Yet with all due respect, the Pac-12 plays five games versus overmatched FCS foes and is double-digit favorites in four other games. The only underdog is California, which visits Northwestern.
Ah, but that second Saturday. That, my friends, is a biggie. Not entirely across the conference, but two games will attract beaucoup Pac-12 and national eyeballs and are decidedly meaningful in terms of setting up the first season of the College Football Playoff.
It's an intriguing matchup, too: Celebrated offense versus celebrated defense, with the Ducks, led by preseason Heisman favorite Marcus Mariota, facing Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who might be the best in the business.
Meanwhile, No. 11 Stanford plays host to No. 15 USC. The Trojans used to feast on the Cardinal. Now this is a bitter and highly competitive rivalry. What makes this game fun is the rivalry is as much player-based as fan based. That bitterness ignited between Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh -- "What's your deal?" -- and has maintained its burn over the past few years, with the teams exchanging major upsets the past two seasons.
It also won't cool things down, at least in terms of perception, that new Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian and Stanford coach David Shaw were at public loggerheads last year over the Cardinal allegedly faking injuries in a tight victory over Sark's Washington team. While it might be responsible to note that Shaw and Sarkisian seem to get along well and chat amiably at coaching functions, that would de-sensationalize an angle the Pac-12 blog would prefer to jump up and down and point at next week.
It also has been established, though less publicly, that more than a few Stanford players were extremely unhappy with Sarkisian's accusation, most notably DE Ben Gardner, whose NFL career has already been waylaid by the shoulder issue that hampered him against the Huskies.
We also must add that the irreverent Stanford band surely is already clicking its collective heels over the possibilities the "Josh Shaw Tall Tale of Heroism" offers for a halftime snark.
Even if you cast aside the emotions, this is a big Pac-12 game. The winner figures to establish itself as a top-10 team and national contender. While they occupy different divisions, one will end up 0-1 in conference play and the other will be 1-0. In what figure to be tight races in both divisions, that one-game swing could prove critical.
A USC victory would be a significant event in the South Division. The Trojans don't play Oregon, as UCLA does. Arizona State doesn't, either. The Bruins and the Sun Devils both play Stanford. The Sun Devils visit USC. In other words, in terms of schedule strength among the contenders, a USC win over Stanford might change the perception of the South race.
Of course, from a coach's perspective we are getting ahead of ourselves. USC plays host to Fresno State on Saturday. While the Bulldogs don't look like the formidable foe the Trojans whipped in the Las Vegas Bowl a year ago, they certainly have a pulse. Stanford plays UC Davis and Oregon plays South Dakota. Both will roll, though some Davis folks have pointed out the Aggies upset the Cardinal in 2005, one of the notable moments of Walt Harris' coaching tenure.
As you well know, sports teams play one game at a time.
"We approach this game, literally, exactly like every other one," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said of South Dakota and, by extension, Michigan State. "To do anything else would be a conflict of our process, disrespectful to our opponent and to the game."
While Helfrich and Shaw admit that they spent plenty of time this offseason reviewing Michigan State and USC/Washington film knowing about their big dates in Week 2, the nature of football is routine, and routine dictates you prepare for each game the same way.
Dangers of looking ahead this week? Unlikely. For one, it's the first game of the season. The opportunity to play a real game in front of a crowd after a long preseason camp is a reward in itself. Don't expect players to be blasÚ and unfocused.
And there are stakes for players in game one, no matter how undecorated the foe is, according to Shaw.
"We have a lot of guys still competing for things, for who's going to get more playing time," he said. "I'd feel bad for the guy who shows a sign of not focusing on the task at hand. He's going to meet with a not very happy Coach Shaw."
To watch Kickoff Live on you mobile device click here
Mark Schlabach, Heather Dinich and Ted Miller join host Chantel Jennings to preview Week 1 of the college football season that will for the first time end in a four-team playoff.
While quarterbacks across the nation are putting up crazy numbers like pinball machines and spread offenses are letting wide receivers run wild and rack up yardage, that tradition-loving, old-school Big Ten appears downright antiquated with its continued emphasis on running backs carrying the load.
But look closer.
The evolution of offenses may not have done much to change the face of the most productive players in the conference. But when there are so many game-breakers in Big Ten backfields, there's really not much incentive to shift the focus away from them in the first place.
"This a running back-heavy league, and you need a good running back, an every-down back to get through the Big Ten," Minnesota senior David Cobb said. "And in this league, there's a good running back on every team."
