You know already what I think will happen in this weekend's S.E.C. action. Now it is time to highlight the games of note around the country.
Ere you forge ahead with reading what follows, though, you should be forewarned: I went 5-3 in last week's national picks, bringing my record for the season thus far to 20-10 in outings not involving Southeastern Conference squads. Now you know why I issue my weekly disclaimer: Don't Bet On It!
Behold . . . the secret behind my forecasting acumen.
Each of these games will be played on Saturday, September 29, unless otherwise indicated. Here are this week's picks:
U.N.L.V. at Nevada: Admittedly, this is stretching the definition of "national game of interest," but, as you know, I am a firm believer that Georgia Tech should not occupy the final spot on the Bulldogs' annual slate, so I take every opportunity to call attention to in-state rivalry showdowns that are played prior to late November, in order to illustrate that it can be done. Unfortunately, this requires me to take the time to read up on the Runnin' Rebels of the Mountain West and the Wolf Pack of the W.A.C. . . . or is it the other way around? In any case, U.N.L.V. just shut out Utah in what may or may not have been a conference game and Nevada comes into the contest fresh from an open date and looking to secure its first Division I-A victory of the season. Even though you can't spell "unloved" without U-N-L-V, I'm going to show the Rebels some affection by picking them to record the biggest little win in the world.
Viva Las Vegas.
Utah State at Utah: I didn't so much include this one to belabor the point about getting in-state rivalry games out of the way early, but rather to provide some small degree of solace to my SB Nation colleague JazzyUte, who wonders whether the season is over already now that the Utes are 1-3. As a show of support for JazzyUte, and in the hope that my placement of U.C.L.A. as the No. 25 team on my BlogPoll ballot will not prove to be completely misguided, I'm taking Utah to win over the third-best team in the Beehive State.
Southern Mississippi at Boise State (Thursday, September 27): Will this showdown finally reveal what the last mid-major Neanderthal said to the first non-B.C.S. Cro-Magnon? The Golden Eagles were one of the great small school success stories of the 1980s and '90s, bumping off the big boys often enough to make a name for themselves, but time seems occasionally to have passed U.S.M. by, as such flashier innovators as the Broncos have drawn national attention and big-money bowl bids while Jeff Bower has continued to toil with admirable consistency yet increasing obscurity. Here's the thing, though, and there's just no getting around it: Boise State's electrifying Fiesta Bowl win notwithstanding, the pride of the Gem State has gone 0-13 on the home fields of B.C.S. conference competitors since ascending to Division I-A status in 1996, but B.S.U. has been devastatingly effective at defending its turf against interlopers, posting a 51-1 record at home since 1999. This might be a different game in Hattiesburg, but Boise State will win this one in the city from which the university draws its name.
I like the Broncos and everything, but playing a college football game on a blue field is a travesty.
Maryland at Rutgers: Either the Scarlet Knights need to join the A.C.C. or the Terrapins need to join the Big East; I'm not sure which it is, but it needs to be one or the other. The outcome of this outing may be forecast even without recourse to such considerations as coaching, talent, and home field advantage; all one really needs to take into account is how each combatant spent last Saturday. Rutgers was idle. (Actually, that is an unfair characterization; the student-athletes from the State University of New Jersey simply did not play an intercollegiate football game last weekend; that, though, is no reason for me to accuse them of sloth. For all I know, they were quite productive during their bye week.) Maryland, by contrast, was busy losing in overtime a game in which the Terps held a 24-3 lead and were looking to tack on another touchdown with a little over 16 minutes remaining in regulation play when a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown sparked a Wake Forest comeback. The Terrapins simply have to be worn out, emotionally and physically, from that meltdown, so I like the Scarlet Knights to thump Maryland this weekend.
