Somebody woke me up and said there's actually football Thursday night, which seems hard to believe after a seemingly neverending offseason of controversy and conference realignment. Of course it could be worse: we could have had no substantive news for six months while 32 men bickered in a room about billions of dollars (don't let the media fool you, the only noteworthy news in the NFL from February to July was that no agreement had been reached. So I suppose there's a silver lining for those of us who like to talk about college football year round. However, it will be nice to actually talk about games on the field rather than the shell games off the field of "where will A&M go next?" and the incomprehensible violations and crimes the NCAA has to deal with on a regular basis. The coach-in-waiting plan failed miserably again at West Virginia, some kids were hospitalized for up to a month with Rhabdo after a strenuous Iowa workout, Butch Davis was canned after 12 months of NCAA investigations, USC lost their 2004 national championship, Ohio State lost their coach, quarterback, and one bowl win against the SEC, Oregon and Auburn lost the luster of perfect seasons with NCAA problems, LSU players lost their heads in a bar fight, Mike Heywood lost a dream job two days after he got hired thanks to bad personal decisions, and then there's Miami. Oh, Miami, every embattled fan base from Columbus to Los Angeles should be sending you a gift for blowing all these other stories out of the water and taking the NCAA Violations cake. To top it off, Nebraska, Colorado, BYU, Utah, and Boise State are all in new conference this season with at least as many changes already planned for 2012. But for now, we get meaningful football, which is an island of sanity in all this craziness.
Before jumping into the opening week of games, SCS must put on the record some final predictions sure to go wrong. We were able to present full previews for each automatic qualifying conference and the Sun Belt over the past three weeks, but that still leaves the now four football independents and four conferences to discuss. Let's take a look at how each of these conference races will shape up.
MWC: The Mountain West added Boise State but lost Utah and BYU, which makes the conference a little weaker overall. TCU's schedule was modified when they announced they were leaving the conference in 2012, and they now will find repeating as conference champions much harder following the changes. Boise State now gets to host TCU on the blue turf in November in the conference game of the year, and Kellen Moore should be the difference in a battle of the best two non-AQ teams of the past few seasons. Air Force also has a chance to knock off TCU in the second game of the season at Colorado Springs thanks to having six more starters returning. San Diego State and Colorado State should also be in the mix, although all will be hard pressed to overcome the Broncos and the blue turf factor. Wyoming will take a small step back after a bowl season, and New Mexico and UNLV will be rebuilding this year. If Boise State survives the opening game against Georgia in Atlanta, then look for Boise State to break back through to the BCS once again.
MWC Conference Rankings: Boise State, TCU, Air Force, San Diego State, Colorado, Wyoming, UNLV, New Mexico. Conference players of the year: QB Kellen Moore, Boise State (offense); LB Tank Carder, TCU (defense); P Brian Stohovich, San Diego State (special teams).
C-USA: Last season, Central Florida and SMU surprised everyone with division titles. This year Southern Miss will have a much easier schedule with Houston and Tulsa rotating off the schedule. UCF will fall just short thanks to replacing 12 starters and having to play Southern Miss and East Carolina on the road. East Carolina is still learning the schemes of second year head coach Ruffin McNeill, but will be in the mix again this season. UAB, Marshall, and Memphis will not be ready to compete for the division title this year. In the West division, Houston will be a strong favorite thanks to the return of QB Case Keenum for his sixth season. Tulsa and Todd Graham took advantage of Keenum's injury a season ago, but SMU upset Tulsa to steal the division title. Both of these teams will play Houston in the final two weeks of the season and should have a chance to win the division title if they can knock off the Cougars. Rice will likely qualify for another bowl, while Tulane and UTEP will need to wait another year. Look for Houston to knock off Southern Miss for the conference championship.
C-USA Conference Rankings: Houston, Southern Miss, UCF, Tulsa, SMU, East Carolina, Rice, Tulane, UAB, Marshall, Memphis, UTEP. Conference players of the year: QB Case Keenum, Houston (offense); DE Vinny Curry, Marshall (defense); K Danny Hrapmann, Southern Miss (special teams).
WAC: Last year Nevada knocked off Boise State to drop the Broncos into a three way conference crown with the Wolfpack and Hawaii. Now Boise State leaves for the MWC and leaves Nevada, Fresno State, and Hawaii to compete for the conference crown (until they defect next season). Louisiana Tech also has a strong team returning led by a pair of all conference lines. Nevada gets the nod with the pistol offense continuing to hit its stride and getting all the other good conference teams at home (Hawaii and Louisiana Tech in November cold weather). Idaho and San Jose State could be headed to bowls if they can steal some non-conference games, while Utah State and New Mexico State will struggle once again this year. The WAC will be a very interesting conference race next season when Louisiana Tech and Idaho are the best teams left, but the fans should enjoy this year before the rest of the top echelon leaves.
WAC Conference Rankings: Nevada, Hawaii, Fresno State, Louisiana Tech, Idaho, San Jose State, New Mexico State, Utah State. Conference players of the year: RB Lennon Creer, Louisiana Tech (offense); CB Isaiah Frey, Nevada (defense); K Kevin Goessling, Fresno State (special teams).
