2015 pivot-point games: Which matchups will define this season on the road to the College Football Playoff?
With one fewer Saturday in the college football season this year, schedules matter more than ever before. There are only 14 Saturdays between Sept. 5 and Dec. 5, meaning teams in leagues other than the Big 12 and the Sun Belt will get only one open date. (Unless you’re Arizona or Colorado. Then you get 12 solid weeks of football.) When teams play one another this season could mean as much as where they play one another.
A pivot-point game is a game upon which a team’s entire season can turn. It isn’t necessarily the most important game. It may come weeks before that. The pivot-point is the game where a variety of factors (schedule, location, circumstances) converge to create an opportunity for momentum or for a descent into misery.
Just like last year, the schedule has blessed us with pivot-point games from September to November. So, as we continue our seemingly endless slog through the off-season, let’s examine some games that should define the 2015 season.
Oregon at Michigan State
Pivot point for: Oregon
These teams’ meeting in Eugene last season established the Ducks as national title contenders, and the winner of this year’s game in East Lansing will have the early season’s best out-of-conference win. Facing Michigan State’s defense at Spartan Stadium will present a challenge to whoever wins the Oregon quarterback job, but Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams has a history of blowing the doors off defenses as a road underdog. Michigan State’s offensive line should be one of the few that can keep defensive end DeForest Buckner at bay. That should give Connor Cook time to throw, and a big day from him could give the Spartans a quality win that would help them build confidence as they roll toward their Nov. 21 clash with Ohio State.
Oklahoma at Tennessee
Pivot point for: Both
Last year we assumed the Sooners' veterans would thrash Tennessee’s group of inexperienced starters, and Oklahoma did not disappoint. This year should be different. Tennessee has clear offensive and defensive identities. The Volunteers are still young and relatively thin, but at this point in the season they should be at full strength. Derek Barnett (20½ tackles for loss as a true freshman) might be the best pass rusher the Sooners face all fall, and the rushing matchup between Tennessee sophomore Jalen Hurd and Oklahoma sophomore Samaje Perine could wear both defenses out. A victory for Oklahoma would be far more meaningful than a win over the Vols last year was, and it would be a sign that the staff changes Bob Stoops made in the off-season might be working. A win for Tennessee could mean one of two things—but we won’t know which until a few weeks later. Either the Vols have made the leap and are ready to compete for an SEC East title, or those staff changes Stoops made didn’t work.
LSU at Mississippi State
Pivot point for: Both
The bloodbath in the SEC West begins early in 2015. Last year Mississippi State’s win in Baton Rouge was a sign the Bulldogs were headed for a special season. But that came in Week 4. This one will come in Week 2. Mississippi State will break in seven new defensive starters, but if the Tigers haven’t figured out their quarterback quandary, that may not matter. The loser here will have to recover quickly or things could spiral out of control. LSU has Auburn in Baton Rouge in Week 3. Mississippi State travels to Auburn in Week 4 and plays at Texas A&M the week after that.
Auburn at LSU
Pivot point for: Auburn
The Tigers are a trendy pick to win the SEC title, and we should know if they’re for real by the end of September. After playing games against a Louisville team that must replace its defensive stars and Jacksonville State, new Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson should have some huge numbers. But how will he fare against LSU, which will have just finished facing Dak Prescott? We haven’t seen a Kevin Steele-led defense play an up-tempo offense since Clemson’s 70-33 Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia that cost Steele his job with the Tigers. That the score keeps coming up—out of all the scores in Steele’s career—is unfair, but it keeps coming up since it was the last one in which he was a coordinator. Steele can change the narrative quickly by shutting down an offense that should be one of the SEC’s best.
Ole Miss at Alabama
Pivot point for: Ole Miss
The SEC did not mess around when building this year’s schedule. The Crimson Tide will get a Week 3 visit from the only team to hand them a conference loss in 2014. We know the Rebels will be tough to score on, but the Alabama defense will test whether Ole Miss's offense can find the end zone. The Tide saw a heavy dose of Good Bo Wallace last season, but the venerable doctor’s eligibility has expired. The Rebels will likely remain an offensive mystery after games against Tennessee-Martin and Fresno State, though we’ll probably have a much better idea about the health of receiver Laquon Treadwell and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil—both of whom are recovering from serious injuries suffered last fall. The team that can score on Bama can score on anyone, but if the Crimson Tide shut down the Rebels here, it might portend a difficult path through the SEC West for Ole Miss.
