This is a very interesting match-up for several reasons. UGA has pretty much dominated the series the last few years and holds a near 2 to 1 advantage in the overall won-loss record. The games played at Clemson, however, are pretty much even at 9-8-2.
Georgia will have several new players on defense and on the offensive line. The O-line was a strong point for the SEC champs a year ago, and while there is some talent there, it's tough to gel a unit on the fly, especially when you open on the road at a sectional rival. Look for some confusion in the early going. Once the butterflies are all gone the Bulldogs should calm down and let David Greene do his work.
At Clemson, things are a little unsettled. Tommy Bowden is under pressure to win. The powers that be expected an ACC championship or two by now. The rest of the conference has caught the Tigers and the annual Bowden bowl barely gets a mention any more. This game is big for the younger Bowden. Look for this to be a watershed season of sorts. Getting trashed at home in week one would not do much for his long-term employment plans. I expect it to be a close one, but for UGA to pull away late.
Georgia 27 Clemson 17
South Florida at Alabama
This game is not the cupcake many may expect. USF finished 9-2 a year ago and are 17-5 since joining Division 1-A. One of those two losses was a 42-3 thrashing at the hands of Arkansas. USF is a program on the rise and has joined the C-USA this season and expects to make some noise. This is a tough way to start a season, but start-up programs simply need the money, but more on that later in the report.
For Alabama, this weekend could not get here quick enough. It's time for the players and fans to focus on more pleasant matters, like ball games and tailgating as opposed to off the field scandals and having their once storied program snubbed by several coaches across the country, including USF's Jim Leavitt. Probation is in full swing and has brought along its full stigma. The Tide won't have the luxury of the 2 QB system this year, but Brodie Croyle seems ready to take the helm. The big knock on him is his size and toughness. We will find out soon enough if his body can take the rigors of being an everyday QB in the SEC.
This one, due to Alabama's overall talent, shouldn't be close, but with their third offensive system in less than a year, it's difficult not to expect a lot of missed assignments and disarray. Despite an early rough start, I look for Alabama to take the rearview mirror down and ride Shaud Williams from about the 3rd quarter on.
Alabama 31 USF 14
Mississippi at Vanderbilt
Last season, Um withstood a relentless 4th quarter comeback and escaped with a much-needed win at home against Vanderbilt 45-38. This series has swung the way of the Rebels for quite some time and this year should be no different. This is a tough draw for Vandy, but they are at home. The Rebels haven't been the best of road teams and that should spell more trouble in 2003 unless the trend is reversed.
Um begins Heisman campaign number two this year for senior signal-caller Eli Manning. Last season the campaign ended about two games into the season, and by October Rebel fans had taken the "Eli for Heisman" stickers off their SUVs and replaced them with "Musgrove for Governor" placards. If the Rebels' season cools off like the temperatures, the Governor's race may be the only race a Rebel is still running in.
Earlier this year a group of School presidents were convened to discuss changing the BCS and the possibility of a playoff. In that group were power brokers from Miami, Nebraska, Penn State, Oregon, NC State and…..Mississippi?!? How in the world did Robert Khayat get invited to such a summit? It's easy to see why national powers Miami, Nebraska, and Penn State got the invite. I can even see Oregon and NC State, whose programs have experienced great success the past decade. I cannot understand what Mr. Khayat could contribute to such a panel. Shouldn't the people who decide the fate of a playoff have a realistic chance of playing in the playoff? The only playoff game that Um is eligible for, the SEC Championship game, has enjoyed a decade without the Rebels. Next time let's send the president from Vandy; at least he'd represent the conference with some academia if not athletics. In this game, look for Khayat to get the better of his counterpart.
Mississippi 28 Vanderbilt 17
USC at Auburn
They say this game has national implications. Don't be surprised if both of these teams are nowhere in the mention of BCS teams come December. Last year's contest was nip and tuck and featured the eventual Heisman award winner scoring on a sneak to win it late. This year's affair showcases several good players, but probably no Heisman finalists.
Auburn has a stable of running backs that have garnered attention from every major publication in the country. This luxury certainly makes Jason Campbell's job a lot easier as QB. The big thing for Campbell is to not lose the game. If he can remember who to hand it to on 1st and 2nd down he won't have to feel as much pressure on 3rd down. If the Tigers can stay out of 3rd and longs this season it could be the season to remember for those who cry "War Eagle". The kiss of death the last several years in the SEC West is being picked to win the West. LSU has been picked to win the West 5 of the last 6 years by some of the leading prognosticators. LSU has won it once. Auburn traditionally has fared much better when the target is on someone else's back. It will be interesting to see how the hunter fares as the hunted.
In this game look for a low scoring contest with the winners of the turnover battle also winning the game. When you're this evenly matched you can't make mistakes and win.
