Fortunately, the time is upon us. The good news is that we don't even have to wait until Saturday. Nine conference teams will be opening their season this week. (Note to Stanford: join the 21st Century and start when everyone else does.) Three of those games will be on Thursday, and a fourth will take place on Friday. If you've got DirecTV and the Sports Pack, you'll get a chance to see all four of the weekday games. There are no titanic struggles scheduled for this week, but there are still some contests of interest. The defending champs will kick off their season on the islands. Cal will break in a young team against a 1-AA opponent, as will Oregon State. The Huskies will begin the Ty Willingham era with a battle against Air Force's triple option attack. Arizona will travel to Utah, who went undefeated last year. Alex Brink won the starting job at WSU, and he'll take on Idaho. The first games of the year all deserve of a look because of the inherent unknown that comes with graduation in college football. Only one game can be the Game of the Week though…
OREGON at Houston: The Ducks have been a disappointment since Jeff Tedford and Joey Harrington left Eugene. They are only 20-17 in the games following those departures, 12-12 in conference play. Even the mystique of Autzen Stadium has taken a hit. Oregon is 6-6 at home in conference play over that span. This could be a make or break year for Mike Bellotti, who quietly pushed offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig out the door, and brought in deposed BYU coach Gary Crowton to fill the position. Interestingly enough, Crowton brings with him an offense that he has never run before: the spread option. This offense calls for shotgun sets, multiple wide receiver formations and motions, and the wide receiver often curling into the backfield to be ready for option pitches. In essence, it's a rush offense in a passing formation that requires defenses to play disciplined assignment football.
The offense will be unveiled on the road against a Houston team that is one of the favorites in Conference USA. After a surprising first season under new head coach Art Briles, a former high school coach, last year was a major step back at 3-8. The Cougars do return 16 starters, including junior QB Kevin Kolb, who strangely enough, played better as true freshman than he did as a sophomore. UH likes to spread the field and throw the ball around, and they will use a no huddle system. In 2003, they incorporated an impressive running game by utilizing the option into the offense. However, last year offensive line play went south, and the ground push decreased considerably. The pass protection was horrendous as well. As a result, Houston went into a tail spin because they don't have the talent to field a good defensive team. The Cougars wins came over Army, Tulane and ECU, who combined to go 9-24 last season. They are hoping that their offensive line comes together so that they can have a puncher's chance by outscoring teams. They are so desperate on defense that they have switched to a 3-4 alignment to make up for their lack of quality DL. Not many teams use this scheme in college football. The only team in the Pac-10 that does is Stanford.
The only way the Ducks can lose this game is if they beat themselves. Oregon's running game should be enhanced by the spread looks, and Terrence Whitehead should have a big game. If the Ducks are smart, they will keep the ball on the ground and use their advantage in the trenches. The main concern is fumbles on pitches, which isn't uncommon the first time a team uses an option offense in a live situation. As long as Oregon avoids those, they should be able to move the ball well. A more interesting match-up is on the other side of the ball. The Cougars have the quarterback and skill position players to succeed. Kolb runs pretty well also. Still, you have to wonder about an offensive line that gave up 44 sacks against some less than stellar competition. The Ducks rush the quarterback well, and they will make some big plays on defense. Oregon wins this one easily. Ducks-38, Cougars-21
Air Force at WASHINGTON: The Huskies were an absolutely terrible football team last season, and now they will try to pick up the pieces with a face that is familiar to the Pac-10 Conference. Tyrone Willingham has never been in a position like this. He will not have the academic hurdles with recruiting in Seattle that he did at Stanford and Notre Dame. This job will be the true litmus test as to what kind of coach he is. Is he a guy who can sustain excellence when given all the tools to succeed, or is he a coach that can have a good season once every two or three years, but can't be consistent? No one should expect big things from the Huskies this year because they are behind the eight ball from a talent standpoint, especially on offense. At this point, it looks as if junior Isaiah Stanback will get the nod at QB. I'm not sure he is the best choice. Still, he is a good athlete with a powerful arm. When the offense actually did play well last season, Stanback was at the helm most of the time. The Washington defense performed reasonably well considering the bad situations that it was put in last year with turnovers and ineffective offense. The front seven is especially strong. That's a good thing when going up against Air Force.
