NCF Nation: 072011 impact games

Last year, Wisconsin and Ohio State met on an impeccable October night at Camp Randall Stadium in a game that ultimately decided the Big Ten’s automatic BCS bowl berth. This fall, a Leaders division title could be on the line as Wisconsin visits Columbus on the night of Oct. 29.

Wisconsin likely will enter the season as the Leaders division favorite, still riding the momentum from its Rose Bowl appearance. The Badgers boast a strong returning nucleus and added arguably the nation's top transfer in quarterback Russell Wilson.

A second consecutive Big Ten title could vault Wisconsin into ranks of the national elite and make the Badgers the team to beat in the Leaders division, especially if an Ohio State backslide is on the horizon. Ohio State, meanwhile, has no plans to lose its spot.

We should know a lot more about these Buckeyes when Wisconsin comes to town. NCAA penalties could be handed down by this date. Ohio State likely will have sorted out its quarterback situation, and the key players suspended at the start of the season will be back. Regardless of the challenges facing new coach Luke Fickell and his players, Ohio State is always dangerous particularly at home. The Buckeyes have lost only one Big Ten game at home in the past three seasons.

Like most teams, Wisconsin has struggled in Columbus, boasting a 7-28-3 mark at Ohio Stadium. Wilson's experience could help if he's the starting quarterback, but he'll be facing an always stout Ohio State defense that should have a rhythm after replacing seven starters. Wisconsin physically dominated Ohio State at the line of scrimmage in last year's 31-18 win, a night Buckeyes players surely haven't forgotten.

Ball-carriers for both teams will be on display as Wisconsin sends its star tandem of James White and Montee Ball against Ohio State's stable of backs. The Buckeyes won't have to deal with All-American J.J. Watt this year, so they'll look to create room for Dan Herron and others.

This game could signify a power balance shift in the Big Ten -- or reaffirm that things haven't changed.

Either way, it's one not to be missed.
If I asked you a year ago at this time what the Legends Division impact game would be, you would have looked at me as if I were from Mars.

The Big Ten had yet to split into division play, and nobody would have guessed that one of its halves would be named "Legends." So a lot of this is new. As such, it's appropriate that my choice for the biggest impact game in the Legends Division is a matchup that doesn't have much history.

Michigan State and Nebraska have played only three times since 1920, the last time coming in the 2003 Alamo Bowl (won by the Cornhuskers, 17-3). When they meet on Oct. 29 in Lincoln, the outlook of the division race will likely be shaped.

Both the Spartans and Cornhuskers will enter the season among the favorites to make it to Indianapolis for the first-ever Big Ten title game. Nebraska is coming off a 10-win season and a second consecutive appearance in the Big 12 championship game. Michigan State enjoyed a breakthrough 11-win campaign and a share of the Big Ten title in 2010.

We should know a lot about both teams by the time they hook up. Michigan State will have already played at Ohio State and faced Michigan and Wisconsin prior to its trip to Memorial Stadium. That's a rugged opening four-game conference set for Mark Dantonio's team.

Nebraska will have gotten a taste of Big Ten life after its Oct. 1 opener against Wisconsin and its Oct. 8 home date with Ohio State. The Cornhuskers will still have road games remaining with Penn State and Michigan in November. Welcome to the league, guys.

Both schools will be lucky to survive those schedules without getting bloody and bruised. Which is why their Oct. 29 game is so important. The loser could find itself out of the title race.
As Blue Ribbon rolls out its Big 12 preview today, we take a look at a pair of big impact games across the Big 12. Here's our selection from earlier today.

Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, Dec. 3

Big 12 play will get started with a big one, and it should close with a big one.

What do you mean there's no Big 12 Championship anymore? This one might serve the same purpose. Bedlam 2011 looks headed for primetime on Championship Weekend in lieu of a the Big 12 title game, but could have big, big implications by the time the college football regular season reaches its end.

