We spend most of the offseason focusing on early non-conference games for obvious reasons. The games are played in the first few weeks, and the matchups don’t always happen every year. But those early games rarely are the ones upon which entire seasons turn.
The true pivot point games tend to happen in conference play, but they aren’t always rivalry games. Sometimes they’re a matchup of a league’s—or of a division’s—two best teams. Or sometimes they’re key divisional matchups made more pivotal by where they fall on the calendar. Today, we’ll examine some of the games that will define the 2018 season ...
Georgia at South Carolina
Pivot point for: Both
This game has been a trendy upset pick for so long that there is absolutely zero chance the Bulldogs overlook the Gamecocks. But there is ample reason to worry about this one for Georgia. The Bulldogs have recruited so well in the past two classes that by the end of the season, this roster should have jelled completely. In Week 2? It’s still possible Georgia is still trying to figure out how to replace the tangible and intangible benefits that Sony Michel, Nick Chubb, Roquan Smith, Isaiah Wynn, Davin Bellamy, Lorenzo Carter, Jeb Blazevich and John Atkins provided. This team is stacked but lost a lot of veteran leadership, so the question is how quickly do the new leaders emerge? They may already be in place. Quarterback Jake Fromm, tight end Isaac Nauta and defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter played major parts on a team that won the SEC and came within a play of winning the national title. Even Georgia’s role players from last year—who are now becoming starters—have played in huge spots. The visit to Williams-Brice Stadium will show exactly how far along Georgia is in the process of turning its collection of athletes into a team that can compete for a second consecutive SEC title.
For South Carolina, a win would be massive. Georgia is the runaway favorite in the SEC East, and a win would put the Gamecocks in the driver’s seat in the division. (They would then have to figure out how to stop losing to Kentucky, which has beaten them four consecutive seasons.) Former Georgia teammates—and former Nick Saban defensive coordinators—Will Muschamp and Kirby Smart share plenty of football DNA. Neither should be able to surprise the other. The question is whether the Gamecocks can overcome a talent gap. That gap could narrow a bit if receiver Deebo Samuel is fully recovered from the broken leg that cost him most of last season. Samuel is the kind of difference-maker Georgia has in abundance, and he can turn a game.
LSU at Auburn
Pivot point for: Both
Auburn’s second-half collapse against LSU last season was one of 2017’s most head-scratching results. The reasons make sense. LSU moved one more defender into the box in the second half and after second-and-two suddenly became second-and-eight, Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey—who would grow much more comfortable with quarterback Jarrett Stidham as the season progressed—fell into a playcalling rut. But given the way the teams played the remainder of the season, the result still feels like an anomaly. This year, both teams open with tough out-of-conference opponents at neutral sites (Miami for LSU in Arlington, Texas, and Washington for Auburn in Atlanta). If both teams win those games, the pucker factor won’t be nearly as high when they meet on the Plains in Week 3. A loss for either team in the opener will turn this one into a referendum game.
For Auburn, a win would keep the defending SEC West champ moving toward another massive-stakes Iron Bowl. For LSU, a win might change the Ed-Orgeron-is-on-the-hot-seat narrative that has grown popular but makes little sense unless this season is an utter disaster. (It’s more likely athletic director Joe Alleva is on the hot seat and Orgeron gets a chance to recruit LSU back to where the Tigers want to be no matter what happens this season.) Going 2–0 against Auburn would reframe Orgeron’s tenure on the fly.
Wisconsin at Iowa
Pivot point for: Both
While Northwestern remains formidable and Nebraska should get better under Scott Frost, this game could very well decide the Big Ten West. Wisconsin’s defense was the star in a 38–14 win last November, holding Iowa to a pathetic 1.3 yards per play. The Hawkeyes’ only points came from returning Alex Hornibrook interceptions for touchdowns.
The Badgers are replacing a lot on that defense, and while history tells us Wisconsin will still be good on that side of the ball, Iowa may be able to catch the Badgers adjusting to some growing pains thanks to this game’s early date. Wisconsin’s offense is a changeup for most opponents, but Iowa sees something similar in practice every day. The Hawkeyes may be better prepared than anyone to slow an offense capable of moving the ball with maddening efficiency.
