The Forward Pass: This Week’s College Football Preview

Grind your teeth and set your jaws. It’s college football, Week 3.

Remember Keith Jackson’s trademark call? “Whoaaaaaa Nellie!” I was sitting around my apartment the other day thinking about that. Whoaaaaa Nellie. Who are you, Nellie? Where did you come from? And for God’s sake, why are we trying to hold you back? What do you have in store?

A quick Google search later, and it turns out Jackson doesn’t quite know. That makes total sense to me. Whenever I get excited about college football, I speak in gibberish. There’s not a good way to articulate how psyched I am, so I just make up something that feels appropriate. Something like the first sentence of this blog post. Or a passionate string of words inspired by, but not belonging to, the Italian language. This is also how a crazy person operates, but I’m not afraid of the comparison. Not during college football season.

May I use a cliché? There is Simply. Nothing. Like it. If you saw me banging emphatically on my desk while I typed those words, it would seem less like a cliché and more like fringe ideology. Bless this game! But enough. Enough of the enthusiasm that we already know exists. Let’s get to the good stuff. Pardon me if I don’t tiptoe around the big ole game.

That’s right, I said …

THE BIG OLE GAME

No suspense here. The no. 1 Oklahoma Sooners have pointed their wagons southeast, where they’ll meet the no. 5 Florida State Seminoles on Saturday night on ABC.

Here’s the great thing about this one: If Florida State loses, they cannot win the national title. The dream is deader than a Tallahassee doornail. I can envision a scenario where Oklahoma suffers a close loss, runs the Big 12, benefits from a from a team like Boise State and Stanford, and sneaks into the title game. It’s feasible. But Florida State? No way, brother. Not in the ACC. Too much ladder, not enough rungs. Even if they win out, they’ll be competing with the automatic berth from the SEC (life is unfair) and another one-loss team from a stronger conference. It is do or die.

It’s also a huge moment for Jimbo Fisher. This is his second year as head coach at FSU, and his first chance to be great. The man’s been an assistant since 1991, so it’s safe to say that he’s waited 20 years for this shot. And it’s an opportunity for FSU to return to national prominence. Remember the Seminoles in Bobby Bowden’s heyday? That was a crew you could really hate — and really fear. Two national titles and in the Top 5 every year from 1987 to 2000. The greatest team in the South. But the Noles have spiraled from those dizzying heights into a decade of relative insignificance.

Those are the high standards Fisher is up against. If I wanted to stop him in his tracks with a really devastating heckle, here’s how it’d go:

Me: Hey Coach Fisher. Here’s a fiddle.
(I hand him a fiddle)
Jimbo: Thanks.
Me: No problem. I gave the first one to Bobby Bowden.

Then I’d get the fiddle back, because those things are not cheap and I’d probably need to return it within 48 hours. Anyway, with Florida State threatening to rise to its former glory, this may be the most important game they’ve played in a decade.

And man, is it winnable. Not only do they have a deep receiving corps and a veteran quarterback who has looked great in his first two games (against chumps, but chumps is what they gave him), but they’re facing Oklahoma. The worst good team in the country. The Sooners are 1-5 in their last six BCS bowl games, and the one win came against UConn, a token Big East team. Bottom line, Bob Stoops is good at two things: chewing gum, and losing big football games. And he’s out of gum.

This is Florida State’s time. The sepulchral war drums will resound.

Other Clashes of the Ranked

There’s just one this week: no. 3 LSU at no. 25 Mississippi State, Thursday night.

We’ve already spent enough time on Mississippi State’s tragic ending against Auburn. Or did we? Let’s see what sort of vitriol remains.

Ahem:

Just RUN OUTSIDE, Relf! Or pitch it! Do anything except straight into the last defender who can make a play! Seriously, man. Anything else. Punt it. Stick the ball in your face mask and do the Charleston. Pretend to phone the president and tell him your favorite animal is a leopard. I don’t know why you’d do that, but I’m just saying, ANYTHING.

Whew. OK. Closure. There’s a big problem with life at Mississippi State; the trip to Auburn was supposed to be one of the easy games. Facing the defending national champs in their house is what passes for ‘very winnable’ in the SEC West. By losing, they’ve more or less screwed themselves out of even the remote hope of a conference championship. Here’s the worst of what’s left – no. 3 LSU at home, no. 10 South Carolina at home, no. 2 Alabama at home, no. 14 Arkansas on the road. If they’d won at Auburn, they’d be justified in feeling optimistic. Three of their four toughest remaining games are in the cozy confines of Starkville. Instead, they’ll be lucky to split the remaining four, and three losses in the SEC just ain’t going to cut it.

But wait just one minute. How good is LSU, really? Quarterback Jarrett Lee only completed 10 of 22 passes for 98 yards against Oregon, and last Saturday he injured his ankle. When he suffered the same injury last year, he ended up losing his job to Jordan Jefferson. (Jefferson was indefinitely suspended from the team following an arrest on felony battery charges.) So is Lee ready for the kind of pressure he’s going to face Thursday night?

My bet is that Mississippi State packs the line and forces LSU to throw, which the Tigers won’t do well. If they want to preserve their high ranking, it’ll have to be on the shoulders of a defense who looked far from spectacular against Oregon. This one is a truly fantastic way to start the weekend.

Upset Watch

I’ll give you three.

1. How about no. 4 Boise State on the road against a Toledo team that just came real close to knocking off Ohio State in Columbus? If nothing else, the opening 20-point spread seems absurdly high. This is the Friday night game on ESPN.

