Year of unprecedented change not dampening enthusiasm for kickoff

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As the 2012 college football season begins, the timeless rites of autumn return. But for a sport that engenders such attachment in large part because of its familiar comforts, it's remarkable to think just how radically things have changed in the span of a year.

Flash back to the Friday of opening weekend, 2011. Hours before Robert Griffin III began his Heisman campaign by leading Baylor to a frenetic 50-48 upset of TCU, Oklahoma President David Boren touched off panic throughout the Bears' stadium by confirming the Big 12 school was holding active discussions with other conferences. The next night at Cowboys Stadium, just a short drive from Big 12 headquarters, reporters swarmed Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott prior to the kickoff of LSU-Oregon. "Several schools have reached out to us," Scott said, and once again college athletics braced for potentially seismic change.

We got it, all right -- just not in the way most would have predicted that evening. Fifty-one weeks later the Big 12 is not only standing, but thriving. Baylor not only retained its home, but is now joined both by the Top 25 team it faced that night (TCU) and a Top 25 team from another part of the country entirely (West Virginia). Few would have seen that marriage coming this time last year, though it now seems no odder than Missouri joining the SEC.

A year ago this week, Joe Paterno was beginning the 46th season of his Penn State career, his biggest concern seemingly his underperforming quarterbacks. Who could have foreseen Paterno being fired before season's end, his reputation sullied for failing to stop a sickening child predator who roamed the Penn State locker room? By January Paterno had passed away; last month Penn State, one of the four remaining BCS programs to never have committed a major NCAA violation, received the stiffest NCAA sanctions since SMU.

On a lighter note, LSU beat Oregon that first Saturday night en route to a perfect regular season and berth in the BCS championship game. That wasn't entirely surprising. The fact that LSU and Alabama staged a rematch of their regular-season meeting two months later, however, was entirely unprecedented and unpopular.

Oh, and over the summer college football adopted a playoff. That really happened.

Within the span of 12 months, the aforementioned events redefined history and fundamentally altered the sport. And that doesn't include a whole bunch of other changes that in most years would have been deemed hugely notable.

For instance, Urban Meyer is now the coach of Ohio State, Mike Leach has resurfaced at Washington State, Charlie Weis is somehow the head coach at Kansas ... and Bobby Petrino will have time to watch them all on television. Speaking of which, Erin Andrews will now be on Fox, Scott Van Pelt will now be appearing on GameDay and the Pac-12 Networks are now on the air.

It's not like the sport completely reinvented itself. The players will still wear facemasks, a touchdown will still count for six points and Texas still doesn't have a quarterback. But just when we thought America's most chaotic sport couldn't get any wackier, Boise State managed to achieve simultaneous membership in the Big East and Big West.

But the beauty of college football is that nothing but the weather (and possibly your kid's soccer schedule) can truly impact the enjoyment of Saturdays in the fall. Ole Miss is coming off a dreadful 2-10 season and the Rebels have a new coach in Hugh Freeze, yet the scene at the Grove on Saturday will be as resplendent as it was a year ago, five years ago or 50 years ago. Across the country, the pregame locker rooms will be as tense as ever. The postgame bars will be as crowded.

And just 14 weeks from now, a season we've spent eight months anticipating, dissecting and predicting will have produced a national championship matchup, a new cast of stars, another round of coaching changes and, we can only hope, another set of memories.

This weekend Notre Dame will play an afternoon football game, take an eight-hour flight home and still make it back to campus earlier than it will after most road games this season.

Saturday's Emerald Isle Classic between Notre Dame and Navy at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, should be quite the spectacle -- organizers claim more than 30,000 fans are traveling from the States, and the game will be televised to the public in 66 countries and to U.S. armed forces in 175 countries -- but it's causing logistical headaches for the coaches.

"I love everything about Ireland," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said last week. "I'm not a big fan of playing football games in Ireland."

Kelly is less concerned with travel fatigue affecting his team Saturday than with the possible toll down the road. "It's the opener," said Kelly, whose team faces Purdue the following Saturday. "Those guys will play it at 2:00 in the morning. What I'm worried about is sleep, loss of sleep, and a cumulative fatigue factor that bites us three, four weeks down the road."

