Let the games begin! Even though there were already games in the badly branded “Week Zero” that begs to be spelled with an “A,” at least a full slate will take our mind off the business of the game. Oklahoma and Texas are preparing for one of many awkward autumns until their lease is up in the Big 12 and they can officially join the SEC.
Just like the ACC picked the bones of the Big East twice this century and the Big Ten found Maryland and Nebraska looking for greener pastures, the SEC is showing other leagues how it’s done. And the NCAA that once prohibited student-athletes from enjoying cream cheese on their bagel is naturally powerless to tell the grownups how to behave amongst themselves.
For those who are looking to brush up on American history, college athletics is a perfect rendering of the world that existed during the time of the Articles of Confederation, where each state had complete autonomy to make decisions with loose federal intervention. Only in this case, the SEC is Virginia and has annexed the good parts of Maryland and North Carolina, while the Big Ten is a New York that absorbs New Jersey and Pennsylvania. And the NCAA imposes its will on the citizens but not the states.
In the book “The Cloud Atlas” (made into a movie starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry), writer David Mitchell wrote, “the weak are the meat that the strong do eat.” And even though the Big Ten, ACC and Pac 12 have reached an “alliance,” no conference goes too long without feeling hunger pains.
The Hokies are no strangers to beginning the season on ESPN against a name opponent as they’ve done it the previous three times they’ve played on Labor Day weekend, winning at No. 19 Florida State in Tallahassee three years ago and beating No. 22 West Virginia at FedEx Field in 2017. They’ll have their hands full with Sam Howell, who has thrown for 605 yards and eight touchdowns in his two career games against the Hokies. Last year, UNC boasted a pair of 1,000-yard backs who have gone on to the NFL, but Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler rushed for 2,046 yards at the SEC school. He will give the Tar Heels the necessary ground threat. Speaking of Tennessee, Virginia Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker transferred there last winter to give Braxton Burmeister a clear path to the starting role in Blacksburg. The Oregon transfer has yet to throw for more than 212 yards in a game and he doesn’t have the running support his counterpart does.
Presto’s Pick: Hokies come up short, 34-24.
These two teams from neighboring states met annually from 1980-2007, but sadly this series has been one of the casualties of the conference carousel. The Mountaineers have won nine of the last 10 games played in the series, scoring 30+ points in eight of those games. They also return starting quarterback Jarret Doege (2,587 yards and 14 touchdowns passing in 2020) as well as running back Leddie Brown (1,010 and 10 scores rushing last year) and four of their top five receivers from last season. The Terps have plenty of reason for optimism with one of the best receiving corps in the Big Ten and quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa back after showing promise in 2020. Can the offensive line that’s long on youth and short on experience keep the Mountaineers (nine starters back on a unit that ranked first in the Big 12 in passing and total defense last year) at bay?
Presto’s Pick: Terrapins triumph, 31-27.
Navy vs. Marshall, 3:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network.
The Thundering Herd might not be ranked in the preseason, but they are one of nine schools on the Midshipmen’s schedule receiving votes (including No. 8 Cincinnati and No. 9 Notre Dame). Marshall has also won nine straight openers and returns 15 starters with 50 lettermen from a 7-3 team that was ranked as high as No. 15. The Midshipmen had won five straight openers before last Labor Day’s 55-3 rout by BYU in Annapolis, starting the team’s first home losing record at home since 2011 (Navy went 26-4 at home from 2015-19). One feels the defense (nine starters back including preseason all-AAC selection Diego Fagot) will have to shoulder the burden to start the season as an offense that lost its top two rushers and leading passer will likely have early-September growing pains.
Presto’s Pick: Mids make it happen, 19-14.
Virginia vs. William & Mary, 7:30 p.m., ESPN3
The Cavaliers have won the last four meetings, but the Tribe’s most recent victory over an FBS school was at Scott Stadium in 2009 in Al Groh’s final season on the sidelines. It’s a reunion of sorts as Mike London (27-46 as Head Coach at UVa from 2010-15) enters his third season at William & Mary. If there was one thing that plagued London’s time in Charlottesville, it was the annual quarterback carousel that went from Marc Verica to Michael Rocco to Philip Sims to David Watford to Greyson Lambert to Matt Johns with the seamlessness of an auto accident. London has stability at that position in Williamsburg with third-year starter Hollis Mathis leading the CAA in total yards per game this past spring. Entering the season, the Cavalier secondary is a primary concern for Coach Bronco Mendenhall as the unit ranked last defending the pass last fall. Causes for confidence include the return of starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong and recent success at Scott Stadium (17-2 over the last three years).
Kippy & Buffy have enjoyed the recent success like a fine wine. My favorite tailgating pals traditionally enjoy white wine for non-conference games and red for ACC matchups (naturally they get sparkling during the bye week). They’ll kick off 2021 by staying in the commonwealth: 868 Estate Vineyards (named after its elevation) 2019 Altezza White is 50% Sauvignon Blanc and 50% Viognier. “On the nose, citrus and toasty oak notes dominate with floral elements of body powder and perfume,” the vineyard website describes. “Clear on the finish, the Altezza White lingers with the suggestion of citrus and spice.”
Presto’s Pick: Clear on the finish, the Cavaliers linger with the succession of bowl eligibility and top the Tribe 38-19.
Richmond routs Howard, James Madison beats Morehead State, and Towson tops Morgan State in the battle for Baltimore.
Last year: 44-19.