Thursday Night College Football Opening Night
While college football had a brief preview last Saturday with two compelling and competitive games, the season opens more officially Thursday night with six games scheduled. Here is a look at the two ESPN contests with a pair of closely-lined battles in rematches of tight games last season.
Match-up: UCLA Bruins at Cincinnati Bearcats
Venue: At Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio
Time/TV: Thursday, Aug. 29, 7:00 PM ET, ESPN
Line: Cincinnati -3, Over/Under 60½
Last Meeting: 2018, Cincinnati (+14) 26, at UCLA 17
The highly anticipated return of Chip Kelly to the college football sidelines was spoiled on the opening college football weekend last season by the Cincinnati Bearcats. UCLA had a promising start in the game taking advantage of good field position to lead 10-0 in the first quarter but by halftime Cincinnati was up 17-10. The game was tied into the fourth quarter before a forced fumble resulted in a safety and Cincinnati would put the game away for one of the biggest upsets of the first week of the 2018 season.
UCLA started Michigan transfer Wilton Speight in that game but he was injured and freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson took over. He wound up playing the bulk of the snaps in the next five games for the Bruins before losing playing time late in the season to Speight, who has been in 49ers camp this August. Thompson-Robinson is the expected starter for UCLA this season and he will look to improve on marginal passing numbers with a 58 percent completion rate last season for only seven touchdowns. He also managed only a net gain of 68 yards on the ground last season despite Kelly being known for using quarterbacks in the running game as well.
The final record for UCLA last season was 3-9 but the Bruins did win three Pac-12 games including beating rival USC in November. They also were very competitive in three other single-score losses in league play including a seven-point loss to eventual Pac-12 champion Washington. UCLA will again play an extremely difficult non-conference schedule this season after losing to three teams that combined to win 35 games last season but this year’s Pac-12 draw is more favorable with Oregon and Washington absent from the North.
In Luke Fickell’s second season with Cincinnati the Bearcats improved from 4-8 to 11-2 including a bowl win over Virginia Tech. One of Cincinnati’s losses came in overtime but in the big late season showdown with UCF they were blown out with a 38-13 result to fall short in the difficult AAC East race. This year’s schedule will be much more challenging even if the Bearcats can make a case for being an even better team. Cincinnati will draw Ohio State in non-conference action next week in Columbus while they must play Memphis and Houston from the AAC West, teams they did not have to play last season.
Long-time Cincinnati starting quarterback Hayden Moore did start last season’s game with UCLA but was replaced early in the game after taking two sacks in five plays including a fumble that handed the Bruins the early advantage. Desmond Ridder took over to lead the win for the Bearcats and played substantially the rest of the season as the team’s main quarterback, winding up with 20 touchdowns and only five interceptions as well as rushing for more than 500 yards.
Cincinnati’s success last season in conference play came due to its defense which allowed an AAC best 139 points in eight games for an average of just over 17 points. That average was just over 14 points per game allowed against the teams other than UCF, and that even includes two overtime contests. In great contrast UCLA allowed more than 34 points per game last season, albeit through one of the nation’s most difficult schedules. The 26 points allowed in the loss to Cincinnati was technically the second best defensive scoring game of the season for UCLA.
In last year’s game UCLA posted 4.6 yards per rush and had a stronger yards per pass average compared with Cincinnati, finishing the game with two more yards in the box score overall. The turnovers were even and the penalty count was close as well but field position wound up being critical with each team having two short scoring drives of 36 yards or fewer.
Cincinnati can survive a loss next week to remain in the conversation for the top Group of 5 team bid but they need to win this game and maintain a run of 17 straight S/U wins in the season home opener. For a UCLA program looking to improve in stature this will be a big win to elevate its postseason prospects and improve on a 2-15 S/U record on the road the past three seasons.
Match-up: Utah Utes at BYU Cougars
Venue: At LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah
Time/TV: Thursday, Aug. 29, 10:15 PM ET, ESPN
Line: Utah -5, Over/Under 48
Last Meeting: 2018, at Utah (-10½) 35, BYU 27
Utah has been consistently successful under Kyle Whittingham who is the longest tenured coach in the Pac-12, even though Utah has only been in the Pac-12 since 2011. His career record is 120-61 and the Utes have had five straight winning seasons, while winning the Pac-12 south for the first time last year. The expectations continue to grow for the program in a potentially wide-open race out west with the Utes opening the season in the top 15 of the polls.
