Beyond the Marquee Games, Much on the Line Across the Country

Everybody and their mother knows at this point the college football schedule this weekend is jam packed with big time games in big time conferences with big time teams. But the gluttony of top 25 matchups though isn’t all that makes this weekend so spectacular. It’s the depth. The second, and even third tier games this weekend, are games that would have been in competition for prime time slots, or more national coverage during one of the earlier lackluster weekends in September. Your remote should be busy this weekend. And if you’re watching with someone who wants to see every game, and you don’t, you might want to find a separate television set.

We’ll start right off in the Big Ten with a couple of conference newcomers who thanks to Braxton Miller’s injury, Michigan’s implosion, and Penn State forgetting how to play football last weekend against Northwestern, find themselves relevant in the Big Ten’s Eastern division.

I don’t think anyone would have expected Rutgers to end the first half of their first year in the Big Ten at 5-1. Yet, that’s precisely what they can do if they defeat a Michigan team that, in addition to not being a very good football team, is also dealing with internal strife that makes any Bobby Petrino run program seem functional. Embattled athletic director Dave Brandon has said he would only consider firing coach Brady Hoke after the season is over. Yeah, tell that to maize and blue if they’re sitting at 2-4, 0-2 in the conference with the losses coming against Minnesota and Rutgers. The Knights though have to be kicking themselves, they know full well they should be playing to remain unbeaten, save a meltdown at home in the 4th quarter against Penn State. The Knights get into the real meat of their schedule in two weeks, and it’s still conceivable (no, I’m not a full believer in them yet) that they could lose as many as 4, 5, or even all, of their final six games. Making the postseason in their first year in the Big Ten was a reasonable lofty goal for the program, losing to Michigan would be a huge blow.

Meanwhile, Maryland is gaining believers by the week. Their only loss is to a better than advertised West Virginia team. Ohio State is not going to have an easy time in there. The first Big Ten home game too for the Terps? Gonna be a big deal in College Park. If Maryland pulls the upset, it turns the division on its ear, and welcomes a new contender to the mix. Personally, I’m not sure Maryland is quite there yet, as I think Ohio State is getting better and better each week. However, Maryland would do themselves, and the ACC, proud, by putting up a good fight. And if it’s close, late, the inexperience at quarterback for Ohio State could very well rear its ugly head.

The SEC schedule gets all the focus because of what’s going on in the west, but the east isn’t chop liver. Wait, I couldn’t say that without laughing, so yes, yes it is. It does not mean however there’s nothing compelling about the matchups Saturday.

Florida vs Tennessee is, well, Florida vs Tennessee. The East is such garbage, both still have a shot to win it. As of Today. When this one is over, we can pretty much eliminate one of them. And even for the victor, they’re still not going to be considered a favorite in the division, as South Carolina, Missouri and Georgia, for the time being, still lay claim to that title. But what is perhaps the more intriguing plot line here is the postseason fate of these two once proud programs.

Tennessee has only been to a bowl in four of the past nine years. Staying at home over the holidays this year would be the sixth time in a decade. The last time that happened? From 1955-1964. Yeah, it’s been fifty years since the Vols have seen that kinda of desolation. A loss to Florida drops them to 2-3, meaning even if we assume, and that’s a dangerous game at this point with a Vanderbilt team they’ve lost two straight against, and an improved Kentucky team, they beat Vandy, Kentucky, and Chattanooga, they must get a victory against either Ole Miss, Alabama, South Carolina, or Missouri. Now, if I were a betting man, I’d still bet the Vols get the required six wins to play in a bowl game, but with the first three of that quartet all in succession following Chattanooga, it’s not a risk Tennessee wants to take, or pressure they want to be under.

