National pregame: Houston-Washington State a Friday marquee game
The best college football game nationally this weekend might not be Saturday. Other than Iowa State-Iowa, the No. 1 game appears to be Washington State-Houston in the NFL Texans’ NRG Stadium. The game has all kinds of ramifications and includes the rich plot of WSU coach Mike Leach against his protégé, Dana Holgorsen, who goes back to Iowa Wesleyan days with Leach and Air Raid architect Hal Mumme.
And Washington State-Houston is Friday night. This won’t be the first marquee Friday night game of the season. In fact, it appears Friday has replaced Thursday as the night of choice for networks to air non-Saturday games. Perhaps ESPN and Fox have surrendered Thursday nights to the NFL.
Last week, no Thursday games were played. This week, no Thursday games will be played.
On September 19, the only Thursday game is Houston at Tulane, while Friday has a Utah at Southern Cal showdown.
On September 26, the only Thursday game is Navy at Memphis, while Friday has Penn State at Maryland, Duke at Virginia Tech and Arizona State at California.
On October 3, the only Thursday games are Georgia Southern at South Alabama and Temple at East Carolina. The next night has Central Florida at Cincinnati.
Not until October 10 does another Power 5 matchup occur on Thursday night, with Syracuse at North Carolina State. The next night has Virginia at Miami and Colorado at Oregon.
And subsequent Fridays have some interesting games: Ohio State at Northwestern on October 18, USC at Colorado on October 19 and Washington at Oregon State on November 8. Those are brand names.
Fridays have supplanted Thursdays on the college football food chain.
Here are the top 10 non-Big 12 games of the week:
1. Washington State vs. Houston in Houston, 8:15 p.m. Friday, ESPN: For all the talk about the Pac-12’s disastrous start, there has been little attention paid to Pullman, Washington. WSU could make a run at a College Football Playoff berth, but down in Houston, we start finding out if the Cougars are for real.
2. Arizona State at Michigan State, 3 p.m. Saturday, Fox: Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan. The Big Ten East annually is loaded. But the Spartans have shown they compete with all comers. Even made the playoff in 2015. Beat the Sun Devils, and Michigan State will have served notice to the rest of the Big Ten.
3. Stanford at Central Florida, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN: Massive game for UCF, which is 27-1 since the calendar hit 2017. Beat the Cardinal, and the Knights can start campaigning for a playoff berth.
4. Southern Cal at Brigham Young, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC: Things are looking up with the Trojans. USC is off a solid 2-0 start – hard-fought wins over Fresno State and Stanford – and the Trojans have jettisoned celebrity athletic director Lynn Swann, apparently ending the maddening tradition of having a former football star administrate a $100 million athletic department.
5. Florida at Kentucky, 6 p.m. Saturday, ESPN: The Wildcats rely on defense, so an upset is possible, even with the knee-injury loss of quarterback Terry Wilson, the pride of Del City.
6. Maryland at Temple, 11 a.m. Saturday, CBS Sports Network: Big game for both programs. The Owls walloped Maryland last season; do it again and it’s a statement victory. Meanwhile, the scandal-ridden Terrapins, now ranked 21st, can declare themselves on a major upswing with new coach Mike Locksley.
7. Florida State at Virginia, 6:30 p.m. Saturday, ACC Network: The Seminoles were 3-5 in the ACC last season and appear to be on track to something similar in 2019.
8. Clemson at Syracuse, 6:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC: Two years ago, Clemson went to Syracuse and lost, launching optimism in upstate New York that continued all the way to last Saturday, when the Orange lost 63-20 at Maryland.
9. North Carolina at Wake Forest, 5 p.m. Friday, ESPN: If the Tar Heels can beat in-state foes Wake and Appalachian State, they will be 4-0 when hosting Clemson on September 28. Turns out this Mack Brown character can coach a little.
10. Pittsburgh at Penn State, 11 a.m. Saturday, ABC: The dormant rivalry returned in 2016 with a 42-39 Pitt upset. The last two years, Penn State has won 33-14 and 51-6, and after this game, the series goes dark again.
Upset Special: Houston over Washington State
Leach has lifted WSU football with the same scheduling model he deployed at Texas Tech – limited vulnerability in the non-conference.
In the last six years, the Cougars have played just one non-league opponent from a Power 5 Conference – a home-and-home series with Rutgers. But Washington State did play two games against Boise State, and now the Cougars play another potent mid-major.
Houston has an elite quarterback in D’Eriq King, a proven coach in Holgorsen and a season opener in which it played OU to a 49-31 game in Norman.
The Cougars of the Southwest are much better prepared than the Cougars of the Northwest, who so far have played New Mexico State and Northern Colorado. Washington State is a 9-1/2 point favorite, but Houston is playing in its home city, at NRG Stadium. Let’s go with Holgorsen over Leach in the upset.
Coach on the hot seat: Florida State’s Willie Taggart
Taggart, a former Western Kentucky quarterback in the 1990s, did a solid job as head coach at his alma mater, then took over at South Florida and in his fourth season (2016) went 11-2.
That got Taggart the Oregon job, and the 2017 Ducks went 7-5 before Taggart bolted back to the Sunshine State. Oregon didn’t seem to mind his departure. And very quickly, Florida State seemed to mind his arrival. The Seminoles displayed a variety of disorganization last season and went 5-7, ending a string of 36 straight seasons with a bowl trip.
Now this season is off to a disastrous start, with a 36-31 home loss to Boise State in which the Seminoles appeared to be out-conditioned, followed by a 45-44 overtime victory over Louisiana-Monroe, courtesy of a missed extra point by the Warhawks.
Saturday, Florida State plays at Virginia, and the Cavaliers are 7-1/2 point favorites. Taggart this week brought in his Oregon defensive coordinator, the highly-respected Jim Leavitt, as an analyst, but that seems unlikely to save the day.
Taggart’s dismissal, despite a big buyout, appears to be a foregone conclusion, but even that could be expedited if the Seminole slide continues.