There is no shortage of reasons to celebrate the start of the 2013 season. But for some teams and coaches the arrival of Week 1 is particularly welcome, as it allows them finally to slam the door shut on the recent past. For them, kickoff can't come soon enough.
Notre Dame will finally have the chance to produce a more flattering image than the one it left in last season's BCS title game, when Alabama rolled the Irish, 42-14. Lane Kiffin can finally stop answering questions about 2012's implosion. Johnny Manziel may finally get to make headlines for an actual football game (assuming the NCAA allows him), and "returning starters" finally becomes an irrelevant statistic.
Still, Georgia, perhaps more than any other team, would really like to turn the page to 2013. "Our season starts in January," coach Mark Richt said of his staff and players. "Everybody else's starts in September."
For nearly eight months, the pain of last December's near-miss against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game has found its way into virtually every conversation about the Bulldogs. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo rehashed his last-second play call at a fan event in May. Georgia players fielded endless questions about the game at SEC Media Days in July. Quarterback Aaron Murray got the dreaded "five seconds" jab from his own family this summer.
Recently, Georgia's players devised a motto for the 2013 season that includes a none-too-subtle subtext: "New Year, New Team, One Dream." The school even produced a splashy promotional video narrated by receiver Chris Conley -- the same player whose instinctual reception off Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley's deflection sealed the Dawgs' fate last December. "We have one dream," Conley says to close the video. "That's making it to the national championship in Pasadena."
The final BCS national title game will be played on Jan. 6 at the Rose Bowl. After coming within five yards of playing in last year's version, the Dawgs are skipping straight past the standard SEC company line about "just getting to Atlanta" and setting their sights on a prize that has eluded the program since 1980. It's a particularly bold proclamation given Georgia's schedule, which could end the dream within the season's first two weeks.
Richt's team opens against back-to-back top-10 foes in No. 8 Clemson and No. 6 South Carolina. This Saturday's trip to Death Valley became the marquee Week 1 matchup as soon as Murray and Clemson counterpart Tajh Boyd both announced their intentions to return for their senior seasons. Murray, whom league coaches recently voted the preseason first-team All-SEC quarterback over Manziel and Alabama's AJ McCarron, joins potential All-America running back Todd Gurley and a veteran line to form one of the nation's most fearsome offenses. Meanwhile, Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins team up for seemingly their 18th year together in what should be another explosive passing attack.
Despite the huge anticipation for the game and the hunger to get going, Richt would probably welcome a few more weeks of preseason camp. He sounded uncharacteristically tense last Friday, and with good reason. A week before facing Boyd and Watkins, Georgia's secondary was in dire straits.
The Dawgs were already dealing with an inexperienced defense before a rash of injuries hit their secondary. At one point last week, the only healthy projected starter in the unit was safety Josh Harvey-Clemons -- and he is suspended for the opener. Safeties Tray Matthews (hamstring), Corey Moore (knee) and Shaq Fluker (back), weren't practicing. Corners Damian Swann (hip and groin) and Sheldon Dawson (shoulder) were limited.
"It's not a good recipe right now for being as ready as you can be," said Richt, "when you're not exactly sure how you're going to line up. Some guys that may be ready [by game time] are out for 10 days [of practice]. It's problematic."
No coach ever feels fully ready for Week 1. In fact, Richt's Clemson counterpart, Dabo Swinney, is concerned about the same position group. "Everybody knows [the secondary] is the area of our team that's got to improve the most," he said of his Tigers. "We've made improvement, but nowhere what we need to be the caliber team we want to be." Two days later, after a disappointing practice, Swinney said, "We would have gotten beat 65-0 today."
So maybe neither team has any hope of stopping the other.
But Richt also knows that championship-starved Georgia fans don't view a spate of minor injuries as a viable excuse. Preseason buzz for his team hasn't been this high since 2008, when the Dawgs featured Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and A.J. Green and started No. 1 in the AP Poll. That squad finished 10-3. This team is also littered with playmakers at the skill positions, and it's got plenty of young talent on defense. But will those players be ready for prime time by Saturday? And for the following week's game against recent tormentor South Carolina?
