Alright, Big Ten, it’s finally time to slay the demon. Ohio State might not have the veteran talent of the last three teams that ended up in the BCS, including two national title appearances. But it’s good enough to be considered by most to be the favorite to win the Big Ten title, if it’s not going to be Penn State.
A shaky start to the season — needing a returned two-point conversion attempt to put away Navy — was hardly the type of confidence-inspiring starter to suggest the Buckeyes are ready to make a run for Pasadena for the Jan. 7 game instead of the one that’ll be played in the Rose Bowl on January 1. But everything can change with a win over a USC team that has slapped around the Big Ten for the last several years, including a 35-3 pasting of Jim Tressel’s team last year in Los Angeles.
The numbers are astounding. USC has won its last nine games against the Big Ten, all blowouts, with the last loss coming in the 1996 Kickoff Classic against Penn State. Not only has USC owned the Big Ten, but it has owned everyone outside the Pac-10, with the exception of of the 2005 Vince Young-led Texas team. That loss in the 2006 Rose Bowl is the only defeat to a non-Pac 10 team since Sept. 21, 2004, which Kansas State won, 27-20.
Even with last week’s flawless, 56-3 win over a not-that-bad San Jose State, USC isn’t getting universal love and respect as a possible national title contender, or even in this game, the way previous Pete Carroll teams would have. The replacements at linebacker are one concern, but playing a true freshman, Matt Barkley, at quarterback has tempered expectations a little bit.
But this game is more about Ohio State. A national punching bag after two ugly losses in BCS Championship games, and after last year’s embarrassment against the Trojans, this is the chance for the program to show that it really does belong in the discussion among the elite of the elite, and not be thought of as an extremely talented team that gets to play in a mediocre Big Ten. The program needs this win, and the conference could use it even more.
The Big Ten would get an instant shot of credibility if the Buckeyes could pull this off, while on the flip-side, the Pac 10 could slide into irrelevance — especially after Oregon’s clunker at Boise State — if the Trojans can’t keep up their road magic. It’s the college football non-conference game of the year (at least for now), and it’s one of the handful of games that will define the season and, possibly, the national perception of the programs and their leagues for the next few years.
Why USC might win: The USC offensive line should flatten the Ohio State defensive line. Even during the glory times of the last three seasons, and even with NFL talent like Vernon Gholston patrolling the front, the Buckeye defensive line was considered the team’s weak link compared to the rest of those loaded teams. Yes, OSU was among the best in the nation against the run, even at the top of the charts for some stretches, but most of that was due to the linebackers and part of it was because teams had to throw to keep up with Buckeye offense. This year’s defensive line isn’t special, but the USC offensive front is.
Why Ohio State might win: Barkley throws interceptions. At least that’s the knock on him. He was flawless against San Jose State, but the concern about starting Barkley wasn’t that he’s a true freshman. He’s mature beyond his young age and is more than talented enough to handle the work. It’s that he still needs to work on ball security. For all the big things he did at Mater Dei High School in California to make him considered by many to be the nation’s No. 1 recruit, he also made a lot of mistakes, throwing 18 picks in his senior year while only completing 54 percent of his throws. Once he got to USC, his accuracy has been fine but he still threw too many picks in practices. The Ohio State game plan will be simple: Stop the run, load up against the run, send in everyone including the waterboy at the running game, and make Barkley win the game.
Who to watch: Terrelle Pryor, you’re up. Everyone’s superstar, unquestioned No. 1 prospect coming out of high school last season came up with an excellent true freshman season. He was the one positive in the loss to USC, giving the Trojans fits when used sparingly, rushing for 40 yards and completing 7-of-9 passes for 52 yards. He had enough WOW moments throughout last year to suggest that he only needed a little bit of tweaking before he’d become the player everyone was waiting for. While he busted his tail this offseason to become a better passer, he didn’t show much in the opener against Navy, completing 14-of-21 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown with an interception, while only rushing for 30 yards and a score. If Ohio State is going to win this game, Pryor can’t just be good; he has to transcendent good. He has to be Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl. He has carry the program, and the Big Ten, on his back and control the game from the start.
