When asked whether he was concerned about complacency coming off Oregon's BCS title game appearance, Ducks coach Chip Kelly had this to say: "January 10 seems like a loooong, long time ago."
He's not the only one who thinks so. After the most trying and tawdry offseason anyone can remember -- during which Kelly's program was one of many to come under the NCAA microscope -- this week's opening slate of games couldn't come soon enough. And this season begins in similar fashion to how last season ended: with Oregon squaring off against a highly ranked SEC foe in an NFL stadium. The third-ranked Ducks' matchup with the fourth-ranked LSU Tigers on Saturday night in Dallas will be the centerpiece of opening weekend.
Of course the summer of scandal has affixed its stain to this matchup too, starting with the infamous Willie Lyles' connection to both programs and culminating in the suspensions of Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris, LSU receiver Russell Shepard and, following last week's arrest on second-degree battery, LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson. While Jefferson's situation has become the dominant storyline heading into Saturday, he was never likely to pass for 300 yards. The game was always going to come down to whether Kelly's trademark spread offense could avoid repeating history.
At his postgame press conference after the title game, Kelly offered a simple explanation for Auburn's 22-19 victory over the Ducks: "The matchup with our offensive line against their defensive line was really the changing point," he said. That much was obvious to anyone who watched Auburn's Nick Fairley repeatedly burst into the backfield and barrel down on Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas.
Nearly eight months later Oregon is about to face another vaunted SEC defensive line, this time minus three veteran offensive line starters from last year's squad.
See any similarities, coach?
"Uh huh," said Kelly. "I keep watching that film and hoping some of those kids graduated, but they haven't."
That's not entirely true. LSU does return all of its key defensive ends (led by Kendrick Adams and Sam Montgomery), but lost both of its starting tackles (All-America Drake Nevis and Lazarius Levingston) from last season. But considering LSU's recent assembly line at the position that has produced NFL players such as Chad Lavalais, Claude Wroten, Kyle Williams, Glenn Dorsey and Nevis, it's reasonable to assume the Tigers' line will still be formidable. Michael Brockers, a 6-foot-6, 306-pound sophomore, and Josh Downs, a 6-1, 287-pound junior, are the expected starters, with four others likely to see action, including touted 6-3, 310-pound true freshman Anthony "Freak" Johnson.
Kelly's offenses have thoroughly flummoxed Pac-12 defenses in compiling a 17-1 conference record the past two seasons. Out of conference, however, the Ducks have gone a more modest 5-3, and the common thread in those losses was a trio of teams (Boise State, Ohio State and Auburn) with dominant front fours. Each held the Ducks well below their normal rushing output, with the Broncos memorably holding the Ducks to 31 ground yards in an ugly 19-8 defeat in Kelly's head coaching debut.
"When their offense is working, no offense looks more unstoppable because guys are running for 80-yard touchdowns and have the world's biggest holes to run through," said Chris Brown of SmartFootball.com. "But when it looks bad, it looks really bad, and everyone always flashes back to that Boise game."
Then, like now, the Ducks were breaking in three new offensive line starters -- and it showed. Boise mixed up its looks and shot linebackers up the middle, flustering Oregon's newbies (and really frustrating running back LeGarrette Blount). Two of the Ducks' first-time starters that night, guards Carson York and Mark Asper, are now their most seasoned veterans (Asper has since moved to right tackle), but redshirt freshman Hroniss Grasu will likely be stepping in for departed All-America center Jordan Holmes.
So how does Oregon avoid a Boise/Ohio State/Auburn redux? Brown said we may have seen a preview in last year's title game, when Kelly opened with a much different look than he'd shown most of the season: three guys (LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and a motion receiver) often lined up in the backfield, allowing Thomas to essentially run the triple-option. The goal, it seemed, was to run plays to the outside, away from Fairley. Unfortunately, whether because of rust from the pre-bowl layoff or lack of practice with the new sets, Thomas looked uncomfortable and indecisive on his pitches. On a third-and-two near the Auburn goal-line, Thomas made a bad read and got walloped by an unblocked Fairley.
"One of the things Oregon does is try to read the interior defensive lineman," said Brown. "It's something Florida did [against] Glenn Dorsey. In the national championship game, they tried to read Nick Fairley, and he still managed to tackle the quarterback and the running back at the same time. That's why he was a first rounder."
The good news for Oregon is that LSU doesn't have one lineman as dominant as Dorsey or Fairley, at least that we know of. The Ducks have also had an entire offseason to practice their three-back sets, or whatever other wrinkles Kelly may have cooked up. Still, this hardly seems like an ideal matchup for an offense breaking in three new linemen.
