July 25, 2011

Monday with Mike: Early league showdowns

It's one thing to play a big non-conference game in September; this season, for instance, there's LSU-Oregon, Boise State-Georgia, Miami-Ohio State and Florida State-Oklahoma.

Those games obviously have importance and will shape the national title picture.

First, though, you have to win your conference before you can worry about winning the national title, and there are some big-time games in September that will have a huge bearing on various conference races.

Here's a look.

12. Missouri at Oklahoma, Sept. 24
BUZZ: This comes the week after a trip to Florida State for the Sooners, while Mizzou will be coming in off a game against FCS member Western Illinois. A victory by the Tigers would throw the Big 12 race into a free-for-all. Missouri beat the Sooners last season, but hasn't beaten OU in consecutive seasons since 1965-66. And there's also this: Mizzou hasn't won in Norman since '66, which means the Tigers have lost 17 in a row at OU.
11. Mississippi State at Auburn, Sept. 10
BUZZ: Auburn won by three in Starkville in a defensive struggle last season (17-14). Both will be coming in off what should be easy openers. The Tigers have won nine of the past 10 against the Bulldogs. The loser of this one seems destined for a fifth- or sixth-place finish in the SEC West.
10. USF at Pittsburgh, Sept. 29
BUZZ: West Virginia is the Big East's preseason favorite, but who is going to finish second? The winner of this one stakes the first claim on second place and becomes WVU's biggest challenger. This will be the third tough game in a row for the Panthers, who play host to USF five days after welcoming Notre Dame ; they play at Iowa on Sept. 17. USF, on the other hand, will have played three gimmes in a row - Ball State, Florida A&M and UTEP - before it travels to Pittsburgh for new Panthers coach Todd Graham's first Big East contest. Pitt has won three in a row in the series.
9. TCU at Air Force, Sept. 10
BUZZ: TCU has won three in a row in this series, holding the Falcons to 34 total points in that stretch. This will be the second road game in a row to open the season for the Horned Frogs, who play at Baylor on Sept. 3. Air Force, meanwhile, will have tuned up with a game against FCS member South Dakota on Sept. 3. Boise State is the preseason Mountain West favorite, and the winner of this becomes the Broncos' top challenger.
8. LSU at Mississippi State, Sept. 15
BUZZ: The second of two huge back-to-back games for Mississippi State, which plays Auburn five days before this SEC West showdown. LSU also will be playing on just five days' rest - but the Tigers will be coming in off a game against FCS member Northwestern State (La.). LSU has won 11 in a row in the series. Mississippi State has to go at least 1-1 in its back-to-back contests against Auburn and LSU if it wants to challenge for a "good" bowl.
7. Tennessee at Florida, Sept. 17
BUZZ: This will be the first SEC game for new Florida coach Will Muschamp, as well as the first tough contest of the season for the Gators. This also will be the first game of the season televised by CBS. Meanwhile, this is the only road game for the Vols until Oct. 22. Florida has won 10 of the past 12 against the Vols in Gainesville and six in a row overall. The SEC East looks to be wide open, and the winner of this contest stamps itself as a likely contender.
6. Utah at USC, Sept. 10
BUZZ: It's fitting that Utah's first league game as a new member of the Pac-12 is against USC, which has been the league's standard-bearer for the past decade. Over the past five seasons, USC is fifth nationally in winning percentage and Utah eighth; over the past 10 years, USC is third and Utah 10th. In addition to being Utah's first league game, it's also the first conference game under the "Pac-12" name. The loser is going to have trouble winning the Pac-12 South.
5. Miami at Maryland, Sept. 5
BUZZ: New coaches for both - Al Golden at Miami and Randy Edsall at Maryland - get "baptized" with a tough opener. This one is on Labor Day night and will be nationally televised by ESPN. As was the case last season, Maryland isn't getting that much preseason attention, but the Terps have 13 starters back from a nine-win team. But one of their four losses last season was by six at Miami. This is an inter-divisional matchup in the ACC, but it should be a good gauge on whether either of these teams has enough to win its division.
4. USC at Arizona State, Sept. 24
BUZZ: The second big Pac-12 game in September for USC; it will be especially big for the Trojans if they beat Utah on Sept. 10. This will be the conference opener for Arizona State, which will be coming in off tough back-to-back games against Missouri and Illinois. USC has owned the Sun Devils of late, winning 11 in a row in the series. But the combined margin of victory in the past two has been just six, including a one-point squeaker last season. If Arizona State has realistic designs on winning the Pac-12 South, it needs to beat USC.
3. Arkansas at Alabama, Sept. 24
BUZZ: This will be the first road game of the season for the Hogs; it also will be their first tough game after opening with FCS member Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy. Both teams have tough contests the next week - Alabama at Florida and the Hogs against Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas. The winner takes a big step toward a possible SEC West title, while the loser likely would have to win out in conference play to have a shot at the crown. The Tide has won four in a row and seven of the past 10 in the series.
2. South Carolina at Georgia, Sept. 10
BUZZ: South Carolina is the preseason favorite in the SEC East, but the Gamecocks play two of their toughest three division opponents on the road (they also play at Tennessee, on Oct. 29, the same day Georgia meets Florida in Jacksonville). Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier owned Georgia when he was coach at Florida, but he is just 2-4 against the Bulldogs at South Carolina. All but two of those games have been decided by seven or fewer points and only once has the winning team scored more than 18 points. The winner of this contest becomes the hunted in the SEC East race.
1. Oklahoma State at Texas A&M, Sept. 24
BUZZ: Two teams sure to be in the preseason top 15 - heck, maybe even in the preseason top 12 - meet in a monster Big 12 showdown. Oklahoma State won on a last-play field goal last season, their third win in a row in the series. Each team is expected to have a prolific offense, but each squad's defense is questionable. The winning team has scored at least 34 points in all but one of the past eight meetings. The winner becomes Oklahoma's biggest challenger in the Big 12.