They might not be back to the national title-level status the two greatest programs in the history of college football might be used to, but after each blew out their respective opponents in week one, the once-mighty, stop-the-world showdown has become relevant again.
Yes, Notre Dame only beat Nevada and Michigan only came up with a win over Western Michigan. But with the way the two powerhouse programs have struggled in recent years, with the Wolverines losing to Appalachian State and to Utah in back-to-back home openers and with the Irish almost getting tagged by an awful San Diego State team in last year’s opener, winning their games by a combined score of 66-7 is big. But the wins went beyond just getting a nice blowout to kick things off; they were statements.
Notre Dame has more to play for then Michigan, with the expectations set at BCS or Bust, and with a nasty game against Michigan State up next week and with USC lurking in mid-October. Michigan is still trying to fight its way through off-the-field issues, and no one is throwing out any hope of a Big Ten title season. But if RichRod and his team can pull off a big win at home this week, the chance will be there for a huge start with Eastern Michigan and Indiana up next.
Penn State and Syracuse, a pair of former Eastern rivals headed in opposite directions, renew acquaintances in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions were as sharp as they needed to be in the opener versus Akron, jumping out to a 31-0 halftime lead before coasting and emptying the bench in the final 30 minutes. No. 7 Penn State has two more weekends to address concerns, mainly on the offensive line and in the secondary, before the conference schedule kicks off in earnest.
The Orange darn near bagged a Big Ten upset last weekend before bowing to Minnesota, 23-20, in overtime. Still, with Greg Paulus at quarterback and Doug Marrone on the sidelines for the first time, the program showed more fight and determination than in recent years. If Syracuse wants to energize a sleepy fan base, hanging with Penn State on the road would be a nice place to start.
Penn State took it easy on Akron last weekend. Don’t expect similar generosity when Syracuse makes its way to State College. The Lions will begin to slowly build to a boil as the competition ratchets up, smoking the Orange for three quarters before calling on the reserves. Jeremy Boone punted twice last week. Clark and his mates on offense will make sure he doesn’t exceed that number this Saturday.
The last time Vandy and LSU has faced each other was 2005, and they have only faced each other five times since 1990, the last Commordore win over the Tigers. While Vandy is far better than it has been over the last several years, it’s still in for a tall task to not only win in Death Valley, but to buck history. The Commodores haven’t won in Baton Rouge since 1951, but they were razor-sharp last week in a 45-0 blasting of Western Carolina while LSU is coming back from a dogfight in Seattle.
The Tigers had the longest road trip in school history last week against a game Washington squad, but there’s no time to let down in what should be the light and breezy part of the slate. If they can get through the SEC opener, they should get to Louisiana-Lafayette and Mississippi State to follow before going to Georgia.
Vandy gets Mississippi State at home next week. LSU isn’t going to be sharp and its offense will be in for a bit of a struggle, but a few early scores will force Vandy to scramble. The Tigers should stay comfortably ahead all game long, but they won’t be able to coast.
There’s ugly, and then there’s what South Carolina and Georgia came up with in the opening weekend. The Gamecocks won a 7-3 snoozefest at N.C. State, and while it might not have been the offensive showcase that head coach Steve Spurrier and South Carolina fans hoped for, it was a tough, hard-fought win that the team might have lost last year on an interception or a huge mistake at the wrong time.
Meanwhile, Georgia was just plain flat. The defense was popping and the effort appeared to be there in the loss to Oklahoma State, but there was no offensive explosion, no consistency, and awful play by both lines. It’s now or never for the Dawgs with no true breather — considering the Arkansas and Vanderbilt games on the road — until the Tennessee Tech game in early November.