Stanford at USC
Pivot point for: Both
Two established quarterbacks will face two defenses breaking in a lot of new starters. The Trojans must rework their front seven, while the Cardinal will start inexperienced defensive linemen and defensive backs. That bodes well for Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan, and it suggests we’ll see more offense than we did in last year’s Leonard Williams-dominated 13-10 USC win. USC athletic director Pat Haden will try to stay off the field this time, and the team with the young defenders who have adjusted to their new roles the quickest should emerge victorious.
Arizona vs. UCLA
Pivot point for: Arizona
As Rich Rodriguez has been quick to point out all off-season, the Wildcats won’t have an open date this season unless they make a return trip the Pac-12 title game. They play 12 consecutive weeks without a break, including nine straight Saturdays against Pac-12 opponents. To make matters worse, this is one of the years when the Wildcats must play five road conference games and four home conference games. So, if Arizona loses at home to the Bruins, the Wildcats would be 0-1 in the league and staring at five road games in the next eight weeks. That’s a tough road back to the conference championship.
Arizona State at UCLA
Pivot point for: Both
We should have a decent idea of what to expect from the Sun Devils by this point. They will have played Texas A&M in Houston and USC in Tempe. They’ll either be trying to nail down an impressive 2-0 record in the Pac-12 South or scrambling to avoid a divisional mark of 0-2. UCLA will be in the same boat, having played at Arizona the previous week. So, we’ll either emerge from this week with a clear set of Pac-12 South contenders or we’ll see a muddled middle that could take until November to sort through.
Arkansas at Alabama
Pivot point for: Both
If the Razorbacks want to prove themselves capable of competing for the SEC West title, they need to eventually beat the Crimson Tide. Alabama hasn’t lost to Arkansas since coach Mike Shula’s final season, but the Razorbacks came awfully close to winning last season in Fayetteville. After losing by a combined 104-0 to Alabama in 2012 and ’13, the Hogs dropped a 14-13 heartbreaker last October. This year they must go to Tuscaloosa, but they catch Alabama at an interesting time. The Tide have to play at Georgia the week before—don’t expect the Bulldogs to be silly enough to wear black this time—and go to Texas A&M the following week. If Alabama emerges unscathed from that stretch, the Tide may be on their way to another SEC title. But if there is a time Arkansas can sneak in for the signature win of the Bret Bielema era, this is it.
Wisconsin at Nebraska
Pivot point for: Both
Nebraska fired a coach who had won at least nine games every season because the Cornhuskers crave championships. In this Big Ten divisional alignment, the path to a league title goes through the Badgers. Early games against BYU (Sept. 5) and Miami (Sept. 19) will offer a good idea about how Nebraska will look under Mike Riley, but neither of those have any bearing on who goes to Indianapolis in December. This one could decide the Big Ten West, and it’s more important for Nebraska to win because while Wisconsin avoids the powers from the East, the Cornhuskers have to face Michigan State on Nov. 7. The Badgers, meanwhile, are set up to succeed in Paul Chryst’s first season at the helm. It doesn’t really matter if they beat Alabama in the opener. Without Ohio State, Michigan State or Penn State on the schedule, Wisconsin has no excuse not to win the West if it has a successful trip to Lincoln.
Georgia Tech at Clemson
Pivot point for: Clemson
The Tigers have designs on breaking Florida State’s stranglehold on the ACC title, but they also have bigger dreams. If sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson can stay healthy and defensive coordinator Brent Venables can remodel a front seven that suffered heavy losses to the NFL, Clemson can become a player in the national championship race. But for that to happen, the Tigers must get through a tough early-season stretch that includes a Thursday night visit to Louisville (Sept. 17), a home game against Notre Dame (Oct. 3) and this matchup against the defending ACC Coastal champs. The Yellow Jackets destroyed the Tigers last fall after Watson was lost to a first-quarter knee injury. If Clemson makes it through this stretch unscathed, it will be a playoff contender. The Tigers would probably still need to beat Florida State on Nov. 7 to wrest control of the ACC from the Seminoles, but they would be in prime position.
Michigan State at Michigan
Pivot point for: Michigan
Don’t expect Jim Harbaugh to work miracles in his first season at Michigan. While the roster he inherited in Ann Arbor is better than the one he inherited at Stanford in 2007, the Wolverines will need a few recruiting classes before they can truly be competitive. But let’s not forget that Harbaugh’s ’07 Stanford squad did beat a far superior USC team for one of its four wins that season. It’s possible Harbaugh can lead this Michigan group to a win that, based strictly on talent, it should not be able to achieve. Beating Michigan State would be huge for Michigan from an in-state recruiting perspective, and it would provide momentum for a program on the rise. If there is a week to go for broke, it’s this one. The Wolverines will likely get beat up—definitely on their bodies, and possibly on the scoreboard—in early showdowns with Utah (Sept. 3) and BYU (Sept. 26). They play winnable games at Maryland (Oct. 3) and against Northwestern (Oct. 10) before the Spartans come to the Big House. After Michigan State, Michigan gets a bye. No one expects the Wolverines to win, so Harbaugh can throw the kitchen sink at the Spartans and then use the ensuing bye week to recalibrate and recuperate. If it doesn’t work, Michigan was supposed to lose anyway. If it does, the win would be a key building block.
