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Preparing for season-openers, poll watching, BCS forecast and more

Well football fans, the season is officially upon us.

We here at SI.com figured you might enjoy even more football-related reading material on Monday mornings. So beginning this week, and continuing every Monday throughout the season, join me here as I revisit important events from the previous weekend, reset the ever-shifting national landscape and begin looking ahead to the next set of games.

Since there's nothing to recap yet, it's time to focus on opening weekend.

Many of you have presumably been staring at that first name on your team's schedule for the past eight months. Behind the scenes, coaches have been staring at hours upon hours of the opponent's game film.

In a typical week, coaches have only about 24-to-48 hours to break down an opponent and prepare a scouting report for their players. For the season-opener, they've had since January -- or very close to it. I was curious to find out how coaches' preparation for the opener differs from preparation for a regular game. To find out, I spoke to Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez and Minnesota co-defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove.

There are several intriguing matchups this first weekend -- Oregon-Boise State, Alabama-Virginia Tech, Oklahoma-BYU -- but Georgia-Oklahoma State and Minnesota-Syracuse will be near the top of my radar.

Georgia-Oklahoma State could be a season-defining opener for both teams. The Cowboys have never been ranked this high entering a season (their previous best: No. 16 in 1985), and they're a near-touchdown favorite over last year's preseason No. 1 team. They need a big non-conference win like this to be taken seriously as a national player. For Georgia, an upset would go a long way toward restoring confidence after last year's disappointing finish; conversely, another blowout in a high-profile game would not bode well for a team that again faces one of the nation's toughest schedules.

Minnesota-Syracuse, meanwhile, hardly belongs on the A-list, but there's an undeniable curiosity factor surrounding ex-Duke point guard Greg Paulus. It's not every day one of the most visible (and ridiculed) college basketball players of the past four years suddenly shows up on the gridiron -- for another school. Plus, the game kicks off at noon EST on ESPN2 on the first Saturday of the season. You'll be watching, too.

Let's start, though, with Georgia-Oklahoma State. Martinez, whose 13th-ranked Bulldogs jump immediately into the fire against the No. 9 Cowboys, may be more familiar at this point with Zac Robinson, Dez Bryant and Kendall Hunter than anyone outside of Stillwater. He said the staff first began scouting the Cowboys in detail shortly after Signing Day last February.

"Anybody we play that we don't play on a regular basis, we spend more time in preparing," said Martinez. "We prepared all offseason."

Georgia's coaches aren't completely unfamiliar with Mike Gundy's team -- they faced them in the 2007 opener, winning 35-14 in Athens -- but much has changed since then. Current Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora was still the offensive coordinator (Gundy now calls his own plays). Neither Bryant nor Hunter, who were both freshmen at the time, saw the field that day. Most importantly, Robinson had yet to take over for Bobby Reid as starting quarterback.

With the dual-threat Robinson (3,626 total yards last year) at the helm, Hunter (1,555 rushing yards) in the backfield and Bryant (1,480 receiving yards) split wide, Oklahoma State averaged nearly 41 points per game last season en route to the Holiday Bowl.

"It all starts with [Robinson]," said Martinez. "We prepare for running quarterbacks more often than not nowadays, so we're used to that, but it doesn't negate the fact we have to defend him. And it makes it tougher that he's got a guy in the backfield [Hunter] that's extremely talented. They run the ball so well that you've got to start there."

Martinez has been catching heat in Athens ever since his normally stingy defense gave up 40-plus points in its three losses last year to Alabama, Florida and Georgia Tech. A road opener against one of the nation's most prolific offenses from a year ago would not seem like an ideal way to start.

However, over the course of head coach Mark Richt's eight-year tenure in Athens, Georgia has performed notably well in season-openers. Among the highlights: a 30-0 rout at Clemson in 2003, a 48-13 demolition of Boise State in 2005 and the aforementioned Oklahoma State win in '07. They must be doing something right to prepare.