The conference has never really been in short supply of rushers, but the ground game looks particularly fertile this season with so many talented tailbacks returning as the focal point on offense.
The conversation about the league's best typically revolves around Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, the top two returners in the league and the odds-on favorites to claim offensive player of the year honors while leading teams aiming for the conference title. They're also close friends who admit to some good-natured trash talk that comes from paying attention to the league's yardage leader board, but both know it might not be safe to just measure themselves against each other this fall.
Michigan State's Jeremy Langford somehow largely flew under the radar last season despite piling up more than 1,400 yards and leading the Big Ten in rushing touchdowns with 18.
Cobb will be getting no shortage of carries in Minnesota's power rushing attack, and indications out of training camp suggest he's even better than he was while gaining 1,202 yards as a junior.
Despite playing in a spread system, Indiana's Tevin Coleman offered a reminder of the importance of balancing out a passing attack with a productive rusher, with his explosiveness in averaging more than 7 yards per carry driving the point home. Josh Ferguson does the same for Illinois, complementing his 5.5 yards per carry with 50 receptions for 535 yards and 4 touchdowns as a target in the passing game. Iowa's Mark Weisman came up just short of the 1,000-yard milestone last year, but he's playing behind perhaps the best set of blockers in the conference this fall and should be poised to capitalize on those huge holes opened by left tackle Brandon Scherff and his buddies.
Even at schools with unsettled depth charts at the top there's little reason to panic. Carlos Hyde is gone at Ohio State, but it has a stable loaded with both veterans like Rod Smith and youngsters like presumptive starter Ezekiel Elliott poised to take over. Michigan struggled to move the football on the ground a year ago, but Derrick Green looks ready to live up to his billing as one of the top recruits in the 2013 class as he moves into a likely starting role.
And if all that depth makes winning the rushing crown a bit tougher this fall for Gordon or Abdullah, they certainly aren't worried about a little competition. In the Big Ten, that's long been a source of pride.
"Definitely, you can look at every team," Abdullah said. "You just go down the line, and the running back position in this league is really deep. It's going to be good competition for this year statistically. I feel like it gets overshadowed a little bit. You throw in T.J. Yeldon [at Alabama], [Georgia's Todd] Gurley, guys who play for those SEC teams or maybe the Pac-12 guys and we get overshadowed a little bit. But all we can do is show up to work every Saturday and prove our case."
Abdullah and Gordon are expected to build the strongest of them, and they may emerge as the Big Ten's best hopes for a Heisman Trophy now that Braxton Miller is out of the picture with a season-ending shoulder surgery.
But even if the Ohio State senior had been around this season, the quarterback might have had a hard time stealing some attention during what's shaping up as a callback to the league's tradition with one more Year of the Running Back.
"The Big Ten, we're known for running the ball, and when you can take pressure off the quarterback by giving the rock to the running back, that's a good feeling," Gordon said. "And we've got a lot of good running backs in the Big Ten -- it's not just me and Ameer.
"I think there are some other guys that need some praise as well. There are some good backs we have in this conference, and they'll be heard sooner or later."
There's still plenty of opportunities to make a little noise as a tailback in the Big Ten. And the league has a long list of guys ready to make some racket.
-- Andrea Adelson
Why Georgia will win: Early-season games against nationally recognized teams have not been kind to Georgia's Mark Richt over the years (see: Clemson, Oklahoma State, Boise State, South Carolina x 2), so the law of averages says he has to win some, right? Well, there's more than just cosmic balancing in the Bulldogs' favor. While the Tigers made huge gains on defense a season ago, they allowed an average of 38 points per game against Florida State, Georgia, Ohio State and South Carolina in 2013. We're not quite sure what to expect out of new Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason, but the duo of Gurley and Marshall at running back is unmatched anywhere else in the country. Last season's game might have played out differently had Gurley not strained a quad on a 75-yard touchdown run.
