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  • In addition to huge games like Alabama-LSU and Clemson-Florida State, matchups like Utah-USC and Georgia-Notre Dame could define the 2017 college football season.
By Andy Staples
May 22, 2017

With the NCAA’s cases against Louisville, North Carolina and Ole Miss likely to yield news in the next few months, this space could get a little wonky. So let’s cleanse the palate today with a discussion of actual football.

We still have to wait three months before we can see one team play another, but it’s never too early to try to dissect the matchups. So for the fourth consecutive year, we’ll examine the Pivot Point games for teams across America.

What’s a Pivot Point game? It’s the game upon which a team’s season might turn. It isn’t necessarily a team’s biggest game. It might be an early-season matchup that predicts the future. (Think the Texas loss to Cal last September.) It might be an odd spot in the schedule. (Think Alabama playing at a fresh-off-an-open-date South Carolina at the end of a tough stretch in 2010.) Or it might simply be the most important game on the schedule. (Think LSU-Alabama or Clemson-Florida State in most recent years.)

No matter the reason for the Pivot Point, circling a few dates on the calendar will help us pass the time before the games begin…

Sept. 9

Oklahoma at Ohio State
Pivot point game for: Oklahoma, the Big 12 and Ohio State

The Big 12 has been left out of the College Football Playoff in two of its first three years. To buck that trend, the league’s best teams have got to win some marquee out-of-conference games. They don’t get much more marquee than this. The Sooners, who won the Big 12 but got whipped by Houston and Ohio State in their out-of-conference schedule in 2016, have a chance to put themselves and the league in a more comfortable position. But to do that, they’ll have to stop an offense that should be quite a bit better than the one that dominated their defense in Norman last season. Why? Former Oklahoma offensive coordinator (and Indiana head coach) Kevin Wilson is calling the plays in Columbus now. For the Buckeyes, this game could ease any lingering fears about the offense created by the shutout loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. Urban Meyer ran off co-coordinators Tim Beck and Ed Warinner and brought in Wilson to keep that from ever happening again, and an impressive display against the Big 12 favorite would help the Buckeyes’ confidence on that side of the ball.

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Georgia at Notre Dame
Pivot point for: Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish will have had a chance to work out any kinks with their new offense and defense in the season-opener against Temple. Against the Bulldogs, Notre Dame can either leave behind the specter of a 4–8 2016 season or stoke fear of another collapse. A win or a close loss against Georgia should offer confidence that the Irish can compete with any team on the schedule. A blowout loss could foreshadow more ugliness. The back half of Notre Dame’s schedule is especially tough. It begins with a post-bye week visit from USC and also features visits from NC State and Navy. The Irish also have to play at Miami and Stanford during that slog. We should have a better idea how Notre Dame will fare during that stretch after seeing the Irish against Georgia.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Sept. 16

Tennessee at Florida
Pivot point for: Tennessee

It’s impossible to pinpoint a pivot point game for Florida because it’s impossible to know what the Gators will be. If the offense improves and the defense reloads, they could win a third consecutive SEC East title. But if a talent drain finally catches up with the defense and the offense remains in the 100s nationally, the season could get ugly. Tennessee’s situation is a little more clear. At the very least, the Volunteers need to compete for the East title deep into November—if not win it outright—to soothe a fan base tired of hearing about five-star hearts who become Champions of Life. The Vols broke an 11-game losing streak against the Gators last year, and a win in Gainesville could provide a launchpad for a run at the division title. A loss would crank up the heat on Tennessee coach Butch Jones and turn the Sept. 30 matchup against Georgia into a must-win.

Sept. 30

Georgia at Tennessee
Pivot point for: Georgia

The Bulldogs’ September could set them up for the kind of success Kirby Smart was hired to bring to Athens. Or it could put Georgia in a hole. We’ve already discussed the Notre Dame game, and we probably should have mentioned that a visit from Appalachian State precedes that. (Ask the Volunteers how season openers against Scott Satterfield’s Mountaineers go.) The Bulldogs open SEC play on Sept. 23 with a visit from Mississippi State, which could be the SEC West’s surprise team thanks to quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (a Richmond Hill, Ga., native). After that, Georgia heads to Knoxville for a game that should help define the SEC East title race. The Vols play at Florida on Sept. 16, but they get to recharge against UMass before facing Georgia.

Oct. 5

Louisville at NC State
Pivot point for: Both

If someone is going to challenge Clemson and Florida State for the ACC Atlantic title, it likely will be the winner of this Thursday showcase. Lamar Jackson destroyed the Wolfpack defense as Louisville built a 44-point halftime lead en route to a 54–13 win last season, but Jackson should find a far less hospitable atmosphere—and defense—in Raleigh this season.