Notre Dame will practice at 6:15 a.m. this Wednesday in hopes of orienting itself to Dublin time (five hours ahead) in advance of Saturday's 9 a.m. ET kickoff. The Fighting Irish will then fly overnight on a chartered non-stop flight from South Bend, arriving at 7 a.m. Dublin time Thursday. Practice that day will take place on a rugby pitch adjacent to the stadium. Friday includes a walkthrough at the stadium and a sightseeing bus tour of the city, wrapping up with the traditional team mass at a Dublin castle.

By contrast, "We're going for a business trip," said Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo. There won't be any sightseeing for the Midshipmen, who will also fly overnight to arrive Thursday but who have a bye in Week 2. "We're definitely going to hydrate," said Niumatalolo. We're going to do the best we can to get some sleep. We're definitely worried [about jet lag]."

With incumbent Tommy Rees suspended, redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson will make his debut as starter for the Irish. Meanwhile, starting tailback Cierre Wood won't make the trip following Sunday's announced two-game suspension. Notre Dame football seemingly never lacks drama.

Curiosity over Golson -- not to mention the teams' first meeting abroad since 1996 -- may draw some early-morning viewers away from GameDay, which means fans can conceivably watch 17 consecutive hours of football Saturday. In fact, Oregon (against Arkansas State), Oklahoma (against UTEP) and Arizona (against Toledo) should still be in action when Notre Dame lands back home at 12:30 a.m. ET.

A year from now Boise State will play in an actual BCS conference -- albeit one that will only hold that designation until 2014 -- where a missed field goal may no longer mark the difference between the Fiesta Bowl and the Maaco Bowl. In the meantime the Broncos will play their annual season-opening showcase, on Friday night at No. 13 Michigan State. Only this time there's no Kellen Moore; or Doug Martin; or the five 2011 defensive linemen currently on NFL rosters.

After enjoying minimal roster turnover the past few years, Chris Petersen's program returns the fewest starters (six) of any team in the country. Few of the replacements are green, because Boise employs deep positional rotations and pulls its starters from so many conference blowouts. Guys like tailback D.J. Harper (1,655 career yards), receiver Kirby Moore (43 catches in two seasons) and linebacker J.C. Percy (48 tackles last season) are de facto returning starters.

But when it comes to quarterback and defensive line, Boise's two strongest areas the past few seasons, the Broncos are essentially starting over.

The man charged with replacing four-year star Moore is fourth-year junior Joe Southwick, who officially earned the job last week. He was 23-of-30 for 198 yards in limited action last season, but he saw his most time against Tulsa and New Mexico. And unlike in Moore's first season in 2008, Southwick won't enjoy the luxury of opening up against Idaho State. Rather, he'll open against William Gholston and the rest of the Spartans' top 10 defense.

"Unfortunately for us and for Joe, [Michigan State] probably isn't a great team to go against and gain confidence," Petersen said Sunday. Even with a 73-6 record the past six years, many still view Boise as a cuddly underdog. For once, that may actually be accurate.

Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest games. Here's my preseason edition:

Title game: LSU vs. OregonRose: USC vs. Michigan StateFiesta: Oklahoma vs. WisconsinSugar: Alabama vs. TexasOrange: Florida State vs. Louisville

And it all comes full circle from last year's opening weekend. If my predicted championship game comes true, we'll have another rematch come Jan. 7. This time, however, it'll be a rematch of a game played 16 months earlier.

It's pretty simple: I like LSU because it's the most talented veteran team in the country. USC may be a close second, but concerns over the Trojans' reduced depth and defensive line make me think it will be hard for USC to beat Oregon twice (as it would have to if the Ducks reach the Pac-12 championship game). I see both the Tigers and Ducks finishing 12-1 and atop the polls after their conference championship game wins over highly ranked foes.

