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Bold scheduling has made Oregon State central figure in 2010 race

One might argue the past eight months have qualified as their own college football overtime, as the competition between various schools and conferences bled into an offseason dominated by realignment and other off-field drama. Many of us, understandably, can't wait to finally plop down in front of the TV or make our way to the stadium for some real, between-the-stripes football this weekend.

Of course, not all opening-week games are created equal. Around the same time North Carolina takes on LSU at the Georgia Dome on Saturday night, rival North Carolina State will be hosting Western Carolina, one of a staggering 37 Week 1 matchups between FBS and FCS opponents.

Oregon State was originally scheduled to be part of such a contest before ESPN approached AD Bob De Carolis late last year about signing on for a season-opening date with TCU at Cowboys Stadium. Mind you, the Horned Frogs were en route to a 12-1 season and top 10 ranking at the time, and the Beavers already had a trip to fellow top 10 foe Boise State on their 2010 docket as well as a home game with Louisville.

"To our athletic director's credit, he really tried to discourage me from [taking] the TCU game," said Beavers coach Mike Riley. "He just thought, with the fact that we're breaking in a new quarterback [sophomore Ryan Katz], it probably wasn't smart -- and it probably isn't. But I really like these games."

Bless you, Mike.

Year after year, Oregon State has been one of the few Top 25-level teams willing to leave its state to take on early-season challengers. The results haven't always been pretty. In 2004, the Beavers lost a slosh-filled heartbreaker at defending BCS champion LSU. Four years ago, they got creamed in a Thursday night game at Boise. Two years ago, Penn State dealt them a 45-14 smackdown in Happy Valley to start the year 0-2.

"After the Penn State game, [my wife] Dee was waiting for me," said Riley. "She said, 'Why did you agree to play this game?'"

The reason, as time bore out, was that early-season challenges paid off come conference play. The 2006 Beavers went on to win 10 games. Amid the rubble of that '08 Penn State game, a true freshman running back, Jacquizz Rodgers, quietly rushed for 99 yards. Two games later, he put up 186 in a Thursday-night upset of top-ranked USC and helped lead the Beavers to within a game of the Rose Bowl.

It's become Oregon State's M.O. -- slow starter, fast finisher. In each of the past two years, the Beavers have lost two games in September, and each time they wound up playing for the Pac-10 title in their season-ending Civil War game against Oregon, getting hammered in '08 before losing a 37-33 shootout last season.

Riley scheduled the TCU game in part to allow Rodgers, now a junior, and his brother, senior receiver James, a trip back to their native Texas, but also because he wants his team to get over the Pac-10 hump -- even if that means playing two of the nation's toughest non-BCS programs, both away from home, in the month of September.

"We'll either be tough, or we'll die," he said with a chuckle.

Either way, Riley's team could wind up being a central figure in some of this season's biggest storylines.

Ever since the preseason polls officially decreed Boise State a preseason top-five team, anticipation has mounted that much higher for the Broncos' season-opening showdown with Virginia Tech next Monday night. Both of last year's surprise Fiesta Bowl participants enter 2010 in unchartered territory, ranked high enough to seriously entertain national-title aspirations. As one of the toughest challenges on both of their schedules, Oregon State will have a say in that.

Meanwhile, with USC ineligible for the postseason and Oregon dealing with the loss of star quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, the path is ripe for the Beavers to make a run at the Pac-10 title. Since returning for his second stint in Corvallis in 2003, Riley has built up the one-time doormats into a consistent program that ranks second behind the Trojans in Pac-10 victories (25) over the past four seasons. But they've yet to put together that one transcendent season.

Between the dynamic Rodgers brothers (who combined for 4,290 all-purpose yards last season), an experienced offensive line and a veteran, blue-collar defense (led by potential All-America tackle Stephen Paea), Riley feels like he has the pieces to take the next step -- with one obvious glaring question mark: Katz. The strong-armed sophomore is physically impressive, but until he takes the field against the Horned Frogs' defense -- the top-ranked unit in the country last season -- there's no telling how he'll respond.

But that's precisely why Riley figures it's better to hit the ground running.

"I have faith that this team will get tougher [over the course of the season]," he said. "That's what we've done every year for four years, and I see no reason why that will change."

Riley's is a contrarian philosophy for sure, but also an unquestionably refreshing one. If only more of his colleagues followed it.

Saturday night's Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game between No. 18 North Carolina and No. 21 LSU was supposed to provide a first glimpse at the most touted Tar Heels team in more than a decade. Now it's eliciting an entirely different curiosity factor: whether UNC will still be able to field a team.

North Carolina's hopes of a dream season have imploded in a sea of scandal the likes of which we haven't seen in a long, long time. With dual NCAA investigations now taking place -- one involving alleged benefits from agents to players, the other academic misconduct stemming from a tutor who may have written players' papers -- it's believed the Tar Heels could be without as many as nine starters for Saturday night's game, including defensive tackle Marvin Austin and receiver Greg Little, though no definitive suspensions have been announced.