"I think in time this defense will be really good," said Richt. "Wherever our defense starts out, they're going to get a lot better from day one to the last day. Can we play strong enough in the beginning to keep all our goals in tact? I don't know. We have to see."
Good news: We don't have to wait much longer to find out.
Virginia Tech, TCU play things close to the vest
Two underdogs facing SEC foes in high-profile Week 1 matchups are capitalizing on chances to take their opponents by surprise. No game film is available yet to scout 2013 teams, and Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer hopes to use that to his advantage against two-time defending national champion and 19-point favorite Alabama in Saturday's Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic.
"What we do against Alabama shouldn't be public right now," Beamer told the Washington Post after the school quickly removed video from its website of a recent closed scrimmage. Following last year's 7-6 campaign -- his worst in 20 years -- Beamer brought in coordinator Scot Loeffler (formerly of Florida, Temple and Auburn) to revamp his dormant offense. "Looking at our offensive film from last year wouldn't serve [Alabama] a big purpose, other than personnel," Beamer said.
Best of luck to Beamer and company, but with a freshman left tackle (Jonathon McLaughlin) protecting interception-prone quarterback Logan Thomas and a rushing game that managed 25 yards on 23 carries in its last scrimmage, it's hard to imagine any scheme could provide much help against Kirby Smart's defense. The Hokies' best hope is that Alabama's own rebuilt offensive line -- which is replacing first-round NFL draft picks Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker and Outland winner Barrett Jones -- has its own problems against star defensive end James Gayle and the rest of Bud Foster's defense. 'Bama has spent preseason camp shuffling bodies. "I wish our chemistry was a little more tight with each other," Crimson Tide guard Anthony Steen told reporters. "But that will come along once the season starts. Hopefully."
Meanwhile, TCU coach Gary Patterson intends to stay mum about his starting quarterback right up until kickoff of Saturday night's Cowboys Classic against No. 12 LSU. It's widely assumed that Casey Pachall -- the career 17-game starter who ranked among the nation's top passers before last season's DWI arrest and subsequent season-ending rehab stint -- will reclaim the job from dual-threat Trevone Boykin, who took over for Pachall as a redshirt freshman last season. Yet if that's the case, Patterson doesn't want LSU coach Les Miles and defensive coordinator John Chavis to know. "Just because there's such difference between Trevone and Casey, I need every advantage I can get," Patterson told ESPN's Joe Tessitore.
The difference, of course, is that there's plenty of tape on both, and LSU has presumably prepared for Pachall and Boykin. If the Horned Frogs win, it won't be because of secrecy. It will be because the Tigers' perennially stout defense simply couldn't overcome the substantial challenge of replacing seven defenders who were selected in April's draft. It will also be interesting to see what effect, if any, new LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has on quarterback Zach Mettenberger as they face what will almost certainly be the Big 12's top defense.
"We're running the ball well, and we're throwing the ball better than we have," Miles told reporters. "I think the offense is really going to respond. My expectations are sound and solid, not lofty in any way, but we're improved."
Plenty at stake when Boise State visits Washington
The elevated importance of college football's regular season, as opposed to most of its postseason, will be on full display Saturday in Seattle. Boise State and Washington played each other in last December's Las Vegas Bowl, and it was an exciting game to be sure: Michael Frisna's field goal with 1:16 remaining helped the Broncos survive the underdog Huskies 28-26. Still, while Boise fans enjoyed the outcome, it didn't substantially change perception of either team's season.
Eight months later, the Broncos and Huskies will meet again to open the 2013 campaign ... and it's kind of a big deal. For one thing, the game will mark the reopening of Washington's resplendent Husky Stadium following a two-year, $283-million construction process. The 93-year-old venue still features its noise-sealing overhangs and breathtaking views of Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains, but it no longer has the ugly track around the field, the dilapidated stands or press box. Of course, it also comes with club seats and a dazzling new football complex, complete with its own barbershop.
