NCF Nation: what to watch 083012

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 1

August, 30, 2012
So much has happened in the offseason that it might be hard to digest it all. No worries; we've got you covered. Here are a few things to keep an eye on as the Pac-12 kicks off with four games today, one tomorrow and the rest of the docket Saturday.

  • New coaches: The conference saw an influx of some big-name coaches in the offseason, and they make their debuts this week in the Pac-12 with some high hopes to turn their respective programs around. The consensus among many is that Mike Leach (WSU) will have the most success -- at least this season -- since he inherited a team that already has players for the style he wants to run. Jim Mora makes his collegiate head-coaching debut with UCLA, overhauling the Bruins on both sides of the ball. Rich Rodriguez brings his innovative spread offense to Arizona, and Todd Graham is trying to rehabilitate ASU's program. Leach has the toughest game (at BYU) of the four this week, but all four are winnable.
  • [+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
    AP Photo/ Arizona Daily Star/Benjie SandersRich Rodriguez and Arizona host Toledo -- a team that upset Rodriguez's Michigan squad in 2008.
    QB debuts: There were six quarterback competitions in the conference this year, and four quarterbacks will be making their first collegiate starts this week: Josh Nunes for Stanford, Brett Hundley for UCLA, Marcus Mariota for Oregon and Taylor Kelly for ASU.
  • Extra pressure? There are weighty expectations for all four QBs -- but the heaviest are probably on Nunes and Mariota. Stanford is coming off of back-to-back BCS bowl game appearances (2011 Orange and 2012 Fiesta), while Oregon has been to three straight (Rose in 2010, national championship in 2011 and Rose in 2012). Nunes replaces one of the greatest quarterbacks in conference history in Andrew Luck, and Mariota takes over one of the best offenses in the country.
  • Backup plan: While neither Chip Kelly nor Todd Graham is likely to stray from the vanilla aisle in Week 1, it still will be interesting to see whether/how they use their backup quarterbacks either this week or in the coming weeks. Bryan Bennett at Oregon was probably one or two bad practices away from taking over the reins, and Michael Eubank has been touted as an outstanding athlete whom the Sun Devils simply can't keep off the field.
  • Don't screw it up: The Pac-12 is favored in 11 of 12 games in Week 1, with Washington State being the only underdog. That means -- at worst -- the conference should go 11-1. While it would be fantastic if every team won, the reality likely is that there will be at least one team that messes up the curve. Wouldn't be a bad announcement to the rest of college football if the conference ran the table.
  • Reputation matters: Speaking of the Pac-12's reputation, this is the first time the conference enters a season with two teams ranked in the top five of the AP poll. USC checks in at No. 1, and Oregon is No. 5. You could say the hype and expectations for both these teams are, well, considerable.
  • Heisman hopefuls: Time to start number crunching for Matt Barkley, De'Anthony Thomas and Keith Price. All three have been mentioned as Heisman candidates, and Barkley has assumed the not-so-envious title as preseason front-runner.
  • Committee members: Two members of the 1,000-yard club from last season find themselves in larger committee roles. Curtis McNeal at USC is now sharing the ball with Penn State transfer Silas Redd, and Cal's Isi Sofele will see some of his carries go to C.J. Anderson.
  • Extra week for OSU: From all of us at the Pac-12 blog to Nicholls State, best of luck. Stay dry, stay safe.
  • Look ahead: While Cal and Washington won't be looking ahead, it wouldn't hurt for you to take a sneak peek at what LSU and Ohio State are doing against North Texas and Miami (Ohio), respectively. Those are the two biggest out-of-conference games on the schedule this season and important games for the reputation of the conference. As they say, know your foe.

What to watch in the Big 12: Week 1

August, 30, 2012
Here's what I'm keeping an eye on in the Big 12 openers this weekend:

1. Close calls. It happens to somebody every weekend. You never know who, but some heavy favorite is going to get locked in a tight game. You can't really read into it too much later in the season, but you always know there's going to be drama somewhere when teams take the field after nine months off. Who's it going to be? Look out for unexpected excitement on Saturday.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ash
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireTexas will be counting on improvement from quarterback David Ash this season.
2. David Ash. No single player has more power to reshape the Big 12 preseason landscape. He might look like a whole new quarterback this season, or he might show the same old mediocrity. The odds probably favor the latter, considering how little experience Ash had in practice before starting last season. How much better will he be?

3. West Virginia's offense. The Mountaineers struggled with consistency last season, for those of you who didn't see WVU play a game before its Orange Bowl coming out party. For one, tune in to see how they look in Week 1. For two, I'm betting some of you have legitimately never seen Geno Smith, Tavon Austin or Stedman Bailey play before. Change that on Saturday. The Mountaineers are the only Big 12 game going at noon ET.

