Commentary

Five dream matchups that will put the spice back into September

Originally Published: September 4, 2008
By Chris Fowler | ESPN.com

I have rediscovered a long-lost romance and have fallen in love all over again.

The object of my affection is neutral-field nonconference collisions. College football needs more of them. I am convinced it will happen, and I humbly offer some suggestions below.

True, these games take college teams off campus and into pro stadiums. That is not a plus. But they are a much-needed alternative to a September schedule, overpopulated by absurd cash-grab games versus hired cupcakes, that does nothing but hurt the sport. The 12th regular-season game has become a joke. Worse, it is an impediment to a sensible championship format, which would deliver far more cash than a pay-for-play scrimmage against Florida International or Coastal Carolina.

But that's a rant for another day.

My love for college football runs deep, but this sport has a maddening weakness: a lack of centralized scheduling.

Unless more conferences follow the lead of the Pac-10 and the ACC and schedule a few league games early, we are doomed to more Saturdays like this one. Without some coordination of schedules between conferences, we are left with too many weekends like this -- without one really compelling, competitive heavyweight tilt. (Sorry Miami, the Canes have some rebuilding to do to get back into the heavyweight category -- just ask Vegas). On the flip side, other weekends are overloaded with great matchups, almost too many to take in.

Against the NFL's opening weekend extravaganza, college football presents a feeble collection of big name versus no-name games that leave most fans bored to death and already looking to Ohio State-USC next Saturday.

[+] EnlargeChase Daniel
Jerry Lai/US PresswireWouldn't it be nice to have more matchups like Mizzou and Illinois in the first month of the season?

So bravo to the Atlanta Sports Council, the city of St. Louis and the four teams that embraced opening-week challenges. The Chase Daniel-Juice Williams duel was a treat. It must have reminded folks in the Edward Jones Dome how much fun the Rams' offense used to be.

OK, so I'm sure Alabama's woodshed beatdown of Clemson was a dud TV watch. The Tigers' lack of competitive fire was surely frustrating. Just ask Tommy Bowden. He was so puzzled at his team's underwhelming performance that he called Tide coach Nick Saban this week to ask his take on what happened.

But that's not the point. The buildup in Atlanta was great. It was a very, very tough ticket -- perhaps the most expensive in the Georgia Dome's history, I'm told. A suite was being auctioned on eBay for $25,000.

Despite stifling heat, fans had a great time hanging out in downtown all day. And not just because Kirk Herbstreit was there to sign autographs and pose for pictures -- although that didn't hurt female morale.

The mood in Centennial Olympic Park was opening-day festive. (Little did Clemson fans know how short-lived their euphoria would be). The atmosphere inside the dome was fantastic, too. The air was thick with anticipation, uncertainty, even unease. Would the Tide be respectable? Would the Tigers finally grasp their best chance to launch a BCS campaign?

The air was infinitely more charged than an average bowl game, by which time all the questions have been answered. Bowls are always billed as a "reward" for teams and their fans. If you polled the fans, most would probably prefer an early season "bowl" against a quality team from another league, with the excitement of a new year replacing the faint afterglow of a 7-5 regular season and a trip to El Paso or Charlotte.

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Missouri and Illinois seem like a natural for St. Louis every year. Atlanta is doing a nice job of recreating the old Kickoff Classic in the Meadowlands. Alabama will tackle Virginia Tech to open 2009, while New Jersey is intent on getting back in the game when the new Giants stadium opens in 2010.

So, in that spirit, I present five neutral, nonconference matchups I'd love to see. The season desperately needs more September spice. Like Atlanta's SEC-ACC format, they make sense regionally. Fans could load up the RVs and drive to each game or maybe leave the RV at home and take the hybrid.

1. Penn State-West Virginia in Heinz Field. These former bitter rivals would be a great fit in Pittsburgh, just up the road from Morgantown but in the Lions' home state. JoePa wouldn't go for it, probably, but hey, Pat White will be gone by next year, Joe.

