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Matt Zemek’s Ten To Tackle: 10 Games To Watch In Week One

Fellow Student Section editor Terry Johnson previews each week of the college football season through a statistical lens, as you can see here in his debut edition of Terry’s Takes. 

When I look at each week of the season, I’ll throw in some game keys at times, but the attractiveness of the 10 games I select for this weekly preview is found in the drama of the occasion. What does this game mean for the teams and coaches involved? How can this game serve as a transformative moment, for better or worse? Are reputations at stake for coaches or conferences? How much star power resides on the field? Is this game being given way too much (or way too little) publicity in relationship to its actual value? Is one team being dismissed or overrated heading into kickoff? These are the kinds of questions that will be confronted each week in “Ten To Tackle.”

Here we go:

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10 – TONIGHT: TEXAS A&M-SOUTH CAROLINA

One team is replacing the first freshman Heisman Trophy winner in the history of the award. The other team is replacing the best quarterback in the history of the program. South Carolina has to win this game, truth be told. The Gamecocks can’t put themselves in a position where they have to beat every non-Auburn opponent to go 6-2 in the SEC… before the calendar even hits September. Pressure? There’s quite a lot of it on the home team here. There’s even more of it on Dylan Thompson’s shoulders — we’ll see how heavy those shoulders are tonight.

9 – TONIGHT: RUTGERS-WASHINGTON STATE

Before you make a snarky comment about Rutgers and the Big Ten, consider the fact that Rutgers very nearly beat Fresno State on the road in a Thursday night season opener last year. The Scarlet Knights, with a two-point conversion, could have transformed their season in week one of 2013. Instead, they absorbed a loss that, in many ways, they never fully recovered from. Now, however, Rutgers has Ralph Friedgen to teach Gary Nova a few tricks at the quarterback spot. The Scarlet Knights could reset the dial on a psychological level and become a team that will give Washington State fits. This is a sneaky-interesting (though maybe not sneaky-good) game. It’s definitely a game that merits watching for conference comparison purposes.

8 – SUNDAY: UTAH STATE-TENNESSEE

Bowl projections can wait until late November, but determining whether a team will or won’t make a bowl? That can start early if certain results flow in one direction or another.

Tennessee’s SEC slate is brutal, not to mention a trip to Oklahoma. If the Vols want to be a 6-6 team with a bowl invite firmly in hand in early December, they have to fend off Mountain West Mountain Division champion Utah State. This is a very important game for the Children of the Checkerboard, and it marks the return of human highlight film Chuckie Keeton to the Utah State lineup after an injury knocked him out of the 2013 season.

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7 – MONDAY: MIAMI-LOUISVILLE

Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino will enter his ACC opener against Miami without his best receiver. That's a rough bit of news for him, but as long as Petrino has Will Gardner prepared  for the Labor Day night fight against The U, the Cardinals should be able to win.

Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino will enter his ACC opener against Miami without his best receiver. That’s a rough bit of news for him, but as long as Petrino has Will Gardner prepared for the Labor Day night fight against The U, the Cardinals should be able to win.

Let’s see:

Other than Miami having a million quarterback questions while emerging from NCAA sanctions; Al Golden facing the need to deliver results in the next two seasons to show that his program is on the rise; Louisville making its ACC debut; a conference game being played in week one; a season opener being a bowl rematch for these teams; the Cardinals being without star receiver DeVante Parker; and Bobby Petrino returning for his second act at Louisville…

… there are simply no interesting storylines to be found in this game.

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Now, on to Saturday’s most intriguing tilts:

6 – OHIO STATE-NAVY

The Buckeyes were challenged by Navy in 2009, but that was TresselBall. Ohio State now engages in Urban Renewal, a different sort of beast. Nevertheless, the injury to Braxton Miller, combined with this game’s location in Baltimore, means that if Navy can force a few turnovers from Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett and can keep this game close into the fourth quarter, the Buckeyes will have to compose themselves without their foremost on-field leader.

Maybe Ohio State’s quality at every other position on the field will overwhelm Navy and create a blowout. That could very realistically happen. However, if this game is close in the fourth quarter, we’ll immediately get to see what the Buckeyes are made of, precisely because they won’t have home field to fall back on.

