Q&A: Rivalry Bucket Lists; Best Offensive Lines Ever

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We have a loaded Q&A, so no dilly-dallying: Just remember to send your questions for The Open Man Q&A on Twitter @kensing45 or @the_open_man. You can also email kyle@theopenman.com.

ALABAMA-AUBURN

Whether at Jordan-Hare or Bryant-Denny Stadium, the Iron Bowl has managed to position itself as the preeminent rivalry of the current era. Credit magnificent finishes, like the Camback of 2010, Kick-Six of 2013, or high-scoring slugfest that launched Alabama into the first College Football Playoff in 2014, as well as some brilliant marketing. Roll Tide/War Eagle certainly helped enhance the perception of this rivalry.

ARMY-NAVY

Rivalries so often breed contempt between fan bases — having attended the University of Arizona, I can regale you with some NSFW stories of behavior between Wildcats and Arizona State Sun Devils fans over the years.

Because Army-Navy represents something different compared to other college football rivalries, there’s a level of respect that emanates when these two get together…even if every year’s game seems to come down to the final possession.

As a friend who was a longtime Naval pilot once told me, “Navy doesn’t hate Army; we respect Army. Now, Air Force, we hate them.”

The competitiveness of these games in recent years piques my interest, but more so the tradition associated with this rivalry has it high on my bucket list.

HARVARD-YALE

Speaking of documentaries adding to the allure of a rivalry, I was covering the FCS for NCAA.com in 2009 when the HBO-produced Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 came to DVD. This excellent look at the 1968 encounter between unlikely undefeated rivals showcases Harvard’s historic comeback, but more importantly, the political ecosystem these two prestigious universities inhabited at the time.

Much like Army-Navy, the Harvard-Yale rivalry fascinates me for so many reasons beyond football. Take, for example, the student body pranks. Yale’s changing of flip cards to spell out “WE SUCK” in 2004 was my first indicator that I needed to get back East for this rivalry at least once in my life.

FLORIDA-GEORGIA

Everything written above about Army-Navy and Harvard-Yale? Scrap it.

I get the impression from various stories I’ve heard and read that the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is the closest a college football game gets to a monster truck rally. While I typically prefer the atmosphere of on-campus venues, Jacksonville hosting this rivalry every year actually enhances its appeal.

MICHIGAN-OHIO STATE

As mentioned in last week’s Throwback Thursday, one of my earliest college football memories is of Desmond Howard going Super Saiyan in Michigan’s 1991 defeat of the Buckeyes.

Ever since, Michigan-Ohio State’s been a staple of my Thanksgiving weekends. The Buckeyes’ dominance in recent years might obfuscate some of its luster, but the games lately have always been competitive. The past two in particular were among the most thrilling of each college football season.

OKLAHOMA-TEXAS

Like the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, the neutral destination for the Red River Shootout adds to the bucket-list appeal. The opening of Jerry World in Arlington moved so many events to the $1.3 billion venue; the Red River Shootout remaining at the Cotton Bowl makes it a must-visit stop, just to be in such a history-rich venue.

Ben Kercheval’s excellent deep-dive into the pageantry of the Red River Shootout a few years ago may have sold me more than anything else. What’s more, no other rivalry can claim to play an integral role in a cult horror classic the caliber of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II.

Now, let’s jump from scintillating game-day experiences to…less so.

Off-campus stadiums in general lack the same atmosphere of a great, on-campus game-day experience — with the Rose Bowl being a lone exception, due to its gorgeous location and history. The worst experience I ever had a spectator came in 2011 on the campus of my alma mater, however.

My wife and I ventured from Southern California to Tucson for Homecoming weekend, which included the induction of our late friend, Shawntinice Polk, into the University of Arizona Hall of Fame. Our trek began ominously a haboob that required us to pull to the side of Interstate 8 for 20 minutes.

Now, in four years as an undergraduate there, I never experienced a cold Homecoming. Three of my years as a student, one could get away with shorts and a t-shirt during Homecoming week. But in 2011, temperatures dipped down to the low-40s, with wind chill in the 30s. That’s typically unheard of for Tucson, and the arctic gusts made for a terrible tailgating experience. The game itself was atrocious, prompting my party to leave for a just-off-campus bar. We took in Alabama-LSU — the Most Boring Game of the Century.

The most redeeming quality of that day? Beer, I suppose.

Bad professional experiences typically come from covering blowouts that run long. USC’s season opener against Arkansas State in 2015 is a great example, kicking off after 8 p.m. Pacific to accommodate for TV, then seemingly never wrapping up.

USC’s home opener the next season against Utah State was the polar opposite. It kicked off early, with temperatures around 90. The Rams had just returned to L.A., and the Coliseum was still adjusting to NFL parking and entry regulations. Getting to the press box for a sparsely populated game was difficult. Afterward, I trekked across the city for another blowout, UCLA-UNLV. I did this all while nursing a stomach virus. Good times.

I have to preface the following with a shoutout for the single best offensive lineman in my time following college football, Orlando Pace. I was young and didn’t understand the nuances of great offensive line play across an entire unit…but I fully comprehended that Pace wrecked dudes.

Another shoutout is an order for USC’s Matt Kalil. More than any other lineman, Kalil’s presence correlated more noticeably to a quarterback’s play in my years watching the sport.

With that, I’ll go you two better and rank my top three:

3. 2005 Texas Longhorns

Coveted draft prospect Jonathan Scott earned unanimous All-American distinction anchoring this unit. Scott was the star paving the way for Vince Young’s terrific run into college football lore, but he was joined by another All-American in Justin Blalock. With a third All-Big 12 honoree in Kasey Studdard, it’s small wonder Texas led the nation in team offense.

