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August 15, 2011

Monday with Mike: Everything to lose

Coaches - and even some players - spout platitudes about how each game matters as much as the next, but anyone who follows college football (or any sport, for that matter) knows there are some games that are more important than others.

For instance, LSU's game with Oregon is more important than the Tigers' game with Northwestern State (La.), just as Florida State's showdown with Oklahoma carries more weight than the Seminoles' season opener against Charleston Southern.

It also follows that losing some games hurts far more - or is vastly more embarrassing - than losing some others. For instance, a conference loss generally is more damaging than faltering in a non-conference contest and losing to, say, Northwestern State (La.) is far more embarrassing than losing to Oregon.

A quick perusal of the early-season schedule shows that some teams have far more to lose than just a game. For instance, Penn State plays at Temple on Sept. 17. Penn State leads the "rivalry" with its in-state foe 36-3-1. The Nittany Lions are expected to win and, frankly, it won't be a big deal if they do win; if they don't win, though, they're going to be ripped, even if it was a road loss.

Here are 10 other games, listed chronologically, of that ilk - where the road team seems all but assured of a win and has nothing to gain but will lose face with a loss.

Mississippi State at Memphis, Sept. 3: These teams play often - this will be the 44th meeting - but Memphis hasn't beaten the Bulldogs since 1993, when current Tigers coach Larry Porter was a Tigers senior tailback. This is a bad Memphis team, and it'll be playing a Mississippi State team that has top-25 hopes. Believe this: If Mississippi State loses, it's not going to finish in the top 25.

Stanford at Duke, Sept. 10: A few years ago, you would've seen this game on the schedule and said something along the lines of "Hey, it's neat that two good academic schools are getting together." Now, though, Stanford is coming off a BCS appearance and will open the season in the top 10 while most Duke fans are patiently awaiting the start of basketball practice. A loss in Durham would cast a pall on Stanford's season.

Boston College at UCF, Sept. 10: UCF is the defending Conference USA champion, and the Knights will pose a big problem for a BC team that needs to ramp up its passing attack. UCF is the rare C-USA school that places a high priority on defense, and a one-dimensional BC attack isn't going to worry the Knights. UCF should have an excellent rushing attack, which means a strong BC linebacking corps is going to get a workout. UCF snapped a 10-game losing streak to Big Six opponents with a Liberty Bowl victory over Georgia last season.

Georgia Tech at Middle Tennessee, Sept. 10: Georgia Tech pounded MTSU in Atlanta last season, but this will be Tech's first road game at a non-Big Six school since it tangled with BYU in 2003. Tech has some issues, but you'd think its rushing attack could carve up a Blue Raiders defense that will have five new starters in its defensive front seven. Still, a visit from a Big Six opponent is a big deal for a Sun Belt school and MTSU's crowd is going to be loud.

Purdue at Rice, Sept. 10: A Big Ten team (Northwestern) played at Rice last season and spanked the Owls. But this Purdue team doesn't project to be as good as that Northwestern team, and Rice's multiple-look offense is going to cause some issues for the Boilermakers' defense. This is an important season for third-year Purdue coach Danny Hope, and an early-season loss to a middle-of-the-pack Conference USA team wouldn't help his job security.

Texas Tech at New Mexico, Sept. 17: Texas Tech is in Lubbock, and Lubbock is closer to Albuquerque than it is to Austin, Texas. That's why these teams will be meeting for the 44th time. But in this case, losing to a quasi-familiar foe would be an embarrassment to Texas Tech. New Mexico has been horrible the past two seasons, and a Red Raiders team looking to gain some momentum in coach Tommy Tuberville's second season can't afford a loss to a team of the Lobos' caliber.

