Thursday, August 29th
Utah State @ Utah (-2.5), 5PM PT, FOX Sports 1
Utah State had one of the more quiet 11-2 seasons in recent memory last year. Recall that their two losses were by a combined 5 points, and both road losses to good teams (Wisconsin & BYU). Obviously they weren't playing in the most rugged of conferences (their last year in the WAC before moving to the MWC), but this was a good team - good enough to get their head coach plucked away by Wisconsin when Brett Bielema opted for the big SEC bucks at Arkansas. Matt Wells - the OC for the Aggies under Anderson - takes over, and he has 15 starters returning, including QB Chuckie Keeton and all 5 OL: good news for a team that averaged 204 ypg and 5.6 ypc last year on the ground.
On the other side of the field are the Utes of Utah, a team that has had their confidence shaken after two below-par years in their introduction to BCS conference play. Known for strong defenses, the Utes have to replace DL studs Star Lotulelei, Dave Kruger and Joe Kruger - not a good recipe when facing a team that can run the ball as well as Utah State. They are banking on rapid improvement in young QB Travis Wilson, and with wily OC Dennis Erickson now on hand, that's not far-fetched. But I'm thinking that the Utes are headed for another tough year in the Pac-12, and an opening week loss to the Aggies will be the harbinger. Utah State 31, Utah 20
USC (-23) @ Hawaii, 8PM PT, CBS Sports Network
The good news for the Warriors is they return 18 starters from last season. The bad news is...they return 18 starters from last season. This was not a good team under 1st year HC Norm Chow, and despite his rep as an offensive guru - and a recent history of top-notch offenses at Hawaii - they struggled greatly in this regard last year. Obviously with that many starters returning there's hope for improvement, but the reality may just be that these guys aren't that talented.
That's exactly the kind of road game season opener the Trojans need - a trip to the beautiful island of O'ahu against a bad team that shouldn't present much of a challenge. Coach Kiffin is playing with fire in opting to start the season with a 2-QB rotation, but in this game it shouldn't matter much, as Marqise Lee should tear it up regardless of who's throwing to him. RB Silas Redd appears unlikely to make the trip, but there's enough talent at this position and in the Trojan's OL that they should still put up 150+ yards without blinking. I'm not convinced that Kiffin will get the most out of the talent on this roster, but in week 1 I don't think it will matter much. USC 42, Hawaii 17
Friday, August 30th
Northern Arizona @ Arizona (-35), 7PM PT, Pac-12 Network
While the Lumberjacks had a pretty good year last year by FCS standards - even sneaking a win over FBS UNLV by 3 points - they also got thrashed by ASU 63-6. They are expected to again be one of the better teams at the FCS level, and recent history has shown that you can never completely overlook a lower-division team. They feature a fairly balanced offense with a 1,000 yard RB returning in Zach Bauman, but they have to replace their QB.
This should be what it's intended to be for Arizona - a glorified practice game to get them prepped for the rest of their season. It will be interesting to see what RichRod can manage with this team - gone is QB Matt Scott who flourished in the Wildcat spread offense, and their WR group took some big hits in the off-season. That will put more pressure on All-American RB Ka'Deem Carey, and it remains to be seen which QB ends up getting the majority of the snaps, though the front-runner appears to be B.J. Denker. The defense returns nearly intact, and the hope for Wildcat fans is this group can show significant improvement over last year's results. They were actually better than you probably think - the breakneck pace of Arizona under RichRod led to inflated overall numbers on both offense and defense, so while their raw numbers didn't look so good, the advanced metrics were more kind. I think Arizona may have some sputters and kinks to work out, which is exactly why you schedule this kind of game - they should still be able to win by a reasonably comfortable margin, but it probably won't be the thrashing that ASU administered last year. Arizona 35, Northern Arizona 13
Saturday, August 31st
Nicholls State @ Oregon (-59), 1PM PT, Fox Sports 1
Nicholls State is an FCS program that has won 1 game per year each of the last three years. I know the UW no longer has the moral high ground here now that we've started scheduling FCS teams (including a pretty bad Idaho State team this year), but c'mon - this is ridiculous.
I guess I could talk about the Ducks here, but really - what does it matter? They'll name their score, everyone not redshirting will play and have a good old time, and Mark Helfrich will desperately hope that none of his most important players get hurt. Oregon 83, Nicholls State 10
Eastern Washington @ Oregon State (-27), 3PM PT, Pac-12 Networks
Locals should be familiar with Eastern, as they've been one of the top FCS programs around in recent years including winning a National Championship in 2010. They fell just short of returning to the FCS Title game last year and are expected to again be a major challenger to win it all this year. Beau Baldwin's team relied heavily on their passing game last year, but will have to replace 3 top WR's. Still, it would be unwise to overlook the Eagles.
Sean Mannion appears to have won the QB job for the Beavers and hopes to build on a legacy of Mike Riley QB's that improve significantly over their careers. He certainly has the physical tools, but will need some additional targets to step up and supplement Brandin Cooks with Markus Wheaton now graduated. With 4 starters returning on the OL, the Beavers could see their run game improve behind RB Storm Woods. They will lean heavily on ends Scott Crichton and Dylan Wynn to generate pass rush while hoping they can find some answers in the middle of the DL. This will not be a cakewalk for Oregon State, but they match up pretty well, and if they take the game seriously (and they should given their recent history against FCS teams) they should avoid the late game heroics the Huskies needed to down the Eagles in 2011. Oregon State 38, Eastern Washington 20
Washington State @ Auburn (-16), 4PM PT, ESPNU
It was a dizzying fall from the top of the mountain to the unemployment line in just 2 years for Gene Chizik, but I suppose it could be argued that it's tough to keep winning when ownership slashes payroll. In comes Gus Malzahn and his gleaming rep as an offensive guru, but it's his defense that has more returning pieces to work with as they welcome back 9 starters, including all 4 defensive backs. That's a nice luxury to have as they face off against the Mike Leach Air Raid attack.
