Welcome to the most over-analyzed week in sports – college football’s season openers.
Whether the opponent is big or small, that first step of a new season takes on a disproportionate amount of weight. Players and coaches and fans have endured seven long months of rehashing and recruiting and spring practice and preseason camps, so everyone is anxious for something that counts.
It’s easy to forget that it’s only the first game.
“Regardless of who you open up with, it’s a long season,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said on his radio show last week. “You don’t ever judge your season by one game.”
Not all season openers are created equal. No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Florida State will meet in Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday with national championship implications at stake. It may be the greatest opening week game of all time – a potential preview of the closing game four months away in the very same building.
A little more than an hour up the road in Athens, No. 15 Georgia will play host to Appalachian State in a more traditional affair with the primary goal of simply not getting off on the wrong foot. The same can be said when Clemson faces Kent State, South Carolina takes on N.C. State or Georgia Tech clashes with Tennessee. That’s really the goal of pretty much every program – get off to a good start.
Despite the outsized weight that will surely be applied to every win and loss this weekend, seasons aren’t defined by what happens in Week 1. Georgia started 0-2 in 2011 then won 10 in a row to reach the SEC Championship game. A year ago the Bulldogs defeated North Carolina in a ranked showdown and ended up losing five games.
The Gamecocks are a good recent example of not reading too much into an opener.
Two years ago, South Carolina beat North Carolina in a border showdown in Charlotte. About a month later, their season had gone off the rails in Columbia with Steve Spurrier jumping ship while up in Chapel Hill the Tar Heels won 11 in a row and took Clemson to the wire in the ACC Championship game.
While Clemson should be merely a dress rehearsal for its new players as it works the kinks out before upcoming ranked challenges against Auburn and Louisville, South Carolina and Georgia Tech face stern tests that could determine the trajectories of their season. We’ll know a lot more about each of them by this time next week.
Yet the most regional scrutiny will surely be reserved for the Bulldogs and second-year coach Kirby Smart. Appalachian State represents the kind of test Georgia didn’t handle very well in Year 1 of the Smart era and more than simply winning will be expected Saturday at Sanford Stadium.
“This is the opportunity of a lifetime for them,” Smart said of the Sun Belt Conference visitors. “You have to understand that their want and desire cannot be more than your want and desire.”
There’s no question that Appalachian State is an opening opponent to be taken seriously. Like drawing Princeton or Richmond in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Mountaineers earned a “giant killer” reputation with a stunning upset of blue-blood Michigan a decade ago when App State was just a Division I-AA power.
Now the program from Boone, N.C., is a bona fide Division I-A school trying to expand its profile and looking for a new trophy to hang on its wall. A year ago, Tennessee was the preseason favorite to win the SEC East and the Volunteers had to dig deep and rally to escape Appalachian State in overtime.
This season, UGA is that SEC East favorite with a long season to prove itself. Any Bulldog follower would be lying if they claimed they didn’t look at the full schedule when it was released and assumed this would be a reliable ‘W.’
But after last season’s missteps against Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech or narrow escapes against Nicholls, Missouri and Kentucky, the Bulldogs can’t take anything for granted and start looking ahead to next week’s road trip to Notre Dame.
“We’ve been away from playing in a game for like a year now so guys are definitely ready to go out there and showcase their talents,” said graduate senior defensive back Aaron Davis. “Everybody is pumped and excited for this game, so we are ready for whatever opponent it is.”
The Appalachian/Notre Dame start is kind of the reverse opening two-step from a year ago when all the hype for Smart’s successful head coaching debut in the Georgia Dome against UNC seemed to lead to a letdown a week later against Nicholls that proved more revealing in the long run.
Smart believes he’s learned from his rookie mistakes and is ready for a new challenge to begin.
“The biggest thing for us is it is a different opponent, it is in a different venue, it’s in a different place, a little different time, so when you factor in all those things … we are going through our checklist,” he said. “We are executing everything we have done in the past to make sure we have every situation that could come up covered. As you well know, sometimes the unexpected can happen, so the biggest thing for us is being prepared for that.”
Whether the outcome is expected or not, the premature judgments start this week after all the tailgates get packed up. That’s what makes the opening of college football season the most eventful and welcome part of the sports calendar.