Archives for posts with tag: College Football Playoff

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Welcome to Conference Championship Week, where the winners advance to the College Football Playoff–sometimes.  Sorry, Virginia-your reward if somehow you pull off an upset of defending national champ Clemson in the ACC Championship Game likely won’t even be a trip to New Year’s Day (due to an accounting move, the Orange Bowl will be played December 30 this year).  I know that’s not how it works in men’s basketball or lacrosse, or even in football at EVERY OTHER LEVEL (good luck James Madison against Monmouth).

The sport with the best regular season and most unwieldy postseason enters its cocoon stage.  Don’t worry-you loved the three month caterpillar and you’re going to enjoy the Championship Game butterfly next month. Bear with them.  First we get a slate of exhibitions that will determine which school gets into the New Orleans (Sun Belt Conference) or the Las Vegas (Mountain West Conference) Bowls.  Conference USA’s winner gets to pick from a group of games if they’re not the “Group of Five” team, while the MAC and AAC send schools to bowls based partially on geography (meaning the schools competing may already know their destination regardless of Saturday’s result).

Then the curtains close and the 13-member committee determines which four schools advance, and the dust settles on the rest of the 41 bowls (really-41??).  To take even more air out of the ball, Ohio State and LSU are expected to make the playoff even if they lose their respective title tilts.  There are those that want an eight-team playoff (I am one of them), and with five schools in the “Power Five” it almost makes too much sense.  But just like we had to sit through 20 years of the Bowl Coalition, Bowl Alliance and Bowl Championship Series, we’ve got the current system for a few years more.  You can always do fantasy fields of eight-team brackets like I do on cocktail napkins.

 

Alma Mater Update- the Orange just happen to reside in the “tough” ACC division, the Atlantic. While the Clemson juggernaut is dominating the league at this moment, don’t forget the dormant monster that is Florida State (2013 BCS winners).  It’s going to be tough to return to an era when SU won or shared five Big East titles from 1996 to 2012.

 

Friday’s Game-

Pac 12 : No. 5 Utah vs. No. 13 Oregon, 8 p.m., Santa Clara, CA. (ABC).

What’s at stake:  a potential playoff berth for the Utes if things drop right, or further proof that this league eats its own if the Ducks prevail.

Rematch?: the two schools didn’t play this year, although the Utes won the 2018 matchup in Salt Lake City 32-25.

Players to watch:  Utah defensive end Bradley Anae brings 12.5 sacks to the Bay Area, and his goal is to disrupt Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert (67% completion rate, 3,140 passing yards with at 31-5 touchdown to interception ratio).

Fun Fact:  the South Division is 1-7, with the lone victory coming when the South representative is the higher ranked team.  That’s the case this year.

Presto’s Pick: Utes make their case with a 35-30 win.  Will it fall on deaf ears?

 

Saturday’s Games-

Big 12: No 6. Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Baylor, noon, Arlington, TX (ABC).

What’s at stake: in theory this should be for an automatic berth in a six or eight team field, instead the winner won’t even have a headstart against Utah for “who’s number four?” if the Utes win the night before.  And heaven forbid if Georgia somehow wins…

Rematch: OU trailed 28-3 in Waco November 16 before dialing up a rally for the ages, storming back for a 34-31 win where Baylor threw a last-minute interception.

Players to watch: Sooners quarterback Jalen Hurts picked up where Kyler Murray left off, one year after Murray picked up where Baker Mayfield left off.  In other news, I am seriously thinking about transferring to Oklahoma in the offseason.  The Bears rely on the pass as well, but when they run John Lovett and JaMycal Hasty average over six yards per carry.

Fun Fact:  Oklahoma is 9-1 in this game, with their only defeat coming in 2003 when as the top-ranked team in the nation they were blasted 35-7 by Kansas State.  Ell Robertston is not walking through that door.

Presto’s Pick:  Sooners stir up the pot with a 41-22 whipping.

 

Meanwhile, the Sun Belt (UAB-Florida Atlantic), Conference USA (Louisiana-Appalachian State), MAC (Miami (OH)-Central Michigan), AAC (Cincinnati-Memphis), and Mountain West (Boise State-Hawaii) will play all of their games in the early to mid-afternoon shadows. These conference championship games have no playoff implications whatsoever, although the AAC champ and Boise State have shots at being the “group of five” team that plays in a “New Year’s six” bowl.  If the Big 12 game is a blowout, run your holiday errands at this time.

 

SEC: No. 2 LSU vs. No. 4 Georgia, 4 p.m., Atlanta (CBS).

What’s at stake: if the Bulldogs win, they’re in.  Alabama’s loss to Auburn makes LSU’s playoff inclusion a near-certainty, further cementing the college football theory that “every game matters”.

Rematch?: the two schools last met in 2018 when the Tigers tore through the Bulldogs 36-16.