The only remotely similar situation that comes to mind is Wisconsin's "Shoe Box" scandal from 2000, when the school learned on the eve of its opening game that it had to suspend 26 players for one to three games. A season that began filled with promise for the Badgers -- ranked fourth in the preseason AP poll -- ended in the Sun Bowl, and only then after a disappointing 4-4 start. One can easily see a similar scenario unfolding for the Tar Heels, even if some or all of the players wind up serving short suspensions; with so much lineup shuffling, it will be difficult to get into any sort of rhythm.

Ultimately, though, the violations in the Wisconsin case -- athletes were receiving unadvertised discounts at a booster's apparel store -- pale in comparison to the allegations of illicit contact with agents and academic fraud being uncovered at UNC. Throw in the fact that the tutor in question once worked at coach Butch Davis' home, and that assistant coach John Blake has been connected to one of the agents under investigation (Gary Wichard), and an institutional control crisis emerges that could have implications well beyond the 2010 season.

Look at it this way: The NCAA threw the book at USC based in large part on a three-minute phone call and a photograph that suggested running backs coach Todd McNair should have known about Reggie Bush's arrangements. Imagine how it might respond to a crooked tutor who worked under the head coach's roof.

The school's one potential saving grace is that it uncovered the tutor case itself in the course of interviewing players regarding the agent sting. Unlike USC, it was proactive with its compliance. Still, I wouldn't expect the NCAA to show much sympathy when it comes to any academic violations. Bobby Bowden never did get back those 14 wins ...

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. Ohio State

Rose: Oregon vs. Boise State

Fiesta: Oklahoma vs. Connecticut

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Orange: Virginia Tech vs. Wisconsin

Sugar: Georgia vs. Texas

(Click here for my preseason bowl projections of all 35 games.)

While I'm sure the prospect of another SEC vs. Ohio State championship game will elicit no shortage of groans, almost none of this year's Buckeyes played in either of Ohio State's past two title-game losses, and they shouldn't be judged against ghosts. Instead, they will get the chance to prove themselves against a "fast" opponent when they host Miami on Sept. 11. Defending champ Alabama, meanwhile, may stumble once early as it plugs in new pieces on defense, but it'll still get the benefit of the doubt as SEC champion, even over undefeated Boise State.

Speaking of the Broncos, even if they lose to Virginia Tech, they still could spend New Year's somewhere glamorous. With their high preseason ranking, they'll have no trouble rising back into the top 12, and the Rose Bowl has to take the highest ranked non-AQ team this year if it loses one of its champions. (Boise has a better shot than TCU, which plays Utah on the road late in the season.) UConn and Georgia are my lone "sleeper" teams for now. I still think Florida wins the SEC East, but the Sugar Bowl won't want the Gators back if they lose in Atlanta. The Huskies, meanwhile, get Pitt, West Virginia and Cincinnati all at home.

• Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich took the latest step in his remarkable recovery from Ewing's sarcoma when he returned to practice over the weekend for the first time since breaking his foot prior to fall camp. If all goes well this week, he could be on the field Saturday against Weber State. Kevin Armstrong of the New York Daily Newschronicles Herzlich's inspirational journey.

• Most assumed Urban Meyer was being overly paranoid last week when he said "I'm hitting the panic button a little bit," but preseason camp has not exactly gone smoothly for a Florida team in transition. Top left tackles Xavier Nixon and Matt Patchan will miss Saturday's opener with injuries, the D-line has struggled and hotshot recruits Ronald Powell and Dominique Easley elicited transfer rumors (since shot down) after missing a practice. The Gators are too talented to struggle for long, but anyone picking them to reach the national tile game is delusional.

• In a slight surprise, Oregon coach Chip Kelly announced (via Twitter) that sophomore Darron Thomas will be his new starting quarterback after beating out fifth-year senior Nate Costa. Ducks fans liken the lanky, athletic Thomas to former star Dennis Dixon, but the Texan is actually a more dangerous passer than a runner. In a scrimmage last week, he completed 14-of-23 passes for 125 yards and three touchdowns. With speedy tailbacks LaMichael James (suspended for the opener) and Kenjon Barner, Oregon doesn't need Thomas to be Dixon.

• BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, meanwhile, announced that junior quarterback Riley Nelson and freshman Jake Heaps will rotate against Washington. No way does this last. It's long been assumed that top-rated recruit Heaps is BYU's quarterback of the future, but apparently he hasn't yet garnered his coach's full trust. Following Max Hall's graduation and the dismissal of star runner Harvey Unga, BYU needs an authoritative leader to emerge sooner than later.

• And then there's the quarterback derby that refuses to die: Michigan's. Even late last week, coach Rich Rodriguez said all three contenders (sophomores Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson and freshman Devin Gardner) continue to share practice reps, and that he'll wait until the night before Saturday's UConn game to inform the starter. All signs point to the fleet-footed Robinson, who's shown increased command of the passing game, but my gosh is this getting old.