2. Ohio State-Notre Dame in the Lucas Oil Stadium;. These two have met in recent years, when the games were scheduled in the era of ex-Woody Hayes' assistant Lou Holtz's tenure in South Bend. Let's bring it back. Buckeyes faithful would flock to Indy. It is a city, like Atlanta, with a dome situated in a very convenient, fan-friendly setting in downtown. Assuming Charlie Weis can redirect the Irish fortunes, this would be a natural collision of traditional regional behemoths. I know that Senator Tressel has home dates with USC and Miami (the one from Coral Gables) in coming years, so it's a huge ask. But it would be fun. If Ohio State won't do it, invite Wisconsin and move the game to Soldier Field. Badgers fans would eat it up.

3. LSU-Texas in Reliant Stadium. This would be a blockbuster, in a setting convenient for both fan bases. Houston has so many transplants from Louisiana so it would be a great treat for them. Imagine the serious talent on the field each year. The two strongest conferences these days rarely square off, except in the Cotton Bowl, when it is usually a consolation prize. This would involve serious bragging rights.

4. Nebraska-Iowa in Kansas City. OK, so this one lacks the star power of the others because the Hawkeyes are down and the Huskers need to regain some luster. But they will. These cornbelt neighbors ought to collide once in awhile. Both could use a bit more glamour in their nonconference slates.

[+] EnlargePete Carroll
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswirePete Carroll and USC versus the best from the SEC would certainly draw interest in September.

5. USC vs. a rotating group of SEC heavies. If the stadium were bigger, I'd say play it in Vegas. Maybe a football field could be built inside the speedway north of town. (Just kidding). It would be awesome each year to see the Trojans tackle Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Alabama or Auburn in some neutral setting. It could even be in the SEC's backyard -- Orlando, Memphis or Atlanta. USC doesn't mind traveling into the heart of the Deep South for a stern test.

These annual collisions would be tremendous … and lucrative. The fact is, any of these contests could net more money for the schools involved than a play-for-pay cupcake affair. LSU alone had to pay a reported $2.8 million to lure the SEC's worst collection of nonconference opponents to Baton Rouge. The fans and players (and the sport) deserve more.

Sunshine Smackdown

Miami has a hard-to-fathom 40 freshmen on its team. Seventeen played in the Canes' opener. Most of those guys are really good athletes, but most observers feel they will be spanked in a painful baptism Saturday night in the Swamp (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). It's a bit strange to see Miami as a three-TD underdog against anyone, anywhere. You have to go back 11 years when 1-3 Miami visited FSU for a game in which the Canes entered as a bigger dog. They left as 47-0 losers to the Seminoles.

It can't be that bad Saturday. I hope. The athletic gap between the two teams is not nearly that wide. The Gators just have more experience, more depth -- and a Heisman winner at QB versus a first-time freshman starter for Miami. I think Robert Marve (from Tampa) will become a really good QB, and Jacory Harris brings electric quickness when he's on the field. But it's a huge task this week for these Hurricanes.

[+] EnlargeRandy Shannon
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesRandy Shannon and Miami will face a tough challenge when they visit a talented Florida team.

Tim Tebow told me it wasn't useful at all to watch tape of Miami's de facto scrimmage against poor Charleston Southern in Week 1. He didn't learn much. Tim is a polite guy, but there is no way to sugarcoat the quality of CSU. Instead, the Gators have spent more time checking out the defenses that wily coordinator Bill Young ran at Kansas last season. Tebow (and the Gators' coaches) came away impressed. If Tebow is a gauge, Florida is not taking Miami lightly one bit.

As for Tebow's workload in the opener, I wondered if he felt underused, but that's not the case. Tebow's season won't be about stats. Sure, he admits he is checking out the hefty numbers of guys like Chase Daniel, Sam Bradford and Mark Sanchez. As a competitor, it will not be easy to hear chatter about your stats not matching up to the historic touchdown totals of his Heisman year. Just wait. In another month (if not sooner) "SportsCenter" will run a graphic reflecting the drop-off from '07.

But Tebow is prepared for it.

He has his trophies. This season is about getting his ring. And if the Gators can navigate the deadly SEC waters and win the conference crown the weekend before Heisman ballots are e-mailed, he will be in with a chance at repeating, enormous numbers or not.