While I’d still bet on the Vols to make a bowl, even with a loss, I don’t feel the same way about Florida. Galen Hall was coaching the last time the Gators had successive seasons end in November, and that was only because probation denied them the postseason despite a 9-1 campaign in 1984, prior the a 6-5 1985 season. The last time Florida legitimately didn’t qualify for bowls in successive years? 1978 and 1979, the final year of Doug Dickey, and the first of Charley Pell. Because of the situation regarding the Idaho game, which Florida would be wise to find a way to play if they want to make a bowl, the Tennessee game is huge for Florida. Drop it, and they’ve seven games to find five wins. Do you see five wins against LSU, Missouri, Georgia, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Eastern Kentucky and Florida State? In this case, I wouldn’t bet on it.

As mentioned, the East is a dumpster fire, meaning Kentucky hosting South Carolina takes on new meaning. The Wildcats have shown great improvement this year, and the talent level is as high as it’s been in a long time in Lexington. South Carolina has only been impressive in one showing this year, and that was against a Georgia defense that is rivaled only by North Carolina and the Atlanta Falcons for ineptitude. You want a potential upset? Circle this one. The loss to Missouri means South Carolina is facing elimination with basically every SEC game they play from here on out, so the pressure is on.

The ACC Coastal division is a lot like the SEC East. Every game matters. But unlike the SEC West where they all matter because of how good everyone is, in these divisions it’s simply because nobody has shown to be good enough to separate themselves from the pack.

North Carolina and Virginia Tech both are approaching this game as a must win, though depending on the angle you’re approaching it from, you could argue either way in regards to who it is most important for. In terms of just the division race, the Hokies absolutely cannot afford another loss. Division tie breakers are likely to play a major role in determining who plays Florida State in December, and opening with two division losses is an easy way to put yourself well behind the eight ball.

On the Tar Heel side you have a team who is reeling from a lack of confidence, caused completely by a lack of defense. They’ve allowed 120 points in their last two games, not in any way looking the pre-season favorite to win the Coastal. The return of seven starters on defense had people thinking the Heels could make the leap this year. Unfortunately, of the four they lost, they lost three of their top four tacklers, including their best pass rusher, and team leader in interceptions. And it’s showing.

They’re fortunate that their ACC loss came out of the division though. Meaning, if they can scrape themselves off the ground and find a way to beat Virginia Tech, at home, where the Heels are 16-5 the past three years, they still are in complete control of their ACC championship hopes. But if the defense gets trounced by the Hokies, Larry Fedora might want to get a good real estate agent.

What makes the Carolina and Virginia Tech game even more important is that each of them already has a conference loss, something Pittsburgh and Virginia cannot say, and those two meet in Charlottesville, where one will come out still unscathed, and two games up on the loser of the Carolina, Virginia Tech tilt.

This one is hard to call. Pittsburgh has the nice win over Boston College, though their victory over USC is looking more flukish by the second, but has looked worse and worse in the two subsequent weeks, following to an uninspiring Iowa team, and then an embarrassing loss to Akron. Being at home, this is one Virginia absolutely must win if they’re serious about a big bounce back season. The Cavs have played three ranked teams this year, losing by 8 to each UCLA and BYU (who are both still unbeaten) and emerging victorious over Louisville. Is Virginia ready to contend in this division? That remains to be seen. But they’re not the same team they’ve been the last four years under Mike London while amassing an 8-24 conference record. These are the games programs like Virginia have to learn to win to keep rising. Fall here, and you look at the rest of the schedule, and it’s possible you don’t see another victory. There’s no way London survives the year if the Cavs don’t make a bowl game, and to do that, they absolutely cannot enter the second half of their season at 3-3.

Even with the intrigue surrounding the other two games, Miami at Georgia Tech is bigger than both. Georgia Tech knows they’re in the catbird seat, they have a win in hand against Virginia Tech, they know they get Duke and Virginia at home. They know they’ve pretty much had North Carolina’s number in recent years. The thorn in their side? Miami. The Jackets have dropped five in a row to the Hurricanes, and simply seem overmatched every time they meet. But none of that matters if the Jackets grab a win at home.