Competitively, the game marks the beginning of a critical fifth season for Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian. The former USC assistant took over a program coming off a winless 2008 and immediately generated momentum by improving to 5-7 and then 7-6. But Washington has now been stuck at that seven-win plateau for three straight years, and an embarrassing Apple Cup loss to Washington State last season did the coach no favors. With a third-year starting quarterback (Keith Price), an elite tailback (Bishop Sankey), an All-America tight end (Austin Seferian-Jenkins) and 13 other starters returning, Sarkisian has to achieve a breakthrough in 2013. Beating a ranked nonconference opponent would help get that started.
"I'm fired up, man," Sarkisian told The Seattle Times. "I'm ready to go. The end of last season, for me, it challenged me. When we failed in those settings, I almost took it personally, which I should. We want more than that, and I think we'll prove it."
Boise State's Chris Petersen has little to prove given his 84-8 career record, but his program still takes considerable pride in winning these types of power-conference showdowns. Thanks in part to Mountain West expansion, the 19th-ranked Broncos face their toughest schedule of Petersen's tenure, visiting Washington, Fresno State (9-4 in 2012), Utah State (11-2), BYU (8-5) and San Diego State (9-4, including a win at Boise). While the Broncos no longer need to go undefeated to reach a BCS game, a loss in the opener would make things considerably more difficult.
One stat (unearthed by USA Today's Paul Myerberg) that does not bode well for Boise State opponents: Petersen is 51-2 when his team returns its starting quarterback. Senior Joe Southwick (2,730 yards, 19 touchdowns, seven interceptions) is back in 2013.
Current BCS forecast
Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games. Here's my preseason edition:
Title game: Alabama vs. Stanford
Rose: Ohio State vs. Oregon
Fiesta: Texas vs. Boise State
Sugar: South Carolina vs. Louisville
Orange: Florida State vs. Notre Dame
There you have it. They're hardly the craziest preseason picks around (that honor goes to Desmond Howard's LSU national title choice), but hopefully not completely unoriginal, either. I strongly considered Fresno State for the BCS buster spot, but while I could envision Derek Carr's Bulldogs knocking off Boise on Sept. 22, I can't see them beating the Broncos again in a possible Mountain West title game rematch. And a 12-1 or even 11-2 (if both losses are early) Boise team would likely still finish in the top 12.
What's interesting and perhaps unfortunate about this particular scenario is there's no flexibility with the at-large picks. The Sugar would use one on an SEC replacement team, and the Rose would use another on a Pac-12 replacement. A 10-2 and/or top-14 Notre Dame team is all but guaranteed the third spot, the BCS buster gets the fourth and the American champ (Louisville) gets a spot regardless of record. But watch, I'll probably change my entire forecast next week.
Spreading the field
• It's a new era for Bob Stoops' Oklahoma program, which has spent much of the past 15 years shredding defenses behind a series of highly productive pocket passers (Josh Heupel, Sam Bradford, Landry Jones). Redshirt freshman Trevor Knight, who beat out veteran Blake Bell in this month's most surprising quarterback derby, is a fleet-footed runner who will allow the Sooners to employ the read-option and other quarterback-run elements.
• Fans won't have to wait long to see 2013's top-ranked recruit in action. Ole Miss' depth chart for Thursday night's opener at Vanderbilt lists defensive end Robert Nkemdiche as a starter. Ditto for five-star receiver Laquon Treadwell. The Rebels improved from 2-10 to 7-6 in coach Hugh Freeze's debut season and subsequently reeled in a surprising top-10 class. Meanwhile, frustrated Vandy coach James Franklin is still trying to hawk tickets for his own upstart team.
