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The biggest game on the college football schedule: On the Line

Sonny Dykes's return to SMU is a situation without much (any?) precedent in college football, plus the stakes in the biggest games of the college football weekend.

I'm not saying it's never happened before, but I can't think of a dynamic quite like the one we'll see on Saturday when Sonny Dykes returns to SMU. Steve Spurrier won a Heisman and a national title at Florida, then coached against the Gators 10 times. Nick Saban won a title at LSU and now faces the Tigers each November. But both Florida-South Carolina and LSU-Alabama are not traditional rivals, and both of those men had NFL stops in between.

TCU is SMU's oldest, most hated rival. And after four seasons at SMU, Dykes packed his bags and strolled the 40 miles down Interstate 30 and took the TCU job. 

Like I said -- I can't state definitely it's never happened before, but I can't think of another example in college football. The only parallel I can find is Chris Beard leaving Texas Tech basketball for Texas.

Before we get into this game, we have to examine the history. SMU and TCU, the schools, is one of those "familiarity breeds contempt" rivalries. They're both small, private schools within the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. The city of Fort Worth views Dallas as a bunch inauthentic poseurs, while Dallas doesn't think about Fort Worth much at all, finding peers in places like Houston and Los Angeles. (As a kid from the suburbs, Dallas and Fort Worth are more alike than either would like to admit.)

But as football programs, TCU is everything SMU would like to be. 

The Frogs and Mustangs first played in 1915 and, until the 1987 Death Penalty, SMU totally dominated the series. But since then, TCU has taken off while SMU remains stuck in neutral. "They won the Rose Bowl, expanded their stadium twice and joined the Big 12," an SMU alum friend told me. "We play Temple."

When the Big 12 expanded last year, SMU was not included. In fact, it seems TCU's presence in the Big 12 provides an invisible barrier that will forever keep SMU out; if you have one private school in the DFW metro area, you don't need two. So while Houston, Cincinnati and UCF got the call up from the AAC to the Big 12, SMU is staying behind, soon to be conference mates with North Texas, Rice, and UTSA. Of the nine Southwest Conference schools, starting next year only SMU and Rice will not be in the Big 12 or the SEC.

So, to put in Dallas terms, Dykes leaving SMU for TCU is a bit like your high school classmate getting rich off tech stocks, moving to Highland Park, buying a Maserati, and then stealing your girlfriend. 

Sonny's particular place in this rivalry makes it all the more interesting. From 1989 to 2018, TCU went 23-6 against SMU. Most of those years came in the Gary Patterson era, as Coach P turned TCU into a juggernaut while SMU cycled through coaches. But Dykes changed the dynamic. He won in Fort Worth in 2019 and again in 2021, the only time, post-Death Penalty, SMU has won consecutive games at Amon Carter Stadium. (The teams did not play their scheduled 2020 game in Dallas, in what SMU believes was one of those covid cancellations that wasn't really a covid cancellation.)

SMU's 42-34 win in 2021 hastened the end of the Patterson era, and the beginning of the Dykes era. Patterson was out by Halloween, and Dykes in place weeks later, while he was still coaching at SMU. 

Dykes' final home game, Nov. 27 of last year against Tulsa, was the closest thing an SMU game got to "ugly." 

Dykes not only plays SMU in his first year at TCU, the game is back in Dallas for the first time since 2018. "For the faithful we have," the SMU alum said when asked what the atmosphere will be like on a 1-to-10 scale, "it's an 11."

The ironic thing here is that the center-of-attention may be the most laid back coach in college football. I think Sonny's pulse might rise if he woke up with his house on fire, but I wouldn't bet my life on it.

"I've coached against my best friends, guys I've worked with, guys that I was in their wedding, guys that saw my kids before I did when they were born. I've run the gamut of all that stuff. I'm 52 years old. I've been through a bunch of different places, a bunch of this, a bunch of that. That stuff doesn't really bother me too much," Dykes said Tuesday. 

There's a saying in sports that teams are a reflection of their coach's personality, and if TCU plays like Dykes coaches, the Frogs' blood won't get above room temperature on Saturday (noon ET, ESPNU). 

"Our coaches emphasize that we've got to keep every game the same," TCU offensive lineman Steve Avila said. 

"We've been preaching day-in, day-out to keep a level head and treat every game the same," defensive lineman Dylan Horton echoed." 

