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College Football Preview, Week 1: Oregon, LSU Highlight First Weekend Of Action

After a wild off-season that had little to do with football, it's finally time to start focusing on the action on the field. A pair of games involving ranked teams headline the opening weekend schedule, but those are just two of the many games that will impact the national title race.

It seems like forever ago that Cam Newton, engulfed in scandal, led the Auburn Tigers to the 2011 BCS National Championship with a last second win over the Oregon Ducks in the Arizona desert. Beginning with the surprise vacating of Georgia Tech’s 2009 ACC Championship all the way up to the recent bombshell allegations leveled against the Miami Hurricanes, the entire off-season was engulfed by scandal.

But now the time has come to focus on football. The pre-season polls say that two of the most historic programs of all time, Alabama and Oklahoma, are on a collision course to meet in the Superdome in New Orleans for the National Championship. But, the last team to go wire to wire as the No. 1 team in the country was Florida State over a decade ago. In fact, history says that a surprise team will emerge from the shadows to challenge the throne.  Auburn began last season barely in the Top 25 before hoisting the trophy.

So who will emerge this year? Who will disappoint? And who will hold up that big crystal ball on January 9th, 2012 as the champions of college football?

This week begins the long journey toward those answers. Week 1 almost always provides a few surprises in the form of top 25 teams being upset by mid-majors and FCS teams, and this year should be no exception. Teams like Miami-Ohio (vs. No. 21 Missouri) and East Carolina (vs. No. 12 South Carolina) all are talented enough to spring the first surprise of the 2011 season.

But the games that everyone will be watching are the ones that pit ranked teams against each other. There are only two on the docket this week, but both hold major national title implications. No. 5 Boise State will travel to SEC territory to battle the No. 19 Georgia Bulldogs.  The other involves two of the teams that have been rocked the scandal ridden off season when No. 4 LSU and No. 3 Oregon tangle in the Jerry Dome in Dallas.

We’ll be previewing the week in college football every Thursday from now, all the way through the BCS National Championship Game in January.

THE MAIN EVENTS

No. 5 Boise State @ No. 19 Georgia –Sept. 3 @ 8:00 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN3.com) The tables have turned in the past few years. Often times this type of game was much more important for the Broncos, as they were the ones always seeking the respect that comes from playing a team from the SEC. The game is still crucial for Boise as a loss would all but eliminate them from the national title race, but it’s the Bulldogs that are looking to make a statement in this one. Georgia head coach Mark Richt is on the hot seat after finishing last season 6-7, marking his second consecutive year that didn’t live up to the lofty expectations of the fanbase. For Boise, the loss of stud receivers Austin Pettis and Titus Young will be a challenge to replace, but they still have Heisman Trophy candidate Kellen Moore and should be strong again. The Georgia Dome could provide an extra boost of adrenaline for the Bulldogs.

No.3 Oregon vs. No. 4 LSU – 8 p.m. – Sept. 3 @ 8:00 p.m. (ABC) Both teams are facing off-field distractions, but those do nothing to diminish the importance of this neutral site (Texas Stadium in Dallas, TX) game.  For the Ducks, the national title game was a case of 'what could have been.' They didn’t play their best game, but still found themselves even with the Auburn Tigers in the closing minutes. This game is a crucial test of their resolve to put that loss behind them and re-ascend the ladder and finish what they started. For the Bayou Bengals, the dismissals of quarterback Jordan Jefferson and wide receiver Russell Sheppard are potentially devastating blows. Fifth year senior Jarrett Lee will step in for Jefferson, but in order to replace Sheppard, a more collective effort will be required. Still, Les Miles is more known for his defenses, and the national title game showed us that a strong defensive line can disorient the high powered Ducks attack and LSU has produced some of the best defensive linemen in the country in recent years.