2. 2012 Texas A&M Aggies

The assembly of pure talent protecting Johnny Manziel in his Heisman Trophy campaign is staggering. Like Texas in 2005, Texas A&M featured two All-Americans up front in 2012. Both Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel were elite-level NFL prospects and college talents, and had reinforcements from young studs Cedric Ogbuehi and German Ifedi (both first-round draft picks).

1. 2002 Iowa Hawkeyes

I consider the 2002 season the first in which I started to gain a real fundamental grasp on what constitutes stellar team line play — and I credit Iowa as the catalyst. Brad Banks reached the Heisman ceremony that campaign operating behind a virtually impenetrable front five. Robert Gallery was the ballyhooed draft prospect in that group, but Eric Steinbach earned collegiate accolades as a consensus All-American.

That Iowa unit also featured standout All-Big Ten selections David Porter and Bruce Nelson. When I think of the prototypical hulking, overpowering Big Ten offensive line, Iowa in 2002 always come to mind first and foremost.

Coming out of the 2017 season and throughout the spring, I felt as strongly about Wisconsin as a College Football Playoff team as I did Alabama or Clemson. The Badgers exceeded all expectations a season ago with a young roster, and emphatically disproved naysayers *cough*PaulFinebaum*cough* with strong showings in both the Big Ten Championship and Orange Bowl.

That said, the loss of both Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk concerns me.

Wisconsin wins with its play in the trenches. Last season, the Badgers ranked third nationally against the run, and that started with them imposing their will on the line. Certainly maintaining such a high level with Jack Cichy sidelined by injury stands as testament to Wisconsin’s defensive depth, but linemen are typically more difficult to replace than linebackers.

UW isn’t losing a ton of returning production from either, but turnover on the starting lineup necessitates someone to step up. Rand seemed positioned to do so, and Loudermilk looked like a potential breakout star last season. While I still see Wisconsin as a clear-cut favorite in the Big Ten West, the Badgers’ road to the Playoff looks considerably more complicated.

In theory, the Pac-12 (sans USC) sending a Playoff team should win. You inherently start with 11 teams out of 65 in the Power Five conferences — I limit it to 65 because, well, the Playoff committee will never give the Group of Five a shot. So those are essentially 1-in-6 odds, vs. the theoretical 1-in-65 starting point for Alabama. And 1-in-65 slices down further when factoring in the 1-in-4 chance a Playoff team has to win the championship.

However, we have to begin with an assumption that Alabama will be in the Playoff field. The Crimson Tide have made every Playoff since its inception, including this past in a season when its credentials were tenuous at best. Going back before the Playoff, you have to venture to 2010 before finding a regular season in which Nick Saban didn’t have his team ranked in the top four. That then gives Saban the advantage at 1-in-4 odds vs. the Pac-12’s 1-in-6. This has been Playoff math with Scott Steiner.

Anyway, this race runs even so far. Alabama has many national championships since the inception of the College Football Playoff as the the Pac-12 has teams other than USC make the field. Washington looks like an obvious front-runner to represent that Pac-12 in 2018, if the conference lands a berth. We’ll call these odds even heading into the season.

Now, the next step is factoring for 10 years. Saban’s 66 years old. How much longer will he go? Bill Snyder is a full 12 years Saban’s senior, but Snyder’s longevity is also somewhat legendary. Keep in mind that Bobby Bowden, who retired at 78, endured a half-decade downturn at Florida State. There’s no guarantee that Nick Saban will remain on the sidelines another 10 years, and even less that Alabama remains at this same level.

To that end, I give the edge to the Pac-12.

Eight.

Kevin Sumlin’s won big by the second season in each of his two previous head-coaching tenures, going 10-4 Year 2 at Houston, and 11-2 in his debut at Texas A&M. Arizona doesn’t have the amazing offensive line Sumlin inherited at A&M, as examined above, but with Khalil Tate and a host of talent on offense, the Wildcats should acclimate to his style immediately. Arizona also made marked improvement defensively under Marcel Yates, who remains on in his third year as coordinator.

Based on those factors exclusively, Arizona should improve on last year’s seven wins. The schedule’s also somewhat more favorable. Week 2 at Houston will dictate the road, but Arizona really well be 4-0 when USC visits USC on Sept. 29. Erring on the side of caution, I tabbed UH as a loss for the sake of setting this number. Other losses: USC, at Utah, and at Washington State. UCLA on the road and Oregon at home are two that could swing on the negative side; USC at home and a late-season trip to the Palouse seem most likely to swing to push Arizona over that 8-win mark.

I don’t envision Arizona winning the Pac-12 South — Utah’s my pick, with USC a you-could-easily-talk-me-into-it second — but the Wildcats are intriguing dark horses. The same can’t be said for every Power Five program.

Last season’s 8-win finish marked just the ninth time in program history Iowa State hit that threshold. Four of those seasons came in the 1970s.

There’s a lot to like about an Iowa State team that knocked off two Top 5 opponents in 2017, and that returns a number of key pieces. David Montgomery’s a baller, and the defensive front is quietly one of the best in the Big 12 with JaQuan Bailey anchoring it. Declaring the Cyclones a Playoff dark horse is preposterous, however.

This reminds me of last offseason when Cole Cubelic tabbed NC State for the Playoff. The Wolf Pack returned a lot of talent, including on the defensive line with Bradley Chubb, and looked poised for a good season — which they had! A 9-4 finish is strong, and would be outstanding for Iowa State. Even mentioning the Playoff for the Cyclones is unfair, because it detracts from the impact of having a 9-4 kind of campaign.