"I don't care," about being booed, Dykes said. "They booed us at Colorado. They'll boo us when we go to Kansas in a few weeks. There was a time when I noticed those kinds of things, but that was 15-16 years ago. Pretty much everything's happened to me as a coach since then."

At the heart of this narrative is what should be a really good football game. SMU's Tanner Mordecai ranks third in the nation at 337.7 yards a game, and the Mustangs have also run for at least 150 yards in their first three games. 

Chandler Morris, TCU's starting quarterback out of camp, is out with a sprained knee, and so veteran Max Duggan, TCU's starter from 2019-21, is back with the first offense. In an admittedly small sample size (32 passes), he's been the nation's most efficient passer thus far. 

TCU is a slight favorite (1.5 points) but, lest we all forget, SMU has won the last two Battles for the Iron Skillet. 

"We have an advantage: we know the personnel," Dykes said. "They have an advantage: they know the scheme. When the ball gets snapped, none of that stuff matters." 

Other Games: 

-- West Virginia at Virginia Tech (7:30 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN): A series that began in 1912, WVU leads this on-again, off-again rivalry, 29-23-1, including a 2021 victory in Morgantown. At 1-2 with a loss to Kansas behind them and four ranked opponents ahead of them, West Virginia, with its Year 4 coaching staff, needs this game more than Virginia Tech.

-- Virginia at Syracuse (7 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN): Syracuse hunts its first 4-0 start since 2018 and its second 4-0 start since 1991. 2018 also happens to be the Orange's only 10-win season since 2002.

-- No. 5 Clemson at No. 21 Wake Forest (noon ET, ABC): Quite possibly the game of the year in the ACC. Wes Goodwin's Clemson defense has played like a Brent Venables Clemson defense thus far, though against inferior competition to what they'll see against Sam Hartman and the Wake offense. And Clemson's 2022 offense has... looked like Clemson's 2021 offense. The first team to 30 likely wins, if either team even gets there. 

-- Maryland at No. 4 Michigan (noon ET, Fox): Through a pillow-soft non-conference schedule, Michigan's yards per play differential is the greatest in the country. The Wolverines average 7.78 yards a play (seventh in FBS) while surrendering just 3.22 (third). If the Wolverines can keep that up against a Maryland offense that out-ranks Michigan (8.14, third), it's officially time to get excited.

-- No. 17 Baylor at Iowa State (noon ET, ESPN2): Iowa State has flown under the radar so far this season, despite the long-awaited win over Iowa. In what's expected to be the most wide-open Big 12 race ever, what does Matt Campbell's team have in store for the defending champions? 

-- Kent State at No. 1 Georgia (noon ET, ESPN+): Kent State is playing its third paycheck game in four weeks, following trips to Washington and Oklahoma. They're saving the best for last. Every single non-revenue athlete in the Kent State athletics department should greet the plane when the Flashes arrive home.

-- Duke at Kansas (noon ET, FS1): Duke and Kansas have met six times in the NCAA tournament and three times on the gridiron. That's for the best -- most years. This time, it's one of four FBS games pitting 3-0 teams. Duke seeks its first 4-0 start since 2018, and Kansas its first since 2009. 

-- No. 20 Florida at No. 11 Tennessee (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS): Let's start here -- the last Gators-Vols game where Tennessee was in the AP Top 15 and Florida wasn't happened in 2003. A year ago, Florida was a 19.5-point favorite and won 38-14, its fifth straight win in the series and its 16th in the last 17. Tennessee (-10) opened as the largest favorite its been in OddsShark's 25-year database. GameDay and the CBS audience will be there. Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, who dazzled in the win over Utah, has a TD-to-INT ratio of 0-to-4 over his past two games, while Hendon Hooker is at 6-to-0 and nearly 10 yards an attempt.

In short, it's all teed up for Josh Heupel and company.

-- No. 22 Texas at Texas Tech (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN): It's a second straight Jihad Game for Texas, in what will likely be the largest crowd at Jones AT&T Stadium history. Tech's defense (4.57 ypp, 31st) has been ahead of its offense (6.02, 65th) for the first time in the program's modern history, which will be necessary against a Texas offense that ran for nearly 300 yards last week and 336 in the the Longhorns' 70-35 win in Austin last season.

Despite this series' history of astronomical passing yards, the team that rushes for more yardage almost always wins. 

