Friday, September 12, 2008

Preseason Over; Game On

College football does have a preseason, for better or for worse. Over the years, most of the elite teams have learned not to front-load their schedules so that their entire season could be destroyed in the first week. Teams with national championship aspirations nowadays typically warm up with a cupcake or two before going for the main course.

Well, the 2008 preseason is over.

The USC-Ohio State showdown Saturday night has already been billed as the biggest game of this regular season. But the truth is that it's merely the main event of a loaded card that includes several games that will make a lasting impact on this season's BCS races - whether it's for the national championship or a spot in the other four lucrative bowl games. Some teams will move up, a few will hold their ground and certainly, a couple will crash out.

These, in order of magnitude, constitute this Saturday's must-see TV: (Unofficial BCS rankings denoted)

No. 5 Ohio State at No. 1 USC (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET) - Two weeks ago, this game had a chance of being a 1-vs.-2 matchup. On the eve of the contest, it's looking more and more like a potential Trojans blowout. While top-ranked USC was impressive in throttling Virginia in its opener and had a week to get ready for the game, Ohio State lost its hold on No. 2 with a lackluster home win over Ohio, and now it appears that it's also lost running back Beanie Wells.

History isn't really on the Buckeyes' side - and neither are the gamblers, who have seen fit to move the spread into double-digit territory in favor of USC. In the Jim Tressel era, they have only ventured outside of Columbus twice to play a formidable non-conference foe. Ohio State lost to UCLA in 2002 and beat a post-Vince Young Texas team in 2006. USC, meanwhile, lost just once in the Coliseum to a non-conference opponent in the Pete Carroll era - on Sept. 8, 2001, a 10-6 loss to Kansas State in Carroll's second game as USC coach.

No. 10 Wisconsin at No. 23 Fresno State (Saturday, 10:30 p.m.) - Pat Hill calls this the biggest home game in Fresno State history. He gets no argument here, or anywhere. Win, the Bulldogs instantly become a serious BCS bowl contender. Lose, Fresno State goes back to being a baseball school again.

Kudos to Wisconsin for even scheduling this game in Fresno. The Badgers will get a return home game in 2009, but the business at hand could be quite daunting. These two teams actually met twice in the early 2000s, splitting a pair in Madison. This time, the Badgers will have to find a way to get it done away from Camp Randall.

No. 11 Kansas at No. 19 South Florida (Friday, 8 p.m.) - Much is riding on the game for the woebegone Big East. A loss by the Bulls it could be requiem for the conference, its legitimacy obliterated. South Florida is also fighting for its own legitimacy, after a free-fall that followed the team's ascension to No. 2 in the BCS standings a year ago.

The Jayhawks, having won 14 of their last 15 games, have designs on making a basketball-football double in 2008. But there's no need to do too much looking ahead. Kansas last played a BCS conference foe on the road in 2004 - and it lost to Northwestern, 20-17. That's the kind of history the Jayhawks want to leave behind.

No. 29 UCLA at No. 17 BYU (Saturday, 3:30 p.m.) - If familiarity breeds contempt, then these two teams should be at each other's throats from the coin flip, meeting for the third time in 372 days. The Bruins won at the Rose Bowl during the 2007 regular season but lost in the Las Vegas Bowl when a last-second field goal attempt was blocked.

The UCLA teams of the Karl Dorrell era were noted for their inability to stand prosperity. Rick Neuheisel will be seeking to reverse that, coming off a huge opener win over Tennessee. BYU, with an eye on a BCS bowl berth, escaped with a win over Washington on a controversial penalty at the end of the game. The Cougars will need a little more than luck against the Bruins.

No. 34 Michigan at No. 45 Notre Dame (Saturday, 3:30 p.m.) - OK, when you're done laughing, you need to read the rest of this. The Irish could make it to a BCS bowl, it's no joke. Notre Dame has an extremely favorable schedule this season, with only probably one game it has no chance of winning - the season finale at USC.

If the Irish win nine games and are ranked in the top 14 of the final BCS standings, they most likely will earn a BCS bowl berth. Beat Michigan, then that path will be wide open for Notre Dame. After losing the last two meetings by a combined score of 85-21, the Irish shouldn't need much motivation, especially against the undermanned and offensively-challenged Wolverines.

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