As Virginia Tech was barely holding off North Carolina last night on national television, we couldn’t help but think about the fact that this game had been circled as a potential trap game. You know those games – a big-name team with championship aspirations hosts or travels to a supposedly-inferior opponent. The opponent, usually an in-conference game or at least a huge rival, comes into the game completely geared up, while the large opponent tends to circle this one as a win and look to move forward. There’s six or seven plays that allow the bigger opponent to jump out to a sizeable lead, but ultimately the smaller opponent hangs around to keep it in the game. Then, at some point, the lower team starts bringing the heat, getting wind in their sails, and either put themselves in a position to win, blow by the “better” team on the scoreboard, and either end up hanging 49 on them or winning in the last seconds.
All signs on Thursday night pointed to a trap game for Virginia Tech. Hosting the Tar Heels at Lane Stadium, where they almost always win on Thursday night, the Tar Heels opened up the game with a 7-0 lead. Effectively and efficiently moving the ball on the Hokie defense, North Carolina hung tough against a supposedly-superior team, giving up 10 points in the second half to trail 10-7. Halftime prognosticators saw this as a tougher game than it looked on paper, and even though Virginia Tech led 24-7 to start the fourth, North Carolina’s mad dash comeback made this came close (even though it was close but no cigar).
This weekend’s slate of college football games will feature more games like the Thursday night special, with potential trap games lurking around any corner in any conference. We take a look at which ones will have profound effects on the race for conference championship games, bowl games, and the BCS:
-We start in Conference-USA. #11 Houston is hosing Southern Methodist. Houston-SMU is a rivalry with roots dating back to the old Southwest Conference, and the Cougars are remembered for laying almost 100 points on the Mustangs during the first season SMU played after the death penalty. Case Keenum is giving Houston its best quarterback since the Andre Ware days, and they’re pressuring for a slot as a Bowl Championship Series buster. But the Mustangs are entering the game at 6-4, bowl eligible once again. They also hold a win over Texas Christian when the Horned Frogs were ranked in the Top 25. Nevermind the fact that SMU’s lost three of their last four. including one against Tulsa. They have two games remaining against huge in-state opponents. Since they know they’re going to a bowl game and probably won’t make the conference championship game, they have nothing to lose. That’s a dangerous position for Houston, who has pretty much everything to lose. The C-USA’s merger with the Mountain West also makes a case for an Automatic Qualifier when the BCS reorganizes in the offseason, and having Houston as a Top-10, BCS team would go miles to help that cause. Lots of storylines at stake.
-It goes without saying that Penn State is the equivalent of the walking dead right now. The Nittany Lions tumbled down the rankings from #12 to #21 after their loss to Nebraska last week in a game where they looked tired for most of the game. PSU’s been to hell the last two weeks, and there’s a long chance that it won’t end quite so soon. But there are still football games to be played, and a very, very vulnerable PSU team travels to Columbus, Ohio to take on Ohio State in the Horseshoe. The Buckeyes, no stranger to controversy themselves, are playing potentially for their head coach’s job, since Luke Fickell has fallen out of favor with an offense ranking 118th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. After starting the season 3-3, the Buckeyes rallied like there’s no tomorrow, including a win over Wisconsin, 33-29. The Buckeyes are two games back of the Nittany Lions for the division lead in the Leaders Division, with Penn State leading it even after their loss to Nebraska by a game. In second, sandwiched between the two teams is Wisconsin. If Wisconsin slips, and Ohio State beats Penn State, then the tie-breakers all go to the Buckeyes. There’s the chance Penn State is still far from recovered with the way they’ve been rattled the last couple of weeks. Plus, it’s the first road game since the Jerry Sandusky affair began. There’s blood in the water.