Over in Pullman, there's growing confidence that the Cougars can surprise some folks this year. Last year there was a lot of hype surrounding the arrival of Leach, a coach that had - up to that point - never posted a losing season, and Cougar fans were expecting a bowl game as a reward after suffering through several years of terrible football. Instead, they got a dysfunctional team that struggled to adapt to a new way of doing things. But the building blocks are there for the Cougs to improve with 15 starters returning and an improving group of young WR's. The big question mark is if Connor Halliday is the right trigger-man for Leach, or if he's too inaccurate to really make his Air Raid work. I don't think the Cougs roll over in this game, but the Tigers will be celebrating the start of the Malzahn era. Auburn 35, WSU 17
Nevada @ UCLA (-20.5), 7PM PT, Pac-12 Networks
Chris Ault has retired (for the 2nd time) and hands off the reigns to Brian Polian. The good news is he gets QB Cody Fajardo back; the bad news is he doesn't get a whole lot else, returning just 11 starters and 34 lettermen. Offensively they should continue to ride the pistol (Ault's invention) to success with Fajardo at the controls, but on defense they will be replacing their entire back 7.
UCLA scrapped the pistol and went to Noel Mazzone's up-tempo zone-read attack - a perfect fit as it turned out for wunderkind QB Brett Hundley. Hundley will no longer have RB Johnathan Franklin to hand off to, and while the talent at RB should mean little drop off in the running game, they are unproven. They are also counting on a big step forward by the OL which allowed Hundley to get sacked far too often (3rd most sacks per game allowed in 2012). They also have to be a bit worried about a depleted secondary that will be leaning heavily on youth to step up. And while stud OLB Anthony Barr and solid DT Cassius Marsh return, there are gaps to fill at the ends as well. I think this could turn into a shootout, and while the Bruins should prevail, I think Nevada will put a scare into them. UCLA 42, Nevada 31
Northwestern (-5.5) @ Cal, 7:30PM PT, ESPN2
Northwestern was just a few breaks away from winning the "Legends" division of the Big Ten last year and playing for a spot in the Rose Bowl, but still managed to post a 10-3 record that marked their best season since the '95 Cinderella squad that was the last Wildcat team to go to the Rose Bowl. They return the key men in a strong running game - QB Kain Colter and RB Venrick Mark combined for over 2,200 yards on the ground last year. They also return 7 starters on defense, including 3 in their secondary. They have experience in their depth too, returning 54 lettermen. Coach Pat Fitzgerald has done a good job turning this program into a consistently respectable outfit.
Sonny Dykes takes over at Cal to try to revive the fortunes of the Bear program which rose high early on under Jeff Tedford, but then fell back to earth over the last few years culminating in last year's disaster that cost him his job. The good news for Dykes is the Bears have recruited a fair amount of talent, but he'll need that talent to mature in a hurry as just 9 starters return (one of the lowest figures in the country). Among that group of talented youth is his starting QB, true frosh Jared Goff. He'll have some nice targets at WR, but they too are mostly a young group, and he will have to hope his OL doesn't get him killed - they were one of the worst in the country last year in sacks allowed. That may mean they lean heavily on highly talented RB Brendan Bigelow (a one-time Husky commit) who might be the 2nd most explosive RB in the conference behind DAT. On defense it's a similar story - a lot of youth will be served, albeit (supposedly) talented youth. I think they'll play hard for their new coach in his debut, but there will be too many mistakes and the veteran Wildcats pull away. Northwestern 31, Cal 20.
Sunday, September 1st
Colorado @ Colorado State (-3), 3PM PT, CBS Sports Network
Jim McElwain found out what life was like with the also-rans last year as he took over the Rams after having been the OC for Alabama. Fortunately for him he got to face Colorado in his debut, and the Buffs made him feel all warm and fuzzy by being so terrible that Colorado State notched just their 21st win in 84 meetings between the two rivals. He's still in the process of trying to build up the talent on the roster, but he'll have a lot of returning starters to lean on as he welcomes back 16 from 2012.
While it's unusual to see a coach run out of town after just 2 years - and a former player from the glory days to boot - that's just how awful Colorado has been the last two years and how little confidence the administration had in things improving under Jon Embree. Enter Mike MacIntyre, someone who knows about major rebuilding projects from his prior stint with San Jose State. He too has a lot of returning starters to work with: 17 in fact. That was the upside of Colorado fielding such a young lineup last year. The downside is they were one of the worst teams in recent FBS memory, and only an epic "Coug'n-it" choke job by WSU kept the Buffs from a winless season. This will probably be another tough year in Boulder, and while the talent is probably a little better on the Buff sideline, the Rams are in their 2nd year of their rebuilding process, and that may be enough of an edge to notch the win on a neutral field (Denver's new Mile High Stadium, or whatever they're calling it now). Colorado State 24, Colorado 21