Players to watch: LSU quarterback Joe Burrow (78% completion rate with 4,366 yards passing and 44 touchdowns) is the Heisman Trophy favorite.  Georgia runningback D’Andre Swift rushed for 1,203 yards but is bothered by a shoulder injury.

Fun Fact: this will be the fourth meeting in this game between these two schools, making it the second-most common matchup (Alabama & Florida have played for the title nine times).

Presto’s Pick:  Tigers triumph, 24-16.

 

ACC- No. 3 Clemson vs. No. 23 Virginia, 7:30 p.m. Charlotte, NC (ABC).

What’s at stake:  the unbeaten team nobody’s talking about looks to cement its spot after playing an underwhelming schedule, while the Cavaliers look to continue an incredible year that saw men’s basketball and lacrosse teams win national championships.  An upset would likely also pull the Tigers out of the playoff.

Rematch?: the longtime conference foes haven’t met since November of 2013, a day in Charlottesville where Clemson won 59-10. For the record, Kippy & Buffy enjoyed a pregame tailgate Chateau O’Brien Malbec that day :”a medium-bodied wine with complex aromas of plum and fig, a velvety soft texture, and remarkable fruit flavor“–or as other expert tasting notes read: “Big Boat”.

Players to watch:  Tigers runningback Travis Etienne averaged over eight yards per carry while posting seven 100-yard rushing games; he’d have better numbers but sat a lot of second-half blowouts.  While Cavaliers quarterback Bryce Perkins wore the Superman’s Cape all year, their linebacking corps deserves notice: Zane Zandier (team-high 85 tackles), Jordan Mack (7.5 sacks), Noah Taylor (6.5 sacks with two interceptions) and Charles Snowden will have one tough task Saturday.

Fun Fact: Kippy & Buffy make their way to Charlotte, and it’s not just a first-ever Coastal Division crown they’re celebrating. Fellow alums Henry & Hildy live in the Ballantyne neighborhood, and Hildy was just made partner at her law firm. So a bottle of Chateau O’Brien’s 2012 Late Harvest Tannat will be opened at the tailgate;  it’s a non-fortified Port-style wine.  “During ripening, natural sugar accumulation reaches a level beyond the capacity of a natural yeast fermentation. No wine language can eloquently articulate the elegance of this wine.” We’ll go with “Big Boat”.

Presto’s Pick:  Cavaliers are gonna need a bigger boat, getting blasted 44-17.

 

Big Ten- #1 Ohio State vs. #8 Wisconsin, 8 p.m., Indianapolis (FOX).

What’s at stake- like LSU in the SEC, the Buckeyes are likely headed to the Playoff barring a 40-point loss.  The Badgers can tie OSU with a third victory in the nine-year old  title game.

Rematch?:  you bet. The Buckeyes bludgeoned the Badgers 38-7 in Columbus October 26. J.K. Dobbins-despite sounding like a character from a Charles Dickens story-rushed for 163 yards and two touchdowns in the rout.

Players to watch:  Ohio State’s Chase Young posted four of his 16.5 sacks this season against Wisconsin during the October win; one assumes they’ll have a better plan this time. Jonathan Taylor may have led the Big Ten with 1,761 yards rushing, but he was held to 52 yards on 20 tries by the Buckeyes D in October.

Fun Fact: Michigan has appeared in as many Big Ten Football Championship Games as Maryland and Rutgers.

Presto’s Pick:  Buckeyes bring it, 31-10.

 

Last Week: 2-1.  I picked UVa the last two years and swore I wouldn’t again until they beat the Hokies. Congratulations.

Overall: 84-35.

Lightbulbs went off over the heads of many in Charlottesville and Blacksburg this past Tuesday night.  Could Virginia or Virginia Tech crash college football’s New Year’s Bowl party?  Like many things in and around the sport with the best regular season and worst postseason, the answer is both yes and no.

The weekly College Football Playoff rankings release amuse me like few other things do. First, there’s the 13-member committee in place to select and seed four teams (spots five and six are akin to being named a top seed in the NIT).  Second, there’s the short-sightedness than comes with releasing playoff rankings when there are three or four games remaining in a 13-game audition (imagine people freaking out looking at the NFL standings December 1st when there is still a month to play).  Then there’s the weekly over-reaction that this Tuesday involved high fives in Baton Rouge (LSU rightfully No. 1 after their road win at unbeaten Alabama) as well as arguments in Tuscaloosa and Athens (Georgia’s loss in overtime to a 4-5 South Carolina not as impressive as losing to the Tigers).  And that’s just the SEC.  Shrugs by the Pac-12 and Big 12 while seeing their schools on the outside of a ridiculously small playoff party are almost expected at this time every year.

This week there was nervous anticipation in Charlottesville and Blacksburg.  Not that three-loss Virginia or Virginia Tech have any shot to make college football’s version of the final four, even if they win the ACC by beating an unbeaten Clemson.  But if the Tigers make the playoff field (at 10-0 they’re currently third and won’t be anything less than a double-digit favorite in any of their remaining games), somebody else from the sad-sack ACC has to go to the Orange Bowl.

