There’s Ohio State and USC. Georgia traveling to the desert to take on Arizona State. And who can forget about the always competitive Red River Rivalry that has long crowned not only the Big XII champion, but given one team a shot at the National Championship?
It’s no secret that these are the kinds of games fans and analysts are already salivating over as we find ourselves a little more than a month away from the start of the 2008 college football season. Yet beyond the hoopla and buildup of these monumental out-of-conference contests and long-circled conference showdowns, the road to a national championship is forged through the weekly grind of conference games against seemingly lower competition. Known to many as “trap” or even “landmine” games, these are the contests that go under the radar every year, and are frequently overlooked as fans and media members make their preseason predictions. Yet perhaps now more than ever, as the twelfth game format transforms the landscape of scheduling, these games have the chance (some may even argue the propensity) to rock-the-boat of title hopefuls and throw the entire BCS race upside down.
We of course saw this on numerous occasions last season. From South Florida’s unlikely early season run being deflated against what many considered a down Rutgers team to West Virginia’s infamous collapse against a mediocre Pitt club in the Backyard Brawl, 2007 was filled with an any-given-Saturday conference mentality that seemed to reshuffle the Top 10 on a nightly basis. Even eventual National Champion LSU was not immune, losing to a pair of 8-5 teams in Arkansas and Kentucky which many people expected them to beat.
So what does 2008 hold in store? If you’re asking me I’d tell you likely more of that same, although perhaps not with the same frequency we saw in 2007. Nevertheless, here are seven under-the-radar games which could present unforeseen problems for this year’s national title contenders, and possibly affect the race to get to the BCS National Championship Game.
Florida at Miami (September 6th)- It’s not that Randy Shannon is going to have Miami in the Top 15 this year. Frankly, I have serious reservations about the Hurricanes even achieving bowl eligibility this season. Yet for all the challenges Miami should face in 2008 (see: quarterback play) the Hurricanes supposedly remain not only one of the most talented teams in the country, but one of only a few teams with the defensive speed to be able to matchup with Urban Meyer’s scheme. If Shannon can get the Hurricanes to play to win (that is to say play some offense) and Miami can get even a little better offensive line and quarterback play, than this should be a much closer matchup than many people might have originally thought.
Georgia at Kentucky (November 8th) - Your classic “sandwich game,” Georgia could very well find itself #1 in the nation if Mark Richt’s team can get past Florida in the preceding week. Yet with an SEC finale against what figures to be a title contending Auburn team on the 15th the Bulldogs could be susceptible to looking past coach Rich Brooks’ Kentucky Wildcats, who many analysts feel could challenge Vanderbilt for last place in the SEC East this year. Kentucky’s offense will likely take a step back from 2007 with the loss of QB Andre Woodson, RB Rafeal Little, and pass catchers Keenan Burton and Jacob Tamme, but with eight returning starters on a defense which held Georgia to a season low 99 passing yards last season the Wildcats have more than enough talent and confidence to give Matt Stafford and company fits.
Ohio State at Michigan State (October 18th)- Everyone wants to talk about Ohio State’s early season showdown with Southern California- and rightly so. Yet the expectation has been that if the Buckeyes can get past the Trojans on September 13th than it’ll be smooth sailing for the scarlet and red until the season finale against Michigan. Personally, I think that notion is worth a “not so fast my friend.” If any Big 10 team has the capability to stun Ohio State it’ll be the Spartans, who will have the benefit of getting the Buckeyes coming into East Lansing a week before Ohio State’s Homecoming showdown with Penn State. Remember that Michigan State hung around with the Buckeyes last season, eventually falling 24-17 despite being an 18 point underdog on the road. With the bruising Javon Ringer back at running back and a full year under QB Brian Hoyer’s belt expect a more explosive Spartan offense with the ability to stick with Ohio State once again in 2008.
Southern California at Arizona (October 25th)- A perennial contender when it comes to the National Title, Southern California has dominated the Pacific-10 conference under headman Pete Carrol, who is 76-14 through seven seasons at USC. Arizona meanwhile has struggled under Mike Soops, who has failed to get his team past the 6-6 hump in his four seasons in Tucson. Sounds like a sure-thing, right? Maybe, but USC has slipped up against mid to low level Pac-10 teams the past two seasons and Arizona looks to be much better offensively this year. The Trojans had to stage a second half comeback to overcome the Wildcats in a 20-13 win last season, but with 10 returning starters on offense and another year in Sonny Dykes’ system I think the Wildcats will have the ability to hang around late in the game this year. Keep in mind that Stoops’ 2006 team dashed Cal’s National Title hopes in 2006 with a late season win. Can lightning strike twice?
Texas Tech at Oklahoma (November 22nd)- Seldom is there a more important game for Oklahoma than the annual Red River Rivalry with the University of Texas, but looking into 2008 the late November matchup with Texas Tech may present the more important contest in the Sooners’ presumed run at a National Title. Not that Bob Stoops will have his team looking past the Red Raiders, who stunned then 3rd ranked Oklahoma in Lubbock last year. Still, not everyone is buying into Texas Tech, which despite returning a loaded offense still has yet to breakthrough and capture a Big XII title until headman Mike Leach. Yet with three starters lost from a secondary that gave up 420 passing yards to Tech in last year’s game, I look for the Sooner defense to struggle even more so against Graham Harrell and company in 2008, possibly opening the door for a late season upset opportunity.
Duke at Clemson (November 15th)- Now that the initial shock has worn off from seeing “Duke” and a “National Championship” in the same post, let’s discuss this one. Some may scoff at the notion of Clemson as a realistic National Title contender, but then again who realistically thought Boston College would be in position to vie for the BCS Title before a late season collapse last year? There isn’t much precedence for Duke to beat an ACC team (much less the most talented ACC team) but that fact alone gives the Blue Devils and new Head Coach David Cutcliffe the ability to sneak up on the Tigers, who will be coming off what could be an energy depleting road game at Florida State. Duke has better talent than most people around the country realize, and with seventeen returning starters more than enough experience to start wining games right away. If the team can catch on to Cutcliffe’s scheme and coaching style, the Blue Devils should be in a position to surprise at least one unlucky ACC team in 2008.
BYU at TCU (October 16th)- I’d be lying if I said that hearing the national media types assess BYU’s schedule this year hasn’t caused me the occasional chuckle. Sure, matchups against Washington and UCLA are huge, but putting the Huskies or Bruins on a pedestal above the likes of TCU or Utah seems almost laughable. Texas Christian is coming off of a somewhat disappointing season, but the Horned Frogs return fifteen total starters from a team which finished the year strong last year. QB Andy Dalton should be better, and despite the loss of both starting defensive ends the Horned Frogs should be stout on defense as usual. Gary Patterson coached teams tend to play with a chip on their shoulder, and having been dethroned from the top of the conference the past two seasons they’ll be primed to pull out all the stops against the Cougars.