Opening Weekend: The Quest for the National Title Begins
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The 2011 college football season got off to a booming start Thursday night with a pair of top 25 teams, one a BCS contender and another a dark-horse pick, getting huge wins to start their seasons.
The 11th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers, picked by many to play in the Inaugural Big 10 Championship Game, opened their season with a 51-17 offensive showcase against overmatched UNLV.
Former NC State quarterback Russell Wilson was the story, passing for 255 yards and two touchdowns, plus another on the ground.
The Badgers defense was not nearly as impressive, allowing the Rebels far too much space in the running game, and it will need to improve as competition improves. Wisconsin welcomes Oregon State to Camp Randall next weekend. They should be 4-0 by the time Nebraska comes to town in October.
The 20th-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs, who many have picked as a dark horse in the stacked SEC West, opened up their season with an impressive 59-14 road win over Memphis.
Memphis, 1-11 last season, was unable to deal with the Bulldog rushing attack led by Vick Ballard, who had 166 yards and three scores on just 10 carries.
Unlike the Badgers, the next few weeks are not full of soft touches for Mississippi State. They head on the road to open up SEC play next week at Auburn and are then home for the LSU Tigers. We will know very quickly whether these Bulldogs are contenders or pretenders.
So that's what we already know. But what about the rest of the weekend's action? We preview all the action and what you need to know for all top 25 teams.
No. 14 TCU Horned Frogs at Baylor Bears
Many consider this a great upset pick as the Frogs are reloading with a new quarterback and a ton of new starters on the offensive and defensive lines. A lot is riding on Sophomore QB Casey Pachall, who replaces Andy Dalton and will need to produce given Baylor's potent offense.
The Bears went 7-6 last year and are led by dynamic junior QB Robert Griffin. Their offense returns nine starters and will be able to play with anyone. Their concerns are on the defensive end which will need to improve to remain competitive in a weakened Big 12.
The Pick: TCU holds on close 34-30
No. 1 Oklahoma Sooners vs. Tulsa Golden Hurricane
The Sooners are primed for a return to the BCS Title Game. They are absolutely loaded on both sides of the ball and should open the season with a win.
But they can't allow this to be a trap game with a trip to Florida State looming next week. Both of these teams can score, so expect a high-scoring, but not close, game.
The Pick: Tulsa will give them some shots, but Oklahoma will win big. Oklahoma 52-24
No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Kent State Golden Flashes
Not much to talk about here. The Tide is swimming with talent and has the perfect opponent to break in a new QB. Only question here is how many points they'll score. The competition improves next week with a trip to Happy Valley.
The Pick: Alabama in an absolute walk. 52-7
No. 3 Oregon Ducks vs No. 4 LSU Tigers
How often do you get to see two National Title contenders lock up with this much on the line in Week 1? The Ducks come off their best season, coming within a breath of being national champs. LSU has had some significant controversy leading into this game, which will probably be the story when its over.
Oregon is led by the dynamic LaMichael James and if he can run the ball effectively it will be a good night for the Ducks. If he can't the LSU secondary has a chance to dominate this game.
LSU will be without QB Jordan Jefferson and will need to rely heavily on their defense to make plays if they are going to win. Simply put, they won't be able to throw the ball.
The Pick: Oregon is underrated at No. 3 if that's possible. Given all the problems LSU has had coming into this week, expect a low-scoring affair to go in Oregon's favor. Oregon 21-17
No. 5 Boise State Broncos at No. 19 Georgia Bulldogs
Another marquee matchup between a BCS Contender and a team on the upswing. The Broncos are in "go for it now" mode as this will likely be their last chance to compete for a BCS spot for a while. They are a senior-laden team led by Heisman contender Kellen Moore.
The Broncos can play with anyone and with wins over Georgia and TCU later in the season, they will be basically locks for a BCS bowl even if it isn't the one they want.
Georgia is still very young: talented, but young. They have great potential on both sides of the ball and will benefit from playing a virtual home game against Boise. But the Broncos are battle tested and used to these big-game environments. They will have enough, led by Kellen Moore, to win.
The Pick: Boise gets another scalp. 24-17
No. 6 Florida State Seminoles vs. Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks
Another one barely worth discussing as FSU will roll. Will be interesting to see EJ Manuel as he begins his tune up for the Sooners in two weeks.
The Pick: FSU rolls 42-7
#7 Stanford Cardinal vs. San Jose State Spartans
Not many teams wanna see Andrew Luck at all. Not to mention in Week 1, looking to make a statement to the rest of the Pac-12 that they're still here even without Jim Harbaugh. If it were a longer flight, I'd encourage the Spartans to save on airfare and mail this one in.
The Pick: Big game for Luck and Stanford cruises. 45-10
No. 8 Texas A&M Aggies vs. SMU Mustangs
A&M has the team to contend for the BCS and even make a run at the National Title. Their offense is dynamic and returns 10 starters.
The only questions are along the defense, when the Aggies run into the Oklahoma's and Oklahoma State's that they'll need to beat to win the Big 12. Either way, Cyrus Gray will be enough to dominate a game but outmatched SMU team.
The Pick: Texas A&M can't overlook the Mustangs but will take this one home. A&M 34-14
No. 9 Oklahoma State Cowboys vs. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns
Many feel that the Cowboys are the biggest threat to Oklahoma in the Big 12. And why not? The lethal Brandon Weeden-to-Justin Blackwell combination is back, as is the entire offensive line and nearly all of the secondary. The Cowboys will be a matchup nightmare for anyone they face. Could be BCS bound this year, even if they don't beat the Sooners.
