College Football Opening Weekend 2011: 7 Must-See Games for Week 1

David LutherFeatured ColumnistAugust 28, 2011

College Football Opening Weekend 2011: 7 Must-See Games for Week 1

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    We're finally there. It's the final week of the off-season, and college football fans across the country are gearing up for the opening week of football.

    There's so much excitement—and so many games—it's difficult to know where to begin.

    Have no fear! We're here to help!

    While there are many games that the country will be watching this weekend, there are a select few that we all should be watching.

    Some of these games have immediate BCS implications for the participants, some are games that could set the tone for the entire 2011 season, and some are games that are interesting because they'll answer some nagging questions.

    Warm up the DVR. Disconnect the phone. Get a comfy chair, some snacks, and some drinks, because here are seven games in week one that you must see.

Tulsa at Oklahoma

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    Saturday, September 3, 8 pm EDT, TV: FX

    This game is important for one very simple reason: the top team in the country that has a history of slow starts over the past couple of seasons is playing a pretty good BCS non-AQ program that is returning 18 starters.

    If ever there was a recipe for an Earth-shattering week one upset, this is probably it.

    Oklahoma is widely expected to run the table this season, and earn its way back to the BCS Championship Game at season's end. Whether or not the Sooners will be able to do that will depend in large part on the play of quarterback Landry Jones.

    All three Oklahoma FBS programs will play each other this season. While Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are head and shoulders above the level of Tulsa, don't take the Golden Hurricane lightly. Tulsa is a decent program with a lot of returning experience. Their talent pool clearly isn't as deep as either Oklahoma or Oklahoma State, but they are capable of putting up enough points to scare the crap out of anyone.

    Last season, over the course of the first four weeks of the season, OU was able to beat Utah State, Air Force, and Cincinnati by a combined 12 points. None of those games should have been close, and if Oklahoma allows a team like Tulsa to hang around, it could spell disaster. The Hurricane shouldn't beat the Sooners, but if Oklahoma allows a team like Tulsa to hang around...

    On a side note, this game is being broadcast on cable network FX (owned by Fox) as part of a new deal between Fox and the Big 12, Pac-12, and C-USA. It will be interesting to see how FX handles college football broadcasts, as this is their first foray into the sport since the 1990's. Beyond college football, FX hasn't aired any live sporting event in five years.

TCU at Baylor

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    Friday, September 2, 8 pm EDT, Tv: ESPN

    Last season, TCU had a season no Horned Frogs fan will ever forget. Not only did the Frogs finish 13-0, they also brought home a Rose Bowl trophy.

    For their part, the Baylor Bears had their best season of football in 15 years. While finishing 7-5 isn't quite the same as winning the Rose Bowl, it's far better than the Bears' typical 4-8 record.

    The bright spot for Baylor has got to be the nine returning offensive starters from last year's Texas Bowl team. TCU returns just five offensive starters, and just one back and one receiver.

    This game is fascinating for the juxtaposed reasons of watching how well Baylor can cling to their 2010 successes and how well TCU will be able to stave off falling back down to Earth after finishing as the No. 2 team in the nation last season.

BYU at Mississippi

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    Saturday, September 3, 4:45 pm EDT, TV: ESPN

    Thus begins the era of conference independence for the BYU Cougars.

    After spending the last 12 seasons as a member of the Mountain West, BYU has left the conference, and opted to remain free from any affiliations. It remains to be seen how successful this new strategy will be for BYU.

    Off the bat, there are a couple of potential downfalls. First, BYU will now be left to their own devices for television contracts—although BYU does have its own network, but it's financed by the Mormon Church directly, rather than coming from the university's funds (of which a large portion also comes from the Mormon Church).

    BYU will also need to go bowl shopping on their own. The Cougars can no longer take advantage of the MWC's contracts with various bowls—to say nothing of a BCS berth.

    On the flip side, BYU will now have complete schedule freedom. No longer will the Cougars be hampered by games against New Mexico or Wyoming, unless they choose. Part of that new scheduling philosophy is the inclusion of Mississippi—from the SEC—on the 2011 schedule.