-- Notre Dame at North Carolina (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC): North Carolina vacated its 29-24 2008 win, which means the Irish officially lead this series 20-1. 

-- Minnesota at Michigan State (3:30 p.m. ET, BTN): Minnesota has been the best team in the Big Ten West thus far, scoring 49.7 points a game and allowing 17, total. Now's their chance to roll that into B1G play against a Michigan State team that looked ripe for the picking against Michigan State.

-- James Madison at Appalachian State (3:30 p.m., ESPN+): James Madison's first Sun Belt game comes in Kidd Brewer Stadium, the Twilight Zone of college football. Expect five overtimes and a hail of locusts.

-- Toledo at San Diego State (3:30 p.m. ET, FS1): Both teams are coming off drubbings to Ohio State and Utah, respectively, so it's not exactly a vintage matchup, but it's still the maiden voyage between two of the most consistent programs in the MAC and Mountain West.

-- No. 15 Oregon at Washington State (4 p.m. ET, Fox): Washington State may be the nation's most under-the-radar 3-0 team, so here's a chance for the Cougars to join the radar. Wazzu won four straight games from 2015-18, but Oregon has taken the last three. 

-- Arizona at Cal (5:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network): Cal represented Arizona's only W en route to a 1-11 season. In fact, the Wildcats have lost 20 straight Pac-12 games against every other Pac-12 team, which includes at least one loss to the other 10 conference schools. Against Cal, though, the 'Cats have taken six straight.

-- Arkansas State at Old Dominion (6 p.m. ET, ESPN+): Old Dominion makes its Sun Belt debut against A-State.

-- Rice at Houston (6 p.m. ET, ESPN+): While TCU and SMU battle for the Iron Skillet up north, Rice and Houston will compete for the Bayou Bucket. Houston leads the series 32-11 and has taken half a dozen straight.

-- No. 10 Arkansas vs. No. 23 Texas A&M (7 p.m. ET at Dallas, ESPN): Arkansas finally snapped the Aggies' SEC hex last season; after winning the programs' first three post-SWC games in 2009-11, Arkansas dropped nine in a row once A&M joined the SEC. Both teams will be happy to turn this into a line of scrimmage game -- the over/under is 48.5; last year's total was 30 -- but this game will be most interesting when A&M throws the ball.

-- Marshall at Troy (7 p.m. ET, NFL Network): Last but not least (for this weekend), Marshall makes its Sun Belt debut.

-- Iowa at Rutgers (7 p.m. ET, FS1): We're in store for a vintage Iowa-Rutgers game, folks. And by that I mean it's two teams that rank in the bottom 15 in passing offense, but two of the best punters in the game. The over/under is set at 33.5.  

-- Wisconsin at No. 3 Ohio State (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC): This looked like a massive game on paper when Wisconsin was in the top 20, but not so much anymore. The Buckeyes have taken eight straight from Bucky, and haven't lost to the Badgers in Columbus since 2004. 

-- Vanderbilt at No. 2 Alabama (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network): Alabama has won 22 straight games, dating back to 1964. This is the Tide's first game with Vandy since 2017, but it still feels like the Alabama is getting away with something here. 

-- Kansas State at No. 6 Oklahoma (8 p.m. ET, Fox): It's the first time Head Coach Brent Venables has faced off with his alma mater after going 8-1 as an assistant. 

-- Louisiana at ULM (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+): Fresh off losing their program-record 15-game winning streak, the Cajuns look to start a new winning streak in the Battle on the Bayou. The Cajuns have taken four straight and lead 31-25 all-time. 

-- Hawaii at New Mexico State (8 p.m ET): The four quarterbacks for the Rainbow Warriors and the Aggies have combined for one touchdown against 15 interceptions. So something's gotta give. Maybe. 

-- No. 7 USC at Oregon State (9:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network): The final meeting of 3-0 teams of the weekend. Oregon State won this game in 2021, and now looks for their first back-to-back slaying of the Trojans since 1914 and '16, which happen to be the first two games in series history. (In between 1916 and '21, Oregon State beat USC nine times.) 

Oregon State is in the top-20 nationally in yards per play (7.17) and scoring (45.7), so as long as the Beavers keep the ball away from USC's defense (10 takeaways in three games), they can be the first team to really test the Lincoln Riley Trojans.