Not much is expected of the Falcons this season, but generally, that's when they have had their best seasons. The 2002 team returned only eight starters, and they started 6-0. Playing at a service academy means playing hard at all times and never quitting. They were hampered last season because they had a true freshman starting at quarterback. This season, Shaun Carney is a seasoned veteran who led the team in rushing and was efficient throwing the football. The Falcon offense will present a huge test for the Huskies, and it will mean less blitzing because of responsibilities for the option. It will also require intelligent play from UW's two new CBs. I wouldn't be surprised to see Air Force catch the Huskies off guard and make a few big plays.
Still, Washington should be able to get things done on the other side of the ball despite their struggles of last season. The Falcons were awful defensively last season, and they just don't have the size and speed up front to stop the run. Washington returns four of their starting five on the offensive line, and they have the backs to make plays. They should be able to run it right up the gut and be successful. Stanback won't have to make a lot of plays in the passing game, and that's a good thing this early. Willingham will celebrate a victory in his first game as UW coach over a pesky opponent. Huskies-27, Falcons-21
ARIZONA at Utah: The Wildcats have a lot of the same pieces as last season, but much has changed in Salt Lake City. Urban Meyer and Alex Smith are gone, off to bigger and better things. New head coach Kyle Whittingham, Utah's former defensive coordinator, will use less of the spread option in favor of a more traditional pro style set brought by former Oregon OC Andy Ludwig. Only ten starters return from last season's undefeated team. This is a golden opportunity for Mike Stoops to get a marquee win early in the year. The Wildcats held Utah to a season low in yards in 2004, but failed because of poor offensive production. That remains the concern in Tucson. Richard Kovalcheck returns as the quarterback, but there are some rumors that he is in the coaching staff's doghouse, meaning that we may see true freshman Willie Tuitama. I expect this to be an ugly football game. Arizona's defense will continue to improve under Stoops, but their offense, at best, is a work in progress. Utah will be breaking in a new QB in Brian Johnson and some new skill position guys. The Utah defense was tough last year, and they will give the Wildcats' offense all that they can handle. I think Arizona will be competitive in this game, but I like Utah in a close one because I think their offense, even with the personnel losses, will be further along than Arizona's. Utes-17, Wildcats-14
UCLA at San Diego State: The Bruins start their season with a semi-rivalry that they have dominated for quite some time. Whenever it looks like the Aztecs will have the horses to pull an upset, the Bruins whip them. UCLA pounded SDSU 33-10 last season even though the Aztecs played pretty well offensively. The reason: the Bruins bullied their opponent with the running game and won the turnover battle. What could make this contest interesting is the return of Lynell Hamilton, the dynamic SDSU running back. UCLA was atrocious against the run last season, and if they don't improve this year, Hamilton could have a huge day. The loss of Kevin Brown is a big deal for UCLA, who has depth problems on the defensive line as it is. Still, the main problem with this match-up for SDSU is that they can't match-up defensively with UCLA's big guys up front. Maurice Drew will have a field day in San Diego, and Drew Olson will do just enough to keep the Aztecs honest. UCLA will win the game comfortably. Bruins-30, Aztecs-20
#1 USC at Hawaii: The Warriors just have too many holes to fill and not enough talent to fill them. Island stars Timmy Chang and Chad Owens are on the mainland now in the NFL, and apparently Hawaii will be rotating Colt Brennan and Tyler Graunke at quarterback. June Jones will try to use trickery and misdirection to keep the Trojans off balance, but they need their young skill position players to come up big against USC's most athletic defense under Pete Carroll. From there, the real quandary comes. The Warriors finished 112th in scoring defense and 116th in total defense last season, and not all of the Jerry Glanvilles in the world can change the fact that they have very poor talent on the front seven. To have to start the season against what could be one of the best offenses in college football history is a tall order. The Trojans will do it with the running game, giving Matt Leinart an easy go of it in the opener. USC has scored 123 points in their last two meetings with Hawaii. There's no reason to believe that anything will change in this meeting. Trojans-60, Warriors-23
