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August 29, 2011

Week 1 Watch: Rough offseason almost over

Already, national attention has been placed on Oregon's fast drives, Miami's defense, LSU's kicking and Texas A&M's game plan.

And that was before the season had even started.

After another tumultuous offseason (is there any other kind, anymore?) the 2011 campaign finally -- and perhaps mercifully -- is upon us.

Now, references to Oregon's speed will center on LaMichael James and the Ducks' quick-striking offense rather than cornerback Cliff Harris' 118-mph joy ride in a rental car. Defensive discussions at Miami will be about stopping Maryland instead of explaining allegations of impropriety. Kicking at LSU won't refer to bar fights, and A&M's game plan won't mean its exit strategy from the Big 12.

The first week of the 2011 schedules stretches over five days and begins Thursday night with two ranked teams in action -- No. 11 Wisconsin facing UNLV and No. 20 Mississippi State at Memphis.

Player under the gun

LSU QB Jarrett Lee

Jordan Jefferson's suspension means Lee -- a senior from Texas -- will run the Tigers' offense Saturday for their highly anticipated season opener against Oregon. Lee is more experienced than the typical backup, as the fifth-year senior is 5-4 in nine career starts. But he is best known for his propensity for throwing interceptions that get returned for touchdowns. He threw an astounding seven "pick-sixes" during the 2008 season. Lee can't afford to make those types of mistakes against an Oregon team that loves to score in bunches. Although Jefferson's status for the rest of the season is up in the air, Lee's job isn't secure. The presence of strong-armed JC transfer Zach Mettenberger gives LSU an alternative if Lee struggles.

Two more ranked teams play Friday, with No. 17 Michigan State facing Youngstown State and No. 11 TCU traveling to Baylor. The first Saturday of the season is highlighted by the nationally prominent matchups of No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 4 LSU in Arlington, Texas, and No. 5 Boise State vs. No. 19 Georgia in Atlanta.

There are two ranked teams playing Sunday, with No. 24 West Virginia clashing with Marshall and No. 8 Texas A&M playing host to SMU. The first week concludes Monday night with Miami at Maryland.

It will be fun. It will be crazy. It will be exciting. And it will be a nice respite until the real craziness returns in the offseason.

Best game: LSU vs. Oregon in Arlington, Texas, 8 p.m., ABC: Perhaps the most compelling non-conference game of the season is a matchup of top-five teams with legitimate national championship aspirations. LSU will be without starting QB Jordan Jefferson, who has been suspended for his role in a Baton Rouge bar fight, and WR Russell Shepard. Oregon will be without CB Cliff Harris, suspended for off-field issues. On the field, QB Darron Thomas and RB LaMichael James lead Oregon's high-powered attack, which last season led the nation in scoring. But scoring won't be easy against LSU. CB Morris Claiborne and LB Ryan Baker head a defense that was among the best in the country last season. The Tigers have won five in a row against Pac-10/12 teams since 2003.

Don't overlook this one: USF at Notre Dame, 3:30 p.m., NBC. We've dubbed this game "The Holtz Bowl." USF coach Skip Holtz will face his father's old team to open the season, the first time a Holtz has been on a Notre Dame sideline since Lou left in 1996. Notre Dame enters the season with its highest preseason ranking since 2006, but the opener won't be easy. USF brings a quick and aggressive defense to South Bend. Notre Dame is 1-4 against Big East teams in the past three seasons.

Under-the-radar storyline: UCLA at Houston, 3:30 p.m., Fox Sports Net. This is Houston QB Case Keenum's first game back since his ACL injury. He was lost for the season in Game 3 last season -- against the Bruins. Houston still ranked fifth in the country in passing without Keenum, but his return gives Houston realistic hope for a Conference USA title.

On the midweek marquee: TCU at Baylor, 8 p.m. Friday, ESPN. Let's face it: The season opens with a whimper Thursday. The most intriguing appetizer for the first Saturday of the season is this Friday night contest. The Horned Frogs routed Baylor 45-10 last season, but this game should be more competitive. New TCU QB Casey Pachall will be challenged right away by a road start. TCU expects its defense to be stifling as always, but dynamic Baylor QB Robert Griffin deserves to have his name listed alongside Landry Jones and Brandon Weeden as the best signal-callers in the Big 12.

Coach under the gun

Georgia's Mark Richt

Although a 6-7 record in 2010 didn't cost Richt his job, this Dawg is on a short leash. After finishing the 2007 season second in The Associated Press poll, Georgia arguably has underachieved in each of the past three seasons. Richt and the Bulldogs can redeem themselves in a big way Saturday by knocking off Boise State. Although Boise State is the higher-ranked and more experienced team, this still is a program from outside the six major conferences venturing into the heart of SEC country. Georgia has every reason to believe it can win. A victory would give the Bulldogs plenty of momentum heading into a Sept. 10 showdown with SEC East Division favorite South Carolina between the hedges. A loss would have Georgia staring at the realistic possibility of a 0-2 start that might make Richt's ouster seem like a foregone conclusion.

Best individual matchup of the week: Baylor QB Robert Griffin vs. TCU LBs Tank Carder and Tanner Brock. TCU has one of the top two or three linebacker tandems in Brock and Carder, but those guys will be on the spot against Baylor. Griffin is a do-everything quarterback who remains underrated nationally. He is an excellent athlete who is dangerous when he tucks and runs. But he also is an effective passer with a solid group of receivers. TCU runs a 4-2-5 set and has some questions in the secondary, so the veteran linebackers need to make sure Griffin doesn't control the game.

Best unit matchup of the week: East Carolina wide receivers vs. South Carolina secondary. Despite a good pass rush, South Carolina allowed 241.9 passing yards per game and surrendered 23 TD passes last season. Both starting safeties will be new and that could be a problem, especially against the pass-happy Pirates. ECU's defense is going to be shredded, which means that if the Pirates want to keep up, this will have to be a shootout. ECU is well-equipped in that regard. Last season, ECU was eighth nationally in pass offense (318.7 ypg), 25th in total offense (437.6 ypg) and 16th in scoring offense (36.8 ppg). QB Dominique Davis threw for 3,967 yards and 37 TDs, and Lance Lewis will be one of the best receivers the Gamecocks see this fall. Lewis has great size (6-3/212) and had 89 receptions for 1,116 yards and 14 TDs. He was the No. 2 receiver last season, and with Dwayne Harris now in the NFL, a 100-catch season is a legit goal. Slot receiver Michael Bowman also is dangerous.

Best coordinator chess match: SMU coach/offensive coordinator June Jones vs. Texas A&M defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. Jones is one of the top offensive minds in the nation and has a dynamic attack that returns 10 starters, led by standout QB Kyle Padron. DeRuyter arrived from Air Force last season and transformed a moribund Aggies defense into a strong unit. And with eight starters back, this defense could be even better than the 2010 edition.

Spotlight conference: ACC. The much-maligned ACC has a chance to score some credibility points right out of the gate. Boston College plays host to the Big Ten's Northwestern and Wake Forest is at the Big East's Syracuse. There also are some underrated matchups, like pesky Troy at Clemson and a visit by FCS Appalachian State to Virginia Tech, which sports a rebuilt offensive backfield. And there even is a conference game on Labor Day night, with Miami playing at Maryland. What will the Hurricanes' depth chart look like?

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