Week 1 Clashes
July 30, 2014
By Joe Nelson
The start of the college football season is less than a month away and the opening weekend features a number of big games between the five major conferences. Here is a look at some of the big major conference matchups to start the season, some of which could have major consequences for the season.
With the new playoff system in place, there may be less pressure on the top teams to deliver a perfect season, but the inter-conference clashes may be more critical as the selection committee will need to evaluate the conference strengths side-by-side and at least one of the big five conferences will be left out. Here is a look at the opening weekend games between major conference foes that could directly or indirectly have an impact for the committee in December.
Rutgers vs. Washington State (Seattle): Absolutely no one is projecting either of these teams to be in the national title picture or even the Top 25, but this will be the first of five Big Ten vs. Pac-12 matchups of the season. While the Michigan State/Oregon game in Week 2 will be the game with serious implications, if one conference delivers a decisive 4-1 or 5-0 edge in the conference matchups, it could help to sway the committee if a one-loss Pac-12 champion is pitted up a against a one-loss Big Ten champion for the last playoff spot, actually a very realistic scenario. This Thursday night game is in Seattle, which has been far from a home-away-from-home for Washington State, as they have been blown out the past three seasons in the Emerald City games. Both of these teams went 6-7 last season after bowl defeats and both teams have coaches in their third seasons.
The similarities end there as Rutgers has been known for a stout rush defense, but an erratic offense while Washington State rarely runs the ball and plays track-meet style games. Rutgers is considered additional dead weight by many Big Ten supporters, but a significant non-conference win away from home would certainly provide a boost to the overall strength of the conference now with Rutgers and Maryland joining this season. It would be a big blow to the Pac-12 and this could be the swing game in the Big Ten/Pac-12 series with likely fairly substantial favoritism projecting a split in the remaining four games between the conferences.
UCLA at Virginia: The bigger non-conference game for UCLA will be with Texas in Arlington in two weeks, but many see the Bruins as a serious threat in the Pac-12, not just to return to the Pac-12 title game for the third time in four seasons, but to even play into the national conversation. UCLA has a very challenging schedule, but this is a loaded team with nearly the complete starting roster back from last season’s 10-3 team. UCLA crushed Virginia Tech from the ACC in the Sun Bowl last season with a 42-12 win and Virginia is not expected to be a great threat in 2014 coming off an ugly 2013 season in which the Cavaliers went 2-10. This is a veteran Virginia team with a lot of experience and the cross-country travel and early start time on the east coast could provide some advantages for the host. Virginia lost 59-10 at home last season against Oregon in a matchup vs. one of the Pac-12’s elite teams.
In fairness, UCLA fared no better against the Ducks with a 42-12 loss in Eugene last season and the statistics for Virginia and UCLA were nearly identical in that difficult matchup. With Florida State carrying the hopes of the ACC and sitting with a great shot to go undefeated again, this is not an overly meaningful game for the conference. A UCLA loss would be a big blow to the Pac-12, but as the opening spread will suggest, that would be a substantial upset.
California at Northwestern: These teams opened up the 2013 season in Berekley with Northwestern winning 44-30. It was a much closer game than the two touchdown margin suggests as the game was tied in the fourth quarter before Northwestern pulled away. California actually had more yards in the game and this will be a big game for both teams. Northwestern is coming off a disappointing season filled with close losses, so starting the season with positive momentum will be critical. California won just one game last season, but this was a competitive team that averaged over 450 yards per game on offense.
This is really a game that Big Ten cannot afford to lose at it would be very damaging for comparison arguments by season’s end, as Northwestern figures to be one of the better teams in the Big Ten West, and actually a legitimate contender. California with a brutal schedule is not expected to compete well after going 0-9 in the Pac-12 last season. Even if California is greatly improved, it is a program that won’t likely get consistent enough results to find the postseason considering how tough the Pac-12 North looks and with a non-conference game with BYU still ahead as well.
Alabama vs. West Virginia (Atlanta): It is not likely to be a great opening weekend for the Big XII, projected by some to be the conference most likely to be left out of the national playoff if they fail to produce an undefeated team as they won’t benefit from a conference championship game. The Big XII plays a nine-game conference schedule which has taken a toll in recent years as every recent championship contender has suffered a late season loss. West Virginia has an impossible opening task, but a respectable showing in a loss could go a long way to help the perception of the Big XII. Alabama has delivered dominant early season wins over Big Ten and ACC teams in recent seasons and that helped to push one-loss SEC teams to the top of the pile in the BCS pecking order in previous seasons.