-- Jared Shanker
Why Miami will win: Duke Johnson changes everything for the Canes, as he keeps their offense moving and takes plenty of pressure off Brad Kaaya. Likewise, the loss of DeVante Parker takes plenty of punch out of Louisville's offense. A new coach, a new league and a new quarterback create too much uncertainty around a Cardinals team that has the target on its back after embarrassing Miami last time around. -- Matt Fortuna
Why Louisville will win: It's not that I'm supremely confident in this pick, but the Cardinals have a few things going for them. First, it's a marquee game for the program, its first as a member of the ACC. Secondly, while a lot has changed on defense for Louisville, it was the top-ranked rushing D in the country last season, which should help Todd Grantham's crew deal with the dynamic Duke Johnson. Most important, however, at quarterback Miami is starting a true freshman in his first career game on the road in a frenzied atmosphere. It won't be a gimme, but Louisville will pull off the victory. -- David Hale
Upset pick of the weekWhy ULM will win: ULM has three advantages: It beat Wake Forest a year ago and is familiar with some of the returning personnel; the WarHawks bring back 14 starters; and they are playing at home. Wake Forest is starting true freshmen at quarterback and center. It's never easy to go on the road and make your first career start, let alone on national television. Factor in all the youth and inexperience for the Deacs, and you see why ULM has the edge. -- Andrea Adelson
More consensus picks: Syracuse over Villanova; Pittsburgh over Delaware; UCLA over Virginia; Georgia Tech over Wofford; NC State over Georgia Southern; Boston College over UMass; Virginia Tech over William & Mary; Duke over Elon; North Carolina over Liberty; Florida State over Oklahoma State
Why Washington State will win: The Scarlet Knights really don't have an answer for Mike Leach's Air Raid offense and in Connor Halliday's senior year -- his third season with Leach -- even good defensive backs will struggle. On the other side of the ball, the Wazzu defense is improved and the pass rush is going to get after Gary Nova, who was sacked 25 times last season (tied for No. 96 in the country). -- Chantel Jennings
Why Colorado will win: Colorado State has a veteran quarterback in Garrett Grayson, but the Buffs finally have some experience in the secondary (though they'll miss Jered Bell). A confident Sefo Liufau leads an offense that has depth at receiver and tailback. Should it be close, Colorado also has veteran specialists. It might not be a blowout, but on paper the Buffs are the better team. -- Kevin Gemmell
Why UCLA will win: When one team has better talent at just about every position and a better coaching staff -- which is the case here with UCLA -- the possibility of an upset is rare. Yes, the Bruins have to deal with a cross-country trip and an early start, but that won't be much of a hurdle playing against a team that enters the season on 10-game losing streak against FBS teams. -- Kyle Bonagura
Upset pick: I'm going with an upset here. I think Cal is much improved from last season and even though the Bears are on the road, I think they'll come away with the win. Northwestern has been forced to find a replacement for transfer running back Venric Mark in the past few weeks and I think Cal QB Jared Goff is going to be better than people are giving him credit for. -- Chantel Jennings
Why USC will win: Fresno State didn't belong on the same field with the Trojans when they met in the Las Vegas Bowl last year, and now they're without QB Derek Carr and WR Davante Adams. USC lost talent too, but returns more than enough to indicate this one won't be much different from last year's matchup. -- Kyle Bonagura
More consensus picks: Utah over Idaho State; Arizona State over Weber State; Arizona over UNLV; Oregon State over Portland State; Stanford over UC Davis; Washington over Hawaii; Oregon over South Dakota
That was not an empty promise. The Deacs needed to replace their departed senior quarterback, and they had no experienced players on their roster. Why not give the freshmen a shot?
Sometimes they rise to the challenge, like John Wolford. Clawson started hearing reports about Wolford from his upperclassmen before fall practice even began. They told him, “That freshman is really good.”
Once practice began, it became pretty clear he was more than good. Clawson decided early in camp that Wolford would be his starter, beginning tonight at ULM (7 p.m. ET, ESPNU). He is not the only coach who has gone that route.
Three true freshmen quarterbacks have an opportunity to play in Week 1, the most in the ACC since 2010. Brad Kaaya earned the starting job in Miami, while Deshaun Watson is expected to play when Clemson takes on Georgia on Saturday.
According to research gathered by the ACC office, this could be the first time in league history that two true freshmen quarterbacks open the season under center.
Watching a youth movement unfold at the position is not unexpected. The ACC lost nine starting quarterbacks to either graduation, the NFL draft or transfer. Only Jameis Winston, Anthony Boone and Terrel Hunt return as unquestioned starters.
In Wake’s case, the Deacs have turned to true freshmen quarterbacks the last two times they had to make a decision. Tanner Price started nine games for Wake Forest in 2010 and never relinquished his starting job. But he did not open the season as the starter.
Wolford will be the first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener in school history.