Last season, these teams combined for four touchdowns in 89 seconds inside the final five minutes of a game in Stillwater that decided the Big 12 South. This year, because of the Big 12 scheduling shuffle, Oklahoma has to return to Stillwater, and its in-state rival might be standing in the way of a trip to the national title, or both teams might be playing for the right to book tickets to New Orleans and a chance at the national championship.

Oklahoma's Landry Jones and Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden were the top contenders for All-Big 12 quarterback last season, but this season, the Heisman could hang in the balance with this game still left on the schedule. Additionally, the top two contenders for the Biletnikoff Award, OSU's Justin Blackmon and OU's Ryan Broyles, will go head-to-head for the last time. Broyles, a senior, and Blackmon, a junior, will both almost certainly be cashing checks from an NFL team this time next year.

Jones, a junior, and Weeden, a senior, might join them.

Bedlam was the Big 12's most entertaining game and arguably the most impactful regular season matchup last season. There's a good chance it repeats in 2011.

Impact game: Texas A&M vs. OSU

July, 13, 2011
As Blue Ribbon rolls out its Big 12 preview today, we take a look at a pair of big impact games across the Big 12. First up, the game that could be an early-season classic.

Oklahoma State at Texas A&M, Sept. 24.

Last year, no one was quite sure what they'd watched after the Cowboys knocked off Texas A&M 38-35 in Stillwater on a last-second field goal. An ugly first half gave way to wild momentum swings in the second half, with OSU rallying to take a 35-21 lead on 28 consecutive points. Then Jerrod Johnson rallied the Aggies to a 35-all tie before his fifth turnover of the game set up the game-deciding field goal from Dan Bailey.

Whatever we watched, there weren't many who pegged those two teams as a pair that would share the Big 12 South lead with Oklahoma by season's end.

This year, we should see another great one between what could be two of the best offenses in college football.

Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden is the reigning All-Big 12 quarterback, ahead of Oklahoma's Landry Jones, and he'll have Biletnikoff Award winner Justin Blackmon catching his passes for another season. Blackmon caught at least one score and amassed 100 yards in all 12 of his starts last year, a college football record. Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith will handle the duties on the ground.

For Texas A&M, Ryan Tannehill's ride from national unknown to starting quarterback began when the rising senior won his first five starts, helping Texas A&M beat OU, Nebraska and Texas to give the Aggies their first undefeated month of November since 1997. He'll hand off to one of the nation's best running back duos, Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael, and have one of the nation's top receivers, Jeff Fuller, as his top target.

If that's not enough for you, consider the stakes: The winner of this one takes the inside track as the chief contender to knock Oklahoma off its perch as reigning Big 12 champion. Even if the Sooners beat them later in the year, a strong October and November will almost certainly result in a BCS berth for A&M and OSU, the first since 1998 for Texas A&M and the first ever for Oklahoma State.

Both teams will likely start the season in the top 15. If they're undefeated heading into what will be the conference opener for both teams, this matchup might produce a September classic between a pair of top-10 teams.

Impact game: Alabama vs. LSU

July, 12, 2011
In the Western Division, it’s a pretty easy call on the top impact game for the 2011 season.

LSU at Alabama, Nov. 5

One thing’s for sure given the recent history in this series: Nobody will be leaving the stadium early. After all, when’s the last time the game hasn’t gone down to the final few possessions?

The teams have split the past four meetings with LSU winning a year ago in Baton Rouge. The scene shifts to Tuscaloosa this season, and not only will the game have a huge bearing on the Western Division race, but it will also likely have national championship implications.

The winner of this game has played in four of the past six SEC championship games. The flip side is that the loser of this game has made it to Atlanta only once since the league split into two divisions in 1992. Alabama lost 17-13 to LSU during the 1993 regular season, but still navigated its way to the SEC championship game.

If you like defense, this will be your kind of game. Alabama might have the best group of linebackers in the country. And if anybody is more talented and deeper than the Crimson Tide in the secondary, it might be the Tigers.