Oct. 14

Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas
Pivot point for: Texas

Oklahoma has been the far better program recently, but this rivalry has remained hot on the field. The teams have split the past four meetings, and Oklahoma’s two wins in that span have only been by five points apiece. If Tom Herman can make Texas better in all the other games, then the Longhorns should remain competitive in this one. The recent sniping at Texas on Twitter by Oklahoma assistants suggests Herman has gotten under the Sooners’ skin on the recruiting trail. But he’ll need to do the same thing on the field for Texas to be considered a real threat to Oklahoma’s dominance of the league.

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Texas A&M at Florida
Pivot point for: Texas A&M

Florida will be finishing a stretch of four consecutive SEC games. So will Texas A&M. The Gators will have just played LSU at home. The Aggies will have just played Alabama at home. Regardless of the result of either of those games, each team will be beat up. Just looking at the schedule, it feels as if whichever team ends this game with the most players upright will win. If Texas A&M is coming off a loss to Alabama, the Aggies will need this one. A loss here means Texas A&M would have to go 3–1 or better against Mississippi State and Auburn at Kyle Field and against Ole Miss and LSU on the road to avoid going 4–4 or worse in SEC play for the fifth consecutive season. Aggies boosters did not pay all that money to revamp the facilities and expand the stadium for the team to be an average member of the SEC.

Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

Utah at USC
Pivot point for: USC

We keep hyping the Trojans without considering that a factor outside of their control could have a significant impact on their season. Because the Notre Dame game had to be slotted on Oct. 21, USC doesn’t get a bye week this regular season. (If the Trojans win the Pac-12 South Division, this could turn into an advantage by providing a bye week before the Pac-12 title game.) Twelve games in row is a rough march, especially when the most physical opponent in the division comes to town smack in the middle of that stretch. Two years ago, USC effectively ended Utah’s conference title hopes by throttling the Utes at the Coliseum. This time, the Utes could come to Los Angeles as the spoiler instead of the favorite.

Oct. 21

Michigan at Penn State
Pivot point for: Both

The loser of this game last year won the conference, but that required an unusual confluence of circumstances. For Penn State to defend its title, it probably needs at least a split between this game and its game at Ohio State the following Saturday. On paper, this feels like the easier of the two. Michigan, meanwhile, has November matchups with Wisconsin and Ohio State. A loss at this juncture could cripple the Wolverines’ Big Ten title hopes.

Oct. 28

Oklahoma State at West Virginia
Pivot point for: Both

This game might ultimately decide one half of the matchup in the first Big 12 title game since ’11. Oklahoma State played for the Big 12 title last year in Bedlam, and Bedlam may once again match the league’s two best teams. As long as the Cowboys take care of business the rest of the way, they might see the Sooners twice. (It won’t be two weeks in a row because the Big 12 moved Bedlam to Nov. 4.) But West Virginia is a potential dark horse challenger in the Big 12 this year, and Oklahoma State’s trip to Morgantown falls between a visit to Texas and an early Bedlam in Stillwater.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Nov. 4

LSU at Alabama
Pivot point for: Both

We should have a pretty good feel for how Ed Orgeron’s LSU team plays by this point. The Tigers’ three-game October stretch against Florida (away), Auburn (home) and Ole Miss (away) should indicate whether Matt Canada’s new offense has finally unlocked all LSU’s playmakers. But this is the game Orgeron was hired to win. A seventh consecutive loss to the Crimson Tide—especially if the final score looks like the ones from Les Miles’s last two trips to Tuscaloosa—would end the honeymoon for Coach O. But a win? That would change everything. The Crimson Tide’s toughest game in the regular season might be the season opener against Florida State in Atlanta. But LSU will be the most athletic team Alabama faces in conference play, and it might be the Tide’s only true test between the Seminoles and the Iron Bowl.

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Nov. 10

Washington at Stanford
Pivot point for: Both

Washington’s defense of its Pac-12 title doesn’t include a regular-season matchup with USC, the only conference foe to beat the Huskies last year, but it does feature an uncomfortable cluster of late-season games against division rivals. Six days after Washington faces Oregon in Seattle in a game that can now be considered a rivalry again after the Huskies broke through last season, Chris Petersen’s team visits Stanford. It’s critical to come out of Palo Alto with a win because it’s a division game, but it’s also critical because the last Pac-12 opponent anyone wants to face after getting leaned on by all of Stanford’s beef is Utah. Guess who the Huskies face Nov. 18? Yep. It’s the Utes.

Nov. 11

Florida State at Clemson
Pivot point for: Both

The Seminoles face Alabama, NC State and Miami in the first four weeks, so they’ll be thoroughly tested early. Their rematch against Louisville, which crushed them last year, is Oct. 21 in Tallahassee. But the November trip to Death Valley should still decide the ACC Atlantic Division and might give the winner an inside track on a playoff berth. Clemson will have had plenty of time to figure out its quarterback situation by this point. If this one matches the drama of last year’s meeting in Tallahassee, it will be a classic.