USC at Notre Dame
Pivot point for: Notre Dame
Brad Thompson sent an email last year to Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports that applied to Feldman’s Body Blow Theory, which he developed after studying what happened to teams the week after they played Stanford. Thompson, a Notre Dame fan, thought the theory might apply to teams that had just faced Navy’s triple option. So, he ran the numbers on Notre Dame. Anyone who read Feldman’s piece could have likely made some money betting on the Notre Dame-Arizona State matchup. Well, guess who the Fighting Irish play immediately before playing the Trojans? That’s right. The Midshipmen. In the past eight seasons, Notre Dame is 2-6 the week after playing Navy, and those two wins were squeakers against foes the Irish should have beaten handily. Making matters worse this year, Notre Dame plays Navy a week after visiting Clemson. The Irish have legitimate playoff aspirations. They have one of the nation’s best offensive lines and an improved defense. Their schedule is tough enough that they could probably afford to lose a game and still make the four-team field. But if they go 1-3 between Oct. 3 and Oct. 17, the playoff is out of reach. That’s a distinct possibility if they can’t find a way to recover from the Midshipmen.
Missouri at Georgia
Pivot point for: Both
From a sheer talent standpoint, the Bulldogs should win the SEC East if Mark Richt and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer select a serviceable quarterback. While Tennessee is the trendy non-Georgia pick, the bigger threat is probably Missouri, which has won the East for the past two seasons. The Tigers have the friendliest schedule in the SEC—their West opponents are Mississippi State and Arkansas, and they get Tennessee late when the Vols’ lack of depth is likely to become an issue—so they could afford to lose this game and still have a decent shot at winning the East. But a victory in Athens would give Mizzou a prohibitive advantage. Georgia, meanwhile, faces Alabama and Auburn from the West and plays Tennessee in Knoxville the week before this game. That’s a much tougher road, and it makes this a must-win matchup for the Bulldogs.
Baylor at Kansas State
Pivot point for: Baylor
With the exception of a 52-24 loss in Waco in 2012, Bill Snyder has found ways to stay far closer to Art Briles’s team than most. Four of the five meetings between Snyder’s Wildcats and Briles’s Bears have been decided by 11 points or fewer. This ability to slow Baylor gives Kansas State a puncher’s chance—a few turnovers could swing the outcome—and that chance increases when the game is in Manhattan on a Thursday night, with both teams fresh off an open date and Baylor possibly looking ahead to a matchup with Oklahoma the following week. For the Bears to win a third straight Big 12 title, they’ll have to navigate a treacherous final month that includes games against both Oklahoma teams and a Black Friday visit to TCU. They can’t afford to slip in the Little Apple.
Florida State at Clemson
Pivot point for: Florida State
The smart money is on Florida State taking a step back after losing Jameis Winston, four-fifths of its offensive line and its best two defensive linemen. But look at the Seminoles’ schedule. It isn’t that easy to pinpoint possible losses. A three-week stretch in October that includes home games against Miami and Louisville and a visit to Georgia Tech looks tough, but Florida State could arrive in Clemson with a shot at winning the ACC Atlantic Division for a fourth consecutive season. By that point, Florida State’s inexperienced players won’t be inexperienced any longer. If Jimbo Fisher’s recruiting has been as good as Rivals.com's rankings suggest, the Seminoles might still be able to sneak in a division title—and potentially an ACC title—in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
Michigan State at Ohio State
Pivot point for: Both
As we learned last year, it probably doesn’t matter if each team has a loss heading into this one. The winner should still be in prime position to make the playoff. This could be the best regular-season game of 2015, because the stakes should be enormous. The winner likely moves on to compete for the Big Ten title. The loser has to hope for absolute chaos.
TCU at Oklahoma
Pivot point for: TCU
The Horned Frogs face Oklahoma and Baylor in a six-day stretch. Then their regular season ends. Given how much talent TCU returns from a team that went 12-1 last season, it feels like everything between September and mid-November will be an appetizer for this two-week feast that could decide everything. Massive improvement by either Texas or Oklahoma State—or a lack of improvement from Oklahoma—could change the Big 12’s dynamics. However, at the moment it seems like the most important part of TCU’s season will be stuffed into a period in which everyone else will be stuffing their faces with turkey and pumpkin pie.
