This week: vs. No. 8 Michigan (in Arlington, Texas), Sept. 1
What's at stake: After winning the national championship in 2011, Alabama jumps right back into the spotlight with a marquee game against a traditional college football power and preseason top 10 team in Michigan at Cowboys Stadium on Saturday. Like most major colleges, Alabama frequently opens the season against cupcakes, but the Crimson Tide has had historic opening games against top-ranked opponents over the years -- Southern Cal, Nebraska, Missouri, Virginia Tech, Clemson, etc. -- and in those seasons, Alabama has often used the games to springboards with a win and to a renewed commitment with a loss.
What's going on: Alabama vs. Michigan and the Wolverines' great quarterback, Denard Robinson, is being viewed almost exclusively as the Michigan offense against the Crimson Tide defense. Alabama is having to replace a number of stars on its defense, but excellent recruiting by coach Nick Saban has the Alabama squad deep in talented replacements. The surprise element Saturday night, though, could be Bama's offense being able to dominate the Michigan defense.
Get more info on the team and join the Alabama community at 'BamaMag.com.
What it'll take to win: If Alabama is going to defeat Michigan, the Crimson Tide will have to be very disciplined, sometimes a difficult assignment with a number of new starters in the first game of the season. Defensive players have to be responsible for their assignments or risk surrendering big plays to Denard Robinson. Offensively, Bama will have to maintain ball control -- keeping Robinson on the sideline -- and finish with touchdowns.
-- Kirk McNair, 'BamaMag.com
This week: vs. Clemson, Sept. 1
What's at stake: By keeping alive its season-opener winning streak that stands at seven, coach Gene Chizik's team can build much needed momentum going into league play that starts the following week on the road at Mississippi State, followed by a major home test two weeks later vs. LSU.
With new coordinators, Scot Loeffler on offense and Brian VanGorder on defense, this is a much anticipated opener for Auburn's players, coaches and fans with the Tigers making significant changes in style of play. The offense has switched from a hurry-up, no-huddle style to an NFL style attack and the defense has adopted a more aggressive style after being a read-and-react group the past three years.
After a down season defensively, the expectations are to be much better. Clemson's potent offense should provide a good gauge on where that rebuilding process is at for Auburn.
Get more info on the team and join the Auburn community at AUTigers.com.
What's going on: Auburn goes into the game in relatively good shape health-wise despite a physical preseason. The only key player definitely out is center Reese Dismukes (suspension). In his place, the Tigers will go with sophomore Tunde Fariyike, who will be making his first collegiate start, as will redshirt freshman left tackle Greg Robinson and true freshman right tackle Avery Young.
What it'll take to win: Offensively, the group needs to keep mistakes to a minimum and be successful running the ball to make life easier for sophomore Kiehl Frazier, who will be making his first college start at quarterback. The pressure will be on the young offensive line to help make that happen. Defensively, Auburn's deep and athletic front four needs to keep Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd off-balance with a strong pass rush.
-- Mark Murphy, AUTigers.com
This week: at No. 13 Michigan State, Aug. 31
What's at stake: First, respect. Is Boise State a flash in the pan that was dependent on Kellen Moore and a 2011 senior class that included two first-round NFL Draft picks and six overall, or is Boise State a program that has risen to the level of reloading talent capable of earning a top-10 ranking, or will it need to rebuild from the ground up after losing such a talented class?
Second, nothing less than the season is at stake. With a schedule filled with Mountain West teams, Boise State can't afford even one loss -- even to a team picked by many to win the Big Ten -- if it wants to end the season in a BCS bowl. It's win or go home for the Broncos, again. Seems to be a common theme on the Blue.
What's going on: Wide receiver Geraldo Boldewijn is suspended for the first four games of the year for improper benefits from a host family. The Netherlands native missed time last year for the same problem. The status of redshirt freshman running back Jay Ajayi is up in the air, but speculation is he will serve a suspension for the Michigan State game after pleading guilty to shoplifting last year. He was left home from the Las Vegas Bowl, but as a redshirt he wouldn't have played in that game anyway, so speculation is heavy he'll be out. This is significant because he is the next true scholarship running back after starting running back senior D.J. Harper, who has missed two seasons with knee injuries. Walk-on senior Drew Wright is listed as the backup, but after him it's Ajayi and ture freshman Jack Fields. If Harper were to re-injure a knee, Boise State could be down to a former walk-on and a true freshman at RB.
Get more info on the team and join the Boise State community at BroncoCountry.com.
What it'll take to win: Another dose of Pete's Poison. Yes, Kellen Moore is gone. Shea McClellin, Doug Martin, and the rest are off to the NFL, but the MVP who returns is one of the best coaches in America, Chris Petersen. Give him and his staff time, and they'll find things to exploit on anyone. They put in an entirely new defense in one month to beat TCU in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl, so give them a summer and they may just reinvent the game for Michigan State. And they may need to with all the talent that the Broncos have to replace.