“He gives us our best chance to win,” Clawson said. “He is our best quarterback, so I can’t worry about whether he’s a freshman, sophomore, junior, senior. In a perfect world, you always love to have the guy be in the system one or two years before he plays. But we’re going to put the guys out there who give us the best chance to win. And he clearly won the job. He’s playing at a high level. I don’t think those things suddenly disappear once you play a game.”
Both Clawson and Miami coach Al Golden have described their new starting quarterbacks as very even-keeled, an important quality to have considering both players have to make their first career starts on the road.
Clawson said Wolford is “the same person every day. There’s not a lot of reps where you’re shaking your head saying, ‘What's he thinking about?' He is as ready as any true freshman I've been around.”
Miami faced a different situation than Wake Forest. The Canes had hoped to start senior Ryan Williams, but he tore his ACL in the spring and is not healthy enough to play. Redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen was next in line, but he is serving a suspension. Kaaya beat out senior transfer Jake Heaps during fall practice and will start Monday night against Louisville.
“I think that's probably where we got the most confidence from him, just his overall depth and understanding of what we were trying to get done and his ability to get us in the right play at the line of scrimmage. Without that, it would be hard to name him the starter, but he certainly demonstrated to us all training camp that it wasn't going to be too big for him.”
Clemson, meanwhile, plans on starting senior Cole Stoudt but coach Dabo Swinney says Watson will play. What type of role Watson will have remains to be seen. What Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris plan to do with Watson provides a level of intrigue we are unaccustomed to with this offense.
When Swinney was asked whether he knew when Watson would go into the game, he smiled and said, “When we put him in, that's the perfect time to put him in.”
Stoudt is actually the last true freshman to play quarterback at Clemson, back in 2011. The last Clemson true freshman quarterback to start a game was Nealon Greene in 1994.
Watson may bring intrigue, but he has to wait a few more days to get his shot.
Wolford gets the spotlight tonight.
Why Florida State will win: Last week, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy called Florida State the best team he had ever faced as a player or a coach. The Seminoles are loaded, headlined by the return of Heisman winner Jameis Winston. The Cowboys, meanwhile, will be fielding almost a completely new squad after losing 28 seniors and returning the fewest starters among any program in a Power 5 conference. Those factors do not equal a recipe for an upset. -- Jake Trotter
More consensus picks: Iowa State over North Dakota State; TCU over Samford; Texas Tech over Central Arkansas; Oklahoma over Louisiana Tech; Kansas State over Stephen F. Austin; Texas over North Texas; Baylor over SMU.
Football season is finally here. When South Carolina and Texas A&M kick it off tonight (6 ET, SEC Network), the SEC will be back in full swing.
With that in mind, it's time to make some game picks. Each week during the season, our SEC reporters will pick each game on the slate, and we'll highlight the biggest battles and the ones that generated the most disagreement.
Why South Carolina will win: The Gamecocks have a lot of firepower and experience coming back on offense, while the Aggies still have a lot of questions on defense. Texas A&M should put some points up with its own potent group of playmakers, but South Carolina's defense will force QB Kenny Hill into some late mistakes. Feeding RB Mike Davis the ball in the fourth should help put this one away. -- Edward Aschoff
Why Alabama will win: Despite the attention on Alabama's quarterbacks, nearly the only thing that makes this one interesting is how the Crimson Tide's retooled pass rush and secondary will fare against QB Clint Trickett and the West Virginia offense. Whether it's Jake Coker or Blake Sims under center for Alabama, expect him to hand it off plenty and for the Tide to have their way against a Mountaineers defense that finished 101st nationally in total defense last season by allowing 455 yards per game. -- David Ching
Why Georgia will win: Hey, the Bulldogs might make fans nervous with their defense, especially with that incredibly unproven secondary, but the offense shouldn't miss much of a beat with QB Hutson Mason taking over. Clemson's defense has improved, but there are just too many good working parts on Georgia's offense. I have a feeling that some pounding from RB Todd Gurley and a major play from LB Leonard Floyd will get the job done for Georgia on Saturday.
-- Edward Aschoff
Why LSU will win: The Tigers are 9-0 in season openers under coach Les Miles, including four games against ranked opponents and six away from Tiger Stadium. Wisconsin is good in season openers, too (16 straight to LSU's 11), but Houston's proximity to Louisiana and the large number of Tigers fans expected at NRG Stadium should give LSU a slight boost. These teams are similar, but LSU's experienced offensive line against Wisconsin's inexperienced defensive front gives the Tigers a slight edge. -- Sam Khan Jr.
