Commentary

Conference challenge comes to gridiron

Originally Published: June 12, 2009
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

What if we could eliminate all of college football's early-season cream puffs?

What if all of the sport's heavyweights no longer played warm-ups against teams from the lesser Football Championship Subdivision or play-for-pay opponents from the Sun Belt Conference?

What if the NCAA expanded its conference challenges in basketball to the football field? We'd have an ACC/Big East Challenge or a Big 12/SEC Challenge.

We'd finally figure out which side of the ball really is better: Big 12 offenses or SEC defenses. We'd find out if Florida State and Miami really have slipped that much, or if the rest of the ACC really is that much better.

We'd find out if the Pac-10 really is USC and everyone else. And if the Big East really is as bad as it sometimes seems.

What would it look like?

Here's one man's guess.

ACC/BIG EAST CHALLENGE

(Because of the leagues' disparity in membership, ACC schools Duke, North Carolina, NC State and Wake Forest were given the week off to prepare for basketball season)

Virginia vs. Pittsburgh
Fans from both schools can discuss how their former NFL coaches have underachieved at their alma maters.

Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia
The bitter rivals used to play for the Black Diamond Trophy, but the series ended after Virginia Tech's 34-17 victory over the Mountaineers in 2005.

Georgia Tech vs. Connecticut
Yet another opportunity for the Yellow Jackets to avenge their loss to the Huskies in the 2004 Final Four championship game.

Miami vs. Syracuse
A rout of the lowly Orange would remind the Hurricanes of how good things used to be in the Big East.

Florida State vs. South Florida
Fans of both schools have waited too long for the beginning of this intrastate series, which actually happens this season.

Maryland vs. Cincinnati
Terrapins fans are beginning to wonder whether their 2001 ACC championship was an aberration. Bearcats fans can only hope their 2008 Big East championship wasn't a one-year wonder.

Clemson vs. Louisville
Cardinals fans already believe coach Steve Kragthorpe is in way over his head. Some Clemson fans have those same fears about new coach Dabo Swinney.

Boston College vs. Rutgers
The schools' campuses might sit on the outskirts of the metropolitan areas, but who doesn't love a Boston-New York rivalry?

2009 ACC/Big East Challenge winner: ACC, 5-3


SEC/BIG 12 CHALLENGE

Florida vs. Oklahoma
A rematch of last season's BCS National Championship Game featuring the past two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks, Tim Tebow of Florida and Sam Bradford of Oklahoma. The Sooners can only hope their red zone offense is more efficient than last time.

Georgia vs. Missouri
A matchup of two teams with 2009 hopes riding on new quarterbacks. Bulldogs senior Joe Cox replaces Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Sophomore Blaine Gabbert replaces record-setting quarterback Chase Daniel at Missouri.

Tennessee vs. Oklahoma State
Cowboys coach Mike Gundy (who professed to being a man) versus Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin (who acts like a child).

Kentucky vs. Kansas
I'm guessing Wildcats football coach Rich Brooks won't put new basketball coach John Calipari in charge of Kentucky's two-minute defense against the Jayhawks.

Vanderbilt vs. Baylor
The leagues' traditional cellar dwellers have their sights set on the 2009 postseason. The Commodores played in a bowl game last season; the Bears don't seem to be too far behind.

LSU vs. Nebraska
Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini can prove once and for all that he was the mastermind behind LSU's national championship in 2007.

Alabama vs. Texas A&M
Fans of both schools will be painfully reminded that Dennis Franchione once coached their team.

Auburn vs. Iowa State
Cyclones coach Paul Rhoads can prove that Iowa State is better off without former coach Gene Chizik, who bolted for Auburn.

Arkansas vs. Texas Tech
Bobby Petrino (the Hogs coach who is always ready to leave) versus Mike Leach (the Red Raiders coach who couldn't leave).

Ole Miss vs. Texas
Rebels quarterback Jevan Snead once battled Texas quarterback Colt McCoy for the Longhorns' starting job. Both players have their sights set on conference championships this season.

Mississippi State vs. Colorado
It's really a shame former Bulldogs coach Jackie Sherrill won't be around to castrate a buffalo.

South Carolina vs. Kansas State
Wildcats coach Bill Snyder (who wouldn't stay retired) versus Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier (who probably wishes he'd stayed retired).

2009 SEC/Big 12 Challenge winner: Tied, 6-6


BIG TEN/PAC-10 CHALLENGE

(Because of the leagues' disparity in membership, Purdue was given the week off -- the Boilermakers played Notre Dame)

Penn State vs. Oregon
The Ducks' new coach is Chip Kelly, who was Mike Bellotti's head coach-in-waiting. Penn State's Joe Paterno keeps his replacement waiting and waiting and waiting.

Ohio State vs. Washington
It might not be the sexiest matchup on paper, but who wouldn't want to watch quarterbacks Terrelle Pryor and Jake Locker on the same field?

Illinois vs. UCLA
Two of the best salesmen (or, uh, recruiters) in the game match their wits on the gridiron. Las Vegas oddsmakers place odds on which coach's hair stays in place longer.

Michigan vs. Stanford
Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh already believed his Stanford players were smarter than those playing at his alma mater. Now, he probably even thinks Stanford's players are better, too.

Michigan State vs. Arizona State
It's hard to believe the Sun Devils and Spartans have played only twice. Legendary Arizona State coach Frank Kush helped lead Michigan State to the 1952 national championship as a 150-pound, All-America defensive lineman.

Wisconsin vs. Washington State
We'll let the Badgers play the woebegone Cougars. They can even play the game at the Rose Bowl -- so a Big Ten team can finally remember what it's like to win "The Granddaddy of Them All."

Indiana vs. Southern California
Honestly, it doesn't matter which Big Ten team plays USC. Even the Hoosiers could play the Trojans as well as the rest of the Big Ten teams did the past few seasons.

Minnesota vs. Arizona
The Grand Canyon State has become the Gophers' second home. Minnesota played each of its past two bowl games in Arizona, losing to Kansas 42-21 in the 2008 Insight Bowl and to Texas Tech 44-41 in overtime in the 2006 Insight Bowl.

Iowa vs. California
The Hawkeyes beat the Bears 38-12 in their last Rose Bowl victory -- more than 50 years ago.

Northwestern vs. Oregon State
Organizers can call the game the Monster.com Bowl. At some point, college football fans are going to realize Oregon State's Mike Riley and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald are two of the most underrated coaches in the country.

2009 Big Ten/Pac-10 Challenge winner: Pac-10, 6-4

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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