The initial week of the season always has its share of lopsided matchups, and this year is no exception, but there are also numerous cross-sectional battles that will make for an interesting week one of action. The season kicks off on Thursday night and features games all the way through the Labor Day weekend, capped off with Tennessee traveling to UCLA on Monday night. The national spotlight game of the week is Alabama and Clemson getting together for the first time since 1975, while the Big Ten is featured prominently in the matchups of interest as the league is focused on regaining national respect. Let’s take a look at the key games to keep an eye on in the debut week of the 2008 season.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Alabama vs Clemson
The top match-up of the initial week is a neutral site battle between Clemson and Alabama, as these two national powerhouses take to the field at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Clemson enters the season as the favorite in the ACC and looking to end a conference championship drought that dates back to 1990. Last season Clemson won nine games and was on the cusp of earning a spot in the ACC title game, but a late season loss to Boston College cost the Tigers their shot at a conference title. Meanwhile, Alabama enters this contest off of a disappointing 7-6 season, a campaign that began well, but came crashing down late with a four game losing streak to end the regular season. The Tide did bounce back to earn a 30-24 win over Colorado in the Independence Bowl to gain some momentum heading into 2008. Time for an in-depth preview at how these two teams match-up in their prime-time opener.
The key for Alabama will be finding a defensive scheme that can contain the vast array of Clemson offensive weapons at the skill positions. The Crimson Tide returns six defensive starters, but have major depth questions up front that will need to be answered if ‘Bama has hopes of securing the upset. Expect Clemson to attack the Tide front line with the running back duo of James Davis and CJ Spiller, who last season combined for over 1,800 yards on the ground. Once the run is established, quarterback Cullen Harper can go to work with his talented receiving corps, led by Aaron Kelly and his team leading 88 receptions. The Tide had trouble rushing the quarterback last season and they must battle their way into the backfield to rattle Harper, otherwise Cullen will pick apart the Tide secondary. The key match-up to watch is how the Tide defensive line performs against an inexperienced Clemson offensive line, a group that returns only one starter from last year. The game may be decided by who wins this key battle in the trenches.
On the opposite side of the ball, Alabama will look to new faces in freshman wide receivers Julio Jones and BJ Scott to provide their offense with a much needed spark. These two could quickly develop into quarterback John Parker Wilson’s favorite targets as the Tide desperately needs receivers to step up and stretch the passing game down the field. Wilson is back for his third season behind center and does get to work behind a line that returns five starters, which is great news for him because the Clemson front line is tremendous. A new star on the horizon for Clemson is freshman defensive end Da’Quan Bowers, who has already made a huge impression in the early going and is expected to provide a spark to the Tiger pass rush. The Tide needs running back Terry Grant to find room to run as the Clemson defensive backfield is tremendous and could make for a long day for the Alabama passing attack if ‘Bama is unable to establish the ground game.
This game is a great way to kick-off the 2008 season in prime time. For Alabama to win, they will need to keep pace with the powerful Tiger offense as the Tide defense does not appear to be ready as of yet to handle all of the Clemson firepower. The Tide game plan should focus on ball control and time of possession to keep the lethal Clemson offense on the sidelines for as long as possible. Alabama has tons of young talent ready to emerge but it will take some time, while Clemson has established veterans ready to challenge for a conference and possibly a national championship. In the end, the big-play ability of the Tigers is too much for Alabama to contain as Clemson returns home from Atlanta with a key win to start their season.
OTHER MUST-SEE MATCHUPS
Illinois vs Missouri
If this years contest is anything like last years game, a 40-34 thrilling Missouri victory, college football fans should make sure to tune into this one. These two teams made plenty of noise on the national scene last year in breakout campaigns and now both return a great deal of talent and look again to be major players in their conference races. The story for Illinois will be the continued development of quarterback Juice Williams who will need to carry more of the offensive load now that star running back Rashard Mendenhall has taken his game to the NFL. Look for plenty of Williams passes to emerging star receiver Arrelious Benn as the Illini must exploit the weaker area of the Tiger defense, their secondary. For Missouri the story is a stellar offense, highlighted by Heisman candidate quarterback Chase Daniel, who is already the Tigers second all-time leading passer heading into his final season. Like Missouri, Illinois struggled in pass defense last season and they will need to show improvement, otherwise Daniel and his main target Jeremy Maclin will have a huge night in Saint Louis. Missouri is looking to establish themselves as a player in the national championship hunt for a second consecutive season while Illinois is out to prove that their Rose Bowl season was not a fluke.
Michigan State at California
Michigan State flashed their potential last season, winning seven games and putting an end to a streak of three consecutive losing seasons. Meanwhile, California is looking for redemption after rising to number two in the polls last year before losing five of their final seven games in a disappointing season. In this game, expect Michigan State to rely heavily on their offensive stars in quarterback Brian Hoyer and running back Javon Ringer. Ringer will receive a great deal of carries as the Spartans look to establish ball control against a questionable California front line that could get pushed around by the MSU offensive line. For California, Kevin Riley has won the quarterback battle, but the story of this game is likely to be running back Jahvid Best. The Spartans struggled in rush defense last season and reports out of Berkeley in regards to Best have been stellar and he will run behind one of the nation’s best offensive lines. The winner of this game gains a huge amount of respect for their respective league with Michigan State in search of a huge road win for the Big Ten while California looks for a repeat of last years opener, a big win over SEC power Tennessee.
