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August 31, 2006 Tonight at 5:00 PM central, the best sport in America returns. The sport where every game is a playoff game all season long, the sport where passions are high and bragging rights for the whole year are on the line every week. Yes, college football is back! Boston College and Central Michigan get a full hour head start, but fifteen other games will fill the night later on.

If you have a chance to experience an opening weekend game when the hopes are high and nobody is eliminated from national or conference title contention, I highly recommend going out and living it up at your local stadium. I personally will have the pleasure of watching the first senior sousaphone player dot the “i” for Ohio State this year on Saturday, but wherever you go there will be plenty of football and tradition.

This should be a great year to watch college football, as there are no legitimate national title contenders without major questions facing them going into the season. Ohio State is the consensus preseason number one, but the Buckeyes’ young defense and rough September schedule (Northern Illinois, at Texas, Penn State, at Iowa) will probably knock them out of the top spot early.

West Virginia has the easiest schedule to run the table, but the Mountaineers have trouble living up to super high expectations and road trips to Louisville and Pittsburgh will be no pleasant picnics. Notre Dame must survive the best of the Big Ten conference early and a season-ending game at USC, not to mention the defensive unit questions after getting demolished in the Fiesta Bowl. Miami was my Xbox pick to win the title, but doubts remain after LSU dismantled them last bowl season.

Speaking of the Bayou Bengals, they would have a chance if not for being in the SEC, where nobody will come out unscathed in league play. USC and California must avoid the Pac-10 letdowns, and nobody knows if Michigan will have a revival this year. Oklahoma was a trendy pick before Bomar’s dismissal, and Texas has the unfortunate task of defending a national title with a rookie taking snaps.

Everybody has big questions, and I suspect no more than one team will be undefeated when the BCS has to do the tough job of deciding who will meet for the National Championship game January 8.

Last season I led off my weekly article series with a listing of the top ten games of the regular season, and I feel obliged to do the same since there is no real issues or game results to discuss at this point. So without further ado, the top ten games of 2006:

10. Virginia Tech at Miami, November 4 – This game should have decided the ACC title last season, but Miami lost a couple of games they shouldn’t have and lost the division title accordingly. UM has the luxury of playing this game at home this season, and Larry Coker has something to prove after a disappointing end to 2005. If Miami survives their schedule to this point, this game could be the final major hurdle between the Hurricanes and another national title appearance. Virginia Tech needs this one if they have any hope of repeating as division champion.

9. Cal at USC, November 18 – I almost picked California’s season opener against Tennessee since the Volunteers have no games on this list, but this battle should decide a BCS slot and becomes vitally important if the Golden Bears are to stop the Trojan BCS roll. This game is dangerous for USC, since Notre Dame is coming up the next week and all eyes will be looking forward to that matchup.

8. LSU at Auburn, September 16 – The past two champions of the SEC West get an early date to play each other this season. Auburn is a dark horse national title contender, but those hopes would be quickly derailed if they lose this game at home. Despite the strength of this conference, you have to think this is the crucial game of the season for both of these teams. The winner becomes a national title contender immediately, while the loser will be lucky to even be in the discussion in November.

7. West Virginia at Louisville, November 2 – Many have asked if a national title run could happen primarily on Thursday nights, and WVU will have all of their tough games on that night of the week this year. If Louisville gets by Miami, then this game may not only decide the Big East but half the national title game since both teams have favorable schedules after this game. Barring a disaster, the Cardinals are the only thing standing in the way of the Mountaineers, and I expect them to stand up to the task admirably.

6. Michigan at Notre Dame, September 16 – While both teams may have a little trouble dispatching their first two opponents, nobody would be surprised if both teams are 2-0 coming into this game. This will be a tough test for Charlie Weis, as Michigan will be looking to avenge one of five painful losses from last season. This game could also fully launch a Heisman campaign for Brady Quinn, Mike Hart, or Chad Henne. With so many superstars and two great coaches, this would be the best game of September if not for one other...

5. Florida vs. Georgia, October 28 – I do not care what they officially call this game, it will still be “The World’s Largest Cocktail Party” every year. While Tennessee has the chance to steal a lot of this game’s prestige by taking the division for themselves, the Gators and last season’s SEC champ will probably have a little to say about that first. Florida has plenty of talent to win this game, but Georgia has championship experience. This could be the game that defines the SEC this year.