"The problem with the first game is you don't know what new stuff they may give you. You've got to be careful that you don't spend too much time chasing ghosts," said Martinez. "You feel better in that you have more time to ask questions. You're constantly asking around [the office] -- 'What do you think of these guys? What would you do here?'"

While Georgia readies itself for a top 10 opponent, Minnesota would appear to have a far less rigorous test at Syracuse, winner of just 10 games over the past four seasons. For co-defensive coordinator Cosgrove, however, the Orange present a preparation nightmare.

Syracuse is under the direction of an entirely new coaching staff, led by former New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator Doug Marrone, whose last college job was as tight ends coach at Tennessee in 2001. After four years running the West Coast offense, Syracuse is expected to switch to a no-huddle spread attack under former Clemson and Toledo offensive coordinator Rob Spence. Adding to the mystery: Paulus hasn't played football since his senior year of high school in 2004.

For Cosgrove, that's meant researching not only the Orange but: "Tennessee [where offensive line coach Greg Adkins and running backs coach Stan Drayton came from], the New Orleans Saints, Clemson, Toledo" and other schools where Syracuse's new staff previously worked.

"We're been preparing for a lot of different things," said Cosgrove, who remembers Paulus well from recruiting him while at Nebraska. "You can't get too fancy with what you want to do."

My reaction to the latest AP and Coaches polls (or BCS standings):

Overrated: No. 7 Virginia Tech, No. 8/9 Penn State, No. 12 Cal.

In fairness to the voters, their ballots were due before the Hokies lost star RB Darren Evans for the season. Penn State, on the other hand, has garnered a whole lot of faith for a team that returns just nine starters and, over the past decade, has not demonstrated a year-in, year-out ability to reload. Cal QB Kevin Riley needs to show me something before I jump on the Bears' bandwagon.

Underrated: No. 15 Georgia Tech, No. 21/22 Iowa, No. 25/NR Kansas.

It's scary to think what the Jackets could achieve with nine starters returning from the nation's No. 4 rushing offense. The Hawkeyes are getting overlooked because they lost star RB Shonn Greene, but overall they're more experienced than last year's 9-4 edition. And the Todd Reesing/Dezmon Briscoe/Kerry Meier-led Jayhawks are my team to beat in the Big 12 North.

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: Florida vs. Texas

Rose: USC vs. Ohio State

Fiesta: Oklahoma vs. Boise State

Sugar: Alabama vs. Rutgers

Orange: Georgia Tech vs. Penn State

I know it's unoriginal, but Florida and Texas are the cream of the crop in my eyes, with the Longhorns edging Oklahoma due largely to the vast difference in experience between their respective offensive lines. Hopefully the Sept. 12 USC-Ohio State game will be entertaining, because there's a fair chance we'll see them rematch (again) in the Rose Bowl. I can't see the Trojans reaching the championship game with a true freshman quarterback and two new coordinators.

Speaking of rematches, how 'bout another Sooners-Boise State Fiesta Bowl? It's a toss-up for me between Ole Miss and Alabama in the SEC West, though the Tide may be in better shape for the BCS if they don't play in the SEC title game. I know I said Penn State's too high, but the Nittany Lions will always be a popular draw if they just finish in the top 14. Rutgers is my put-a-gun-to-my-head Big East pick, but five other teams could just as easily win that league.

• In Sunday's Detroit Free Press, 10 current or former Michigan players accused Rich Rodriguez and his staff of working them far beyond the NCAA-allowable hours both in- and out-of-season. While some of the details were troubling (if staff members monitored offseason 7-on-7 workouts, as the players allege, that's a no-brainer NCAA violation, albeit a minor one, and 10-hour Sundays seem inordinately harsh), you'd have a hard time convincing me they're unique to Michigan. In a 2007 SI.com survey of 119 Division I-A starters, 46 percent estimated they spend at least 40 hours per week during the season on football-related activities (the NCAA allows 20 practice hours). Suffice to say, they aren't putting in those extra hours "voluntarily."

