College football’s opening week will be a wall-to-wall five-day extravaganza that starts Thursday night and goes through Labor Day. With the NFL not yet in action there’s games on Sunday as well, so this first preview edition of the Notebook will be broken into two parts. Today’s review will look at the games from Thursday & Friday night, plus the early and mid-afternoon Saturday card. We will then pick up tomorrow with a look at the games on Saturday night, Sunday and Monday. Each section will focus on the highlight games from each time slot.
Thursday & Friday
South Carolina-N.C. State (7 ET Thursday, ESPN)
Oregon-Boise State (10:15 ET Thursday, ESPN)
Tulsa-Tulane (8 ET Friday, ESPN)
There’s going to be some excellent quarterbacks in action to open the season, highlighted by N.C. State’s Russell Wilson. The Wolfpack signal-caller was the ACC Freshman of the Year in 2008. His team finished the season strong and has high expectations coming into this game. Indeed, the Notebook has tabbed them to win their division. And for this game in particular, they seem to have some support in Las Vegas. After opening as a three-point favorite, the line has jumped to 4 ½ as game time gets closer. I don’t intend to turn this blog into a Brent Musberger haven with constant discussion of point spreads, but they are useful tools for outlining expectations and the money movement in Vegas does show that the Wolfpack are viewed pretty positively.
Wilson, the Pack and the ACC badly need this game. Steve Spurrier’s program in South Carolina seems on the decline. The Gamecocks faded badly last year and were wasted by Iowa in the Outback Bowl. They will start two freshmen and a sophomore in the secondary. A Spurrier-coached team will be the one squad on Opening Night that does not have an established QB. This game is a chance for Wilson to become a darkhorse Heisman candidate, for State to show that they are ready to make a serious national statement and for the ACC to show that they can win key non-conference games. In the latter case in particular, failure to defeat a midlevel SEC team would be a heavy blow.
In the nightcap on the blue turf, Oregon and Boise State should stage a shootout. Both teams look shaky on defense and both have quarterbacks that can exploit those weaknesses. Jeremiah Masoli for the Ducks and southpaw Kellen Moore for the Broncos will have the ball in the air. But it might be sound and fury signifying very little. It’s tough to see Oregon rising above the 7-8 win level, and I can’t imagine Boise making another unbeaten run, even if they win this game. If you want to see how the Pac-10 and WAC match up, or if you like constant scoring, this one will be worth staying up for. Otherwise a good night’s sleep is a better choice.
There are seven other games on Thursday, including two midmajor teams with high hopes. One is Utah, the new poster child for anti-BCS forces, as they look to start the season off with another easy win over Utah State. And Troy, with its talented quarterback Levi Brown is easily the class of the Sun Belt and opens up with Bowling Green. This latter is actually an intriguing matchup. If Troy wins it, they are probably heading to an 11-1 season, with the only loss coming at Florida. It’s also a test to see if the Sun Belt, the weakest of the midmajors, can match up in non-conference play.
I included the Tulsa-Tulane game in the list of highlight games, but only because it’s on TV on an otherwise dead night for football. The Green Wave is a long way from the Shaun King era of the late 1990s and went 2-10 last year. Tulsa is a decent contender in its conference, but is not going to capture national attention. Personally, I’ll choose baseball, an old Sinatra movie, or a rerun of Law & Order before watching this one.
Navy-Ohio State (Noon, ESPN)
There’s no question who the more talented team is. Ohio State has the experience in both lines and in the secondary. They return the explosive Terrelle Pryor behind center. While they lost Chris Wells in the backfield, he was injury-prone as it was, and the shifty Daniel Herron is more than ready to step into the starting spot. If the Buckeyes are ready to play, this one will be no contest.
But there’s every reason to think OSU might not be ready. This is the game before USC comes to town. Furthermore, the Buckeyes lack experience at linebacker and that could be a serious problem against Navy. The Middies run the triple option with disciplined precision and the LBs will have to make good decisions in how they defend the pitch. Let them make too many mistakes and Navy can control the clock and perhaps spring a few big plays on the side. The Midshipmen are replacing the running backs from last year’s bowl team, but a returning quarterback is more important in running the wishbone, and Ricky Dobbs is back to do that. Navy also has the defensive personnel to contain Ohio State.
If Ohio State is off their game enough to make this one close, it comes down to this—can Navy keep Pryor from getting outside the pocket to make the kind of big plays that top teams always find a way to come up with when pulling an escape act. And can the Midshipmen get enough big runs off the option to prevent drives from stalling.
The other noteworthy game early on is Minnesota-Syracuse. The Gophers went to a bowl last year and are hoping for better things as they move to a new outdoor, on-campus stadium. Being able to handle a weak team from a BCS conference will be a first test to see where Rick Brewster’s program is at.
Georgia-Oklahoma State (3:30, ABC)
Nevada-Notre Dame (3:30, NBC)
Notre Dame will get the TV ratings in this time slot. The prime-time Virginia Tech-Alabama game that we'll look at in Part II of this preview is the media choice as the weekend’s highlight. But if you’re looking for the game that’s really the best of Week One, it’s the one that will go down in Stillwater. Georgia & Oklahoma State are both loaded for runs at major bowl bids and as possibilities to upset the established favorites in their league. For Georgia, don’t look at what they lost in Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno. Look at what they have back. Four offensive lineman. A defensive front seven loaded with upper classmen. And a senior quarterback in Joe Cox ready to step in. Oklahoma State has explosive skill position talent. Zac Robinson at quarterback can launch a Heisman campaign here. Receiver Dez Bryant will be a top five pick next April. Kendall Hunter rushed for 1500 yards a year ago. The only weakness is the secondary.
Don’t overlook this games importance in the bigger picture of the national championship race. The Big 12 and SEC champs will both be in the hunt at year’s end and both may have one loss. How they did in a high-profile head-to-head battle like this one will create early impressions in voters’ minds about conference strength. This is even more important for the Big 12, who had a disappointing bowl showing from its top teams a year ago, and has homefield advantage in this one. In a close game, I think it’s the latter edge that enables the Cowboys to pull out a win.
In South Bend, the points will be aplenty. Nevada has weapons everywhere, and Notre Dame brings virtually its entire offense back. Charlie Weis’ recruiting on defense has been talked about and hyped a lot, and it’s a game like this—home date with a good midmajor offense—that we need to see the hype turn into some actual results. If Nevada wins this game, watch out—they will still be undefeated on November 27 when they play Boise State in the season finale.
That’s a wrap on the first part of Week One. Be back late Thursday night or early Friday morning with the balance of the weekend.