The Pivot Points: Identifying the games that could ultimately determine the course of the 2016 season
The coaches and players have to abide by their one-game-at-a-time cliché because that's the best way for them to handle their jobs. We, however, do not. We can skip ahead to the one game on your team's schedule that can send a season soaring or spiraling. That is the team's Pivot Point game.
The true Pivot Point is rarely the season opener. A lack of familiarity with the opponent or a host of new starters can provide an unreliable result. Plus, teams can bounce back from a season-opening loss (Stanford last year) or regress to the mean after a resounding season-opening win (Texas A&M in 2014).
The Pivot Point is the game that can start a winning streak that leads to a title or set off a losing streak that leads to a firing. With that in mind, let's look at some of the Pivot Point games for the 2016 season.
Penn State at Pittsburgh
Pivot point for Penn State
It's tough to pick a Pivot Point for the Panthers because the game that might ultimately decide the ACC Coastal Division title (Pittsburgh at North Carolina) is the ACC opener for both teams on Sept. 24. But because it's so early and several other division foes have upgraded, it's difficult to say how much that game will matter with any certainty.
That isn't the case for Penn State. The Big Ten East Division is probably off the table because of where the Nittany Lions are relative to superpowers Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan, so Penn State needs to show progress in other ways. One way would be by beating the in-state rival the Nittany Lions haven't played since 2000.
That won't be easy, though. Judging by her recent comments, Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour understands the issues James Franklin's team still suffers from a talent standpoint because of the sanctions handed down by the NCAA following the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Those sanctions were lifted in September 2014, but because of the way recruiting works, the worst part comes now. The question is whether the majority of Penn State fans understand that. If the Nittany Lions can beat the Panthers, that question wouldn't require an answer. (If only for another week because Penn State plays Temple seven days later.) If Pittsburgh wins this one, the pressure intensifies in State College.
USC at Stanford
Pivot point for USC
If USC beats Alabama in the opener, just ignore this and skip right to expecting the Trojans to compete for national titles again. But assuming Vegas is correct and the Crimson Tide beat USC, this will be the Trojans' chance to prove they can compete for conference titles again. USC will head to Palo Alto and try to stop Christian McCaffrey in a game that the Pac-12 folks can't complain no one saw. It's on ABC at 8 p.m. Eastern (5 p.m. local). It'll be competing with Ohio State-Oklahoma and a pair of SEC West games (Mississippi State-LSU and Texas A&M-Auburn), but if it's competitive, it will draw an audience.
The opener against Alabama should have USC prepared for a physical opponent. No matter who wins, this might be the first of two meetings. But if USC wins, it should give the Trojans confidence they can get through the slog that is the Pac-12's nine-game conference schedule.
Alabama at Ole Miss
Pivot point for Ole Miss
We should get an idea of how well the Rebels replaced the talent they lost when they face Florida State in the opener. Still, they can lose that one and still have all their season goals available to them. A third consecutive win against Alabama would prove that Ole Miss wasn't just the beneficiary of one great recruiting class. The Rebels still would have to finish—something they couldn't do in 2014 or 2015—to make it to Atlanta, but the toughest part would be over. If Ole Miss loses to Alabama, the Rebels will have to bounce back quickly to avoid an early SEC hole. Georgia comes to Oxford the following week.
Texas at Cal
Pivot point for Texas
Because we have no idea how Texas will look with a new offense and (probably) a new quarterback, this is a tough one to guess. If the Longhorns beat Notre Dame in the opener, it would prolong the surge in optimism from a promising off-season. But if the Longhorns lose to the Fighting Irish, they'll need something to boost their spirits heading into Big 12 play. If Texas can't beat a rebuilding Cal team, that doesn't bode well for the Big 12 round robin or coach Charlie Strong's long-term future. If the Longhorns can beat a Power 5 opponent on the road, it should provide some confidence as they start a conference schedule that begins with a difficult trip to Oklahoma State on Oct. 1.