A random ranking
The wife’s birthday is this week, so here are the five gifts you should never buy a lady on her birthday.
1. A customized rolling pin.
You may as well buy a card that says this:
On your birthday, I’d like for you to get back in the kitchen and make me a pie (or sugar cookies).
2. A swimsuit.
She will not thank you. The purchase of a swimsuit is an intensely personal process made more fraught by the fact that a large in one brand can be smaller than a small in another brand. You will get it wrong, and this will get you in trouble.
3. Any cleaning appliance.
See No. 2.
You can’t win.
1. A grassroots campaign saved UAB football after the university administration axed the program in December. So, now what happens? That’s unclear.
Head coach Bill Clark—conspicuous by his absence at the press conference last week to announce the team’s return—is one of the few people still employed by the program. Clark’s only comments last week came in the form of a brief statement.
Clark, who did an excellent job in his first season to get the Blazers to 6-6, is wise to stay quiet now. He is in the second year of a three-year contract, and he should remain wary of UAB president Ray Watts and the University of Alabama system trustees. Clark must hire a coaching staff, and he must recruit players to replace those who left when the administration napalmed the program. That could be tough given his contract situation. What quality assistant wants to work in a program where the head coach has less than two years on his deal? What player wants to sign with a program in such flux without some assurance things will be stabilized?
One way for the administration to prove it cares about the long-term stability of the program is to sign Clark to a long-term deal. Most coaches get five years these days, and it’s usually a fairly meaningless number. After all, schools can always pay a buyout that would allow them to fire a coach or hire a coach away from a place where he has a long-term deal. But in this case, with so much uncertainty, a long deal could be a meaningful gesture that helps stabilize the situation. In fact, given the oddity of this case, maybe five years isn’t enough. Maybe six or seven years would work even better.
2. We stay in the Yellowhammer State for this week in Jim Harbaugh …
3. The above photo was taken by Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser photographer Albert Cesare on Friday at a camp worked by Michigan coaches in Prattville, Ala. Despite the fears of coaches in the SEC, all the five-star recruits in Alabama didn’t instantly wipe Alabama and Auburn off their radars and commit to Michigan on the spot. Although he probably has his university’s best minds working on the issue, Harbaugh has yet to figure out how to make it stop snowing during the winter in Michigan or how to make it start snowing during the winter in Tuscaloosa. So SEC coaches can rest easy for at least a few more months, safe in the knowledge that the playing field remains somewhat level. Harbaugh has yet to master the weather, but he did offer players within driving distance of suburban Montgomery—and Indianapolis, where Michigan coaches also worked a camp last week—a chance for a low-cost meeting with the Wolverines’ coaches that didn’t require a flight.
4. On Sunday Harbaugh and his assistants were among the 370 coaches from across the country who helped at Lauren’s First And Goal Camp at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. The camp is named for Lauren Loose, a pediatric brain tumor survivor who is the daughter of current Army safeties coach John Loose. The proceeds from the camp go to Lauren’s First and Goal Foundation, which raises money for brain tumor research. According to Josh Folck of Lehigh Valley Live, Sunday’s camp raised $101,800 for the cause. But by all means, SEC coaches, please keep trying to ban this insidious practice of coaches working camps off their own campuses.*
To learn more about donating to Lauren’s First and Goal, click here. If you’re mad at me for again bashing the SEC’s position on this rule and would prefer to donate to a more SEC-centric charity, click here to learn how to support Nick’s Kids, the excellent foundation run by Alabama coach Nick Saban and his wife, Terry.
*Of course I know the SEC isn’t trying to ban fundraisers, but the national satellite camp rule the SEC proposed coming out of its spring meetings—no working camps more than 50 miles from your own campus—would hamstring this particular type of fundraiser. I also know Harbaugh is smart enough to know that this event would make anyone who opposes satellite camps look really bad.
5. It’s June. That means bored kickers are trying trick shots and posting them on the Internet. Here is Wisconsin’s Rafael Gaglianone kicking off his holder’s nose …
6. And here’s Arkansas State’s Luke Ferguson kicking off his holder’s tongue …
7. And here’s Nick Rose of Texas with a backflip kick—which during these kickers’ soccer days would have been called a bicycle kick …
8. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin announced at a fan event that Brandon Williams, a former five-star tailback recruit who began his career at Oklahoma before coming to College Station, will begin preseason camp of his senior season as a cornerback. “He can always come back and play running back, we know that,” Sumlin told Brent Zwerneman of the Houston Chronicle. “Let’s see what he can do, and he’s excited about it. If he can help us [on defense], and it helps him in his career, it will be a great move for both of us.”
