The most wonderful time of year
What compares to the excitement of kicking off a new college football season? How about Buddy the Elf's reaction to the announcement that Santa Claus is coming to town?
If Will Ferrell's character in "Elf" thinks St. Nick's arrival is exciting, what would he do if he could run down the hill Saturday night in Clemson when the Tigers take on Georgia? A new season with all the pure, magical, sometimes illogically innocent belief that every kid clings to on Christmas morning is upon us. Surely this will be the year that Santa brings a real pony and not Lincoln Logs.
We can't wait to unwrap the gift of Johnny Manziel re-establishing his Johnny Football persona rather than the "Johnny Cash," "Johnny Paycheck" and "Money Badger" tags social media wise guys have put on him. Columnists can forgo the silly notion that Jadeveon Clowney should've considered sitting out the season to protect himself for the NFL draft in favor of comparing him to legendary pass-rushers such as North Carolina's Lawrence Taylor or Alabama's Derrick Thomas.
Miami can pursue an ACC championship knowing that the NCAA finally delivered a verdict in the investigation of the Hurricanes, an inquiry that started before the "Duck Dynasty" guys could grow peach fuzz on their chins. Hey, I said the wishes could be illogical. The absurdity of the fact that this case still hangs over Al Golden's program would undermine the faith of even the most ardent believers, but I digress.
We will not talk of realignment, playoffs, payoffs, miscreants, missteps, misdeeds, investigations or interviews. Not this week. Because our version of Christmas is here. We have football. Honest-to-goodness, buckle-up-your-headgear, step-onto-the-hallowed-patch-of-turf, set-your-hair-on-fire, cause-a-wreck football.
College football is changing. This is the final year of the BCS system. It is well-documented that the BCS has been dominated by the SEC. The ACC has been abysmal. If BCS bowls are your measure, the ACC is 3-12 in the highest-profile games. Only one win has been noteworthy: Florida State beat Virginia Tech (while the Hokies were still in the Big East) in the 2000 title game. The other two victories were Orange Bowl wins by Virginia Tech over Cincinnati in 2009 and Florida State over Northern Illinois following last season. ACC teams simply have wilted in the face of the power programs. The one word that describes the ACC in the BCS era is "underachieving."
Opening weekend represents a huge opportunity to start a seismic shift in perception. There are three games matching ACC teams against SEC teams. Virginia Tech takes on two-time reigning BCS champion Alabama. North Carolina faces old nemesis Steve Spurrier and South Carolina. And Clemson takes on Georgia. All or any would be signature victories for the conference. The Tar Heels and Hokies are gunning for upsets, which is not to say it couldn't happen -- just that it's not expected.
Clemson, though, can change the landscape. It is the favorite in the conference. The game is in Death Valley. While coach Dabo Swinney says this isn't an "end-all" deal, it actually is -- at least as far as the national championship is concerned.
In theory, Swinney is right. It's a long season. In reality, a loss means it'll be another season in which Clemson isn't a factor in the national championship race. The Tigers have a potential Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback in Tajh Boyd and a flotilla of big, speedy receivers, including junior Sammy Watkins, taking aim at Georgia's rebuilt defense. If not now, when will there ever be a better chance for Clemson to prove it's on equal footing with the SEC bullies? What better chance for the ACC to show it's not just stable but powerful than with a legitimate title contender?
For nine long months, Georgia has agonized over the 5 yards separating it from a BCS title shot. Georgia returns virtually everyone from an offense that led the nation in yards per play last season (7.09). Aaron Murray will finish his rewrite of the SEC record book by season's end. The chapter he has yet to write is one that includes a championship. Dabo is right. It's just one game. Not an "end-all." Nobody's season ends Saturday night. But the loser will have a ton of work to do to get a seat at the big boy table.