Nevertheless, Rodriguez has a huge problem on his hands. The fact that several current players felt compelled to complain to the paper tells me the Wolverines' chemistry issues of a year ago aren't yet resolved. Meanwhile, old-guard Michigan fans -- whose patience was already being tested by the rebuilding process -- will likely begin grumbling even louder. They may not have been pleased with Lloyd Carr's record against Jim Tressel, but they took pride in his integrity and the program's clean record. Suddenly Rodriguez is facing even more pressure to win big, and soon, or risk a full-scale mutiny.

Pete Carroll's surprise decision last week to name true freshman Matt Barkley his starting quarterback has elicited a great deal of skepticism, particularly in light of his interception-strewn preseason. Personally, I wasn't surprised. Carroll knew the inordinately gifted Barkley would overtake Aaron Corp sooner rather than later. He also knows he's got a powerful rushing attack and dominant defense to ease the freshman's initiation. Why wait?

The bigger question: Who the heck will Barkley throw to? Starting receiver Ronald Johnson suffered a broken collarbone in Saturday's scrimmage that will likely sideline him for at least six weeks. That leaves the Trojans with returning star Damian Williams ... and junior David Ausberry, who caught six passes last year. Expect USC to lean heavily on tight end Anthony McCoy and fullback Stanley Havili in the passing game.

• In 1982, Miami had both Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde on its roster -- as backups to starter Jim Kelly. This season, the Hurricanes' quarterback stable will consist of sophomore Jacory Harris, true freshman A.J. Highsmith and ... well, that's it. Two other backups, Taylor Cook and Cannon Smith, both opted last week to transfer. (Cook, a Texan, is headed to Rice.) And remember, last year's starter, Robert Marve, transferred to Purdue. God forbid anything happens to Harris this season -- Highsmith (son of ex-'Canes star Alonzo) was recruited as an "athlete," and coach Randy Shannon admits the frosh "isn't ready" to play college QB.

• BYU is my pick to win the Mountain West (Max Hall and the Cougars get both TCU and Utah at home), but a recent bout of injuries and attrition do not bode well for Saturday's opener against No. 3 Oklahoma. The Cougars' secondary is in limbo after incumbent CB Brandon Howard left school just prior to fall camp and his expected replacement, Brandon Logan, broke his hand over the weekend. Think Sam Bradford might figure out a way to exploit this situation?

• I worry that expectations may be running a bit too high in Nebraska for Bo Pelini's second season. The coach has his program headed in the right direction, but one very deceiving nine-win season -- the Huskers beat one BCS-conference foe with a winning record -- doesn't necessarily mean they're on the brink of returning to glory. Also, the recent dismissal of RB Quentin Castille (who figured to share carries with Roy Helu Jr.) was a significant blow.

• Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly has been outspoken in his displeasure with the Big East for moving the Bearcats' conference road game against Rutgers to opening weekend -- Labor Day-afternoon ESPN exposure be damned. "It's a marquee matchup for the Big East. It's a television spot. Other than that, I couldn't have given you a list of great things [about the date]," said the coach, whose team lost 10 defensive starters from last year's Orange Bowl squad. Kelly said he had to drastically alter his preseason practice regimen, integrating preparation for Rutgers from the get-go at the expense of devoting more attention to his younger players.

• In less than a week's time, ballyhooed Tennessee freshman Bryce Brown went from the brink of NCAA banishment to a potential starting nod Saturday against Western Kentucky. On the Vols' most recent depth chart, the starting tailback spot is listed as belonging to "Brown OR [senior] Montario Hardesty." Seven other true freshmen dot coach Lane Kiffin's two-deep, including starters or co-No. 1's WR Nu'keese Richardson, DT Montori Hughes and S Janzen Jackson.

• Ohio State's opener Saturday against Navy will mark the first time a service academy has visited the Horseshoe since 1931 -- and the Buckeyes are rolling out the red carpet. Former astronaut and Ohio Sen. John Glenn, who trained as a naval cadet during World War II, will dot the "i" during Script Ohio. In addition, the school produced a two-minute video urging fans to stand up and cheer the visiting Midshipmen when they take the field.