Even in today’s College Football Playoff Era, there are some vestiges of 20th Century college football that still have value.  Along with the Sugar, the Orange Bowl is the second-oldest postseason game behind the Rose.  It’s one of five games that predate World War II (Cotton and Sun complete the trivia answer).  The brand still stands amidst the flood of 39 (!?) bowls that are played nowadays;  if you ask a Maryland fan about Ralph Friedgen’s ten-year run, they’ll most likely bring up the trip to the 2002 Orange Bowl.  And let’s be honest, even with the sponsor tag the “Capital One Orange Bowl” sounds much more impressive than the “Camping World Bowl” and “Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl”.

With Virginia and Virginia Tech on track to play for the Coastal Division crown in two weeks (Pitt can still play spoiler by beating the Hokies November 23) and Wake Forest suddenly slipping (the Demon Deacons have gone from 5-0 to 7-2 and are a 34.5 point underdog at Clemson Saturday), orange could be in more than the winner’s uniforms come January 1st.  Actually, the Orange Bowl that’s referred to by the College Football Playoff as one of the “New Year’s Six” Bowl will be played December 30 this year. Stupid progress.

 

Alma Mater Update- the Orange are on the precipice of postseason elimination as they visit a Duke team that somehow went into Blacksburg two months ago and beat Virginia Tech by 35.  That Hokie team and all of their turnovers was a major hot mess.  The Blue Devils’ other ACC win is against last-place Georgia Tech.  Those two league wins are two more than SU has this year.  But Duke has dropped three straight.  So…you’re saying there’s still a chance at a Pinstripe Bowl berth banner?

 

Virginia Tech (6-3, 3-2 ACC) at Georgia Tech (2-7, 1-5), 3:30 p.m. (ACCN Extra).

Like the Death Star’s tractor beam slowly sucking the Millennium Falcon towards it, the Hokies have been crawling towards a Coastal Division Crown since early October.  They’ve crawled out of the early-season ashes thanks to a defense that’s hitting its stride;  they held Notre Dame in check for 59 minutes in their loss at South Bend and shut down the previously high-scoring Wake Forest offense last Saturday.  Next up:  a Yellow Jacket team that scored 28 points at Virginia last week to tie their high for the season, but one that’s still at the bottom of the ACC in passing, total yards and scoring.  More importantly, Hendon Hooker is back at quarterback and even though the redshirt sophomore lost a fumble in their win over the Demon Deacons he’s yet to throw an interception this season.  His wheels will also be a nightmare to a Georgia Tech defense that’s the worst in the conference against the run.

Presto’s Pick:  Hokies handle the Yellow Jackets, 31-19.

 

No. 21 Navy (7-1) at No. 16 Notre Dame (7-2), 2:30 p.m. (NBC).

For two programs that have enjoyed plenty of recent success (the Mids will appear in their 15th bowl this century while the Fighting Irish have played in the BCS Championship Game and the College Football playoff this decade) this is the first time these annual foes are both ranked entering their showdown since 1978.  The series has actually turned into a rivalry with respect since the Mids ended their long losing streak to the Fighting Irish in 2007;  they’ve won four of the last 12 meetings with three of the eight losses coming by single digits.  Expect the Midshipmen to try to kill the clock like they did in their 2016 victory where Notre Dame had just six possessions.  A bigger test will be how Navy’s defense will fare against Fighting Irish quarterback Ian Book; the senior is coming off of a tour de force performance at Duke where he threw four touchdown passes while also rushing for a career-high 139 yards.  The much-improved unit has also had issues after halftime this fall, allowing 19 second-half points to Air Force, 21 in their loss to Memphis, and 24 in a last-second win over Tulane.

Presto’s Pick: Midshipmen come up short, 34-21.

 

Virginia enjoys its second bye week of the season, meaning Kippy & Buffy have to find something to do to pass the time.  Apple picking and antiquing are on the morning docket (who doesn’t love sipping cider while checking out a chestnut armoire?), while pumpkin patch time takes up most of the afternoon.

Once home, the evening is theirs.  And after enjoying pumpkin spice lattes on their way to apple picking, nothing’s better than post-pumpkin perusing than a glass of Chateau O’Brien Virginia Apple Wine“Made of apples grown and hand-selected from our neighboring Northpoint orchards, the wine is crisp with delineated flavors and possesses lush aromas of vibrant ripe apples. Full-bodied, elegant wine that captures the essence of apples at their peak of fall ripeness.”  During a season where the Cavaliers’ eye is on a Coastal Division Crown, it makes sense to go with the 2014 vintage that was selected by the 2015 Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition tasting panel as the “Best Sweet Fruit Wine”.

 

Georgetown falls at Bucknell, Howard is humbled at Florida A& M, James Madison beats Richmond, Towson tops William & Mary, Morgan State beats Virginia Lynchburg.