Indiana at North Texas, Sept. 24: It's rare that a Big Six school travels to play at a Sun Belt school (there are three this season, and all three are on this list). Generally in those cases, the Big Six school is a middling one in its league, giving the Sun Belt member a legit chance for the win. That's the case in this one. This will be the first true road game for new IU coach Kevin Wilson and it will be the second home game for new UNT coach Dan McCarney in his school's new stadium. UNT RB Lance Dunbar could have a huge day against what likely will be a poor Hoosiers defense.

Nebraska at Wyoming, Sept. 24: This will be the sixth meeting between these border "rivals." Nebraska is 5-0 against the Cowboys, and this will be the first time they've met since 1994. Wyoming has won two of its past three home games against Big Six foes. A loss in this one would be a black eye for the "Black Shirts" - and for their new league.

Virginia Tech at Marshall, Sept. 24: Surprisingly, the Hokies play twice at Conference USA stadiums this season; they meet East Carolina on Sept. 10. But a loss to the Thundering Herd would be far more damaging to Virginia Tech. This is the 11th meeting, but just the fourth since 1953. Tech has played just twice at Marshall, in 1939 and '40, and lost both. This is the final non-conference game of the season for the Hokies, who play Clemson and Miami in back-to-back weeks after this one.

Duke at Florida International, Oct. 1: This is one of three games this season in which a Sun Belt Conference team is playing host to a Big Six school, and it wouldn't be surprising if the Sun Belt team won the game. FIU tied for the Sun Belt title last season and will head into this season as one of the co-favorites. Duke, meanwhile, once again has been picked to finish last in the ACC's Coastal Division. Two of Duke's best players - WRs Donovan Varner and Conner Vernon - are Miami natives (both went to Gulliver Prep), but their homecoming might not be a happy one. Any kind of victory over a Big Six opponent is big for the Sun Belt, and any kind of loss by a Big Six opponent to a Sun Belt school hurts that Big Six league.


Saying good-bye

Last week's announcement by Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger that he would retire at the end of the season was met by a shrug by too many folks.

Schnellenberger, 77, has had a long and full football life. He played for Bear Bryant at Kentucky. He was an assistant for Bryant at Alabama, where he was a key figure in the recruitment of Joe Namath, and for George Allen with the Los Angeles Rams and Don Shula with the Miami Dolphins. He was a head coach in the NFL, with the Baltimore Colts. He also has been a head coach at Oklahoma and Louisville, taking the Cardinals to the first major bowl, the Fiesta, in school history in 1991 (where, coincidentally, they crushed Alabama).

But it's Schnellenberger's work at the University of Miami that should draw the most hosannas. He was at Miami for just five seasons, 1979-83, but he's the guy who deserves most of the credit for making Miami into "The U."

Miami trustees actually talked about getting rid of football in the mid-1970s, but the hiring of Lou Saban (don't know who Lou is? Look up "peripatetic" in the dictionary to get an idea) after the 1976 season started to turn things around. Saban lasted just two seasons, then Schnellenberger came aboard.

Schnellenberger was hired off Shula's Dolphins staff. Schnellenberger was offensive coordinator with the Dolphins from 1970-72, then again from 1975-79 after an ill-fated one-plus seasons as the Colts' coach in 1973 and '74.

At the time of his hiring, no Florida school had won a national title. Schnellenberger took a look around and a light bulb went off: He realized there were hundreds of high-level recruits within a four-hour drive of Miami and termed the area "the state of Miami." He built his UM teams around those players, and speed was the calling card.

It's too simplistic to just say he turned high school defensive backs into college linebackers and high school linebackers into college defensive linemen. But the need for speed did drive Schnellenberger on the recruiting trail, just as it did successors Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson.

Miami won its first national title in 1983, stunning unbeaten and top-ranked Nebraska 31-30 in the Orange Bowl in one of the most entertaining bowls ever. "The U." went on to win national titles in 1987, '89, '91 and '01, but without Schnellenberger, it seems doubtful Miami would have five national titles.

Schnellenberger's work at UM woke up the rest of the state, too, and Florida, Florida State and Miami have won a combined 10 titles starting with that 1983 season.

