Hark! What’s that in the air? The smell of cookouts. The (incredibly slight) chill afforded us here in the southeastern United States over the last week. The sound of national media slobbering over the same handful of teams as every year.
It’s football time, friends!
The season technically started with Week Zero a light slate of games this past weekend (we don’t use that stricken term here, folks), but we’re in full swing this week. That means we’re back to cursing at people for not voting our favorite team higher, incessantly posting on message boards, and inappropriately tweeting at recruits.
If you’re not familiar with how things work here, we’ll take six of the more intriguing games being played this week and break down some of their key points in this space. They may — or may not — be games involving your favorite team. If you’re an SEC fan and don’t see your team’s game here, fret not. Our buddy Eric Taylor breaks down each and every SEC game each week right here on this very website.
While you digest all the storylines and prepare your obscenities, it’s time to start year seven of this here feature. I’m grateful to Kevin for the space and to you for continuing to read it.
Before it gets too sappy in here, though, it’s trivia time!
Trivia question (answer at the end of the column): Liberty claimed its first-ever victory over an FBS opponent in its first season as an FCS (then-Division I-AA) independent. Against whom was that victory claimed?
Keyword Search (all times Eastern and rankings AP)
#17 West Virginia vs. Tennessee (Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.)
3:30pm | CBS
Maiden voyage: Despite the schools’ national prominence and (relative) proximity, it seems odd to know that this is the first meeting on the gridiron for these two schools. West Virginia has not ventured to the Queen City since 2008, when it scored a 31-30 victory over North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Tennessee plays its third neutral-site opener in the last four seasons, following a 2015 drubbing of Bowling Green in Nashville and an indescribable, two-overtime result over Georgia Tech in Atlanta to start last season. The Vols have never lost a neutral-site season opener in six tries.
A sort of homecoming: West Virginia quarterback Will Grier gets to return home and take the field in this one. Grier prepped at nearby Davidson Day in the Charlotte area, where he threw for a ridiculous 14,565 yards and 195 touchdowns in three years of varsity play. Grier’s lone season as a Mountaineer after transferring from Florida was a fruitful one, as he completed 250-of-388 throws for 3490 yards and 34 scores against just 12 picks. Grier’s father, Chad, coached Will at Davidson Day, and is now coaching at Oceanside Collegiate Academy, near Charleston, S.C.
Putting a “D” in Tennessee: New Vols leader Jeremy Pruitt makes his debut as a head coach, looking to overhaul a Tennessee defense that struggled — to say the least — last season. The 2017 Vols finished 125th in the FBS in rushing defense, 61st in pass efficiency defense, 83rd in scoring defense and 81st in total defense. The entirety of Tennessee’s defensive starting front seven will be upperclassmen, but the key name to watch is cornerback Alontae Taylor. The freshman will likely be an early target of Grier pass attempts, and his ability to defend in space will tell an early story.
Print that, tweet that, whatever: Even if West Virginia takes down Tennessee — and they should — the complexion of this Tennessee club will be significantly different in a hurry.
#6 Washington vs. #9 Auburn (Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Ga.)
3:30pm | ABC
Turning the tables: Washington has been mentioned as a possible participant in the season-ending, four-team playoff, but the margin of error is razor-thin for the Huskies. A win in this game would be a gigantic feather in Washington’s cap, but the Huskies will need to reverse a trend to get it. Washington has faced ranked teams in season-opening contests seven times since 2000, but has come away with just two victories (23-18 over Michigan in 2001 and 38-6 over Boise State in 2013) in those games.
If you like passers…: This game will be one to watch if passing offense is your thing. Washington’s Jake Browning and Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham have been put on the collective watch lists for virtually every quarterback plaudit available, and are seventh and ninth, respectively, among returning signal-callers in passer rating from the 2017 season. Browning’s lone outing against an SEC club came in a 20-for-38, 150-yard effort in a 24-7 playoff loss to Alabama after the 2016 season, in which he threw for a touchdown and two picks. Stidham has never faced a Pac-12 school.
