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Don't Bet On It!: National Games of Interest

Yes, Virginia, there are national games of interest this week, although you may rest assured that Virginia will not be taking part in any of them. After taking last week off, I return, bloodied but unbowed, to try my hand once again at predicting the outcomes of college football games not involving Southeastern Conference teams.

As you might imagine, I am even worse at this enterprise than I am at picking S.E.C. games, which is why, in my last stab at this, I once again went 2-4, causing my non-league ledger to plummet to 18-14 and necessitating that we take a little trip through the rules, of which there is only one: Don’t Bet On It!

In a shrewd move designed to ensure that I won’t go 2-4 yet again this week, I elected to pick only five games this week. Ha! That’ll show you! Here are this week’s national games of interest:

Penn State at Wisconsin: I don’t know what to make of the Badgers. They routinely wind up as the most enigmatic 9-3 team in the country and inevitably baffle me as I endeavor to discern whether Wiscy will lose a New Year’s Day bowl game by three points or win a New Year’s Day bowl game by three points. Heck, Wisconsin is such a mystery to me that Bret Bielema was the head coach of the Badgers for more than a year before I realized his last name wasn’t pronounced Buy Lima. The Nittany Lions, though, are more of a known quantity, inasmuch as they score in bunches and they’re good. This is the biggest test yet for P.S.U., but, after back-to-back disheartening losses, the Badgers may not have it in them to close the deal against what looks to be the best team in the Big Ten. Fortunately for Wiscy, they won’t have to deal with the sting of a late collapse this week, as Saturday’s opponent is Lion in wait in Madison to take the lead early and never relinquish it.

This could be the week that Penn State forcefully places itself in national championship contention. If only Joe Paterno had lived to see it. . . .

Oklahoma State at Missouri: Remember back when the Tigers were an underperforming also-ran toiling in inexplicable mediocrity in the decrepit Big 12 North while the Cowboys were on the verge of breaking through to serious conference contention? You know . . . 14 months ago? Say, whatever happened to the Pokes’ higher aspirations? Oh, yeah . . . right. Anyway, I’ve always been a believer in Mizzou and I’m starting to buy into O.S.U., but this is not the weekend to place your faith in Mike Gundy’s club. Heading into their date in Columbia, the Cowpoke faithful need to ask themselves a question. (No, not, "Do you feel lucky, punk?" Amazingly enough, Dirty Harry lacked an adequate vigilante mentality to qualify as an Oklahoma State mascot.) The question is: "Do you know the name of the Tigers’ punter?" Neither do they. It will be a moral victory for the Cowboys if Coach Gundy is able to brag at his postgame press conference, "Our defense is a bunch of men! They only gave up 40!" Missouri loves company and they will have a fine old time hosting the Pokes.

Notre Dame at North Carolina: Whichever fellow it was in Chapel Hill or South Bend who arranged this game for this fall deserves to be made his athletic association’s employee of the year. Seriously, name any other season in the last, oh, say, third of a century in which a game between the Fighting Irish and the Tar Heels would be both competitive and good. As a native Georgian whose loyalties do not lie with the Crimson Tide but who remains rankled by the fact that Bear Bryant’s Alabama squads never once beat Notre Dame, I invariably engage in the region-wide exercise of rooting for any Southern team---yes, even Georgia Tech---against the Golden Domers. (I hate to break it to the U.N.C. faithful, but, yes, your team represents a Southern state school. I know Lewis Black and Thomas Wolfe left Chapel Hill and headed to the Big Apple; you’re still here. Deal with it.) On Saturday, my local loyalties will be rewarded as the Pugilistic Leprechauns are ground under the Heels.

Bear Bryant may never have beaten Notre Dame, but at least the man showed up for work looking like a professional rather than looking like he just rolled out of bed.

Michigan State at Northwestern: As evidenced by the schedules Bill Snyder compiled for Kansas State throughout his tenure and the path Kentucky trod to get to 4-0 this year, teams nicknamed "Wildcats" know that the key to a successful season is to spend September playing squads composed of nine-year-old girls who are small for their age. The band from Evanston is no exception, although Pat Fitzgerald’s crew is about to take a step up in weight class. Fortunately for Northwestern, their big-time debut (such as it is) will come against the most accommodating of opponents in the form of the Spartans. For M.S.U., the trend has been unrelenting tragedy (such as it is) of such unremitting consistency as to become comedy; Sparty almost always starts relatively strong and finishes objectively weak, and has done so perennially since Nick Saban (who had his own 5-0 start followed by a 2-5 finish in 1997) departed. So it was in 2000 (3-0 start, 2-6 finish), 2001 (5-2 start, 2-3 finish), 2002 (3-2 start, 1-6 finish), 2003 (7-1 start, 1-4 finish), 2004 (4-3 start, 1-4 finish), 2005 (4-0 start, 1-6 finish), 2006 (3-0 start, 1-8 finish), and 2007 (4-0 start, 3-6 finish). Eight straight seasons is a trend, my friend, and, until the Spartans wise up and adopt Oregon State’s stumble-out-of-the-gate-and-end-by-playing-well approach (or at least mix it up between the two, like Clemson), I’m picking this as the week Michigan State’s luck runs out on them. In an overtime game in which the final score is forty-lot to forty-less, the Wildcats will win.

Oklahoma v. Texas: I’m sorry, but I simply cannot write about this game without unleashing my inner Keith Jackson. Whoa, Nellie! We have ourselves a barn-burner here in Dallas, Texas, between a pair of top five teams in a showdown with division, conference, and national implications, but neither of these two teams much cares about that right now, because all that matters is that they’re getting ready to tee it up for another edition of the Red River Shootout, and they’d both better bring their best effort, because, in a rivalry like this one, you can’t tap-dance around or they’ll put a tutu on you. The teams featuring the top two scoring defenses in the Big 12 will square off on Saturday, and, while the Sooners lead the league in total defense (256.2 yards per game allowed), no other team in the conference has surrendered as few touchdowns (5) as Will Muschamp’s Longhorns. Consider this statistic: Texas has not surrendered a rushing touchdown this season. That’s your ballgame, right there. The ’Horns hook ‘em.

I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, kid, but that’s just the way I see it. It’s nothing personal, I promise. Here, have a lollipop.

Those are this week’s national picks, which you may do with what you will, provided you heed my usual caveat. I am an untrained amateur and I routinely am wrong about such things, so wagering your hard-earned money based upon my forecasts would not only be morally and legally dubious, it also would be as foolish as investing your money on Wall Street unwise. You heard it here first, but it bears repeating: Don’t Bet On It!

Coming Soon: National Game of Disinterest.

Go ‘Dawgs!