Florida fans might have more on their mind than just football this weekend. With the Gators set to play host to Middle Tennessee State in the season opener Saturday, the bigger news in the state is the arrival of Hurricane Frances. Although half a million people have been evacuated from various parts of the state, Florida coach Ron Zook said he expects the game to go on as planned.
"I really do. There is not much I can do about it anyway," Zook said. "If something happens and we can't, they will make that decision from there, but we are hoping that it will be all right."
In their only previous meeting, Florida whipped the Blue Raiders, 55-0, in Florida Field during the 2000 season. But Zook believes his team will see a tougher test from MTSU this time around.
"We are excited to get kicked off for the 2004 season," Zook said. "We are playing a formidable opponent, and hopefully our team is prepared and ready to play.
"They've got a lot of excellent football players. They had Georgia on the ropes (last year) and they have a very good football team."
While most Division I-AA teams serve as cupcakes on the schedule for major-conference programs, Georgia coach Mark Richt isn't so sure this week's opponent -- Georgia Southern -- should be put in that same category.
"This is one of the best Division I-AA teams in the country we're playing," Richt said. "And when you're looking on tape, there's not much of a difference. This is a very good football team and there's not as much of a difference as people think."
The Eagles return 21 starters from a 7-4 team.
Georgia will be without backup cornerback Mikey Henderson, who broke his ankle during preseason drills and will be out for at least half the season.
The Wildcats are hoping one recent trend will hold true when they visit Louisville Sunday in an afternoon game being broadcast by ESPN. Despite losing six of the last 10 season openers against the Cardinals -- including a 40-24 loss last season in Lexington -- the Wildcats lead the series 4-1 in games played in Louisville.
"We hope that obviously we will do a better job this year (than last year)," said Kentucky coach Rich Brooks. "We have added to our depth. Shane Boyd is looking forward to his role as the starting quarterback. It's a big game for us and we are looking forward to it."
The Wildcats thought they might be without All-SEC defensive end Sweetpea Burns for the season opener. But now it looks like Burns will be ready to go.
"We had some good news early this week, as Sweetpea Burns worked out on Monday and didn't have any problems," said Brooks. "He will continue to get more reps during the week. He isn't 100 percent, but I think he is ready to play a significant role in the opener."
For the first time since 1995, South Carolina is opening a new season against an SEC opponent when the Gamecocks visit Vanderbilt Saturday in an 11:30 a.m. kickoff which can be seen on Jefferson-Pilot. One man, though, isn't too fond of playing a conference game right off the bat.
"I don't like and I really don't think it's fair to open up with a conference opponent," said South Carolina coach Lou Holtz. "But that's already set up in advance, so we'll go play it."
The Gamecocks have won 11 of 13 previous meetings against the Commodores. But five of the last 10 games have been decided by 7 points or less.
"Opening up is always difficult because you don't know what to expect," Holtz said. "Our team is anxious to play, but are we ready to play? You're never ready to play your first game, even if you have another month to prepare. Because there's always more you can get accomplished."
For only the sixth time in school history and the first-time ever in Neyland Stadium, Tennessee will play football on a Sunday when the Vols host UNLV to open the 2004 season. The game -- which will be televised by ESPN at 7 p.m. Sunday -- is only the second meeting between the two schools. Tennessee roasted the Rebels, 62-3, in its only other meeting back in 1996.
"We're excited to get the football season started. There is a lot of anticipation to see our young team, and I'm anxious to see them on the field," said Vols coach Phillip Fulmer. "I am excited about the two youngsters (at quarterback), they are talented but at times we will have to be patient with them."
As of Wednesday, Fulmer had yet to name a starting quarterback to replace Casey Clausen. Freshman Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer are both vying for the job.
"We will probably name (the starter today)," Fulmer said. "We think we have a good plan for what we are going to do. It is exciting to see what they are going to do. We've started freshmen, not to begin the season, and the people are going to enjoy seeing the young players play."
Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson doesn't mind so much that his Commodores are opening the season against an SEC opponent. But Johnson knows playing South Carolina on Saturday makes the first game even that more significant.
"I don't know if it's fair or unfair," Johnson said. "But it puts a lot of importance on that first game. You usually aren't your sharpest in that first game and things aren't always as magnified when your playing a nonconference opponent."
This marks the second-straight season Vanderbilt has opened against an SEC foe. Last year,Vandy lost, 24-21, to Ole Miss in Nashville in the opener.
Vanderbilt returns 21 starters from last season's 2-10 team.
"Just like everyone else, we are excited about the season. Hopefully we can go out and have a great performance."
