Monday, September 04, 2006

Austin, South Bend mark center of college football universe



By Jared Trexler

"Mama said there would be days like this."

This is Nick and Jessica big. Yankees/Red Sox big. Big Brother All-Stars big.

The escalator ride up a perennial college football power's schedule skips a few steps this Saturday. Big Ten stalwarts Ohio State and Penn State invade hostile territory for salivating early-season contests.

And we are talking boyfriend walking into girlfriend's parents' house hostile. Tom Cruise's cross examination of Jack Nicholson hostile. Any clean-air-breathing, JFK-loving, Bruce Springsteen-worshipping liberal within five feet of the White House hostile.

Austin houses the nation's largest student body, a fan base beaming in the afterglow of a national championship and a fierce-looking, real-life mascot.

South Bend is God's sanctuary on Saturday's through December. The Golden Dome and Touchdown Jesus dot the surrounding landscape. Lawn mowers stay in the shed.

By the way, Texas and Notre Dame are pretty good.

And we are talking Kelly Clarkson's post-Idol career good. The combination of tuna fish and relish good (yes, really.) The taste of Samuel Adams after a hard day's work good.

Vince Young may be gone, but the Longhorns still know how to move the ball at will on offense. The two-headed monster of a slim Jamaal Charles and a bruising Selvin Young punish a defensive unit's front seven.

Bring the safety into the box and Limas Sweed -- he of the Velcro hands and track-star speed -- will beat you deep.

Colt McCoy looked comfortable in his first start of the season, finishing 12-of-19 for 178 yards and three touchdowns in the 56-7 romp of North Texas.

The Mean Green D isn't as nasty as Ohio State's unit, but several Buckeyes are still getting their feet wet at the linebacker position after all three starters, including all-world A.J. Hawk, departed Columbus.

Notre Dame struggled offensively in a 14-10 victory in Atlanta against Georgia Tech last Saturday night. Quarterback Brady Quinn danced in the pocket all night long, constantly staring in the face of a zone fire blitz scheme from linebacker Phillip Wheeler and company.

Quinn is blessed, however, with a golden arm to go along with a bright intellect in reading defenses. The Heisman Trophy frontrunner has a pair of talented wideouts in Rhema McKnight and Jeff Samardzija and a consistent running back in Darius Walker.

Both visiting teams will travel with a wealth of talent as well.

Ohio State brings multi-purpose quarterback Troy Smith and long-striding, roadrunner Teddy Ginn into the Saturday night bout in Austin. The Buckeyes also bring the nation's top ranking -- a pretty trivial spot at this time of year.

Penn State is equipped with possibly its deepest receiving corps in head coach Joe Paterno's long, storied history. Derek Williams is a star waiting to happen, lining up anywhere from in the slot to the backfield.

Deon Butler is the burner. Jordan Norwood is the hands. Chris Bell and A.J.Wallace are the freshmen that illustrate Penn State's influx of speed in recent recruiting classes.

Normally, each of these four teams would be playing Hostess Tech this Saturday. After all, one single check mark in the loss column usually sets off a bonfire of national championship tickets at campuses nationwide.

The two marquee matchups this Saturday highlight the ever-present need for a playoff. Teams should not be punished for scheduling these games, but rather applauded.

College basketball rewards tough early-season schedules with an NCAA Tournament-guaranteed RPI. College football says, "Thanks for the thrill. See you in Nashville the week before New Years."

Ohio State at Texas and Penn State at Notre Dame will throw two teams into the national title picture. At least until each suffers a letdown the week after.

It will also throw the losers into the race for the Capital One Bowl. Nothing against the early-morning New Years Day game in Florida, but championship-quality clubs should still be playing for "it all" in late December and early January.

If college football had its way, Joakim Noah and the Florida Gators would have spent the postseason in the Peach Bowl. The Chicago White Sox in the Insight Bowl. The Pittsburgh Steelers in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

Some of the greatest championship stories in sports would have been denied by a truly evil three-letter word.

BCS.

However, that rant is for another column. This Saturday isn't necessarily about winners and losers, for all four proud programs should be praised for risking championship dreams in the name of memorable gridiron battles.

Highly-touted recruits came to Happy Valley and Columbus to play road games in the heart of Texas and the pinnacle of religion and football. If kids wanted to play Central Arkansas and Northern Arizona they would have attended the local NAIA school down the street.

Yet, there will be a pair of winners and losers when the dust settles Saturday.

The Phanatic will make you wait a few days for those predictions. We have to build drama in the world of sports.

Until the game-by-game breakdowns on Thursday, sit back and look at the bigger picture.

When you were younger, big events kept you up for weeks in anticipation.

Sesame Street Christmas Special big. Saying goodbye to Friends big. Graduations, high-school playoff games and weddings big.

Yet, it always seemed the reality didn't live up to the hype.

Until now.

Saturday's duo of made-for-TV pigskin classics will feature two Heisman-worthy signal-callers, one Hall-of-Fame head coach and four of the winningest programs in college football history.

Mama said there would be days like this.

Jared Trexler can be reached at jtt128@comcast.net
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