Clemson at Georgia Tech: A bit of linguistic precision is in order here. We often hear announcers say things like, "Traditionally, these two teams always play each other close." That simply isn't so. What they mean is that, historically, two teams have always played one another closely. The Tigers and the Yellow Jackets, for instance, historically have played several close contests; in fact, between 1996 and 2001, each of six straight series meetings was decided by exactly three points. Irrespective of these combatants' history of tight ballgames, though, Clemson did not break with anything that could be called a tradition by beating Georgia Tech by a 31-7 margin last season, nor will Tommy Bowden's Tigers be guilty of such a breach when they defeat the Yellow Jackets by a double-digit margin on Saturday.
If playing a college football game on a blue field is a travesty, then inviting Clemson to the Humanitarian Bowl and having the Tigers run out onto the blue field wearing all-purple uniforms would be an atrocity.
Michigan State at Wisconsin: I'm really looking forward to this game, because it will be in this contest that the bigger Big Ten parvenu is exposed, freeing me to drop the offending pretender from my BlogPoll ballot for good. The metronomic regularity of M.S.U. collapses following fast starts is both comforting for its consistency and disturbing for its disastrousness, as demonstrated in 1997 (5-0 start; 2-5 finish), 2000 (3-0 start; 2-6 finish), 2001 (3-1 start; 4-4 finish), 2002 (2-0 start; 2-8 finish), 2003 (7-1 start; 1-4 finish), 2005 (4-0 start; 1-6 finish), and 2006 (3-0 start; 1-8 finish). The Spartans are 4-0, which is all the portent you would ever need to sense impending doom. The hometown Badgers win as the Wiscy river don't run dry.
California at Oregon: 27 points. 27 points. 28 points. 31 points. 31 points. Those are some pretty impressive numbers from the Bears and the Ducks . . . until you stop to consider that those are the scores they're giving up on defense. Wait a minute, though; Oregon actually held Michigan to a touchdown on the road? Well, hey, now that actually counts for something! We know both teams can score. What we don't know is whether Cal can stop anybody who's anybody, or even slow them down much. That nagging uncertainty about the Berkeley Bears is made worse by the fact that the game is being played in Eugene: Jeff Tedford is 2-0 against the Ducks in Strawberry Canyon but 0-2 against them at Autzen Stadium. Last year's 45-24 manhandling of Oregon by Cal represented a deviation from the norm, as five of the previous six series meetings were decided by eight or fewer points. I expect another close contest, but I am less than impressed by Coach Tedford's suspect 17-11 record on the road. (Is it any wonder why I wouldn't hire Jeff Tedford to replace Mark "The Road Warrior" Richt?) The combination of home field advantage and superior defense will give the victory to the mighty Ducks.
If inviting Clemson to the Humanitarian Bowl and having the Tigers run out onto the blue field wearing all-purple uniforms would be an atrocity, then inviting Oregon to be Clemson's opponent and having the Ducks run out onto the blue field wearing either of these uniforms would be a catastrophe.
West Virginia at South Florida (Friday, September 28): U.S.F. began play in Division I-AA in 1997 before moving up in weight class in 2001. After a two-year stint spent in Conference USA, the Bulls joined Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, and West Virginia in the Big East in 2005. As the upstart member of a B.C.S. conference, South Florida has beaten every other team in the league at least once, capping off an eight-win regular season with a 24-19 victory over the Mountaineers in Morgantown last November. If I thought the Bulls had any meaningful home field advantage in Tampa, I'd probably pick U.S.F., but Rich Rodriguez's club has looked a lot like Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech squads in years past: methodical, relentless, and more effective than genuinely impressive. With revenge on their minds and their November 8 date with the Cardinals suddenly devalued, the Mountaineers will get the job done in the Sunshine State.
That, at least, is how it appears from my vantage point, although, naturally, your perspective may vary . . . and, honestly, you have at least as good an idea as I do of what will actually happen on the field of play. Let that be a lesson to you; since I have only the vaguest idea what in the world I'm talking about, anyway, you should proceed with extreme caution and pay close attention to my advice: Don't Bet On It!
Coming Soon: The National Game of Disinterest. . . .