4. The youngest gun in the Big 12. Wes Lunt surprised a lot of folks when he beat out two older players to win the Oklahoma State quarterback job. He's got great running backs and should have some good targets. Few people have ever seen Lunt play in this offense. That changes this weekend.

5. Iowa State's quarterback(s). Steele Jantz has been named the starter, and he'll have a long leash, but how will he look? We didn't see much of him late in the season, and it's been a long time since this was really his team. It will be to start the season, but Iowa State's receivers need to help him out. Jantz needs to help himself out and control his turnovers, too. Nothing would put backup quarterback Jared Barnett on the field faster than turnovers.

6. Baylor's running back logjam. This one should be interesting. There's no telling just yet what Baylor will do, but it hasn't used a real committee since 2009, when it didn't have Robert Griffin III. Since then, the Bears have had a pair of 1,200-yard rushers, and Terrance Ganaway won the Big 12 rushing title last season. Will Lache Seastrunk, Jarred Salubi and Glasco Martin form a committee? Or will a featured back emerge? Ganaway broke out in a big way last season against TCU.

7. Kansas' new faces. I've got no idea what to think of Kansas this season. It's anybody's guess. Nobody's seen a complete overhaul this offseason like KU has. Charlie Weis saw a lot of work that needed to be done when he got to Lawrence and he did it. Big upgrades at quarterback and along the defensive line are the biggest change, but suspensions will keep running back Darrian Miller off the team forever, and James Sims for three games. What's Kansas look like? Here's guessing Dayne Crist holds the answer to that question.

8. Collin Klein's arm. Klein put in a lot of work this offseason to progress as a passer, and threw for 480 yards and six scores in the spring game. That's about all we've seen of Kansas State this offseason, but that was against the Wildcats' second-team defense. That said, it was more than a third of Klein's production through the air in all of last season. How much better has he gotten this offseason? We'll get a preview this weekend.

9. Oklahoma's young receivers. Kenny Stills will be the only eligible receiver on Saturday night who has ever caught a pass in a Sooners uniform. Freshman Trey Metoyer and Penn State transfer Justin Brown will start alongside Stills, and we know they'll have a good quarterback in Landry Jones. However, what can juco transfer LaColton Bester and freshmen Durron Neal and Sterling Shepard do? Shepard has already drawn comparisons to Ryan Broyles.

10. Texas Tech's health and new defense. Tech already lost one of its most talented special-teamers in camp, Aaron Fisher, but can the rest of these guys finally stay in one piece? Art Kaufman has a new defense in place, and we'll get our first look at Eric Stephens on Saturday after a horrific knee injury ended his 2011 season.

What to watch in the ACC: Week 1

August, 30, 2012
With all 12 teams playing in Week 1, including two conference games, there will be plenty to watch in the ACC, from Friday through Labor Day. Here are 10 things to keep an eye on, in no particular order:

1. NC State’s secondary vs. Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray. The Pack will be without starting cornerback C.J. Wilson, who has an “eligibility issue,” according to coach Tom O’Brien, but All-American David Amerson returns to help the Pack against Bray. Despite missing five games last season with a fractured thumb, Bray threw for 1,983 yards and 17 touchdowns.

2. Clemson in the trenches. Much of the focus leading up to the Auburn game has been on how Clemson will survive without suspended leading receiver Sammy Watkins, but more important is how Clemson will fare up front, on both the offensive and defensive lines. Depth on the offensive line remains a concern, and overall, Clemson had to replace six starters up front from last season.

3. True freshmen in College Park and Chestnut Hill. Maryland and Miami both will be depending heavily on true freshmen in their season openers. The Terps will have true freshman Perry Hills starting at quarterback, are likely to use two freshman running backs and will use receiver Stefon Diggs in several roles. Miami has more than a dozen freshmen in its two-deep.

[+] EnlargeLogan Thomas, Jeremiah Attaochu
AP Photo/John BazemoreGeorgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu gets another chance to bring down Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas this weekend.
4. Special teams in Blacksburg. Georgia Tech’s group was abysmal last season, but the Jackets hired special-teams coach Dave Walkosky, the first special-teams coach Paul Johnson has hired during his tenure in Atlanta. The Hokies are trying to get Beamerball back, but questions in the kicking game persisted through summer camp.

5. Jeremiah Attaochu vs. Logan Thomas, Part 2. In this game last season, Attaochu was about to complete a third-down sack of Thomas but couldn’t bring the lumberjack down. Attaochu let his frustration and adrenaline get the better of him, and took a swing at Thomas, drawing a personal foul. The two have been friendly since, but getting pressure on Thomas will be key in this game.

