Friday, September 3, 2004 Updated: September 4, 12:42 PM ET
Wideouts the key for LSU, Oregon State
By Kirk Herbstreit Special to ESPN.com
LSU is coming off a co-national championship and returns 13 starters from last year's team. That's the good news. The bad news is the players they lost, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Marcus Randall will be making his first start since 2002 on Saturday.
Quarterback Matt Mauck and wide receivers Michael Clayton and Devery Henderson are gone to the NFL, leaving senior quarterback Marcus Randall to become one of the new leaders on offense. Randall started six games and passed for over 1,500 yards in 2002, though, so it's not like he's being thrown to the wolves.
Randall has one of the best tailbacks in the nation behind him -- sophomore Justin Vincent -- meaning the issue will be how the receiving corps performs. Someone has to give LSU a much-needed boost opposite returning starter Skyler Green. Sophomores Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis along with freshman Early Doucet will get a chance to show what they can do.
All four will have to be sharp against Oregon State (6:00 p.m., ESPN), which has cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Aric Williams, perhaps the best corner duo the Tigers will see all season. The Beavers got into big trouble last year when teams went with three or four receivers because the safeties tended to get out of position, so look for LSU to try to exploit that.
Most fans would think a team breaking in so many new players would take a conservative approach in the opener and lean on the defense, but knowing Nick Saban that will not be the case for the Tigers. He believes in a balanced game plan and has surely stressed that to offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, who should test his young wideouts to see how they respond.
Oregon State will likely walk everyone up to the line of scrimmage on defense to get eight or nine men in the box against Vincent, and if the LSU wideouts can make some big plays to get the Beavers out of that look, things will open up for the running game.
As for OSU's offense, the Beavers are also breaking in receivers who lack experience and need desperately for Mike Haas, George Gillett and the rest of the wideouts to get off press coverage from Corey Webster and Travis Daniels, the best pair of corners in the nation.
Oregon State quarterback Derek Anderson, who will need time to throw, has a veteran line in front of him. He has a tendency to throw the ball into traffic when holding it too long and sitting in the pocket reading defenses is not his strength. Anderson will benefit greatly if his receivers can beat the jam at the line of scrimmage, but if you turn the game on and see him dropping back then waiting for someone to come open, it will be a long night for OSU.
Adding to the pressure on Anderson is the departure of first-round running back Steven Jackson. Speedy Dwight Wright will step in at that spot.
Those outstanding LSU cornerbacks will be huge for their team in this game and all year. Saban's defense is built around the corners locking up opposing wideouts so the front seven can put as much pressure as possible on the quarterback, which it should be able to do with end Marcus Spears and company rushing the passer.
Be sure to check out "College GameDay" this Saturday morning on ESPN to get my prediction.
Bowling Green vs. No. 2 Oklahoma (noon, ABC)
Oklahoma is coming off two straight losses, and many people wonder if the Sooners have been exposed or figured out. They will face a Bowling Green team this weekend returning 17 starters from a team that finished 11-3 last season. The game is a much greater challenge than most highly ranked teams will see in their season opener.
The Falcons also use a spread offense that acts as an equalizer, but with Omar Jacobs making his first career start at quarterback against Oklahoma's incredible defensive athletes, Bowling Green will be at a big disadvantage. The Sooners are too big in the trenches and bring too much pressure.
OU may take a little time to figure out the Bowling Green offense, but once that happens look for the Sooners to hand the Falcons a sound, 45-10 beating.
Miami (Ohio) vs. No. 7 Michigan (noon, ABC)
All the hype surrounding Miami (Ohio) last season year was about eventual first-round quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but the Red Hawks were a lot more than just Roethlisberger.
They have phenomenal skill at wide receiver with Martin Nance, Mike Larkin and Ryan Robinson back from last year, and running back Mike Smith returns after rushing for nearly 1,000 yards last season. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Josh Betts takes over at quarterback and will throw the ball all over the field in a system much like the one Marshall has used to develop a string of NFL quarterbacks.
Whether or not the Miami offensive line can hold up against Michigan's unbelievable athleticism on defense will decide how much Betts can do against the Wolverines. If that unit and its three new starters give Betts time, he has enough talent around him to make things interesting.