Depending on how well the speedy, 195-pound Williams adjusts to the switch, this could be an excellent move for the Aggies. Running backs Tra Carson and James White should get most of the carries for the offense, and cornerback was an area of concern. Cornerback and defensive end are the two most important positions in new Aggies coordinator John Chavis’s defense. Texas A&M boasts an elite pass rusher in Myles Garrett, but the Aggies need corners who can defend one-on-one to make the defense work. The 6’0” Williams is one of the fastest players on A&M’s roster. If he can cover, it could be beneficial to the program and to Williams, who would stand a far better chance of making an NFL roster than he would coming off a season in which he was the program’s third- or fourth-string tailback.
9. South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier proposed a few years ago that SEC coaches give up a chunk of their salaries so their players could get a little extra money. That never happened, because by the time schools were allowed to give players more than tuition, room and board, the SEC Network was churning out plenty of money to pay for it. But below the Power Five, one coach is willing to turn down money to help fund cost-of-attendance scholarships. Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill is putting off a $100,000 raise for four years. He hopes the $400,000 he saves the athletic department will help fund better scholarships for his players. “I want to do what's best for our players, what's best for our recruits, what's best for this program,” Stockstill told the Associated Press. “Everybody’s going to be doing cost of attendance, everybody's building new facilities. I’m doing everything I can to help not only this university, but our current players and our future players.”
10. Texas coach Charlie Strong was serious about bringing in more ferocious recruits …
What’s eating Andy?
There is, of course, one birthday gift that will never fall in the category of the ones mentioned in the random ranking section. Diamonds. My wife wanted me to just say “jewelry” here. So I asked if she’d ever be upset if I gave her diamonds. You have now read a transcript of the first and only argument I’ve ever won.
What’s Andy eating?
Because it’s college football’s slowest season, I haven’t been traveling much to find
delectable food interesting stories. So, for the next few weeks, we’ll highlight a few of the best spots I wrote about for my old Heaven Is A Buffet blog. If you were not one of the three people who read it, this will be new to you. This post first appeared on July 26, 2012.
Even when I’ve eaten whole hog barbecue, I haven’t really eaten the whole hog. Sure, I’ve eaten snout at Petty’s in Starkville, Miss., but most of my swine dining has come from the popular cuts. On a visit to Chicago, I set out to change that.
The Purple Pig wastes none of the noble animal for which the restaurant is named. Pork neck bones are refilled with marrow to be spread on bread. When it has them, it serves the ears. Alas, ears did not make the menu for my visit. Tail did. So did jowl. So did the thymus glands, better known as sweetbreads.
The Purple Pig serves small plates, so the volume didn’t shock the bartender too much when I asked for tail, jowl and sweetbreads along with an order of broccoli with roasted garlic and anchovy vinaigrette. She was a bit taken aback by the specificity of my requests. After all, the place serves a mouth-watering turkey leg confit, Wagyu beef tips and a host of other meaty delights. But I wanted pig, and I didn’t want the pieces of the pig they sell at my local grocery store.
I’m not sure why I expected an exotic flavor from the tail. At the end of the day, pork tastes like pork. Tail meat is similar in taste and texture to pork belly, but what makes the tail at The Purple Pig special is the pool of braising liquid that soaks up all the best bits from the tail as it cooks. At first, I wondered why the server brought me a spoon. After a bite, I understood. Every taste bud on my tongue begged, but it isn’t socially acceptable to chug braising liquid in mixed company. Fortunately, the spoon allowed me to scrape up every drop without getting escorted to the door.
Next came the jowl, which arrived underneath a fried duck egg. The duck egg tasted spectacular on its own, but the jowl tasted like the best piece at a pig picking. Crispy skin covered moist, tender meat. I had to remind myself to take smaller bites. Otherwise, the entire thing would have disappeared in 10 seconds.
My tour of porcine anatomy concluded with the sweetbreads, which are neither sweet nor bread, served with fennel and a dollop of pureed apricot. Sweetbreads seems like a perfectly appetizing name, but it fails in every way as an accurate descriptor. Endocrine nuggets describe the dish better, but that probably wouldn’t inspire many diners to order it. If I ever run a restaurant that serves sweetbreads, I shall call them Glandular Flavor Bombs. The trick? Making them explode on the palate the way The Purple Pig does.
The wallet probably can’t take too many exotic pig parts. All that with a quartino of Chianti ran me about $60 before tip. I’ll return to the world of pulled shoulder meat and spare ribs, but I’ll know the truth. The whole damn thing tastes incredible.