsin Badgers vs. #3 Alabama Crimson Tide - AT&T Stadium (Jerry World), Arlington, TX @ 7:00 p.m. (CT) - ABC on TV & the Watch ESPN app via the web
Before getting dismantled by Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game last December, the Badgers were flirting with the Top 10 and a spot in a big time bowl. After Badgers' coach Gary Anderson left to take the Oregon State job before Wisconsin's bowl game, Athletic Director Barry Alvarez stepped in to coach Wisconsin to a thrilling 34-31 victory over Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
As feel good as that story was for Badgers' fans, it doesn't change the fact that two successful Wisconsin coaches, in less than three seasons, both ran out the door in Madison to take jobs at programs considered a tier below Wisconsin (Bret Bielema to Arkansas in 2013). After the bowl game, Alvarez hired Paul Chryst as head coach - a man who posted middling success in three years at Pitt. That was the best Wisconsin could pull?
Down in Tuscaloosa, salty troll doll, Nick Saban, has been on an unreal run of success at 'Bama. His 86-17 win/loss record and three national titles are absolutely sick numbers for the college game. It was fitting that his Tide ran into Urban Meyer's Buckeyes in the national semi-final last season as Meyer is the only man who I consider a better coach in the game right now.
Love Saban or hate him, you can't call him a coward. Since he took over at 'Bama he has made a habit of scheduling big time non conference opponents early in the season. He's also made a habit of crushing them and then using the momentum from those wins to springboard his teams to the top of the rankings for the rest of the season.
Labor Day Finale
Monday, September 7th
#1 Ohio State Buckeyes @ Virginia Tech Hokies - Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, VA @ 7:00 p.m. (CT) - ESPN on TV & the Watch ESPN app via the web
When Ohio State lost their star quarterback, Braxton Miller, before the 2014 season even started, Buckeye fans feared their shot at a national title was lost. Early in the season Miller's replacement, freshman J.T. Barrett, did nothing to allay those fears with rough outings in the opener against Navy and then in a loss to Virginia Tech in Columbus. Even though that loss sent the Buckeyes plummeting down the Top 25 ladder, they wouldn't lose another game. And Barrett rounded into Heisman form.
Then Barrett too was lost in that last game of the season, and the rest of the story earned its place in college football legend as third string quarterback Cardale Jones played like a fearless mad bomber to finish a championship run even Buckeye fans couldn't believe.
At Virginia Tech Frank Beamer is a living legend - the east coast's Bill Snyder if you will. He has taken the Hokies from a football afterthought to a national powerhouse. However, since 2012 Beamer and his Hokies have been on a downward swing. Last year the Hokies lost six games for the second time in three seasons. Before that, Beamer hadn't lost six games in a season as Hokies' coach since 1991. Last season Tech followed up that monster road victory over Ohio State by losing to East Carolina, in Blacksburg. It's clear that the Hokies were lucky enough to catch Ohio State at their most vulnerable.
Because of the College Football Playoff, it was early enough in the season for Ohio State to recover. In years past they would have just won some BCS bowl while Nick Saban, or worse, Jameis Winston would have held up another crystal football with an Amway sticker on it.
The Buckeyes will most likely rain down blood-soaked vengeance on the Hokies this time around. Still, never underestimate Beamer, especially at home. In 28 seasons at Virginia Tech, Beamer has only lost 41 games on his home field. And though his program may be down by his lofty standards, he's kept his string of 22 straight bowl appearances intact.
The most intriguing story line concerning this game is who will be under center for the Buckeyes - Barrett or Jones? Meyer isn't playing his hand in order to keep the Hokies guessing. Ultimately, I think Barrett will be the guy. However, as recently as August 20, there was talk of the two splitting duties at QB. It will be interesting to not only see how Meyer utilizes Barrett and Jones, but Braxton Miller as well, the forgotten man at QB who has now switched to wide receiver.
Happy football everybody! Warm up those remote flippin' fingers. Plenty of action to go around. As always, watch responsibly. Know when you've had enough.
And here's to Coach Beaty and the Jayhawks doing enough to keep the basketball talk in Lawrence at bay for at least a little while longer. Rock Chalk!