Alabama is a national title contender, but this is a team with few returning starters and big shoes to fill with many 2014 NFL draft picks departing the roster. After a stunning 4-8 season in 2013, West Virginia has some pressure to rebound this season in the fourth season for Dana Holgorsen. The 70-33 Orange Bowl win after the 2011 season only carries so much weight two disappointing seasons later in what has been a difficult adjustment to the Big XII. It would be a stunning upset if West Virginia won, but Alabama has been upset in its last two games, losing as double-digit favorites to both Auburn and Oklahoma to close last season.
Clemson at Georgia: Now for the games with serious implications in the opening weekend. Last season, Clemson’s win over Georgia helped the Tigers secure an Orange Bowl spot despite getting blasted by Florida State and South Carolina later in the season. It was a great opening weekend game with Clemson winning 38-35, holding on despite allowing 545 yards to the Bulldogs. While everyone expects Florida State to win the ACC title again, Clemson could make a case for one of the six major bowl spots even in a runner-up position in the ACC Atlantic, as they did last season. Should Clemson take out Georgia, it would also boost the standing of the ACC if the champion of the conference wound up with a loss and was not a sure-thing for one of the four national playoff spots.
The implications of the opener are huge for Georgia, but less so for the SEC. The conference has done enough to be sure that they will have one of the four national playoff spots in any scenario and probably can make a case for two spots in several other scenarios. In the six major bowls, there are no longer limits on teams from each conference, so Georgia could have a favorable path to a major bowl for the first time since the 2007 Sugar Bowl if they win this game, even if they are not able to capture the SEC East title. Both teams have a lot of talent back on defense, but have unproven quarterbacks and this could be another exciting opening game with big stakes.
Florida State vs. Oklahoma State (Arlington): The Big XII will get the first chance to end the undefeated run for Florida State, but this year’s Cowboys squad looks much less equipped to deliver a big win than several of the teams the past few seasons in Stillwater. This opener in Arlington will provide a more favorable venue for Oklahoma State, but while Florida State is loaded with experience, the Cowboys are in a bit of a rebuilding year with only eight starters back in action. Oklahoma State passed a big test to open last season with a 21-3 win over Mississippi State, but this will be a much tougher task. If Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston gets suspended that could open up the opportunity for Oklahoma State, but ultimately this is likely going to be too touch of a test for the Big XII to earn many ‘points’ in comparison arguments against the ACC.
A Florida State loss would be a national game-changer and while a respectable showing from Oklahoma State will help the Big XII, it does not appear to be a year where the Cowboys will be carrying the flag for the conference. Florida State will face a schedule with more weight this season so the Seminoles could actually lose this game and still wind up in the national playoff if they win out and take the ACC title as it would be hard to leave out the defending national champion as a one-loss conference champion even if it becomes a down year for the ACC.
Wisconsin vs. LSU (Houston): Neither LSU or Wisconsin looks like a serious national title contender, but both are among the fringe contenders where it would not be shocking for either team to make the national playoff. This will likely serve as an elimination game in that regard as while the loser could still get there if they run the table the rest of the way with a conference championship, they might not have enough to get to a major bowl with two losses. The winner, meanwhile, will likely immediately emerge as a Top 10 team with a real shot to stay in the national mix all season. LSU is very young this season, but talent-rich as usual, coming off a 10-3 season. The 2013 Tigers were the worst defensive team that Les Miles has produced in many seasons and the key matchup in this game will be the LSU defense against the Wisconsin rushing attack. Neither team appears poised to make big plays in the air in this opener with depleted receiving corps on both sides and unclear quarterback situations, but both defenses could have some vulnerability.
Wisconsin failed in the Capital One Bowl last season against South Carolina of the SEC for a fourth consecutive bowl loss and this is a program in dire need of a marquee win outside of the conference. After impressive defensive numbers last season, Wisconsin will have to replace a great deal of key players and it may be the LSU running game that has a big day despite the focus on Heisman candidate Melvin Gordon for Wisconsin. This game would go a huge way for the Big Ten especially after many notable Big Ten vs. SEC defeats in recent seasons and while it would be a damaging loss for LSU, the SEC has plenty of teams in line to emerge in contention for the playoff picture.
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