Five Intriguing College Games This Weekend
by Trevor Whenham - 08/28/2008
College football starts tonight. It's now close enough that I am counting down by hours now instead of days. For people like me who think that college football is the greatest sport in existence then any games are welcomed and worth watching. More passive fans might say that things don't get interesting until later in the season when conference play starts. That might sort of be true for college basketball, but it certainly isn't true in football. Every game matters, and many teams face stiff tests right out of the gates. There are all sorts of intriguing games out there this weekend, but look at five that both provide a real challenge for bettors and will give us a good sense of what the season might hold for the teams involved:
Hawaii (+35.5) at Florida - This game is about regrouping. Florida has to find a way to bounce back from a big bowl loss last year. Tim Tebow has to learn to cope with playing as a Heisman winner, and therefore being hunted. The team will likely have to deal with the absence of Percy Harvin due to injury. Those challenges, though, are nothing compared to what Hawaii faces. New coach, new system, new quarterback - it's a whole new world. Things went spectacularly well for the Warriors right up to the last game last year, but given all the changes they have faced they certainly won't be blamed if they go through a letdown. What makes this game fascinating to me is the size of the spread. Hawaii was never an underdog during the regular season last year, and now suddenly they are the second biggest underdog on the board. Working against the Warriors is their QB situation. Tyler Graunke is a senior and started two games last year when Colt Brennan was hurt. It was supposed to be his team, but academic issues kept him away from the team until this week, and he isn't making the trip to Florida. Brent Rausch is the No. 1 now, but he is dealing with a sore arm.
Florida is going to win this game. That much is virtually certain. It just remains to be seen if they can get their act together fast enough to win this one by more than five touchdowns, or whether Hawaii still has some pride left even though everything else is gone.
USC (-19.5) at Virginia - There is pretty much nothing about Virginia that excites me right now, but I'll still be glued to this one. USC has the real potential to win it all, but they have real questions - is Mark Sanchez healthy? Can he play? Is Joe McKnight for real? Will the injuries catch up to them? Can Pete Carroll maintain his deal with the devil for another year? Virginia shouldn't scare the Trojans in any way, but they are a tougher test than some top teams will face (Georgia, for example, plays the ferocious Georgia Southern). This is a chance for USC to really flex their muscles, but if it goes poorly it could cause bettors to panic. That's good drama.
Utah (+3.5) at Michigan - As a guy who bleeds maize and blue I am absolutely terrified about this one. We know what Utah brings to the table - a talented team that hopes to vie with in-state rival BYU for the role of mid-major titan this year. They have eight players still on the roster from the Fiesta Bowl winning team of 2004, and they are hungry to prove that they can play with the big boys. On the other hand, we have absolutely no idea what Michigan will bring. The long-term future is bright under new coach Rich Rodriguez, but the shorter term is unclear. Four days before the game he still hasn't decided who his starting quarterback will be, the running backs will be by committee, and the offensive line is new and scary. Seven freshmen could be starters in this game. Michigan is going to have a worse season than they are used to as the transition to the new era of coaching happens. This game will give us a sense of how much worse it might be.
Illinois (+8.5) vs. Missouri - These two teams have a lot in common. They both have wildly talented quarterbacks who should be able to lift their game to a new level this year. Both will be out to prove that their impressive seasons last year weren't flukes. Both have to make due without crucial pieces of their offense - Rashard Mendenhall for the Illini, and Martin Rucker for the Tigers. Both play in conferences in which they could make a real impact if they can replicate much of what they did last year. Illinois has been working hard on improving their defense - a big problem last year - and they have high hopes for the defensive line this year. The Tigers have to be dreaming of a spot in the BCS and maybe even a Heisman for Chase Daniel. The stakes are high for this one. Missouri beat Illinois by six in a high-scoring affair to start the season last year.
Washington (+14) at Oregon - Behind the Trojans the Pac-10 is ridiculously wide open. Conference play is strange to see at this time of the year, but in this case I'm all for it. Oregon has had their offensive heart ripped out of them, but they have enough pieces in place to be contenders. Washington continues to be a troubled team, but they have a QB full of potential in Jake Locker, and a coach in Ty Willingham who must be feeling like he needs to fight for his job. The Pac-10 desperately needs some definition, and this game is the best chance there is this week of providing the first hints of clarity.