For the second consecutive year, no non-AQ teams will make the BCS, because most of the best non-AQs have either moved up (TCU) or lost their coaches (Houston, Southern Miss), and because Boise State is replacing practically its entire starting lineup. That could make for a couple of pretty glamorous at-large choices in Glendale and New Orleans, while the Orange Bowl may finally get an in-state team. ('Noles fans would presumably prefer to play in Miami six days later.)

• Defending national champion Alabama will break in seven new defensive starters Saturday against Michigan, but based on preseason prognostications there seems to be little concern that Nick Saban will reload. That wasn't the case the year after the Tide's 2009 championship, when a 9-3 regular season was marked by defensive breakdowns. But a key difference may be that much of this year's new crop saw significant action last season, including in the BCS title game.

Filling the role of first-round strong safety Mark Barron will be sophomore Vinnie Sunseri, who had 31 tackles in 2011. Cornerback Dee Milliner, a starter two years ago, takes over for Dre Kirkpatrick. Trey DePriest, one of three sophomores expected to start at linebacker, had 25 tackles last year. "We lost some great players," said incumbent linebacker Nico Johnson, "but we're still Alabama. ... We're going to have great players as backups and those guys have to step up."

• For the first time since 1966, Penn State will open a season with a first-year head coach. Athletic officials are planning no "wholesale changes" to the game day experience at Beaver Stadium, which is good, since the folks in the stands had zero to do with the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The team Bill O'Brien fields against Ohio will be down 10 players post-sanctions. Keep an eye on sophomore tailback Bill Belton, who is stepping in for Silas Redd.

• There are a few scratches for this weekend's Atlanta doubleheader of Tennessee-NC State (Friday) and Clemson-Auburn (Saturday). Tennessee's 1,000-yard receiver Da'Rick Rogers, indefinitely suspended last week, has left the team. Auburn starting center Reese Dismukes will sit following a public intoxication arrest over the weekend. Clemson, meanwhile, was already set to play without All-America Sammy Watkins, who is serving a two-game suspension for an offseason arrest.

• The ACC has embraced Labor Day evening as a showcase window, and this year's edition should prove far more consequential than last year's Miami-Maryland dud. Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech are playing arguably their most important divisional game in Week 1. It will be the first chance to watch the Hokies' new backfield: Redshirt freshman Michael Holmes is listed as starting tailback, with true freshman J.C. Coleman likely to see early playing time.

• Mike Leach's Washington State debut Thursday night comes at his alma mater, BYU. Though Leach was not involved in football as a student, LaVell Edwards' trendsetting program became the most influential in shaping Leach's noted passing offense. "Early in my coaching career I used to go there and hang out during spring football," said Leach. "... They were throwing the ball all over the place. It influenced me directly, and it's a core of a lot of things we do offensively."

• No program in America embraces walk-ons like Nebraska. The Huskers' starting offensive line for Saturday's opener against Southern Miss is expected to include three former walk-ons: center Justin Jackson and guards Spencer Long and Seung Hoon Choi. Long got a scholarship earlier this summer; Jackson and Choi -- a native Korean who moved to Lincoln at 14 -- got the good news during camp. Coach Bo Pelini has awarded scholarships to 18 walk-ons since 2008.

• Meanwhile, Iowa's offensive line is taking pride in its own coincidental commonality: All five starters -- left tackle Brandon Scherff, left guard Matt Tobin, center James Ferentz (son of head coach Kirk), right guard Austin Blythe and right tackle Brett Van Sloten -- are Iowa natives. "It's pretty awesome," Scherff told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. "We're not a highly recruited state like all the southern schools are, but it gives us a little boost, something to feel good about."

• After a clunky 2011 season playing its "home" games at the San Francisco Giants' baseball stadium, AT&T Park, Cal happily returns to renovated Memorial Stadium on Saturday against Nevada. The Bears' home since 1923 underwent a much-needed $321 million overhaul, with about two-thirds of the outdated structure torn down and rebuilt. Among the beneficiaries: the comically decrepit visitors locker room. "I'm sorry we had to fix that," joked coach Jeff Tedford.