5 – CLEMSON-GEORGIA

Why is this game fifth on the list and not second? Very simply, do you recall last year’s game? You could have called 2013 Tigers-Dawgs “Star Wars,” with all the skill-position talent on the field in Death Valley. Aaron Murray, Sammy Watkins (aka, “Sammeh,” the one-name Brazilian soccer star of the ACC last year), and Tajh Boyd aren’t coming through that door in 2014. It’s Clemson and Georgia in a season opener — that makes this game interesting and compelling.

I’d be stunned, however, if the 2014 version comes anywhere near the 2013 version as an attractive product.

The value of this game beyond College Football Playoff and New Year’s Day bowl considerations? Confidence. The winner of this game, having to replace an elite quarterback, will gain so much trust in its resources and abilities before Labor Day, a great thing for a coach to see on his roster.

4 – PENN STATE-UCF

James Franklin isn’t coaching cute and cuddly Vanderbilt anymore. Penn State will reveal the full measure of his coaching chops in due time, one way or the other. George O’Leary says he’s staying at UCF, but the weird offseason whispers about stepping down early in the season could create a cloud of uncertainty for each and every member of the Knights’ roster. The game’s in Ireland, and its status was threatened by a volcano.

I’d say uncertainty is the pervasively delicious theme for this contest. That it starts just after 5:30 a.m. in Seattle, where I live, makes it that much more fascinating.

Breakfast at Wimbledon? Try breakfast in Dublin to start a long college football Saturday.

3 – FRESNO STATE-USC

The Trojans hammered Fresno State in the last game these teams played, the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl. Derek Carr played in that game. He won’t play in this game, because his collegiate career is over.

Gulp.

Yet, are we sure USC has overcome all things Kiffin? It’s not as though Steve Sarkisian clearly and cleanly separated himself from his former co-offensive coordinator during the Pete Carroll regime. Sark has recruited well, and he’s obviously very comfortable at USC. He wanted to be there, and a lot of people in and around the program wanted him to be there.

However: as was the case with Lane Kiffin, Sarkisian arrives at USC as a head coach without gleaming credentials or substantial prior achievements. He has to prove himself, and if Fresno State has done its homework over the offseason and has enough talent to translate that homework into a solid performance, this game could become quite captivating.

2 – RICE-NOTRE DAME

The Owls are the defending Conference USA champions, in case you forgot. David Bailiff can “coach ‘em up real good,” as Steve Spurrier would say. If Notre Dame is hampered (and distracted) by the four suspensions stemming from a probe into possible academic cheating and this game remains a conversation in the fourth quarter… well, you fill in the blank.

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1 – WISCONSIN-LSU

Gary Andersen has a lot to work with at Wisconsin. That's the good news. Andersen, as he begins his second year in Madison, has to display ownership of Wisconsin as the program moves farther away (in both space and time) from the reign of Bret Bielema. That's the pressure Andersen faces in 2014 -- if the season is a disappointment, you know Andersen will face a lot of questions entering 2015.

Gary Andersen has a lot to work with at Wisconsin. That’s the good news. Andersen, as he begins his second year in Madison, has to display ownership of Wisconsin as the program moves farther away (in both space and time) from the reign of Bret Bielema. That’s the pressure Andersen faces in 2014 — if the season is a disappointment, you know Andersen will face a lot of questions entering 2015.

The battle for College Football Playoff positioning is a huge storyline in Badgers-Tigers. So is the Big Ten-SEC conference war. So is the fight for expanding the recruiting footprint into Houston, the site of this contest. Wisconsin-LSU is a huge game for the two coaches, who won’t be content with 9-3 regular seasons in the future.

Yet, the biggest reason why this is the best game of week one is simply that the two schools agreed to play it. Playing games like this before Labor Day, or at any point in the non-conference portion of the season, saves college football. Rivalry games, which often feature teams from separate conferences (especially the SEC and ACC), represent the soul and center of the sport. However, these chosen non-conference games — which schools didn’t have to agree to, yet willfully entered into — make a college football regular season so much more significant and substantive. If we really are playing for national championships, teams should schedule nationally, and they should schedule at a high level. You’re not supposed to avoid tough teams outside your region; you’re supposed to play them and beat them.

Cheers to Wisconsin and LSU. You’re doing the kind of thing that makes college football a better product and shows the way forward for dozens of other schools across the country.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments in 2014. He contributes to Crossover Chronicles and other Bloguin sites.

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