Expect to see plenty of youth on the football field when Alabama plays host to Utah State on Saturday. With NCAA probation limiting scholarship numbers, the Crimson Tide are forced to go with some younger guys right from the start.
"We've got a bunch of freshman that are going to play the first game," said Alabama coach Mike Shula. "Not only because of the lack of scholarships, but because they're ready to play."
Alabama and Utah State have never met, but the Crimson Tide does hold a 12-0 advantage against other teams from the Sun Belt Conference.
"We are excited about the season. This offseason felt a lot different than last time," Shula said. "We are going to be a young football team, we have said that all along. But everyone is looking forward to Saturday."
With just one starter -- senior quarterback Matt Jones -- returning on offense, the Razorbacks are again being picked near the bottom of the SEC Western Division. Despite low expectations outside the program, coach Houston Nutt believes his team is ready for another run at the West title.
"We are excited about starting the season," Nutt said. "We are ready to hit a different color jersey, and we are excited about the game week. We've had a good camp and we're just ready for Saturday.
Nutt doesn't expect the Hogs to have a breather this week, though, with New Mexico State visiting Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium for a 6 p.m. start Saturday.
"We're playing a very good team with a very good defense," Nutt said. "It will be a good situation for us."
Arkansas leads the all-time series with the Aggies, 4-0. The Razorbacks defeated New Mexico State, 48-20, in 2003.
It's safe to say Auburn will be playing a much softer season-opening opponent than it did in 2003. A year ago, the Tigers began the campaign against eventual co-national champion USC. This season, Auburn hosts Louisiana-Monroe in the opener set for Saturday.
"We are ready to play, and we need to play," said Tigers coach Tommy Tuberville. "We should have most everyone back for this weekend. It hasn't been as hot as it's needed to be, but we will find out a lot about our team and how they will get acclimated in the heat. We will have to learn as we go. It's going to be interesting."
Auburn won easily against the Indians last season, posting a 73-7 drubbing in Auburn. But Tuberville expects Louisiana-Monroe to put up more of a fight this weekend.
"Louisiana-Monroe didn't have a very good football team last year," Tuberville said. "But they've got a lot of players back and we didn't see their starting quarterback (Steven Jyles). He had a death in the family that week and couldn't make the trip and I think that kind of affected them from the start."
Sure, LSU is the defending co-national champions. And the Tigers are expecting great things again this fall.
But high expectations and past success haven't stopped coach Nick Saban from touting this week's opponent -- Oregon State -- as a very formidable foe.
"Oregon State is certainly a good football team," Saban said. "I am sure as we always do when we play a team from another recognized conference, we want to represent the SEC well and show them how we play football in the SEC. We are looking forward to the opportunity."
Saban is particularly impressed with the Beavers' offense.
"This is a very well coached offensive team. They do more things than I saw in pro football in college," said Saban. "They do a lot of bunch passes and things that you don't always see in college. It has certainly been good to have some time to adjust to them. I think they are successful with what they do and they have a good quarterback."
LSU and Oregon State play at 5 p.m. Saturday in Baton Rouge in an ESPN nationally-televised contest.
Sylvester Croom will make history Saturday, no matter what the outcome of the game is.
Croom is the first African-American head coach in the SEC and will coach his first game as Mississippi State boss Saturday when the Bulldogs host Tulane in a 5 p.m. game being televised by ESPN2.
But Croom is more concerned with his team and their chances of making history.
"We are putting the final touches on our game plan this week," Croom said. "We are trying to get some work done and also get some rest to. Health-wise, we are in pretty decent shape, we have a few little nagging things that I hope don't become an issue during the ballgame.
"We will find out what type of football team we have on Saturday."
Tulane won last year's meeting, 31-28, in New Orleans and the Bulldogs hold just a slight, 27-25-2 edge in the series' history.
With a Memphis team led by more than 30 seniors set to invade Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday, Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe knows his Rebels will have their hands full.
"We're very anxious to get the season started," Cutcliffe said. "We're looking forward to seeing what happens against a very tough opponent. s
"This is one of the toughest openers we've had. Memphis has a very experienced team, so we'll learn a lot about our football team right off the bat."
Although Ole Miss leads the series against Memphis, 42-9-2, the Tigers pulled off the upset a year ago, winning 44-34.
Memphis is led by junior running back and Conference USA offensive player of the year DeAngelo Williams -- a Wynne native -- along with senior quarterback Danny Wimprine.
"Danny Wimprine is an excellent player and he can make all the throws," Cutcliffe said. "And he's a winner. He's been a winner from high school all the way up to college."
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