Get the Athlon Sports Newsletter
Coaching connections, scandals, shared history make these games significant
Anyone who follows college football knows the Alabama vs. Michigan opener will be one of the most important games of the college football season, encompassing Alabama’s bid to repeat as national champion, Denard Robinson’s Heisman Trophy campaign and more.
While we’re interested in those storylines for the the opener, we like to see the whole picture. For example, did you know these two storied programs have played only three times -- and never during the regular season and never outside the state of Florida?
Just about every game has a backstory -- a former student facing his coaching mentor, a rematch of a historically significant game, or the end of a rivalry series, a recruiting grudge match. That’s part of the reason we love college football.
The 2012 season will be no exception for what we’re calling “Backstory Games.” Mind you, these games don’t necessarily have to be competitive. These are simply games with the most intriguing subplots.
Sept. 1: Arkansas State at Oregon
The Offensive Genius Bowl
Arkansas State’s Gus Malzahn and Oregon’s Chip Kelly are two of the brightest offensive minds in college football thanks to their up-tempo spread approach. It’s hard to believe that as recently as 2005 almost no one knew who they were. That year, Malzahn was the coach at Springdale (Ark.) High, and Kelly was the offensive coordinator at Division I-AA New Hampshire. Moreover, the last time these two coaches were on the same field was the BCS National Championship Game following the 2010 season. Then-Auburn offensive coordinator Malzahn had the upper hand that day, but Oregon will be heavily favored for the 2012 opener.
Sept. 1: Washington State at BYU
The Leach-LaVell Bowl
Washington State's Mike Leach famously is one of the few successful college football coaches who never played a down of college football. That’s not to say Leach didn’t learn much football during his days as a student at BYU. Leach’s pass-oriented spread offenses has some of its roots in LaVell Edwards’ spread at BYU. Leach and his former boss Hal Mumme made plenty of visits to Provo when they were formulating their playbooks at Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State.
Related: Coaches anonymously scout BYU
Sept. 1: Marshall at West Virginia
Marshall’s Last Chance Bowl
The Friends of Coal Bowl (the game’s real name) enters its final season for the foreseeable future. West Virginia’s non-conference schedule is full until 2017, and those schedules don’t include traditional rival Pittsburgh. Not that West Virginia was all that excited about even playing about a series it has dominated. Marshall is 0-6 since the series re-started in 2006, with only one of those games decided by fewer than 17 points.
Sept. 15: UCF at Ohio State
Oct. 13: North Carolina at Miami
Oct. 27: Ohio State at Penn State
The Scandal Trilogy
Five schools all in varying degrees scandals that has cost the jobs of the late Penn State coach Joe Paterno, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, North Carolina coach Butch Davis, North Carolina assistant John Blake and UCF athletic director Keith Tribble. Only UCF is eligible for a bowl in 2012, and even that’s precarious if the Knights lose their appeal with the NCAA. The tally of sanctions so far: Eight years of postseason bans, 59 docked scholarships and 16 years of probation. And that doesn’t include any potential NCAA sanctions for Miami or for North Carolina’s academic scandal.
Sept. 15: Connecticut at Maryland
The Randy Edsall Bowl
Don’t expect many in Connecticut to feel much sympathy for Randy Edsall’s dismal debut at Maryland. The Terrapins’ job is a step up from Connecticut, but Edsall didn’t win many fans in Storrs by announcing his abrupt departure via conference call with UConn players after the Fiesta Bowl. The Huskies -- many of whom recruited by Edsall -- could make his stay at Maryland that much more uncomfortable if they defeat Edsall the Terps on their home field.
Sept. 22: Rutgers at Arkansas
The Not Who You Expected to See Bowl
As recently as December, this looked to be a rematch between Rutgers’ Greg Schiano and Arkansas’ Bobby Petrino. On a Thursday night in November 2006, Schiano and the Scarlet Knights defeated Petrino’s Louisville team on a game-winning field goal with 13 seconds remaining. The win was one of the most memorable moments in Rutgers and Big East football history and the only loss of the season for Louisville. Instead of Schiano v. Petrino, we’ll see Kyle Flood v. John L. Smith.
