September college football is often more appetizer than entrée (although it’s much better than college basketball’s “bread course November”) with the novelty of the new season mostly gone and Top 25 matchups few and far between.
Because even with matchups like Maryland-Illinois, Virginia-North Carolina, and Virginia Tech-West Virginia during the sport’s “Show Me Month,” Power Five schools load up on wins against Group of Five and FCS schools (with apologies to Florida State). And while we get a pair of ranked matchups this weekend, my eyes are on a leftover reheated from the previous century.
Nebraska-Oklahoma was appointment viewing from 1971-88 when viewers were treated to 16 Top 20 showdowns, 14 Top 10 matchups and six Top 5 games (twice it was No. 1 against No. 2). They dominated the Big Eight to the tune of 32 conference titles at least shared by one of the two schools from 1962-95. They also captured eight National Championships from 1970-97, depending on which poll you preferred. From 1962-97, at least one of the two teams were ranked nationally entering their November meeting (the game often fell on the Friday after Thanksgiving and was the only show on TV in a pre-ESPN/ESPN2/ESPN3 world).
But unfortunately the creation of the Big 12 moved the two schools into opposite divisions and they played sporadically over the next decade and a half before Nebraska bolted for the Big Ten. This is their first meeting since the 2010 Big 12 Championship Game (won by OU) that ended the Cornhuskers’ residency as a founding partner. Since then they’ve been a junior associate, largely a second-tier school in the Big Ten’s weaker division (12-24 in league play since the start of the 2017 season). Their absence has allowed the Sooners to dominate a watered-down conference while coming up short in the College Football Playoff (when they’re not finishing short of the CFP). It’s a divorce where there’s not a true winner, only multiple losers and I count us college football fans as the kids.
But even in those longtime marriages that eventually fail, it’s tough to forget those magical moments-because they did happen and we saw it and that’s important. I was too young to watch the 1971 “Game of the Century” that saw No. 1 Nebraska beat No. 2 Oklahoma 35-31 en route to the National Championship (the Cornhuskers & Sooners finished 1-2 after the bowls, with fellow Big Eight school Colorado finishing No. 3). It’s been fifty years since that cold November afternoon in Norman.
When both teams take to the field Saturday for the 11 a.m. local time kickoff matching up a current Big Ten and future SEC school, I’ll look past the present for a second and enjoy what was once more.
Maryland (2-0) at Illinois (1-2), 9 p.m., Big Ten Network
It’s not technically homecoming for Mike Locksley, but the Terps head coach was the offensive coordinator for the Fighting Illini when they last went to the Rose Bowl in 2008. First-year Illini coach Bret Bielema led Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowls before leaving for Arkansas, where he had three last-place SEC West finishes in five years for the Razorbacks. He has one tough task ahead in Champaign: Illinois hasn’t had a winning season since 2011 and has dropped consecutive games to Texas-San Antonio and Virginia by the combined score of 79-44. You could say Locksley has a similar hill to climb in College Park (Maryland’s last winning conference mark came in 2010 and the Big Ten East is consistently better), but he’s two years further along in the process than his counterpart. He also possesses the real deal at quarterback in Taulia Tagovailoa (76% completion rate for 606 yards and 6 touchdowns).
Presto’s Pick: Terrapins triumph, 37-16.
No. 15 Virginia Tech (2-0) at West Virginia (1-1), noon, FS1.
These two schools met every year from 1973-2005 and were once conference rivals; the Hokies won the most recent meeting in 2017 at FedEx Field. The Hokies will be playing without tight end James Mitchell (5 catches for 42 yards and a touchdown this year, 26-435-4 last season) who’s out for the season with a knee injury, giving redshirt junior Drake DeIuliis (six career receptions) and sophomore Nick Gallo (11 catches in 2020) their chances to shine. Tech has been impressive in wins over No. 10 North Carolina and Middle Tennessee, while the Mountaineers’ lone victory so far has been over Long Island University (the Sharks have been outscored 114-10 in two losses this season). WVU also lost two fumbles and two interceptions in their loss at Maryland. Virginia Tech is 4-1 in road openers under head coach Justin Fuente.
Presto’s Pick: Hokies make it happen, 20-16.
Virginia (2-0) at No. 21 North Carolina (1-1, 0-1 ACC), 7:30 p.m., ACC Network.
The defending Coastal Division champ faces the preseason favorite. The question for UVa is can they contain UNC quarterback Sam Howell, who threw for 352 yards while rushing for 104 more against Georgia State. However, in the Tar Heels’ opening game against Virginia Tech, he threw three interceptions. Cavaliers QB Brennan Armstrong may not have been exactly “tested” by the accommodating defenses of William & Mary or Illinois, but he did throw for three touchdowns while running for another score last year in a 44-41 win against the Tar Heels in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers went 0-4 on the road last season and haven’t posted a winning record away from Scott Stadium since 2011, but they have won two straight in Chapel Hill.
A trip to Kenan Memorial Stadium means Kippy & Buffy are reunited with their UNC tailgating pals Meredith & Peyton (truthfully one has forgotten which one is which-they’re both family names). ACC play means red wine for the first time this fall, and they’re going to enjoy the September air with an Oregon Pinot Noir. Sokol Blosser Winery first planted grapes fifty years ago, and their 2017 Blossom Ridge Estate Pinot Noir “smells of spring flowers and lavender. Soft tannins, fresh red fruits and orange zest are on the palate with a soft cedar finish.” Liquor.com recommends lamb chops as the appropriate pairing.
Presto’s Pick: Cavaliers show plenty of orange zest but are doomed by a soft finish, falling 28-24.
James Madison beats Weber State, Howard is humbled by Hampton, Georgetown loses to Harvard, William & Mary beats Colgate, Richmond loses at Villanova, Morgan State slips to Sacred Heart, Towson tumbles to North Dakota State.
Last Week: 9-0 (although I forgot to pick against Georgetown). Season: 14-2.