First-Game Jitters

FAYETTEVILLE -- When a newcomer asked Houston Nutt what to expect in Saturday's season opener, the seventh-year Arkansas coach kept his response simple.

Taking the young man's hand, Nutt pressed the index and forefinger into the his own abdomen.

"You feel that right there? You feel it?" Nutt said. "That's a knot in your stomach."

Nutt is 6-0 in openers heading into Saturday's 6 p.m. game against New Mexico State in Reynolds Razorbacks Stadium.

Arkansas has never won seven straight season openers, but that doesn't concern Nutt as much as trying to do it with a young team in what he calls a "very, very good opener."

The Aggies' defense alone returns twice as many starters (10) as the Hogs have coming back (4) on both sides of the ball.

"It's not a cupcake at all," Nutt said. "Part of me would like a much easier ballgame, especially for the first one."

First games have a way of unnerving coaches all over the Southeastern Conference and few have much say in who they'll play, other than offering occasional input or suggestions.

Alabama's home game against Utah State on Saturday was scheduled well before Mike Shula took over the coaching duties last summer. With only a few months to organize a team, he didn't get to catch his breath long before his debut when the Crimson Tide beat South Florida 40-17.

But with a full off-season to dwell on this year's opener, Shula said he'll probably take a jog early Saturday to "burn up energy" and roll away any pregame knots.

"I've kind of had that feeling in my stomach for the last 10 days," Shula said. "It's actually more of a feeling of excitement and a feeling about how you want to get the season started. Some people call it nerves.

"But I call it excitement."

Playing a highly-ranked team may bring in more fans and national TV exposure, but a loss to open the season can be devastating.

Yep, cupcakes can lead to stomachaches.

No one has to remind Nutt. He had a front row seat as the Hogs' receivers coach during a 10-3 loss to The Citadel in 1992, which was promptly followed by Jack Crowe's firing after two-plus seasons as head coach.

"It brings back a terrible feeling," Nutt said. "A terrible feeling about how it wrecks the season."

Auburn was in the top 10 in most preseason polls a year ago, but the Tigers were beaten by USC in the opener for the second straight season.

After a 24-17 defeat in 2002, the Tigers went 9-4. They ended up 8-5 after last season's 23-0 loss to the Trojans, who went on to split the national title with LSU.

Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville could end the opening day skid Saturday by hosting Louisiana-Monroe, a team his Tigers hammered 73-7 last season.

"It's important to get off to a good start," Tuberville said. "Everybody wants to win the game, but you're going to have 58 losers and 58 winners after this weekend in 1-A football.

"And one game doesn't make a season."

Opening with a win might make Kentucky second-year coach Rich Brooks' season. He said a win against Louisville could be a springboard, especially after last season's 4-8 team opened with a 40-24 loss to the Cardinals.

"It obviously is pretty important when you're trying to dig yourself out of the bottom of the SEC to get off to a good start," Brooks said. "This is a key game for us and I think if we can pull the upset, then I think everybody will feel a lot better about the prospects for the upcoming season."

South Carolina coach Lou Holtz has won four consecutive openers and prefers a challenge to start the season. That way, weaknesses can be exposed and corrected before beginning SEC play.

But the Gamecocks open Saturday at Vanderbilt and Holtz wasn't happy about having a conference game right out of the chute.

"Losing in the opening ballgame is always a downer or a negative," Holtz said. "So you try to do everything you can to be prepared, and this is even twice as important because it's a conference game."

Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe -- winner of five straight openers -- opens at home Sunday against Memphis, which gave him the closest opening game in 1999 when the Rebels escaped with a 3-0 win.

"This is one of the toughest openers we've had in Memphis, with 30-some odd seniors on their team," Cutcliffe said.

Like most coaches, Cutcliffe goes the extra mile to ensure his players are ready.

"At every position, we give them a series of tests, tips and reminders that are appropriate to the ballgame," Cutcliffe said. "You find out that they may not have understood it quite as well as you thought they did.

"Or you find out that they're right on top of it and it makes you sleep better as a coach."

One thing Holtz does to prepare his team -- which starts a freshman cornerback against Vanderbilt -- is having the upperclassmen tell stories the night before the first game.

"I have some of the veteran players get up and talk about what their feelings were the first time they played -what they thought and what went through their mind as far as nervousness and things like that - just to prepare your young players for what they're going to go through," Holtz said.

Most coaches' main concerns are how new players in key positions will handle it and whether they can transfer what they learned in practices into the game.

Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer plans to start a freshman at quarterback -- either Erik Ainge or Brent Schaeffer -- in Sunday's game against blitz-happy UNLV. Former Volunteers quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Casey Clausen went 7-1 and 6-1, respectively, as freshmen.

"The youngsters ... we're going to have some mistakes along the way," Fulmer said. "If one of them is not taking care of the football, then we would go the other route. But I'm hopeful that they're both conscientious about taking care of the ball and moving the team and understanding that it's a 60-minute game and they don't have to make all the plays all the time."

The dean of SEC coaches, Fulmer has the most opening day wins (10) of any conference coach. His only loss was in 1994, when the Vols (ranked No. 13 in the preseason) lost, 25-23, against No. 14 UCLA. They never recovered, finishing 8-4.

Georgia coach Mark Richt will try out true freshman tailback Danny Ware on Saturday against Georgia Southern. He said he keeps a close eye on newcomers, but is more tolerant of mental busts in openers.

"I think you've got to expect that they will make a mistake and usually more than one," Richt said. "If you think they're fainting and you think they just lost it, then I think you've got to get them out of there.

"If he plays like he's at practice, I think he'll do fine. If he gets really nervous and has something bad happen to him early where he gets really shaky, then we might have to pull him out of there."

Coaches -- nervous or not -- generally look loose and relaxed hours before games. But as kickoff nears, they become more animated.

Whatever their feeling, it's important to put on a brave face.

"Players read off of you," said Arkansas assistant Chris Vaughn. "I'm definitely not going to be tight for the first game. I don't want my players to feel tight.

"I'm coming in hoping they see the confidence in my eyes so they can be confident in going out there and doing their job and playing hard."

After his morning run, Shula said he'll likely log a few more miles on the sideline.

"As a player, you go out there and you're playing, so you stop thinking about those things," Shula said. "As a coach, you're just kind of walking on the sidelines, and so you probably walk more than you normally would walk during the course of a Saturday afternoon."

Richt said he doesn't worry much about nerves -- his or his players' -- after the first few snaps.

"What has to happen, if you're a running back, carry the ball one time," he said. "If you're a receiver, then catch the ball or just go out there and block somebody.

"Just get yourself out of that surreal feeling that you get when you go into that game for the first time in front of 93,000 people."

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