The Top Four Non-Conference Games You Think Will Be Good . . . But Won't

It is August. Today may or may not be the first day of the rest of your life, but today is the first day of the month at the end of which there will be football. As we look ahead to the coming campaign, we see on the horizon many eagerly-anticipated out-of-conference clashes which appear likely to be well worth watching.

Some of these games will live up to the hype; Alabama-Clemson, Ohio State-Southern California, and Arizona State-Georgia all promise to be barn-burners. Some of these, though, will turn out to be clunkers, and, as I did last year, I am taking this opportunity to provide a public service by forewarning you that you may be looking forward to some true turkeys. Here, my friends, are . . .

Four Games You Think Will Be Good . . . But Won’t

Missouri v. Illinois at St. Louis (August 30): Last year’s 40-34 Tiger victory propelled the Big 12 North champs to a breakout season and I do not expect a letdown from Mizzou this autumn. Even though SMQ dubbed this one of "the games" in the early season, though, I don’t anticipate much of a matchup. The Illini return 13 starters---in the Big Ten, only Michigan brings back fewer---and none of them are named Rashard Mendenhall. Without his presence in the backfield, how likely is Illinois to replicate its 2007 success with a passing attack that ranked 109th in the country last year? Although my personal experience causes me to respect the ability of a Ron Zook-coached team to win a neutral-site game, the memory of the 49-17 Rose Bowl thrashing absorbed by the Illini has not yet faded, nor has my recollection of the 38-7 thumping the Tigers administered to the Razorbacks in the Cotton Bowl. This will not be a game in the fourth quarter, as Missouri will show us something by pounding Illinois flatter than the prairie in a game that will get uglier than Abraham Lincoln.

Yes, he gets loads of credit for abolishing slavery, but he was, as Lewis Grizzard would have put it, uglier than a bowling shoe.

Fresno State at Rutgers (September 1): You have to love this sort of game; the hard-hitting giant-killers from the Raisin Capital of the World, winners of nine or more games in five of the last seven seasons, open the autumn with their easternmost road swing in the 21st century as they travel to take on the State University of New Jersey at a time when the Scarlet Knights are coming off of back-to-back bowl victories by a combined margin of 89-40, which ain’t bad for a program that’s been playing college football quite literally longer than anyone at the Division I-A level, yet has just four postseason appearances in its whole history, three of which have come under Greg Schiano. As much as we all enjoyed the 9-0 Rutgers run to start the 2006 season, the fact is that the Garden State Paladins have gone just 10-7 since their epic victory over Louisville two years ago. Coach Schiano’s troops come into 2008 without Ray Rice or Eric Foster, leaving Mike Teel to carry the load. I don’t believe the Scarlet Knight quarterback has it in him against Pat Hill’s squad, which is never more focused than when playing a B.C.S. conference opponent in a road game under the national spotlight. This will be the biggest win by a Fresno State squad since . . . um, I can’t think of any recent noteworthy victories by the West Coast Bulldogs. Nope, not a one. . . .

Kansas at South Florida (September 12): This represents the most legitimate regular-season non-conference test for which the Jayhawks have signed up since Mark Mangino’s club took on Northwestern in Evanston in 2004. This also represents the game in which K.U.’s Orange Bowl victory will come back to bite the ‘Hawks, for two reasons. First of all, the validating win over Virginia Tech created expectations as outsized as the head coach for what promises to be one of the year’s most overrated teams. Secondly, the B.C.S. bowl win in the Sunshine State virtually ensures that Kansas lacks an adequate appreciation of the difference between the heat and humidity of Miami in January and that of Tampa in September. The trip to take on the Bulls will mark the season’s first road trip for the Jayhawks, whose outings last autumn on opponents’ home fields yielded successive victories by six, five, eight, and 15 points over teams that finished with seven, seven, six, and six losses, respectively. Against Matt Grothe and 19 other returning starters from a U.S.F. unit that defeated Auburn, North Carolina, and West Virginia en route to a second straight nine-win season last fall, the Jayhawks will learn the hard way that they’re not in Kansas anymore as they fall well short of victory against a team on the cusp of the top ten.

Applaud my pick in the next game all you like, Tommy; I still can’t stand you.

Auburn at West Virginia (October 23): Just thinking about this game starts me twitching with outrage over the two most gut-wrenching losses of Georgia’s 2005 S.E.C. championship season, so, before I start frothing at the mouth over fourth-down fumbles out the back of the end zone and fourth-quarter fake punts to deny D.J. Shockley the opportunity to lead a comeback victory, let me just point out that (a) I hate Auburn and (b) Auburn is going to be good. Both teams should be undefeated heading into this one, since the Plainsmen get L.S.U. in the so-called Loveliest Village to renew a rivalry in which the home team has won eight straight and the Tigers’ first two road games are in Starkville and Nashville, while the Mountaineers should cruise through their first six opponents. Both teams get a dozen days to get ready for one another, but, whereas W.V.U.’s preparations will be led by caretaker coach Bill Stewart, the War Eagle’s game-planning will be guided by Tony Franklin (who will have had seven Saturdays followed by an open date within which to install the offense that worked so well in the Chick-fil-A Bowl) and Paul Rhoads (who may know a thing or two about how to stop West Virginia’s offense). No, the Tigers won’t outrun the Mountain Men, however much we might like to believe in the idea of "S.E.C. speed," but Tommy Tuberville’s coordinators will outcoach the fellows on the other sideline in an attention-getting runaway victory for the visiting team.

Those are my four picks for games everyone expects to be good which won’t be worth watching in the final 15 minutes. If you have any of your own to add to that list, or if you take issue with any of my selections, feel free to share your opinion in the comments below . . . and let us know about your gameday traditions while you’re at it.

Coming Soon: Four Games You Think Won’t Be Good . . . But Will.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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