Food Network classics or the annual season-opener assessment debate?
Big-time college football kicks off this week, and a full range of entrees will be on the menu from Thursday through Monday for regional fans. We’ve got high- and low-profile nonconference openers on tap Saturday sandwiched between low- and high-profile conference lid-lifters.
South Carolina eases its way into the Southeastern Conference divisional race with an appetizing road trip to Vanderbilt on Thursday night.
Georgia Tech has to hit the ground running full speed with a defining Labor Day test at Atlantic Coast Conference favorite Virginia Tech.
Georgia will shake the cobwebs at home against a Buffalo team that improved from 119th in 2010 to 106th of 120 Division I-A programs last season
Clemson will kick off against 2010 national champs Auburn of the vaunted SEC in a nationally televised prime-time matchup at the Georgia Dome.
As long as you win, nobody complains too much about who you beat in Game 1. But lose like the Bulldogs did against Boise State in last year’s Kickoff Classic in Atlanta and you realize first-game scheduling is nothing to be trifled with.
“It does create a lot of energy in the fanbase and all of that,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of the marquee Tiger-Tiger showcase showdown in Atlanta. “But most coaches out there, if they were honest, would tell you that it sure would be nice to have one or two (preseason) opponents. ... Having said all that, I think it’s a ton of fun for college football and it’s an opportunity to create momentum early in the season.”
As intriguing as top-10s Alabama and Michigan squaring off on opening day is, very rarely does an opener have as much at stake as Monday’s Georgia Tech game.
The Yellow Jackets, in a sense, are “all in” from the get-go. The winner of the Tech-Tech matchup has gone on to represent the Coastal in the ACC Championship every year since divisional play began in 2005.
That’ll wake you up in a hurry.
“It’s a big game, no question,” Jackets coach Paul Johnson said of all the divisional tiebreaker implications up for grabs. “The winner of the game puts itself into pretty good position, but certainly it is a long season and there are 11 more games on the schedule.”
Few teams understand that better than Georgia. But after misstepping last year on the national stage against Boise State, Georgia is reverting to the tried-and-true patsy approach this week. No matter how many players end up being suspended on Saturday (and Mark Richt is withholding that information until game day), the Bulldogs will not lose to Buffalo’s Bulls. All they want to do is escape healthy and establish a rhythm before facing the unknown element of SEC newcomer Missouri the next week.
It’s a far cry from last year’s much-anticipated start.
“When we played Boise State, it was hyped a whole lot more than this game is,” Richt said. “The biggest thing was having two pretty highly-ranked teams – or at least two top-25 teams – playing against each other outside of the normal area. I think that’s what made it a bigger story.”
South Carolina, it seems, has stumbled upon the perfect happy medium – a game of considerable import that’s not uncomfortably taxing. Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier isn’t fazed by jumping right into the SEC East schedule.
“Got to play them sometime. First one for them and first one for us,” he said. “Some people think you get a lot better the second game you play. Hopefully that will be the case for Vanderbilt and not for us. We all had plenty of time to get ready.”
Vanderbilt is emerging from its traditional reputation as everybody’s favorite homecoming opponent, but it hasn’t yet risen to the level of challenging the established hierarchy in the SEC East.
“They have a lot of enthusiasm over Vandy football now,” Spurrier said. “Our guys realize that this is a big game for us – really about the same as the Georgia or Tennessee game.”
Spurrier doesn’t have to gin up any concerns about Vandy posing as a trap game at the top of the order. The last time the Gamecocks opened the SEC against a team other than Georgia was in 2008 in Nashville, Tenn., and the Commodores won 24-14.
So a No. 9 preseason ranking, a healthy Marcus Lattimore and high expectations aren’t enough to take any SEC East team for granted.
“We have tough battles with almost everybody,” Spurrier said. “We don’t blow out hardly anybody – yet. Hopefully some day we can blow out the lesser teams, but certainly Vandy is not in that neighborhood of a lesser team anymore. Maybe several years ago. We’ve always had pretty close games with them from what I can remember. They’ve beaten us a couple of times also out of the seven years (I’ve been at South Carolina). They’re a good team and played everybody tight. Gosh, if they’d been real lucky last year they’d have won eight or nine games instead of six.”
Vandy’s improvement and Spurrier’s presence was enough to attract ESPN into making it the national TV season opener on Thursday night. The Commodores have had it circled on the calendar for months, with coach James Franklin calling it “our Super Bowl; no other game exists.”
“They should circle the home opener on national TV,” Spurrier said. “Somebody said the Goodyear blimp is even going to be there for the first time ever. So they’ve got a lot of firsts going on there.”
No first is bigger than Game 1. Whether your team’s matchup is mild, medium, hot or extra spicy, college football’s opening week always leaves plenty to chew on.