    Ole Miss didn't have the greatest of seasons in 2010, finishing 4-8. This was especially disheartening after Ole Miss had two-straight 9-4 seasons, and the Rebels were expected to have a decent team again in 2010. For 2011, the Rebels return nine offensive starters, but will need to break in a new signal caller for this season as Jeremiah Masoli has finished his final year of NCAA eligibility.

    Can BYU enter this new era with an impressive win over an SEC program? Can Mississippi rebound after a disappointing 2010? We'll have the first part of those answers in less than a week.

Miami (FL) at Maryland

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    Monday, September 5, 8 pm EDT, TV: ESPN / ESPN-3D

    The ACC season gets an early kick-off this year when the Miami Hurricanes travel north to visit the Maryland Terrapins on Monday night.

    Maryland begins the year as a potential Top 25 team (receiving two votes in the preseason AP poll), and there's plenty of reason to believe that a new season of football will bring some fresh air to the Terrapin Nation.

    The Terps return seven offensive starters, including standout freshman quarterback Danny O'Brien, the reigning ACC Freshman of the Year. Maryland also begins 2011 with a new head coach, Randy Edsall, who travels just up the road from UConn.

    This new brand of Terrapin football could be a resurgence for the program, and an early test against Miami should give us some insight as to how the season will progress for Edsall, O'Brien, and the rest of the Terrapins.

    As for Miami... What is there left to say?

    Quarterback Jacory Harris has thus far turned out to be a dud on the field. Rather than winning Heismans and bringing glory to the Hurricanes program—as we were all led to believe—Harris has turned out to be little more than a mediocre quarterback with a questionable throwing arm with moderate-to-poor accuracy.

    Harris isn't the only personnel problem plaguing the 'Canes, and with a new and massive scandal rocking “The U,” it's a wonder how anything productive can be accomplished this season.

    It will be most interesting to see how Miami handles the pressure and relentless off-the-field distractions. If the Hurricanes can put up an impressive win against Maryland, it will serve as a signal to the nation that Miami should not be counted out so soon. If, however, Maryland runs all over Miami, they might as well shut the program down now. Losing to Maryland doesn't leave much hope against teams like Ohio State, Virginia Tech, and Florida State—all of which appear on the Hurricanes' 2011 schedule.

Western Michigan at Michigan

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    Saturday, September 3, 3:30 pm EDT, TV: ABC

    Who really wants to watch a MAC team take on a Big Ten team? What possible interest could there be in this game outside of the two participating teams' fan bases?

    With all due respect to Western Michigan, no one outside of Kalamazoo, Michigan really cares—or even takes notice—of what the Broncos do on a week-to-week basis.

    Being in the MAC is bad enough. Being a .500 MAC team is even worse. Sorry WMU fans, but this game isn't interesting because of the Broncos.

    What needs to be looked at is Michigan.

    The Wolverines have finally dropped excess baggage in the form of Rich Rodriguez, and in his place, Michigan has hired “Michigan Man” Brady Hoke.

    People who aren't familiar with the “Michigan Man” mentality don't quite understand what this means to people in Ann Arbor circles. It all goes back to Bo Schembechler and his days as the Michigan football coach and athletic director. When U-M's basketball coach, Bill Frieder, announced shortly before the 1989 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament he would be leaving at the end of the season for Arizona State, Schembechler promptly fired him on the eve of the tournament's first round. Schembechler believed that only a person completely dedicated to the university should be the coach, and Schembechler famously stated to the press, “a Michigan man is going to coach a Michigan team.” Schembechler appointed Steve Fisher as interim head coach, who led the team to an NCAA Championship in that very tournament. The legend was born.

    Hoke, unlike Rodriguez, is a “Michigan Man,” having begun his coaching career at Grand Valley State, Western Michigan, Toledo, Oregon State, and finally Michigan, under head coaches Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr. As such, Hoke is a man familiar with Michigan's program and was schooled in the ways of coaching by graduates of the “Schebechler College of Football Coaching” Moeller and Carr.

    Hoke's biggest task will be the remodel the Wolverines into a traditional Michigan team, and defense will be a big part of that.

    So why should be sure to catch WMU at U-M this weekend?

    As bad as WMU is, the Broncos have a serviceable offensive attack. It will be a good first week practice exam for the Michigan defense. If the Wolverines struggle against WMU's offense, the Maize and Blue could be in for another long, grueling season.

