Although the initial week of the season always has its share of lopsided matchups, there remain numerous games on the schedule that should wet the appetite of any college football fan. The ultimate goal this season is a berth in the BCS national championship game on January 7th in New Orleans, and the quest begins on Thursday and goes straight through a long Labor Day weekend of action. Highlighting this week's slate of games are numerous cross-sectional battles in addition to a few interesting conference matchups that will play a critical role in conference title chases. Letís review the key games to plan your weekend schedule around.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Tennessee at California
Highlighting the initial week of action is a re-match of last yearís opener for these two teams, a game dominated by Tennessee in a 35-18 win. Both of these teams had their 2006 seasons end in disappointing fashion as Tennessee lost 3 of their last 5 games, ending the year at 9-4 after a 7-1 start. Meanwhile on the left coast, California was in the midst of the national title chase before losing 2 straight to Arizona and USC in November, although the Bears were able to rebound from those setbacks to win their final two games in a 10-3 campaign. Entering the 2007 season, both of these teams are considered contenders in their conference races, and opening the season with a win would be a huge boost, especially with the tough September schedules that these two programs will face. Time to preview how these two matchup in this prime-time clash.
In charge of the Volunteer offense is quarterback Erik Ainge, who led the Volunteers to the nationís 12th best passing attack last season. Ainge will direct a new no-huddle offensive scheme that will challenge the Bear defense, especially a secondary that is breaking in a couple of new starters, and lost its best player in the graduated Daymeion Hughes. The good news for Cal is that Tennessee is without its top 3 pass catchers from last season, so Ainge will be working with a brand new receiving corps, which could take some time to develop rhythm in the passing game. Tennessee will also look to Arian Foster to lead the rushing attack that should have room to run against a Bear front four that lost 3 starters from last yearís team. Overall the Volunteer offense has enough talent and should be able to put points on the scoreboard. The question for UT fans is can their defense slow down what looks to be another powerful California offense.
California did lose its offensive leader from last season in running back Marshawn Lynch, but there remains plenty of talent and speed on this offensive unit. Leading this group is quarterback Nate Longshore, who came on strong in his 1st full season as a starter and is now established as one of the top quarterbacks in the Pac-10. Longshore will be looking for his star receiver in DeSean Jackson, who is a threat to score on every single touch of the football. The bad news for Tennessee is that they appear to be most vulnerable in the secondary and in the defensive line, so Longshore and Jackson clearly are capable of putting up big numbers in this game. Also, do not expect a major decline in the Bear rushing game as Justin Forsett is a tremendous talent, and now that he is the main man in the backfield, he should become a household name when discussing the top-notch running backs in the nation.
This game looks to be a battle between two talented offenses that will challenge the opposition's stop troops as both defensive units return only 5 starters. At this point, California looks to have more game-breaking talent on offense and on special teams, led by the nationís best punt returner in DeSean Jackson. The Bears have revenge on their minds after last seasonís debacle that embarrassed a group which came into the season with national title aspirations. With this yearís contest in the friendly confines of Berkeley, the edge belongs to California.
OTHER MUST-SEE MATCHUPS
Oklahoma State at Georgia
The Cowboys of OSU are coming off a 7-6 season that looks to be a building block for the most talented OSU team in recent seasons. The Pokes feature two of the best skill position players in the country in QB Bobby Reid and WR Adarius Bowman, who led the team to a 35.2 point per game average last season. The Georgia defensive staff will have its work cut out for them as the ĎDawgs return only 3 starters on defense and recently lost their most talented player in cornerback Paul Oliver, an academic casualty. The Bulldog offense will need to go toe-to-toe with OSU, and quarterback Matt Stafford holds the key as he came on late last season and has the potential to be a special player. Georgia has never lost a regular season non-conference game under Mark Richt, but this contest looks to be a huge challenge. The good news for UGA is this one is between the hedges in Athens.
Florida State at Clemson
The Seminole faithful have big expectations this season after a few un-FSU like records over the past couple of seasons. Coach Bowden shook up his offensive staff this off-season in the hopes of lighting a fire underneath an offense that was stagnant in 2006 and is in desperate need of a spark after finishing 70th in the nation in total yardage. Drew Weatherford returns as the starting QB, but his hold on the position is tenuous, and if he struggles in the opener, Xavier Lee is ready to go and will see playing time. An emerging star the ĎNoles will rely on Monday evening is running back Antone Smith, who will attack a Clemson front that must replace 3 out of 4 starters. Meanwhile, Clemson is hungry to get back on the field after starting 7-1 last year and then collapsing to an 8-5 finish, putting pressure on Coach Tommy Bowden. The Tigers will focus on pounding the FSU front with one of the nationís best running duos in James Davis and C.J. Spiller, who combined for 2,121 yards last season. This is a huge game in ACC action, as both of these teams are considered contenders in the ACC Atlantic Division. The winner takes a huge step towards achieving that goal.