Virginia Tech has the most Herculean task among the ACC teams taking on Alabama in Atlanta. After last season's 7-6 meltdown ended a run of eight straight 10-win seasons, the Hokies revamped their coaching staff. Scot Loeffler takes over as offensive coordinator. Loeffler's most recent game as a coordinator was also against Alabama. His Auburn offense got blanked by the Tide. Loeffler doesn't just need his playbook but a Dr. Phil manual to help quarterback Logan Thomas regain his 2011 form after an erratic, confidence-rattling, turnover-filled 2012. The Hokies also come in banged up at running back and with questions on offensive line. Virginia Tech will have to rely on its veteran defensive line to make life tough on the Tide's retooled front if it wants to have a chance.
So many people have said no one is talking about LSU that it seems as if everyone is talking about LSU. The Tigers are probably underrated in terms of poll position right now. Les Miles isn't concerned.
"We like us. We like us in every game," The Hat said, in his own inimitable way.
TCU's Casey Pachall returns after struggles with addiction cut short his season last year. He is 15-2 as a starter. In one of those wins, a 473-yard performance to beat Boise State in 2011, he threw a TD pass with just over a minute left then zipped a two-point conversion pass to Josh Boyce to end the Broncos' 35-game home-field winning streak. Pachall gets a chance to put another bullet on his résumé this season.
A few other games I'm pumped about
• Boise State at Washington: Husky Stadium isn't the only thing that has been refurbished. This could be the year UW takes a major step forward if the O-line stays healthy and Keith Price reaches his potential. Just for old times' sake, the Broncos could start a quest for one last busting of the BCS.
• Oklahoma State vs. Mississippi State: The Pokes are Big 12 favorites. The Bulldogs have SEC stickers on their helmets. That's enough to stoke Big 12 fires these days.
• Washington State at Auburn: Mike Leach says the bottom of the Pac-12 is better than the bottom of the SEC. We'll find out -- for whatever that's worth. Not much in my judgment. But there might be 90 points scored in this game. That's worth plenty.
Time to tee it up. If Week 1 is any indication, the BCS era is going to go out in style.
Five things to watch in Week 1
Five things we'll be watching in college football this weekend:
1. Which defense wins the night at Death Valley?
For the first time in school history, No. 5 Georgia opens its season with a game in which both teams are ranked in the top 10. Saturday night's trip to No. 8 Clemson figures to be a high-scoring shootout. The Bulldogs bring back quarterback Aaron Murray, tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and all of their offensive linemen. The Tigers bring back quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins.
2. How will defending BCS national champion Alabama's offensive line stack up against Virginia Tech?
After winning back-to-back national championships, the Crimson Tide's problems might seem as trivial as Warren Buffett's financial worries. But Alabama doesn't feel great about its offensive line after losing All-Americans Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker.
The revamped offensive line will get its first test Saturday against Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Atlanta's Georgia Dome. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and right guard Anthony Steen are the returning starters. Arie Kouandjio, the left tackle's brother, takes over at left guard; Ryan Kelly is the new center; and Austin Shepherd is the starting right tackle.
The Crimson Tide allowed 23 sacks in 328 pass attempts last season, and keeping quarterback AJ McCarron upright will be a focus in Week 1.
3. Will LSU's passing game look any better with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in charge?
The No. 12 Tigers lost a boatload of star players from their defense, so there might be more pressure on LSU's offense early in the season, starting with Saturday night's game against No. 20 TCU (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) in the Cowboys Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
LSU coach Les Miles brought in Cameron, a former NFL offensive coordinator, to shore up his team's passing game. The Tigers ranked 92nd nationally in passing in 2012, throwing for only 200.5 yards per game with 12 touchdowns passes in 13 games. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger looked fantastic at times in his first season, like throwing for 298 yards with one touchdown in a 21-17 loss to Alabama, but he also had less than 200 passing yards in seven games.
4. Will Boise State's BCS buster hopes survive the opening weekend?
It wouldn't seem right if the No. 19 Broncos weren't at least in the at-large discussion in the final season of the BCS. But if Boise State is going to be a BCS buster again, they'll have to win their opener at Washington at revamped Husky Stadium in Seattle on Saturday night.