 

Last week: 7-2.

Overall: 70-30.

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The second Saturday of November represents a major upgrade in matchups.  No offense to Florida-Georgia, but a pair of one-loss teams in The Swamp pales in comparison to not only two games involving unbeatens but the first No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the regular season since 2011.  That game was LSU-Alabama played in Tuscaloosa, and that’s exactly the same matchup served up this weekend.  But on the undercard at noon is Penn State-Minnesota.  While both 8-0 teams hung over 50 points on Maryland, one serves as a model for Terps head coach Mike Locksley as he builds his program in the shadow of the Big Ten East’s blueblood programs.

Minnesota has a history just like Maryland; both schools have National Championships to their credit while not enjoying a ton of success in the 21st century.  Each has appeared in more Quick Lane Bowls than Big Ten Championship Games.  They’re also both located in a major metropolitan area and compete for attention with multiple professional franchises.  In addition to those obstacles, while Maryland is primarily thought of as a basketball school, the University of Minnesota is a hockey school through and through; the late Herb Brooks won three NCAA championships there before directing the US team to 1980’s “Miracle on Ice”.  Just as the Terps are the red-haired stepchild in a division dominated by Ohio State and Penn State, the Golden Gophers aren’t even the “other school” in the West, standing in line behind Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska.

But somehow after going 5-7 and 7-6 in head coach P.under head coach P.J. Fleck the Golden Gophers have scraped through a light September schedule before turning into a steamroller:  their first four wins have come by a combined 20 points, and their four most recent victories have come by an average of 32 points.  Even if they stumble against Penn State, Wisconsin, and Iowa, this has been an incredible season.  Can Maryland follow the Minnesota model?

The first key should be finding the right quarterback and keeping him healthy. Just twice in the last 15 years have the Terps started the same quarterback in every game of the season:  both years have been special (2006 and 2014) relative to the other seasons over that stretch.  But the key is keeping him healthy; and that starts with an offensive line.  Maryland’s front five averages 305 pounds.  That’s how much the lightest lineman for the Golden Gophers weighs;  the unit averages 340 points-and they have a 6-foot-9 400 pounder on the roster.  Until Maryland’s offensive and defensive lines mirror the likes of Minnesota’s, the Terps will be a team with splashy skill guys that have trouble overcoming limited lines.

 

Alma Mater Update- the Orange have this week off, but that didn’t stop another underwhelming night in the Dome from happening.  But instead of the defense allowing 40+ points it was the offense that scored fewer than 40 points.  The 48-34 loss to Virginia was an agonizing way to begin the men’s basketball season; usually November hoops is the necessary salve for the wounds one gets during the first two months of SU football.  It looks like I picked the wrong week to stop drinking bleu cheese dressing.

 

Saturday’s Games-

Maryland (3-6, 1-5 Big Ten) at No. 3 Ohio State (8-0, 5-0), noon (FOX).

The Terps were an incomplete two-point conversion away from upsetting the Buckeyes last year in overtime.  This year’s team is once again on a downward spiral towards being home for the holidays, while the Buckeyes have a two-game semi-preseason (they face Rutgers next week) before battling unbeaten Penn State and arch-rival Michigan.  Like they need a tune-up: OSU  leads the Big Ten in scoring offense and defense, rushing offense and passing defense. Their pass rush has a conference-high 34 sacks while the attack converts third downs at a mind-numbing 57.3%.  If you’re the Maryland defense that allows the second most points and yards in the Big Ten (thank you Rutgers for being in the conference), who do you stop?  Quarterback Justin Fields, who’s posting a better passer rating than Dwayne Haskins did while throwing 50 TD passes last year?  Or runningback J.K. Dobbins, who’s averaging 7.2 yards per carry when not sounding like he belongs in a Charles Dickens story?  The best Buckeye is actually on the other side of the ball, as defensive end Chase Young has 13.5 sacks on the season.  Good luck to an overmatched and oft-injured offensive line group. FRIDAY UPDATE: OSU is holding the DeMatha Catholic product and Hyattsville MD native out of Saturday’s game due to a potential 2018 NCAA violation.  But the Buckeyes still boast a unit that includes the likes of Malik Taylor (41 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Baron Browning (2.5 sacks).

Presto’s Pick: Terrapins tumble, 45-10.

 

Virginia (6-3, 4-2 ACC) vs. Georgia Tech (2-6, 1-4), 12:30 p.m. (ACC Network Extra).  November in the ACC usually brings three questions to the forefront: 1- can Clemson get back in the Playoff, 2- who emerges from the quagmire that is the Coastal Division, and 3-should we make Duke or UNC the men’s basketball favorite?  Actually, the Blue Devils/Tar Heels question is more 1A than 3 there–and let’s be honest, UVa is wondering why the defending National Champs aren’t getting more respect despite losing multiple starters to the NBA.  The Cavaliers can take comfort in the fact that they are two wins away from a first-ever Coastal division title, while the Yellowjackets are the lone division team no longer in contention.  They’re in the first year under head coach Geoff Collins and look like a rebuild from central casting:  last in the ACC in passing, total and scoring offense while also bringing up the rear in stopping the run.  Bryce Perkins prepares to don his Superman’s cape one more time after tallying 490 total yards and five touchdowns against North Carolina.