• Two true freshmen, receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Nickell Robey, earned No. 1 spots on the depth chart for USC's opener Thursday night at Hawaii. The surprise of fall camp, however, has to be fourth-year junior Marc Tyler, the oft-forgotten tailback (he missed nearly all of last season) who jumped ahead of veterans Allen Bradford and C.J. Gable on the first-string.

• Missouri is dealing with the stunning suspension of veteran tailback Derrick Washington amid word that prosecutors are reviewing a woman's June allegation that the player sexually assaulted her. Mizzou is fairly well stocked at tailback, where former Parade All-American Kendial Lawrence, a sophomore, has star potential, but it can't be the best thing for team chemistry when one of its senior co-captains goes on indefinite suspension a week before its opener.

• Georgia running back Washaun Ealey is in the doghouse after a late-night incident in which he hit a parked car and fled the scene, all while driving with a suspended license. Caleb King can carry the load against Louisiana-Lafayette, and while coach Mark Richt suspended Ealey for "at least one game," I imagine he'll be back on the field when Georgia visits South Carolina in Week 2.

• UCLA installed the Pistol offense last spring to try to breathe life into a unit that ranked 88th nationally last season, but the Bruins' training camp offered few inklings of optimism. The running game is still struggling. Quarterback Kevin Prince has been out since Aug. 10 with a back injury and is questionable for Saturday's opener at Kansas State. And center Kai Maiava, one of the few proven fixtures on the offensive line, is out at least two months with a fractured ankle. At this rate, it's difficult to envision the Bruins turning the corner this fall.

• For the first time in three years, Colorado coach Dan Hawkins did not name his son, Cody, the starting quarterback, allowing junior Tyler Hansen to hold on to the job he assumed midway through last season. Smart move. Meanwhile, Hansen's counterpart in Saturday's opener against Colorado State will be a true freshman, Pete Thomas, a four-star quarterback who originally committed to Arizona State.

• Maryland is preparing for Navy's triple-option by practicing without a ball. "It allows those kids to run fast," said Terps coach Ralph Friedgen. Presumably, it also makes it that much trickier to figure out where the ball's going.

• If you've got some college eligibility and you can kick a field goal, Bob Stoops would appreciate your help.

If he hadn't already, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is quickly finding out what Charlie Weis, Tyrone Willingham, Bob Davie, et. al., soon came to know: anything Notre Dame's coach says at a weekly press conference can and will turn into a national story.

Kelly raised a typical round of Notre Dame resentment across the Web last week when he revealed discussions he'd had with broadcast partner NBC about adjusting the length of its commercial breaks to accommodate Kelly's up-tempo system. NBC has agreed to switch from four longer breaks (2:30) to five shorter breaks (1:45) per quarter, according to USA Today's Kelly Whiteside.

Almost immediately, tweeps and writers lamented this latest example of perceived Irish favoritism. What gives a coach the right to dictate how a network does its business? Won't this give Notre Dame an unfair advantage at home?

Actually, in this case, Kelly just wants to be on the same page as everybody else.

As a broadcast network, NBC crams in as many commercials as possible. Unlike ESPN, a cable network, it has no other revenue stream. Also, whereas ESPN shows football for 12 to 14 hours each Saturday, including no shortage of in-game promos and sponsors, NBC only has that three-plus hour window on Saturdays for advertisers to reach the football crowd. Kelly wanted NBC to follow the ESPN ad model, by which nearly every major conference team plays, but it sounds like the compromise was for NBC to mirror its NFL broadcasts.

While it's certainly unusual to hear a football coach discussing commercial time, know that similar discussions take place every year between conferences and networks -- it's just that Notre Dame is essentially its own conference. I once sat in the press box next to an associate commissioner from a major conference whose sole responsibility at the game was to chart the commercial breaks and make sure the network was adhering to its contracted arrangement.

"The number and length of TV timeouts is negotiated with conferences, but we strive for, and are fairly consistent, in the formats we use," ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys told USA Today.

While Irish opponents may have to adjust to a different tempo, personally, I'm more concerned with adjusting my "time to switch back" instinct with the remote.

Mini-previews for three of this week's big games:

• Pittsburgh at Utah, Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET): Urban Meyer's undefeated 2004 Utes team opened with a Thursday night beatdown of Texas A&M -- but the Aggies didn't have a back like Pitt's Dion Lewis, who ran for a mere 1,799 yards as a true freshman. This is the sort of game Dave Wannstedt needs to start winning.

• North Carolina vs. LSU, Saturday (8 p.m. ET):Erin Andrews makes her GameDay debut -- and her first task is to memorize the names of UNC's backup defenders. The Tar Heels' woes would seem to bode well for LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson. Then again, he's had trouble with teams disguising coverage.

• Boise State vs. Virginia Tech, Monday (8 p.m. ET): The Broncos opened last season by holding Oregon to 31 rushing yards. Can they do the same to Hokies stars Ryan Williams (1,655 yards last season) and Darren Evans (1,265 in 2008)? Will Bud Foster's D suffocate Boise quarterback Kellen Moore? I can't wait to find out.