Temple at #18 ARIZONA STATE: You know things aren't going well for your program when you get kicked out of the sorry Big East. Now an independent, Temple will try to pull off a shocker in Tempe. Fat chance. The Owls were in the bottom ten in most defensive categories, and were horrific against the pass because their pass rush is abysmal. The Sun Devils are going to light up the air, and could even have some good success on the ground. Temple actually played decent football offensively last year, but they had a playmaker at QB in Walter Washington, who is gone. Mike McGann is the new/old starter, as he is all over the school record book in passing. However, he has an awful TD to INT ratio of 22-37, and facing the ASU pass rush won't help. The Owls will get scorched. Sun Devils-51, Owls-17
Idaho at WASHINGTON STATE: Alex Brink won the job in Pullman, mostly because he proved to be a superior decision maker when compared to Josh Swogger. Since Swogger is more athletically gifted than Brink, this is an interesting gamble on Bill Doba's part. Whether the gamble pays off won't truly be known this week. Nick Holt's Vandals are not a good football team, and they were brutal on both sides of the ball last year. Cougs win in a cruise. Cougars-42, Vandals-10
Sacramento State at #19 CALIFORNIA: This game will be fun just to see how the multitude of new starters plays for Cal. It won't tell us much though. The Hornets went 3-8 last season in 1-AA ball, giving up almost 38 points per game along the way. What is a Jeff Tedford offense going to do to this group? It's going to be a bloodbath. Bears-65, Hornets-3
Portland State at OREGON STATE: The Vikings are a much better opponent for the Beavers than the Hornets will be for the Bears. PSU is best known for giving Fresno State a tough time last year. That game exposed the weaknesses of the Bulldogs, who went on to lose their next three games. Meanwhile, OSU is replacing some key starters, including former QB Derek Anderson. Matt Moore will get his first chance to shine in Corvallis, as he was constantly looking over his shoulder for Drew Olson when he was at UCLA. This game will be interesting for one reason: if Oregon State is not able to get a significant running game going against the Vikings, it's going to be a long season. The Bulldogs rushed for 263 yards against PSU last season. I think that the Beavers will have their share of success on the ground, and their defense will stifle PSU's one dimensional offensive attack. The true tests will come in the weeks ahead. Beavers-38, Vikings-3
Spread The Wealth
This season, I'll be adding a new feature. Pure Orange, an Oregon State website, has had a fun spread pick 'em game the last few years. Since I love to give my unsolicited opinion (and I've done pretty well in the contest), I've decided to give my favorite three plays against the spread outside of the conference. So let's talk about this week.
1. Minnesota –14 at Tulsa: The Gophers have a potent offense with Laurence Maroney in the backfield, and return nine starters. Tulsa's defense was atrocious last season, and the Golden Hurricane are replacing their starting QB. Minnesota's weakness is pass defense, and Tulsa doesn't throw the ball very well.
2. Bowling Green +4 at Wisconsin: I think the Falcons will win this game straight up. The Badgers are losing a ton of stars on defense, and they tend to start slow. They are 5-13 against the spread in the last five seasons against non-conference opponents, including an abysmal 3-11 at home. The Falcons have a dynamic offense returning and are undefeated all time against the spread when playing BCS schools.
3. BYU +4 vs. Boston College: This one really jumped out at me. The Cougars have an experienced football team and a new coach who will keep continuity. Plus, this game is in Provo, which has not been kind to mid level BCS opponents. Ask Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Syracuse, etc. The Cougars have covered in four straight home openers. Boston College will have to deal with the altitude and an unorthodox defense, and they are 1-4 against the spread in their last five road openers. BYU should win this game straight up.
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