Kippy & Buffy know that not all heroes wear capes; sometimes they make fantastic wines.  In honor of the Yellowjackets’ 2014 Coastal championship, our favorite tailgating duo open a bottle of Twomey’s 2014 Soda Canyon Ranch Merlot as they pursue their “season of possibilities”.  With aromas that include “black cherry, roasted meat, wet soil, loose pipe tobacco and brioche”, the offshoot of Silver Oak Vineyards provides the palate a “velvet entry, mouthwatering, vanilla flavors and an enticing texture”.  And don’t forget the “integrated tannins, elegant, juicy with a long finish and return.”  

Presto’s Pick: Cavaliers continue to follow their Coastal compass in a 34-16 win.

 

Virginia Tech (5-3, 2-2 ACC) vs. No. 22 Wake Forest (7-1, 3-1), 3:30 p.m. (ACC Net).

The Hokies and Demon Deacons get together a few weeks before the fifth year anniversary of the last time they met on the football field.  Remember that dark day in Winston-Salem?  The 6-3 double-overtime win by Wake that was even more as soul-sucking as it sounds and was the metaphorical beginning of the end of the Frank Beamer era as he was captured on video celebrating a missed field goal at the end of regulation but with the 0-0 score in graphics to frame the shot.  The Demon Deacons bring a much better offense into Blacksburg this time, leading the ACC in passing while ranking second in scoring. Even in their lone loss, quarterback Jamie Newman and company put 59 points on the board against Louisville.  The Hokies are coming off of a tough loss at Notre Dame where the offense completed 32% of their passes and gained 2.8 yards per rush.  Wake’s no Fighting Irish on defense, but they lead the conference in turnover margin and are third best at getting off of the field on third down.

Presto’s Pick: Hokies come up short, 27-20.

 

Howard loses to South Carolina State, James Madison beats New Hampshire, Richmond slips at Villanova, William & Mary tops Rhode Island, Towson tumbles at Stony Brook, Morgan State falls against North Carolina A&T.

Last Week: 6-4.

Overall: 63-28.

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Who’s ready for college basketball?  Opening days and weeks are kind of tricky.  Major League Baseball has it easy–the end of winter has everyone chomping at bit to get outside, and football signals the natural end of summer even though Labor Day weekend technically isn’t during the Autumnal Equinox.  But the winter sports provide a challenge:  the NHL and NBA begin their marathons in October when many minds (myself included this year) are still on baseball’s playoffs.  College hoops has been inching closer over the last couple of decades:  Georgetown and Maryland tipped off their seasons November 17th and 20th, respectively, while this year they will have played two games by November 9th.

Let the record show I love college basketball;  I’ve enjoyed covering Men’s Elite Eights and Women’s Final Fours and even wrote lyrics to the “CBS College Basketball” theme that plays throughout March.  I bask in the wall to wall basketball that is Conference Tournament week, and enjoy February as a month where schools get in position to be in position.  Nothing fills the football void better than conference play in January where you discover how good your team really is or was it a byproduct of a soft schedule.  I’m even all-in on December’s inter-sectional and non-conference affairs, as well as the holiday tournaments.  But early November is where I just have to say, “please”.

Have you ever eaten an Eggs Benedict?  Savored the poached eggs with hollandaise and ham (or, if you’re adventurous, try the Eggs Norwegian with smoked salmon instead)?  Imagine you’re eating one with incredibly crispy home fries.  And then somebody hands you a cheeseburger.  For those of us who cover, follow and love college football, that’s what these early men’s and women’s college basketball games are like.  It’s not that we don’t love college hoops–we do–but give us a chance to enjoy football’s most meaningful month of the regular season (some schools have four games-a third of their regular season-remaining) before giving us double helpings of early-season basketball.  They just released the first College Football Playoff rankings this week!  It’s akin to college football starting its regular season in February.  Is it too much to ask for a little synergy between college athletics’ two biggest sports?

November basketball at its best is rather nebulous.  Many matchups are tune-ups for conference play as well as stocking stuffers, and there’s nothing wrong with Georgetown-Central Arkansas or Maryland-Oakland.  Other showdowns receive the natural spotlight, but you know in March everyone will be saying how the “November” Michigan State team that lost to Kentucky is nothing like the Spartans they’re trying to seed higher than those same Wildcats on Selection Sunday.