• Missouri coach Gary Pinkel elevated himself from hot-seat status after his first five seasons to $2.3-million coach following the Tigers' 22-win run the past two years. Now comes the hard part: doing it without Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and offensive coordinator Dave Christensen (now at Wyoming). I'm eager to see Daniel's successor, sophomore Blaine Gabbert, go up against Illinois. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Gabbert was second only to Terrelle Pryor in Rivals.com's quarterback rankings in the class of 2008.

• I have a feeling one of these three Pac-10 also-rans from a year ago -- UCLA, Stanford or Arizona State -- is going to sneak into the top three in the final conference standings. I just can't decide which one. The only thing that's certain: Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh will have the added benefit of more peaceful alone time than his competitors. According to San Jose Mercury News columnist Jon Wilner, a wealthy Stanford donor recently paid at least $50,000 for the coach to have his own private bathroom and shower. "It was something I'd asked for,'' said Harbaugh. "It cuts down on drag."

• Former Nebraska national championship QB Scott Frost is now the wide receivers coach at Oregon. One of his new colleagues: Ducks tight ends and special teams coach Tom Osborne.

• Finally, coaches are a paranoid bunch to begin with, so I guess I shouldn't be too surprised Nick Saban and others are freaking out about the reported outbreaks of swine flu on several Southern campuses. (Five TCU players came down with it last week.) About 10 Alabama players came down with flu-like symptoms last week, causing Saban to "quarantine" them. (I don't even want to imagine what that was like.)

Granted, the timing is not ideal, but most reports indicate H1N1 is no more dangerous than the regular, annual flu -- especially among healthy, highly conditioned 18-to-22 year olds -- and the symptoms pass quickly. Wash your hands, fellas, and everything will be OK.

(Of course, by writing this I probably just guaranteed myself swine flu.)

Saturday night against LSU, Jake Locker makes his long-awaited return to Washington's lineup following last year's season-ending thumb injury. If you forgot about the elusive QB sometime during the Huskies' 0-12 disastrous '08 season, here's a friendly refresher course -- set to the sounds of '70s one-hit wonders Nazareth.

Remember when the mere sight of The Visor struck fear in SEC opponents? Watch as the South Carolina coach talked after practice last Saturday about the state of his team heading into the Thursday night opener at NC State. Is this the sound of a confident coach?

Mini-previews for three of this week's biggest games.

Oregon at Boise State, Thursday (10:15 p.m.): Bad blood lingers in Eugene from last year's game at Autzen Stadium, in which two Broncos players were penalized (one of them ejected) for late hits against the Ducks. Most notably, now-departed safety Ellis Powers sent Oregon QB Jeremiah Masoli out with a concussion. Said Ducks RB LeGarrette Blount to SI's Austin Murphy: "We owe that team an ass-whuppin'."

• Alabama vs. Virginia Tech, Saturday (8 p.m.): In last year's Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic, Alabama's defense manhandled Clemson's inexperienced offensive line; a year later, the Tide risk the same thing happening to them. Juco tackle James Carpenter (who replaces Outland winner Andre Smith) and new center William Vlachos (who succeeds All-America Antoine Caldwell) couldn't ask for a much tougher initiation against Jason Worilds and the Hokies' defensive front.

Miami at Florida State, Monday (8 p.m.): After a two-year break, the ACC rivals return to opening weekend, but will they finally put on a primetime-worthy performance? In 2005, FSU won 10-7 when Miami botched the snap on a potential game-tying field goal. In '06, the teams combined for three yards rushing in a 13-10 'Noles victory. Apparently such drudgery took a toll on the fans -- Monday night's game at Doak Campbell Stadium is not expected to sell out.

That's it for this week. Enjoy the games, folks. Submit your questions for Wednesday's Mailbag, and look for my report from Thursday night's Oregon-Boise State showdown.

Now that you've got your college football fix, click here to satisfy your NFL craving with Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.

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