With apologies to the Mid-American Conference, the best weeknight of the upcoming college football season will be Thursday, Nov. 7. Please circle it on your calendar now -- that's when Oregon and Stanford are playing in what's quickly becoming the most compelling rivalry game around. Yes, possibly even more than a certain Heisman winner facing the reigning national champs.
First, let's go over the three types of football rivalries. Most notably, there are the historic games that have been big events for years and years, the ones that are usually tied to geography and frequently make a national impact. You know them well: Auburn-Alabama, Michigan-Ohio State, Texas-Oklahoma and the like. Then there are the minor rivalries, annual games that have lopsided histories but have a sliver of meaning, nonetheless: Notre Dame-Navy, Tennessee-Vanderbilt, etc. And finally, there's the category of era-specific rivalries, often of fleeting importance but perhaps as important as any of the others when at their peak. The best example of late comes in the NFL, where Tom Brady's Patriots and Peyton Manning's Colts served as adversaries for a decade, even though the Colts had moved out of the Pats' division in 2002. These rivalries come about because of certain players or coaches or streaks that coincide with each other.
On the college level, the most obvious example of this last type can be found in the SEC West, where Texas A&M -- along with Kevin Sumlin and Johnny Manziel -- will lock horns against Nick Saban and his PROCESS at Alabama. Manziel's performance last year in Tuscaloosa was legendary and won him the Heisman, so the two teams' upcoming meeting in College Station on Sept. 14 will be one to watch, for sure. The Aggies and Crimson Tide have only played as division rivals that one time (remember that Texas A&M just joined the SEC West last year), but the anticipation to a second meeting has already reached another stratosphere.
That brings us back to Stanford vs. Oregon*, which already has a half-decade of games to build on in the post-Pete Carroll Pac-12.
*The future of this rivalry is in the hands of the NCAA, however, as Oregon looks to avoid significant sanctions stemming from major violations under Chip Kelly.
And even before that, there's quite a history. The Ducks and Cardinal have shared a conference for most of their football existence (Pacific Coast Conference, Athletic Association of Western University, various iterations of the Pacific-#). They've played 73 times, dating back to 1920. But rarely has anyone really cared.
Stanford has Cal and Notre Dame. Oregon has Oregon State and Washington. They've played almost every year for decades, but each has had frequent bouts with prolonged mediocrity, which rendered their annual meeting irrelevant on a national level and nothing more than a yearly conference game, not a rivalry in the true sense of the word.
Well, that's all changed, even in this post-Harbaugh, post-Kelly landscape in which David Shaw has held Stanford steady near the top and Mark Helfrich will look to duplicate that success at Oregon.
Stanford's 17-14 win at Oregon shaped last year's national title and Rose Bowl races and served as a surprising response to Oregon's back-to-back 50-point efforts in the series, one that saw the Cardinal finally stifle the Ducks for a whole game and control the tempo. It was just the latest in what is developing into must-see TV, one of the most important series in America, one that continues to build cachet for several reasons:
1. Two distinctive styles of play. It's not good vs. evil, but these black and white matchups make for more intriguing narratives, for better or worse, and it's easy to pigeonhole Oregon and Stanford into broad, overarching categories. There's the up-tempo, 21st-century spread running at Oregon, and the old-school between-the-tackles offense and physical defense at Stanford. Yes, the Ducks played better defense than they were given credit for last season, and Marcus Mariota was one of the most efficient passers in America; yes, the Cardinal runs plenty of shotgun/spread stuff, including some read option with Kevin Hogan, who also has the ability to improvise in one of the most machine-like offenses in the country. Still, at heart, everything about Oregon screams 2013. Everything about Stanford looks like a throwback. Few things are more interesting in college football than the contrasts in styles, and as Stanford proved last year, old-man football isn't dead.
2. Two rising young stars at quarterback. Oregon's Mariota started from the beginning last year as a freshman, quickly becoming the best of Chip Kelly's quarterbacks. He led the Pac-12 in passing efficiency and finished 13th in rushing yards per game. Stanford's Hogan didn't take over until midway through his freshman season, going 5-0 and picking up his first career road win at Oregon, where he accounted for both of Stanford's touchdowns. They are two of the best young quarterbacks in America, they're both multi-dimensional players and there's at least a decent chance one of them will at least get to New York for a Heisman ceremony. Any thought that Stanford couldn't be as competitive without Luck has been rendered moot.
3. They are the two teams most likely to end the SEC's seven-year national championship reign, along with Ohio State. I had Oregon and Stanford No. 2 and No. 5, respectively, in my first preseason Top 25, and even with the loss of Kelly to the NFL, that's unlikely to change much. Oregon retains continuity in its coaching staff, and any offense built around Mariota and De'Anthony Thomas is going to be nearly impossible to stop. Stanford also has plenty of rebuilding to do after losing players like tight end Zach Ertz and running back Stepfan Taylor, but most signs in the spring have been positive as the Cardinal looks to develop more of a downfield passing game to pair with its power running - and, as always, the Cardinal defense will be solid.
Some like to bemoan the prevalence of midweek college football games (how anybody could complain about Tuesday MACtion is beyond me), but for the TV viewer it certainly doesn't hurt to spread things out, even if that November 7 Stanford-Oregon game is stuck against Oklahoma-Baylor (and Troy-UL Lafayette!) in its Thursday night time slot this year.
The SEC remains king, of course -- Stanford-Oregon will be played on Thursday, with Alabama-LSU that Saturday -- but outside the South, the most important division in college football is the Pac-12 North, and the national champion could very well be decided on a Thursday night in Palo Alto.
