Commentary

Neutral field showdowns highlight opening week

Originally Published: August 28, 2008
By Chris Fowler | ESPN.com

Fasten your seat belts low and tight. Here we go on another wild college football ride. Last year's insanity -- bookended by Appalachian State's miracle at Michigan and the crazy BCS scramble down the stretch, and marked by jaw-droppers like Stanford over USC -- may not be topped. But strange plot twists and turns will be the norm, not the exception.

[+] EnlargeNick Sheriden
Icon SMINick Sheridan could be throwing passes for the Wolverines on Saturday.

No one would be stunned to see Michigan lose on the opening Saturday of the 2008 season. And I won't be stunned to see a walk-on quarterback the Wolverines. Nick Sheridan gives Rich Rodriguez a more versatile threat than Georgia Tech transfer Steven Threet. For months, folks have sort of assumed Threet will win the job. Coach Rod is not saying, but I think he'll give Sheridan a shot against narrow underdog Utah (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Think about that: a walk-on as the opening day QB for the Maize and Blue. Wow.

By the way, there hasn't been too much said about it, but West Virginia has moved so completely away from the RichRod era that the offense Pat White will run starting on Saturday against Villanova is pure Wake Forest, not the scheme Rodriguez brought to Morgantown. The terminology has been totally changed.

How well the Neers adapt to Bill Stewart as boss and the new offense is another interesting question. I have been to Morgantown several times for games in recent years, running through the gauntlet of coaches meetings, and never once met with Stewart or even shook his hand. He is a little bit of a mystery figure to a lot of us outside the West Virginia walls. Can he maintain the excellence there?

Hollowness Of The Polls

When searching for the nation's best team, the experts are casting a comparatively wide net. A half-dozen teams got first-place votes in the preseason coaches' poll. That's a pretty big number. In the AP, five different teams got at least one. Last year, USC received the vast majority of the preseason first-place votes.

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For the teams ignored by the early balloters, don't worry. Get this: The last three times that at least five different teams have received first place votes in the preseason AP poll, the title has been won by a team not among those five. I find that note really interesting. When there is no strong consensus and voters cast that wide a net, they usually don't go wide enough.

And how about this: In the past 11 years, the eventual AP champion did not receive a single preseason first-place vote in six years. Florida's 2006 title team is the most recent.

Week 1's Most Intriguing Games

This weekend's slate is not that loaded. Let's face it, the 12th game has become a sham. With the exception of the Pac-10, the extra games are a money grab for most schools. I applaud the schools bold enough to embrace the challenge of neutral field battles against quality teams.

And guess what: They can make plenty of money on those, too. Both Clemson and Bama will collect a nice pile of cash from their Georgia Dome game, perhaps more than each would make for a home game against a cupcake. Nick Saban told me he is seeking more games like this, perhaps with Virginia Tech and Florida State. I love to hear that.

So Clemson's collision with the Crimson Tide (ABC, 8 p.m. ET) in college football's melting-pot city is a tasty treat for the season's first Saturday.

Some juicy questions are raised:

[+] EnlargeCullen Harper
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesCullen Harper will have to keep a bevy of playmakers happy in 2008.

Can Clemson finally step up and give the ACC a much-needed marquee win? The league is a woeful 0-8 in its past eight BCS bowls. When league champ Virginia Tech was smothered by Kansas -- at best the third-strongest Big 12 team -- in the Orange Bowl, it was another kick in the crotch.

Against nonconference ranked foes, ACC teams are 9-31 in the past 40 meetings. They are 2-17 against the top 10. No ACC team has finished in the AP top five since Florida State in 2000.

If Tommy's Tigers, as the clear ACC preseason choice, fall to a Tide team that is rated about sixth-best in the SEC, the conference's prestige will fall to a post-expansion low. And it's pretty low now.

I am eager to see Clemson's Cullen Harper, the top-rated senior quarterback prospect. Distributing the ball (and the touches) to the Tigers' talented playmakers is a crucial and tricky job. Tommy Bowden knows that when talented juniors, like James Davis and Aaron Kelly, test the draft waters and decide to return to school, they are typically very focused on their senior-season stats. C.J. Spiller will want to showcase his skills for the scouts this year, too. That's a lot of guys keen to have big years individually. If the Tigers are winning and everybody's happy with their touches, Clemson's offense will be really hard to get off the field.

