I always feel badly about identifying games everyone believes will be good, but won’t, so I am happy to turn to the more pleasant task (as I also did last year) of pointing out a handful of non-conference outings that don’t look like much on paper which I believe will turn out to be worthwhile showdowns.
I should hasten to add that I am not calling for the upset in any of these contests; I believe the favored team most likely will prevail, but these games will be competitive in the fourth quarter, an upset or two would not surprise me, and, in the end, the winners will come away knowing they’ve been in a fight following . . .
Mississippi State at Louisiana Tech (August 30): The Magnolia State Bulldogs made great strides in the win column last season, but they did so without getting demonstrably better at much of anything, so a return to earth appears probable. Meanwhile, the Pelican State Bulldogs bounced back from a ten-loss season in 2006 to come within one win of bowl eligibility under first-year head coach Derek Dooley (son of Vince) last fall. After the fashion of his famous father, Coach Dooley fils has gotten the schedule more manageable, as Louisiana Tech went from playing eight road games in 2006 to seven in 2007 to six this year. This will be La Tech’s tenth face-off with M.S.U. but the first series meeting to take place in Ruston. The W.A.C. squad has gotten the better of this S.E.C. opponent twice over the years, most recently in 1996, and Coach Dooley’s defense made great strides last autumn. Throw in a couple of B.C.S. conference quarterback recruits in Auburn transfer Steven Ensminger and Georgia Tech transfer Taylor Bennett, and you have a team with the potential to put a serious scare into Mississippi State . . . which, after all, fell to Tulane in Starkville and was taken to overtime by U.A.B. in Birmingham just two years ago.
Michigan State at California (August 30): A comprehensive discussion of this game has taken place elsewhere at SB Nation, but, for me, it boils down to this: Tennessee, after shredding the Golden Bears in Knoxville to kick off the 2006 campaign, underestimated Cal’s capability as a football team a year later, and the Vols paid for it by absorbing a 45-31 smackdown in Berkeley in the first game of 2007. Might that experience have made the Bears overconfident in their turn, as well? After all, it’s just the Spartans, who may outpace even Georgia Tech and Texas A&M as the victims of the biggest "little brother" complex in all of college football. M.S.U. is coming off of a 7-6 season, so what threat could they possibly pose? Leaving aside the fact that Cal went 7-6 last year, too, the fact is that the Bears and the Spartans return virtually identical numbers of starters and lettermen, and Michigan State was on the verge of being a very solid squad a year ago. In their last nine games, the 2007 Spartans dropped overtime decisions to Iowa and Northwestern and fell by three at Wisconsin, by four against Michigan, by three in a neutral-site game versus Boston College, and by seven at Ohio State; those four teams finished ranked 24th, 18th, tenth, and fifth, respectively, in the final A.P. poll. (In the final BlogPoll, incidentally, the Badgers, Wolverines, Eagles, and Buckeyes finished ranked 23rd, 16th, tenth, and seventh, for whatever that’s worth.) Michigan State was better than its record and Sparty will look to make a statement in a high-profile opener on the West Coast.
Cincinnati at Oklahoma (September 6): After toying with U.T.-Chattanooga on August 30, the Sooners will come into their home date with the Bearcats likely looking ahead to the following Saturday’s road trip to Seattle to take on Washington. Cincy’s just a plucky mid-major upstart, right? Actually, not so much. For one thing, the Bearcats are no longer languishing in second-tier conference obscurity; they’re a player in the suddenly sturdier Big East, returning 16 starters from last year’s squad, which was Cincinnati’s first ten-win team in 56 years and its first unit ever to finish ranked in the postseason polls. Under the guidance of Brian Kelly, who captured conference coach of the year honors in his first campaign with the ‘Cats, the team registered victories over three ranked league foes last year, and, while Cincy, too, will open with a Division I-AA tune-up game, the Bearcats’ tussle with Eastern Kentucky takes place on August 28, giving Coach Kelly’s charges an extra couple of days to prepare for their visit to Norman. With a September 13 open date and a September 20 home game against Miami (Ohio), Cincinnati will be able to devote its entire attention to O.U., which has been known to struggle in early-season out-of-conference outings against opponents whose football teams are better than their national name recognition. If Texas Christian could go on the road and upend the Sooners in 2005 and U.A.B. could go on the road and come within a touchdown of the Sooners in 2006, surely a Cincinnati club that handed a nine-win Oregon State squad a 34-3 setback in 2007 can make some noise in what could be a Norman conquest.
Connecticut at North Carolina (October 4): While I am a believer in the Tar Heels, at least to the extent that I have faith in their ability to fare well in a cruddy A.C.C., I don’t doubt U.N.C.’s ability to overlook the Huskies in a trap game located smack dab in the middle of the toughest part of the Heels’ schedule. North Carolina’s date with U.Conn. comes one week after its trip to Coral Gables to face Miami (Florida), which comes one week after the Tar Heels take on Virginia Tech. The Saturday after hosting the Huskies, U.N.C. will entertain Notre Dame before heading up to Charlottesville to face Virginia. How easy it would be for the Tar Heels to overlook little ol’ Connecticut, the defending co-champion of the Big East, and its 19 returning starters from last year’s nine-win team. North Carolina is in for a bigger fight than the Tar Heels anticipate, and, if they’re focused on recovering from the previous week’s bruising away game against the Hurricanes or they’re starry-eyed over welcoming the Fighting Irish to Chapel Hill the following week, the home team will get beaten by the Huskies.
As always, that’s just the way I see it and, inasmuch as your mileage may vary, you should feel free to express your opinions upon the subject in the comments below. Likewise, be sure to let us know your thoughts upon Georgia’s No. 1 ranking the coaches’ poll.