Opening Weekend Starts Slowly, Reaches Crescendo
by Mike Mitchell
(Editor's Note: This article was published prior to Hurricane Katrina. Since then, Nicholls State-Utah State has been completely stricken from the season, while Tulane-Southern Miss and North Texas-LSU were postponed.)
Yeah, baby! Another season of college football is here. The opening-week slate delivers 61 games over five days and builds to a Sunday-Monday finish that features five conference games.
The season officially kicks off on Thursday night though the 11-game schedule on that day doesn't give us much cause to celebrate. The easy topper on the list is Steve Spurrier's inaugural game as head coach at South Carolina. The Gamecocks host Central Forida, a team that went winless a year ago in George O'Leary's first season with the Golden Knights. UCF is beginning a new era, too, as they transfer from the MAC to CUSA. The computer picks the Gamecocks by 8, far below the established odds.
Thursday's only other game of interest is Oregon's trip to Houston to battle the Cougars in Reliant Stadium. The Ducks only get a 2-point nod from the computer.
Friday gets a little more intriguing as Utah opens the season without last year's head coach and quarterback. Urban Meyer moved to Florida and Alex Smith made an early exit to the NFL. Kyle Whittingham, promoted from defensive coordinator, debuts as the Utes' head coach as 12-point computer favorites in the home-opener against Arizona, a team Utah toppled 23-6 on the road last year.
On Saturday, Meyer starts his new career in Gainesville as 4-point home favorites against Wyoming. The computer pick is nearly 20 points below the established line.
Former Florida coach Ron Zook landed on his feet at Illinois but is a 2-point underdog in the opener to Rutgers.
Washington begins the Ty Willingham era as 2-point favorites in an "away" game against Air Force in Seattle. That's right, the Falcons are the designated home team for the battle at Qwest Field.
Willingham's repalcement at Notre Dame, Charlie Weis, faces Pittsburgh and new head coach Dave Wannstedt. This will be Weis' first game as a head coach since he led Franklin Township High (NJ) to a state championship in 1989. He began his NFL coaching career the following year and spent the last five seasons as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots. Wannstedt is a former Panther lineman (1970-1973) and graduate assistant coach (1975-1976) who also worked under Jimmy Johnson at Oklahoma State and Miami as defensive coordinator. Of course, he later had NFL head coaching stints with Chicago and Miami. Pittsburgh is gets the computer's nod by 6.
Les Miles debuts as the head coach of LSU as 24-point favorites in the Tigers' home-opener against North Texas. The former Oklahoma State head coach replaces Nick Saban who jumped to the NFL's Miami Dolphins to replace Wannstedt. Miles will have to coach his opener without the services of his top returning running back, Alley Broussard, who was lost for the season when he suffered a knee injury in the teams' first fall practice. Meanwhile, the Mean Green head to Baton Rouge equipped with two marquis runners in Jamario Thomas and Patrick Cobbs, the first teammates to lead the nation in rushing yards-per-game in consecutive seasons since the NCAA began keeping such stats in 1970. Cobbs had the honor in 2003 and Thomas accomplished the feat in 2004 after Cobbs went down with an injury early in the season.
Bronco Mendenhall takes over the program at BYU and the Cougars open as 9-point home underdogs to Boston College on Saturday. The Eagles begin their first season in the ACC, joining Miami and Virginia Tech as Big East escapees.
Hal Mumme, who resigned from Kentucky in February 2001 in the midst of an NCAA investigation that led to the Wildcats being placed on three years probation for recruiting violations, begins his tenure at New Mexico State. The Aggies are 3-point computer home dogs to UTEP. The Miners enter their second season under Mike Price after improving from 2-11 in 2003 to 8-4 last year.
Several teams that are expected to compete for division and conference titles open the season against tough competition. The computer picks Tennessee to win the SEC east and the Vols open at home against UAB, the computer's pick in the east division of CUSA. The opening line made Tennessee a 24-point favorite but the computer pegs it much lower at 10.
Georgia, another SEC east front-runner, opens with perennial WAC power Boise State as mere 2-point computer favorites in Athens. The Broncos have won 21 straight regular season games and are 36-3 over the last three season.
Colorado, tapped to win the Big 12 north, opens at home against Colorado State, the computer's pick to win the Mountain West conference. The Buffaloes are favored by 9 in the state rivalry contest.
Auburn, picked to finish just behind LSU in the SEC West, enters their Saturday opener at home as slim 2-point computer favorites against Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech may have been a favorite to win the ACC Coastal division were it not for a brutal slate of away games that includes Virginia Tech, Miami, and Virginia in addition to Auburn.