Michigan State at Notre Dame
Pivot point for both
We may know a lot about Notre Dame after the Texas game, but assuming the Irish win that one, the visit from the Spartans should give us a better idea about how Notre Dame will stack up against the best teams in the country. Brian Kelly will have had a preseason camp and two weeks to figure out the quarterback situation. (Also, we have no idea how things will play out. By this point last season, DeShone Kizer had already been thrust into action to replace an injured Malik Zaire.)
Meanwhile, Michigan State will get its first real challenge before Big Ten play begins against Wisconsin the following week. Mark Dantonio and his staff insist their development process will allow them to replace the stars they lost with upperclassmen who have been trained to take over with no dropoff. We'll find out if that's true in South Bend.
Florida at Tennessee
Pivot point for Tennessee
This was the easiest choice on this list. No team will be under more pressure in a single game in the season's first month than Tennessee will be when Florida comes to Neyland Stadium. The Volunteers have the best roster in the SEC East, but they haven't beaten Florida since 2004. That stat should have little relevance to players who were elementary schoolers for much of the streak, but these players have been involved in two Florida (2014 and '15) victories that should have been Tennessee victories.
Florida is playing with house money after winning the SEC East in 2015 with zero expectations. The focus will be squarely on the Vols and coach Butch Jones, who has been building toward this year since inheriting a depleted roster from Derek Dooley. The Vols don't have to win this game to win the SEC East, but Florida and Georgia have what look like easier schedule draws. Beating the Gators would set the table for the rest of the SEC schedule. A loss would send the fanbase into "Here we go again" mode and crank up the heat on Jones.
Pivot point for both
If you haven't watched this matchup the past two seasons, your heart thanks you. That kind of repeated stress probably isn't healthy. The Aggies won both games in overtime after erasing fourth-quarter deficits. Given the pressure on the staff this season—more on that in First-and-10—they'll probably need to beat the Razorbacks a fifth consecutive time because every SEC West win is precious. (That Texas A&M plays at Auburn a week earlier could enhance the drama.)
But at some point, doesn't Arkansas have to break through in one of these? The Razorbacks started sloppy and finished strong in 2014 and '15. With an Alabama-Ole Miss-at Auburn stretch waiting in October, Arkansas needs this win just as badly.
LSU at Auburn
Pivot point for Auburn
Auburn will have just faced Texas A&M at home when LSU comes to town. By the end of this stretch—which also includes the season opener against Clemson—we should know whether Gus Malzahn's offense is functioning again. Auburn's defensive line is deep. The offensive line should be a strength. But the question is whether Malzahn can choose a quarterback who can pilot the offense as effectively as Nick Marshall did. When he couldn't last year, Auburn went 2–6 in the SEC.
The Tigers probably need to split their September SEC games because October and November will bring trips to Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama. If this weekend doesn't help explain the coaching critical mass in the SEC West, nothing will.
Stanford at Washington
Pivot point for Washington
The trendy pick in the Pac-12 North would need to get past the winner of three of the past four conference titles to stay on trend. On a Friday night with the nation watching, the Huskies have a chance to do just that. Why did I choose this one instead of Washington's visit to Oregon eight days later? Because even though the Huskies haven't beaten the Ducks since 2003, Stanford feels like the supreme power in the Pac-12 now. Beat the Cardinal, and you've proven you belong in the conference title conversation.
Oklahoma at TCU
Pivot point for both
The Big 12 didn't backload the schedule this season. These two powers will clash in the conference opener for Oklahoma and the second conference game for TCU. By the end of this game, we should know what to expect from the Sooners. Oklahoma will have played Houston, Ohio State and one of the best programs in the Big 12. I'd suggest that how that stretch goes might predict how the Sooner will fare against Texas the following week, but Oklahoma's Red River performances of late have been anything but predictable.
Meanwhile, a win would set up the Horned Frogs for a potentially undefeated Big 12—or overall, depending on what happens against Arkansas—record heading into November.