Both quarterback situations should be sorted out by the time we get to November. AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims are battling for the Alabama job. Jordan Jefferson heads into his senior season as LSU’s starter after making big strides in the spring, but junior college transfer Zach Mettenberger will be difficult to keep off the field once he gets comfortable with the system.

Both teams will be coming off byes, so any nagging injuries will have a chance to heal up. We’ll also probably see a few new wrinkles on both sides.

It’s a game that can’t get here soon enough.
Historically, you don't want to be on the losing end of the Georgia-South Carolina matchup.

Since 1992, the loser of this game has failed to make it to the SEC championship game. Surely, Georgia fans remember the 11-2 season in 2007 that featured an early heartbreaking 16-14 loss to the Gamecocks, and South Carolina might have tasted its first SEC championship game in 2005 if not for a 17-15 loss to the Dawgs.

This fall, both teams have the talent to make a title run, and this game should be a major factor in that.

South Carolina, the East's defending champ, will enter the season as the East favorite and returns a solid defensive unit that should feature one of the most ferocious pass-rushing groups in the league. Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery are back on offense and if troubled quarterback Stephen Garcia stays focused, the Gamecocks shouldn't miss a beat.

Georgia coach Mark Richt's seat is hot in Athens and a rash of injuries and transfers this offseason didn't help. The offensive line is hurting and the departures of Washaun Ealey and Caleb King at running back means Georgia will rely on incoming freshman Isaiah Crowell even more.

Compared to the rest of the East, these two teams will have relatively easier championship roads. Neither plays Alabama nor LSU and the Bulldogs don't play Arkansas. Florida and Tennessee, who have even more questions surrounding them, play both Alabama and LSU -- back-to-back.

If Richt wants to cool down his seat, he'll have to make a real run to Atlanta, and that means getting past Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks. An early SEC win should give Georgia the confidence and momentum to attempt that.

Pac-12 South impact game

July, 8, 2011
The question: What is the biggest impact game in the Pac-12 South?

The answer: Arizona at Arizona State on Nov. 19.

Picking an "impact game" in the South Division is nowhere near as easy as in the North Division, which features a pair of preseason top-10 teams in Oregon and Stanford.

So what are the criteria? First, you have to pick a South Division front-runner. For us, that's Arizona State. So then, who might be the Sun Devils' biggest potential foil?

Our first choice would be USC. The Trojans seem like a team that if things fall into place, they could win the division. But USC isn't eligible for the postseason, so a head-to-head defeat to the Trojans won't carry as much weight as a head-to-head loss to ... whom?

That falls to our No. 3 team in the South: Arizona. While the Wildcats are rebuilding their offensive line, have suffered a number of key offseason injuries -- notably knee injuries to safety Adam Hall and linebacker Jake Fischer -- and are still waiting on the status of receiver Juron Criner, who is dealing with a non-injury medical condition that brings into question his availability this fall, they still seem like a slightly better option than Utah as potential division winner.

Why? Mostly because we don't know what we'll get with the Utes in their first year of Pac-12 play.

And the Wildcats, whatever their issues, still have a potentially high-powered offense with quarterback Nick Foles and a deep crew of receivers that could handle the loss of Criner and still be elite.

Further, there's something to be said for this being a bitter rivalry. Imagine if the division is at stake in Tempe. Or if the Wildcats have a chance to ruin the Sun Devils' special season.

That certainly would be high impact in the state, as well as the South Division.

Pac-12 North impact game

July, 7, 2011
The question: What is the biggest impact game in the Pac-12 North?

The answer is obvious: Oregon at Stanford on Nov. 12.

In 2010, Stanford's visit to Oregon was the Pac-10 game of the year. The then-fourth-ranked Ducks fell behind the No. 9 Cardinal 21-3 in the first quarter, but erupted offensively and rolled to a 52-31 victory.