-- Kevin Hiatt, BroncoCountry.com
This week: vs. No. 2 Alabama (in Arlington, Texas), Sept. 1
What's at stake: For Michigan -- frankly not much is at stake with this game. The Michigan Brain Trust has hammered home the notion -- and the players have bought in to it -- that the goal for Michigan is the Big Ten Championship. Yeah, a win over 'Bama would propel the Wolverines close to the early No. 1 spot -- but soon after, Michigan goes to Notre Dame for another "big game," and Michigan also has to go on the road to Nebraska and Ohio State for dangerous games as well. Simply put, this is Game One of a long, difficult Michigan schedule.
What's going on: The big hiccup for Michigan going into this game is the suspension of 1,000-yard running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. Backup running back Thomas Rawls is pretty dinged up as well.
Get more info on the team and join the Michigan community at GoBlueWolverine.com.
What it'll take to win: There are two keys. First, don't lose the turnover game. This was an issue for Robinson in early 2011. Second, don't lose the line-of-scrimmage battle too badly to the 'Bama O-line. The Michigan defensive tackle unit is thin and somewhat inexperienced, so if the Michigan defense is on the field too long and the line wears down, the fourth quarter could get away from the Wolverines.
-- Tom Beaver, GoBlueWolverine.com
This week: vs. Navy (in Dublin, Ireland), Sept. 1
What's at stake: After a 2011 season that began and ended with consecutive defeats, Notre Dame looks to regain positive momentum with Saturday morning's Emerald Isle battle vs. the Naval Academy. The Irish exacted a minimal measure of revenge after losing three of four to the Midshipmen, winning 56-14 last October in South Bend. A victory Saturday across the pond gives Notre Dame exactly what it needs when faced with a murderous 2012 schedule: a 1-0 start with 11 tougher games on tap.
What's going on: Suspended for the contest are three former starters: quarterback Tommy Rees, linebacker Carlo Calabrese, and running back Cierre Wood, the latter easily the most notable as one of the team's five best players returning from last season. The Irish will debut a redshirt freshman quarterback in the season opener for the third time in program history in dual-threat Everett Golson, who'll have an updated but unproven arsenal of weapons at his disposal at both wide receiver and running back, while likely relying on All-America tight end Tyler Eifert to do the heavy lifting.
Get more info on the team and join the Notre Dame community at IrishEyes.com.
What it'll take to win: If the Irish play defense like they did most of last season, the 2012 season opener will offer a convincing victory over the overmatched Midshipmen, losers of ample talent over the last two seasons to graduation. But turnovers plagued head coach Brian Kelly's team in each of his team's five defeats last fall, and Navy has enough offense -- and ball control ability -- to keep it close if the Irish offense offsets the expected solid defense with costly mistakes.
-- Tim O'Malley, IrishEyes.com
This week: vs. Ohio, Sept. 1
What's at stake: Fresh off the most turbulent offseason in the history of the sport, first-year coach Bill O'Brien and his Nittany Lions are itching to get back on the field to direct (at least some of) the attention back to football. A victory over MAC frontrunner Ohio sets a positive tone for an opening six-game stretch where every outing is winnable. A defeat is a sign that the last 10 months of tumult have sent Penn State into a tailspin even before the most serious NCAA sanctions kick in.
What's going on: Matt McGloin is the clear-cut starter at quarterback, but true freshman Steven Bench is pushing redshirt sophomore Paul Jones for the backup job. The Lions appear to be in good shape on the injury front. Expect the staff to limit senior defensive end Pete Massaro's snaps as he deals with a sore knee. But athletic redshirt freshman Deion Barnes is a more-than-capable backup.
Get more info on the team and join the Penn State community at FightOnState.com.
What it'll take to win: This will be Penn State's first season-opener without Joe Paterno as head coach since 1965. Despite everything that has gone on, the Nittany Lions still have top-level talent at most positions, including those impacted by transfers. Depth could be an issue, though. So the keys are not allowing the off-field distractions to carry over on to the field and staying healthy.
-- Mark Brennan, FightOnState.com
This week: vs. NC State (in Atlanta), Aug. 31
What's at stake: This game will set the tone for the rest of the Volunteers '2012 season. If they are able to get a win, they are off and running with momentum going into a Week 3 contest against Florida. A loss would make a W over Florida virtually a must-have to keep head coach Derek Dooley in the drivers seat on Rocky Top. A loss in the Georgia Dome could derail what is setting up to be a promising 2012 season.
What's going on: Tennessee has been through the ringer this preseason. Da' Rick Rogers, a first-team All-SEC wide receiver, recently transferred to Tennessee Tech after he was indefinitely suspended from the Vols roster for multiple failed drug tests. The tight end position has been ravaged by injuries, including a dislocated patella to No. 2 guy Brendan Downs, just two weeks prior to the season. On the up side, keep an eye on junior college transfer Daniel McCullers. A 6-foot-6, 360-pound nose tackle, McCullers has worked his way into the starting lineup and could be disruptive in the middle of the Vols defensive line.
Get more info on the team and join the Tennessee community at InsideTennessee.com.
What it'll take to win: For Tennessee it will be key to contain the arm of surefire NFLer Mike Glennon. The N.C. State Wolfpack quarterback piled up over 3,000 yards passing in 2011 and will test the Vols new 3-4 defensive scheme under new coordinator Sal Sunseri. In addition, it will be pivotal for Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray to take care of the football. With Jack Tatum Award winner David Amerson in the defensive backfield, Bray will have to thread a few less needles.