Thankfully for college football fans, Kelly still scheduled the game.
"If you're going to be a top program, don't be afraid to play anybody, take their best shot and move on," said Kelly. "... We're going to line up with five offensive linemen on that first snap on offense, I can tell you that."
That may be one of the only remaining certainties about Saturday's game.
Three years ago this week, Mark Richt's Georgia Bulldogs were the No. 1 team in the country. That didn't last long, as USC passed them in both polls after just one game. Georgia finished that 2008 season 10-3, slipped to 8-5 the following year and fell to 6-7 last year, it's first losing record since 1996.
Yet here we are, with the Dawgs already back in the rankings (they opened 19th in the AP, 22nd in the Coaches') and the season-opening spotlight for Saturday night's Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta against fifth-ranked Boise State. Richt signed off on the tough opener specifically to kick start his slumping program.
"Where we were at that time [last fall] was a decline in our record, a decline in how people perceived our program, a place that I didn't really like, I wasn't very comfortable in, wasn't used to," Richt said at SEC Media Days. "I said, 'What better way to send a surge of energy into this program than to schedule a game like that?'"
It's a sign of just how much respect Boise has garnered in recent years that a prominent SEC program scheduled the Broncos, and that the SEC team is the one hoping to make a statement. Theoretically the game is far more important for Chris Petersen's team, which has no margin for error in its annual BCS quest. But Richt desperately needs this win to build his team's confidence heading into a crucial game the following week against No. 12 South Carolina, Georgia's presumed chief competitor in the SEC East.
Start 2-0 and the Dawgs will probably soar into the Top 10. Start 0-2 and the calls for Richt's head will resume.
"I like [the Boise game] because it's energized our offseason, it's energized our camp," Richt told SI.com. "I'll like it better if we can get the victory, but no matter what happens in the football game, we're going to learn a lot about our team. ... It's pushing us to become as good as we can possibly be Game 1."
Perhaps scheduling this game led the pollsters to pay such respect to a team last seen losing to UCF in the Liberty Bowl. Perhaps budding star quarterback Aaron Murray had something to do with it. Perhaps it was because of Richt's most recent signing class, which he coined "The Dream Team" and which should produce its share of early contributors, including touted running back Isaiah Crowell.
"We weren't too far off last year," said Richt. "Six of the games we lost we were within a touchdown in the fourth quarter and we just didn't finish well. If we were just getting whupped every game and had no hope, it'd be a lot different offseason."
Georgia's defense, which struggled on third downs last season while allowing 41.9 percent conversions, will certainly have its work cut out trying to get Kellen Moore off the field. The hope in Athens is that the emergence of monstrous sophomore nose tackle Kwame Geathers (6-6, 350) and touted USC transfer linebacker Jarvis Jones will help transform the Dawgs into a dominant run defense, forcing more third-and-longs.
But this is an infinitely more talented Boise team than the one that suffered a 48-13 drubbing in Athens six years ago. In a similar "neutral" site game last year in Washington D.C., Moore led the Broncos on a game-winning touchdown drive to beat eventual ACC champ Virginia Tech.
Richt has said he mistakenly thought Moore would be graduating back when he accepted the game. Moore didn't, but that's probably for the best. Boise wouldn't be ranked nearly as high without its quarterback, and therefore a Georgia victory wouldn't produce nearly the same national statement Richt is hoping to make.
Wisconsin-UNLV is not exactly a glamour matchup, but that's the best ESPN could do for this year's Thursday night opener. Fortunately for both the network and its football-starved viewers, there's at least one newsy reason to tune in: Russell Wilson's Wisconsin debut.
The former three-year N.C. State starter, known for his impeccable scrambling ability and improvisation, is one of the main reasons many are picking the 11th-ranked Badgers to win a second straight Big Ten crown despite losing 11 starters from last year's Rose Bowl team. Wilson, who threw for 8,545 yards, 76 touchdowns and 26 interceptions (14 of them last season) with the Wolfpack, left baseball's Class-A Asheville Tourists abruptly in late June and immediately headed to Madison -- where he's eligible this season because he completed his undergraduate degree -- for a crash-course on the playbook.
There were obvious concerns regarding how the 11th-hour arrival of such a high-profile outsider might affect the Badgers' chemistry, but a reassuring sign came last week when teammates voted Wilson one of four co-captains.
"I feel like he's been part of the team for a long time," receiver Nick Toon told the New York Times.