On the flip side, if Davis or Spiller or Kelly isn't getting the touches he wants and the Tigers take a couple hits and are out of the title picture, look out. This is the scenario Bowden is concerned about.

The Tigers will be favored in all 12 games, something that the head ball coach of archrival South Carolina, Steve Spurrier, pointed out to me. There are plenty of tricky tests, including a Thursday visit to a solid Wake Forest squad on Oct. 9. But this is Clemson's time. The drought of conference titles that stands at 17 years needs to end.

For Bama, I am hoping to see Julio Jones bust out with a big play or two in his college debut. That's part of the fun of opening weekend, seeing which newcomers are worth the hype. I believe Jones is.

Finally, here is a little trivia question for you: Name the only two major college head coaches who have been at it at least a decade but have never suffered a losing season.

Well, the placement in this column is a bit of a giveaway. They are Nick Saban and Tommy Bowden. Bet you didn't realize that. After this season, Bob Stoops will join them.

[+] EnlargeChase Daniel
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonChase Daniel hopes to get Mizzou warmed up early against Illinois.

Illinois-Missouri
Illinois-Missouri (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET) is another tasty neutral field showdown on Saturday. The Tigers have more on the line and more to lose. Illinois can dream of contending again in the Big Ten, but Missouri is a true national title contender. (Lee Corso gave them the kiss of death by tabbing the Tigers as his BCS opponent for USC.) A loss would be very deflating. A win would propel Gary Pinkel's team to a probable 7-0 start heading into Austin for a mid-October meeting with Texas. That would be fun.

Then again, it might be a bit of fun to see Lee's BCS pick flame out before Labor Day. We kid.

Mizzou almost blew a 24-point second-half lead in last season's St. Louis shootout. This year, it won't be as close. Mizzou's defense should be a bit better. Rashard Mendenhall will be sorely missed by the Illini. Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin will light it up. The Tigers stay on track.

Debutante With The Most To Lose

Besides Rodriguez, the first-year coach with the most to lose on opening week is Houston Nutt. Ole Miss has enough experienced guys to be respectable now. But no SEC team could head toward conference play with confidence after stumbling over rebuilding Memphis.

Nutt has folks excited. A loss to a border team in a fertile recruiting area is no way to kick it off.

Debutante With The Most To Gain

Rick Neuheisel and UCLA would enjoy a huge boost with an unexpected win over visiting Tennessee on Monday night (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). With the Bruins down to their third QB, it's not expected. But that would make it even sweeter. Neuheisel gets a bit of a free ride this season, so anything big is just gravy.

Back To School

In the category of other ex-QBs and ex-NFL assistants returning to lead their alma maters, there is Steve Fairchild at Colorado State. He inherits a Rams team that is gritty but outmanned. If he can shuffle back from Buffalo, where he guided the Bills' offense, and beat the Buffaloes from Boulder on Sunday night, it would launch his career in a huge way.

Colorado desperately needs to beat CSU before bigger challenges (West Virginia, FSU and Texas) present themselves. A loss would sting deeply. Derailing their more famous rival's momentum would make it all the more fun for CSU.

Only CU coach Dan Hawkins will have a lot to lose.

Fear The Zebras

I am not an alarmist and don't get too worked up about things that may not materialize. But I do fear this:

Officials will be flag-happy this season, enforcing the rules committee's new initiative on post-play celebrations. Tapes were shipped this summer to all officiating crews, showing examples of grievous sins like somersaults into the end zone, high stepping and various other quick displays of emotion that threaten to undermine the fabric of the game (and society in general). Or so they'd have us believe.

[+] Enlargereferee
Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty ImagesOfficials have been instructed to keep a closer eye on celebrations in 2008.
Officials were told they must flag these things.

Look, I know things can (and have) gotten out of hand at times. We've seen celebrations so elaborate and premeditated that they embarrass the sport. Throat-slashing and taunting must be penalized. But let's not let all the fun and emotion be drained out of the sport to satisfy an overly conservative bunch on the rules committee.

If these guys were in charge of the Olympics, they would have run out on the pool deck and stripped Michael Phelps of his gold medal in the relays for excessive celebration. Usain Bolt? They might have banned him for life and sent him back to Jamaica in a rowboat after his display in the stretch of the 100 meters. Now Bolt's antics might have been a bit much, but he had just stamped himself the fastest man ever. I can forgive him.