For Miami, they have to win this game to win the division. It’s that simple. The Hurricanes suffer from the unfair scheduling practice of matching up one cross division opponent with a permanent rival. Theirs of course is Florida State. Granted, it’s not impossible to suggest Miami can beat Florida State, especially with the way the Seminoles have played this year, but let’s be real, it’s not likely. Making matters worse this year was the fact they drew Louisville to pair with the Seminoles, and a 31-13 beat down at the hands of the Cardinals at Papa John’s Stadium in Louisville’s first ever SEC game put Miami in a hole. Overcoming one cross division loss can be done. Overcoming two in a division where you know the race is going to be tight, much more daunting. And to do so, you must take care of the head to head battles with the strongest competition. Personally, I think Miami wins and keeps this race wide open. But if they lose Saturday night, you can go ahead and eliminate them.

On the other side, despite both having already lost to Florida State and effectively eliminated themselves from contention for the division title, Clemson vs N.C. State is still important. Neither is gonna beat Florida State for the division, the only team with even a chance of that is Louisville. That said, both teams can reasonably set goals of a 10 win season. Clemson has a chance to be favored in every game from here on out, and they’d need to win every one of them to finish 10-2, or lose one and win their bowl game, but they can still put together a really strong season, and something to build on with standout freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson. Not to mention, four straight 10 win seasons is nothing to scoff at. The Wolfpack schedule might be even easier after this week. Survive Clemson at 5-1, finishing 5-1 is really, really doable. After losing nine a year ago, a nine win season would be considered a rousing success in Raleigh.

Out west, everyone knows who the contenders are matched up with this week, but there’s one more game that has caught my eyes. The Washington State Cougars are a much better team today than they were early in the season. I don’t think they’re going to go win any conference titles, but they’re going to play spoiler. Granted, the Oregon loss last night takes some of the shine off their strong showing against the Ducks, two weeks ago, but not much. If they could make a bowl after their lackluster start, that would be impressive. They’ll need to win Saturday to do that I believe though, the conference is too good, and too deep, to be able to survive losing to bottom tier teams and still make a bowl.

And basically, the same thing can be said about Cal, though they’ve actually begun 3-1, and are defending a hail mary away from 4-0. Arizona’s win over Oregon last night probably makes the sting of Cal’s last second loss to the Wildcats hurt even more. But Cal cannot dwell on that loss. What they can do is get off to a 4-1 start, something they haven’t done since 2009.

Kansas State showed some moxie, going toe to toe with Auburn a couple of weeks ago, and followed that up with a business as usual dismantling of a bad UTEP team. Saturday Kansas State will try to win a fourth straight meeting with Texas Tech for the first time in school history. The Wildcats have an off week after this, and then a trip to Norman to face Oklahoma, with essentially, everything on the line for them. The worry has to be keeping Kansas State focused on the Red Raiders. Texas Tech isn’t going to stop much of anything on defense, but they put up a good fight against Oklahoma State last week. The question, is that because J.W. Walsh is down, or because Texas Tech is getting better as a football team. After what Arkansas did to them on the ground, I expect Kansas State to do more of the same and set themselves up for a showdown with Oklahoma.

Speaking of Oklahoma State, they better be real careful this week at home against Iowa State. I know the Cyclones are 1-3, but if there’s such a thing as a solid 1-3 team, I think it’s this bunch. There is no shame in losing to North Dakota State, they’d be a legitimate top 25, maybe even top 15 team, in the FBS. They took Kansas State to the wire, and thus far, are the only team to stay within three scores of Baylor. Paul Rhoads is now 28-39 in Ames, and he knows the clock is ticking. Upsetting a name program like Oklahoma State may be the only way to catapult this team into a bowl, and perhaps save his job. With Toledo, Texas and Kansas among their next four games, a victory Saturday could certainly springboard a mid-season surge that gives them meaningful games to play in November.