Ohio State at Penn State
Pivot point for: Both
The Urban Meyer situation remains unresolved, and we don’t yet know how (or if) it will affect the Buckeyes this season. But we do know that no matter what happens, Ohio State has the best collection of pure talent in the Big Ten. So regardless of the outcome of Ohio State’s investigation into Meyer, this might be the first true playoff elimination game this season.
Last year, J.T. Barrett played perhaps his best collegiate quarter to lead Ohio State back from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to a 39–38 win. The Buckeyes’ offense will look different with Dwayne Haskins at the helm, but it probably won’t be any easier for the Nittany Lions to stop. Haskins should allow Ohio State’s offense to threaten defenses more vertically, but he isn’t as good of a runner as Barrett. That also might not be a negative, because it could keep the Buckeyes from over-relying on the quarterback run game and keep tailbacks J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber involved.
For Penn State, the key will be blocking Ohio State’s freakish defensive line. Protection broke down last season in Columbus when the Nittany Lions needed just two more points. Trace McSorley’s ability to move in the pocket and keep plays alive means Penn State’s line doesn’t have to play a perfect game to win—only a near-perfect one. Don’t be shocked either if this game turns on a special teams play like Penn State’s last win against the Buckeyes in State College.
Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas
Pivot point for: Both
They’re quietly optimistic in Austin right now, but coach Tom Herman and company have been quick to slap down any Texas-is-back talk because, let’s face it, the only way anyone will believe it at this point is if the Longhorns prove that on the field. Oklahoma, meanwhile, will start this season as the favorite in the Big 12 but still must answer some critical questions. How will Kyler Murray, who is likely playing his only season as the Sooners’ starting quarterback, fare as the replacement for 2017 Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield? Also, if Oklahoma’s offense can’t quite match its production with Mayfield, can the defense pick up the slack?
Both teams will have been challenged—and possibly exposed—by this point. Texas opens against Maryland in Landover, Md., and gets a visit from USC on Sept. 15. Then the Longhorns face TCU, which has won four consecutive meetings, before a trip to Kansas State. Oklahoma, meanwhile, will open against a Florida Atlantic team that should punch above its weight class. That’s followed by a visit from Chip Kelly and UCLA and then a trip to Iowa State to face the only team that beat Oklahoma in Big 12 play last year.
Though Oklahoma has dominated the Big 12 of late, it hasn’t exactly dominated Texas. Mack Brown coached the Longhorns the last time this game was decided by more than one possession. A win here would be a massive relief for the Sooners. For Texas, a win might be a springboard into Big 12 contention.
Florida State at Miami
Pivot point for: Both
Miami finally broke a seven-game losing streak against the Seminoles with a 24–20 win last season in Tallahassee. But let’s consider the circumstances of that win. Miami won on a touchdown pass with six seconds remaining against a Florida State team having its worst season in years with a true freshman quarterback (who wasn’t supposed to even play last season) starting his third game. That’s not exactly a resounding statement that the rivalry has flipped.
Miami will be at home this time, and the Hurricanes should be better after spending much of last season learning what it’s like to be a contender. But Florida State can’t help but be better than that October day in Tallahassee last year. This one is big for all the usual reasons—in-state recruiting, pride—but it also could allow first-year coach Willie Taggart and the Seminoles to serve notice that last season was a blip and not the start of a trend. Or it could allow the Hurricanes to reclaim dominance in the Sunshine State and show that they intend to be a force in the ACC on a consistent basis.
Michigan at Michigan State
Pivot point for: Both
A week before the Wolverines face the Spartans in East Lansing, they face Wisconsin in Ann Arbor. That game could go either way, and a win against one of the nation’s steadiest programs would provide a huge confidence boost. But the truth is that Michigan can lose that game and probably get another crack at the Badgers by taking care of business in the Big Ten East. Jim Harbaugh’s 0–3 record against Ohio State is a huge source of angst, but his 1–2 record against Michigan State is a close second. A win here eases that pressure, and then Michigan gets an open date before Penn State comes to the Big House. A loss at Spartan Stadium, however, will produce a week of howling before a must-win game against the Nittany Lions.