Or, if you like defenses…: Stidham and Browning will tee it up against the nation’s eighth and fourteenth-ranked defenses, respectively, from 2017. Washington runs a 3-3-5 defense that is not a common front, so Stidham and the Tigers will face quite the challenge through the air. It doesn’t get much easier on the ground against the Huskies, as Washington’s rush defense was fourth among FBS teams last year. Auburn features a more conventional 4-3 look, but features athletes at every position. Kevin Steele’s defense surrendered just shy of 320 yards per game in 2017.
Print that, tweet that, whatever: Auburn is the only ranked team on the Huskies’ non-conference schedule. If they can’t overtake the Tigers, their title shot could vanish after Week 1.
Old Dominion at Liberty
6:00pm | ESPN3
Light ’em up: This game, as most know, marks Liberty’s full-fledged debut as an FBS independent. The school just signed a broadcast deal with ESPN to carry its home games on ESPN3, with the capability of broadcasting over one of the network’s linear options. The Flames have three wins over FBS competition in the last nine seasons as an FCS squad, a 48-45 victory at Baylor to open last season, a 41-33 win at Georgia State in 2015, and a 27-23 decision at Ball State in 2010.
Tumble on the turf: Liberty coach Turner Gill stated this week in his remarks to the media that the team that runs the ball best will win the game. While Liberty obviously has very little to review in terms of FBS-level body of work, Old Dominion will need to improve on last season’s effort against opposing rushers. The Monarchs finished 105th against the run last season, yielding 204.17 yards per game. Eight teams tallied 40 or more carries against ODU in 2017. ODU ran for nearly 164 yards per game last season, while Liberty finished shy of 140 yards on the ground.
Pressuring the passer: The visiting Monarchs featured an offense in 2017 that threw for slightly more yards per game than it ran, but ODU’s ability to keep young sophomore quarterback Steven Williams “clean”. Williams helms a unit that suffered just 12 sacks in 2017, only one more than Liberty registered the entire season. Liberty returns 43 combined starts among players on its defensive two-deep; however, those starts come from just two players (Juwan Wells 22, Tolen Avery 21). The Flames’ 4-3 will need to keep contain in the run game and get up the field against the pass to give big-armed quarterback Stephen “Buckshot” Calvert a chance to toss the ball around the Williams Stadium turf.
Print that, tweet that, whatever: The teams’ only prior meeting (2013) was a four-point ODU win. This one could also go to the final possession.
#14 Michigan at #12 Notre Dame
7:30pm | NBC
Evening the score: A win Saturday would draw the Wolverines level with Notre Dame all-time in South Bend. The Irish have won 10 of the 20 games (one tie) played at home, while the Wolverines have 24 victories in the 42 games played in the rivalry. Michigan last won in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus in 2006.
The friendly confines: The Fighting Irish start the season with three straight home games, not leaving Indiana until Sep. 22’s contest at Wake Forest. Adding in an Oct. 13 game at Virginia Tech, Notre Dame ventures away from home just twice before Oct. 27. The back half of the 2018 Irish schedule is extremely road-heavy, with a neutral-site tilt with Navy joining a game at Northwestern, a Yankee Stadium contest against Syracuse, and a season-ending game at USC.
Same name, different game: Both teams feature starting quarterbacks named Brandon. The two could hardly be more diametrically opposed, in terms of playing style. Michigan’s Brandon Peters profiles as the prototypical sizable pocket passer, measuring six-feet-five and weighing 230. Peters rushed for minus-26 yards in six games last year, throwing for 672 yards and four scores against two picks. Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush, conversely, thres for 1,870 yards and 16 scores, adding 803 rushing yards and 14 trips to the paint on the ground. Wimbush was named to every quarterback-related watch list imaginable prior to the 2018 season. Peters, for his part, will likely share time with the much more mobile Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson.