    But if Michigan can shut down the Broncos and cruise to an easy win with few WMU scores, it may be the first signs of a resurgent Michigan.

Louisiana State vs. Oregon (at Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, TX)

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    Saturday, September 3, 8 pm EDT, TV: ABC

    This game was clearly a don't-miss even a few weeks ago.

    It's not often two top-five teams meet in the first week of the college football season. Both teams are early favorites to compete for a BCS championship this year, and this game could go a long way towards determining the early favorite.

    But in an off-season filled with rumors, allegations, resignations, and scandals, it seems that the top dogs in the FBS aren't immune. Both LSU and Oregon have had their share of off-field problems this off season.

    First, there's the brewing problem at LSU. Starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson turned himself into police after a felony warrant for his arrest was issued following a fight at a bar. A second-team linebacker was also arrested. Both Jefferson and his teammate, Josh Johns, have been suspended from the LSU football team.

    Oregon's own quarterback, Darron Thomas, hasn't been immune to run-ins with police, either. This summer, Thomas was a passenger in a car pulled over by police after being clocked at 118 miles per hour. It turned out there was marijuana either in the car or “disposed of” shortly before. Thomas claims he was sleeping in the car, driven by Cliff Harris. By itself, this incident doesn't seem too bad for Thomas. But this is the third time he's been a passenger in a car that has been stopped by police, and at least the second time in which marijuana was allegedly involved.

    Chip Kelly, always one to err on the side of... well, having his star players play in the big games, has curtly answered media questions about the incident, and Thomas's penchant for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. “I'm not punishing someone for being a passenger,” Kelly has told the media.

    While the game probably won't be massively affected by the off-field issues for both teams, it's nonetheless a storyline in a game that will have the entire nation watching.

    If you don't watch for the drama, watch for the fact that you could see a preview of some great BCS match-ups come January.

Boise State vs. Georgia (at the Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA)

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    Saturday, September 3, 8 pm EDT, TV: ESPN

    At the same time much of the country is watching LSU and Oregon, there will be another great match-up taking place over on ESPN.

    Boise State, the perennial BCS-buster, has taken to scheduling any Top 25 team they can get, and this year, Georgia is the opponent. Last season, Boise State began the year with a thrilling three-point victory over eventual ACC Champion Virginia Tech. The Broncos will hope to duplicate that feat this season when they meet up with the Georgia Bulldogs at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Saturday.

    Boise State enters 2011 as the No. 5 team in the nation, and Georgia comes in at No. 19. Both teams have lofty goals after 2010 seasons that were disappointing for both, yet for very different reasons.

    Boise State finished 12-1, and missed a BCS berth after a shocking overtime loss to Nevada in the regular season. Georgia suffered through a 1-4 start en route to their first losing season in nearly two decades. Both are hungry for redemption in 2011.

    Georgia is led by a very impressive young sophomore quarterback, Aaron Murray. What we saw from Murray in 2010 was the glimmers of potential greatness, and there is definitely enough talent in this young man to become the next great SEC quarterback.

    His counterpart, Kellen Moore of Boise State, is a proven leader, and a returning Heisman finalist. Moore's success at BSU is very well documented, and he is on the cusp of becoming one of the greatest quarterbacks in FBS history. If Moore can lead the Broncos to just eight wins (which seems almost guaranteed, provided Boise State can avoid the injury bug), Moore will become the winningest starting quarterback in FBS history.

    Boise State also is facing the prospect of having their last, best chance to chase down a BCS Championship Game berth this season. While no one doubts Boise State's ability to reload, players like Moore don't come along very often, whether you're Boise State or Notre Dame or Alabama or USC. Boise State may not see another like him for years, or decades. Boise State also has a fairly favorable schedule after the meeting with Georgia. It's not inconceivable that Boise State runs the table if they get past the Bulldogs.

    Boise State and Georgia is the top game this weekend that doesn't have some major off-the-field cloud hanging over the game. The clash should be hard-fought, and eventually hard-won by the victor, and will clearly set up the winner for a successful season.

    It's just too bad the top two games this weekend are going to be played at the same time.

    Like we said at the outset: warm up the DVR.