John Mitchell: The college football season is finally here after a long and troublesome offseason that just wouldn’t end. Zach Bigalke and Matt Strobl will join me to break down this weekend’s action on the gridiron. So, let’s jump right in. Auburn came out of nowhere last season to win the BCS Title. Give me a team that is off the radar, that could make a run at the BCS title.
Zach Bigalke: Team off the radar, eh? Let’s see… for that you really have to look at the weakest conferences, as they’re the ones that can have teams slip through the cracks to go undefeated. It wasn’t enough for a team like Cincinnati a few years back, but we’d likely have to look at a team from the weaker-sister conferences (the Medium 3, if you will, hovering between the triumvirate at the top and the non-AQ below) to find a true off-the-radar team. This year a team like South Florida — which returns six defensive starters from a top-20 defense in 2010 as well as B.J. Daniels at QB for Skip Holtz’s second season in Tampa — could steal away the Big East and at least make a run for a berth. Though if there are other undefeated teams from more renowned conferences, they’ll get the nod first… and that could possibly include the Mountain West.
Matt Strobl: Though I have no desire to see this happen, Texas has a shot at being a sleeper pick for the title. After opening with a couple of soft non-conference games against Rice and UCLA with BYU sandwiched in between, the ‘Horns delve right into the Big 12. Their conference opener features Iowa State, which should be an easy win. The next two weeks bring heavy favorite Oklahoma and a talented Oklahoma State to Austin. These will be tough wins for the Longhorns, but assume for a moment that they somehow pull an upset or two. Even if it’s only one, a quality loss to either of those teams wouldn’t end their hopes. And from there on out, the schedule is very favorable. Missouri and Texas A&M are both overranked at the moment and will be beatable, though both require Texas to go on the road. Still, if the ‘Horns can get it together early, they have a great shot at hanging on down the stretch.
Mitchell: Sticking with the conference that has claimed the last five National Championships, I would watch out for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs won nine games last season in Dan Mullen’s 2nd year as the head coach, and they return fifteen starters from that squad. While the Bulldogs are in the SEC, they are still an off-the-radar National Championship pick, because most of the pundits expect them to pull up fourth or even fifth in the SEC West race. But, Mississippi State looked very good last night in their win over Memphis, and they get the luxury of playing both LSU and Alabama in Starkville. They do have to go on the road to play Auburn, Georgia, and Arkansas, so it’s pretty unlikely with that kind of schedule that they run the table, but even with one loss the Bulldogs could have a shot at the BCS Title game if things come together.
There are a few prime time matchups in week one, and there are also some other games that look to be possible upsets. Which team do you think needs to watch their backs in week one, and could be upset?
Strobl: The Boise State- Georgia game will give one good team a loss to open the season, but I have my eye on Sunday’s matchup between Texas A&M and SMU. A&M is ranked #8 to start the year which to me is far too high. And SMU is a dramatically improved program under June Jones. With the Aggies distracted by the chatter over a looming conference switch, the Mustangs could score a huge victory in week one.
Mitchell: I’m looking at a Friday night game that pits 14th ranked TCU against unranked Baylor in Waco. TCU is coming off of the best season in school history, finishing 13-0 and defeating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, but return just six starters from that team. Replacing star QB Andy Dalton will not be easy, and new starter Casey Pachall will be making his first start on the road. Baylor is coming off of a seven win season in 2010 and has thirteen returning starters led by one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation, Robert Griffin III. I think Baylor pulls out a close one at home tonight and upsets the Horned Frogs.
Bigalke: Notre Dame is an 11-point favorite as the BCS buzz has built around the team in Brian Kelly’s second season at the helm in South Bend. And I wholly expect that South Florida, the team I just picked as a potential out-of-nowhere BCS candidate, will come to Indiana and knock the Irish off to derail the dreams of the Golden Domers right off the bat. Holtz returns to the land of his daddy’s greatest successes to begin the path toward his own.
What team is in most need of getting a statement win in week one?
