August 27, 2007

For openers, Cal-Tennessee tops list

The wait for college football's resumption has spanned eight months, but finally those who have persevered will be rewarded this weekend with games like

Florida vs. Western Kentucky?

The opening week of the college football season is usually a weak one, as high-ranking powerhouses shake off the rust against Division II teams and mid-majors. It's like first sitting through the previews after standing in a long line to see a blockbuster motion picture.

Really, does Michigan against Appalachian State provide much suspense? Or Louisville vs. Murray State? Or Southern California vs. Idaho? Or Texas vs. Arkansas State? Or

You get the picture.

Thankfully, this ocean of season-opening mismatches includes a few islands on which to be deserted. Here are arguably the five best matchups of the season's first week:

1. Tennessee at California

The only first week matchup of top 25 teams Cal is 12th, Tennessee is 15th - is also a rematch of a beat-down from last season. Tennessee physically overwhelmed Cal 35-18 (it wasn't that close) in Knoxville last season. This time, Cal gets its chance for redemption in front of its home crowd. Both teams feel they have legitimate championship aspirations, but the Bears must prove they're tough enough up front to avoid another embarrasment. Meanwhile, Tennessee is unsettled in the secondary, which is especially worrisome when facing Cal's explosive receiver DeSean Jackson.

2. Florida State at Clemson

The winner of 'Bowden Bowl IX' gets the inside track in the ACC Atlantic Division race. Clemson has a two-game winning streak in the series and has won three of the last four. The Tigers also have one of the nation's premier rushing tandems in James Davis and C.J. Spiller. Florida State returns eight starters from a defense which ranked 12th nationally against the run in 2006. How Florida State's offense fares in its debut under coordinator Jimbo Fisher will be of keen interest. So will the performance of Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper, who is making the first start of his collegiate career.

East Carolina at Virginia Tech
In most years, opening the football season against East Carolina would merely be a respectable warmup for Virginia Tech.

But this season it means so much more than preparing for an ACC championship run.

The beginning of the 2007 football season represents a return to normalcy. It marks another step in a long, painful healing process from the April 16 tragedy in which a gunman fatally shot five faculty members and 27 fellow students before killing himself.

Although Virginia Tech is ranked No. 11 in the nation and is the preseason favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference championship, there are no illusions that a football season no matter how glorious can ease the suffering of those who lost so much in that tragedy.

But at least a new season provides a community that has grieved so much together an opportunity to once again cheer together.

3. Wake Forest at Boston College

Can Wake Forest continue the magic of 2006? This game should provide some indication of whether the defending ACC-champion Deacons were one-year wonders or if they can again contend for the conference crown. The game also features a matchup of the league's top two quarterbacks -- BC's Matt Ryan and Wake Forest's Riley Skinner. However, the play of the defenses may reveal more. Boston College anticipates fielding one of its best defensive units ever. Wake Forest, meanwhile, has six new starters. Last season, the Deacons' 20-14 victory over BC was the difference in the Atlantic Division standings.

4. Georgia Tech vs. Notre Dame

Irish coach Charlie Weiswon't reveal whether Evan Sharpley, Demetrius Jones or heralded freshman Jimmy Clausen will start at quarterback against the Yellow Jackets. That's the first question about Notre Dame's offense. The second question is whether it will matter. The Irish edged Georgia Tech 14-10 in last year's season opener and that was with Brady Quinn, Darius Walker and Jeff Samardzija in the lineup. How successful can they be against a Georgia Tech defense that returns eight starters?

5. Oklahoma State at Georgia

Oklahoma State is out to prove it's a bona fide contender in the Big 12 South. Georgia aims to show it can be a force in the SEC East. The No. 13 Bulldogs have won their last 10 openers, and closed last season with consecutive victories over ranked opponents. Quarterback Matthew Stafford may emerge as one of the nation's best this season, but the offensive line is questionable and the defense has been rebuilt. Led by dangerous receiver Adarius Bowman, Oklahoma State figures to field one of the country's most explosive offenses.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for He can be reached at

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