June 14, 2010

Monday with Mike: Early league showdowns

Last week, we looked at 12 non-conference statement games in the first month of the season. This week, we're looking at statement games within conference play.

(An aside: The Big East is the only conference with no league games in September.)

12. Central Michigan at Temple, Sept. 11
The buzz: Central Michigan has been the big dog in the MAC for the past four seasons, but Temple looks to be the team to beat this fall. To truly be the best, though, you have to beat the best, which means the Owls can show they've arrived by knocking off the Dan LeFevour-less Chippewas.
11. Florida at Tennessee, Sept. 18
The buzz: In years past, this matchup would've ranked much higher on this list. But the rivalry has lost lots of luster in recent seasons. Frankly, even with the game in Knoxville, Florida will be favored to roll. This is the week after Tennessee plays host to Oregon.
10. Virginia Tech at Boston College, Sept. 25
The buzz: BC's first two opponents are Weber State and Kent State, which means this visit from the Hokies will be the first time BC will have faced an opponent with a pulse. BC always seems to overachieve, and an upset of the Hokies would mean that's going to happen again this season. It also would mean both division races in the ACC wouldn't necessarily go as planned; Virginia Tech will be the preseason favorite in the Coastal, while BC should be picked to finish third or fourth in the Atlantic.
9. Auburn at Mississippi State, Sept. 9
The buzz: Outside of Alabama, the SEC West race looks wide open. But is it wide open enough for Mississippi State to actually contend? If the Bulldogs can beat the Tigers, they will put themselves in contention for a top-three finish in the division. A loss, meanwhile, would bode ill for Auburn.
8. Texas A&M at Oklahoma State, Sept. 30
The buzz: This should be an intriguing "pecking-order game" in the Big 12 South. Oklahoma State is expected to take a step back this fall, while the Aggies -- if they play even a modicum of defense -- should challenge for a top-three finish in the division. This will be the fourth of four consecutive home games to open the season for the Cowboys.
7. Oregon at Arizona State, Sept. 25
The buzz: Despite the dismissal of QB Jeremiah Masoli, Oregon still looks like the Pac-10 favorite. Arizona State has been ... well, the Sun Devils have been pitiful on offense the past two seasons, but Michigan transfer Steven Threet gives them hope of at least solid quarterback play. The Sun Devils definitely have a title-worthy defense, and if the offense comes around, they will be dangerous. This will be their first chance to show they're dangerous.
6. BYU at Air Force, Sept. 11
The buzz: BYU has three non-conference games in September -- vs. Washington, at Florida State and vs. Nevada. The Cougars better not overlook this Mountain West game. Air Force has been on the outside looking in the past few seasons in the MWC, with good teams but not good enough to finish in the top three. A win in this one would stamp the Falcons as a legit league contender this season.
5. Texas at Texas Tech, Sept. 18
The buzz: Texas Tech is one of the bigger mysteries in the nation. Mike Leach is out and Tommy Tuberville is in, and though Tuberville has said the Red Raiders will continue to run their wide-open, pass-happy offense, Tuberville always has been a power-rush kind of guy. How will Tech's offense be tweaked? This will be the first test of any kind this season for Texas, which opens with Rice and Wyoming. All eyes will be on the Texas rushing attack; will it be able to take the pressure off new QB Garrett Gilbert? Tech beat the Longhorns the last time the teams met in Lubbock, and another Red Raiders win would mean a wide-open affair in the Big 12 South.
4. Arkansas at Georgia, Sept. 18
The buzz: This is the second big SEC game in a row for Georgia (more on that in a minute) and the first of two big ones in a row for the Hogs. Arkansas is a trendy pick to contend for the SEC West crown and folks will know by the end of September if that could happen: The week after the Hogs travel to Athens, they play host to Alabama.
3. Georgia Tech at North Carolina, Sept. 18
The buzz: Tech is the defending ACC champ, but the Yellow Jackets lost four key underclassmen and look as if they will take a big step back this season. UNC, on the other hand, might have the most talented defense in the nation, and the Heels might be on the verge of a breakthrough season. September is a huge month for ACC Coastal Division teams. Virginia Tech has Boise State, East Carolina and Boston College. Miami has Ohio State and Pitt. Tech has North Carolina. And UNC has LSU, Georgia Tech and Rutgers.
2. Stanford at UCLA, Sept. 11
The buzz: Stanford was surprisingly good last season, while UCLA was surprisingly mediocre. A lot is expected from Stanford this season, even though star RB Toby Gerhart is gone. Sophomore QB Andrew Luck is a star on the rise, and the defense is expected to be stronger this season. There still are lots of questions about UCLA's offense, but a win over the Cardinal would erase some of those questions and show that UCLA will be in the hunt for an upper-division finish in the Pac-10.
1. Georgia at South Carolina, Sept. 11
The buzz: If you're a South Carolina fan, you have to be feeling somewhat good right now. While the Gamecocks have questions, they arguably have fewer questions than anybody in the SEC East outside of Florida. QB Stephen Garcia is heading into his third season as the starter, and he has a talented group of receivers to work with. The defense lost star LB Eric Norwood, but there is some potential up front and in the secondary. Georgia, on the other hand, will be unveiling a new quarterback and a new defense, as the Bulldogs have switched to a 3-4 scheme; will there be any playmakers on that defense? If there ever were a season where South Carolina folks could expect a good finish, it's this one. But a loss to the Bulldogs in the second game of the season -- in Columbia -- would send a message that it will be the same old same old with the Gamecocks.

Speed merchant

The fastest player in college football this season will be Florida junior RB Jeff Demps, who won the NCAA 100-meter dash outdoor title on Friday night in Eugene, Ore.

Demps, who will be a third-year starter on the football field this fall, was clocked in a wind-aided 9.96 seconds in the 100 to claim the title. The third-place finisher was Louisiana-Monroe's Luther Ambrose, who will be a starting wide receiver -- and the likely go-to guy -- for the Warhawks this fall; he was clocked in 10.12 seconds.

Demps also ran the anchor leg of Florida's 4x100 relay team, which won the title with a 39.04-seconds clocking, edging Florida State's 39.07. Florida WR Chris Rainey ran the first leg of the relay.

Demps' heroics weren't enough to lift the Gators to the outdoor crown; Florida won the men's indoor track title earlier this year. Instead, Texas A&M edged the Gators by one point for the title. It was the second year in a row A&M won both the men's and women's outdoor titles.

Grid bits

There's no question USC got hit hard by the NCAA, and now we know why: It's envy. USC athletic director Mike Garrett spoke to the Northern California Trojans Club in San Francisco on Thursday night, a few hours after the NCAA announced USC's penalties. "As I read the decision by the NCAA ... I read between the lines and there was nothing but a lot of envy. They wish they all were Trojans," Garrett told the group. Yeah, that must be it.

Assuming Texas and Oklahoma, among others, join the Pac-10, it means the league will be the first of the Big Six conferences to span three time zones -- Central, Mountain and Pacific. Previously, the Mountain West and Western Athletic also spanned at least three time zones (the WAC includes Hawaii). At first blush, it might not be that big a deal. But a 7:30 p.m. start on the West Coast equates to a 9:30 start in the Central time zone, and travel after those games could end up being somewhat problematic. Late tip-offs in the Central time zone are nothing new. But that was when 11 of the 12 Big 12 schools were in that time zone; traveling East after a West Coast night game will take some getting used to.

Did anyone else find it ... well, interesting Thursday that a blatant money grab by Reggie Bush and his family led to NCAA probation for USC while blatant money grabs by Colorado and Nebraska were praised to the high heavens?

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


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