Here’s the thing about the college football season. Every week is crunch time for somebody, when defeat can feel like a blindside chop block. Moments of Truth. Nebraska had one of those last Saturday in Ireland and look how that turned out.
This week’s selection of Moments of Truth:
Wait a minute, can this be right? North Carolina is playing at Appalachian State, Virginia Tech at Old Dominion and North Carolina State at East Carolina? Apparently all of these ADs have forgotten FBS Scheduling 101, where the first rule is never go on the road against a non-Power 5 opponent who could make trouble. Just invite them to your place and write them a check. We’ll see if the ACC gets away with this unbruised.
Notre Dame at Ohio State
Usually, you need Michigan winged helmets and a few verses of The Victors to get Columbus this aroused over a Buckeyes home game. But Saturday night is special. These two giants have combined to win 1,871 games while producing 14 Heisman winners and 195 consensus All-Americans. If you count vacated wins, they’re 1-2 in all-time victory percentage, with the Irish barely ahead. They have only six previous meetings, and the last time Notre Dame beat Ohio State, Jesse Owens was winning four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. That was 1936.
Many consider No. 2 Ohio State the equal of Alabama. Some consider Notre Dame to be over-rated in the polls, voted No. 5 more on the past that the present. This weekend will say a lot about both theories.
It’s the first regular season game as Notre Dame coach for Marcus Freeman, who once was an Ohio State linebacker. It’s also the first time in 36 years the Buckeyes will open the season against a top-5 opponent and the first time in 32 years the Irish begin with a top-5 matchup. Also, Ohio State will borrow the bright lights to honor the 2002 national champions. Plus, this begins the 100th birthday year for Ohio Stadium, the sport’s most famous horseshoe.
Can it get more perfect for a first Saturday night in September?
Oregon at Georgia
So, Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning fashions a renowned unit that helps carry the Bulldogs to the national title, then takes the head coaching job at Oregon, where his first opening game assignment is at . . . Georgia. Ah, the great circle of FBS life. It might seem odd that the Bulldogs could have 15 — count ‘em, 15 — players taken in the NFL draft and still be ranked No. 3 in the preseason. But remember, the SEC allows only reloading, not rebuilding.
Since Georgia’s fans consider the regular season one long tune-up before the Dawgs can beat Alabama again, they probably assume that any tourists in green from the Far West — even rated No. 11 — are dead ducks. The shock in Athens would be terrific if they’re wrong. Think Kirby Smart has mentioned to his guys how Oregon beat Ohio State in Columbus last season?
All college football awaits the dramatic moment when the Oregon Duck goes bill-to-snout with UGA.
Cincinnati at Arkansas
Cincinnati lost nine draft picks from last season’s 13-1 sensation, but this is the chance for the No. 23 Bearcats to show they aren’t going anywhere. Just down the road, the Bengals have that assignment, too. The 2021 season with its CFP and Super Bowl appearances was a big year for football in the city of Cincinnati. The Bearcats have won 22 consecutive regular season games and their only defeats in two years were to Georgia and Alabama in bowl games.
Keeping such glory days going will take some doing Saturday. No. 19 Arkansas will be opening its season with a top-25 matchup in Fayetteville for the first time in program history. That should mean a lot of loud Woo Pig Sooies!
Utah at Florida
That lofty No. 7 spot in the Associated Press pre-season poll is Utah’s highest ever, and the Utes have every right to announce their candidacy for best in the West, especially after scaring the scarlet and gray out of Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. But now they must take that shiny new ranking and reputation out for a spin to one of the most dangerous places in college football. The Swamp has about everything to torment guests but live alligators in the visiting team’s showers, which is one reason this will be the first time Florida is the underdog in a season home opener since 1969.
This is quite a contrast for the guys wearing the headsets. Billy Napier will be coaching his first game at Florida, and an upset would make a dandy first impression. Utah’s Kyle Whittingham is starting his 18th season at Utah, making him the second longest tenured coach in Division I at the same school. Know who he replaced at Utah? Urban Meyer, who has had time since to win three national championships at two schools and then explode into a fireball in the NFL. If the Utes are to make this season truly magical — as in College Football Playoff magical — it probably has to start Saturday.