The Spartans’ 14–10 win last season in Ann Arbor announced to the Big Ten that Michigan State had bounced back from a horrible 2016. It felt as if Sparty arrived a year earlier than expected, and that ratcheted up expectations for this season. It may feel like there’s more pressure on Michigan because of Harbaugh’s record against the Wolverines’ rivals, but Michigan State needs to hold serve at home. This will be especially true if Michigan State loses a week earlier at Penn State. A loss in State College could turn this into a Big Ten East elimination game for the Spartans, and that could make them desperate and dangerous.
USC at Utah
Pivot point for: Both
The Utes have yet to break through since joining the Pac-12, but the South division is more wide-open this season than at any point in Utah’s tenure there. After having nine offensive coordinators in 10 years, OC Troy Taylor’s return for a second season should provide some much-needed continuity. If quarterback Tyler Huntley can stay healthy, Utah should finally have the skill talent to complement its typically formidable group along both lines of scrimmage. Meanwhile, Utah’s bulk up front should provide a true test as to whether USC is truly deeper than last year—especially along the defensive line.
Utah, which drew the brutal North division quartet of Washington, Washington State, Stanford and Oregon, will already have faced the Washington teams and the Cardinal. The Utes also will have just finished chasing Arizona’s Khalil Tate. USC, meanwhile, will have already faced Stanford, Texas, Washington State and Arizona. The winner may be able to take control in the South.
Clemson at Florida State
Pivot point for: Clemson
Even though Clemson has clearly surpassed Florida State as a program, the Tigers haven’t made the gap look all that wide on the field. Even the struggling 2017 Seminoles kept things close into the fourth quarter in Death Valley. When I examined potential trap games last week, I guessed at Boston College as a potential candidate for the Pittsburgh/Syracuse random loss in ACC play. But the truth is the team on Clemson’s schedule with the best chance of beating the Tigers every year is Florida State. The last time this game wasn’t close in the fourth quarter was 2013, when the eventual national champion Seminoles crushed Clemson in Death Valley. Clemson, despite winning the past three meetings, has yet to return the favor on that scale. If Florida State bounces back, this could be a must-win for Clemson to reach its goals.
Alabama at LSU
Pivot point for: Alabama
I listed Georgia’s visit to LSU as a potential trap game last week because it’s tough to imagine anyone penciling a visit to Baton Rouge as a win (even though that seems to be what everyone is doing with that Georgia game). Alabama players and coaches will never get caught assuming they’ll win in Tiger Stadium. The Tigers have simply played them too tough there through the years. Two years ago, it took a Jalen Hurts touchdown run to finally allow Alabama to breathe. Four years ago, the Crimson Tide needed a dumb penalty from LSU and a pass to a tackle moonlighting as a tight end in overtime. Six years ago, Alabama needed that beautiful screen to T.J. Yeldon in the closing moments. LSU hasn’t beaten Alabama since November 2011, but the Tigers have always made it an adventure in Baton Rouge.
Stanford at Washington
Pivot point for: Both
This didn’t require a lot of advanced thought. Stanford’s win in this game decided the Pac-12 North race last season, and Washington’s blowout win two years ago served notice to the rest of the league that the playoff-bound Huskies would be a force in the conference under Chris Petersen. Oregon seems to be on track to get back in the division title mix, but the Ducks may still be a season away. Stanford has one more season of tailback Bryce Love and Washington has one more season of quarterback Jake Browning. Both teams should have excellent offensive lines, and both should enter this game with an eye on the North title, the league title and, if all goes well in the non-conference, the playoff.
West Virginia at Texas
Pivot point for: West Virginia
If the Mountaineers plan to truly contend for the Big 12 title, they’ll have to finish a rough four-game November gauntlet in second place in the league standings or better. The visit to the Longhorns kicks off a stretch that also includes games against TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. A loss to Texas probably means that West Virginia has to win the other three, and that’s a big ask for any team.
A Random Ranking
Watching Ready Player One recently, it occurred to me that I had yet to rank the best Steven Spielberg-directed movies* in this space. That oversight gets corrected today.