-The team nobody’s talking about when it comes to conference championship races is Virginia. The Cavaliers are a game out of the Coastal Division lead in the Atlantic Coast Conference, held by Virginia Tech. The Cavs are also unranked, even though they rank relatively well both in rushing yards and points allowed. This week they play Florida State, a team that’s a game back of Clemson in the Atlantic Division but cannot win the division by virtue of Clemson’s win over the Noles earlier this season. FSU is playing for second place in the division, which most likely sends them back to a game like the Gator Bowl. Even if they lose and slip a place, they might still receive the invite by virtue of the 2/3/4 rotation of ACC games. Therefore, Virginia has more at stake. FSU just needs to get through this game in order to play Florida in their annual rivalry game next week. FSU’s rushing offense, by the way, is ranked 96th in the FBS. Virginia has a very real shot to make the conference championship game with a win this week and then next week’s game against Virginia Tech.
-Don’t sleep on Baylor when they host Oklahoma. The Sooners have only this game and next week’s game with Iowa State standing between them and a titan showdown with Oklahoma State that will have national championship implications. With the lack of a Big 12 championship game following the defections of Nebraska and Colorado, Oklahoma needs to win out in order to win the conference and get the automatic bid to the BCS. Baylor, however, is the 11th-ranked team in terms of points scored and the 6th-best passing attack in the nation. Robert Griffin III is a Heisman-hopeful. Nevermind that the defense would have trouble stopping St. Thomas Aquinas High School. If the Bears can get a lead and turn this one into a shootout, they’ll have the upper hand. And that’s always a possibility, especially at home in Waco. Oklahoma’s in a dangerous position since a loss could also push them out of the BCS in terms of an at-large. That’s the difference between the Fiesta Bowl (if Oklahoma State ends up in the national championship game) and either the Cotton Bowl or the Alamo Bowl. In terms of money, there’s a difference in payout of over $14 million.
-Off the beaten path, there’s still a trap game in a number of different teams vying for bowl positioning, not just at the top level. 6-4 Temple hosts 3-7 Army in a game that could determine where the Owls end up in terms of a bowl game. Army enters the game ranked 120th in the pass but #1 in the run. Temple is 116th in passing but 9th in rushing. The Owls are the 4th-stingiest defense in terms of points scored, but then again it’s easy to get that number when you’re playing Villanova, Maryland, Ball State, and Buffalo. Army’s opponents include Air Force, Rutgers, and Northwestern, the latter of which they beat. They hung tough with Air Force, nearly beat Miami of Ohio, and only lost by a field goal to San Diego State. Those aren’t the sexiest of opponents, but I’d put Temple on trap alert, especially since the term “home field advantage” doesn’t really apply in Philadelphia, where Army has played several gajillion times against Navy over the years. There’s going to be a good presence in favor of the Black Knights.
-Notre Dame is another independent vying for a decent bowl game bid. At 7-3, the Fighting Irish are looking to finish strong and sneak their way into a New Year’s Day game like the Outback Bowl or something along those lines. They’re riding a three game winning streak that included dominant wins over Navy and Maryland, and they’re starting to look more like the Irish team we thought they’d be at the beginning of the year. Their opponent this week is Boston College, who won only their third game of the year last week against NC State despite having an offense that would struggle to move the ball against Western Kentucky (arguably the worst D-I FBS team out there). The Eagles offense is so bad that fans were clamoring to punt on third down rather than run draw plays on 3rd and 22….which they did. But the BC defense is FINALLY starting to gel like it was expected to, and Luke Kuechly might as well play every position on the field if he isn’t already. Plus, there’s always the aspect of the Holy War game, and BC tends to play ND tougher than anyone would expect. This is Boston College’s bowl game, which means danger around the corner for the Fighting Irish.
-For no apparent reason, we’re going to pick the Harvard-Yale game. The latest installment of The Game is in New Haven, Connecticut at the Yale Bowl. Harvard’s already won the Ivy League championship, and the Ivy League champion doesn’t go to the FCS tournament. Yale’s quarterback Patrick Witt is turning down an interview to become a Rhodes scholar to play in this game. That’s a huge deal for an Ivy Leaguer. We guarantee this NEVER happens for the Oklahoma-Baylor game. Elis rumble in this one.
-Happy footballing. Seasons coming to a close, so the pressure’s getting higher!