Mitchell: I think it’s Georgia. Despite a losing season in 2010, the Bulldogs are a popular pick to win the SEC East, and they could make a statement to the rest of the college football world with a win over Boise State in the Georgia Dome. Is it all just hype, or is Georgia destined for a breakout season that saves Mark Richt’s job? I know it’s just one game, but the way Georgia performs in it should give us a pretty good idea of how their season will unfold.
Bigalke: In my eyes there is more pressure on BYU than any other team. They didn’t jockey their way into a bigger, better conference like in-state rival Utah… they bolted the Mountain West for football independence in hopes that a stronger schedule could yield a better chance at BCS dreams for the last of the mid-majors to win a national championship. The opener in Oxford against Ole Miss is a crucial must-win if Bronco Mendenhall’s crew is going to harbor legitimate hopes of breaking through as a free soul.
Strobl: Boise State needs to keep on doing its thing against BCS opponents. After all this time, the school is still struggling to earn respect. A win in Georgia would be monumental, and would keep the Broncos in the Top 5. BSU handled its business against VT last year, so UGA had better come prepared.
Which player do you see being the biggest game changer this week?
Bigalke: Kellen Moorereturns for another season guiding the Broncos; at some point this year he should pass Colt McCoy as the QB with more victories in NCAA football than any other. Last year his cool management of the Boise State offense allowed his team to claw out a late game-winning drive against Virginia Tech. With a new crop of skill players around him, Moore will have to make smart decisions throughout this year’s opener. Otherwise he could change the game in Georgia’s favor.
Strobl: Jarrett Lee will likely be the starting quarterback for LSU in what will be the marquee game of the week. Even in a neutral site, Oregon has to be considered the favorite, but LSU will be looking to prove that it’s more than just a good defense. For that to happen, Lee will need to avoid mistakes- something he’s been unable to do in past seasons. No matter how talented the Tigers’ stop unit is, Oregon will put up some points. If Lee plays well and finds the endzone, it would be huge for LSU.
Mitchell: I think it’s Oregon’s LaMichael James. The Ducks running back racked up 1731 yards on the ground last season, but against SEC opponent Auburn in the BCS Title game, he was held to just 49 rushing yards on 13 carries. He’ll be facing an even better defense in LSU on Saturday, and if Oregon wants to have success offensively, they’ll have to get him going on the ground. They have to find ways to get James the ball in space, because he struggled mightily trying to run between the tackles against Auburn last season. I think the success James has will determine how successful Oregon is moving he football against the Bengal Tigers.
What positional matchup is most intriguing to you?
Strobl: I’m going to go with a rather personal choice here and say Ohio State’s freshman QB Braxton Miller versus the Akron secondary. Yes, I know it’s Akron. But it’s still the first D-1 game for a kid who is the program’s future at a key position. Ohio State needs to move on from Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor, and with due respect to senior Joe Bauserman, he’s not the man for that job. Miller has to step up and become the face of the program, and the sooner that happens, the better OSU will fare this year. Consider Akron a fairly low-pressure litmus test.
Mitchell: I’m interested in seeing Georgia’s supposedly improved defense in Todd Grantham’s second season as the defensive coordinator go up against Boise State’s high-powered offense. The Broncos ranked 2nd nationally in scoring offense, 7th in rushing offense, and 4th in passing offense in the nation. Georgia finished just 56th against the run last year, and it will be a tall task defending Boise State running back Doug Martin who rushed for over 1200 yards last season. If Boise State can stop the run however, then they’ll force Boise State to be one-dimensional offensively, and the Bulldogs pass defense is the strength of their defense.
Bigalke: Can a rebuilt Oregon offensive line hold up against an SEC defensive front? Last year the veteran trench warriors of the Ducks were largely stifled by the Auburn front seven. LSU brings an offense depleted by indefinite suspensions to Jefferson and Sheppard, but the defense should be on fire at Cowboys Stadium. They break in two new defensive tackles, but both DEs Kendrick Adams and Sam Montgomery return and could wreak havoc on two new offensive tackles. If Oregon’s line can’t hold, well… we’ve seen how that offense can sputter to a stop before.