Grid bits

• ESPN announced last week that former Colorado coach Dan Hawkins will be a TV analyst this fall, teaming with play-by-play announcer Pam Ward on ESPNU Saturday afternoon telecasts. The network also announced that analyst Ed Cunningham now will partner with Mark Jones on ESPN2's Saturday night telecast. Jones had been paired with Bob Davie, who was moved to ABC Saturday afternoon games to work with play-by-play guy Bob Wischusen.

• For the first time in its history, Wyoming has sold 10,000 season tickets. Perhaps Cowboys fans are just psyched about their team's new uniforms; Wyoming, which went 3-9 last season and had its starting quarterback unexpectedly transfer, will have nine different jersey-pants combinations this season. The school also has two helmets, with a brown version in addition to its great-looking white version. Wyoming is, of course, a Nike school, and is there any Nike school left that doesn't have at least five uniform combinations?

• South Carolina - which isn't a Nike school (Under Armour instead) - also is changing its uniforms. The uniforms will have different lettering, numbers and striping, and now are more in line with the other sport's uniforms at the school; the school prefers an all-for-one look for its teams. Not surprisingly, replica jerseys will be available for purchase soon.

• San Diego State already had lost two 1,000-yard receivers from last season; now, the Aztecs will be without their leading returning wide receiver, too. Dominique Sandifer suffered a severe knee injury during recent offseason workouts and will miss the season. The Aztecs' leading returning wide receiver now is Bryce Quigley, who had five receptions last season. That seems likely to put a crimp in QB Ryan Lindley's passing stats; he threw for 3,830 yards and 28 TDs last season. On the other hand, it might mean more work for TB Ronnie Hillman. He rushed for 1,532 yards and 17 TDs last season, and will be running behind a line that returns four starters.

• Staying with the Mountain West Conference, you have to feel for New Mexico coach Mike Locksley. The Lobos have won just twice in his two seasons, and last week it was announced that projected starting QB Stump Godfrey had quit school. The Lobos scored more than 23 points just once last season and were held to 14 or fewer six times. New Mexico had just 10 rushing TDs, and Godfrey was responsible for four of them. The new starter likely will be sophomore Tarean Austin.

• It has been a good month for former Michigan Heisman winner/current ESPN analyst Desmond Howard. He recently was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, and his memoir - entitled "I Wore 21: The Legend of Desmond Howard" - went on sale last week.

• Texas Tech is letting its fans vote on which of the six home games to designate as a "blackout" game this fall. If you're so inclined, you can vote on the athletic department's official Facebook page.

• Speaking of voting, the average fan actually can vote for the Maxwell and Bednarik awards, given annually to the player of the year and defender of the year, respectively. This season marks the 75th anniversary of the Maxwell Award. For info on how to become a member of the Maxwell Football Club, go to http://www.maxwellfootballclub.org/account_signup.aspx.

• ESPN is doing four documentaries focused on the SEC in the next year. The first, fittingly, will be on former Georgia TB Herschel Walker, the best player in college football history. (Consider: Georgia won the national title in 1980 with Walker essentially serving as the entire offense; QB Buck Belue completed 77 passes - total - that season.) The Walker documentary will air Sept. 7 on ESPNU.

• Finally, every sports writer is used to hearing about how dumb he or she is from fans. Well, this is a case where that certainly is true: Two writers at SEC Media Days picked Ole Miss to win the SEC. Evidently, those two are privy to some explosive inside information, such as Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Tennessee not fielding teams this fall.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.


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