It would become the undefeated Ducks' marquee victory on their way to the national title game because it ended up as the only blemish on Stanford's ledger. The Cardinal would go on to dominate Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, while the Ducks were nipped by Auburn on a last-second field goal for the national title.

Further, the game featured a pair of eventual Heisman Trophy finalists: Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and Oregon running back LaMichael James.

So as the offseason churns toward the 2011 campaign, it's impossible not to see the rematch in Palo Alto as not only the impact game of the year in the first iteration of the Pac-12 North Division, but also the game of the year in the entire conference. And it might even become the game of the year nationally.

Both teams are almost certainly preseason top-10 teams. Both, in fact, could become national title contenders. The Ducks, in particular, could be riding high if they open with a victory against LSU. At the very least, the winner will be well-positioned to win the division.

Further, both Luck and James are back. They will be consensus preseason All-Americans and leaders on just about any short list of Heisman Trophy candidates. Luck would have been the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft if he had not decided to return to the Farm.

So the game has it all in terms of impact: Stars on a big stage playing for big stakes.
For my other choice as the biggest impact game in the Big East in 2011, I am going with the Mountaineers again:

West Virginia at USF, Dec. 1

It stands to reason that the regular-season finale was moved to a Thursday night because there is the potential for this game to decide the league title. And what better way to showcase that than with a Thursday night national-spotlight game to yourself? West Virginia has been declared a preseason favorite; USF has been declared a preseason dark horse. Both teams should be in contention for the league championship until the end of the year.

The games between these two teams are generally knock-down, drag-out fights, and USF has been known to pull an upset or two. In 2006, West Virginia went into the game as a 21-point favorite, ranked No. 7 and the front-runner to get into a BCS game. But the Bulls stopped Pat White and Steve Slaton and won 24-19 in Morgantown in the second-to-last game of the regular season for West Virginia.

The following year, the Bulls pulled the upset again, beating the then-No. 5 Mountaineers 21-13 after White got banged up and was unable to play the entire game. West Virginia has won only once in Tampa, in the first meeting in the series back in 2005.

The Mountaineers will have only six days between games this time around, after playing in the Backyard Brawl the previous week. Closing the season with these two games back to back certainly is a doozy. But by this point in time, we should know whether the high-powered attack Dana Holgorsen has promised to bring has delivered. We will see whether B.J. Daniels really has improved the way his coaches expect. We will see how the West Virginia defense has taken shape after losing seven starters. We will see how the USF receivers and running backs have fared after big question marks in the preseason.

And, most importantly, we will see whether these two teams really are contenders.
It is never too early to take a look at the biggest impact games in the conference for 2011. I have been tasked to come up with the two games I think will have the biggest impact. My first choice should come as little surprise:

Pitt at West Virginia, Nov. 25

The Backyard Brawl becomes testier every year, and this season should be as heated as ever. You have two teams with two new coaches running similar styles of offenses, with high expectations to compete for and win a conference championship. Plus, Pitt coach Todd Graham and West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen are not exactly best friends, going back to their days in Conference USA.

Both schools had rough offseasons when it came to their coaches -- neither was the head coach when the 2010 season ended -- but the expectations have only increased as the days have crept closer to the season. Pitt returns eight starters on a defense that should be one of the best in the league, when you consider six of the starting front seven return. Ray Graham is one of the best running backs in the league. Tino Sunseri has the potential to have a 3,000-yard season in the new spread offense, and the offensive line should be pretty solid, too.

West Virginia should have one of the best offenses in the league with Geno Smith and Tavon Austin returning, and the addition of Holgorsen, of course. There is talent and depth at running back (although no starter yet), and the offensive line should be better. Only four starters return on defense, but Bruce Irvin is going to take on an expanded role as a starter, and there is potential at linebacker and in the secondary.

It goes without saying that these two teams do not like each other and will do whatever it takes to keep the other from winning a league title. Both should be at the top of the Big East standings when this game rolls around, making it one of the biggest impact conference games of the season.