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A random ranking

The kids have been watching a lot of All Hail King Julien lately. For those who don’t have tiny humans running about underfoot, King Julien is a spin-off of the Madagascar franchise that follows the lemurs. It is devilishly funny and better than most of the cartoons we had growing up. And it may not even be the best Madagascar spinoff. The Penguins of Madagascar might be even better. That got me thinking about spinoffs in general, and the result is the top 10 spinoffs of all time. No, Three’s A Crowd did not make the list.

1. The Simpsons (The Tracey Ullman Show)

2. Better Call Saul (Breaking Bad)

3. The Jeffersons (All In The Family)

4. Gomer Pyle, USMC (The Andy Griffith Show)

5. Laverne and Shirley (Happy Days)

6. Pinky And The Brain (Animaniacs)

7. Frasier (Cheers)

8. The Facts of Life (Diff’rent Strokes)

9. A Different World (The Cosby Show)

10. Daria (Beavis and Butthead)

First-and-10

1. I explained the NCAA’s quandary in the Baylor case last week.

2. Pretty much every coach is behind the American Football Coaches Association’s suggestion to allow freshmen to play four games and still redshirt. If you read this from me in December, you know I’m all for this.

3. Former Oregon tailback Thomas Tyner, who retired from football because of shoulder injuries, plans to unretire and return to the game—as an Oregon State Beaver.

4. Former Penn State linebacker Nyeem Wartman is suing an insurance company in an attempt to get a payout on a policy he took out prior to the 2016 season.

5. Forget barber chairs. Georgia has a DJ booth in its locker room.

6. Elsewhere in the SEC East, Florida receiver Antonio Callaway was cited last week for possession of marijuana. Even more interesting was the person in the vehicle with Callaway—a 40-year-old Gainesville man with a long rap sheet and no obvious connection to Callaway or the football program.

7. Former South Carolina quarterback Brandon McIllwain has decided to transfer to Cal. McIllwain started three games as a true freshman in ’16 but was ultimately usurped by fellow freshman Jake Bentley. McIllwain plans to play football and baseball in Berkeley.

8. Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith sang Michigan’s fight song at a concert—in Columbus, Ohio. Now that’s punk rock.

9. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen has a West Virginia-shaped rock sculpture in his back yard.

Four hours prior to the posting of this photo, Pardon My Take cohost PFT Commenter posted this. Coincidence?

10. Congratulations to former Florida State safety and Rhodes Scholar Myron Rolle. He’s now Dr. Rolle.

What’s eating Andy?

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora is my hero. Why? Because he can eat this…

… and look like this.

I’ll be posting pictures of my own barbecue six-pack just as soon as I get one.

What’s Andy eating?

I knew it would be too much food, but I ordered it anyway. The idea of chicken (cold) smoked first and (hot) fried second appealed too much to taste buds trained to love the smoked and the fried. Smoked then fried? I needed to taste that, even if the dish only came as a whole chicken covered in crispy waffles. So much comfort food seemed bound to cause discomfort, but I had to know how this concoction tasted.

Fortunately—or rather unfortunately—the pair that sat next to me at the bar at New York’s Pig Bleecker needed some comforting. One had been passed over for a promotion she’d expected to get. Her co-worker had taken her out to blow off steam. They were meeting more friends later, but the occasion called for alcohol immediately. They only came for a few drinks, but I needed help and conscripted them into my saturated fat brigade.

Andy Staples

A fried chicken dinner needs to be shared. Whether from a paper bucket or from a bowl that perfectly matches the decor, it is a social experience. The ritual of you-get-a-leg-I-get-a-thigh soothes. It satisfies. And when the chicken is smoked first? Wow.

At first bite, the smoke isn’t apparent. The crispy, juicy skin crackles like the skin of any good bespoke fried chicken. The smoke peeks through just after the teeth sink into the meat. As the juices flow, they deliver the usual savory blast of grease. Then the smoke hits. The signature flavor of the pit marries the signature flavor of the fryer, and the union is blessed. Put a bite of waffle underneath and a few drops of the house hot sauce (think an angrier Cholula) on top and every care disappears. Follow that with a bite of cheesy grits, and day-to-day problems simply melt away.

Andy Staples

Even before that beautiful chicken arrived, Pig Bleecker had already removed the edge from the day. I had ordered the Pigs in Parker House Rolls appetizer with some trepidation because Pigs in a Blanket almost always let me down. The puff pastry that surrounds the average blanketed pig gets too crispy, and what seems like the ultimate finger food in theory turns into a crunchy mess in practice. But the pieces of Parker House Rolls used by Pig Bleecker stand up to heat and meat better than puff pastry. If the puff pastry is Linus’s threadbare blanket, the rolls are a luxurious down comforter in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton. This was yet another reason I knew the chicken dish would be too much for me; once I tasted one pig in his blanket, I devoured the rest on the plate.

Andy Staples

Fortunately, I did save some of my pecan candied bacon appetizer for my new friends. But even though bacon makes everything better, the real comfort came from that chicken.

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