THURSDAY, AUGUST 30
Washington State at BYU (10:15pm ET, ESPN)
ESPN's early game on Thursday night's season kick-off is South Carolina at Vanderbilt, but the real fireworks figure to come a little bit later in the evening, when Mike Leach makes his return to the college football landscape. Football hasn't been the same without the Dread Pirate Cap'n, so it will be great to see him on the sidelines again. It will also be interesting to see how he fares in his debut with Washington State; he inherits a few pieces for a potent passing attack (notably WR Marquess Wilson, 1st team All-Pac 12 a year ago), so hopefully we see some spectacle. BYU returns 14 starters in year two of their new Independence Era and is looking for a hot start to 2012. Wazzu puts up some fireworks, but BYU takes control in the second half.
THE PICK: BYU 34, WASHINGTON STATE 24
FRIDAY, AUGUST 31
#24 Boise State at #13 Michigan State (8pm ET, ESPN)
How do you replace quarterbacks who rank among the best to ever play for your school? That's the question facing both Michigan State and Boise State entering this game. MSU's Kirk Cousins went 28-10 and led Sparty to the cusp of back-to-back Rose Bowls. Boise's Kellen Moore was even better: 50-3, a Fiesta Bowl win, and a litany of passing records. Neither quarterback will be easy to replace. Boise also has to replace their leading rusher and receiver; Sparty has to replace their top four receivers. The defenses are a different story; Michigan State returns eight starters, including three All-Big Ten performers (DE William Gholston, LB Max Bullough, SS Isaiah Lewis), while Boise returns... two starters (their cornerbacks). On the other hand, Boise has recruited well under Chris Petersen and this is exactly the sort of situation (lots of prep time) where Boise excels against big-time opponents. If Boise can bottle up MSU's running game and force new QB Andrew Maxwell to beat them through the air, Boise has a great chance to claim another BCS scalp. Still, I think MSU's defense will be too much for Boise.
THE PICK: MICHIGAN STATE 24, BOISE STATE 13
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 1
Notre Dame vs. Navy (9am ET, CBS)
Notre Dame ended their two-game losing streak to Navy last year with a resounding 56-14 beatdown of the Midshipmen. This year, their annual rivalry is going across the pond to Ireland. Navy returns 13 starters, but has to break in a new QB and FB -- not ideal for a team trying to pull an upset. Which is a shame because this looks like a Notre Dame ripe for being upset -- they're breaking in a redshirt freshman (Everett Golson) at QB and without their leading rusher from a year ago (Cierre Woods, suspended) and leading receiver from a year ago (Michael Floyd, drafted). The good news for Notre Dame is their defense, which returns six starters, including stud LB Manti Te'o. Their weakness is in their secondary (just one returning starters), but Navy's triple option attack isn't likely to be able to exploit that.
THE PICK: NOTRE DAME 27, NAVY 14
#14 Clemson vs. Auburn (7pm ET, ESPN)
The battle for tiger supremacy! Clemson finally stopped Clemson-ing themselves long enough last year to go 10-3, win the ACC, and make the Orange Bowl. Things went badly for them there (see: West Virginia 70, Clemson 33), but up 'til that point it was Clemson's finest season in years. They return 13 starters from that team, including QB Tajh Boyd and RB Andre Ellington... unfortunately electrifying WR Sammy Watkins won't be one of the returning starters in this game; he's suspended. Auburn returns 15 starters, but has to find new studs at QB and RB... and break in a host of new assistant coaches. This smells like a close, competitive game that comes down to which team is able to avoid making a crippling error in the fourth quarter. History has taught me that Clemson can't have nice things, so...
THE PICK: AUBURN 27, CLEMSON 24
#8 Michigan vs. #2 Alabama (8pm ET, ABC)
The biggest game of the weekend gets the biggest stage: primetime on ABC, live from JerryWorld in Dallas. The atmosphere should be electric... but will the football? Probably... not. Denard Robinson is a nightmare to try and contain, but athletic, disciplined defenses have done well against him in the past and Alabama has had ample prep time for this game. Their defense lost a host of stars from their historic unit a year ago... but they're still Alabama, Nick Saban's recruiting has still been otherworldly, and they're still going to simply reload. On the other side of the ball, it doesn't help Michigan that their biggest weakness (a defensive line with just one returning starter) will face one of Alabama's biggest strengths (an offensive line that returns four starters). Bama also has to replace the beastly Trent Richardson at RB, but that offensive line should be able to open up more than enough holes for his replacement(s) and keep QB AJ McCarron upright long enough to find some open receivers. To win this game, Michigan probably needs one of the best performances of Denard Robinson's career. Hard to see that happening against a Saban-led defense.
THE PICK: ALABAMA 31, MICHIGAN 14
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 3
Georgia Tech at #16 Virginia Tech (8pm ET, ESPN)
Who needs to ease into things? Not the Tech schools; they're starting the season with a huge intra-division, one that figures to be crucial in the division title race. By the end of Labor Day, one of these teams will already be on the outside looking in when it comes to winning the Coastal division. My money's on that team being Georgia Tech. They may return 13 starters, including 4/5 of their offensive line, their starting QB (Tevin Washington) and all three of their leading rushers (Washington and RBs David Sims and Orwin Smith)... but their tricky flexbone attack tends to flounder against quick, disciplined defenses that have an opportunity to spend extra practice time preparing for it. That describes Virginia Tech's defense to a T. Logan Thomas is the only returning offensive player of note for the Hokies, but I think he'll be able to make enough plays for VT to pull this game out.
THE PICK: VIRGINIA TECH 31, GEORGIA TECH 21