It’s time for the picks. Dan Persa is back from injury, and Northwestern is our sleeper team in the Big Ten. But, the Wildcats get a tough test opening weekend as they travel to Chestnut Hill to take on Boston College. Will Northwestern make a statement, or will Boston College defend home field?
Mitchell: There are extremely high expectations in Evanston for the first time in a while, and it all gets started on Saturday in Chestnut Hill. Boston College is actually a slight favorite in this game, but even on the road, I don’t think the Wildcats have that much trouble. Dan Persa is an elite quarterback, and I think he carves up a Boston College secondary that finished 9th in the ACC last season. Pick: Northwestern
Bigalke: I wouldn’t pick the Wildcats to win whichever Big Ten division it is that they’re in and then turn around and expect them to lose to Boston College. They’ve got more talent, they’ve got the better coaching staff, and unless something drastic happens they will return to Evanston with the better record after week one. Pick: Northwestern
Strobl: Northwestern is a legitimately good team, and as we said, Persa could be the Big Ten’s best QB. Boston College has seemed a bit lost since the firing of Jeff Jagodzinski. The Eagles have some talented players, but not enough to handle the Wildcats, even at home. The BC Superfans will go home dejected in week one. Pick: Northwestern
Notre Dame enters the 2011 season with a lot of hype, and they’ll get a chance to prove themselves right away with a tough test against South Florida. Will the Irish get off on the right foot, or will Skip Holtz’s Bulls pull off the upset?
Bigalke: I thought rather highly of Notre Dame this offseason. But I just think that South Florida has a more settled situation, both at offense under center and on defense. The Irish will find it harder to score than most people expect, and B.J. Daniels will finally show the maturation and consistency that he’s needed to put it all together Pick: South Florida
Strobl: I’m a big fan of Skip Holtz. I have a big dislike for the University of South Florida. What that school did to Jim Leavitt is a joke, and I’ll have a very difficult time rooting for Holtz to succeed. In week one, he’s going to be overwhelmed by Brian Kelly’s offense. Holtz will need time to get his system working, and Kelly has no intention of starting slow. Pick: Notre Dame
Mitchell: I expect this to be one of the best games of the weekend. I know a lot of people expect Notre Dame to not have much trouble with South Florida, but the Bulls are better than what you would think. Led by junior quarterback BJ Daniels, South Florida has a chance to come out on top in the Big East. Ultimately, the game being played in South Bend will give the Irish the advantage, and I think they come out on top in a tight game. Pick: Notre Dame
Case Keenum makes his return to the gridiron after a torn ACL injury, and he’ll lead his Cougars against Rick Neuheisel’s Bruins in a make or break season in LA. Will Keenum’s return to the field be successful, or will UCLA pull off the road win?
Strobl: It’s hard to know what to make of Keenum’s return until we see him in action. Will he truly be ready for competition? Will the offense be able to pick up where it left off? UCLA isn’t very good, but Houston will be breaking in a new offensive line and won’t have much to offer in terms of defense. We know what Keenum can do against BCS teams like Oklahoma State, so I’m not underestimating him. But this game is a true toss-up. For fun, I’ll go with the little guy. Pick: Houston
Mitchell: I think UCLA is going to be better this season than most think, but Houston is no push over. Case Keenum is one of the game’s top quarterbacks when he is healthy, and if his knee doesn’t cause any lingering issues, then I think he is going to be too much for the Bruins defense to overcome. It should be a close game, but Houston should take it. Pick: Houston
Bigalke: I really like Keenum’s game and hope he succeeds. I remember the poise he showed way back in 2007 as a redshirt freshman making his first start at Autzen. Playing at home in his return from injury, the QB should be able to find the holes in the Bruins defense. And the defense should be able to hold back a question-mark UCLA offense to keep whatever BCS Buster hopes the Cougars might harbor alive another week. Pick: Houston
BYU plays their first game as an independent on Saturday as they travel to Oxford to take on Ole Miss. Can Jake Heaps lead the Cougars to a win, or will the Rebels start the 2011 season on the right foot?