For South Carolina, a win would set the bar at a whole other level with an apparent layup against Florida Atlantic next week to kick off a run of four straight home games. It’s a stretch to say the loser is out of the SEC title hunt, but there will be little to no margin for error the rest of the way.
Stanford and Wake Forest meet for the first time in history in a matchup that’s going to unveil plenty about both teams. The Cardinal, fresh off its 39-13 rout of Washington State, is clearly trending upward under Jim Harbaugh, but is it ready to win a tough road game clear across the country? Pull it off, and the program will take a giant step closer to its first bowl appearance in eight years.
While a win in Winston-Salem would be a luxury for Stanford, it’s an absolute necessity for Wake Forest, which dropped its opener at home to Baylor, 24-21. With games still left against Clemson, Miami, Georgia Tech, and Florida State, the Deacons would dig themselves a deep hole in their quest for a fourth consecutive bowl game.
Hey, it’s never easy for a young program to travel across the country and knock off a well-prepared opponent. Harbaugh’s kids, though, are capable of doing it. As long as Luck doesn’t make unforced errors, Stanford will wear down Wake with RB Toby Gerhart, a unique and tireless workhorse. The Cardinal D will bend at times, but it’ll also rattle QB Riley Skinner, who has a shortage of playmakers to provide support.
The Rick Neuheisel era got off to a thrilling start last season with a 27-24 overtime win over Tennessee in the 2008 opener. Little did anyone realize at the time that UCLA would end up being so inept, while Tennessee would also go into the tank and become one of the season’s greatest disappointments.
The UCLA offense finished 111th in the nation and was 109th in scoring, while Tennessee finished 115th in yards and 110th in points. This season, each team is trying to rebuild anew and will be looking to make big statements that the times really are changing. For the Bruins, another win over Tennessee would bring a whole new measure of respect, at least compared to last year’s victory.
For the Vols, everyone will be pointing to next week’s showdown at Florida in what should be one of the nastiest games of the year. Blowing Western Kentucky out of the water in a 63-7 waxing might be a bit cathartic and might have been a nice start to the Lane Kiffin era, but this is a needed step up the ladder to show that the program has improved since almost 365 days ago.
It’s not Charleston Southern, but it’s not exactly supposed to be a big test for the No. 1 team in the country after Troy got blown away by Bowling Green last week. The Trojans, considered by most to be the preseason favorites to win the Sun Belt title, couldn’t handle the Falcon passing game and got inconsistent play from the offense.
Even so, the team is used to playing in hostile conditions and isn’t bad at playing the big boys tough from time to time. The last time they were in an SEC stadium was last season, when they had LSU on the ropes before getting their doors blown off in a wild fourth quarter.
Florida did what it was supposed to do last week to Charleston Southern in a nice exhibition, and while it will try to do the one-game-at-a-time thing, Tennessee comes to town next weekend. Troy will make this interesting for just over a half, and then the woes on offense will be too much to overcome. Florida will go on a nice run in the third quarter and allow everyone to start focusing on how to properly yell at Lane Kiffin.
What is Texas doing going to Wyoming? This counts as the most difficult non-conference game on the Longhorn slate, with ULM, UTEP, and UCF coming to Austin, and it could be a trap with the revenge battle against Texas Tech coming up next week. Texas had no problem with ULM in a 59-20 win that showed off the speed and skill in the receiving corps, and the talent in the running back corps that should be able to take the pressure off Colt McCoy a bit.
Wyoming is hardly special, but it has more than held its own against the big names. The Cowboys were able to beat Virginia at home in 2007, Ole Miss in 2004, and won at Tennessee last season. Texas is at a completely different level from any team UW has faced in years, but new head coach Dave Christensen can make a big splash if his team is merely competitive against the nation’s No. 2 team.
It will take about a quarter, and then the floodgates will open thanks to a few Wyoming turnovers. Texas will shut down the UW running game and will make the Cowboys try to produce by pushing the ball down the field, and the results won’t be pretty.