• There is plenty of intrigue surrounding several Michigan freshmen, in large part because coach Brady Hoke runs such a top-secret operation. Blue-chip running back Derrick Green is big (5-foot-11, 240 pounds), but it's unclear how much playing time, if any, he'll get on Saturday against Central Michigan behind starter Fitz Toussaint. Fellow freshman back De'Veon Smith is in the same boat. And defensive end Taco Charlton has been drawing raves since this spring, but he happens to play at a crowded position for the Wolverines.
• Florida's quest to revitalize its offense is being hampered by injuries. Running back Matt Jones, the heir apparent to departed star Mike Gillislee, sat out fall camp with a viral infection and will miss at least Saturday's opener against Toledo. Guard Jon Halapio, a career 33-game starter, is also out with a torn pectoral muscle. Among those who may see action in place of Jones: former walk-on Mark Herndon and recently converted safety Valdez Showers.
• The buzz couldn't be greater for Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, the 6-4, 227-pound redshirt freshman and former five-star prospect who wowed onlookers at the Seminoles' spring game. The two-sport football and baseball star did not officially win the job until late last week, but his ascension was seen as such a mere formality that veteran Clint Trickett transferred to West Virginia in May. The Winston era begins Monday night at Pittsburgh in prime time.
• How close are some of the position competitions at USC? So close that coach Kiffin's Week 1 depth chart includes an "OR" between the first and second names at nine positions, including quarterback, where sophomores Max Wittek and Cody Kessler remain entwined. The same goes for all four secondary positions. Kiffin said both quarterbacks will play against Hawaii. Maybe he'll truly milk the suspense and send both out for the first play.
• A year ago, quarterback Tommy Rees was suspended for Notre Dame's opener in Ireland following an offseason arrest, allowing Everett Golson to take over. But with Golson away from South Bend in 2013, Rees, a senior, will be the guy for the Irish against Temple. Rees is 14-4 as starter and was a 65.5 percent passer in 2011, yet he remains linked among fans with his 30 career turnovers. " I think you write the story after he completes his journey here at Notre Dame," said coach Brian Kelly, "and it could be a really interesting story."
• Dennis Erickson, 66, previously the head coach at three Pac-12 schools (Washington State, Oregon State and Arizona State), returns to the league and to coaching as Utah's co-offensive coordinator this fall. On Thursday night against Utah State, Erickson will call plays from the press box, where he hasn't been in at least 30 years. (He's had nine head-coaching jobs since 1982.) "I can have a hot dog if I want one," he said. "And I don't have to stand out in the weather if it's pouring." Erickson will share duties with co-coordinator Brian Johnson, 40 years his junior.
• Offseason darling Louisville opens on Sunday against Ohio, which upset Penn State in last year's season opener. The Bobcats return quarterback Tyler Tettleton and 1,604-yard rusher Beau Blankenship, but Vegas lists Teddy Bridgewater and company as 20-point favorites. Meanwhile, the Cardinal's chief conference competitor, Cincinnati, is a double-digit favorite for Saturday's opener against Purdue. That matchup will feature Tommy Tuberville's coaching debut for the Bearcats and Darrell Hazell's debut for the Boilers.
• The Washington State-Auburn game is a surprisingly intriguing opener considering that both teams went 3-9 last season. Fans will get to see how quickly first-year Tigers coach Gus Malzahn can resuscitate last year's 115th-ranked offense, starting with his choice of athletic juco quarterback Nick Marshall, a former cornerback at Georgia. On the other sideline, a year of familiarity should help the Cougars with running Mike Leach's system, but a likely starting offensive line with three former walk-ons remains a concern.
• Oklahoma State will play both Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh at quarterback against Mississippi State, by design. "It hasn't changed since spring," said coach Mike Gundy. "I don't feel like either one of them will be a backup in the first game."
• No definitive word has come down regarding Johnny Football, but two key Texas A&M defensive backs now know their playing status. Floyd Raven will miss a game and Deshazor Everett will miss a half for their respective roles in an off-campus fight on April 7.