Spring football is a weird time. It's a time for positive thinking and every football cliché ever written. It's a time to get excited about the "overlooked" seventh-string receiver from a local town who catches two touchdowns in the spring game and is surely going to be a star or never be heard from again. It's a time to hope for no injuries. Mostly, it's an excuse to go to a stadium, tailgate and watch football for a few hours in April, even if that football almost always is a disappointment after five minutes, once the reality of a barebones scrimmage sets in -- sort of like how quickly the excitement of preseason NFL games wears off instantly.
Still, some things can happen that will make an impact on the 2013 season. Last weekend was the first with a full slate of spring scrimmages now dominating your cable lineup, because Big Ten Network, Pac-12 Network, ESPNU, the Fox College Sports channels and even ESPN need post-college hoops programming. The rest will be played over the next few weeks. Let's pause to take stock of recent developments, both positive and negative.
1. Arizona receiver Austin Hill tears his ACL. Rich Rodriguez's first season in Tucson had to be considered a success. The Wildcats went 8-5, and his offense was so effective that they produced the nation's No. 1 rusher, Ka'Deem Carey, and No. 7 receiver, Austin Hill. Carey is back, but in addition to replacing QB Matt Scott, they'll now have to fill the void left by Hill, who caught 81 passes for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns. Sophomore David Richards is the next most productive returning wideout, catching 29 passes last year, and things have certainly got more difficult for likely new QB B.J. Denker, a senior who attempted 37 passes behind Scott.
2. Florida State fans will not rest until Jameis Winston is starting quarterback. Sure, he may have his attention divided as an outfielder/relief pitcher with a .306 batting average and 2.45 ERA. But it hasn't mattered for the blue-chip QB recruit, who wowed all observers again in the Seminoles' spring game, looking like the team's QB of the future in the wake of E.J. Manuel's departure. He completed 12 of 15 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns, and while Clint Trickett* is the only Florida State QB with any meaningful experience, ultimately it's probably not going to matter. Winston's ascension to the starting job appears inevitable as the Charlie Ward comparisons start their avalanche. Maybe the excessive hype is a bad thing, but any good news at quarterback is great, considering the health problems in the backfield, where James Wilder and Devonta Freeman have been banged up.
*On Wednesday, it was reported that Clint Trickett will transfer and has been released from his scholarship. In other words, get ready for Winston starting Labor Day night at Pittsburgh.
3. Michigan has its starting running back again. He didn't play in the Wolverines' spring game, but Fitzgerald Toussaint is expected to be ready to go when the season opens despite breaking his leg last November against Iowa. That's not to say Toussaint will get 25 carries a game. Denard Robinson may be gone, but the Wolverines will still utilize new starting QB Devin Garner as a runner. Still, coordinator Al Borges continues to mold the offense how he sees fit as Michigan gets another year removed from the Rich Rodriguez era, and the biggest problem with Robinson's career was that he carried so much of the load and took such a beating a runner. Michigan needs multiple backs to take the pressure off Gardner, and getting a healthy Toussaint back is a boost for what could shape up to be a solid stable of tailbacks, especially if top freshman Derrick Green makes an impact.
4. Johnny Manziel is still Johnny Manziel, and stop thinking otherwise. Given that he just finished his freshman season, and given that he's under the microscope as much as any college football player ever, and given that he keeps randomly appearing courtside at NBA games and other such events, a million columns will be written about how unfocused he is, or how immature he is, or blah blah blah blah -- please stop. Again, not that we should go overboard with a spring scrimmage, but in the Maroon and White game, Manziel threw for 303 yards and three touchdowns. Yes, the loss of coordinator Kliff Kingsbury to Texas Tech wasn't ideal, but as long as Sumlin is there, this is a perfect match.
5. A.J. McCarron and Zach Mettenberger combined to throw 11 touchdown passes in scrimmages. OK, OK, maybe this doesn't matter much. Actually it probably doesn't matter at all. Nick Saban and Les Miles aren't suddenly ditching what they do best, which is methodically tearing the opposition apart with big and athletic defenses, great offensive lines and great running games. But for the sake of exciting scrimmages we'll point out that McCarron managed to throw five TD passes -- even if the Crimson Tide defense was banged up -- and the inconsistent Mettenberger managed to throw six. It's worth noting that neither of these was the official end-of-spring scrimmage, either, just a couple of informal "games" that are part of the spring practice routine. But in a division with Manziel, it's worth remembering that McCarron was the most efficient QB in college football, and Mettenberger still has the potential to be a game-changer for the LSU offense (we saw it in the Alabama game last year).
From the Archives
All of the above-mentioned networks are so desperate for programming that they label things like "2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl: Illinois vs. UCLA" as "Classic College Football," even though it was one of the most depressing bowl games of all time -- two interim coaches, a 6-6 Illinois team that lost its last six games and a 6-7 UCLA team that needed a waiver to be bowl eligible after losing the Pac-12 championship game, which it made by default because rival USC was ineligible. This was a real thing that happened on Big Ten Network over the weekend. I spent at least a half hour watching it on Saturday morning, and I will not apologize.
The plethora of sports networks and the existence of YouTube are a goldmine for the bored college football fan counting down the days until fall. And each offseason gets better, with more and more available to pass the time. So every week, this space will include a selection of some sort of college football video, hopefully of interest to some college football fan somewhere.
This week, corporate sponsorship that would even blow Brent Musberger's mind. Bear Bryant, for all the Cheese Nuggets, breaks down the 1980 Alabama-Notre Dame game, which the Tide lost 7-0:
This column will evolve over the course of the offseason, but it's meant to provide analysis, history and other distractions as we wait for Aug. 29. Anything you'd like to see here? Email me at email@example.com or find me on Twitter @MattBrownSOE.