6. Florida State’s offensive line. If there is one reason not to snooze on the Murray State game, this is it. The Seminoles showed a lot of progress up front this offseason, but they must continue it if FSU is going to live up to the expectations this season.

7. ACC vs. SEC. The ACC hasn't had a winning record against the SEC since it went 5-4 in 2003. The ACC could help itself change that this weekend with a 2-0 start against the SEC with victories by NC State and Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff.

8. North Carolina’s tempo. We finally get to see the “Fed Spread” in Chapel Hill, as UNC will unveil its new up-tempo spread offense under first-year coach Larry Fedora. How many more plays will the Tar Heels be able to run, and how well will they execute them? Bottom line: How fast can this team score? Time of possession could be deceiving.

9. Duke’s backups. The Blue Devils will be missing about a dozen injured scholarship players against Florida International, including receiver Blair Holliday, tight end Braxton Deaver, defensive tackle Jamal Bruce, safety Jordon Byas and linebacker Kelby Brown.

10. Virginia’s revamped secondary. UVa has no seniors in its secondary after having three senior starters last season. Only three other schools (Florida State, LSU and North Texas) have a senior-less secondary. More specifically, there are no upper-classmen at the cornerback position. Sophomore Demetrious Nicholson is now the elder statesman of the group.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 1

August, 30, 2012
It's here.

After hundreds of days of having to watch and follow inferior sports, take up new hobbies and do extra cute things with your better half just to pass the time, we are finally here.

It's college football season, again! The helmets are perfectly shined. The jerseys are hung so neatly and ironed so sweetly. You've gone to the store in advance to prep for the artery-bursting feast that awaits this weekend. Some are even lucky enough to be tailgating as we speak!

Cue up the bands, the grills and the fryers and the big-screen TVs. It's football season, and here's what to watch in the SEC this week:

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lattimore
C. Michael Bergen/The State/MCT/Getty ImagesSouth Carolina's Marcus Lattimore is one of three star running backs to keep an eye on this weekend.
1. Running backs return: If not for Texas A&M’s game getting postponed, we’d get to see three elite running backs returning to the field after injuries cut their 2011 seasons short. Christine Michael's debut will have to wait, but we’ll still get to see how South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and Arkansas’ Knile Davis do with the ball in their hands. When they’re 100 percent, it’s hard to find two better running backs out there.

2. Quarterback battles: Florida and Ole Miss still don’t know who their starting quarterbacks will be. Florida coach Will Muschamp said Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel will alternate quarters to start Saturday’s game, while Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze anticipates playing both Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti in the opener. This could be the final round of competition at both schools.

3. Questionable offensive lines: So many offensive lines have questions entering the fall. Keep an eye on Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. Auburn and Georgia are working in a few new parts, while Florida is hoping most of the parts from last year’s line have improved. Mizzou has all sorts of injury issues and Kentucky, Ole Miss and Vandy are just hoping to stay healthy because depth is an issue for all three.

4. More passing yards: Last year, SEC quarterbacks were laughed at. It seems like that won’t be the case in 2012. Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron, Tyler Bray and Tyler Wilson could all throw for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns, while Missouri’s James Franklin has arguably the best pass-run ability in the league. Vanderbilt’s Jordan Rodgers is a year older and wiser, while Zach Mettenberger is a major upgrade for LSU. If Connor Shaw learns to be more of a pass-first player, he could have a big year.

5. Athletic multitasking: Two players to keep both eyes on this weekend are Georgia’s Malcolm Mitchell and Ole Miss’ Randall Mackey. Mitchell will start at cornerback, but Mark Richt would like to play him at wide receiver and possibly have him return punts and kickoffs. He certainly is talented enough to do it, but I hope he gets a lot of sleep and loads up on 5-hour Energy. Mackey will start at running back, but since he’s played both quarterback and receiver for the Rebels, his coaches would like to move him around some. Expect him to line up out wide and as a Wildcat quarterback against Central Arkansas.

6. First days on the job: There will be a lot of debuts this weekend. Freeze will coach his first game at Ole Miss, Mettenberger takes over as LSU’s quarterback and Kiehl Frazier makes his first start at quarterback for Auburn. Freeze isn’t sure what he’ll see, but he’s looking to bring the Rebels’ fan base some much-needed excitement. Mettenberger has bided his time at both Georgia and LSU, but is finally the man. And Frazier can now call Auburn his team. He gets a very suspect defense in Clemson to start.

