Column by BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
— College football is closing in.
West Virginia opens practice on Thursday, while Virginia Tech will begin preparations for Alabama on Aug. 5.
Marshall, Virginia, Concord and Bluefield College will also open in the next week or so, with the season kicking off for all but the Mountain Lions on Aug. 31.
Concord will have to wait until Sept. 7 for its opener at Lenoir-Rhyne.
The upcoming fall is full of enticing matchups. Here is a look at the top 20, with a few more added as the 2013 season approaches.
1. Virginia Tech vs. Alabama (Aug. 31, at Atlanta): Alabama began its current run of three national championships in four years with a season-opening win over the Hokies in 2009, also at the Georgia Dome. Virginia Tech led early in the fourth quarter of that game. Miracles do happen.
2. Oregon at Virginia (Sept. 7): The Quack Attack invades Charlottesville with new head coach Mark Helfrich and sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota. First meeting between the schools. Virginia is 0-3 in the last six years against Top 10 competition, losing by an average of 32 points per game. The Cavaliers will play at Oregon in 2016.
3. Texas at West Virginia (Nov. 9): Texas fell hard after losing to Alabama in the national title game in 2009, finished at 5-7 in 2010, but have won 8 and 9 games over the last two years. West Virginia is 2-0 against the Longhorns, including last year’s 48-45 win in Austin. Texas has the experience to return to prominence this season.
4. East Carolina at Marshall (Nov. 29): This final week game with the Pirates could easily determine the East Division champion in Conference USA. The last two meetings have gone overtime, with East Carolina winning 65-59 last season, while the Herd escaped 34-27 in 2011. Three of the seven East Division teams were in the Sun Belt last year.
5. Virginia Tech at Miami (Nov. 9): The Coastal Division title could be at stake for the winner of this one. Miami has never won or even played for the league title since joining the ACC, while the Hokies have been it more often than not. The visiting team is 1-5 in the last six meetings. This is Virginia Tech’s second straight trip to Miami, losing 30-12 last season.
6. West Virginia State at Concord (Sept. 14): Why is this one so high on the list? These former West Virginia Conference foes will meet in the Mountain East Conference opener for both teams. All-America candidates Jake Lilly and Riyahd Richardson led the Lions past the Yellow Jackets 23-16 during a 7-4 campaign in 2012.
7. Bluefield at Point (Aug. 31): Could this be the Rams first win since 1941? Bluefield, which is under the direction of new head coach Ordell Walker, finished 0-11 last season, and will begin the season in Georgia against the Skyhawks, who struggled to 2-7 record in their first season with a football team in 2012.
8. Oklahoma State at West Virginia (Sept. 28): Dana Holgorsen faces his former team in Morgantown. The Cowboys, who narrowly missed playing for the national title in 2011, is the media’s favorite to win the Big 12. The series is tied 2-2, with Oklahoma State winning 55-34 in 2012. Both teams have yet to name their starting quarterbacks for the season ahead.
9. Virginia Tech at Virginia (Nov. 30): Cody Journell’s field goal enabled the Hokies to make it nine straight over the Cavaliers last season. Virginia has the longest previous streak in the series, claiming eight in a row from 1985-1904. The Hokies will have a bye week prior to this game, while the Cavaliers will play at Miami the previous week.
10. West Virginia at Oklahoma (Sept. 7): This would be higher up — much higher — on this list if Geno, Tavon and Stedman were still playing. The Sooners won a thriller, 51-50, last year, which was as much fun as a person could have watching a game from the press box. This will be too early in the season for the Mountaineers to stay close in this one.
11. Marshall at Virginia Tech (Sept. 21): There was a time when the Herd were known as giant killers, but that has been a while ago. Virginia Tech has won seven straight over Marshall, and are 38-1 over the last 39 games against non-conference foes at Lane Stadium. Marshall has lost the last four against the Hokies by an average of 29 points a contest.
12. Virginia-Wise at Concord (Nov. 2): An intriguing contest between two schools that recruit many of the same athletes. UVa-Wise is making the move from NAIA to the Mountain East and Division II. The Cavaliers were 3-8 in their last season in the Mid-South Conference.
13. Virginia at Maryland (Oct. 12): This heated rivalry between neighboring states could come to an end with this one, as the Terrapins make the move to the Big 10. Maryland leads the series 43-32-2, but the Cavaliers have won 15 of 21 since 1992. Virginia lost 27-20 in 2012.
14. North Carolina at Virginia Tech (Oct. 5): If Miami isn’t the team to beat for the Hokies in the Coastal Division, it could be the Tar Heels, who are eligible this season for postseason play. Virginia Tech has won seven of the last nine in this series, but North Carolina hammered the Hokies 48-34 last year. Three of the last five has been decided by three points.
15. Brigham Young at Virginia (Aug. 31): Remember when the Cougars had a prolific offense, and little defense. Now it is the other way around. Virginia is 2-1 against BYU, but lost the last meeting 38-35 in 2000. BYU is just 3-8 in its last 11 openers on the road, while Virginia is 8-2 in its last 10 openers at Scott Stadium.
16. Kentucky Christian at Bluefield (Sept. 21): Bluefield has just four home games this year, and this is the first one. Their home foes were a combined 27-18 last season. The Rams lost at Kentucky Christian 33-14 last year, as the Knights finished the season at 7-4. Bluefield won’t have many opportunities to draw interest for the local fan base.
17. Clemson at Virginia (Nov. 2): Check out the Virginia home football schedule and plan a trip to Charlottesville. The Tigers are expected to be Top 10 team all season, led by Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins. Virginia has lots of questions entering the season, but the answers might not matter with Clemson in town.
18. Shepherd at Concord (Nov. 18): True, the league is new, but the Rams were dominant in the WVIAC and that could continue in the Mountain East. Shepherd was 8-3 last year, winning the title in the final season of the WVIAC. Concord upset Shepherd in 2011 on its way to the West Virginia Conference crown.
19. West Virginia at Texas Christian (Nov. 2): Take your pick, WVU has to play at TCU, Baylor and Kansas State in a four-game span. The Mountaineers had to score 70 points just to beat Baylor by seven last year, while the Horned Frogs and Wildcats are considered darkhorse picks to compete for the top of the Big 12 with the Longhorns, Cowboys and Sooners.
20. Marshall at Ohio (Sept. 14): If Marshall does have a natural rival not named West Virginia, it could be the Bobcats. These clubs have split their last four meetings, with two of those decided by three points each. Marshall did knock off the Bobcats 21-17 in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl in 2009.
Don’t forget these: West Virginia—at Baylor, at Kansas State; Virginia Tech—at Georgia Tech, vs. Pittsburgh; Marshall—at Tulsa, at Middle Tennessee; Virginia—at North Carolina, at Miami; Concord—at Notre Dame...in Ohio, at Charleston; Bluefield—at Pikeville, at Southern Virginia.
Get those tickets or reserve the tube, lots of big games await.
Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. An avid college football fan, he can be contacted at email@example.com