Some of the examples of "unsportsmanlike conduct" contained on the tape are quick and fairly mild. Do they "draw attention to oneself," as the rule states? Sure. Big deal. It's an emotional game. It's hard to play. Score a touchdown or make a sack, you should be allowed to enjoy yourself for a couple seconds.

Is a guy's diving across the goal line after a long run really so awful?

Again, I won't overreact until I see how this crackdown on celebrations plays out. But for players in the SEC, where more leeway has been given than in the more buttoned-up Big Ten, an adjustment will have to be made.

The List

Each week, I will close this with a list of some sort. Because the U.S. Open is on … and because tennis is my second-favorite sport after college football … and because so many people I bump into still ask about the Wimbledon final … I have been thinking a lot about where the Roger Federer versus Rafa Nadal epic ranks.

I have been lucky enough to witness some powerful, magical sports events over the years. Moments that remain vivid and clear in memory. So I gave it some thought and threw out a list of the most powerful, epic things I have seen.

What are not included are the moments of personal joy, where a team I love has won a championship. Those were great: the dominance of Jordan and the Bulls … the ole alma mater, Colorado, beating Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl for a piece of the national title • the Colorado Avalanche -- and I am a longtime season-ticket holder -- winning Game 6 of the 2001 Stanley Cup finals against the odds in New Jersey to force (and win) a Game 7 • John Elway's Bronco farewell, beating Atlanta in the Super Bowl • I could go on.

No, I was thinking only of events that transcend fan bias. Drama that stands on its own, regardless of whom I was rooting for. Stuff I have seen on TV doesn't count, either. Only eyewitness events. So here is my list:

Vince Young
Chris Carlson/AP PhotoVince Young provided much of the star power and most of the magic in Texas' win over USC.
1. Texas over USC in the BCS championship game, 2006.
Two awesome teams. Tremendous star power. The magic setting of the Rose Bowl. Insane drama. The best college football game and the best championship event I have witnessed.

2. Nadal dethrones Federer, 9-7 in the 5th set, 2008.
Wimbledon's longest, best-played, and most compelling final ever. More than a match, a ripping away of the torch of tennis supremacy on the world's most famous court. Nature added greater drama, with rain delays and light fading so fast that it was finishing in near darkness. Tennis at a new level. Unforgettable.

3. Rangers over the Canucks in Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup finals.
Tension in Madison Square Garden beyond belief. New York had blown a 3-1 series lead and was in danger of prolonging the agonizing 54-year Cup drought. When the final seconds finally ticked away, the collective release of pent-up energy and frustration was amazing to feel. And I am not even a Rangers fan.

4. Sarah Hughes wins the figure skating gold medal at the Salt Lake Winter Olympics, 2002.
Huh? Figure skating, you say? I know, this is not a sport I follow. But to see a 16-year-old girl I had barely heard of before that night skate a flawless performance and seize the only chance she would ever have in her life with five amazing minutes was deeply moving. I love the Olympics, even the sports I otherwise ignore. I was an idiot watching Michael Phelps in Beijing each night. But to be rinkside when Hughes shocked the skating world and shook the rafters had me choked up. Yes, I admit it. I was just about moved to tears by figure skating. Not quite, but very close. There, I confessed it.

5. Michael Johnson's 200-meter world record at the Atlanta Summer Olympics, 1996.
My favorite summer Olympic memory was seeing him scorch the track in 19.32, a record that stood for 12 years until Bolt just got it by .02 in Beijing. I still get goose bumps. The 200 is a tremendous race to watch live because the staggered start and the quick burst into the turn creates a little visual suspense. Until they straighten out, you are never sure who's in command. When Johnson hit the wire and his time went up on the scoreboard in huge numbers with "WR" next to it, the place that is now Turner Field exploded in sound. Each time I drive by the ballpark where the track has sadly but understandably been removed, I still think about that night.

6. Mark McGwire belts No. 69 and No. 70, 1998.
After watching a Nebraska game the previous day, I was in Busch Stadium when McGwire hammered two homers on the last day of his then-record setting season. Walking down the spiral ramps afterward, I knew I had seen something astounding. Revelations since then have certainly taken some of the shine off Mark's epic year, but on that Sunday afternoon, it was pure magic.

Take some time to make your own list. It will certainly bring back some great memories for you and remind you why we love sports so much.

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.