Watching the first game of Week 6 is going to be a lot like going on a pufferfish binge. But survive the first half and it's Pac-12 to the rescue!
• Western Kentucky @ Middle Tennessee State, 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPNU): Listen, you guys: I spend every Wednesday writing a couple thousand words on mid-major football, and it's the best part of my week, and I'm having a really hard time imagining a scenario in which I would enjoy watching this game. The Hilltoppers and Blue Raiders will be playing a little Red Team-Blue Team rivalry game in their home-and-home jerseys, which will look beautiful in pregame HD and which you'll stop noticing once you start watching them play.
Whatever the opposite of a soft spot in my heart is, that's what I have for Western Kentucky. It's kind of like hating a three-legged cat, but the school earned it two years ago when it cut Dave Elson loose. Who fires a coach who's given more than a decade of service to the university and overseen the team's transition from FCS to FBS (and who received a contract extension through 2016 less than a year prior) before the team's first season of Sun Belt play is even over? I'm not privy, of course, to the inner workings of the WKU athletic department, but what, exactly, did these folks think was going to happen in 2009? Did they think it'd just all turn out OK somehow? Anyway, WKU won two games in 2010 and none so far in 2011, and the forcible readjustment of the Hilltoppers' expectations of themselves has kind of made me meanly happy ever since. Also, their mascot is the stuff of nightmares and they're going to lose tonight, probably.
On the opposite sideline, Middle Tennessee State: also terrible! The Blue Raiders are proud holders of a 1-3 record, and that one win should be viewed as dubiously as possible since it came at Memphis' expense. But tonight, the weapons they have should be enough: The Blue Raiders have been vastly less interesting since the departure of Dwight Dasher, but are bringing up replacement quarterback Logan Kilgore nicely. More of a hands than a feet guy, Kilgore is averaging over 300 yards per game and has MTSU running a statistical top 20 passing attack. For its part, Western Kentucky fields the nation's 110th-ranked pass efficiency defense, meaning it might not be too inclined to defend Kilgore, and ranks 117th in scoring, meaning it might not be too quick to catch up to his touchdowns, either. Flip the field, and a semi-diverting matchup exists on paper between MTSU's dismal run defense (allowing close to 220 ground yards per game) and Hilltopper back Bobby Rainey (averaging more than 100). Remember Rainey from last year? He was the guy gashing the Raiders for 248 yards and two scores.
All that said: The last time the Hilltoppers won this game was also on a Thursday night, in 2007, which provides agreeable symmetry. Still, WKU didn't come within a single-score margin of winning this entire year until last week's four-point loss to Arkansas State. The Hilltoppers coughed up a late-game lead to the Red Wolves last week, behavior that also cost them last year's Blue Raiders game. Nobody on this field is particularly good at football, but maybe for the second time this season Middle Tennessee State will find itself to be less bad. It will have to be enough.
• Cal @ Oregon, 9:00 p.m. ET (ESPN): Expect a return to the natural order of things tonight in Autzen, after last year's 15-13 bizarro tilt in Berkeley. This will be the highest hurdle so far for the 2011 Bears, whose schedule is somewhat back-loaded, and the first chance for a good high-profile Ducks win since Oregon crumbled before LSU in Week 1's marquee matchup. Dinged for a loss to a team no opponent so far seems capable of keeping from the national tile game, Oregon subsequently beat Nevada, Missouri State and Arizona to hang on to its top 10 ranking, but is flying unusually low on national radars.
Last year's Bears-Ducks clash was one of only two times in the 2010 regular season that the Ducks scored fewer than 40 points, and also tied for Oregon's second-lowest points allowed total of the year. Cal held Oregon to one offensive touchdown with speedy defensive adjustments and measures of clock control that included faked injuries. Hey, who wants to bring that juicy little story up with Jeff Tedford?
"We took responsibility," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "It's done. We're moving on."
For the haters, here's Tedford last year, in an unfairly excerpted quote:
Tedford answered "no" when asked if faking injuries was part of the defensive game plan against Oregon.
Tedford answered as such because at the time he professed not to know anything about the plan, or that a position coach was involved in the laughably executed dive scheme. Whether you choose to believe him or not is entirely up to you, but safe to say watching for more ludicrous play-acting from Cal defenders tonight will be an exercise in futility. Instead, we shall have to contend ourselves with football, and what football there is in store!
The matchups line up beautifully between these two teams, and with both squads fresh off a bye, the timing couldn't be better. You've got the Ducks' No. 6 rushing offense versus the Bear's No. 9 ground defense. Cal's above-average overall offense against Oregon's below-average overall defense. An Oregon pass defense that's statistically superior to its run defense versus a Cal passing offense that's seen a notable upgrade with Zach Maynard playing pitch-and-catch to Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones and a relative unknown at tailback in Isi Sofele. An offensive line that's the best in the country at protecting Darron Thomas against a Bears pass rush that ranks ninth nationally in sacks.
You've got a Cal squad that couldn't capitalize in the red zone when it mattered most against Washington, and absolutely cannot waste any scoring chances tonight. You've got Oregon players who have it in their heads that last year's win somehow deserves avenging, even though the final drive in Strawberry Canyon, a nine-minute Barner-and-James clock-bleeding heel grind from Oregon's own one-yard line to Cal's 15, already gave the Ducks the last laugh in tempo management. And if the announcers need to fill time, Oregon will be sporting new uniforms, and Maynard's favorite target, Allen, is his half-brother. Human interest filler for all! And lest we forget, it's a night game in Autzen, and a real, quality Thursday night football contest. Order in some wings, smash that mute button whenever Craig James' mouth moves, and you've got all the necessary ingredients for a perfect night in.