The warmup games of Thursday night are by us and the college football season begins for real tonight and goes each day through Monday in a Labor Day weekend football-fest. The highlight of the weekend is the Saturday night games between Boise State-Georgia and Oregon-LSU respectively, so let’s start our look at the weekend there.
Boise State vs. Georgia (Atlanta, 8 ET ESPN): I love the defensive front of Boise in this game, particulary the damage they can do on the interior. It’s going to create some big matchup problems for Georgia, who has to throw freshman right tackle Brent Benedict to the wolves in a tough environment for your college debut. The Bulldogs will unveil highly touted freshman running back Isiah Crowell, hoping he can follow in the footsteps of quarterback Aaron Murray, who played very well as a freshman last year. Offensively, Boise State will be a step behind the last two years, with a new receivers corps, and their own right side of the line is young with two sophomores starting. But they still have Kellen Moore to make plays at quarterback, Doug Martin is in the backfield. Given the defensive havoc I expect Boise to wreak, that gives them the edge. The Georgia Dome crowd makes it close, but it’s the second straight road-neutral opening week win for the Broncos, 20-17.
LSU-Oregon (Dallas, 8 ET ABC): The media will tell you there’s going to be a lot of speed and a lot of great athletes in this game and that’s absolutely correct. What won’t be emphasized is that both of this preseason Top 5 teams have some work to do breaking in new players in the trenches. Where LSU is strong is at linebacker and I think that gives them a chance to stop Oregon running back LaMichael James. The Ducks secondary is very good, with cover corner Cliff Harris joining safeties Eddie Pleasant and John Boyett as part of a unit that will get a couple picks against Jarett Lee, in at quarterback for Jordan Jefferson. Overall, I’m expecting a good, but sloppy game between teams that won’t play up to their national ranking. The SEC’s better than the Pac-10 and on that basis LSU wins 26-20.
That’s the Saturday night highlights. Surrounding those three games are good individual matchups on Friday, Sunday and Monday. Here’s the rundown…
TCU-Baylor (Fri, 8 ET ESPN): The Horned Frogs are 24-0 over the last two regular seasons and won last season’s Rose Bowl, but there’s a lot of rebuilding to do here. They’ll meet a hungry Baylor program on the rise and playing at home. Robert Griffin is an explosive dual threat quarterback and has outstanding receivers in Kendall Wright and deep threat Josh Gordon. It’s all there for the Bears to get a showcase win, and I think they’ll do it. The only flaw on the team is an inexperienced back seven on defense, and with Andy Dalton in the pros, TCU doesn’t have the quarterback to exploit it. Baylor wins it 24-13.
SMU-Texas A&M (Sun, 8 ET ESPN): This is a great game between two teams that can expect great seasons. Both offenses are high-powered, but it’s when the Mustangs have the ball that things will be most interesting. SMU struggled offensively in the Conference USA title game and in their bowl loss to Army to end last year, indicating a problem with decent defenses. Texas A&M has to show that they are now a decent defense after making gradual improvement from a 2009 performance that was positively awful. The Aggies have too much offensive talent to be stopped, with Ryan Tannehill throwing to Jeff Fuller and both Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael in the backfield. They win this one 38-27.
Miami-Maryland (Mon, 8 ET ABC): Miami has more talent, but to say this program has suffered distractions lately is like saying Bill Clinton had distractions during the Monica Lewinsky affair. The ‘Canes will also miss starting quarterback Jacory Harris, though backup Stephen Morris got meaningful playing time a year ago. He’ll be able to make some throws to Travis Benjamin against a vulnerable Maryland secondary. But the Terps will score points, as returning sophomore quarterback Danny O’Brien continues his own solid growth and Randy Edsall gets his career off to a good start in College Park with a 23-17 win.
WHITE SOX & GIANTS MAKE LAST STAND
The playoff picture in baseball is looking remarkably settled right now, save for a good race in the AL West. But we have to expect that at least some part of that picture will get rattled by a team making a September push. The White Sox & Giants each have the chance to make a stand this weekend against their respective division leaders.
That San Francisco is in this position is a surprising turnabout. They led the NL West for much of the summer and acquired Carlos Beltran at the trade deadline. Since that’s point nothing has gone right. Pablo Sandoval has been the only offensive player that can really be relied on. While that’s no different than what’s been the case all year, the Giants now have closer Brian Wilson on the disabled list for probably a couple more weeks, and just got setup man Sergio Romo back from the ranks of the walking wounded. Jonathan Sanchez may be lost from the rotation the rest of the year with ankle problems. Arizona meanwhile has seen it all come together, especially with their pitching. Ian Kennedy, who squares off with Tim Lincecum on Saturday night, has been pitching like a Cy Young candidate and tonight’s starter Joe Saunders, has finally become the reliable cog he was for the Angels before his 2010 trade to Phoenix. The Diamondbacks margin is at six games right now, rightfielder Justin Upton may win the MVP and winning a road series this weekend would likely put this race away.
Chicago’s been up and down all year and they’re still hanging within 5.5 games of Detroit, and the White Sox go into Motown for a series that culminates with Sunday night ESPN coverage. Even though the ChiSox are still lurking, I don’t see any signs of a real surge to come. Paul Konerko is the only one really swinging the bat well and the bullpen, walking an edge all year, is still vulnerable in the middle and setup spots and far from unbeatable in the ninth inning with Sergio Santos. I would expect the deep Tiger lineup to eventually break through and win this series. But we’ve buried Ozzie Guillen’s club many times this season and the fact remains they’re still in the playoff conversation as football starts. That says something about resilience.
*It's Closing Week at Saratoga as the track runs through Labor Day, while Del Mar out west is set to wrap it up September 7. Visit Bloodhorse.com for updates on the doings here and at major tracks around the country.