Tennessee at Georgia
Pivot point for Georgia
The Bulldogs will face either a Tennessee team coming off the high of beating Florida for the first time since 2004 or a desperate Vols team that must win to keep its SEC East title hopes alive. Either way, it should make for fascinating theater. The winner will hold pole position in the SEC East. Unlike former co-worker Jim McElwain, who didn't face high expectations when he took over at Florida, first-year Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart is expected to compete for championships immediately. Otherwise, why did Georgia fire Mark Richt?
Washington State at Stanford
Pivot point game for Stanford
We get to Stanford's third appearance on the list and finally reach the big one for the Cardinal. This choice has more to do with where the game falls on the schedule than any bold prediction about Washington State, which is looking to build on a nine-win 2015 season. At this point, Stanford will have played Kansas State, USC, UCLA and Washington. There's an open date between K-State and USC, but no other team besides Wisconsin—with a Big Ten opening foursome that is the stuff of nightmares—faces such a sustained conference test so early in the season. If the Cardinal can emerge from this stretch undefeated or with only one loss, they absolutely have a chance to repeat in the Pac-12 and a chance to compete for the national title.
Clemson at Florida State
Pivot point for both
Meet the new Alabama-LSU. These programs are going to regularly compete for playoff spots, and their annual matchup should decide the ACC Atlantic Division for the foreseeable future. And yes, it's possible that both these teams could make the playoff this year. But that's not likely, so the better bet is just win the game.
Michigan at Michigan State
Pivot point for Michigan
Michigan outplayed Michigan State for most of the game last season and lost on an all-time gut punch play. That said, the Wolverines still need to prove they can beat the two recent Big Ten champs in their division. Michigan was much closer to Michigan State than it was to Ohio State last year.
Nebraska at Wisconsin
Pivot point for both
We should have a much clearer picture of Mike Riley's tenure at Nebraska by this point. Oregon and Northwestern are the only two opponents before this point that should challenge to the Cornhuskers, and losing both those games wouldn't be the end of the world. But losses to anyone else before the Huskers reach Camp Randall Stadium could signal deeper problems.
The winner of this game isn't necessarily in the driver's seat in the Big Ten West. Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota (owner of the Big Ten's easiest schedule) will have a say in that as well. But the winner will feel very good, and the loser could feel pretty hopeless. Hopefully, Wisconsin will still be upright by this point. The Badgers open with LSU and later have a four-week stretch that includes trips to Michigan State and Michigan, a visit from Ohio State and a trip to Iowa.
Alabama at LSU
Pivot point for both
LSU coach Les Miles survived an attempted coup last season, but a sixth consecutive loss to the Crimson Tide could unravel his support base again. (That alone wouldn't do it, but another loss to Alabama combined with a third consecutive loss to Arkansas or Ole Miss would be bad news.) The good news for LSU is the Tigers competed in each of Alabama's previous trips to Tiger Stadium. A screen pass to T.J. Yeldon—shoutout to former Bama offensive lineman Barrett Jones for suggesting it—capped an all-timer of a drive in 2012. LSU should have been able to run out the clock for the game-winning score in 2014, but an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on lineman Vadal Alexander changed everything and gave Alabama a chance to force overtime and eventually win.
Think about this. If not for the Kick Six, one of the most improbable plays in football history, Alabama probably would have won the past four SEC titles. That run probably has to end at some point, but the Tide might be able to ensure it lasts another year by winning in Baton Rouge for the third consecutive time.
Ohio State at Michigan State
Pivot point for Ohio State
The beauty and curse of Ohio State's schedule this season is that the Buckeyes added an elite out-of-conference opponent (at Oklahoma on Sept. 17) and the season basically still comes down to two games against teams from Michigan. Ohio State, with all its new starters, may not be ready against an Oklahoma team that won the Big 12 and made the playoff last year. But it doesn't really matter if the Buckeyes win that game. It matters if they beat Michigan State and Michigan, because that's how they get back to the Big Ten title game.
A random ranking
Our topic this week comes courtesy of reader Chase, who wants me to rank the various Batmen. My No. 1 should solidify my nerd cred.
