…with mixed blessings
It’s the first Saturday of September, and that means NCAA football is back. Well, OK, technically, NCAA FBS football was launched on another exciting season on Thursday, when Wisconsin rolled over UNLV 51-17 (setting up a fun math reflection, since 51, otherwise a weird and lonely number, is divisible by 17). Actually, a lot of teams played Thursday, including Georgia Tech and one of our all-time favorite teams, the Western Carolina Catamounts (Tech, 63-21).
And Baylor’s Bears knocked off # the 14 TCU Horned Frogs, 50-48, in a nail-biter on Friday night, so come to think of it, there’s really no excuse for ignoring the early action in the Football Bowl Subdivision. That said, however, the serious stuff gets underway today.
Here at TOC, we like folks’ teams. That extends even to the Texas Longhorns (except for 8 October this year) and the Miami Hurricanes, although the USC Trojans undoubtedly present some difficulty for right-thinking people. We’re not so fond of Notre Dame either (although if you are, you have our support in principle), so the TOC designation of the annual battle between the Trojans and the Fighting Irish is “that low-class dance hall downstairs.”
But certain teams typically get more coverage, because they’re our teams from way back. Everything starts with the alma mater, the University of Tulsa. Its Golden Hurricane (that’s singular) has the distinction of playing for the smallest school in the NCAA FBS, formerly Division IA. And yes, TU was in Div IA before the new nomenclature kicked in. Tulsa plays in Conference USA, and therefore regularly cruises the south and southeast (e.g., Houston, Rice, Tulane, Southern Methodist, U-Alabama Birmingham, East Carolina, Central Florida, etc). The Golden Hurricane beat Notre Dame last season in the first-ever meeting between the two teams, and we’ll be mentioning that often.
But today, Tulsa is taking on our long-time #1 favorite team, the Oklahoma Sooners. About every other year, Tulsa plays the Sooners or the Oklahoma State Cowboys, whom we also follow with enthusiasm (both brothers went there). This year the Golden H plays both. Tulsa almost always loses, and is likely to do so today.
The team has been looking pretty good on the practice field, and comes off a 2010 season that started poorly but finished strong, ending with a win over Hawaii in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. But the Golden H’s secret weapon, multi-talented boogie-back Damaris Johnson, will be missing the game today (and may be out of football for some time to come). He’s been charged, along with his girlfriend, with felony embezzlement involving the Macy’s where his girlfriend works. Coach Bill Blankenship (who was the team’s starting QB when TOC matriculated, and took over for Todd Graham after he left for Pitt) has suspended Johnson indefinitely.
This will unquestionably put a damper on the joy in Mudville, and will contribute to making September a long slog. In a scheduling coup that someone obviously thought was a good idea, Tulsa plays #1 Oklahoma on 3 September, #9 OK-State on 17 September, and #5 Boise State on the 24th. Fortunately, there’s a bit of a break on 10 September, with the always-beatable Green Wave of Tulane. Also fortunately, QB G.J. Kinne is back for his senior season, behind one of the most experienced offensive lines in C-USA. A stable of promising backs will get a chance to show their stuff in Damaris Johnson’s absence.
The Sooners, although they will defeat Tulsa, go in under the handicap of being ranked #1 in the worthless pre-season polls. We’ll see. Their defense is hurting, and not only from the tragic loss of linebacker Austin Box earlier this year. Senior linebacker and defensive captain Travis Lewis is out this week and next (against #6 Florida State in Tallahassee) with a broken foot. Workhorse QB Landry Jones is back for his junior season; the youngish offense is curiously light on big-name skill players, for a #1 ranked team. But, of course, the ranking is from pre-season polling. Might as well be from a Ouija board. Kickoff in Norman at 7:00 PM Central.
OK-State rolls out a new offensive coordinator and his hands-on attack program in tonight’s opener, hosting Louisiana-Lafayette’s Ragin’ Cajuns in Stillwater. LA-Lafayette should, to put it charitably, pose no problem for the Cowboys, currently ranked #9. If you’re in a point-taking mood, this is a good place to go wild. (The oddsmakers have the Cowboys giving 38.)
We also follow some other important teams. Navy fires its first shot across the bow hosting FCS team Delaware this evening. The Blue Hens are one of the better FCS teams, and the squad of Midshipmen under Coach Niumatalolo (Indian name: “Needs a Nickname”) will have to be on their toes. Army will be at Northern Illinois, probably losing.
Virginia Tech, another team regularly followed at TOC, is kicking one-time FBS-buster Appalachian State’s raggedy tail all over the field in Blacksburg. The score there is 31-0, Hokies, with a minute and change left in the first half. With spark plug Tyrod Taylor gone, #13 Tech is debuting a new QB, Logan Thomas, who seems to be looking pretty good (although we’re not getting the game on TV here).
The University of Nevada Wolf Pack has this weekend off, and they’re going to need it. The next four weekends they play Oregon, San Jose State, Texas Tech, and – in a much-anticipated grudge match – Boise State. All away games. The Wolf Pack is moving from the WAC to the Mountain West next season, and the Boise State match-up looks likely to become a noted rivalry, if both teams continue on their upward trajectories. Nevada also has the distinction of having defeated Boston College in the first Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, in January 2011, a feat that prompts nothing if not the exclamation, “Now, THAT’s a bowl name!”
We also follow a couple of Division III teams. One is the Fightin’ Engineers of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (RHIT) in Terre Haute, Indiana. They play in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference (HCAC), whose teams readers will have a chance to meet as the season unfolds. Rose-Hulman’s first game today is a non-conference bout, however, with the Tigers of DePauw University. RHIT hosts, and we wish them well. They can generally manage a .500 or near-.500 season.
New to the slate this year are the Captains of Christopher Newport University (CNU), in Newport News, Virginia. CNU plays in the USA South Athletic Conference, and has a pretty good record with its 10-year-old football program (68-37 going into the 2011 season). The Captains host their season opener against the Waynesburg University Yellow Jackets, a first-ever meet between the two teams. Waynesburg (of Pennsylvania) plays in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference.
Other teams we take a benign view of – the Penn State “Nittally Lions,” the South Florida Bulls, Texas A&M, the Cal Bears – will come up as they come up.
It’s early in the season to start speculating about real rankings and conference/bowl shots, but there are a couple of very interesting results-in-progress and match-ups so far today. Utah State has FBS champ (and pre-season #23) Auburn down 38-28 late in the 4Q, which no doubt makes the Auburn Downgrade Brigade feel pretty smart right about now. It’s looking bleak for the Tigers today.
Big match-up this evening between #3 Oregon and #4 LSU; also starting the season off with a bang are Boise State and #19 Georgia. Knowledgeable aficionados can watch to see if the Ducks actually start playing before the 8-minute mark in the 2Q. Both the Ducks and the LSU Tigers, under NCAA investigation, will be missing key players. (See the WSJ “Grid of Shame” for the good, bad, and ugly of a scandal-plagued NCAAF year.)
Should your team be followed at TOC? Give us a shout-out. We love football. Meanwhile, this heart-warming football story helps us kick off the 2011 season. At Faulkner University, a small Christian school in Montgomery, Alabama, the placekicker this year will be 61-year-old Alan Moore, a Vietnam vet. Moore kicked last year for Holmes, Mississippi Community College. Now that’s what we’re talking about.
Final question: can Boston College, which just got the ball back, and has a minute left, come back from its 24-17 deficit with Northwestern?