While the Badgers would likely handle UNLV (which went 2-11 last season) with or without Wilson, it will be interesting to see how the very un-Wisconsin-like quarterback fits into the mostly vanilla, smashmouth offense. While the program is known primarily for its prolific running backs, including returnees Montee Ball and James White, its quarterbacks have notably improved since the 2005 arrival of respected offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. Scott Tolzien, Wisconsin's starter the past two seasons, set career records for pass efficiency (153.2) and completion percentage (68.1), while predecessors John Stocco and Tyler Donovan finished third and fourth in the latter category.
Chryst's goal, therefore, will be to turn Wilson into a more controlled and efficient passer (he completed just 58.4 percent of his passes last season) while still allowing him to freelance enough to take advantage of his mobility. So tune in for that.
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. OklahomaRose: Oregon vs. NebraskaFiesta: Notre Dame vs. WisconsinSugar: South Carolina vs. Florida StateOrange: Virginia Tech vs. USF
While my national championship matchup is not exactly original, I've gone against the grain in several other areas. For one, I'm sticking with Virginia Tech as the king of the ACC, though I'm high enough on Florida State that I'm awarding the Seminoles the league's first at-large berth. USF is my pick in the Big East due mainly to respect for Skip Holtz and the strides I expect the Bulls to take in his second season after finishing last year strong. Ditto for my faith in Notre Dame's Brian Kelly.
One notable omission: Boise State ... or any other non-AQ team. At least one has earned a berth every year since the BCS expanded to five games in 2006 and lowered the threshold for a guaranteed berth from top six to top 12. But conference realignment has left the Mountain West as arguably the lone league possessing programs with enough credibility to earn such respect, and I have a feeling Boise, TCU and San Diego State may all knock each other off.
I reserve the right to make an immediate revision next week if the Broncos crush Georgia.
• The controversial Longhorn Network debuted to mostly darkness on Aug. 26, which seems appropriate, since Mack Brown kept fans completely in the dark about Texas' four-way quarterback battle (and every other aspect of his team) throughout preseason camp. Texas players have rarely been made available to media -- except, of course, to LHN cameramen. Finally, on Monday, Brown released a depth chart in which incumbent Garrett Gilbert retained his spot as the Longhorns' No. 1 quarterback.
It would be interesting to see how Gilbert looks when Texas kicks off Saturday night against Rice -- but that game, too, is available only on LHN.
• A week before last year's season opener, then-Florida coach Urban Meyer admitted he was "hitting the panic button a little bit" after what he'd seen from his team in practice. His concerns ultimately proved valid. Successor Will Muschamp expressed similar displeasure following his team's final scrimmage last week, saying: "We've got a bunch of guys that do it the right way, but not enough and not collectively enough guys doing it that way right at this point."
It may have been a motivational ploy. It's hard to say because, like Texas, Florida has been operating in near-total secrecy. We do know that Muschamp will be relying heavily on younger talent, particularly on defense, and younger players can certainly be a prime source of frustration for coaches.
• Miami coach Al Golden told WQAM radio Monday morning he expects to hear from the NCAA within the next 48 hours regarding which players will be eligible for the Sept. 5 opener against Maryland. According to the Miami Herald, the school is currently seeking reinstatement for quarterback Jacory Harris and at least seven other key players who allegedly received benefits from jailed former booster Nevin Shapiro. An upbeat Harris said Saturday: "I expect to play. Yes, sir."
• While many are eager to finally see Virginia Tech's huge and highly touted quarterback Logan Thomas, it looks like the Hokies' offense will revolve heavily around tailback David Wilson. The speedy junior, overshadowed his first two seasons by stars Darren Evans and Ryan Williams, thoroughly dominated Virginia Tech's three preseason scrimmages. Another budding star: sophomore defensive end James Gayle, who had four sacks in the Hokies' last scrimmage.
• While TCU hero Andy Dalton prepares for his first start with the Cincinnati Bengals, his successor, third-year sophomore Casey Pachall, is expected to make his first start Friday night at Baylor. The 6-4, dual-threat quarterback has endured some tough love from coach Gary Patterson, who's indicated he may play redshirt freshman Matt Brown, but Pachall seems an ideal fit for coordinator Justin Fuente's offense. A more pressing concern might be the Horned Frogs' three new starters on the offensive line.
• One of the most devastating practice injuries this month was Arkansas running back Knile Davis' season-ending fractured ankle. Davis, whose second-half tear last season keyed the Hogs' Sugar Bowl run, figured to be one of the nation's elite runners. But Arkansas fans are eagerly anticipating the return of junior Dennis Johnson, who showed big-play ability in limited action the first two games last year before suffering his own season-ending injury. "It's his stage now," said a supportive Davis.