Sept. 22: Akron at Tennessee
Terry Bowden’s Return
The former Auburn coach will coach in an SEC stadium for the first time since a 24-3 loss at Florida on Oct. 17, 1998. Despite starting his career with a 20-1-1 record in his first two seasons in 1993-94, Bowden eventually was forced to resign midseason. In Bowden's last game against Tennessee, the Peyton Manning-led Volunteers' overcame six turnovers and a 10-point halftime deficite to defeat Bowden's Auburn team 30-29 in the SEC Championship Game.
Oct. 6: Miami v. Notre Dame (in Chicago)
The Return of Catholics v. Convicts
The stakes aren’t nearly as high as they were from 1987-90 when these two teams played under that moniker and accounted for three national championships. Still, this the first regular-season meeting between the two since 1990 (Notre Dame beat Miami in the 2010 Sun Bowl). In 1989, Notre Dame’s 27-10 loss to Miami in the regular season likely cost the 12-1 Irish the national title. A year earlier, undefeated Notre Dame handed Miami its only loss of the season, a 31-30 defeat in South Bend, as the ’88 Irish won the national championship.
Oct. 6: New Mexico State at Idaho
Remember the WAC Bowl
The league began in 1962 with Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming and had 24 football teams come and go through the years. Even two new members (Texas State and UTSA) were picked up by other conferences ahead of the Aggies and Vandals, both former Sun Belt members themselves. New Mexico State and Idaho were the last WAC teams standing before the league announced Monday it would drop football.
Oct. 13: Alabama at Missouri
The Kent State Bowl
In a strange twist of fate, SEC expansion will bring Kent State alums Nick Saban, now at Alabama, and Gary Pinkel, now at Missouri, onto the same field for the 40th anniversary of the Golden Flashes’ only conference championship. Saban was a safety on that Kent State team, and Pinkel was a tight end. Both played for eventual Washington coach Don James on a team that helped Kent State heal from the fatal shootings of four student protestors at the hands of National Guardsmen in 1969.
Oct. 27: Notre Dame at Oklahoma
Notre Dame and Oklahoma have played only once since 1968, so this will be a rare matchup between two historical powers. It’s also a reminder of the 1957 meeting when Notre Dame defeated Oklahoma 7-0 in Norman. The Irish upset the Sooners (an 18-point favorite) that season to end Oklahoma’s record 47-game win streak. Starting with that meeting, Notre Dame has won seven in a row over the Sooners.
Nov. 2: Washington at Cal
The Tosh Lupoi Bowl
In one of the biggest coups of recruiting season, Washington plucked Cal’s defensive line coach and ace recruiter Tosh Lupoi from Berkeley, destabilizing the Bears’ signing class. While most of Lupoi’s recruits didn’t follow him to Seattle, Shaq Thompson did. The safety could start from Day One for the Huskies.
Related: A Husky resurgence coming to Seattle
Nov. 11: Texas A&M at Alabama
The Our Coach is Your Coach Bowl
Texas A&M gave Alabama Bear Bryant. Alabama gave Texas A&M Dennis Franchione. Like Bryant, Gene Stallings, an original Junction Boy under The Bear, spent time in College Station before winning a national championship. The two programs have shared coaches. Now they share a division.
Nov. 17: Oklahoma at West Virginia
The Bill Stewart Bowl
West Virginia capped a wild 2007 season with a shocking 48-28 win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. After the Mountaineers played themselves out of BCS championship game with a loss to 5-7 Pittsburgh, Rich Rodriguez bolted for Michigan, leaving interim coach Bill Stewart in charge. Riding the momentum of the win, West Virginia promoted Stewart to the position permanently. Expect the mood to be somber. Stewart died in May of a heart attack less than a year after he was relieved of his coaching duties.
Nov. 23: Arizona at Arizona State
Backyard Brawl West
This is more than just the West Virginia-Pittsburgh rivalry moved West, even though Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez and Arizona State coach Todd Graham are ex-Backyard Brawl coaches (and not at the same time). Rodriguez hired four assistants who coached under Graham last season and three others who were on the other sideline at West Virginia. Graham himself was a West Virginia assistant under Rodriguez. All the familiarity should add an edge to the rivalry.