MAC: The past three seasons have seen six different teams show up in Detroit for the conference championship, and it is possible that two more new teams may make the game this year. In the East division, Ohio is the only team with an experienced coach Frank Solich and their offense should be much improved from a season ago. Temple has just as much talent as the Bobcats but a new head coach and a road game in Athens will likely keep them out for the third straight year. Miami and Kent State also could be in the mix should the Bobcats falter, while Buffalo and Bowling Green will be fighting for bowl eligibility and Akron will be hoping they find a way out of the basement. In the West division, Toledo, Western Michigan, and Northern Illinois will all be close throughout the season. Toledo has only lost 9 lettermen and 4 starters, and gets WMU and NIU at home this year. Thus, the Rockets will meet the Bobcats for the conference title. Central Michigan and Ball State will be derailed by tough schedule breaks, while Eastern Michigan is back in their familiar role at the bottom of the division. Toledo knocks off Ohio for the MAC Championship in December.
MAC Conference Rankings: Toledo, Ohio, Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, Temple, Kent State, Miami, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Bowling Green, Ball State, Eastern Michigan, Akron. Conference players of the year: WR Marcus Rivers, Buffalo (offense); DE Adrian Robinson, Temple (defense); P Paul Hershey, Ohio (special teams).
Independents: This year BYU joins the service academies and Notre Dame in the independent ranks, a year after all three other teams managed to have successful winning seasons. Notre Dame is set for a resurgence in Brian Kelly's second season at the helm with 17 returning starters and a schedule that is tough but not unbeatable thanks to the down seasons of teams like Michigan and USC. BYU struggled to fill their schedule this season and ended up with five tough road games (Mississippi, Texas, Oregon State, TCU, and Hawaii). However, BYU has a much better team than last year and should easily be bowl eligible and headed to the Armed Forces Bowl. Navy has a lot of turnover as usual but will still catch a lot of teams off guard with the option, no matter who is running the offense. Navy should be bowl eligible again. Army returns nearly everyone on offense and should continue to improve on that side of the ball, but the defense will likely not create as many turnovers this year. Army will take a step back and will not make a bowl this year.
Independent Rankings: Notre Dame, BYU, Navy, Army. Independent players of the year: WR Michael Floyd, Notre Dame (offense); S Zeke Motta, Notre Dame (defense); KR Cody Hoffman, BYU (special teams).
The first game of the week is Notre Dame at South Florida. Each of these teams is improved from a season ago with a lot of returning talent and young, talented head coaches ready to shine at their dream jobs. Brian Kelly will be running the spread again with QB Dayne Crist, who threw for over 2000 yards last year before being injured the last month of the season. Michael Floyd was Crist's top target and will be a tough test for the Bulls secondary. Notre Dame struggled at times last year and will face a unique test with dual threat QB B.J. Daniels for the Bulls. South Florida should look to run the ball against an Irish defense that had a lot of holes up front last season. If there is an achilles heel for the Irish, it will be the run defense, and South Florida has the athletes to test them right away. Notre Dame will struggle early in this game but the offense will click in the second half and the Fighting Irish will pull away with a 13 point win.
The second game of the week is Boise State versus Georgia in the Georgia Dome. Georgia has struggled the past couple of seasons but will not have to deal with the loss of their best player for a portion of the season this year. That being said, Georgia will need to come out of the gates blazing on offense to keep up with a Boise team that has had a fair share of wins against more talented teams from BCS conferences. Bulldogs QB Aaron Murray was outstanding last year with 3000 yards and a 24-8 touchdown to interception ratio. Look for Murray to find some openings in the Broncos backfield and perhaps lead Georgia to an early lead (which will get the crowd fully behind Georgia if they aren't already). This is not Boise State's first big stage opener though, and Kellen Moore has even more impressive statistics than Murray. Moore will benefit from having a strong offensive line mostly intact, although Georgia's size and athleticism on the defensive line will be a tough challenge for the Broncos. Georgia has all the intangibles that could let them start 2-0 and in the driver's seat of the SEC East, but Boise State is just too tough and too experienced to lose this game, even with it being a virtual road game. Boise State steals another big season opener by 4.
The third and final game of the week is Oregon versus LSU at Cowboys Stadium. Once again, another great team from the west travels to a "neutral-site" in the SEC's backyard to play an SEC team, but Oregon may be too tough for a suspension-depleted LSU squad. Oregon returns QB Darron THomas and RB LaMichael James from the best offense in the country a season ago, and the Ducks are always hard to prepare for thanks to their fast tempo. LSU does have enough talent on the defensive front to push around the smaller Ducks offensive line, similar to how Ohio State and Auburn have dominated the Ducks in the past two bowl games. However, LSU holding Oregon in check might be holding them to about 30 points this season, and there is just little chance that LSU can keep up with Jarrett Lee instead of Jordan Jefferson at quarterback. LSU does return nearly everyone else on offense and should make some strides this season...however, Lee and new running back Spencer Ware will not be running on full cylinders this early int he season. LSU could morph into a team that wins the SEC championship, but this opener is tailor-made for failure. Oregon wins by 20.
OTHER GAMES OF THE WEEK - week 1
2010 GOTW Record: 27-16
Fitz Top 10 - Preseason
So now it is time to settle in with some ice cold beverages and some tailgate food and welcome college football back. Although there are many new faces in new places this season, the sport will still feel like a familiar old glove to longtime fans. Some major inter-sectional games highlight the Saturday schedule, and the good games continue into Labor Day with the suspension-stricken Miami needing to overcome adversity against Maryland in a week 1 conference tilt. There are always a couple of upsets the first week of the season, so keep the remote handy just in case Appalachian State decides to be a giant killer once again. See you next week when we actually will have some results to talk about (and unfortunately, still some realignment as it appears A&M will be moving next week).