Print that, tweet that, whatever: Michigan faces a tall order in containing Wimbush. If the Wolverines can contain the Irish rushing attack, this could be a classic.
#8 Miami (FL) vs. #25 LSU (Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Tex.)
7:30pm (Sunday, Sep. 2) | ABC
Fun with arbitrary data points: It is always amusing to see how start points and end points modify statistical analysis. Miami’s sports information department refers to “the modern era of Miami football” as 1979 to the present day. If we are to take this as gospel, the teams have faced off twice in this era, with both contests finishing as boat races. Miami won, 44-3, in Death Valley in 1988, and the Tigers returned the favor, 40-3, to the ‘Canes in the 2005 Peach Bowl. Any reasonable fan of either side would have to expect a more even result in this one.
Chain chain chain: Miami gained national notice last season for the infamous “turnover chain”, but a closer look reveals an interesting statistic. The ‘Canes finished tied for fifth in turnover margin last year (plus-13), but LSU was close behind at plus-10. Neither team enjoyed such gaudy numbers against ranked foes in 2017, however, with Miami finishing plus-one and LSU finishing level. Turnovers are, naturally, likely to play a key role in this one. .
The Own-Star State: Miami’s sports information department again brings up the “modern era” bit by noting that the ‘Canes have won six regular-season tilts in a row in Texas since a 14-7 loss to the University of Texas in 1981. That stat is tempered a bit, though, when noting that the last time the school played in the state was in 2008, when it beat Texas A&M, 41-23. LSU, meanwhile, has won all three of its games played at Jerryworld (one in 2011 and two in 2013).
Print that, tweet that, whatever: Matt Canada’s no longer at LSU, so there will be no offensive shortcomings for the Bayou Bengals. Right? That’s what we were told, anyway…
#20 Virginia Tech at #19 Florida State
8:00pm (Monday, Sep. 3) | ESPN
A Charlotte preview?: The ACC has the Monday night spotlight, and it has chosen a marquee matchup to showcase the league. Though Clemson and Miami fans obviously would have a bit of a beef with the possibility of these two teams playing for a championship title, it is not unprecedented. Two of the teams’ five prior meetings were for the proverbial strap, with Florida State claiming the 2005 crown and Virginia Tech evening the score in 2010.
Taggart is it: New Seminoles head coach Willie Taggart brings his much-publicized Gulf Coast Offense to Tallahassee, and he’ll do so with one of the more dynamic quarterbacks in the league. Junior Deondre Francois will helm the ‘Noles attack, returning after a left knee injury in last year’s lid-lifter against Alabama that cost him the remainder of the year. Francois threw for 3,350 yards and 20 scores as a freshman two seasons ago. Taggart’s offense has also yielded eight rushers to crack the thousand-yard plateau, which bodes well for sophomore Cam Akers. Akers tallied 1,025 yards last year, notching seven touchdowns.
The “money” down: Third down is the “down of decision” across college football, and Virginia Tech’s sports information department points out the Hokies’ success on limiting third down conversions. Bud Foster’s defense allowed just 26.2 percent of foes to convert the penultimate down, good for second-best in the land, behind Michigan’s 26.1 percent. The Seminoles’ offense finished 101st last season in such conversions, moving the chains just 35.2 percent of the time. Oregon, however, finished 56th in the land under Taggart’s guidance, converting on 41 percent of chances. A conversion or two could change the shape of this contest.
Print that, tweet that, whatever: Doak Campbell will be rocking in front of a fully-focused national audience Monday night. Taggart could immediately make a statement with a ‘W’.
Trivia answer: We asked earlier: Liberty claimed its first-ever victory over an FBS opponent in its first season as an FCS (then-Division I-AA) independent. Against whom was that victory claimed?
Liberty defeated Eastern Michigan, 25-24, on October 14, 1989, in Ypsilanti.
Follow Brian on Twitter: Follow @sportsmatters