Nick Saban’s suggestion at last week’s SEC meetings that Power 5 conferences only play each other has merit on its face. However, the broad brushstrokes that mandate some leagues as worthy of nonconference dates fail to take into account teams’ strength on individual basis.
The conferences without preferred access into the College Football Playoff must capitalize on their opportunities. Some wins over the power brokers might not force everyone to recognize the value of scheduling top-level non-AQ opponents. But at the very least, a strong 2014 for those teams from the American Athletic, Conference-USA, independents, Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt might give enough of the Power 5 pause while shaping college football’s future landscape.
East Carolina and Fresno State are two of the leading candidates for the cause.
Newly-minted American Athletic member ECU and two-time defending Mountain West champion Fresno State each face three opponents from the Power 5–East Carolina draws two from the ACC and one from the SEC, while Fresno State gets two from the Pac-12 and one from the Big Ten.
Fresno State’s slate of USC, Utah and Nebraska is a return to former Bulldogs head coach Pat Hill’s philosophy of anyone, anytime, anywhere–the philosophy that gained the program a measure of national recognition in the early 2000s and almost made it the original BCS party-crasher.
Of course, simply playing power conference opponents is meaningless without wins. Fresno State’s reputation was staked on wins over Colorado, Wisconsin and reigning Fiesta Bowl champion Oregon State in 2001. The Bulldogs continued to schedule ambitiously, including its last to USC in 2005, when they very nearly derailed the Trojans’ return to the BCS Championship Game.
However, the marquee wins have not come as steadily.
Last season’s nationally ranked and BCS-contending team opened with an overtime defeat of Rutgers, then a member of the BCS automatic-qualifying American and now part of the Big Ten. But otherwise, Fresno State had a game with Colorado cancelled due to flooding and lost a lopsided Las Vegas Bowl.
Scoring a measure of revenge at the Coliseum in the season opener would spark a heated narrative about new Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian, but the more subtle subplot is what such a win could do for Fresno State in a season the Bulldogs are flying under the radar.
Much less attention is being paid to this year’s Fresno State team, due to Derek Carr’s departure for the NFL. But the transfer of former Duke quarterback Brandon Connette should keep the offense humming, and an improved defense led by linebacker Ejiro Ederaine should keep the Bulldogs firmly in contention for both the Mountain West championship and some high-profile wins.
The USC game leads into a Week 2 homecoming for offensive coordinator Dave Schramm, a former Kyle Whittingham assistant at Utah. The Utes were once in Fresno State’s role as the Mountain West upstart, using then-Pac-10 opponents to build their reputation.
Fresno State wraps up its trifecta of Power 5 games by hosting Nebraska. Teams from the formerly AQ, now Group of Five conferences have visited Bulldog Stadium in the past. It’s a large enough venue to make the trip worthwhile, averages considerably sized crowds and the visit gives these programs an opportunity to establish a physical presence in a rich recruiting area.
East Carolina gets its own home game against the ACC’s North Carolina, a team largely considered to be on the rise in head coach Larry Fedora’s third season–and a team the Pirates manhandled in Chapel Hill a season ago.
Indeed, East Carolina goes into its slate against the Power 5 knowing full well it can more than hold its own. The Pirates’ other ACC tilt comes against Virginia Tech, a team that outlasted them in a 15-10 grind.
Quarterback Shane Carden had one of his worst performances throwing three interceptions in the loss–quite the deviation from his six-touchdown day against North Carolina. And even so, East Carolina was still a score away from knocking off the Hokies. Outstanding wide receiver Justin Hardy has a prime opportunity to command the spotlight against Virginia Tech’s vaunted secondary.
Preceding the trip to Blacksburg and home date with North Carolina is a visit to South Carolina, likely the biggest test of East Carolina’s three Power 5 tests. The Gamecocks blasted the Pirates two years ago, 48-10, the result of a stellar performance from then-backup Dylan Thompson.
Thompson is now the Gamecocks’ primary signal-caller with Connor Shaw gone. A Pirate run defense that ranked No. 13 in the nation a season ago will have its hands full with running back Mike Davis, but preventing another career day from Thompson may be key to a competitive game.
East Carolina’s former C-USA-turned-American rival UCF took South Carolina to the brink a season ago. The Gamecocks accounted for UCF’s only loss in a program-best season.
This year, UCF gets multiple cracks at scoring the outsiders some recognition.
Coming off an impressive Fiesta Bowl rout of Big 12 champion Baylor, the Knights open 2014 in Dublin, Ireland against Penn State. The meeting is UCF’s end of a home-and-home series with the Nittany Lions, some 3,500 miles away from Bright House Networks Stadium.
Never mind venue–UCF beat Penn State in Happy Valley last September, 34-31, en route to the program’s first and only BCS bowl. Duplicating that feat across the Atlantic would be a strong first step in the post-Blake Bortles era.