Florida State vs. LSU
The identity of the starting LSU quarterback for Brian Kelly’s first game is on a strictly need-to-know basis. And none of us need to know because he ain’t saying. The game in New Orleans will be the Tiger faithful’s first official look at their new $95 million coach and they’re expecting a winning start. If not, Kelly could find out just how fleeting honeymoons can be in the SEC. They already might be a tad jumpy coming off the first LSU losing season this century.
(Memo to Coach Kelly: Nick Saban won his first game at LSU. So did Les Miles. So did Ed Orgeron. Just sayin’). What’s hard to believe is these two weighty programs, who are a manageable 440 miles apart, have not played in 30 years.
Jackson State at Florida A&M
Both teams have already been in headlines they never could have seen coming. Deion Sanders was saying this week how various safe water problems in flood-ravaged Mississippi has put his Jackson State team in “crisis mode.” Yep, that’s a fair term for no showers, toilets or drinking water at the practice facility. And no air conditioning. In Mississippi. In August. Meanwhile, Florida A&M put up a respectable fight against North Carolina last Saturday despite missing 26 players because of an eligibility issue. This week, the players have gone very public with their unhappiness about how the school administration has handled the matter.
And now the two have a football game to play. Jackson State was already on for a lot of attention, Sanders in all his Primeness naturally attracts the spotlight as a rising coach, but his son Shedeur is an accomplished quarterback, and cornerback Travis Hunter was a five-star recruit who made history by picking the SWAC over the FBS big dogs. Now comes a compelling season opener against Florida A&M, considered Jackson State’s main rival in its division. Put all the above together and that’s a lot of noise for a SWAC game on Sept 4.
West Virginia at Pittsburgh
Pitt took down West Virginia, 38-31 on Thursday night.
You’ve got to love a rivalry that draws some of its antipathy from the time the Pitt announcer informed the West Virginia visitors that there was no smoking in the stadium, “including corncob pipes.” These two have played 104 times, but they haven’t met since the last days of the flip phone era. That was 2011, when the Mountaineers went thisaway in conference affiliation and the Panthers went thataway. But the Backyard Brawl comes out of the storage closet Thursday, as it should be.
Besides a reunion for former USC quarterbacks — Pitt starter Kedon Slovis and West Virginia’s JT Daniels were once competing for the Trojans job — the game carries the buzz of a rivalry between neighbors, even if it’s had to be reheated. Lots of connections between these two, only 80 miles apart. Take Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. His father was once West Virginia’s head coach and his brother was a Mountaineer quarterback. Both teams have promises to keep. Pitt wants to show the ACC title last season was no fluke and start building on that No. 17 preseason ranking. West Virginia coach Neal Brown is 17-18 in three seasons and his program could certainly use a second wind. Thursday night is going to be a really lousy way for the loser to begin the season.
Penn State at Purdue
Penn State edged Purdue, 35-31 on Thursday night.
Penn State is a combined 11-11 the past two seasons and 8-10 in the Big Ten, and that won’t keep Happy Valley very happy. The Nittany Lions aim to do better but the Big Ten doesn’t make it easy on them. Thursday night marks the seventh season in a row they’ve been scheduled to open league play on the road. Did they forget to send in their annual conference dues or something?
At least recent history is on their side. George W. Bush and John Kerry were gearing up for the stretch run in the presidential election that October day in 2004 when Purdue beat Penn State in football. We mention that because it hasn’t happened since. Nine Nittany Lion wins in a row.
One feature of this game is the mileage on the quarterbacks. It’ll be two sixth-year guys — Penn State’s Sean Clifford and Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell — throwing their diplomas at one another. NFL games have had younger quarterback matchups. O’Connell, a former walk-on with a master’s degree, had a big 2021 — 13th in the nation in pass efficiency — that might have been even bigger had he started a game before October. “It’s unfortunate his head coach didn’t start him at the beginning of the year,” said Jeff Brohm, in his mea culpa. “But we were able to figure that out.”
Clifford and O’Connell are two of 28 college graduates on these two teams, 18 of them Boilermakers. Because of COVID, college football is shoulder-pad deep in master’s candidates. More than 3,000 graduates are playing the game this fall.