• Tennessee coach Butch Jones expects to play as many as 18 true freshmen in the Vols opener against Austin Peay on Saturday. That total includes Cam Sutton, who will start at cornerback.
• In the fashion world, Northwestern will wear all-white uniforms before Labor Day, Baylor has gold helmets that are brighter than the sun and TCU has helmets that are streaked with blood (well, almost).
Rolling the dice with a true freshman quarterback
Last season saw a proliferation of highly productive redshirt freshman quarterbacks (Manziel, Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley). The days of quarterbacks waiting their turn for three years are passé; in fact, it seems as though there's a stigma now if a player has yet to make a start entering his junior or senior year.
Yet, there's still a sense of anxiety when it comes to starting a true freshman quarterback, something several coaches will do in Week 1. Cal coach Sonny Dykes will entrust his high-octane Bear Raid offense to Jared Goff, a four-star signee last winter who beat out redshirt freshman Zach Kline. With projected starter Michael Brewer sidelined by a back injury, Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury will trot out Davis Webb and/or Baker Mayfield on Friday at SMU. And highly touted Penn State signee Christian Hackenberg -- whom coach Bill O'Brien considers "even" with juco transfer Tyler Ferguson -- is sure to play at some point, even if not in the opener.
Matt Hinton of Football Study Hall recently tracked the performances of 27 true freshman starters since 2008. Not surprisingly, they mostly struggled. The few outliers (Terrelle Pryor, Robert Griffin III, Matt Barkley) went on to have outstanding multi-year careers. What's interesting, however, is that most of the rest never panned out, a sign that they either started only out of desperation or perhaps weren't ready and had their confidence shattered by the experience.
"That's what coaching is. We have to protect our quarterback," said Dykes. "We can't just throw our quarterback out there and tell him OK, go throw it 60 times, and good luck. We have to put him in situations where he can build confidence."
Goff, a 6-4, 205-pound lifelong Cal fan (both his parents are alums), will get quite the initiation. He and the Bears open the season against No. 22 Northwestern. No. 2 Ohio State visits in two weeks, and then, after a bye week, the Bears visit No. 3 Oregon on Sept. 28. If Goff struggles badly, it could be hard to recover.
Two years ago, Dykes started Louisiana Tech's season with 17-year-old quarterback Nick Isham. Isham went 3-4 before giving way to Colby Cameron and is now a walk-on at Arizona. The upside, however, is that if Goff makes it through that early stretch and perhaps even shines, the Bears could be poised for big things. Dykes, trying to rebuild a program that bottomed out at 3-9 last year, may have the possible face of his offense for the next three to four years.
Lane Kiffin: Get some ice cream
There's been no shortage of coaches-doing-wacky-things videos as training camps wind down. Like, say, Kiffin and Marqise Lee surprising USC's marching band with ice cream.
Bo Pelini: Get out of here!
This prank works because, well, it's so believable.
Mini-previews for three of Week 1's big games:
• Alabama vs. Virginia Tech, Saturday (5:30 p.m. ET): Alabama has opened with one of these neutral-site games in three of the past five seasons. The results? Wins of 34-10 (over Clemson in 2008), 34-24 (over Virginia Tech in '09) and 41-14 (over Michigan in '12), respectively. But hey, Crimson Tide cornerback Geno Smith is suspended. That's something, right Hokies?
• Georgia at Clemson, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): All signs point to a close, back-and-forth shootout -- so this game will probably turn out to be nothing like that. Perhaps the Dawgs' powerful rushing game will milk the clock and keep Boyd off the field. Or perhaps the Tigers' defense will force a bunch of turnovers, many of which Boyd will convert into touchdowns.
• TCU vs. LSU, Saturday (9 p.m. ET): This one is a tough call on the field, but it's a mismatch in the parking lot. No school's fans are better prepared to spend 12 hours tailgating in the 99-degree heat and still make it into the stadium than LSU's. That, and another batch of dominant LSU defensive linemen are equally predictable.