Why Wisconsin will win: If this game were in November, LSU would be in better position. But given that the Tigers lost every key piece on offense (QB, RB, both WRs), it may be too much to ask them to go on the road this early against a top-25 team. Wisconsin may not have experience at QB, but it has one of the best tailbacks in the country in Melvin Gordon and an offensive line that could be special with four returning starters. -- Alex Scarborough
Why Tennessee will win: Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton can't beat the Vols by himself, can he? Even with UT linebackers A.J. Johnson spying and Curt Maggitt providing some pass rush, Keeton won't be stopped, but he will be contained. Coach Butch Jones says the Volunteers will play as many as 30 freshmen in this one, so there are sure to be mistakes. Tennessee has just enough talent to win a squeaker at home. -- Jeff Barlis
Why Utah State will win: This isn't your typical mid-major opponent. The Aggies won nine games last season despite not having Keeton for the second half of the season. Keeton is back, and this is the perfect game to jump-start his Heisman campaign. Tennessee is still a program on the rise, but with no returning starters up front and up to 30 freshmen expected to play, there are just too many question marks. -- Greg Ostendorf
More consensus picks: Ole Miss over Boise State, Vanderbilt over Temple, Florida over Idaho, Auburn over Arkansas, Kentucky over UT Martin, Missouri over South Dakota State, Mississippi State over Southern Miss.
Both teams have aspirations of competing in the inaugural College Football Playoff, and Saturday’s outcome might eventually rank among the top determining factors in whether they make it into the four-team field.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at five questions facing the two teams as their matchup approaches.
Those around the LSU program say it looks like it’s only a matter of time before freshman running back Leonard Fournette shows why he was the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit. But will Fournette’s time come in this game? LSU coach Les Miles has praised veterans Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard throughout August. The seniors have earned their touches, too, so it will be intriguing to observe how LSU distributes the carries between the vets and the young phenom.
2. How will LSU fare in the passing game?
Wisconsin has plenty of holes to fill on defense, but the one area with a veteran presence is its secondary (and the Badgers were 17th nationally against the pass last season, allowing 202.5 yards per game). That would seem like an advantage against an LSU offense that must replace not only its quarterback, but the only receivers who did much of anything last fall, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.
The Tigers have some super-talented youngsters like freshmen Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, but many of the team’s wideouts will be playing their first college games. Keep an eye on whether LSU uses its talented group of tight ends and running backs in the passing game. The tight ends will almost certainly get more looks as pass-catchers in 2014 while the young quarterbacks and receivers settle into their roles.
3. Can either team stop the opponent’s run?
Wisconsin obliterated South Carolina’s run defense for 293 yards in its last outing, a 34-24 loss in the Capital One Bowl. Heisman Trophy contender Melvin Gordon ran 25 times for 143 yards in that game. So it would probably be misguided to assume that LSU’s reconstructed front seven is going to completely shut down a Badgers running game that includes Gordon, Corey Clement and four returning starters on the offensive line.
Likewise, Wisconsin lost its entire starting front seven on defense, so the Badgers will probably have some difficulty against an LSU line that also returns four starters -- particularly since backs like Fournette, Magee and Hilliard will be running behind them.
4. How will Wisconsin look up front on D?
Let’s say this one more time: Wisconsin lost every single starter along the defensive line and at linebacker from one of the nation’s best defenses in 2013. We’re talking about standouts like Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Borland and defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer who helped Wisconsin finish as the nation’s No. 7 defense overall (305.1 ypg) and No. 5 against the run (102.5).
It’s not like the cupboard is bare, though. ESPN Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett listed sophomore linebacker Vince Biegel as a potential playmaker, and the Badgers have others back like linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch and defensive linemen Warren Herring and redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih who should keep defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defense clicking.
Asking that many new players to function adequately against a veteran LSU front will be asking a lot, though. Wisconsin’s production along the defensive front might be the determining factor in this game.
5. Who FINISHES at quarterback?
Never mind who starts, who’s going to finish this game at quarterback for either team? That might have a much greater impact on this season than who takes the first snaps for either Wisconsin or LSU.
Miles and Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen have tiptoed around questions asking whether the starting quarterback will be Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris at LSU or Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy at Wisconsin. But if this is a close game, their choices on who leads their offenses in the fourth quarter -- and how those players perform in such a situation -- might tell us much more about where these competitions are headed.
