Back by popular demand, we’re breaking down the biggest coaching matchups of the college football weekend. Thankfully, the football gods have graced us with a number of enticing clashes to open what promises to be a fascinating 2015 season.
1. Urban Meyer vs. Bud Foster. Confession time: I originally left this matchup out of this column before last year’s Buckeyes-Hokies game. Big mistake. Foster used a five-man front to force J.T. Barrett into 20 incompletions and three interceptions in 29 attempts as Virginia Tech upset Ohio State, 35-21. Ohio State, obviously, grew from there, but Virginia Tech returns a bulk of experience and, most importantly, a creative coordinator with nine months to prepare.
With the option of Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller on the field at the same time, expect Urban to pull a few tricks out of his sleeve. Expect the same from Foster, too.
2. Jim Harbaugh vs. Kyle Whittingham. Welcome to the most hyped season-opener pitting unranked teams in college football history. Michigan is in Phase One of a major retooling. Utah has a steep climb in the Pac-12 South. We may not remember this game come November. All this to say: what happens Thursday night in Salt Lake City isn’t as important as the fact that it’s happening in the first place.
3. Steve Spurrier vs. Larry Fedora. Both started last season ranked in both polls, and both ended the regular season 6-6. As a response, both head coaches changed defensive coordinators. And before you climb into bed tonight, one of them will be behind the 8-ball for the second year in a row.
4. Bobby Petrino vs. Will Muschamp. On one sideline you’ve got Bobby Petrino, coaching in the stadium he snuck out of under the cover of night coaching against the team he once discussed grabbing out from under its sitting head coach (Tommy Tuberville, for those who don’t remember.) On the other, Will Muschamp is back in the job he held eight years ago, retooling a defense loaded with talent – at least up front. Can Carl Lawson and true freshman stud Byron Cowart make Louisville’s work-in-progress offensive line and TBD quarterback uncomfortable?
5. Chris Petersen vs. Bryan Harsin. Normally when a head coach meets his former assistant, you get an end result like Nick Saban thumping Will Muschamp 42-21 or Bob Stoops winning seven out of 10 meetings with Mike Leach. Instead, we’ve got a head coach bringing his Power Five program back to his old mid-major home… as a 12-point underdog.
6. Lane Kiffin vs. Dave Aranda. The last time you (probably) saw Wisconsin’s defense, the Badgers had half-a-hundred dropped on them by title-bound Ohio State. The last time you (definitely) saw Alabama’s offense, the Tide scored 35 and came up short against those same Buckeyes. The game plan seems simple: the more Derrick Henry gets to rumbling, the less Alabama’s five starting quarterbacks have to do. Can Aranda scheme Kiffin into putting the game in his untested quarterbacks’ hands?
7. Mike Norvell vs. John Chavis. The up-and-coming offensive coordinator gets a chance to show out against an accomplished defensive coordinator. Can Chavis find ways to turn Myles Garrett loose, and thereby protecting an unproven secondary?
If Chavis can have the affect Kevin Sumlin hired him to have, we should see it on Saturday. And if Norvell is worthy of the head-coach-in-training moniker he’s worn the past few years, we should that on Saturday, too.
8. Shawn Watson vs. Brian VanGorder. Had this game been played in January we could have called it the Resistible Forces versus the Movable Objects. Texas closed 2014 by allowing more defensive touchdowns (three) than it scored (two) in season-ending losses to TCU and Arkansas. Notre Dame allowed 31 points or more in its final six regular season games. We’ll know real soon which coordinator put the past nine months to better use.
9. Penn State’s offensive staff vs. Temple’s defensive staff. Welcome to the “sneaky upset pick that wouldn’t actually be a sneaky upset because too many people called it a sneaky upset pick” game of Week 1. The Nittany Lions are touchdown favorites here, fresh off a 7-6 debut under James Franklin, led by Christian Hackenberg, largely expected to the Big Ten’s highest-drafted quarterback in two decades. Temple hasn’t played in a bowl since 2011. So what’s to like here? Well, there’s the fact that Temple jumped four wins last season behind the most underrated defense in the country, a unit that ranked 11th in yards per play allowed and fourth in scoring a year ago and returns eight starters, facing an offensive line that allowed ranked 124th in sacks allowed and 125th in yards per carry in 2014. If the Owls can control the line of scrimmage in a way the numbers indicate they could, well, you could have something worth keeping an eye on deep into the second half.