THE UNDERCARD

No. 14 TCU @ Baylor – Sept. 2 @ 8:00 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN3.com) The Horned Frogs are coming off the greatest season in school history, going undefeated and defeating Wisconsin to win the Rose Bowl. Gone though is star QB Andy Dalton, replaced by junior Casey Pachall, who will be counted on to keep the incredibly efficient TCU attack on schedule. On the other side of the ball, the Frogs will continue to be a terror. Led by All-American Tank Carder at linebacker, TCU had one of the best defenses in all of college football. Still, this game will be a test as Baylor is more than capable of springing the upset behind All-Big 12 QB Robert Griffin III. The Bears had one of their best seasons in recent memory last year, starting out 7-2 and making a bowl game. The Frogs dominated last years match-up, 45-10.

South Florida @ No. 16 Notre Dame – Sept. 3 @ 3:30 p.m. (NBC) The usual whispers about Notre Dame being "back" have started up again just as sure as the seasons change. But, this time there might actually be a modicum of truth to it. In Brian Kelly’s second season, the expectations are sky high for the Irish to reach a BCS bowl game for the first time since a humiliating loss to LSU in the 2007 Sugar Bowl. Led by All-American LB Manti T’eo, the Irish defense should be able to take some of the pressure off of its strong offense. Who will be leading the offense is another question. Dayne Crist is expected to start the season at QB, but sophomore Tommy Reese will see time if Crist struggles. South Florida is a great opening week opponent for them and will challenge their defense behind dual threat QB B.J. Daniels. The Bulls are expected to be in the mix for a Big East Championship and a win at Notre Dame Stadium would provide a great boost of confidence.

Miami-FL @ Maryland – Sept. 5 @ 8:00 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN3.com) This game makes the undercard more because of the "car wreck" corollary.  It will be fascinating to watch and see how Miami handles their first game of the season without 8 starters including QB Jacory Harris, WR Travis Benjamin, LB Sean Spence and DT Marcus Fortson. The loss of Harris might actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the ‘Canes as the senior was incredibly erratic the last two years, throwing far too many interceptions for anyone’s liking. His replacement will be Stephen Morris, who took over for the second half of last year when Harris suffered a jaw-dropping concussion. Hoping to take advantage of the missing star power from Miami will be the Maryland Terrapins. Sophomore QB Danny O’Brien was one of the ACC’s breakout stars last year and should contend for the league’s Player of the Year award. If you want a local spin on this game, both coaches, Al Golden and Randy Edsall, are former staff members at Boston College and are making their debuts with Miami and Maryland,respectively.

UPSET WATCH

Southern Methodist @ No. 8 Texas A&M – Sep. 4 @ 7:30 p.m. (Local TV Only) The bulk of the country won’t see this one, and for the 8th ranked Aggies, that may not be a bad thing. SMU is riding high after putting together just its second winning season since it received the death penalty 23 years ago that crippled the once mighty program.  The Mustangs made the Conference USA Championship Game and competed in the Armed Forces Bowl and will look to build on those accomplishments this year. Texas A&M comes into the season riding a wave of hype that is usually reserved for its arch rivals from Austin. This, coupled with the potential distractions that come with the school divorcing itself from the Big 12 and potentially running away to the SEC and a strong SMU squad provide a recipe for an upset that could alter the national title picture in Week 1.

LOCAL SPOTLIGHT

Northwestern @ Boston College – Sep. 3 @ 12:00 p.m. (ESPNU/ESPN3.com/WEEI) The Eagles make their season debut at Alumni Stadium when they welcome in Dan Persa and the Northwestern Wildcats.  Two or three years ago, this would have been a lay-up for BC, but coach Pat Fitzgerald has a Heisman candidate (Persa) at quarterback and has his team playing hard every week.  Boston College is missing leading rusher Montel Harris (knee) but will debut a new offense under coordinator Kevin Rogers and still possesses one of the best defenses in the country.

UMass @ Holy Cross – Sep. 1 @ 8:00 p.m. (1510AM, 830AM, 95.9FM, 100.9FM)

New Hampshire @ Toledo – Sep. 1 @ 7:00 p.m. (UNHWildcats.com)

Bryant @ Maine – Sep. 3 @ 5:00 p.m. (97.1FM, 1310AM)