We'll start off with two of our national writers and then break it into 30-minute blocks with a pair of reporters from each of the Power 5 conferences. Here's the lineup:
National (12-12:30 ET): Mark Schlabach and Heather Dinich
ACC (12:30-1 ET): Andrea Adelson and David Hale
Big Ten (1-1:30 ET): Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett
Big 12 (1:30-2 ET): Jake Trotter and Brandon Chatmon
Pac-12 (2-2:30 ET): Ted Miller and Kevin Gemmell
SEC (2:30-3 ET): David Ching and Sam Khan Jr.
Get in your questions and comments and we'll post as many of them as we can.
Game of the Week: Wisconsin vs. LSU
Our writers all picked LSU to beat Wisconsin, but some had a harder time with the pick than others.
Brian Bennett: Wisconsin has a real chance here at the upset. Week 1 is definitely the time to catch LSU this season, as the Tigers will be breaking in a slew of new players and have some major question marks at quarterback. Of course, you could say those same things about the Badgers, who will be counting on basically a brand-new defensive front seven, several unproven receivers and a new starting QB in Tanner McEvoy. Wisconsin's running game is the great equalizer, especially if that ground attack shortens the game and springs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement for big plays. Asking either side to play mistake free is a bit much for an opener involving so many fresh faces. In the end, LSU has more explosiveness to overcome its errors and exploit Wisconsin's, so the Tigers win by a touchdown.
Austin Ward: Openers can be sloppy enough on their own, let alone debuts with uncertainty at quarterback and the expectation that two guys will be needed to fill that critical role. Both teams have some questions under center, but it seems much more dangerous to be unsettled and unproven when taking on a loaded defense such as LSU's. Wisconsin has running backs Gordon and Clement lining up behind a veteran offensive line to provide a rushing attack to lean on, but if it becomes a one-dimensional offense against the Tigers, aggressive defensive coordinator John Chavis will turn his athletic, physical unit loose and there will be no escape in Houston.
Majority opinion: Penn State over UCF
This was the only game our writers disagreed on. Austin Ward, Mitch Sherman and Adam Rittenberg liked the Nittany Lions, while Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer took the Knights.
Josh Moyer: The Nittany Lions have too many question marks -– and too much that still needs to improve -– to be favored right now. What’s Penn State’s main weakness? The offensive line. So what’s one thing it's going to count on to offset that? The passing game. Well, Central Florida’s secondary has a chance to be elite. And overall, UCF might boast the best defense in the AAC. On the other side of the ball, the Knights may be without quarterback Blake Bortles this season, but they still have a loaded receiving corps with J.J. Worton, Rannell Hall and Breshad Perriman. Penn State's secondary, especially the corner spot opposite Jordan Lucas, could struggle against this kind of offense. PSU hangs tough but falls in the end, 28-20.
Adam Rittenberg: The oddities surrounding this game favor Penn State, which is tougher to prepare for with a new coaching staff. UCF's veteran defensive line and George O'Leary's play-calling prowess worry me, but I see PSU exploiting some matchup advantages (Jesse James vs. anybody) with a superior quarterback and hitting on some big plays. Expect improvement on Penn State's defense, which limits a UCF offense missing Bortles and Storm Johnson.
Our writers agreed on the following:
Minnesota over Eastern Illinois
Washington State over Rutgers
Michigan State over Jacksonville State
Indiana over Indiana State
Iowa over Northern Iowa
Michigan over Appalachian State
Purdue over Western Michigan
Ohio State over Navy
Illinois over Youngstown State
Maryland over James Madison
Northwestern over Cal
Nebraska over FAU
LSU over Wisconsin
Mitch Sherman: Not much else of great intrigue on the opening-week schedule, but Ohio State-Navy is worth a look, with the attention swirling around the debut of freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Midshipmen are no pushover, but the Buckeyes own enough an edge in athleticism to take care of business. Because of its strange offseason, Northwestern is interesting, even against Cal, which was dismal last year. And for entertainment value, Rutgers’ Big Ten debut Thursday night against Washington State may rank high. The Scarlet Knights need to limit the Cougars' possessions and get off the field on third down -- or watch Wazzu quarterback Connor Halliday light them up with 65 to 70 pass attempts.
There are those outside the Virginia Tech program who have started to wonder whether coach Frank Beamer has lost his touch, whether he will be able to go out on his own terms when he believes the time is right.