The Knights travel to Missouri two weeks later, the final leg of a series with the Tigers that took Gary Pinkel’s squad to Orlando in 2012. UCF very nearly pulled off the upset, but the since-dismissed Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham played a vital role in MU’s 21-16 win with an 80-yard touchdown reception.
Cincinnati, a likely competitor to UCF’s American Athletic championship, plays its own pair of high-profile, nonconference dates. The Bearcats renew an in-state series with Ohio State on Sept. 27, then two weeks travel to Miami to meet The U.
Cincinnati was erratic in Tommy Tuberville’s first season as head coach. An injury to quarterback Munchie Legaux set the tone for a confounding blowout loss to Illinois, then in subsequent weeks the Bearcats struggled with hapless Miami (OH.) and lost to USF. The Bearcats then rallied for a six-game win-streak and were in contention for a share of a fifth Big East/American championship in five years going into the regular-season finale.
The addition of Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel at quarterback should continue Cincy’s transition to Tuberville’s style from the systems Brian Kelly and Butch Jones preferred. If Kiel is firing by the time the Bearcats visit the Horseshoe, Cincinnati could give the Buckeyes a fight.
Other Power 5 vs. Non-AQ Dates to Remember
Aug. 28: Boise State vs. Ole Miss (in Atlanta)
The 2014 season kicks off with Boise State in a familiar role, traveling to try and play spoiler to a power conference opponent. The Broncos opened 2009, 2010 and 2011 with wins over Oregon, Virginia Tech and Georgia. The third was at the same venue where Boise State faces Ole Miss.
Departed head coach Chris Petersen helped build Boise State from a solid foundation into a nationally recognized program. First-year head coach Bryan Harsin can start to make his own name with a win over this up-and-coming SEC program.
Aug. 30: Navy vs. Ohio State (in Baltimore)
Braxton Miller won’t be the only Heisman-contending quarterback on the field in this one. Navy junior Keenan Reynolds is coming off a campaign with 31 rushing touchdowns.
While the likely Playoff challenging Buckeyes might overmatch the Mids in some areas, Ken Niumatlolo’s team’s have a knack for challenging big-time competitors, including a 24-21 loss at South Carolina in 2011 or last season’s 38-34 decision against Notre Dame. The Mids are also out to knock off a Big Ten opponent for a second straight season opener, having toppled Indiana a season ago.
Aug. 30: Utah State at Tennessee
The Aggies’ last trip into SEC Country nearly produced an upset of then-reigning national champion, Auburn.
Quarterback Chuckie Keeton made a splash that afternoon with 21-of-30 passing and two rushing touchdowns. The dynamic, dual-threat playmaker returns for Utah State after nearly a year off due to knee injury. Keeton’s rushing ability is electric, but his arm should test a young Vols secondary.
Sept. 6: BYU at Texas
Taysom Hill’s record-setting evening of 259 yards rushing powered the Cougars to a 19-point win when Texas visited Provo last September. The win was arguably the biggest for BYU since moving to independence in 2011.
Sept. 6: Northern Illinois at Northwestern
Northern Illinois’ perfect regular season of 2013 began with a win over the Big Ten’s Iowa Hawkeyes. This year, the Huskies could fuel their first season post-Jordan Lynch against another Big Ten opponent, this time nearby Northwestern.
While Northern Illinois may be easily dismissed without Lynch, it’s worth noting that the same could have been said when he replaced Chandler Harnish after the 2011 season.
Sept. 6: Ball State at Iowa
Pete Lembo: commit the name to memory. Ball State’s fourth-year head coach is one of the best in the business, proving it the last two seasons with win totals of nine and 10 games. The Cardinals also won games against Power 5 opponents in that time, beating Indiana in 2012 and Virginia last season.
Conversely, Iowa dropped decisions to MAC opponents each of the last two years: Central Michigan in 2012 and Northern Illinois last season.
With running back Jahwan Edwards, the Cardinals have enough firepower in the offense without quarterback Keith Wenning to still pack a punch.
Sept. 20: Bowling Green at Wisconsin
Defending MAC champion Bowling Green figures to continue to fly high, despite losing head coach Dave Clawson to Wake Forest. That’s because Clawson’s replacement, Dino Babers, brings a potent passing attack from Eastern Illinois that promises to add explosiveness to the stout defense the Falcons employed.
Quarterback Matt Johnson is the darkest of dark horse Heisman contenders. However, if he acclimates to Babers’ style as well as Eastern Illinois star-turned-NFL draft pick Jimmy Garoppolo, Johnson could follow in the footsteps of former MAC counterpart and Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch. A strong showing against Wisconsin is central in that effort.
And Johnson could visit Camp Randall Stadium with some positive momentum. He leads the Falcons against Wisconsin’s Big Ten mate Indiana the week prior with payback in mind from last year’s 42-10 Hoosier win.