That said, I’m watching.  I’m figuring out Maryland’s rookie rotation and wondering if Georgetown’s commitment to defense is practical or still in theory. I’m curious to see how Virginia performs now that “next year” happened last spring and what sort of buzz a Buzz Williams-less Virginia Tech will generate.  Will the George’s be relevant in the Atlantic 10 Race and will VCU/Richmond become the showdown to spotlight?  Can American or Navy contend in the Patriot League?  And will Howard’s streak of non-winning seasons continue (if their loss to Washington Adventist tells us anything, another season of discontent has already begun for the Bison).  In the immortal lyrics of yours truly, “CBS College Basketball–who do you think will win? Let’s tip off!”

Cruising the Commonwealth- Virginia defends its National Championship with a different cast, as Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter have moved on to the NBA. But even without their top three scorers from last year the Cavaliers are ranked No. 11 to start the new season.  The question will be can Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key make the transition from supporting roles to lead players.  They’ll have help in the form of highly-touted freshman Casey Morsell.  Virginia Tech began the post-Buzz Williams era Tuesday with a win at Clemson (I’m assuming the Tiger faithful were more focused on being No. 5 in the first College Football Playoff rankings), a game where freshman Landers Nolley II scored 30 points.  As a guy who never really got behind the “conference games in December” theory, you can only imagine how I feel about league play in November.

The Two Georges- George Mason enters its fifth year under head coach Dave Paulsen, and the Patriots have slowly moved up the Atlantic 10 ladder in his tenure (from 12th to 7th to tied for 5th to sole possession of 5th).  Otis Livingston II is gone, but sophomore Jamal Hartwell II keeps the suffix tradition alive in Fairfax.  He also scored 12 points in the season-opening win against Navy.  George Washington has a new coach in Jamion Christian, who led Mount St. Mary’s to a pair of NCAA Tournament berths over six seasons at the school before spending last winter coaching Siena.  When the Colonials are good, there’s no better place to catch a game inside the beltway than the tightly packed bandbox that is GW’s Smith Center.  Hopefully those days will come sooner rather than later.

The True Commonwealth Clash- say what you will about Virginia-Virginia Tech, they have nothing on VCU-Richmond.  Two schools that share a city as well as plenty of disregard.  The Rams begin the year ranked 25th nationally and return just about everybody from last year’s 25-win team that made the NCAA Tournament, while the Spiders are dealing with consecutive 20-loss seasons.  Winchester, VA’s Grant Golden was the bright spot last winter and the junior looks to be the primary weapon again this season.

Patriot League Primer- American and Navy began both of their seasons on the road this week, with the hopes a little higher in DC than Annapolis.  The Eagles were picked to finish third in the Patriot League while the Midshipmen are projected to finish ninth.  AU also boasts the Preseason Conference Player of the Year in Sa’eed Nelson (19 points and 5 assists per game last winter) while also enjoying the addition of Minnesota transfer Jamir Harris (20 points in the season-opening loss at Siena).  The Mids are two years removed from a 20-win season but need to replace two starters from last year, including leading scorer George Kiernan.  But no matter where one stands in November, come January everyone will be chasing preseason Patriot League favorite and defending conference champ Colgate.

Howard’s End- somehow these previews always end with the sad-sack, perpetually struggling Bison.  The program hasn’t had a winning season since 2002, and twice finished right at .500 during head coach Kevin Nickelberry’s nine-year tenure.  They had the nation’s leading scorer in James Daniel III on campus and still found a way to lose 20 games.  Nickelberry’s final team finished with a flourish, winning its last four regular season games, and needed to win once in the MEAC Tournament to secure a winning mark. Which they did.  Only to accept a bid in the CBI Tournament and lose at Coastal Carolina to wrap up the year 17-17.  Former DeMatha Catholic star and Duke captain Kenny Blakeney takes over a program that lost leading scorer R.J. Cole to transfer, but there is talent in the form of senior Charles Williams.  The forward scored a team-high 19 points in Wednesday’s loss to NAIA Division II Washington Adventist.  The long road to March is just underway in more ways than one.

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\For all of the hype surrounding the clash of top five teams, didn’t Alabama-LSU feel a little underwhelming?  Yes, the Crimson Tide led by only 16 at the half and quarterback Tua Tagovialoa actually threw an interception for the first time all season-but the 29-0 shutout had the strange feel of a pre-determined outcome.  I’m not saying the Tide were toying with the Tigers at any time last night, but even the interception had the feel of a punt intended to pin LSU inside their own five.  In my mind’s eye I kept on seeing the cat I had as a child toying with a doomed mouse.  And this is the toughest competition in the SEC?  Thank goodness Georgia beat Kentucky yesterday to win the East, or we’d have to hide our eyes while the SEC Championship Game took place.  While Alabama still has Mississippi State and Auburn on their slate, coach Nick Saban’s team appears to be on its way to another appearance in the College Football Playoff.  The fall foliage is definitely filled with Crimson again this autumn.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange improve to 7-2, their best start since 2001.  The #13 ranking is their highest since 1998 when Donovan McNabb was quarterbacking SU to glory.  I want to call this a “soft 13”–as massive upsets last weekend created a serious vacuum.  But I’m going to enjoy this ridiculous ride as long as it lasts.  Bring on Louisville…

