August 30, 2010

Week 1 Watch: Early impressions are key

Michigan has endured more than its share of headaches in recent football season openers. There was Appalachian State in '07 and Utah in '08. Connecticut may trigger the next migraine.

Another opening loss won't sit well in Ann Arbor, where coach Rich Rodriguez already is under the gun. He's not alone. Illinois' Ron Zook, LSU's Les Miles, Colorado's Dan Hawkins and Maryland's Ralph Friedgen could use season-opening wins against "good" opponents to ease some of the pressure they're under.

The opening week also provides teams from non-automatic qualifying conference the chance to make a big impression for their BCS resumes with Boise State facing Virginia Tech, TCU meeting Oregon State and Utah playing host to Pittsburgh. It also marks the debut for 22 of the 23 first-year FBS coaches, most notably Notre Dame's Brian Kelly, Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, USC's Lane Kiffin and the inaugural in-state matchup of Kentucky's Joker Phillips and Louisville's Charlie Strong.

That's a schedule that will create a lot of excitement -- and maybe the need for a lot of Excedrin.

Player Most Under the Gun

Oregon State QB Ryan Katz

The strong-armed sophomore makes his first career start against TCU, which led the nation in total defense last season. The Horned Frogs have two first-year starters at cornerback and must replace Ted Hendricks Award winner Jerry Hughes, but they also return seven starters from a defense that allowed more than 17 points just twice last season. All-America candidates Jacquizz Rodgers and James Rodgers should make his job somewhat easier, but Katz has his work cut out for him as he attempts to end Oregon State's recent history of slow starts.

Best game: Boise State vs. Virginia Tech in Landover, Md., Sept. 6, 8 p.m. ESPN
Boise State needs impressive victories over powerful opponents for a shot at a BCS bowl, and Virginia Tech definitely qualifies. This Labor Day clash of two of the past decade's most successful teams matches Boise State QB Kellen Moore against Bud Foster's rugged defense. It also matches Virginia Tech RB Ryan Williams against the Broncos' solid run defense, which stuffed Oregon in last season's opener. The Broncos have a 25-game regular-season winning streak, but the last time they played on the East Coast, they were blasted by Georgia 48-13 in '05.

Don't overlook this one: SMU at Texas Tech, Sept. 5, 3:30 p.m., ESPN
This is an important tone-setter game for both programs. What kind of impact will Tommy Tuberville make on Texas Tech's offense? He promises a more balanced attack and has a solid every-down back in Baron Batch. The Red Raiders will need Tuberville's defensive prowess immediately against June Jones's pass-happy offense. Mustangs QB Kyle Padron completed better than two-thirds of his passes and averaged 296.8 yards per game in seven games as a true freshman. Expect more from him as a sophomore.

On the midweek marquee: Southern Miss at South Carolina, Thursday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
Pitt at Utah is a more important game Thursday night, but this one offers as much intrigue. The Gamecocks have won 10 consecutive season openers and may have their best chance to contend in the SEC East since Steve Spurrier arrived. But they can't overlook offense-minded Southern Miss, which will be in the mix for the Conference USA title. Keep an eye out for two dark-horse candidates for the Biletnikoff Award in South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery and Southern Miss' DeAndre Brown.

Coach most under the gun: Michigan's Rich Rodriguez
In some respects, Connecticut is the worst possible opening opponent for the embattled Rodriguez. UConn certainly is good enough to beat Michigan, but the Huskies' lack of football tradition could cause casual fans to assume it's an embarrassing loss if the Wolverines come up short. After back-to-back losing seasons, you'd have to think Michigan needs to win at least seven games -- maybe more -- for Rodriguez to keep his job. A loss to Connecticut would have the Wolverines heading to Notre Dame next week staring at the realistic possibility of an 0-2 start.

Best coordinator chess match: Boise State offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin vs. Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster
Foster's unit annually is one of the nation's best, but he has some issues in his front seven with just one healthy returning starter. Boise is extremely balanced, and despite the notion that the Broncos are a pass-first team, they love to run. If the Hokies can't shut down the run, Harsin is going to have a fun night calling plays.

BCS-buster watch: Oregon State vs. TCU in Arlington, Texas, and Boise State vs. Virginia Tech in Landover, Md.
Both "leading" busters could be out of the mix the first weekend. The Horned Frogs certainly don't look or play like a non-BCS program. This game is a homecoming for Oregon State's brother tandem of Jacquizz Rodgers (running back) and James Rodgers (wide receiver). They will face a loaded TCU defense that will look to stuff the run and force sophomore QB Ryan Katz to beat them. Boise-TCU has a number of storylines, the biggest of which is that if Boise loses, they basically become irrelevant for the rest of the season.

Best individual matchup of the week: TCU C Jake Kirkpatrick vs. Oregon State DT Stephen Paea
The Beavers run a 4-3 defense, so Kirkpatrick won't necessarily be going against Paea every down, but they will engage. Paea might be the nation's strongest player, and his strength and quickness enable him to get into opposing backfields. Kirkpatrick's job is to keep that from happening so TCU's rushing attack can get going. This is a nice early season matchup of potential All-Americans.

Best unit matchup of the week: Utah offensive line vs. Pitt defensive line
Power running is the Utes' forte. Utah returns four line starters and the strength is in the interior. Pitt has one of the nation's best end duos in Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard, but there are two new tackles. If Utah can run effectively right up the gut, it's going to win. Conversely, Pitt has to like its ends against Utah's tackles on the pass rush.

Injury report
A bit more than a week ago, UCLA starting QB Kevin Prince suffered a muscle tear, and he seems likely to miss the opener at Kansas State. Richard Brehaut, a sophomore, figures to start, but he has been inconsistent in camp. The Bruins need to get off to a strong start against a tough early schedule; UCLA plays host to Stanford and Houston, then travels to Texas after the trip to K-State.

Record watch
Nebraska has won 24 consecutive season openers, the longest streak in the nation; the Huskers last lost a season opener Sept. 7, 1985, falling 17-13 to Florida State in Lincoln. After defeating Arizona 33-0 in the Holiday Bowl, Nebraska also is seeking its first back-to-back shutouts since 1997, which is the last season Nebraska won the national title. Keeping both marks alive is extremely possible against Western Kentucky (0-12 last season).

Coaching connection
Florida State plays host to Samford in its opener. When FSU scheduled Samford for this fall, it looked as if it would be the first leg on a farewell tour for Bobby Bowden. After all, the first 31 wins of his career came at Samford, then called Howard, and the school also is his alma mater. Instead, Jimbo Fisher will coach the first game of his career against Samford, which also is his alma mater. Indeed, he was Division III's National Player of the Year in 1989 at Samford, where Fisher also was an assistant under Bobby's son, Terry.

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