While none of the three matchups taking place before Saturday will approach the hype surrounding the Red River Rivalry and LSU/Florida games, they are intriguing affairs nonetheless. The ACC Atlantic took another turn last weekend with Maryland getting shut out by Virginia, so the Thursday night battle between Clemson and Wake Forest is back to setting the tone for the divisional race. Also taking place on Thursday is UAB visiting a Houston team that may be the only challenger to explosive Tulsa in Conference USA's West Division.
On Friday, Louisville visits old foe Memphis in a game that probably does more to spark the emotions of the fans (especially Memphis, since they were the ones left behind when Big East expansion took place) since it's no longer a conference game. If anything, these games are options for commercial breaks during baseball's League Championship Series (Phillies in an upset, and they'll face the Red Sox in the World Series). Here's a preview of the three games on tap for Thursday and Friday night.
Clemson @ #21 Wake Forest 7:30 PM EST on ESPN
A season that looked destined to go up in flames suddenly has new life as the Clemson Tigers look to win in Winston Salem for the second consecutive time (third consecutive win in the series). The question on offense is: what's been up with "Thunder and Lightning"? The running back tandem of James Davis and C.J. Spiller, touted as the nation's best backfield heading into 2008, hasn't exactly lived up to the hype. In losses to Alabama and Maryland, the duo hasn't been able to produce the kind of numbers worthy of such hype.
So who's to blame? I think both would be honest in stating that they haven't been as productive as they were in 2007, but there could be other reasons (playcalling, the new clock rules, the number of weapons on the offense) for the drop. Luckily for the Tigers, Wake Forest ranks ninth in the conference in rush defense. Just as important as that issue is the amount of focus the Tigers head into a game with. In the opener it was if the preseason hype got into their heads, and actual execution was thrown out the window in the embarassing defeat to Alabama. As for Maryland, Thunder and Lightning combined for 31 yards in the second half and the team as a whole essentially fell asleep while the Terrapins stole a road win.
As for the Demon Deacons, they've had to deal with the issue of holding onto the football despite their 3-1 record. Five turnovers against Navy in their last home game cost them dearly, digging a whole that proved too deep to crawl out of. But overall the Deacs still lead the conference in turnover margin, thanks in large part to a playmaking defense that has already forced seventeen turnovers. QB Riley Skinner leads the conference in pass efficiency (Clemson QB Cullen Harper is 2nd), but the running game needs to step up to supplement the ACC's top-ranked passing attack.
Just when you expect Clemson to complete the freefall, they turn it around and go on a win streak that saves the season and keeps the wolves away from Tommy Bowden's door. But can they go on the road and defeat a team still upset about their last effort? It'll be close, but Wake gets the win.
UAB @ Houston 8PM EST on CBS College Sports
The Blazers are fighting to stay out of the cellar in Conference USA's East Division, but they look to be in serious trouble tonight as they visit a Houston team with the league's second-best offense. QB Case Keenum has had some spectacular games this season, making it hard to believe that he's just a sophomore. Keenum, who has thrown for 385 yards per game, may be licking his chops at the sight of Conference USA's worst pass defense.
Any hope for the Blazers will depend on their ability to run the football and control the clock. QB Joe Webb is among the league leaders in both rushing yards per game and total offense, and the Blazers are fourth in Conference USA in rush offense. And with Houston ranking dead last in rush defense, some yards could be had for Neil Calloway's team via the ground. But the Cougars will win because UAB lacks the weapons needed to keep up with Kevin Sumlin's team for all four quarters.
Friday: Louisville @ Memphis 8PM EST on ESPN2
Not only have the Cardinals looked better this year; they've also looked tougher thanks to a running game led by backs Victor Anderson and Brock Bolen. Anderson, only a redshirt freshman, ranks second in the Big East in rushing yards per game. QB Hunter Cantwell has been a little banged up, most recently dealing with an ankle injury, but he can still sling the ball around the field. And a defense led by new defensive coordinator Ron English has looked better than the 2007 edition that looked pretty bad.
As for the Tigers, a season that began with expectations of competing in the wide-open C-USA Wast Division seemed to be headed towards disaster when they began the year 0-3. But QB Arkelon Hall ranks sixth in the conference in total offense, leading a unit that ranks third in Conference USA. Memphis has won three straight games since the inept start, and competing for a division crown isn's so far-fetched right now.
Despite their slim 21-19 series edge, the Cardinals have won four of the last five in the series. And they should be able to make that five of six on Friday night.