East Carolina is THE favorite in the American conference, there’s no question about that. But should something happen to the Pirates, the line of teams behind them who could pounce is long. Last night Central Florida took a big step elevating themselves above the crowd and emerging as the chief threat to East Carolina by winning a hard-fought physical game in Houston.

On Saturday, either Cincinnati or Memphis will join them. Cincinnati is a very difficult team to read. They opened with two straight off weekends, and haven’t exactly been impressive in their wins over a pair of MAC foes, including a seven point win over a Miami of Ohio program that seems to spend every other year as one of the ten worst teams in the country. They were trying to use Ohio State as a measuring stick, and they were run out of the building in a matter of minutes. We’ll find out a lot more about them taking on a very game Memphis team.

The Tigers may be 2-2, but ask 20% of the top ten teams in the country what they feel about Memphis, and they’ll all tell you that when they played Memphis, they know they were in for a game. After nearly shocking UCLA in Pasadena, the Tigers three weeks later gave Ole Miss everything they wanted. Sure, 24-3 doesn’t look competitive, but that wasn’t the case at all. Until fourth quarter this game was very competitive. The Rebel defense was just too strong for Memphis, and eventually, the depth on the Tigers wore down. Don’t expect the same to happen with Cincinnati. The Tigers avoid Central Florida and East Carolina in an unbelievable gift from the scheduling gods, and with the only remaining conference road games being SMU, Temple and Tulane, if Memphis can win in Cincinnati, this is a team who becomes a very, very real threat to win the conference in their first year as a member.

The western version of the American Conference, the Mountain West has a pair of games this week that will help clear up where the contenders reside. The Boise State loss to Air Force last week was just further proof that the Broncos are no longer the program they once were. They’re staring down a second straight conference loss this week when they visit Nevada. Does anyone know the last time Boise State dropped consecutive conference games? Anybody? Bueller?

Nevada, is one of three teams who entered the year with legitimate hopes of winning the West division, and thus far, might have proven themselves the most capable. They’ve beaten Washington State and suffered a narrow loss at the hands of Arizona thus far in their two biggest tests to date. They would love to help throw some more dirt on Boise State’s dominance’s grave, but they’ll have to do something they’ve done once in their last 14 attempts, and that’s beat the Broncos. Of course, that one time they did….

Staying in the same division Fresno State and San Diego State play on Friday in what is a rather underrated rivalry. The Aztecs are still smarting from a loss to North Carolina that they’d really like to have back. Unlike Fresno State, the Aztecs were at least competitive in one of their losses. The Bulldogs have beaten up on the cupcakes on their schedule, but for any team with a pulse, they have been the cupcake. Little is known about these teams to this point, but the winner gets a big leg up in the division.

Another MWC team ventures out of the conference, fresh off the aforementioned upset of Boise State, as Air Force begins the battle for the Commander In Chief trophy by taking on Navy. Navy has yet to top 27 points in a game this season, a surprising lack of offense for the Midshipmen, especially considering the talent at quarterback with Keenan Reynolds. On the other side, Air Force could hardly have been a less impressive 2-1, but the victory over Boise State has lifted spirits out in the Wild Blue Yonder. At 2-3, Navy needs to get a win, the schedule isn’t brutal down the stretch, only Notre Dame seems unwinnable, and after that, Georgia Southern might be the only team they aren’t favored against. Nevertheless, they don’t want to enter the second half needing to 4-2 to extend their bowl streak. For Air Force, the schedule lightens up after Navy, a win to get to 4-1 could be great momentum to propel them through October and into a very meaningful November.

Lastly, ULM takes on Arkansas State. Both have taken their lumps against ACC and SEC foes, but handled their business against everyone else, though close wins over the likes of Troy and Utah State aren’t exactly impressive. Early season struggles by Louisiana, and Georgia Southern being ineligible for the conference championship in year one are signs that point to this game possibly being the deciding factor in the conference when all is said and done. The ULM offense has been abysmal this year, and they better figure things out quickly because the Red Wolves have long been one of the better defensive teams in the conference.

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