 

Maryland (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten) wrapped up a whirlwind week where their coach was reinstated and then fired by falling at home to Michigan State 24-3.  The Terps had a chance in the second half with consecutive possessions on the Spartans’ side of the field, only to come up empty.  How bad was the bouncing ball?  Michigan State recovered two fumbles in the end zone:  one of theirs for a touchdown and one of the Terps on an interception return that became a Spartans touchback.  Incidentally, they’d score the backbreaking touchdown on the very next play.  Terrapin Triumphs:  The defense tallied a pair of takeaways while Tre Watson’s 13 tackles paced the team.  Wade Lees averaged 45 yards per punt…and he had plenty of practice with a season-high eight kicks.

Terrapin Troubles: the offense went three-and-out the first three times they had the ball, and converted 3-of-15 third downs on the afternoon.  Kasim Hill was held to 8-of-21 passing for 74 yards while getting sacked four times.  Next:  Saturday at 4-5 Indiana (noon kickoff) in what will likely be the Terps’ best chance to become bowl eligible (they face Ohio State and Penn State to close the year).

 

Virginia (6-3, 4-2 ACC) lost control of the Coastal Division race on a rainy Friday night in Charlottesville…as Pitt emerged atop the three team scrum thanks to their 23-13 victory at Scott Stadium.  I’m sure announcers will say that “the Panthers control their own destiny”;  and while Pitt does control its road to the ACC Championship Game (win out and they take the Division) they do not control their own destiny.  Nobody controls their own destiny–that’s why it’s called “destiny”.  Cavalier Congrats:  Bryce Perkins completed 17 of 24 passes for 205 yards and UVa’s lone touchdown.  Joey Blount led the defense with 11 tackles.  Lester Coleman averaged 44.8 yards per punt.  Cavalier Concerns:  Perkins had issues staying upright all evening, getting sacked five times.  The defense held Qadree Ollison in check (24 yards rushing) but had no answers for senior Darrin Hall, who rumbled for 229 yards on 19 carries.   Ten penalties for 80 yards didn’t do the Cavs any favors.  Next:  Saturday at 3 p.m. vs. 4-4 Liberty in the final home game of the year.

 

Navy (2-7, 1-4 AAC) saw its skid reach six games–and unlike the other five losses this was a cradle to grave blowout.  While the 42-0 defeat at Cincinnati was the fourth time the Mids allowed 40+ points this fall, it’s the first time they’ve been shut out since October of 2012.  Midshipman Medals:  Not a lot to highlight on one long afternoon by the Ohio River.  Hudson Sullivan notches 10 tackles to pace an overmatched defense.  Midshipman Miscues:  Zach Abey was held to 37 yards rushing on 28 carries and the offense converted just 3-of-13 third downs.  Cincinnati reached the endzone the first five times they had the football.  Next:  Saturday at #12 UCF (noon kickoff).  The Knights are unbeaten.

 

Virginia Tech (4-4, 3-2 ACC) saw it’s season take another unfortunate turn in a 31-21 loss to Boston College.  While the Hokies can still capture the Coastal Division with three straight victories, they haven’t won three in a row all season.  Meanwhile, they’re still two wins away from reaching bowl eligibility.  It could be a long winter in Blacksburg.  Hokie Highlights: Ryan Willis threw for 281 yards and three touchdowns while also leading the team with 49 yards rushing.  Rico Kearney paced the defense with 18 tackles.  Oscar Bradburn averaged 45 yards per punt.  Hokie Humblings: a tale of two halves saw the offense generate three straight 3-and-outs to start the second half (their fourth possession was an interception);  the defense that allowed seven first half points coughed up 24 after intermission.  Next:  Saturday at 3:30 p.m. against 5-4 (but 4-1 in the ACC) Pitt.

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM–

The final pre-Thanksgiving weekend had a September feel.  Not in the temperatures but in a schedule that smacked of a cupcake buffet.  Alabama-Mercer?  Clemson-The Citadel?  At a time when every game’s importance is magnified, we had just one matchup of top 20 teams (Michigan-Wisconsin).  To make things worse, the two most interesting rivalry games were on at the same time-despite both involving Pac-12 showdowns.  Hey, left-coasters, I love the whole Pac-12 After Dark deal and the like–but couldn’t you have moved USC-UCLA to the 3:30 window so I could watch Stanford-Cal without having to flip over?  The major bummer is one looks up at the calendar and realizes there’s just one weekend left in the regular season to complain about shifting start-times, FOX announcers having Wade Less punting and Lorenzo Hudson carrying the ball, and the long walk from Regent’s Garage to Maryland Stadium.  Where did the autumn go?

