David Fox Rivals.com College Football Staff Writer
Fans like to say every game tells a story in college football, but some games will have a deeper back story in 2011.
Of course, conference games and rivalry games always carry more prestige and history than the average matchup. We recognize the Red River Rivalry and the Iron Bowl, among other heated rivalries, as having more than their fair share of story lines.
Today, though, we're highlighting some of the less obvious "story line" games, not including annual rivalry games and the blatantly obvious great non-conference matchups. These are not necessarily the best games of the season (though some will be important on a national scale), but these are games interesting for the back stories or the personalities involved in addition to the action on the field.
Conference realignment, NCAA investigations and player and coach background will add to the stories we'll see play out in the "story line" games of 2011. The games are listed chronologically.
1. "The Willie Lyles Bowl" - LSU vs. Oregon in Arlington, Texas, Sept. 3
BUZZ: This will be one of the top non-conference games of the season, matching two championship contenders. This contest also will be a chance for Oregon coach Chip Kelly and LSU coach Les Miles to compare notes on how Lyles - the Houston-based scout/advisor/player mentor - caused them headaches during the summer. Kelly and the Ducks have faced the brunt of the bad publicity in the Lyles mess. That's not without merit: Oregon paid $25,000 for Lyles' services, whatever they may be, while LSU paid a mere $6,000. Fittingly, this neutral-site game will be in Lyles' home state. Will he be there? And will he pull for LSU or Oregon?
BUZZ: A Holtz will be on the Notre Dame sideline for the first time since 1996 - only it won't be Lou and it won't on be the Irish side of the field. Coach Skip Holtz, Lou's son, is entering his second season at USF. Skip was part of four Notre Dame teams with his father, in 1986 as a special teams player and from 1990-93 as an assistant. As a broadcaster, Lou has been known for his favorable assessments and predictions for Notre Dame. Our bet is family loyalty will cause him to break ranks.
3. "The Times, They are a-Changin' Bowl" - Utah at USC, Sept. 10
BUZZ: This game will serve as perhaps the most effective barometer to how much college football has changed in merely a decade. The most recent meeting between the schools was the 2001 Las Vegas Bowl, where the pre-Urban Meyer/Kyle Whittingham Utes defeated Pete Carroll's first USC team 10-6. The next season would mark the start of USC's reign of dominance in the Pac-10 before the Trojans' subsequent descent into NCAA probation. Meanwhile, Utah went on to enjoy two undefeated seasons and two BCS appearances before its arrival in the expanded Pac-12. Now, USC and Utah are division rivals in the same conference.
BUZZ: Both teams are in the Pac-12, yet this game will not count in the conference standings; technically, this is a non-conference game. The programs scheduled a home-and-home series years before Pac-12 expansion. But neither school could find a suitable substitute opponent, so the best remaining option was to keep this game between Pac-12 opponents on the schedule as an in-name-only non-conference game. That has to be a relief for Colorado and a disappointment for Cal: The Bears won 52-7 last season in Berkeley.
BUZZ: Auburn will make its first trip to Clemson since 1970, though the teams have faced each other four times since then (twice in the Peach/Chick-fil-A Bowl, twice at Auburn). Clemson has lost 14 in a row to Auburn dating to 1952, but few losses were as heartbreaking as Clemson's setback at Auburn last season. Clemson led 17-0 before losing 27-24 in overtime. The most interesting story line, though, will be the offensive coordinators. Auburn's Gus Malzahn and Clemson's Chad Morris are two of the game's foremost gurus of the spread offense, and as recently as 2005, both were high school coaches. Morris, in fact, is in just his second season as a college coordinator after spending last season at Tulsa - where Malzahn toiled in 2007-08.
BUZZ: Nebraska defeated Washington 56-21 early in the 2010 season, but Holiday Bowl officials still opted for a rematch to cap the 2010 season. The Huskies proceeded to shock the Huskers 19-7. This will be the third meeting between the programs in 364 days. This also will be the rubber match in the series ... unless they meet in the Rose Bowl.
BUZZ: In another story line no one possibly could have seen coming, new Michigan coach Brady Hoke will face the school he just left. Hoke went 13-12 with the Aztecs (including 9-4 last season) before leaving for the Wolverines. Hoke has a track record of starting slowly (4-8 in both of his first seasons, at Ball State and with the Aztecs). Does that mean San Diego State should be favored in the Big House?
BUZZ: This is the first meeting between the programs, but two of Kansas State's key players are plenty familiar with Miami. Projected K-State starting linebacker Arthur Brown played for the Hurricanes for two seasons before transferring back to his home state. Arthur's younger brother, Bryce Brown, a running back, was the top recruit in the 2009 class, and Bryce spent much of the recruiting process as a "soft commitment" to Miami. Bryce, though, ended up signing with Tennessee in March 2009; he played one season there before he, too, decided to transfer "home." Between the two of them, the Browns accounted for 597 yards from scrimmage and 17 tackles at Miami and Tennessee.
BUZZ: From the moment Jim Tressel resigned, Huskers coach Bo Pelini has been on the short list of potential candidates for the vacancy if the Buckeyes replace don't-call-him-interim-coach Luke Fickell. Pelini is an Ohio State alum who played safety for Earle Bruce and John Cooper, and he also has been active as a fundraiser for his high school alma mater, Youngstown (Ohio) Cardinal Mooney. Even if there's no new news on Ohio State's coaching situation between now and October, that won't stop questions to Pelini on the topic. And given his fiery nature, there could be fireworks.
BUZZ: When Paul Pasqualoni last coached in the Big East, the league still included Boston College and Temple, and Connecticut was a new member looking for respectability. Now, Pasqualoni is at Connecticut while Syracuse is starting to pull out of the doldrums. Pasqualoni went 107-59-1 in 14 seasons at Syracuse, but the program showed signs of decline in his final seasons. Though he won't return to the Carrier Dome until next season, this game could provide an interesting barometer for his current and former teams.
BUZZ: Boise State and TCU have been two of the most consistent winners in college football the past decade. This will be the third meeting between the programs since 2008 (TCU won the 2008 Poinsettia Bowl, Boise State won the 2010 Fiesta Bowl). For all their shared history, this will be their first meeting in the regular season and the only time they'll meet as Mountain West opponents before TCU moves to the Big East next season. This game also will be a sign of what might have been if TCU, Utah and BYU had remained in the Mountain West with Boise State.
BUZZ: The Backyard Brawl participants could hold a seminar on how not to conduct coaching changes. Since the most recent meeting in the rivalry, on Nov. 26, 2010, the programs have had a combined six head coaches, including interims. Pittsburgh has had Dave Wannstedt, Mike Haywood, Phil Bennett and Todd Graham; West Virginia has had Bill Stewart and Dana Holgorsen. Graham and Holgorsen will be the coaches when the Panthers and Mountaineers meet in November - we think. We should be thankful if they are. Graham, the former Tulsa coach, and Holgorsen, the former Houston offensive coordinator, have a history of bad blood dating to their time together in Conference USA. After Tulsa beat Houston 46-45 in 2009, Holgorsen accused Graham of asking his players to fake injuries to slow down the Cougars' pace on offense. Graham also has a number of former West Virginia assistants on his staff from the Rich Rodriguez era. Yeah, they should get a warm reception.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.