Commentary

Kickoff classics making a comeback

Originally Published: August 31, 2011
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- No. 5 Boise State is opening its season more than 2,100 miles from home, against No. 19 Georgia in the Georgia Dome on Saturday night.

No. 3 Oregon will play its first game more than 2,000 miles from Eugene, Ore., against No. 4 LSU at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the same night.

What's their reward?

[+] EnlargeChick-fil-A Kickoff Game
Paul Abell/US PresswireFor four years, the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game has matched ranked opponents against each other in Atlanta to start the season.

An opportunity to play on national TV and in recruiting hotbeds, along with a chance to jump into the driver's seat in the BCS national championship race.

What's their risk?

Instead of playing a directional FBS school or FCS opponent in another cupcake opener, they'll play a nationally ranked opponent. A loss could put them behind the eight ball on the opening night of the season.

"It is a big buildup for an opening game I think because of who we are playing, where we are playing and all that kind of thing," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "So there's an awful lot of hype going into this ballgame compared to some other opening games. I don't personally think that the season is riding on the one game. It's really not. It's a game that we absolutely want to win. It's a game that we expect to win."

College kickoff games are nothing new. The Kickoff Classic was played at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., from 1983 to 2002. The Pigskin Classic was played in Anaheim, Calif., and then various sites from 1990 to 2002. The Eddie Robinson Classic was held at various stadiums from 1997 to 2002.

Until 2002, NCAA rules allowed teams to play a 12-game regular season if they participated in a licensed "classic" game. Kickoff classic games fizzled after the NCAA changed its rules to allow every FBS team to a play a 12-game schedule starting in 2003.

Since then, many athletics directors have been reluctant to sacrifice their earnings from home games to open the season at a neutral site. The rewards, however, appear to be outweighing the risks, as national powers such as Alabama, Virginia Tech and LSU have each played in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game in recent years, which hosts the Bulldogs and Broncos this year.

"NASCAR starts its season with the Daytona 500," said Gary Stokan, president of the Chick-fil-A Bowl. "I wanted to start the college football season with something that was like nothing else. People are dying for college football to start. They're salivating to see a game. They want to come see two ranked teams play."

The game comes with a nice payday for participating teams. Georgia will be paid $1.7 million and Boise State $1.4 million for playing in this year's game in Atlanta.

Matching Georgia against Boise State was an arduous task. The Bulldogs were supposed to open the 2011 season against Louisville, but the Cardinals agreed to a $500,000 buyout, which will be paid by the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game. North Carolina replaced Georgia as the opponent in a home-and-home series against Louisville.

Boise State was supposed to open the 2011 season at Ole Miss, but the Rebels agreed to move that game to the 2014 Chick-fil-A Kickoff. BYU replaced Boise State as the Rebels' opening opponent this season.

"To have five schools involved and to make them all whole and happy is pretty remarkable," Stokan said.

Oregon coach Chip Kelly said he likes opening the season against a top-5 opponent.

"I like playing games that prepare you for the conference schedule," Kelly said.

Players also seem to be more focused during offseason workouts, knowing they'll play a ranked opponent in their opening game.

"It definitely adds a little spice to the offseason," Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said. "You really want to show the country you're a good team. As a team right now, we're a lot more excited about the [first] game than we were last year. A year ago, I'd call a meeting or 7-on-7 drill [during the summer] and some guys would show up and some guys wouldn't. Now, everybody is showing up for everything."

On the Mark: Play ball

Brandon Weeden had a 19-26 record with a 5.02 ERA in five seasons in the New York Yankees' farm system.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Weeden
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireBrandon Weeden chose college football after playing minor league baseball for five years. Oklahoma State is reaping the benefits of that decision.

Joe Bauserman went 14-12 with a 3.42 ERA in three seasons in the Pittsburgh Pirates' minor league system.

And Russell Wilson had a .229 average in 93 games in the Colorado Rockies' farm system, striking out 118 times in 315 at-bats in two seasons.

Oklahoma State and Ohio State are fortunate that opponents could hit Weeden's and Bauserman's fastballs, and Wisconsin is lucky Wilson couldn't hit a curveball.

On Saturday, the former minor league baseball players will lead their teams into the 2011 college football season.

Weeden, 27, is back after passing for 4,277 yards with 34 touchdowns for the Pokes last season. Wilson, 22, begins his first season at Wisconsin, after starting the past three seasons at NC State.

Bauserman, 25, was named the Buckeyes' starter Tuesday, beating out freshman Braxton Miller for the job, which was vacated when Terrelle Pryor entered the NFL's supplemental draft. Bauserman and Miller are both expected to play a lot in Saturday's opener against Akron.

"It's leadership," said OSU interim coach Luke Fickell, when asked what separated Bauserman from Miller. "It's also [about] this team, where we were at the time. I think he's done a good job. I've been impressed with the things we've asked him to do and what he's done."

Off the Mark: Tweet police

Some coaches have been criticized for restricting their players' use of social media like Twitter. Here's Example A of why they do it: Over the weekend, Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin, a senior, challenged Boise State coach Chris Petersen to kick him the ball during Saturday night's game.

Boykin's tweet on Saturday: "Dear Coach Petersen, I DARE you to Kick to me. … Sincerely, Me and my #dawgs."

Boykin is the only player in SEC history with three 100-yard plays, which all came on kickoff returns for touchdowns.

Petersen wasn't taking the bait.

"They have those kickers that coaches lose sleep over and the kick returner who wants a piece of me -- and I don't even play," Petersen told reporters in Boise, Idaho. "I don't kick the ball. He's talking to the wrong guy. I'm shanking it out of bounds."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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