4. Texas vs. Oklahoma, November 7 – The annual battle in Dallas will have the same prestige as always, but like last year, this is really just the biggest test for the Longhorns in the Big XII. With Adrian Peterson and his offensive line looking a little better this season and no Vince Young to slash the OU defense, Stoops’ troops have a much better chance to derail the title hopes of UT this season. Mack Brown might have finally broken through in many major ways, but he needs to prove he can beat OU consistently to make Texas a true national perennial powerhouse.

3. Michigan at Ohio State, November 18 – This game always decides the Big Ten in some fashion, and last season it was OSU coming back dramatically on the road to ruin Michigan’s season and launch themselves into a co-Big Ten title and BCS berth. All five battles between Jim Tressel and Lloyd Carr have determined how the Big Ten shakes out, and this year will be no different. Iowa and Penn State have some talent again, but barring unforeseen circumstances, the winner of this game should at least get a share of the title. This also might be OSU’s only hard game after September if they make it out of the opening month 5-0, so the national title implications are obvious. Tressel knows how to beat Michigan, but don’t think Carr has forgotten how to beat Ohio State.

2. Ohio State at Texas, September 9 – Last year this game was trumped only by the national title game and the Notre Dame-USC game for excitement, but again this game will determine your early national title favorite. Texas went into a tough night game and Vince Young carried them out with a victory, but will Troy Smith return the favor in Austin? Keep in mind the Buckeyes may have won that game last season if not for rotating QB’s all night and disrupting the offense. This game features the preseason consensus number one team against the defending national champion. What more could you ask for?

1. Notre Dame at USC, November 25 – This game nudges OSU-Texas down to number two simply because the loser of that showdown can get back into the national title picture since early losses are not completely devastating sometimes. This game, on the other hand, will certainly remove one of these teams from national title contention. While USC at home late in the year is tough to stop, I am sure Notre Dame has the superstar guns to run wild with the Trojans and try to outscore them like last year. Look for this game to help clear up the national title picture.

Well this article is going on long, but I cannot stop without covering my usual territory, that being the top three games of the week. This week we have no major showdowns, but a lot of solid games including my third game of the week, (10) California at Tennessee. Both of these teams must groan at the tough opener, but both need this kind of preparation to survive their conference schedules later. Normally I would take the team with a strong rushing attack (Cal) against a team replacing all three linebackers (Tennessee), but I cannot see California going back west with a victory. The quarterback situation that has developed needs to be figured out quickly or Cal will falter and be forgotten quickly.

My second choice is (3) Notre Dame at Georgia Tech. The Atlanta night will be hot and tough for Quinn and company, but these games build the character necessary to make a stretch run and a Heisman campaign. Everyone lauded Charlie Weis and his ability to out-prepare college coaches if given time, and he has had all off-season to think about what went wrong in the Fiesta Bowl. I’ll make this my upset special of the week by taking Georgia Tech, for no good reason other than I think Notre Dame will take an unexpected lump or two this year as more coaches know what to expect from Weis, Quinn, and Samardzija.

The game of the week for week one is the Labor Day showdown, (15) Florida State at (4) Miami. You never know when Bobby Bowden will pull a rabbit out of the hat, such as last year winning the ACC title over other suitors Virginia Tech and Miami. This season Clemson and Boston College are even more improved, so FSU needs this game to get out of their division more than likely. Florida State only returns 4 defensive starters, so look for the veteran Miami offense to put up some points at home. I do not think Drew Weatherford can keep up going against a strong Miami defense, so I’ll take Miami.

2006 year-to-date GOTW picking record: 0-0
2005 GOTW picking record: 25-14

Fitzy’s Top 10 – Preseason
1. Ohio State
2. Texas
3. LSU
4. West Virginia
5. USC
6. Notre Dame
7. Miami
8. Oklahoma
9. Michigan
10. Auburn

Have a great first weekend of college football. We’ll see you next week when we will inevitably be doing a big preview of the second biggest game of the season, Ohio State at Texas.

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