Michigan also has a new starting quarterback, and Matt Guttierez will have to be careful against an athletic group out to prove something against a national power. Nine starters return for the Red Hawks on defense, so while Guttierez may shine at times, he could also have some rough spots.
At the end of the day, Michigan's advantage in the trenches should be too much for Miami. Look for Michigan running back David Underwood to have a breakout game to start his senior season. He has paid his dues and no longer has to look over his shoulder, making this a perfect coming-out party.
This will be a tight one until Michigan's overall speed takes over in the second half and leads the Wolverines to a 27-13 victory.
Cincinnati vs. No. 9 Ohio State (noon, ABC)
Mark Dantonio left his job as the defensive coordinator at Ohio State to take over the Cincinnati program, and wouldn't you know it, his first game as the Bearcats head coach comes at Ohio Stadium against the Buckeyes.
Dantonio knows the defensive personnel at Ohio State and what they can or cannot do. The Buckeyes know how he likes to run a defense, giving Dantonio a slight edge only because he knows what certain Ohio State defenders are comfortable or uncomfortable doing.
Many people also forget that Cincinnati came within a couple of dropped touchdown passes of upsetting Ohio State during the Buckeyes' run to the 2002 national championship. Most of the players from that team are back, including quarterback Gino Guidugli. With 18 starters returning from last year, Cincinnati truly believes it can go to Columbus and win.
The fact that Ohio State has a ton of new players on offense should make this a competitive game because Guidugli has plenty of talent around him. The confidence the Bearcats built in 2002 should turn this into a four-quarter game, but in the end we'll see the same old story from Ohio State.
The game will be close, and the Buckeyes defense will have to give the offense a short field to work with. New defensive coordinator Mark Snyder will get enough big plays out of his unit to lead Ohio State to a hard-fought 27-17 win.
Toledo at No. 23 Minnesota (9:00 p.m., ESPN2)
Toledo's Bruce Gradkowski is not only one of the best quarterbacks in the Mid-American Conference but also in the nation. He is unbelievably accurate, completing 71 percent of his passes a year ago for over 3,000 yards, and with most of his skill players back from last year Toledo should be as explosive as any team in the MAC.
The big question is whether the Rockets defense can hold up physically against Minnesota's offensive line, one of the best in the nation and leaders of a potent running attack. They are an old-school group who prompted former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler to say they were responsible for some of the best run blocking he's seen in over 20 years.
Minnesota will have Brian Cupito under center for his first career start, but with the awesome tailback duo of Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney behind him there will be much less pressure on him. The Golden Gophers will most likely try to lull Toledo to sleep before going over the top to receivers Paris Hamilton and Jared Ellerson.
As long as the Gophers don't sleepwalk like they did in a 38-7 loss at Toledo in 2001, they win 31-20.
Notre Dame vs. BYU (9:15 p.m., ESPN)
Notre Dame is trying to put last year's struggles behind it and get off to a new beginning. The Fighting Irish need a good performance here before hosting Michigan on Sept. 11.
There is a lot of talk in South Bend about avenging last season's 38-0 drubbing at Michigan Stadium, but the Irish had better come to the mountains ready to play against a team that desperately needs a good year. And what better way for BYU to start the season than with a an upset over Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish defense has the potential to be outstanding this year, and if they can put good pressure on BYU quarterback Matt Berry, things will be much easier. They must also tackle well against the Cougars, because one missed tackle with the defense spread out can mean a big gain.
Notre Dame is also more talented at the skill positions. Ryan Grant is back at running back after a big 2002 season and playing behind Julius Jones last year, but the story could be wide receivers Rhema McKnight, Maurice Stovall and Carlyle Holiday. They give quarterback Brady Quinn -- who got a year of experience in the West Coast offense last season -- some potential difference-makers against BYU's man coverage.
Notre Dame has a chance for a good year but we won't really find out how much this team has until they face Michigan. If they can get pressure and prevent the big play by tackling well, the Irish win 24-17.
Kirk Herbstreit is an analyst for ESPN "College GameDay" and a regular contributor to ESPN.com during the college football season.