7. Alabama’s defense: There’s no question that Alabama lost a lot of talent from last year’s historic defense, but the thought is that the Tide will do more reloading than rebuilding. It will get a good first test against Michigan’s high-flying spread offense led by potential Heisman candidate in quarterback Denard Robinson. Nick Saban is still looking for key leaders to emerge, and he thinks he’ll finally find them come Saturday’s game. The key for this defense is getting out faster than it did when it was in a similar situation in 2010.

8. Tennessee’s passing game vs. NC State’s pass defense: Derek Dooley entered the season with a potent passing game, but the loss of Da’Rick Rogers suddenly makes that receiving depth not so attractive. Justin Hunter might be a little rusty and he’ll have a matchup with another potential first-rounder in corner David Amerson. We don’t know what Cordarrelle Patterson will do and he’ll battle Dontae Johnson, who beat out the talented C.J. Johnson before he was ruled ineligible. Dooley said he’s “very concerned” about his receivers, and this battle could determine Friday’s outcome.

9. Vanderbilt’s swagger: Thursday night is a chance for Vandy to make a strong statement to the rest of the SEC. Some are questioning if Vandy will build off of last year’s rebound or revert back to its old ways. The Dores don’t have to beat South Carolina, but they do have to show that same confidence they had last year and that they won’t back down.

10. Possible suspensions: It wouldn’t be opening day without some sort of controversy. Georgia starters Bacarri Rambo and Alec Ogletree both reportedly failed drug tests this spring, and suspensions were expected. But Richt has been very quiet about it and has told everyone to wait until Saturday. Can’t wait …
We're finally here. UConn gets it going against UMass at 7:30 tonight (on ESPN3), kicking off what is sure to be another fun-filled Big East season. Here's what's worth keeping a close eye on during the first weekend.

1. Chandler Whitmer's debut: Whitmer is the only first-time starter for a Big East school this season, and he gets to go first. The Butler Community College (Kan.) transfer will face a Minutemen team making the transition to the FBS this season, and the Huskies are the first of many BCS programs on its 2012 slate.

[+] EnlargeChandler Whitmer
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesJunior-college transfer Chandler Whitmer will get his first snaps for Connecticut against UMass.
2. Other debuts: By "other," we mean "coaching." Paul Chryst (Pitt) and Kyle Flood (Rutgers) are making their head-coaching debuts this weekend, and each has every reason to feel that his team has a shot at the conference title this season. Steve Addazio is also worth watching, as the second-year Temple coach is new to the conference this year.

3. Final Mayor's Cup?: And speaking of the Owls, they will face Villanova on Friday night in what might be the finale of their annual "Mayor's Cup" rivalry. Here's hoping for the sake of the sport and Philadelphia that the schools can find a way to it keep going, but the possibility that this is it for them makes it more intriguing.

4. UK-UL: Speaking of rivalries, what better way to cap off the opening weekend than with one of the more hostile ones featuring a Big East team? The Cardinals, for once, will be favored when they host Kentucky on Sunday, but the trash-talking has been alive and well throughout the offseason. (Rumor has it the schools played a fairly big hoops game this past spring, too.)

5. Cuse kicks off tough slate: The Orange are the only Big East team other than Louisville that will open against a fellow BCS-conference school, as they host Northwestern at noon Saturday. The Wildcats (yes, that's the third different "Wildcats" squad facing a Big East school this weekend) will hardly be it for Syracuse in the heavy nonconference slate, as the Orange will face USC in Week 2 before games against Minnesota and Missouri.

6. Rutgers-Tulane: The status of this game has been anything but solid all week with Hurricane Isaac on its way to the Louisiana area, but it looks like these two will give it a go Saturday night. The atmosphere for that one should be interesting.

7. Will Ray Graham play?: It will be essentially a game-time decision for the Pitt running back. When healthy, he just might be the best at his position in the country, though the Panthers should be just fine against Youngstown State on Saturday regardless.

8. Will B.J. Daniels put it all together? USF's Big East title hopes may rest on the arms and the legs of the four-year starter, who is on the cusp of multiple school and conference records. His farewell tour kicks off Saturday night against Chattanooga.

9. Four straight days of football. Yup. Starting today, continuing Friday and Saturday, and concluding Sunday, the Big East will have games on four consecutive days. The SEC is the only other big-six conference that can say the same. Enjoy the weekend, folks. I know I will.

10. But what does Cincinnati watch? Butch Jones' team is in the odd spot of spending the season's opening weekend at home before it kicks off its season next Thursday against Pitt. And he doesn't like it. TCU's departure for the Big 12 made this scenario seemingly unavoidable. Odds are the Bearcats will keep a close eye on that 6 p.m. Panthers-Youngstown State tilt.