Utah closed the regular season with BYU last November and managed to erase a 20-0 deficit to come back and win. It is worth noting that the Utes clinched the Pac-12 South the prior week and had their first appearance in the Pac-12 championship six days following this rivalry game and that perhaps showed in the slow start. The final score was misleading as BYU had a 357-296 yardage edge and Utah added a late touchdown after BYU fell a yard short of converting a 4th down on its own side of the field. Utah had a field goal blocked but also had a pick-6 that cut into the 20-0 deficit to start the game.
The other caveat is that Jason Shelley started the game for Utah at quarterback as a freshman that had played in only two prior games as Utah was without Tyler Huntley as well as last year’s top running back Zack Moss for the game. Huntley had produced very solid numbers the past two seasons and is healthy and one of the top returning leaders in the conference, and Moss is also back as the lead back on the team. Top receiver Britain Covey also appears cleared to play for the Utes after recovering from knee surgery.
BYU had some ups-and-downs last season with a 3-1 start that included wins at Arizona and then at Wisconsin. BYU was blown out in the next two games and wound up losing four of the next five before sneaking into the bowl picture at 6-6, where they soundly defeated Western Michigan. The Tanner Mangum era at BYU is over as despite some nice moments the long-time starter was a consistent turnover risk. Zach Wilson took over midseason as a freshman last season and wound up with good numbers, albeit mostly facing some of the lesser teams on the season schedule.
Playing as an independent BYU’s opportunities against major conference teams come early in the season and they have a heavyweight path in the first half of the season facing Utah, Tennessee, USC, and Washington in the first four games, though three of those games will be in Provo. Add in contests vs. Toledo, South Florida, Boise State, and Utah State in the next block of the schedule and getting back to .500 is far from a given for this team in the fourth season for Kitani Sitake, who is 20-19 in his career.
BYU outscored foes 354-278 last season but the unbalanced scheduled meant a few blowouts. This contest carries great weight as a long-time rivalry with this year’s game actually the 100th all-time meeting between these nearby schools. Utah owns a substantial edge in that ledger including eight consecutive wins with the last BYU victory coming in 2009. Each of the past six Utah wins has come by eight or fewer points as a close game has been the norm in recent years.
The stakes are high in this year’s ‘Holy War’ as BYU seems likely to be dogged each of the next three weeks as a 0-4 start is certainly possible. For Utah a chance to breakthrough on a national level this season seems attainable with this game being one of three most dangerous road games on the season. The Pac-12 draw misses both Stanford and Oregon for a preferable path as a double-digit win season is realistic and running the table isn’t out of the question for an experienced group if they can first get by their historical rival.
Other Games Thursday
Georgia Tech at Clemson: Clemson will open up its defense of last season’s national title in a game that many won’t be able to see with the launch of the ACC Network with few active providers carrying the new channel. The spread doesn’t suggest a compelling game in the debut for Geoff Collins leading Georgia Tech but Clemson did lose to the Yellow Jackets in 2014 and the past two regular season defeats for the program were unassuming contests in which the Tigers were at least three-TD favorites.
Florida International at Tulane: The Panthers won as a double-digit underdog hosting this matchup two years ago and this closely-lined contest will be an important win for the victor in a battle of a pair of programs potentially headed to the bowl bubble by season’s end. Both teams have difficult non-conference games ahead as this will be a big swing game for teams looking to take another step forward.
Texas State at Texas A&M: Jake Spavital is the new Texas State head coach and he was an assistant at Texas A&M for three seasons under Kevin Sumlin. The Bobcats project as one of the teams at the bottom of the FBS rankings but this was a fairly competitive team with several narrow losses last season. Texas A&M will likely have few games like this taking on one of the nation’s toughest schedules in year two for Jimbo Fisher.
Kent State at Arizona State: True freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels will be worth watching as the new starter for Arizona State, a program that should remain in the Pac-12 South mix in year two under Herm Edwards. Kent State played up-tempo last season for Sean Lewis and brings back a lot of experience following a tough 2-10 campaign that did feature great strides offensively compared with the 2017 numbers.