Two straight subpar seasons in Blacksburg have raised eyebrows and concerns. That is why the news that Beamer received a two-year contract extension came as a shock Wednesday. Athletic director Whit Babcock said in a phone interview that he gave Beamer the extension as a show of support, to quell distractions and to help out recruiting, too.
But in reality, there are questions about where this program is headed, enough to make you scratch your head at tacking two more years onto a deal that would have expired in January 2017.
What if Virginia Tech just threw its support behind a coach who never wins 10 games again? What if the Hokies continue on this downward trend, scraping together seven- and eight-win seasons the way they have the past two years?
Is that the type of support Virginia Tech is talking about?
“I don't want to get boxed in on a number of wins,” Babcock said. “You evaluate the program in total at the end of every season. There’s enough pressure on coaches already. Some years there’s great years with nine wins, and maybe there's others at some places where you lose to your rival and win 10 games and people don’t like that. That number of 10 is brought up a lot here, but we won't use a certain number as a barometer. Even Coach has said we expect more than we’ve done the last couple of years, and hopefully we’re moving in the right direction.”
There is no manual for how to replace a coaching legend. Sometimes, the process gets nasty. Recently, we have seen circuses envelope Bobby Bowden at Florida State, Joe Paterno at Penn State and even Mack Brown at Texas.
While it is true the extension does not guarantee Beamer will be around for five more seasons, it does signal that Babcock believes Beamer has earned the benefit of the doubt, at the very least, and a few more years to get Virginia Tech back among the elite. Plus, Babcock wanted to get a few more years added on because only two years and four months remained on the contract.
"Either they’re good enough to get four or five, or they’re not good enough to be your coach," Babcock said. "It was getting down to a level I thought distracted from recruiting."
Patience has gone the way of the Model T, so we will see just how much of it Babcock ends up having if the Hokies keep struggling. There is always a downside when coaches start raising the bar to unprecedented heights. When they start to miss the bar, exasperation grows much quicker with each passing season.
Beamer has spoken positively about the group he has heading into the season, one that is capable of winning 10 games, at least on paper. He has said he is energized and happy, and is excited about where the future is headed. Babcock must believe the same, or this extension will end up being worthless.
“Some people will think it’s good, some won’t, but we feel like it’s the right thing for Virginia Tech, so we did it,” Babcock said.
Only time will tell.
Those are both questions that Penn State Nittany Lions' support staff has had to ask itself the past few months in preparation of the season opener against UCF in Dublin, Ireland. (Hell hath no fury like an ungroomed Franklin …) But you can't be blamed if you've gone this past week without wondering about those concerns. After all, besides Penn State's support staff, who really wants to worry about all that anyway?
"The one good thing about the trip," offensive coordinator John Donovan said earlier this week, "is that I have nothing to do with it logistically."
The support staff has attempted to address every little travel loophole and overseas scenario. Even without volcanoes in the picture, it truly is a crazy process. So we checked in with Michael Hazel, director of football operations, and equipment manager Jay Takach for an inside look on some of the odder stuff they're dealing with, along with some of the more interesting notes and numbers:
- Dude, where's my paper? During most away games, Penn State could just use the printer, fax machine and color copier on site. But … there's no color copier near the team hotel. So, no problem, the Nittany Lions will just lug their own more than 3,000 miles away. And then it can just use the hotel's paper, right? Nope, that'd be way too easy. The staff discovered that paper sizes over there aren't necessarily uniform to the U.S. -- so they also have to take two boxes of paper for coach notes and such. Different paper; who knew?
- Heavy lifting. Penn State is taking 20,000 pounds worth of equipment and supplies to Ireland. There are more than 9,000 items, more than 500 lines' worth of inventory on Excel, and it all barely fits into a 53-foot tractor trailer. Also, did I mention Penn State is required to list every single item it packs? The Nittany Lions are bringing some small rolls of athletic tape and a couple pencils -- and they have to list and account for them all, or the items won't make the flight as cargo.
- A well-groomed goatee is a happy goatee. OK, OK – so the goatee isn't at the top of the "travel priorities" list. Probably. But one thing that is: making sure everyone (especially the head coach) has a power adapter and surge protector for their electronics … such as goatee trimmers. Each player and coach room will be situated with one. Lest you think the goatee is mentioned purely in jest, it was suggested to Franklin last month he let his hair/goatee grow out for a few days. Immediately afterward, it looked as if he just bit into a lemon. Said Hazel: "I'm not responsible for shaving his head, but I want to make sure he's got the power he needs."