1. Kevin Conroy — Batman: The Animated Series*
2. Christian Bale — Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy
3. Michael Keaton — Batman, Batman Returns
4. Ben Affleck — Batman v. Superman
5. Adam West — Pow! Thwap!
6. Will Arnett — The Lego Movie
7. Val Kilmer — Batman Forever
8. George Clooney and his Batnipples — Batman and Robin
*Batman: The Animated Series is the best depiction of the Dark Knight ever committed to video. It has the best Batman (Conroy), the best Joker (Mark Hamill — yes, Luke Skywalker) and the most interesting villains (Harley Quinn, to name one).
1. The NCAA began allowing coaches to retweet and favorite the tweets of recruits at midnight on Monday. While this came with the usual predictions of the "wild, wild west" that seem to accompany any loosening of the NCAA's rules, not much interesting happened in the wee hours. Coaches retweeted players we already knew those coaches were recruiting. Recruits heading into their senior seasons tweeted out the scholarship offer letters coaches were also allowed to begin sending on Monday. That part wasn't new, but before this year, Nebraska coach Mike Riley wouldn't have been allowed to retweet Nebraska tight end commit Austin Allen's tweet of his offer letter.
The rule change is a common-sense response to technology that has changed so fast that the NCAA rules simply can't keep up. Coaches could already communicate all they wanted with recruits via Facebook inbox messages, Twitter direct messages and private Snapchat messages. Behind the scenes, coaches routinely broke the NCAA's rules about publicizing a player's recruitment by tipping off recruiting service writers every time a player committed. This will bring that process out into the open. The reason the NCAA didn't allow coaches to publicize recruitments before is because coaches and ADs worried the wealthiest programs could mount massive media campaigns to get the best recruits. Social media has leveled the playing field on that front.
That doesn't mean coaches can mount a full-scale social media campaign to land a recruit. For example, if a coach publicly likes a Facebook post by a player, that coach is not allowed to place a smiley face or thumbs-up emoji—or anything, really—in the comments under the post. I can't wait for the first school to self-report a secondary violation involving a coach posting an emoji in the wrong place. If there is any justice in this world, it will be the poop emoji.
2. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin suspended offensive line coach Jim Turner and tight ends coach Jeff Banks for two weeks without pay last week for doing something incredibly stupid. The men gave sexist presentations during a "Chalk Talk" event aimed at women. They were trying to be funny, and if their audience had consisted strictly of 14-year-old boys, they would have slayed with this kind of material.
But the audience consisted of about 700 women of varying ages. Some laughed. Others were not amused at all. This is not a case of a person buying a ticket to see a comic who traditionally works blue and then getting upset when the comic drops F-bombs. This was a group that came to cheer its football team and learn something about the game. Part of any public-facing job is understanding your audience, and the Aggies assistants misread theirs.
The punishment is fine, but for Sumlin, this is just one more thing to add to the pile. If Texas A&M wins 10 games, this staff is probably safe. If Texas A&M wins only five games, this staff is probably fired. Where these sort of incidents come back is if the Aggies are sitting at 8–4 or 7–5 after the regular season and first-year athletic director Scott Woodward has to make a choice to keep this group or scrap it and enter the Tom Herman sweepstakes. Aggies staffers don't need to give Woodward any more items to add to the "con" list if he has to weigh keeping or firing this bunch.
Meanwhile, maybe it's time to do away with these women-only "chalk talk" events. Dozens of schools hold them, and all they do is reinforce 1950s stereotypes that don't reflect reality. There are plenty of women who understand football thoroughly and plenty of men who couldn't explain the difference between the guard and the tackle. Maybe make these seminars coed. It might improve the quality of the jokes.
3. Jim Vertuno of The Associated Press has a fascinating/maddening story about how Baylor's mistreatment of sexual assault victims may have been exacerbated by the school's honor code.
4. The College Football Playoff is moving the semifinals to days when most people don't work. Hooray for common sense.
5. The NCAA's Division I Football Oversight Committee has recommended that coaches reduce the number of in-season practices that feature full contact to one a week. This is not a rule change. It's only a recommendation.
