The Most Dangerous Potential Trap Games Looming for 2018's Top Teams

In this week's mailbag, an early look at the upset threats lurking in unexpected spots for several conference title favorites, plus an update on the advances in player tracking technology and a defense of Campfire Sauce.
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We’ve examined quite a few off-the-field issues in the past week. But you have questions about actual football games, and I’m happy to answer…

From Nick: What is the biggest 'trap' game you see for the assumed top-10 teams?

This is a great question, because a trap game is a losable game that doesn’t—on its surface—look losable when the schedule gets released, but there are potential extenuating circumstances that could make the game very difficult once it’s time to actually play. Auburn-Washington isn’t a trap game because both teams agree on the stakes, and everyone has had it circled for months. Ditto for Michigan–Notre Dame. 

The classic example of a trap game is the 2010 Alabama–South Carolina game. The Crimson Tide were favorites to repeat as national champs. They had a returning Heisman Trophy winner (Mark Ingram). But South Carolina had just enough talent to be dangerous, and the schedule pushed every intangible in South Carolina’s direction. Alabama had just played on the road against an Arkansas team that would finish 10–3 and then at home against Florida in a rematch of the past two SEC title games. South Carolina, which would go on to win the SEC East that season, was coming off an open date after losing a heartbreaker at eventual national champ Auburn. This would be a theme for that Alabama team. This game was the first of five consecutive games—all in conference—against teams coming off open dates. (LSU is one of these, but both teams were coming off an open date.)

Some of this year’s predicted best teams don’t have any obvious trap games. Alabama’s schedule appears to space out nicely. Ohio State plays some difficult games, but there is no obvious potential letdown point that jumps off the page.

Clemson has gotten trapped in each of the past two seasons. In 2016, Pittsburgh beat the Tigers at home two months before they won the national title. Last year, eventual ACC champ and playoff No. 1 seed Clemson sleepwalked to a loss at Syracuse on a Friday night in October. It only makes sense that we should try to spot the random ACC loss for the Tigers. I can’t list NC State as a trap game, because the Wolfpack have played Clemson so well the past two seasons that I wouldn’t be overly shocked if Clemson lost. So let’s go with a trip to Boston College on Nov. 10. This could be Steve Addazio’s best team at BC, and tailback A.J. Dillon is a grown man. Plus, that environment tends to make opponents drowsy—especially when those opponents are accustomed to every game sounding like a rock concert.

Wisconsin has a much more difficult Big Ten schedule draw than last year. The Badgers will play at Michigan and at Penn State. But those aren’t trap games. Everyone knows those are losable. The Oct. 27 visit to Northwestern—sandwiched between ho-hum home games against Illinois and Rutgers—is the type of game where a team can get caught napping.

In the SEC, everyone seems to be penciling in a Georgia win at LSU on Oct. 13. This seems awfully presumptuous. LSU took out Auburn in Tiger Stadium last year and always seems to give Alabama a game—no matter how different the teams may be at the time—in Baton Rouge. That I’m calling this a trap game says a whole lot more about where the perception of LSU is right now than it does about Georgia. But with LSU playing Miami and Auburn early, the perception of the Tigers could change plenty before the week of that game rolls around.

In the Big 12, Oklahoma will be on high alert for visits from Florida Atlantic and UCLA early. But I’m wondering if the Sooners will be awake when they face Baylor on Sept. 29. (I would say watch out for the trip to Ames on Sept. 15, but Oklahoma won’t be overlooking Iowa State after losing to the Cyclones last year. Also, Iowa State might be good enough this year to not be a trap game for anyone.) The Bears sliced and diced Oklahoma’s defense last year in Waco, and that was before Baylor really got its personnel figured out. This game comes a week before Oklahoma’s showdown with Texas in Dallas, so it might be easier to overlook.

Out west, defending Pac-12 champ USC might have the same trap game opponent this year as last year. In 2017, the Trojans got trapped playing in Pullman, Wash., on a Friday night after playing at Cal the previous Saturday. The league has done away with weeknight road games following a Saturday road game, but USC will be playing Washington State again on a Friday night (only at home this time) following a road game (at Texas). USC will pour an awful lot into road games against Stanford and Texas. What will be left in the tank when the Cougars come to town?

From Barbara (via text): I’ve read about these GPS systems teams are using. Could you explain how they work and how teams utilize the data?

These seemed much more futuristic before everyone started wearing FitBits and Apple watches, but they do offer a treasure trove of data that coaches and medical trainers can use to run a safer, more efficient practice. Basically, a player wears a GPS tracker—in the story I linked above, Vanderbilt placed them in the shoulder pads of players—to determine speed and exertion throughout practice.

There are obvious benefits such as figuring out which players move the fastest over the longest period of work. But coaches also can use this data to see when entire groups of players are working the hardest and when they’re working the least. They can compare data from crisp practices and from practices they deemed sloppy to see if the way practice is organized can be changed to produce more of the crisp ones.

Meanwhile, if an individual player is struggling with speed or endurance compared to his data from previous practices, the medical staff can pull him aside and check to see if there is an injury he’s either hiding or doesn’t realize is hampering him. Then his workload can be adjusted accordingly to help get him back to full strength. There are so many good uses for this data, and I’m glad football programs are studying it.

From Ben: HOW could you write an article that mentions a vile concoction made from barbecue sauce...and the substance that tastes like despair feels (aka mayonnaise)? Couldn’t you have edited that part out?

Ben is referring to my inclusion of the barbecue sauce-mayonnaise mix that Red Robin calls Campfire Sauce in my story on Wisconsin’s offensive line. Ben is an avid reader, so he knows my feelings on barbecue sauce (unnecessary if the meat is cooked properly) and mayo (he quoted one of my pet sayings in his question). So why is it in there? Because it’s the linemen’s story. It’s not my story. And they love Campfire Sauce—though right tackle David Edwards admits he was a tad skeptical at first.

Plus—and I’m ashamed to admit this—a light coating on a fry isn’t half bad.