“Danger”–also known as “trap”–games wouldn’t be so dangerous if you could see them coming.
You know the games I’m talking about, right? Oregon State knocks off USC. Ole Miss stuns Florida. Iowa shocks an undefeated Penn State team.
Leading up to the 2009 season, Homerism will attempt to identify the danger games that could trip up the top contenders for the national title. Before we start trying to figure out what the 2009 danger games are, let’s try to figure what elevates a game to trap status.
(There’s no science to this, by the way. It’s basically anecdotal conclusions by Homerism and his associates.)
1. The Look-Ahead Factor
We’ve seen it a million times before. Teams start gearing up for a big game a week ahead of time and overlook the upcoming opponent. It’s why seasoned gamblers love going against a team the week before a huge game. For example, catch a team the week before rivalry games, such as Oklahoma-Texas, Georgia-Florida, Florida-Florida State, Michigan-Notre Dame. Or, watch out for games before a big out-of-conference tilt, like the USC-Ohio State game in September.
(Historical Example: In 2007, Oklahoma and Texas lost to Colorado and Kansas State, respectively, the week before the Red River Shootout.)
2. The Letdown Factor
This is the converse of the look-ahead factor. When a team is coming off of a big game–win or lose–it’s so tough for a team to get up emotionally the next week. A plucky underdog can take advantage of that ennui and pull off a shocker.
(Historical Example: Second-ranked Notre Dame took down number-one Florida State in a college football classic in 1993. The next week, Boston College dashed the Irish’s title hopes on a last-second field goal.
3. The Kerouac Factor (i.e., On the Road)
This almost goes without saying. For some reason, it seems like this takes on even greater importance during conference games. Also, look for other issues that would suggest a team will be out of its comfort zone or lethargic, such as the ever-ominous Thursday night game. Others include altitude, an early kickoff, a long road trip and the possibility of an extreme change in weather.
(Historical Example: This past season, Jeff Tedford took his Golden Bears across three time zones the afternoon before an out-of-conference game at Maryland. When the ball was kicked at noon EST, that was all she wrote for Cal, as the Terrapins went up fast and never looked back.
4. The Motivation Factor
This one is a bit tougher to articulate and is somewhat of a catch-all. It may be a new coach looking to generate some enthusiasm with a marquee win. It could be a team seeking revenge for a particularly humiliating or stinging defeat the prior year. It could be a “secondary” rivalry game for a big-name team, such as Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, Notre Dame-Boston College and USC-Cal.
(Historical Example: In Colorado’s aforementioned 2007 upset of Oklahoma, Buffs head coach Dan Hawkins reportedly was upset by what he considered to be OU running up the score in their matchup the year before.)
So, with all of that in mind, let’s take a look at the first of 2009′s danger games.
Penn State at Illinois (Oct. 3)
Look-Ahead Factor: None
Letdown Factor: Significant
Kerouac Factor: Medium
Motivation Factor: Low
Defending Big 10 champ Penn State was a late Iowa field goal away from earning the right to be slaughtered by Florida in the BCS championship game in 2008. Payback should be in order when the Hawkeyes travel to Happy Valley for both team’s conference opener in late September. With its hot finish to 2008, pundits will no doubt be pumping Iowa as a challenger to the Nittany Lions and Ohio State. All in all, there’s every reason to expect Penn State will be pointing to this game from the very start of fall practice.
Lurking in the weeds, however, is Illinois.
The Illini have yet to reach the perennial contender status portended by coach Ron Zook’s success on the recruiting trail. Still, Illinois has been known to spring the occasional stunner. In 2007, for instance, dual-threat quarterback Juice Williams and the Illini spoiled senior day in Columbus for top-ranked and undefeated Ohio State. Last year, Illinois dumped Iowa on the road the week before the Hawkeyes knocked off Penn State.
In his tenth year in Champaign, Williams returns to key Illinois’ spread attack in the upcoming season. He’s joined on offense by playmakers Daniel Dufrene at running back and receiver Arrelious Benn. It’s a group that’s super-talented and super-flaky.
Williams has just the kind of athleticism that makes him the ideal kind of QB to spring a huge upset when the offense is clicking. If the Nittany Lion defense shows any kind of let-up after the Iowa game, it risks putting the pressure on PSU’s Spread HD offense to keep up. That’s not Penn State’s style, and it sounds tailor-made for an upset.