- You can't take what on the plane? Lithium batteries for cameras and training devices, Gatorade and air horns. For varying reasons, they're just not cleared for travel to Ireland. Outside of creating another headache – and probably increasing the amount of Advil listed on the travel carnet – these items luckily weren't too difficult to procure overseas. Penn State has a liaison in Dublin who purchased air horns along with some other items, and Gatorade was already shipped over to the Emerald Isle. "We got a guy," Takach said.
- Interesting solutions to interesting problems. Something is bound to fall through the cracks and, on Wednesday, Takach said an issue or two still remained. For one, the team has been practicing in 75-80 degree weather recently -- but it could be around 50 degrees in Ireland. So the Lions might need some long-sleeve shirts, but that clothing wasn't included on the travel carnet. If it's not on the list, it's not allowed on the plane. Tackach's workaround? "I've got to pack some of that as personal," he said. "I'm going to have like three or four bags where I'm like, 'Oh, no, this is all my clothing.'"
Ireland Travel Watch '14: pic.twitter.com/eejuR6rIGt— Josh Moyer (@ESPNJoshMoyer) August 26, 2014
There is, however, a lone outlier: UCLA. It's ranked seventh in both the AP and coaches' polls, up nine spots from its final No. 16 ranking in 2013.
Lone outlier? That was UCLA's first end-of-season ranking since 2005, when it finished 16th in the AP poll and 13th with the coaches.
Lone outlier? The Bruins haven't been ranked in the preseason top 10 since 1998.
No team in the country is generating more buzz as a nouveau contender than UCLA. ESPN "College GameDay" pundits Lee Corso and Desmond Howard both predicted the Bruins would win the national championship in the first year of the College Football Playoff. Nine of 23 ESPN college football pundits picked the Bruins to at least make the playoff semifinals. Twelve picked them to win the Pac-12.
Bottom line: If you take a high preseason ranking and $1 to the bank for change, you'll still only get four quarters for your trouble.
Make no mistake, though, there's a good reason for these lofty estimations. A perusal of the Bruins' depth chart -- even if third-year coach Jim Mora insists he doesn't have one -- reveals a team with a lot of talent and few questions. It's not just Brett Hundley behind center. It's size, athleticism and experience just about everywhere. The Bruins are loaded with skill players and are physical at the line of scrimmage.
In fact, the most obvious preseason issue for UCLA isn't about personnel. It's about handling all the hype. While a high preseason ranking means Mora and his players have been doing something right, all the headlines, backslaps and gushing media accounts could become distractions. Players could become complacent, believing a high ranking means entitlement. As the klieg lights roll into Westwood, and the velvet ropes part at the hottest L.A. clubs, there's always a chance the team could lose its way.
No one is more aware of this than Mora. There's a sign posted in the locker room that Bruins players have alluded to throughout the offseason: "Don't listen to the noise." In other words, forget buzz. Remember the work."
"We focus on the day we are living in. We try to be great today and then we come back and try to be better tomorrow," Mora said. "If you don't concentrate and focus on the daily grind and being the best you can be that very day then you are going to lose track of who you are and where you are going."
While Mora is aware of the dangers of distraction, it's also pretty clear he's not obsessed with it like many coaches. While many elite programs shut down media access, UCLA is fairly open with reporters and has even allowed the Pac-12 Network to film a behind-the-scenes account of the Bruins' season, a weekly show called "The Drive," which focused on Arizona State and California last year.
Obviously, that accounted for decidedly mixed results on the field. The Sun Devils won the South Division, beating out UCLA, and Cal's season was a tale of woe.
"It won't be a distraction, not one single bit," Mora said.
Why does he believe that? Because of the culture that he believes has been established in his locker room. It's the foundation of his team's confidence, which comes from within, not without.
"It's probably maturity," he said. "I think we are a mature team, a focused team. When you are a mature team and a focused team that practices hard, you get confidence from that. I don't think you gain confidence from other people telling you you're good. Or other people putting expectations on you, labeling you as something. That confidence is internal. It comes from working hard every day."
Mora is a pretty bottom-line sort of guy. He knows that the hype -- and "The Drive" -- won't win the Bruins any games this year. Nor, for that matter, will it lose any. Whatever is going on around UCLA or the words used to describe the team, it's still all about talent, focus, preparation and executing on game day.
As in: The usual suspects.