Schnellenberger never was able to build on that 1983 success with Miami, as he took the head-coaching job with the USFL's new Miami club in 1984. But that club never played a game in Miami and moved to Orlando, and the new owners let Schnellenberger go. He often has said leaving UM for the USFL job was a huge mistake.

At FAU, he has shepherded the program from the beginning, signing on originally as a fund-raiser but eventually becoming the coach. The gravelly voiced Schnellenberger can be, uh, blustery and was so in his early days at FAU, saying the school would be playing for national titles within its first decade of playing football.

That didn't happen - and almost certainly never will. But Schnellenberger's final season at FAU coincides with the first season of the school's $70-million on-campus stadium - a stadium that wouldn't be there without Schnellenberger. It would be fitting, then, that on Dec. 3, when FAU plays host to Louisiana-Monroe in the regular-season finale, school officials unveil a sign proclaiming the facility's new name as "Howard Schnellenberger Stadium."


Grid bits
Most teams have had less than a week of fall workouts, but there already have been some key players lost for at least a portion of the season. The biggest loss, of course, is that of Arkansas TB Knile Davis, who will miss the season with an ankle injury. The Hogs will have a new quarterback, and Davis - who ran for 1,322 yards and 13 TDs last season - was a proven playmaker who would've taken a ton of pressure off that new quarterback. Now, Davis is gone, and there will be a heck of a lot more pressure on that quarterback, who almost certainly will be Tyler Wilson. With Davis, the Hogs went three-deep at the position. Now, though, either Dennis Johnson or Ronnie Wingo will be a starter instead of a reserve, and the drop-off is going to be huge. Johnson and Wingo can be effective in limited use, but neither has done anything to make folks think they can be a 20-carry-a-game feature back. Davis' injury means coach Bobby Petrino's team has gone from a dark-horse national title contender to a team whose ceiling now looks to be nine wins.

Arizona State also suffered a blow, when starting LB Brandon Magee suffered an Achilles injury that will sideline him for the season. Magee would've been a key part of what might've been the nation's best linebacking corps; he was second on the team with 73 tackles last season. His spot in the lineup likely will go to Oliver Aaron or Colin Parker, both of whom are seniors. Both played important backup roles last season, but as with Davis and Arkansas, neither is as good as the injured starter and now depth has taken a big hit. Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson has to be wondering why karma is out to get him. During spring practice, ASU lost starting CB Omar Bolden and starting WR T.J. Simpson to knee injuries that will cause them to miss the season.

This fall, FX joins the fraternity of networks showing college football, and the first game will be Tulsa at Oklahoma on Sept. 3. Perhaps the biggest news relating to FX and its weekly broadcasts: Gus Johnson will be doing the play-by-play for games on the network. Charles Davis will be the analyst and former Minnesota coach Tim Brewster will be the sideline analyst.

After this season, some future home Notre Dame games will be televised on a network other than NBC. "We're going to take a game or two and put it on Versus," NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus told the Salt Lake Tribune last week. Versus will be rebranded as NBC Sports Channel in January.

ESPN has announced the first three sites for College GameDay this fall. The group will be in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 3 for LSU-Oregon; in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Sept. 10 for Michigan-Notre Dame; and in Tallahassee, Fla., on Sept. 17 for Florida State-Oklahoma.

Washington & Lee, a Division III school in Lexington, Va., announced recently that it will raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project by seeking one cent donations for every yard gained during the 2011 season. We hope more schools follow that lead. Hey, just think of the money that could be raised if Houston, Tulsa and Oklahoma State followed suit.

Rivals.com ran its bowl predictions last week, and there was some email asking about the name change for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. It used to be the Humanitarian Bowl and was sponsored by a chain of truck stops. Now, it's named after Idaho's most famous export. No joke: The logo is a baked potato in the shape of a football, complete with sour cream.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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