Dress rehearsals are nice, but there’s no substitute for being on stage facing the audience with the lights on and the curtain goes up for the first time. Maryland and Virginia both begin league play this weekend, and they’re not alone. Of the AP Top 25 teams in action this week, 16 will be playing conference openers.
And that’s a good thing as we put college football’s bread course behind us, for the most part. No matter who you play outside your league, nobody knows what you can and can’t do better than those who reside in your neighborhood.
So, after three tuneups, it’s time to see if Texas is really back and how wobbly Alabama might actually be. Will Michigan be hampered by an extremely soft nonleague slate? And will Deion Sanders’ Colorado Buffaloes continue to roam?
No. 19 CU’s game at No. 10 Oregon is one of six matchups this week where both teams are ranked, and that doesn’t count a Clemson team that’s on the cusp of the Top 25 facing a Florida State squad that might also be back. Raise the curtain, indeed.
Virginia (0-3) vs. NC State (2-1), 7:30 p.m., ESPN
The Cavaliers play on Friday for the second straight week. It’s been more famine than feast for Virginia, a team that’s gone 2-6 on Fridays since 2017, with both of their wins coming in 2019.
The Cavaliers also face former quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who set season and career records for the Hoos during his time in Charlottesville. So far, Armstrong has also been leg-strong: in addition to completing 63% of his passes for 679 yards and three touchdowns, Armstrong leads the team with 161 yards rushing, posting three more scores on the ground.
The current Cavaliers QB situation involves injury (Tony Muskett missed the game against Maryland due to a bad shoulder) and inexperience (true freshman Anthony Colandrea turned the ball over four times in the fourth quarter at Maryland), resulting in an offense that’s currently last in the ACC in rushing and total yards, as well as scoring.
Kippy and Buffy score big with their first red wine of the season. As a familiar quarterback makes his way back to Charlottesville, they go back to a bottle from the first Virginia winery they visited (back in the Al Groh era): Chateau O’Brien. A 2016 Petit Verdot kicks off ACC play.
“Full bodied and broadly tannic,” the winery website reads. “This wine expresses opulent dark fruit with subtle spice accents and finishes elegant and clean with ripe, rich lingering fruit.”
Break out the aged cheddar.
Presto’s Pick: A less than elegant finish for the Cavaliers in a 33-17 loss.
Virginia Tech (1-2) at Marshall (2-0), noon, ESPN2
These teams last met in 2018, when the Hokies needed to schedule an extra game (after the game against East Carolina was canceled) to reach six wins and bowl eligibility. Right now, the 2023 edition’s window of opportunity for postseason contention isn’t closing, but a loss here would necessitate a winning ACC record — something they haven’t had since 2019.
These schools are a little over three hours apart, and even though they’ve met just six times in the last 70 years, there’s plenty of familiarity. Hokies head coach Brent Pry’s father Jim played for the Thundering Herd in the early 1970s, and current Virginia Tech quarterback Grant Wells played at the school before transferring into Pry’s program a year ago.
Wells hurt his ankle in the loss to Purdue two weeks ago and is a question mark for this one. Spot starter Kyron Drones threw for 190 yards and a touchdown while running for 74 yards. The Thundering Herd have not been tested in wins over 1-2 Albany and 0-3 East Carolina, but they have enjoyed a week off.
Presto’s Pick: Hokies wrap up nonconference play with a needed 27-16 win.
Maryland (3-0) at Michigan State (2-1), 3:30 p.m., NBC
After three wins by an average margin of 26 points, the Terps hit the road for the first time in 2023 as they begin Big Ten play. They’re 0-5 in East Lansing since joining the Big Ten and haven’t beaten the Spartans on their home field since 1950, when Biggie Munn roamed the MSU sidelines.
The coaching situation is a question mark for Michigan State, with Mel Tucker suspended by the school pending the results of a Title IX investigation and Office for Civil Rights case over allegations of sexual misconduct.
On the field, the Spartans’ defense leads the Big Ten in getting off the field on third down (81.6%) and ranks second with 10 sacks over three games. Maryland’s offensive line was a question mark this offseason, but it’s allowed just three sacks through three games. The offense on the whole leads the conference in third down efficiency.
Still, head coach Mike Locksley said earlier this week that not only do the Terps have quite a bit to clean up (including taking too much time to line up when the ball was in the middle of the field), but they also have to start stronger, after falling behind 14-0 in each of the last two games.
Presto’s Pick: Terrapins triumph, 24-17.
James Madison (3-0) at Utah State (1-2), 8 p.m., Mountain West Network
The Dukes face a Mountain West Conference team for the first time in program history. The Aggies put 78 points on the board in their win over Idaho State while finding ways to score against No. 25 Iowa and Air Force.
They’re powered by a ground game that averages 6 yards per carry and a safety valve receiver in Terrell Vaughn who’s tallied 28 catches through three games. But they’ve also coughed up 31 points per game.
JMU, behind former Arizona quarterback Jordan McCloud, has played turnover-free football through three weeks. In his first game action in almost two years, the senior has hurt opponents less with his legs than his decision making, completing 66% of his passes while rushing for just 54 yards over three games.
This will be the first time JMU will play three straight road games since 2019, and that edition needed overtime to escape Stony Brook and complete a sweep. After winning the first two legs of this trip by a combined three points, will their luck run out this time?
Presto’s Pick: Dukes deliver, 21-20.
Georgetown wins at Columbia, William & Mary beats Maine, Richmond tops Stony Brook, Towson tumbles to Norfolk State, Morgan State edges Albany.
Last Week: 6-3.
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