• That's not a misprint on Saturday's schedule: Oklahoma is playing at UTEP. The school had to scramble last winter after originally scheduled nonconference foe TCU suddenly became a Big 12 rival.

• Former Oregon star LaMichael James tweeted some high praise Friday for new Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota: "he will possibly be the best qb to ever play at Oregon! He's the real deal." But then James apparently deleted it. #mixedmessage

• Some controlling coaches won't let their players use Twitter. USC, on the other hand, now lists players' Twitter handles on its weekly depth chart.

• Finally, is it a bad sign that Akron's starting quarterback, Dalton Williams, spent his first three seasons as a backup at Stephen F. Austin?

Several notable young quarterbacks will make their college debuts this weekend, including Notre Dame's Golson, Oregon's Mariota (vs. Arkansas State), Oklahoma State true freshman Wes Lunt (vs. Savannah State) and Maryland true freshman Perry Hills (vs. William and Mary).

But first up, on Thursday night against reigning WAC champion Louisiana Tech in Shreveport, La., Texas A&M redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel gets his first and only tune-up before the Aggies bring the Air Raid to the SEC. Manziel will be the first freshman quarterback in school history to start an opener.

After notching 12 wins at Houston last season with sixth-year senior and NCAA-record setter Case Keenum, A&M coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury are entrusting their up-tempo spread offense to 19-year-old Manziel, who beat out heavily favored sophomore Jameill Showers in preseason camp.

"He's not going to be like the sixth year senior we had last year in his first start," said Kingsbury, 33, formerly Mike Leach's first Texas Tech quarterback. "But he played in a similar offense in high school. He feels comfortable in it. He took command of the job [in fall camp]."

The Aggies' new offense remains a great source of mystery -- including among the coaches themselves. "I still don't think we know our exact identity," said Kingsbury. Skeptics say it's unrealistic that the pass-heavy offense Keenum ran at Houston -- originally devised by current West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen -- can work against elite SEC defenses. Kingsbury counters that Cam Newton and Tim Tebow excelled in spread offenses. And oh yeah, Tim Couch and Kentucky originally ran Leach's offense when he was the Wildcats' coordinator in the late '90s.

And the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Manziel (pronounced Man-zel) brings a different dimension than previous Air Raid quarterbacks, having run for 1,674 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior at Kerrville (Texas) Tivy High. "We've never been a big quarterback-run type offense," said Kingsbury. "But if you have a five-receiver route, it's hard to cover five guys and [the quarterback]. We think that's a huge advantage that he brings."

Besides fans of the two teams, presumably no one will be watching Thursday's game closer than the Florida coaching staff. The Gators visit College Station in Week 2.

Urban Meyer will lead the Buckeyes on to the field for the first time as head coach Saturday against the Miami (Ohio) Redhawks, and he's hoping to start a new tradition -- specifically 23 minutes before kickoff.

Todd Graham coaches his first game ... actually he's not in this video. Rather, ASU's mascot Sparky has been traveling around the state projecting giant pitchfork images on walls.

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

• South Carolina at Vanderbilt, Thursday (7 p.m. ET): This will mark the Gamecocks' sixth appearance in eight years in ESPN's Thursday night opener. Previous scores: 24-10, 15-0, 34-0, 7-3 and 41-13. They're the farthest thing from aesthetically pleasing, but we keep watching, because, finally, it's college football.

• Alabama vs. Michigan, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): You know the quarterbacks (Michigan's Denard Robinson and Alabama's AJ McCarron), but there's curiosity surrounding the running backs. The Tide's Eddie Lacy gets his first shot at being The Guy, while Fitz Toussaint's DUI arrest may open the door for Wolverines sophomore Thomas Rawls. (Brady Hoke hasn't said whether Toussaint will play.)

• Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech, Monday (8 p.m. ET): It's no secret that teams generally fare better against the triple-option with more time to prepare, and the Hokies have had an entire offseason. While Jackets quarterback Tevin Washington and A-back Orwin Smith are no secrets, it remains to be seen if 6-4 sophomore Jeff Greene can follow in the Big Receiver footsteps of former stars Demaryius Thomas and Stephen Hill.