Fresno State at Rutgers
Fresno State enters the season as one of the contenders looking to earn a third consecutive BCS bid for the Western Athletic Conference. The Bulldogs road begins with a huge challenge as Fresno travels cross-country to challenge a dangerous and talented Rutgers team. Fresno features a balanced offensive attack, relying on the running of Ryan Mathews and the passing of the vastly improved Tom Brandstater. If there is a weakness in the Rutgers defense, it is upfront so expect to see Mathews receive plenty of carries in this one. For Rutgers, the game plan will focus on quarterback Mike Teel and his two star wide-outs in Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood, a trio that could be the best in the nation. The Bulldogs have some questions in their backfield so the Knights should be able to move the ball through the air in this game. A win by Fresno will increase the BCS chatter around the Bulldog program, while Rutgers is looking to establish momentum before another challenging non-conference battle against North Carolina on September 11th.
Utah at Michigan
The Rich Rodriguez era officially kicks off as the Wolverines receive an immediate challenge from a talented group from Utah. Michigan lost all of their starting skill position talent from last season and further adding to the questions is the installation of a brand new spread offense without a starting quarterback emerging from the pack as of yet. There are no questions for Utah on offense as this is an experienced group with a stout offensive line and excellent talent at the skill positions. The Michigan defense will have to set the tone in this game as the Wolverine offense looks to find its way and establish itself in the early going. If the Utah spread offense is firing on all cylinders, it is unlikely that Michigan will be able to keep pace with the Utes. Utah is talented and capable of coming into Ann Arbor and earning a win in this game, a win that will have Utah fans already dreaming about the BCS. Michigan fans are not sure what to expect at this point, but they will look for much improved play compared to last year’s disastrous season opening loss to Appalachian State.
Tennessee at UCLA
The final game in week #1 is an intriguing match-up as the Volunteers head west to open their season for a second straight year. Tennessee is looking to build upon a ten win 2007 season that saw them capture an SEC East championship while UCLA is looking to rebound from a disappointing season as Rick Neuheisel assumes the reigns of the program. Look for Tennessee to pound away at the UCLA front line with running back Arian Foster as new quarterback Jonathan Crompton settles into his new role. Crompton only attempted twelve passes last season so UCLA will focus on forcing Tennessee to win or lose this game through the air. Expect the same game plan from UCLA as Kahlil Bell will be the workhorse after the Bruins lost their top two quarterbacks to injury and UCLA does not have much interest in attacking an excellent Volunteer secondary. Tennessee has the edge when reviewing this game on paper, but these lengthy road trips can do funny things to teams, especially in week number one of the season. A win by UCLA would be huge for this team as 2008 appears to be a season of building for the future while for Tennessee they are looking to make a statement that they remain as strong as last season and will be a major player in the SEC race.
GAMES OF INTEREST
USC at Virginia - Saturday 2:30 PM CDT
The Trojans head East for the first ever meeting between these two programs as USC looks to continue their mastery over non-conference foes. The Men of Troy enter the season as the favorite to win a seventh consecutive Pac-10 title and are yet again a legitimate national championship contender, while Virginia will find out quickly where they stand in what appears to be a rebuilding campaign.
Memphis at Mississippi - Saturday 6:00 PM CDT
These two have met in the season opener for the past four seasons, with the Rebels currently owning a three game winning streak. Memphis is a contender for the Conference USA championship while Mississippi has its best team in years as they focus on a return to the post-season for the first time since 2003.
Virginia Tech vs East Carolina - Saturday 11:00 AM CDT
These two battled in the opener last season with the Hokies emerging victorious in a hard-fought 17-7 contest. The 2008 version should be just as competitive as Tech is focused on repeating as the ACC champion while East Carolina has its site set on claiming the title in Conference USA.
Kentucky at Louisville - Sunday 2:30 PM CDT
Kentucky broke through against their in-state rival last season, ending a four game losing streak to the Cardinals with a 40-34 win. These two teams look to be battling for post-season bids so this contest is critical to each teams bowl hopes and future recruiting battles within the state.
Appalachian State at LSU - Saturday 5:00 PM CDT
The three-time defending FCS national champion Mountaineers of Appalachian State are out to prove that last year’s opening day win over Michigan was not a fluke. LSU is breaking in a brand new quarterback, but remain loaded with talent as they look to run their non-conference home winning streak to 23. You can count on one thing, LSU will not underestimate the Mountaineers thanks to Michigan.
Florida Atlantic at Texas - Saturday 6:00 PM CDT
Texas better be focused and ready to play as Florida Atlantic is an extremely dangerous opening day match-up. The Owls will be able to put points on the scoreboard led by their star quarterback Rusty Smith, but the question remains on whether or not their defense can hold up against the relentless Longhorn attack.
Oregon State at Stanford - Thursday 8:00 PM CDT
The Cardinal open up their season for a third straight year with a critical conference match-up. The Beavers won last season 23-6, but Oregon State has lost five consecutive road openers, and this is a critical match-up in the mid-tier of the Pac-10 conference race.
Washington at Oregon - Saturday 9:00 PM CDT
The Ducks have won four in a row in this series and they will need to stretch that streak to five if they have hopes of winning a Pac-10 title. For Washington this is the beginning of a brutal stretch of games to open the season, and earning a win on the road in the conference opener would do wonders for this struggling programs confidence.
Hawaii at Florida - Saturday 11:30 AM CDT
This is the first meeting between these two programs as Hawaii makes the lengthy trek across country looking for redemption after their season ending pounding at the hands of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Expect plenty of offense in this one as Florida should be able to light up the scoreboard, whether Hawaii has enough weapons to keep this game competitive is the major question.
North Carolina State at South Carolina - Thursday 7:00 PM CDT
The Gamecocks are poised to be major players in the SEC East race and a win in the home opener is needed to set the stage before the two conference games that follow. NC State is looking to continue the momentum from the end of the 2007 season, as the Pack won four of their last six, and a win at South Carolina in the opener will open eyes in the ACC.