The Tigers have not lost a game since November 15, 2003 and have outscored their opponents by a combined total of 473-184 while ripping of 15 consecutive wins. But missing from Tommy Tuberville's squad are 4 players that were taken in the first 25 picks of the 2005 NFL draft. Running backs Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams were the 2nd and 5th players selected. Cornerback Carlos Rogers was drafted 9th and QB Jason Campbell was the 25th over-all pick. The Yellow Jackets return 10 defensive starters along with QB Reggie Ball, WR Calvin Johnson and RB P.J. Daniels.
Texas A&M and Clemson are both expected to have winning seasons and go to bowl games but a win on Saturday could propel one of these teams to greater heights. Tommy Bowden has had a love-hate relationship with Tiger fans despite a 44-29 record and five bowl appearances in six seasons, and it would've been six-for-six had his players not sparred with South Carolina's in last year's final game. Bowden's problem has been slow starts. If you look at the first six games of each of the last three seasons, Clemson is only a combined 9-9. They are a cumulative 13-6 down the stretch. The computer sees a similar start to the 2005 season with thevisiting Aggies getting a 1-point nod.
Defending national champion and PAC-10 favorite USC takes its 22-game winning streak to Hawaii where the Warriors have won seven straight contests and and 14 of their last sixteen. The computer sets the line at 21 in favor of the Trojans who return Heisman-winning QB Matt Leinart and Heisman candidate Reggie Bush (2,330 all-purpose yards) and LenDale White (1,103 rushing yards). Leinart threw 33 TD passes a year ago and has a two-year total of 71 scoring strikes against just 15 interceptions.
MAC title favorite Bowling Green goes to Madison as a 2-point upset pick over Wisconsin. The Falcons return Omar Jacobs at QB after a 2004 season in which he threw 41 TD passes. The Badgers' secondary was depleted by graduation and the entire defensive line was drafted from one of the better defenses in the country last year.
There are six other MAC-Big 10 matchups on the slate.
Shane Montgomery debuts as the head coach at Miami (Ohio) when his RedHawks visit Ohio State as 13-point computer underdogs. Montgomery replaces Terry Hoeppner who took Gerry DiNardo's job at Indiana.
Hoeppner opens with the Hoosiers as a shaky 2-point computer pick at Central Michigan.
Ball State is an 18-point computer dog at Iowa, Northern Illinois is on the wrong side of a 17-point line at Michigan and Michigan State is a 6-point home pick over Kent State.
Last, but definitely not least, on the list of MAC-Big 10 challenges is Frank Solich's debut with Ohio as a 12-point underdog at Northwestern.
Sunday and Monday bring five games to the table that count in the conference standings - Virginia Tech at N.C. State (ACC), Tulane at Southern Miss (CUSA), West Virginia at Syracuse (Big East), Miami at Florida State (ACC) and UNLV at New Mexico (MWC).
Two of those games could play a huge factor in the ACC divisional races. Virginia Tech, Miami, Florida State and N.C. State are all picked to finish in the top halves of their division and any could realistically win their division.
Only three teams beat Virginia Tech last year and two of those (USC and Auburn) finished their seasons undefeated. N.C. State finished just 5-6 and beat the Hokies in Blacksburg thanks largely to a stout defensive effort that accounted for 10 quarterback sacks. The architect of that defense, Reggie Herring, has moved to Arkansas and five of last year's starters, including the teams' top two tacklers, are no longer in the program. Marcus Vick makes his long-anticipated debut as the starting quarterback for Virginia Tech which has a stable of experienced running backs, a slew of returning pass-catchers and one of the nation's top tight ends in Jeff King. Frank Beamer is number three on the list of wins for current head coaches, trailing only Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno. Tech is favored by 5.
Bowden's boys will be looking to halt a six-game skid to Miami (including an Orange Bowl loss in 2003) when the two teams hook-up for their annual state rivalry clash in Tallahassee on Monday. Prior to the current losing streak, FSU won five-in-a-row over the Hurricanes from 1995-1999. Each will be breaking in a new quarterback. Miami is a 4-point computer pick to win their seventh straight over the Seminoles.
Despite finishing in a four-way tie for first in the Big East last year, 2004 was a disappointing season at West Virginia. Many had the Mountaineers pegged to win the conference easily and have a shot at a national title - at least a BCS bowl. Instead, they finished 8-4 (the computer picked 6-5) and start this season on a 3-game losing streak. They enter the hostile confines of the Carrier Dome at Syracuse on Saturday with fewer than half of last year's starters and as a 5-point computer underdog in a season-opening conference game. The Orange have their own question marks with a new head coach (Greg Robinson) who implemented a west coast offense.
Tulane is the preseason pick to win the west division in CUSA but the Green Wave are a 3-point underdog in their opener at Southern Miss.
