Thursday Night Bites: Stoops Too Conquered; Slapfight A-Bruin
Weeknight amuse-bouches before the Saturday spread. Just think of UCLA-Arizona as a particularly pale and unappetizing sorbet.
• Bethune-Cookman @ Norfolk State, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU: ESPN's Thursday-night FCS series swings back to the MEAC this week to capture one of my favorite I-AA teams, the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats (afforded affection because their logo looks straight out of Stargate). They'll have a difficult time on national television tonight though, I fear, as their opponents are the conference-leading Norfolk State Spartans, 6-1 and undefeated in league play. While the Wildcats do boast the FCS' No. 25 offense, led principally by Isidore Jackson and Rodney Scott at running back, State has a slight edge in offensive production plus the country's fifth-ranked defense. Cocktail trivia: Norfolk State kicker Ryan Estep ranks 10th nationally in overall scoring.
• Central Florida @ UAB, 8:00 p.m. ET, CSS: This game might be just the emotional turnaround the Knights need, and no fun at all for the downtrodden Blazers. Winless for all of 2011 thus far, UAB was blown out twice to kick off the season, put together two very close losses to East Carolina and Troy in Weeks 4 and 5, then backslid into decisive defeats against Mississippi State and Tulsa. It's a bear of a schedule for a bad team: two SEC games, plus Houston, Tulsa and Southern Miss. But at least the Dragons have company at the bottom of the well: There's every chance in the world UAB and FAU will both be winless when the Blazers and Owls meet Thanksgiving weekend.
The Knights are a different but at least relatively sunnier kind of sad. The defending conference champs were projected to repeat as division winners, and could still conceivably get back to the C-USA championship game. They'll miss the worst of the shellings without Houston on their schedule, but SMU has already dealt them one conference loss, and Tulsa and Southern Miss could very well do them in. A two-game swing against the dregs of not just C-USA, but the entire country in UAB and Memphis might be just the ticket to get some quality practice reps in. Look for ballyhooed quarterback Jeff Godfrey to put on a show tonight, aided by backup Blake Bortles, inserted to good effect in last week's ultimately losing effort against the Mustangs.
• UCLA @ Arizona, 9:00 p.m. ET, ESPN: From the "games that looked a lot better when we scheduled them" file comes this Thursday tilt of questionable quality. (While it's no better than Craig James warrants, I have to ask again what horrific sin the excellent Rece Davis has committed to deserve a night like this.)
Incredibly, for all the spluttering concerning the temperature of Rick Neuheisel's posterior, UCLA is still mathematically a possible contender for the Pac-12 South title and a berth in the first conference championship game. The Bruins' prospects, so maligned locally, are positively glowing when compared to those of their opponent. Arizona's one-win half-season could be charitably viewed as largely a product of the Wildcats' schedule: With three teams currently ranked in the top 10 as their Week 2, 3 and 4 opponents, teams that all seem poised to make a run at BCS games, was it entirely fair to expect September success? Perhaps not, but the Wildcats not turning things around against USC and particularly Oregon State cost Mike Stoops his job. Breathing gets easier for the remaining players and personnel from here out; although Washington and Arizona State remain, the Bruins, Utah and Colorado will provide handier opportunities for victory. (The last game on Arizona's schedule is left off that list for a reason: I think there's every chance this version of the Wildcats loses to Louisiana over Thanksgiving weekend.) The Wildcats' greatest asset, Nick Foles, might have been better able to pass them out of more dire situations had they been able to establish even modest protection around him. That shouldn't be a problem tonight, given the Bruins' 115th-ranked sacking defense. But should we expect similar politeness when the field is flipped? Arizona's defense ranks 116th nationally overall, but don't forget, the 'Cats have had to play Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon and USC already. That number could easily be skewed, and the Bruins have found scoring difficult in 2011, averaging just under 26 points per game. And just to make things interesting, UCLA will be marking the annual rite of readjustment to having lost another quarterback to a freak injury, with Kevin Prince starting in place of Richard Brehaut and his broken leg, sustained in Week 6 against Washington State.