The Pick: Oklahoma State steamrolls 52-3
#10 Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. Chattanooga
Nebraska makes its debut as a Big Ten school against soft-touch Chattanooga. In fact the Huskers don't face a threat until October when they visit Wisconsin and host Ohio State back to back. The Blackshirts are back in Lincoln as the Husker defense is championship caliber.
The key question is whether Taylor Martinez can develop into an elite level passer and carry the team to the next level. On defense, Jared Crick might be the most dominant player in the nation.
The Pick: Martinez won't need to do much in this one. Huskers roll 56-0
# 12 South Carolina Gamecocks vs. East Carolina Pirates
Leave it to Steve Spurrier to take a relatively easy first game and make it dramatic. Apparently incumbent, and mercurial, quarterback Stephen Garcia will be riding the pine in favor of Sophomore Connor Shaw when the Gamecocks open their quest for a second straight SEC East Crown.
The decision has surprised many as Garcia is believed to give Carolina the best chance to compete for a BCS berth. Shaw better not drop the ball this week, though its hard to imagine East Carolina seeing much but a heavy dose of Marcus Lattimore.
The Pick: South Carolina runs the ball effectively and wins easily, 31-10
No. 13 Virginia Tech Hokies vs. Appalachian State
Va Tech will try to exercise the demons of last seasons defeat to James Madison but Appalachian State is no pushover. Va Tech is extremely talented and will compete for a BCS berth but youth at skill positions could lead to some early struggles. This will be a win though it might not be pretty.
The Pick: VA Tech 27-13
No. 15 Arkansas Razorbacks vs. Missouri State
Many, myself included, are putting Arkansas in a BCS game this year. The Razorbacks are the biggest threat to Alabama in the SEC West and could be ready to put it all together this season. A great defense will lead to an easy opening win.
The Pick: Razorbacks big 42-6
No. 16 Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. South Florida Bulls
Notre Dame fans are psyched up about a season that could bring them into the BCS picture if things play out in their favor. Dayne Crist leads a Notre Dame offense that showed great improvement at the end of last season.
The same can be said for a defense that gave up an average of fewer than 10 points a game during last season's four-game winning streak.
The Bulls of South Florida are nobody's pushovers and won't be intimidated by the trip to South Bend. A lot will come down to the production of junior QB B.J. Daniels, whom head coach Skip Holtz, oh yeah did we mention that, has praised this offseason for his improvements.
The pick: The Irish get off on the right foot but it won't be easy. Notre Dame 23-17
No. 17 Michigan State Spartans vs. Youngstown State
This is the best Spartans team in years with a potent offense led by QB Kirk Cousins and a talented defense. Many believe that State could push its way into BCS consideration and challenge for a Big 10 crown.
The Pick: State easy 37-13
No. 18 Ohio State Buckeyes vs. Akron
Tons of drama this offseason for the Buckeyes. New coach, new QB, possible NCAA sanctions looming. It's simply a mess in Columbus. But none of that will make much of a difference this week. Akron was 1-11 last year and probably on the road to a similar season this year.
The Buckeyes have two soft touches to get their house in order before visiting Miami on Sept. 17. They'll win this one easily.
The Pick: Ohio State 37-3
No. 21 Missouri Tigers vs. Miami (OH) Redhawks
Blaine Gabbert is gone, leaving James Franklin in charge of an offense that returns eight starters. The Tigers are a team that hopes to make some noise in the Big 12 and will be immediately tested next week when they visit Arizona State.
Mizzou's biggest strength is their defensive line, which matches up with anyone in the conference. But for them to compete on an elite level they'll need Franklin to develop quickly.
Miami of Ohio, the defending MAC Champs, figure to compete for another conference title this season. They are no pushovers and have a puncher's chance if Franklin struggles. Their biggest concern is at running back with no established starter and on both lines where six starters are new.
The Pick: Mizzou wins but how big depends on Franklin. Missouri 31-17
No. 22 Florida Gators vs. Florida Atlantic Owls
New coach, new offensive coordinator, new offensive system. Same John Brantley. Simply put the Gators are gonna need Charlie Weis to work some magic with Brantley if they're gonna be better than middle of the road again.
The Gators have an absolutely brutal schedule (who in the SEC doesn't?) and will need to get used to their new systems quickly. Luckily, Florida Atlantic won't provide much challenge and the Gators do have a ton of talent. It's just a matter of it all coming together.
The Pick: Gators struggle early but win comfortably, 44-10
No. 23 Auburn Tigers vs. Utah State Aggies
The defending national champs could be in big trouble unless their young talent gels really fast. The Aggies won't post much of a threat but road games at Clemson, South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia.
Not to mention Mississippi State, Florida and the Iron Bowl with Alabama. Auburn might be pushing a .500 season if things don't come together fast.
Regardless of future struggles, Michael Dyer should run all over Utah State.
The Pick: Auburn tunes up for a huge Week 2 game with Mississippi State. 27-7
No. 25 USC Trojans vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Lane Kiffin is already on the hot seat after losses to Washington and an embarrassment at Oregon State. He should get off to the right start this year against Minnesota, who will likely find the Big 10 basement again.
The Pick: USC 27-10
No. 24 West Virgina Mountaineers vs. Marshall Thundering Herd
West Virginia is much better than 24th in the nation. Geno Smith is primed for a big year and the Mountaineers are the class of the Big East. They'll be thinking BCS this year and welcome the Bayou Bengals of LSU to Morgantown Sept. 24. That game could be an upset special. This team is much better than advertised and will show it against Marshall this Sunday.
The Pick: Mountaineers led by Geno Smith Thunder the Herd. 34-10
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