Memphis, a strong challenger for the CUSA east division title, is an 8-point home favorite over Mississippi and new Rebels' head coach Ed Orgeron. The Tigers beat Ole Miss in Oxford last year, 20-13.
Every Division 1-A conference except the WAC and Sun Belt will employ the use of instant replay to prevent an incorrect officiating call from potentially changing the outcome of a game. Most of the conferences will be employing the method the Big 10 introduced in the 2004 season with great success, which means one or two in-booth officials will determine which plays warrant a second look using multiple monitors. In general, replay use is limited to plays that directly affect scoring or possession.
Last year, the Big 10 used instant replay in 28 of its conference games and overturned 21 calls out of the 46 plays that were reviewed.
The Mountain West will be letting the coaches decide when to issue a challenge, similar to the NFL system.
Out of 117 teams, the computer's 2004 preseason forecast correctly projected the exact records of 18 teams. It missed by just one win on 31 teams and missed by only two wins on 33 teams. That's a total of 82 out of 117 teams whose records it forecasted within two wins. It hit 101-of-117 within three wins.
The computer's preseason forecast picked Boise State, Oklahoma, USC and Utah to go undefeated and they did.
The computer also correctly picked Michigan to win the Big 10, Oklahoma to take the Big 12, Pittsburgh to capture the Big East, Miami (Ohio) to win the MAC east, Utah to take the Mountain West, USC to claim the PAC-10, North Texas to win the Sun Belt and Boise State to capture the WAC.
It forecasted Oklahoma and Michigan as the BCS Championship pairing. The Wolverines didn't make the title game but the Sooners did. The computer's preseason forecast has correctly picked at least one of the title game contestants nine times in its twelve-year history.
Auburn, Oklahoma and USC all finished the 2004 regular season 12-0. Boise State and Utah went 11-0. It's the most undefeated teams in the top 25 in one regular season since 1973 when the Dec. 4 UPI (coaches) poll listed seven undefeated teams. Alabama (11-0), Oklahoma (10-0-1), Ohio State (9-0-1), Notre Dame (10-0), Penn State (11-0) and Michigan (10-0-1) were ranked first through sixth. Miami of Ohio (10-0-0) was ranked 17th.
USC has the nation's longest winning streak with 22. They have won 33 of their last 34 games. The Trojans also have streaks of 21 straight home wins and 15 consecutive PAC-10 victories.
Boise State has won 35 of their last 37 games. The Broncos also own nation-leading streaks of 25 straight home wins, 26 straight conference victories and 21 regular season wins.
Utah has won 16 straight games and 11 straight MWC games.
Auburn has won 15 straight games.
Iowa has won 18 straight home games.
North Texas has won 25 straight over Sun Belt conference opponents. UNT has also won four consecutive Sun Belt titles as they have topped the conference in every year of its existence.
Central Florida ended the season on a 15-game losing streak, worst in the nation.
The 2005 season begins with 23 coaching changes. One is guaranteed a victory on opening weekend as two of them go had-to-head when Charlie Weis and Notre Dame visit Dave Wannstedt and Pittsburgh.
Here is how they all look for their openers:
BYU (Bronco Mendenhall) +9 vs. Boston College
NOTE: Stanford (Walt Harris), opens 9/10 at Navy
East Carolina (Skip Holtz) -1 vs. Duke
Florida (Urban Meyer) -4 vs. Wyoming
Illinois (Ron Zook) +2 vs. Rutgers
Indiana (Terry Hoeppner) -2 at Central Michigan
LSU (Les Miles) -24 vs. North Texas
Marshall (Mark Snyder) NL vs. 1-AA Wm. & Mary
Miami, O. (Shane Montgomery) +13 at Ohio State
Mississippi (Ed Orgeron) +8 at Memphis
UNLV (Mike Sanford) +19 at New Mexico
New Mexico St. (Hal Mumme) +3 vs. UTEP
Notre Dame (Charlie Weis) +6 at Pittsburgh
Ohio (Frank Solich) +12 at Northwestern
Oklahoma State (Mike Gundy) NL vs. 1-AA Montana State
Pittsburgh (Dave Wannstedt) -6 vs. Notre Dame
San Jose State (Dick Tomey) NL vs. 1-AA Eastern Washington
South Carolina (Steve Spurrier) -8 vs. UCF
Syracuse (Greg Robinson) -5 vs. West Virginia
Utah (Kyle Whittingham) - 12 vs. Arizona
Utah State (Brent Guy) NL vs. 1-AA Nicholls State
Washington (Ty Willingham) -2 vs. Air Force at Seattle
Western Michigan (Bill Cubit) +26 at Virginia