Boise State defeated Washington 28-26 in the Las Vegas Bowl in December, so the teams are pretty familiar with each other. Boise State quarterback Joe Southwick hopes to pick up where he left off in 2012, after throwing for nine touchdowns with no interceptions in the final four games. Washington quarterback Keith Price threw three interceptions in the final two games, losses to Washington State and Boise State.
5. How famous will Jameis Winston be after Labor Day?
FSU's coaches have been raving about Jameis Winston's athleticism, arm strength and leadership since the spring, and FSU fans will finally get to see their new quarterback in action when the No. 11 Seminoles open the season at ACC newcomer Pittsburgh on Monday night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Winston, a redshirt freshman from Hueytown, Ala., beat out sophomore Jacob Coker to win the starting job. Clint Trickett, the backup behind EJ Manuel last season, transferred to West Virginia after Winston lit up FSU's defense in the spring game.
All times ET:
6 p.m.: North Carolina at No. 6 South Carolina (ESPN)
8 p.m.: Utah State at Utah (Fox Sports 1)
9:15 p.m.: Ole Miss at Vanderbilt (ESPN)
10:30 p.m.: Rutgers at Fresno State (ESPNU)
11 p.m.: No. 24 USC at Hawaii (CBS)
Noon: Buffalo at No. 2 Ohio State (ESPN2)
Noon: Purdue at Cincinnati (ESPNU)
Noon: UMass at No. 23 Wisconsin (BTN)
12:21 p.m.: Toledo at No. 10 Florida (ESPN3)
1 p.m.: Rice at No. 7 Texas A&M (ESPN)
3:30 p.m.: Mississippi State vs No. 13 Oklahoma State (ABC/ESPN2)
3:30 p.m.: Syracuse vs Penn State (ABC/ESPN2)
3:30 p.m.: Brigham Young at Virginia (ESPNU)
3:30 p.m.: Central Michigan at No. 17 Michigan (BTN)
3:30 p.m.: Temple at No. 14 Notre Dame (NBC)
4 p.m.: Louisiana-Lafayette at Arkansas (ESPN3)
4 p.m.: Nicholls State at No. 3 Oregon (Fox Sports 1)
5:30 p.m.: No. 1 Alabama vs Virginia Tech (ESPN)
6 p.m.: Austin Peay at Tennessee (ESPN3)
6 p.m.: Eastern Washington at No. 25 Oregon State (Pac-12 Network)
7 p.m.: Washington State at Auburn (ESPNU)
7:30 p.m.: Wofford at Baylor (FSN)
8 p.m.: No. 5 Georgia at No. 8 Clemson (ABC)
8 p.m. New Mexico State at No. 15 Texas (Longhorn Network)
8 p.m.: Wyoming at No. 18 Nebraska (BTN)
9 p.m.: No. 12 LSU vs No. 20 TCU (ESPN)
10 p.m.: Nevada at No. 21 UCLA (Pac-12 Network)
10 p.m.: No. 19 Boise State at Washington (Fox Sports 1)
10:30 p.m.: No. 22 Northwestern at California (ESPN2)
3:30 p.m.: Ohio at No. 9 Louisville (ESPN)
8 p.m.: No. 11 Florida State at Pittsburgh (ESPN)
Schlabach's upset pick
What to Watch in Week 1
Click below to see what our bloggers think you should be watching for in each conference this weekend.
North Carolina kicks things off on Thursday in Columbia, S.C., and will set the tone for a big weekend in the ACC vs. the SEC. ACC
The buzz around the Big 12 is on two things: All the inexperience at quarterback and whether the league can finally beat the SEC. Big 12
Many will make their Big Ten debuts in Week 1 -- from new coaches to rookie quarterbacks to standout juco transfers. Big Ten
Big opportunities for Colorado and Utah, bowl rematches and high expectations for the league's elite highlight Week 1. Pac-12
Throughout the SEC, there's a sense of new beginnings, of hope, of the fresh start for which so many programs have been longing. SEC
Highly touted freshman Jaylon Smith will likely start in Week 1, as well as defensive rookies Cole Luke and Max Redfield. Notre Dame