Fantasy Field– with no upsets in the top eight the three-round bracket stays fixed (Bama-USC winner vs Miami-Georgia victor, Oklahoma-Auburn and Clemson-Wisconsin reside in the other bracket)…so this week we’ll blow out the true FBS field of 16.  FCS does it with 24 schools on far smaller budgets.  That means the ten conference winners get automatic berths and we add six wildcards.  Hey, the MAC serves as cannon fodder for the Big Ten every autumn.  Let them send their best when it matters.  Automatic berths are in CAPS:

#1 ALABAMA (SEC) vs #16 TROY (SUN BELT)—#8 Ohio State vs #9 Notre Dame

#4 Clemson vs #13 BOISE STATE (MWC)–#5 WISCONSIN (BIG 10) vs UCF (AAC)

#3 OKLAHOMA (BIG 12) vs #14 TOLEDO (MAC)–#6 Auburn vs #11 USC (PAC 12)

#2 MIAMI (ACC) vs #15 FAU (C-USA)–#7 Georgia vs #10 TCU

Four rounds is a little excessive, so I’d settle for an eight-team field.  Although it is a novel concept to give schools that win their respective conferences a chance at winning a National Title.

 

Alma Mater Update- after three straight close games (yes, the 64-43 loss to Wake was much closer than the score indicated) the Orange get blown out in Louisville 56-10.  The thud to 4-7 is a bummer for sure, but one has to have faith that year two of the rebuild will be more like the larvae-cocoon stage.  At least that’s what you have to hope for if you’re a private school in the northeast with a stadium that seats under 50,000 fans.

 

Maryland (4-7, 2-6 Big Ten) saw its slim bowl hopes fade amidst the snow in a 17-7 loss to Michigan State that didn’t feel like a ten-point game.  Now the program has one eye on 2018 and another on sending its seniors out against (gulp) Penn State.  Terrapin Triumphs: they held Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke to 2-of-14 passing and limited MSU to 72 total yards in the second half.  Jermaine Carter led the way with 12 tackles and forced a fumble.  DJ Moore caught 8 passes, putting him within striking distance (64 grabs after 11 games) of the single-season record (Geroy Simon caught 77 passes in 1994).  Terrapin Troubles:  four of their first seven drives were three and outs, and on the other three possessions they punted after moving the chains once.  The defense also coughed up over 100 yards to Spartans tailback LJ Scott in the first half.  Next:  Saturday at 3:30 p.m. against 9-2 Penn State.

 

Virginia (6-5, 3-4 ACC) saw its upset bid of Miami come up short in a 44-28 loss to the Hurricanes.  Somehow 14-point leads are made to be coughed up–more than once.  Cavalier Congrats:  Kurt Benkert threw for 384 yards and four touchdowns with minimal help from his ground game.  Micah Kiser led the team with nine tackles wihle Quin Blanding notched eight stops and an interception.  Cavalier Concerns:  three turnovers on the road against a top ten team is not how you get things done–and Miami turned those miscues into 14 points.  The offense also gained just 52 yards on its final 22 plays from scrimmage.  Next:  Friday at 8 p.m. against 8-3 Virginia Tech.  If you haven’t heard, they haven’t beaten the Hokies since VT joined the ACC.

 

Virginia Tech (8-3, 4-3 ACC) fought through a sluggish start and held off a late Pitt drive to prevail over the Panthers 20-14.  Heading into the season finale against Virginia, one doesn’t especially feel confident-could this be the year they finally slip to the Cavaliers? Hokie Highlights:  they held Darrin Hall (486 yards rushing the last 3 weeks) to 4 yards on 15 carries and handcuffed the Panthers on the ground all day.  Cam Phillips continues to be the Blacksburg version of DJ Moore, catching 8 passes for 117 yards and the game-winning touchdown.  Brian Johnson kicked a pair of field goals, on the same weekend ACDC rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young passed away.  HIGH VOLTAGE, indeed. Hokie Humblings:  against the most porous pass defense in the ACC, Josh Jackson completed under 50% of his passes and tossed an interception.  the VT pass defense coughed up 311 yards and almost lost the game in the final minute when the Panthers completed a 74-yard pass to the Hokie 1-yard line.  Next:  Friday at 8 p.m. against 6-5 Virginia.  They can’t lose this one, can they?

 

Navy (6-4) had #8 Notre Dame on the ropes and a seven-point second half lead, before their last three drives ended with a missed field goal, an interception, and on downs in a 24-17 loss to the Fighting Irish.  Midshipmen Medals:  Zach Abey ran for 87 yards and a touchdown while passing for the Mids’ other score.  They also dominated time of possession, holding the ball for 42+ minutes.   Micah Farrar forced a fumble that set up their first touchdown of the day.  Midshipmen Miscues:  the defense allowed 5.3 yards per carry…and wound up surrendering three straight touchdown drives to the Irish.  The absence of a passing game (3 for 8 with an interception) once again limited the possibilities of the option offense.  Next: Friday at noon at 6-4 Houston.