If schools voted on such a rule, it's a safe bet it would pass. Most coaches don't use live contact more than one day a week during the season now. Some coaches, fearing injury and depth issues, eliminate live contact practices entirely later in the season.
6. Staffers at The Associated Press have combed through more than 1,100 weekly polls from the past 80 football seasons to rank the top college football programs of all time. That list drops Tuesday. I'm sure no one will take issue with any of the selections. Even if someone did, I'm sure they'll express their displeasure in only the most courteous manner.
7. If you came to this page through a direct link, take a minute to check out the newly redesigned SI.com. We got tired of it crashing our browsers, too. Now it's awesome.
8. Best giveaway ever or greatest giveaway in the history of giveaways?
9. Remember this catch?
The high-schooler who made it will announce his college choice on Monday night. Marco Wilson, a cornerback from American Heritage High in Plantantion, Fla.,
will declare his college choice Monday at 8 p.m. ET on father Chad Wilson's Gridiron Studs radio show. Marco, the brother of Florida cornerback Quincy Wilson, will choose from a list that includes Ohio State, Florida, Miami, USC and Georgia.
10. It's great to have friends…
What's eating Andy?
I stayed up until 2 a.m. eastern time waiting, but it didn't happen. Even though the NCAA has made it permissible, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder— who has a Twitter account—didn't retweet any recruits. When I expressed my displeasure at Snyder's lack of thumb-generated activity, Brandon Marcello of 247Sports.com offered a potential and totally believable reason.
But he's probably authoring a beautiful handwritten note right now to drop in the mail first thing in the morning.— Brandon Marcello (@bmarcello) August 1, 2016
What's Andy eating?
With what little voice I had left, I listed my symptoms to my wife over the phone. It was only a nasty cold, so it wasn't a big deal medically. But I felt awful, and I needed to pick myself up and get to work. SI had sent me to Phoenix in early May to cover the Big 12/Pac-12 spring meetings, and I couldn't waste a day being sick. Complicating matters was a pledge I'd made to myself to eat a little healthier. I was trying, at least for a little while, to cut out processed sugar and flour. I hoped I could limit myself to meat, fruit and vegetables for a few weeks and shed some pounds. My wife offered a treatment that I'm guessing wasn't covered when she was in Physician Assistant school.
"You need pancakes," she said.
For a few meals, she said, I should embrace the carbohydrates I'd been trying to ignore. Unless I went on an epic binge, my body would use those calories to fight the cold. So I wandered out of my hotel and looked down at my phone. There was a breakfast place in the shopping center next door. Hopefully, it would have pancakes.
Oh, it absolutely had pancakes.
Snooze calls itself an A.M. eatery. That's probably the correct amount of churching up for a place that serves elevated versions of diner breakfast staples. It started in Denver and has expanded to Southern California, metro Phoenix and Austin. A Houston location will open soon.
I can't speak to the omelets or the multitude of eggs Benedict variations, but I can heartily endorse the pancakes. That's all I wanted that day, and Snooze went above and beyond. The bartender, who apparently makes a lot of Bloody Marys, kept my coffee cup full through two separate pancake orders. I thought all I would need were the Blueberry Danish Pancakes. These are buttermilk cakes drizzled with pureed blueberries and sweet cream and dusted with almond streusel. This sent my simple carbohydrate deprived system into nirvana, and the dollop of lemon cream in the middle of each cake offered a tart, rich balance to all the sugar. I devoured these, and I instantly felt better.
I probably could have stopped there, but something else on the menu had caught my attention. The pancake of the day was Cinnamon Roll, and I wasn't leaving without ordering it.
It was a giant buttermilk pancake topped with syrup, cream cheese frosting, pecans and powdered sugar. In the middle sat a small ball of maple butter. It was a calorie bomb packed with sugar and the worst kind of carbs, and it was exactly what I needed.
So thank you, Snooze. You haven't found the cure for the common cold, but you may have developed the most effective treatment yet.