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College football opens with two thrillers; next up, a monster

FootballSportsAlabama Crimson TideNick SabanVirginia Tech HokiesUSC TrojansESPN

ATLANTA — What a tremendous break it was that the hotel I checked into did not have cable access to Thursday night's USC game at Hawaii.

It meant not having to watch a game most Trojans fans probably turned off.

It freed my remote to explore the exciting sights and sounds of Mississippi at Vanderbilt and then, more incredibly, Rutgers at Fresno State.

If the first 24 hours of college football is going to be like this, we'll all be on medication by the end of September.

You felt sorry for the NFL trying to counterattack with meaningless exhibition games, knowing no one feels sorry for the NFL once the real games start.

There was no way Ole Miss at Vanderbilt was going to be topped. A back-and-forth game reached crescendo when valiant Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews started vomiting (in living ESPN color) on the field after taking a blow to the abdomen.

Instead of going straight to the hospital on a stretcher, Matthews was suddenly back in the game making the fourth-down catch that set up the go-ahead touchdown.

Ole Miss, though, answered with Jeff Scott's 75-yard touchdown run with 1:07 on the clock to take a 39-35 lead.

As television tragedy/drama fate would have it, our minutes-before hero Matthews had a late pass tip off his fingers for the interception that sealed Mississippi's win.

That was enough heart pounding for any one night, but college football didn't mind one infomercial bit playing deep into Friday morning.

My bedside hotel clock ticked past 3 a.m. as Rutgers and Fresno State traded punches up in Central California's midsection. The game was extended to overtime when Rutgers kicker Kyle Federico missed a 43-yard attempt that could have broken a 45-45 tie.

Fresno State scored in the first overtime and Rutgers then matched it, with Coach Kyle Flood then deciding to go for a two-point conversion and the win.

Could you blame him? College presidents don't let students take chemistry classes at 3 a.m., but they let them take football.

Quarterback Gary Nova's pass tipped off Brandon Coleman's fingers to preserve Fresno State's 52-51 win.

Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr had the most attempts (73) and completions (52) ever totaled against Rutgers, which started playing in 1869. The schools combined for 1,094 yards and 78 completed passes.

The rest of Friday was a sanity check devoted to getting back to the serious business of Alabama football, which opens Saturday against Virginia Tech at the Georgia Dome.

Coach Nick Saban's defense gave up an average of 10.9 points a game last season and someone will have to answer for it if Virginia Tech gets to 11. Saban would have a coronary before allowing his team to be involved in a 52-51 game.

Alabama has a chance to become the first team since the 1930s to win three straight national titles. Minnesota won three straight in 1934, '35 and '36, but the first two were before the Associated Press started crowning kings.

The Crimson Tide has a clean shot to a third straight title, and it starts with a surprisingly weakened Virginia Tech program that stumbles into Atlanta as a three-touchdown underdog.

Not even venerable Hokies Coach Frank Beamer would argue the disparity gap. "Facts are facts," he said this week.

The best thing Alabama has going for it is a coach whose hair curls at any sort of attempted contemplation or retrospection.

One reason Alabama has won three of the last four Bowl Championship Series titles is the team has become a mirror-pool reflection of Saban's flat-line fundamentals.

The teaching-moment exception was in 2010, when Alabama entered the season No. 1 as the defending champions. The Crimson Tide finished 10-3 in what Saban surely considers a lost and wasted season.

Heads, not the tide, might roll if that happens again.

This season's Alabama team appears better emotionally equipped to handle the load. Third-year quarterback AJ McCarron has a record of 25-2 as a starter, with 49 touchdowns and only eight passes intercepted.

Eight starters return on a defense that had four shutouts last season. The offense boasts the balance of a doctor's office scale, as it had 3,185 yards rushing last year and 3,052 passing.

The real equilibrium, of course, resides between the pounding eardrums of the head coach.

"It's not what they did last year," Saban said this week. " … It's not about anything but playing this game."

Well, then, by all means, let's go play it.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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FootballSportsAlabama Crimson TideNick SabanVirginia Tech HokiesUSC TrojansESPN
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