• With top returning rusher Marc Tyler suspended, it will be interesting to see how Lane Kiffin rotates his tailbacks in USC's opener against Minnesota. Sophomore Dillon Baxter, who elicited so much hype upon his arrival last year, has been mostly a disappointment. Curtis McNeal has been the most impressive in scrimmages, but keeps getting dinged up. Freshman Amir Carlisle is a blank slate. Kiffin likes the varying styles the three bring, but could sure use more experience.
• Tulsa star Damaris Johnson, who already holds the NCAA career record for all-purpose yards (7,796), is suspended indefinitely following his girlfriend Chamon Jones' arrest for alleged embezzlement. While Johnson has not been charged, police said he twice bought more than $1,000 worth of merchandise from Jones, a Macy's employee, on her debit card, but was charged a fraction of that cost. The bizarre story comes at a terrible time for the Hurricane, who open against No. 1 Oklahoma.
• As Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa attempts to live up to his school's creative Heisman campaign on his behalf, he appears to have a promising new receiving target. True freshman Christian Jones, a touted Houston-area recruit, is listed as a co-starter for the Wildcats' opener at Boston College. Questions remain, however, about whether Persa is fully recovered from the ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered last season. It's unlikely we'll see him running much early on.
• In a touching gesture, Oklahoma defensive players will honor the late Austin Box by having a different defender wear his jersey, No. 12, each week this season.
• Senior Joe Bauserman and freshman Braxton Miller will both see time at quarterback when Ohio State opens against Akron. It's as if Jim Tressel never left.
• Georgia's Brandon Boykin, who has four career kick returns for touchdowns, tweeted a challenge to Boise State coach Chris Petersen.
• Saner heads have prevailed. Less than a week after unveiling it, organizers agreed not to use this as the new Iowa-Iowa State Cy-Hawk Trophy.
Texas A&M is expected to announce its departure from the Big 12 as soon as this week, according to an AP source, and an SEC invitation will presumably follow.
While the prospect of another round of conference realignment doesn't exactly excite me, and while I've long expressed bewilderment over the potential A&M-SEC marriage, I'm just as puzzled by the general tone regarding the Aggies, which seems to be: How dare they?
To listen to some, you would think A&M is making an ill-advised decision not only for itself, but for all of college football. Rivalries will be destroyed and other conferences will be pillaged, all because the Aggies got their feelings hurt by Texas.
Funny, but I don't remember hearing the same complaints about Nebraska severing century-old Big 8 relationships to head to the Big Ten. And when it looked like Texas might head to the Pac-10 -- that seemed kind of cool.
Texas A&M is not the bad guy here. You can question its motives, or how a move might impact its won-loss record, but you can't fault the school for looking out for its own best interests. If it feels its current conference is unstable and it has a chance to join a more prestigious league, so be it. It's not A&M's responsibility to ensure the greater health of college football.
If you want to blame someone for the chaos and instability that might ensue from this move, blame the SEC. While commissioner Mike Slive's primary job is to better his conference, he's also one of the sport's most visible leaders. He used his pulpit last month to spell out an ambitious "agenda for change" to reform college sports, but now he's on the brink of a purely money-driven move that runs contradictory to much of his message from that day.
And the strangest part is, the SEC doesn't need to expand. Its status as the nation's premier football conference isn't threatened by the Big Ten and Pac-12's recent moves. Slive's league is still printing money, even if it's slightly less than what Larry Scott recently banked.
Perhaps that's why some (most notably Dan Beebe and Texas politicians) are hoping the A&M-SEC engagement will be called off at the last minute. Don't bet on it. Slive is a smart man. If he thinks going to 14 is the right move for his league, it's because he believes mega-conferences are inevitable and he wants to beat others to the punch.
If that is indeed where things are headed, there'll be no stopping the winds of "progress." And if that is the future, a whole bunch of schools will be eyeing greener pastures.
A&M may ultimately prove to be ahead of the curve.
Mini-previews for three of this week's big games:
• LSU vs. Oregon, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): Jarrett Lee, this is your moment. As a redshirt freshman, Lee threw 16 interceptions in eight starts before injury opened the door for Jefferson. After seeing spot duty the past two seasons, Lee will make his first start since Nov. 14, 2009. He'll be doing so against the No. 3 team in the country.
• Boise State vs. Georgia, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): Can Georgia get pressure on Moore? Can the Dawgs' often-suspect offensive line protect Murray? Neither of those, however, are as important as this fundamental question: Is Nike intentionally messing with us at this point? (Though those are pretty sweet gloves.)
• Miami at Maryland, Monday (8 p.m. ET): Maryland has unveiled its own fancy new uniforms courtesy of Under Armour, but unfortunately these aren't a one-time thing. In an attempt to make Oregon drool, the school claims it will have 2,576 possible color combinations. New slogan: Fear the Mustard Stain.