Georgia Tech at Notre Dame
These two teams fought a defensive battle in Atlanta last year with the Irish emerging as victors by a 14-10 score. Notre Dame lost a boatload of talent from that 2006 squad, returning a total of 9 starters from last yearís Sugar Bowl team. Whoever finally does emerge at quarterback for the Irish will be facing an immediate challenge from a Tech defense that is one of the top units in the country, returning 8 starters after allowing only 18 points per game last year. The Irish game plan is likely to be centered on star tight end John Carlson and a potential star at running back in James Aldridge as the new quarterback becomes familiar with the entire game plan. On the opposite side, Tech will feature the ACCís leading returning rusher in Tashard Choice and new quarterback Taylor Bennett, who started in last yearís Gator Bowl and should improve the consistency of the Jacket aerial attack as he is a talented pocket passer. Tech is clearly the more experienced team and a challenger for the ACC title, while Notre Dame is in the process of reloading as it begins the 1st of their initial 3 game gauntlet to begin the season as Penn State and Michigan await.
Illinois vs Missouri (St. Louis)
Coach Ron Zook has quickly rebuilt the talent base at Illinois in his 3rd year at the helm, and he has exciting new talent on which to build upon. The Illini have 17 returning starters and will feature a much more balanced offense with the addition of super recruit Arrelious Benn to stretch opposing defenses and improve a passing offense that ranked 105th in the nation last year. Missouri is a challenger in the Big 12 and will feature one of the top offenses in the country, led by the countryís best tight end combination of Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker, as well as quarterback Chase Daniel. MU utilizes a no-huddle offense that will spread opposing defenses and provide room to run for scat back Tony Temple. The question for the Tigers is around their run defense which struggled at times last year, meaning that MU should expect a steady diet of the Illiniís Rashard Mendenhall as he attacks the Tiger front seven. The Tigers are the more talented and experienced of these two teams, but Illinois could be a major surprise this season, so MU must be wary of this one.
Utah at Oregon State
Both of these programs have high expectations coming into this season, and it begins with this huge inter-conference game. The Beavers lost a huge piece of their puzzle when wide receiver Sammie Stroughter left the team for personal reasons and is out for this game. This means the offensive focus shifts to the running of Yvenson Bernard, the Pac-10ís leading returning rusher who will need to carry the load as the Beavers break in new quarterback Sean Canfield. Utah will counter Bernard with a tough run defense that ranked 22nd in the nation last year but must replace 3 out of its 4 front line defenders. The Utes' offense should be vastly improved with the return of redshirted quarterback Brian Johnson, while the key issue for Utah is whether they will be able to establish a ground game against a tough Beaver defense. This game has the makings of an evenly matched contest, which could very well come down to the leg of OSUís All-American kicker Alexis Serna, and if it does, count on a Beaver win.
GAMES OF INTEREST
LSU at Mississippi State - Thursday 7:00 PM CDT
The Tigers are the pre-season favorite to emerge out of the tough SEC, and this is a good test to see how the rebuilt offense performs. Mississippi State enters their 4th season under Sylvester Croom with the Bulldogs having their best collection of talent during his tenure. Might as well see how you stack up against the leagueís top dog right away.
Wake Forest at Boston College - Saturday 2:30 PM CDT
These two teams were a combined 21-6 last season, with Wake winning the head-to-head matchup 21-14 in Winston-Salem. Wake begins defense of their ACC title in hostile territory, while BC launches a new era under the direction of head coach Jeff Jagodzinski.
Kansas State at Auburn - Saturday 6:45 PM CDT
This game has the makings of a defensive slugfest on the plains of Auburn. KSU will put its 17 straight opening day win streak on the line, while this will be a good test for Auburn as they look to reignite an offense that struggled at the end of last season.
Houston at Oregon - Day 2:30 PM CDT
The Houston program has been rebuilt, and after winning the league title last season, the Cougars are now considered one of the premier programs in Conference USA. Oregon fell apart at the end of last year, losing their last 4 games, but this team is loaded on offense and should provide plenty of fireworks in this one.
Arizona at Brigham Young - Saturday 4:30 PM CDT
Arizona won last yearís game 16-13, connecting on a last-second 48-yard field goal. Both of these teamsí defensive units are likely to be ahead of the offenses in the 1st week of the season, so another defensive battle is probable in Provo.
Western Michigan at West Virginia - Saturday 2:30 PM CDT
West Virginia better be prepared, as this Western Michigan team is loaded with experience and is one of the best in the MAC. That being said, the WVU skill position talent is scary, and the Mountaineers depth should take over in the 2nd half in this one.
Central Florida at North Carolina State - Saturday 5:00 PM CDT
The Pack is coming off one of their most disappointing seasons in recent years at 3-9, but new coach Tom OíBrien has some nice talent to work with and he will instill discipline to a team that lost focus last year. It is basically the same story for UCF; the Knights dropped from 8-4 to 4-8 last season, but return a boatload of talent and should challenge for the CUSA title.
Colorado vs Colorado State (Denver) - Saturday 11:00 AM CDT
A rare 10 AM Mountain Time kick-off for this one in Denver as these two in-state rivals will line up and do battle. The Rams won this game last year and will rely on its 18 returning starters to challenge a Colorado team that is focused on rebounding after last seasonís 2-10 debacle.
Middle Tennessee at Florida Atlantic - Saturday 3:00 PM CDT
This one is not a huge game on the national scene, but it is a key game in the Sun Belt conference. Both of these programs are in the mix for the conference championship, and this contest will have huge implications on who is the top contender to challenge defending champion Troy.
Texas Tech at SMU - Monday 3:00 PM CDT
The Red Raiders better be careful in this Labor Day road trip to Dallas, as SMU has its best collection of talent on offense in years and will prepare to challenge an inexperienced Raider defensive unit. The Mustangs are focused on earning revenge after last yearís 35-3 shellacking in Lubbock.