Yellow Jackets Look To Spoil Irish Party Early
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In what has become an annual tradition as the NFL abandons the long Labor Day weekend, college football takes center stage beginning tonight and continuing through Monday night’s Florida State-Miami tilt. Mismatches typically outnumber intriguing pairings this time of year, but littered among the designated stepping stone games are some legitimate tests for some of the nation’s top teams. On the local front, Rutgers gets a measuringstick game as hopes build on last year’s breakthrough bowl campaign.
RUTGERS AT NORTH CAROLINA
(Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC)
The Scarlet Knights were one of college football’s pleasant surprises last season, qualifying for the Insight Bowl in coach Greg Schiano’s fifth season. The bowl bid earned Schiano a lengthy contract extension, and with 14 starters returning, he is expected to prove Rutgers is narrowing the gap between itself and Big East heavyweights Louisville and West Virginia. While North Carolina is nobody’s idea of a national-title contender, the Tar Heels present precisely the type of “should-win” game that previous Rutgers teams with high hopes have routinely lost in recent years. The odds makers aren’t convinced things will be different this time around, installing North Carolina as a solid 5-point favorite.
To pull off the upset, Rutgers needs production from its two-headed rushing attack of fullback Brian Leonard, around whom the school is mounting a Heisman campaign, and tailback Ray Rice. If they’re effective early, it will take the heat off quarterback Mike Teel, who is starting for the first time. Teel will look often to tight end Clark Harris, another NFL-caliber prospect on the Knights’ offense.
North Carolina counters with former Nebraska quarterback Joe Dailey, named the starter this week. Dailey’s propensity for interceptions caused him to fall out of favor in Lincoln, but he looks to turn over a new leaf along with the Tar Heels, who have ambitions of returning to a bowl game after an off year in 2005.
NO. 9 CALIFORNIA AT NO. 23 TENNESSEE
(Saturday, 5:30 p.m., ESPN)
Notre Dame-Georgia Tech and Florida State-Miami will get most of the attention, but this could be the best matchup of the opening weekend.
Tennessee was the nation’s most disappointing team last season, falling from a preseason top-five ranking to a 5–6 finish. The good news is that coach Phillip Fulmer gets an immediate opportunity to prove that 2006 will be different; the bad news is that Cal has a very real chance to walk out of Knoxville with a win. Such a result would raise the pressure on Fulmer to unimaginable levels.
The biggest change from last season for the Vols is on the sidelines, where David Cutcliffe returns as offensive coordinator. Cutcliffe ran the Tennessee offense during the Peyton Manning years and presided over a prolific attack with Eli Manning as the head coach of Ole Miss. His arrival is expected to help the play of talented but erratic quarterback Erik Ainge, who is now the unquestioned starter after splitting time with Rick Clausen and Brent Schaeffer over the last two seasons.
California enjoys its highest preseason ranking since 1952, and believes it can challenge USC for Pac-10 supremacy.The Bears have an outstanding rushing attack led by Marshawn Lynch, a potential Heisman finalist, but need more consistent play from the quarterback position. Nate Longshore won the starting job from Joe Ayoob in fall camp, but will be on a short leash. Longshore has a game-breaking receiver in DeSean Jackson, but will be throwing against an experienced Tennessee secondary.
NO. 2 NOTRE DAME AT GEORGIA TECH
(Saturday, 8:00 p.m., ABC))
Charlie Weis has probably spent a good deal of time this week trying to convince his players that they’re not nearly as good as they have been portrayed by the press. The Irish have legitimate national-title aspirations for the first time in about a decade, but will need to be on upset alert against a Georgia Tech squad that was a giant-killer last year. The Yellow Jackets’ 2005 victims included Auburn and Miami, and their passing tandem of quarterback Reggie Ball and receiver Calvin Johnson have to be eager to take on Notre Dame’s leaky secondary.
Johnson, a junior, gets fewer headlines than Notre Dame standout Jeff Samardzija, but is the odds-on favorite to be the first receiver taken if he elects to enter the 2007 NFL draft. A big game on national TV against the Irish, whose cornerbacks were last seen trailing in the wake of Ohio State receivers in the Fiesta Bowl, could help make that happen.
Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn will kick off a season-long Heisman audition with big numbers against Georgia Tech, and he has to like the prospect of throwing to fellow firstround prospect Samardzija against a defense that was torched by Utah in the Emerald Bowl. Quinn will have to make quick decisions against Georgia Tech’s aggressive front seven, which will use the blitz liberally to apply pressure.
Notre Dame’s offensive prowess is well known, but the team’s championship aspirations will live and die with its defense, which should be improved simply by virtue of having nine returning starters.
NO. 11 FLORIDA STATE AT NO. 12 MIAMI
(Monday, 8:00 p.m., ABC)
This rivalry has lost a bit of its luster in recent years: Neither team has factored in the national-championship race, but it’s still one of the nation’s most intense rivalries, particularly now that both teams play in the ACC. Last year’s game in Tallahassee produced an ugly defensive struggle that was akin to trench warfare: lots of violent confrontation, but very little ground gained. Florida State came out on top thanks to some Miami special teams miscues, but endured a rocky, 8–5 season.
This Labor Day could produce a similar result if the quarterbacks don’t play better. Both Miami’s Kyle Wright and Florida State’s Drew Weatherford gained valuable experience last season, but each must prove they can produce in a spotlight game against a top defense.
Miami’s offense will be limited by suspensions to two of its top threats: receiver Ryan Moore and tailback Tyrone Moss, so look for Wright to turn to his favorite target, tight end Greg Olsen, often. Olsen enjoyed a huge game against the Seminoles last season, with eight catches for 137 yards.
Weatherford needs tailback Lorenzo Booker, somewhat of a disappointment last season, to take some pressure off and give him more time to throw against perhaps the nation’s best secondary. Despite difficult 2005 seasons, both these teams have aspirations of playing in the BCS title game — hopes that can be derailed after a single game.
Mr. Levine is a writer for FootballOutsiders.com.