2. No. 21 Auburn at Clemson. Tigers vs. Tigers. I’m cheating a little bit on this one, because it’s not actually an upset. Clemson is favored by around three points, but Auburn’s the team with the national ranking. Auburn has survived, and I mean hair-of-the-skin-of-the-teeth survived, against Utah State and Mississippi State. This could be the reckoning we’ve awaited; the end of Auburn’s 17-game winning streak. Then again, Clemson only won by eight at home last week against Wofford, despite 165 yards receiving from Andre Ellington. I expect we’ll see quite a few points in Death Valley.

3. No. 15 Michigan State at Notre Dame. I’m taking Michigan State, and this one is an actual upset, because the Irish are favored by five. I don’t have a real unifying theory here, except this: when a team is fool enough to repeatedly find stupid ways to lose, as Notre Dame has been for about 10 years, run with the other guy. A fool stays a fool.

The Most Significant Insignificant Game

Coastal Carolina, 2-0, at Georgia, 0-2. Georgia is in the midst of another disappointing season in the SEC. Coastal Carolina is Coastal Carolina, and will probably lose, but boy howdy, do I love coach David Bennett. The clip below is well-traveled by this point, but I still laugh like a lunatic whenever I watch. Do yourself a favor and the invest the 61 seconds:


My favorite part of that clip is how he wants his players to be more like dogs, but the only thing the dog did in his story was bark in the back and force the coach to shut him up. Also, I’m happy to report that I have a title and chorus for my next techno song, if I ever write a techno song: “12 Cats Live Across the Road.”

Needless to say, I’m rooting for Coastal Carolina in this one.

The (Possibly Ignorant) Football Theory of the Week

When you’re facing an above average defense inside their two-yard line on third or fourth down, never run the ball between the tackles.

I’ve been in some heated arguments about this, and I wish I was kidding about the “heated” part. I don’t have numbers to back my argument up, but a lifetime of watching games has led me to believe that passing or running outside is far more successful than trying to grind your way up the middle, even though the latter seems like the obvious solution when you’re extremely close to the end zone. The hosses on defense are too big, and too strong. And since they have less vertical space to cover, they can crowd the line. The offense is at a natural disadvantage. Still, try telling this to a traditionalist. You’ll start to feel like Billy Beane circa 1998.

Here’s how you’d figure it out, if anyone had the time and means: over the past decade, look at every third or fourth down play inside the 2-yard line against a top-10 defense. You can either figure out the top 10 defenses for each year, or just the top 10 in the AP poll. Find out what percentage of inside runs were successful, and what percentage of passes/outside runs. For a shortcut, just look at 2-point conversions. Dollars to donuts I’m right on this one. (I mean that literally: if you do the leg work and prove me wrong, I’ll personally pay you a dollar or buy you a donut of equal or lesser value.)

The Keith Jackson Energy Infusion Call

I know we’ve already mentioned Ole Keith, but really, how often do you find an announcer that almost everyone agrees is great? Announcing is like refereeing — you only notice them when they’re bad. Nobody likes announcers. Mention any announcer, and someone within a two-mile radius will have a ready-made diatribe complete with rude language and unkind wishes. This is even true in parts of the country with low population density.

But not Keith Jackson. The man exudes college football, and there’s no one better when you want to get jazzed for a game. So let’s get to this week’s Keith Jackson Energy Infusion Call:

“There are no flags on the field. Only despair for the maize and blue. Joy and exultation for the Buffaloes of Colorado … they call it, in some circles, the Hail Mary. It was certainly prayerful.”

The Conference Rundown

Here are the biggest games in the six major conferences.

ACC Virginia at North Carolina. UNC sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner is slowly proving that he’s a capable leader and a dynamic passer. His three picks against Rutgers last week, admittedly a rough stat, disguised a 20-of-26 performance that built on his excellent first start. The Tar Heels will be favored at home against the Cavaliers (2-0), and it’ll be a good indication of how serious they can be. As of now, they’re not playing a ranked team until mid-November. With some luck and growth, they could find themselves in the Top 15 by then.

Big 12 — Conference play hasn’t started yet, but keep an eye on no. 23 Texas at UCLA. The Longhorns just cracked the rankings, and UCLA will be a good early test. UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin is averaging 6.5 yards per carry, but Texas’ run defense has been solid so far.

Big East — Again, no conference play, but  no. 18 West Virginia at Maryland looks to be one of the most fun games of the weekend.

Big Ten — No conference play. Sensing a pattern here? But no. 22 Arizona State at undefeated Illinois should be good. ASU is coming off a great win over Missouri, and Illinois is averaging 283 rushing yards per game. Something’s gotta give, and we’ll get to see if the Pac-12 has any teeth.

Pac-12 Washington (2-0) at no. 11 Nebraska. Again, who are the Pac-12 contenders besides Stanford and Oregon?

SEC — Aside from LSU-Mississippi State, the one to watch is Tennessee at no. 16 Florida. Both teams undefeated, both trying to prove they can keep up with South Carolina for control of the SEC East. The Gators have more firepower, but Tennesee’s Tyler Bray has thrown for almost 700 yards and 7 TDs in just two games. The Vols have definite electricity potential.

Weeks 1 and 2 were nice appetizers, but we’re on the verge of the first truly great week of the season. Thanks for checking in, and enjoy the games.


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Filed Under: Big East, Boise State, College Football, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Illinois, LSU, Texas, UCLA, UNC, West Virginia, What You Should Be Watching

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere