Thanksgiving weekend presents a strange dichotomy. One second you’re huddled with your fam, and the next conflict has erupted over football allegiances. At least when it comes to pro football, families from the same city or state have just one franchise to root for. Not so much for college football, which can split regions into East and West Germany-like factions.
Some schools get their rivalry games out of the way early. Others prefer to let them simmer until they boil over in the final weekend of the season. Welcome to Rivalry Weekend.
Nowhere is this weekend more contentious than in Alabama where bloodlines will be split along the lines of Tigers and Crimson Tides. On Saturday afternoon they’ll rattle each other’s cages, knock each other in the mouth, scrap with one another in a tornado of orange, blue and crimson, then settle around their televisions or tailgates and watch the Iron Bowl.
Not all rivalries play out on the gridiron though. Some are incorporeal rivalries that that are being waged from vast distances or only exist in our minds.
Out in Arizona, there’s Rich Rod successfully transitioning Arizona into a Pac-12 threat while his successor Brady Hoke flames out with the last of Rodriguez’s recruits. Beating Oregon was Rodriguez's way of reminding everyone who college football's original shotgun zone-read spread offense OG was. Once true freshman Anu Solomon burns up his redshirt, Arizona will be on its way to making the Pac-12 title a cactus state time share.
Running back is the focal point of Rodriguez’s offense and Ka’Deem Carey has arguably been better for Rodriguez than Steve Slaton was at West Virginia. Conversely Hoke’s Wolverines are breaking ignominious records for futility running the football with highly-touted freshman Derrick Green, senior Fitzgerald Toussaint and quarterback Devin Gardner getting smothered behind one of the worst blocking lines in college football. Michigan ranks 112th nationally in yards per rush (Ohio State, their opponent on Saturday is first nationally).
Rodriguez thought he was screwed out of a fourth season on the job at Michigan, but it’s beginning to look more likely that their Big Ten title in Hoke’s first season was a product of Denard Robinson’s play, in addition to Rodriguez’s offense and targeted recruiting.
That should bring a smile to the faces of forlorn Buckeye fans. Ohio State really hates the BCS, but only because it’s so apathetic towards their program for the second year in a row.
There’s also Bo Pelini inviting vitriol from Nebraska fans who want to see him expelled despite another nine-win season hanging in the balance on Saturday. However, another win may secure him another season, so prepare for the possibility of boo-birds erupting from the Nebraska crowd if their team takes a comfortable lead over Iowa.
The most contentious microwave rivalry playing out is between two athletic programs with no connection to one another, before this season.
Fresno State and Northern Illinois come from two different worlds. However, only one is virtually guaranteed a BCS bowl berth if they win out while the other will be left out in the cold to fend for themselves. The BCS has to select one of them if they are ranked in the top-16 ahead of the American Athletic Conference’s eventual champion Central Florida or Louisville.
The differences between how the two programs are getting there is what makes this even more compelling. Lynch is the quintessential college quarterback. He’s a dual threat that’s under six feet tall, while Derek Carr is a statuesque 6-3 quarterback who’ll be knifing touchdowns through NFL defenses next season. Last weekend, Carr passed for 537 yards and seven touchdowns. On Tuesday night, Lynch ran for 300 yards for the second-time this season in a frigid hour of MAC-tion at home. Fresno State’s pass-happy offense is made possible thanks to tanning weather on the West Coast in November.
Ultimately, from the looks of it, the Huskies of Northern Illinois are going to be madder than a dog with rabies when the final BCS rankings are released. Their schedule is considered to be the tougher one, but voters suffer from NIU fatigue after watching them get steamrolled by Florida State in the Orange Bowl last January.
HEISMAN JURY – These candidates are making their case for why they should be awarded the sport’s most prestigious trophy. Each week, TSL will deliberate over each player’s weekly exploits.
1. Jameis Winston – One week after getting beaten by a team that netted zero positive passing yards, the Gators get the best pure passing freshman in recent memory. A poll conducted by the Associated Press this week revealed that 27 out of 33 voters would not remove Winston from consideration if the state doesn’t decide whether or not to file charges by the date of the Heisman voting deadline on December 9.
2. Andre Williams – What haven’t we said about Williams over the last two weeks? He’s had a better month than most programs have had all season.
3. Jordan Lynch – Lynch rushed for 300 yards for the second time this season and is on pace to become the first 3,000/2,000 player in college football history. Actually, he’s on pace to become the first quarterback to ever amass 2,000 rushing yards, which would be extraordinary if he hadn’t already thrown for 2,500 yards.
4. Derek Carr – Not only is he climbing up the Heisman hierarchy, he's climbing draft boards as well. His stock is shooting up into the top-10 of the upcoming NFL Draft.
RING OF FIRE – The time for mollywhoppings by FBS programs over puny up-and-coming teams is over(well almost). Rivalry week presents us with a full-slate of pivotal weekend matchups between evenly-matched foes.
No. 22 UCLA at No. 25 USC (Sat. 8:00 ET, ABC)
Ed Orgeron can continue making his case to be USC’s Opening Day coach in 2014. Anthony Barr’s sack of Matt Barkley last year left them without a quarterback. If UCLA’s defense sacks and pillages the Men of Troy in the L.A. Coliseum this weekend, then USC will be without a coach. Outside of L..A. this has as much relevance as Kevin Hart touring in Vermont.
No. 3 Ohio State at Michigan/ No. 2 Florida at Florida Sat., (Noon, ESPN/ABC)
Michigan v. Ohio State is the more competitive noon rivalry game involving a top-3 squad and a coach hanging on for employment by a string. Mollywhop Bowl 2013 between No. 2 FSU and unranked FCS bottom feeder Florida. That’s really all that can be said and that’s not saying much. Michigan is 113th in sacks allowed per game and Ohio State is second in sacks per game. Devin Gardner will have several seats.
Arizona at No. No. 13 Arizona State (Sat. 9:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network)
As if claiming ownership of the oldest rivalry trophy in college football isn’t enough, Arizona State will also host the Pac-12 Championship Game next week with a win over Arizona on Saturday. Two of the Pac-12’s best rushing attacks go tit-for-tat in the battle for the 114-year-old Territorial Cup (if Marion Grice can’t go, D.J. Foster is more than capable of carrying the load), but only one has a quarterback that can serve as a catalyst for the offense. Taylor Kelly can not only wing it by air, but he can pump out first downs on the ground. Ka’Deem Carey can’t tote the rock 48 times against Arizona State’s Will Sutton & Co. without getting an anvil dropped on him if B.J. Denker takes a knee while B.J. Dumpster retakes the helm of Arizona’s offense. On the other hand, maybe Denker should be aware that Arizona State sacked UCLA's Brett Hundley nine times last week.
No. 6 Clemson at No. 10 South Carolina (Sat. 7:00 p.m. ESPN 2)
Clemson faces a litany of obstacles in its battle to halt their four-game losing streak to South Carolina. This could be the regular season finale for the extra-motivated Jadeveon Clowney in South Carolina. However, Clowney’s a red herring. The pass rushing demon has recorded just two sacks this season. Connor Shaw is a safer bet in Williams-Brice Stadium than Sharkeisha in a street fight. He’s undefeated in his career as a starter at home. This is as good as it will get for the Palmetto Bowl rivalry for a long time.
No. 21 Texas A&M at No. 5 Missouri (Sat. 7:45 p.m. ESPN)
In the Big 12, A&M and Mizzou were just two names on the schedule. Now, they are the new foreign exchange students in the SEC. And from all appearances, it appears the conference is doing everything in its power to pit them against one another to create an artificial rivalry. If Johnny Manziel can rebound from getting whacked like Sonny Corleone against LSU and lead the Aggies to squash Missouri’s SEC Championship trip plans, then this emerging rivalry game will get some real kick to it.
Best part about Sonny’s assassination is the kick to his head and additional concussion present on the autopsy by one of the gunmen after he’s been riddled with bullets and shot from close range. If Michael Sam and the Tigers pass rush batter Manziel, that would be the kick to the dome on his season.
No. 1 Alabama at No. 4 Auburn (Sat. 3:30 p.m. CBS, 3:30)
This is the final regular season game of the season with national championship implications. If AJ McCarron wants to dial up his trip to the Heisman ceremony, he should start by using up his AirMiles against Auburn's pass defense. Auburn's rush defense is 53rd in the country while their pass defense is 100th. Auburn’s attack revolves around the nation’s best rushing offense while Alabama’s run defense is their pride and joy. If Nick Marshall is going to lead the Tigers to a win over Alabama, he may have to do it with his arm and his legs.
JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS
The other unspoken rivalry taking place this weekend is between Florida and Florida State’s arrest rates.
Urban Meyer gets a bad reputation for his disciplinary record at the University of Florida. There are anecdotes abound about Meyer giving more leeway to players with star potential or that he recruited, while being more stern with recruits that weren’t producing on the field. However, earlier this year Meyer followed through on one of the few policies he does enforce.
Meyer has a strict zero-tolerance policy for players accused of crimes against women. In the offseason, he dismissed star running back Carlos Hyde when he was accused of slapping a woman in a club. Eventually, Hyde was reinstated albeit after serving a multi-game suspension when evidence vindicated him. Needless to say, the allegations against Winston are more serious.
The debate over whether the Seminoles should sit Winston inspires flashbacks to Bobby Bowden’s “Warsaw Rules” for kicker Sebastian Janikowski.
After refusing to penalize Janikowski for blatantly violating curfew for a night out on Bourbon Street during the week of the national championship game, Bowden absolved the Polish kicker with a lead foot by alluding to judging Janikowski's curfew by his time in Warsaw, Poland, calling them "Warsaw rules."
A few months later, Janikowski was arrested for possession of GHB, the date rape drug.
I’d be remiss not to point out that Winston will be starting against Urban Meyer’s former squad while his current one twiddles its thumbs outside the BCS' National Championship VIP section. There may be a bit of misplaced homerism from those making the comparison, but it’s ironic that the season ends this way. If this were an NCAA violation, Winston were accused of, this conversation would already be taking place just as it did during the opening week when Johnny Manziel was staring down the barrel of an NCAA suspension.
Whether or not Winston wins the Heisman is becoming irrelevant. By Meyer’s standards, Winston wouldn’t even be playing and as this sordid case stretches out, it’s a conversation worth having even if Jimbo Fisher isn’t admitting it.