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark
4. Schindler’s List
5. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
6. Saving Private Ryan
7. Jurassic Park
8. Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom
9. War Horse
*We’re sticking with movies Spielberg directed, because the bench gets even deeper if we add movies he either wrote or produced. If we did that, we’d have to figure out where to slot The Goonies.
Three And Out
1. The ESPN story on the culture at Maryland and how it relates to the incident that resulted in the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair is a tough read, and it generate a lot of even tougher questions for everyone in charge of the program. With multiple staffers—including head coach D.J. Durkin—now on administrative leave, we’ll have to see how forthcoming the school is willing to be about what went on in the program and, more importantly, about what happened on the day McNair was transported to the hospital.
2. Doug Lemerises of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer wrote a great column over the weekend about how a discussion of a very serious issue has devolved into a soap opera as people try to fill an information vacuum as the Ohio State investigation continues. The college football story is about what Urban Meyer and Gene Smith knew and did in relation to allegations of abuse against then-receivers coach Zach Smith. The college football story is about whether those people in power handled those allegations properly. The latest twists and turns of the Smith family drama right now aren’t going to change what happened in 2015.
3. In actual football news, receiver Demetris Robertson was ruled eligible to play this season at Georgia. Robertson, who is from Savannah, Ga., spent his first two seasons at Cal.
What’s Eating Andy?
Whenever we get into the discussion about what kind of words and phrases coaches should use to motivate players, I always think of it the same way. The line is not as fine as some people make it out to be. It’s pretty bright, in fact. Yell all you want. Cuss all you want. But keep the criticism about the issue at hand.
It’s almost exactly like an argument with a significant other or the disciplining of a child. The moment someone gets off topic and makes it personal, the line has been crossed. Terrible things usually happen after that point.
While the conversation about how hard to physically push athletes is far more complex, the conversation about how to verbally push them isn’t. Follow this simple rule, and your culture probably isn’t going to be called toxic.
What’s Andy Eating?
Usually, the best food at the beach isn’t on the beach. The places with the million-dollar views need to pay for those views, and the quickest way to do that is the following:
• Serve food that tastes like it was bought at the local wholesale club and microwaved. (It tastes like this because this is probably exactly what happened—only replace “wholesale club” with “massive food service company” because that pushes the profit margin even higher.)
• Serve expensive mixed drinks that contain mostly sugar and as little alcohol as possible.
The good news is that crossing a bridge can typically lower the price and raise the quality. That happened this past weekend during a trip to Daytona Beach. That city has done a wonderful job creating a walkable entertainment hub on the beach, but diners tend to be trapped in Chain Hell. So we drove a few miles north to Ormond Beach and headed about mile west across the Halifax River and found Grind Gastropub. The folks at Grind are smart. They aren’t on the water, but they’re close enough to get those ocean breezes. So they’ve made a massive tiki bar on a patio surrounded by trees. You feel the breeze. You hear the palm fronds tickling one another. All that’s missing is water, and you’ll be happy to trade that for jalapeño tequila and pork wings.
What’s a pork wing? It’s an item popping up on menus around the country that should become one of the nation’s go-to appetizers soon. Basically, these are mini pork shanks that can be eaten like a pig-flavored lollipop. The ones we ate at Grind came in a Sweetwater 420-laced barbecue sauce, but pork shank goes well with almost anything.
The jalapeño tequila is one of the featured attractions in the Suck My Kiss. This could just be called a spicy mango margarita, but it sounds sexier when named after a particularly explicit Red Hot Chili Peppers song. The bartenders don’t hold back on the jalapeños when infusing the tequila, and that provides a devilish counterbalance to the sweetness of the fresh mango puree that makes up the body of the drink.
This is just the warm-up act for the Grind Signature, a burger that features a Guiness-and-Bass-battered onion ring, bacon, a fried egg and about half a ladle of jalapeño queso. The liquid cheese fills every nook and cranny, which makes for excellent flavor distribution. The bacon and fried egg combine with the thick Black Angus patty to provide the protein to power the rest of your beach adventures. The soft, buttery bun and omnipresent queso help soothe the fire in throat from your second (or third) Suck My Kiss.
The meal didn’t take place on the beach, but you’ll be fully prepped for whatever else happens on the beach afterward.