Mitchell: BYU has one of the toughest opening four game stretches in America. They open with consecutive road games against Ole Miss and Texas and then play at home against Utah and Central Florida. Of all those games, this one in Oxford might be the most winnable. Jake Heaps should be improved in his sophomore season in Provo, but winning on the road against an SEC opponent is never easy. The Cougars allowed over 138 yards on the ground last season, and they have to go up against one of the most underrated runners in the nation, Brandon Bolden. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think Ole Miss gets the win in another tight matchup. Pick: Ole Miss
Bigalke: The Cougars need this win in a road game against an SEC opponent. The move to independence was a move that could either prove prescient (as BYU rolls against a stronger-looking schedule) or backfire on them. For it to yield true BCS Buster dreams, BYU must win in Oxford. Heaps should be able to get the offense firing on all cylinders against a Mississippi defense that returns just four starters from a team that was already bottom-20 in the country in passing D. Pick: BYU
Strobl: Mississippi is just a poor team right now. It’s difficult to imagine the Rebels beating any quality opponent, even a lowly independent. While BYU has some questions of it own to answer, I think the Cougars will eke out a tough road win over the SEC. Pick: BYU
The two big games both start at 8 ET on Saturday night. First, Boise State travels to Atlanta for a “neutral-site” game with Georgia. Will the Broncos keep their BCS Title chances alive, or will the Bulldogs make a big statement and end Boise State’s season before it begins?
Bigalke: Everyone has this “Dream Team” mentality about Georgia… but we’re talking about a young group of guys who have yet to play I-A football, recruits who are supposed to lead them to the Promised Land. But Boise State, despite having less than their absurd veteran-laden core of last season, has enough people on its squad that have done it before. Like VT last year this is anything BUT a “neutral” game. And like last year the Broncos will rise to the challenge again thanks to their Heisman hopeful. Pick: Boise State
Strobl: Unlike many experts, I won’t pick against Boise State. When presented with these opportunities, they find a way to win. UGA should be a solid team this year, but with major questions in the running game, there will be a lot of pressure on Aaron Murray. Boise state should work to leverage that and keep the score close before going in for the kill. Pick: Boise State
Mitchell: This Georgia team sort of reminds me of Alabama in 2008. The Crimson Tide were supposed to be improved, but not many expected a breakout season, and they were the underdogs in Atlanta against Clemson to start the season. We all know how that turned out. I don’t expect Georgia to dominate this game, but I do honestly think they come out with the win. It’s basically a home game for the Dawgs in Atlanta, and the hostile environment should help Georgia earn a close victory. Pick: Georgia
The biggest game of week one pits #3 Oregon against #4 LSU in Arlington on Saturday night. The Ducks are looking to topple the SEC after losing to Auburn in last season’s BCS Title game, while the Tigers look to take the first step toward another BCS Title. Who wins this battle of top-five teams?
Strobl: Due respect to the LSU defense, Oregon has the better team. And Jarrett Lee doesn’t inspire confidence. With the off-the-field distractions and Oregon’s ability to score in bunches, I expect the Tiger offense to be overwhelmed. It won’t be a blowout, but the Ducks will return home at 1-0. Pick: Oregon
Mitchell: With Jordan Jefferson and Russell Sheppard, I thought of this game as a toss-up. Now, without those two, I think Oregon has a slight edge. LSU’s offense should struggle to get going unless the Ducks struggle in stopping the run. I have absolutely no faith in Jarrett Lee at quarterback, and he has always seemed to melt in this high-profile games. LSU’s defense is good enough to keep them in the game, but eventually Darron Thomas and LaMichael James will break through and the Ducks should gain an inside track to the National Championship game. Pick: Oregon
Bigalke: As long as Oregon’s offensive line doesn’t collapse worse than the subprime market, the Ducks have enough skill to continue their tradition for prolific offensive production. The defense lost some key players of their own — and will not have the services of either Cliff Harris or Kiko Alonso — but face a depleted LSU offense. It should be enough for Oregon to finally squeak through against a highly-ranked SEC opponent. Pick: Oregon