Tebow feels comfortable that when needed, he will continue to be the physical force and short-yardage, go-to guy battering ram that has built his legend. I got the feeling he would almost relish a surprisingly close battle from the Canes, so he'd get to smash into a pile or two.

"Coach Bill Stewart of West Virginia here"

That's how the Eers boss began our conversation the other night. We'd never spoken, so it was a really enjoyable chat, as Stewart was charming, funny and candid.

He is not letting West Virginia fans or media bait him into comments on Rich Rodriguez's struggles at Michigan. But that will be a weekly challenge, from the look of things.

[+] EnlargeBill Stewart
AP Photo/Matt YorkWest Virginia coach Bill Stewart envisions a big year for QB Pat White.

Stewart is far from the ego-driven coaches who create cults of personality and personal "brands." His best buddy is Wake Forest's Jim Grobe, an excellent but unassuming coaches' coach. But Bill is not bashful about telling you that he is a pretty doggone good ball coach. If he feels a tiny bit defensive or slighted by skeptics, that is natural. Although he has spent his life outside the spotlight and doesn't mind it, he knows this is his time in front of a wider audience to see what he can do as the boss of a high-profile program.

Stewart is certain that Pat White is in for a monster year -- as a passer more than a runner. The Wake Forest-type scheme brought in by Jeff Mullen mixes in a greater variety of throws for White, and the QB is loving it. White had an eye-popping 33 attempts (25 completions, five for TDs) against poor Villanova. The Wildcats stubbornly kept nine defenders in the box, almost forcing WVU to throw. No worries.

As Stewart put it, "Let me tell you, Chris Fowler, Pat White had his best game throwing the football in his career." Bill talks like that, throwing your full name into the middle of a sentence for emphasis. He went on to describe all the little things White is doing so much better this season.

That's a scary thought because Noel Devine is not a drop-off from Steve Slaton as the featured tailback. In fact, Devine is an upgrade from the shell of Slaton that Slaton became by November. It is addition by subtraction; that much was clear after spending time around the Mountaineers' camp late last year and picking up on the strange vibrations. In retrospect, we should have seen the Pitt loss coming.

There are no strange vibes these days. Throw in the speed and compact power of Jock Sanders (a more versatile weapon than Darius Reynaud) and the skills of receiver Alric Arnett, protected by a very athletic, seasoned offensive line, and West Virginia's offense has totally reloaded. The secondary is a bit shaky and vulnerable right now, so the Eers will need to outscore folks.

"I promise you, Chris Fowler, East Carolina is a good football team," Stewart cautioned. I agree. But the Pirates will have to play a nearly flawless defensive game to stop the Mounties. They are not facing the Virginia Tech offense this week. ECU may not surrender the 599 yards it did in last year's rout, but I can't see it holding WVU under 400 yards or 35 points.

Poll Stuff

My AP ballot did not involve a flip-flop this week. I was voting USC No. 1 all along, Georgia No. 2 and Ohio State No. 3. Troy's jump over UGA is not that big a deal, since it is likely that the winner of next week's showdown would have taken over the top spot anyway. My thinking is not terribly original: I have the Sooners No. 4 and Gators No. 5.

The big mover was obviously the Crimson Tide. I may have gotten carried away by jetting Bama up to No. 10. I think they're pretty good, but only time will tell.

Teams debuting on my ballot this week: Fresno State, Penn State, Utah and South Carolina.

My pal Craig James does me one better: He includes East Carolina. That gives him a whopping four non-BCS conference teams on his ballot. For a guy who has usually embraced only the glamour leagues, that's a real departure.

By the way, only one BCS league escaped a loss to a non-BCS conference on opening weekend: the Pac-10. Arizona slaughtered Idaho, the only non-BCS foe for the league.

Chris Fowler is the host of ESPN's "College GameDay." Kick off each Saturday with "College GameDay" at 10 a.m. ET to get the latest news on college football.

Chris Fowler

College Football
Since 1989, Chris Fowler has been ESPN's primary college football and men's college basketball studio host. He's anchored College GameDay, the network's award-winning Saturday morning college football preview show, since 1990.