Auburn 17 USC 13
Fresno State at Tennessee
FSU has made a reputation of being giant killers. They'll set their sights on Neyland Stadium and the Volunteers this weekend. Coach Pat Hill can't get a quality opponent to come to Fresno anymore. After the David Carr era ended, everyone in the country knew who the West Coast Bulldogs were. They were America's underdog. Well, David Carr has found another home in the NFL and the FSU Dogs are still underdogs; it's just that America's not watching anymore.
UT has a stable of ball carriers and a pretty stout offensive line. They should be able to run the ball effectively and take the pressure off QB Casey Clausen. The Vols need a breakout WR and will look to find one, but it may take a week or two for one to emerge. The Volunteer defense should be fast and stingy as always, which doesn't bode well for the visitors. In this one look for UT to outmuscle the Bulldogs. You'll see superior strength on both sides of the ball from the Vols. FSU will have a few wrinkles to make it interesting, but they don't have the horses.
Tennessee 31 FSU 20
San Jose State at Florida
Florida's swamp just got bigger! The capacity is just over 88,500. The Gators will seek to devour another visitor from the west. West coast teams traditionally don't live to tell about visits to the Swamp, but the old mean Alligator in those stories moved to a bigger pond.
Ron Zook will look to rebuild a team that lost a bit of luster last season, not to mention the top player this off-season in QB Rex Grossman. Who knows what to expect anymore from Florida? The recruiting class of 2003 got rave reviews, in part due to the signing of QB Chris Leake. It will be very interesting to see how the Ingle Martin and Chris Leake saga plays out. Fans will be calling for Leake early and often if the Gators struggle early. Those same voices will be calling for Zook's head if the Gators struggle late. Hey, that's life and times in the big city.
The defense should be solid despite the loss of John "JT" Thompson to a much-deserved head coaching post at ECU. Thompson has been replaced by conference favorite Charlie Strong. Strong has a way to relate to his players and his kids play hard for him. This should help the Gators while the offense finds out what kind of squad they are. In this one look for several people to play on both sides of the ball.
Florida 35 SJSU 10
UL Monroe at LSU
ULM simply needs the money and LSU's A.D. Skip Bertman decided that if they had to pay out large sums of money to non-conference opponents they might as well pay in-state schools. This year LSU plays La Tech as well as ULM. Last season's schedule featured UL-Lafayette and 2001 had the Tigers playing Tulane. No word yet on whether the Tigers will play SLU or Southern as their Division 1-AA opponent in the coming years.
This game will have the Baton Rouge media bubble nearly ready to burst. The city will be in a full-blown tizzy come Monday with thoughts of BCS, Heisman, and Coach of the Year honors. These same folks had a for sale sign in Nick Saban's yard just under two years ago when the Tigers got trounced by Florida and upset at home by Mississippi. For some reason my comments always find their way into the enemies' hands, which is fine by me, but LSU fans please save the e-mails until at least October 1st.
Look for LSU to win in a cakewalk and to put up close to 500 yards of offense. UL Monroe can expect more beatings from SEC schools as visits to U Pig and UM await.
LSU 56 ULM 10
UL Lafayette at South Carolina
This is an excellent chance to see the young offense get some reps. USC will feature more of a ball control offense and will look to win the battle of field position and time of possession. Those will be huge as this team lacks proven playmakers.
If this season is a big one look for Lou Holtz to hang them up in favor of his son Skip as the new head man. USC has recruited well, but still hasn't turned the corner. The Gamecocks still can't beat UT or UF and have now been left behind by UGA. It is tough being the 4th best team in a 6th team race year after year.
This one won't be as ugly as many of the opening week match-ups as Lou keeps the cards close to his vest and gets his new regulars some work.
USC 24 UL Lafayette 10
Louisville at Kentucky
This game features a match-up of two new coaches. UK welcomes Rich Brooks after a very nice campaign a year ago under Guy Moriss who departed for Baylor. UL welcomes former Auburn coordinator Bobby Petrino. This rivalry is generally played early in the season in contrast to most of the other teams on the country. This game's winner the past several years has had a pretty good season while the loser has been left to stumble through the rest of the schedule.
UL has a nice advantage in that Petrino knows UK and knows Lorenzen from his brief stay at Auburn. It won't be hard to get a scouting report from his friends back home. Brooks likes a balanced attack and will use Hefty Lefty Lorenzen to sling it often. A running threat must emerge as Artose Pinner has departed for the NFL. If the 'Cats can't run look for teams to load up and come after the QB. Last year's success was based mostly on the running game. I don't know how many bullets UL has in the gun, but I like the Wildcats at home in an ugly one.
UK 21 Louisville 14
Oregon at Mississippi State
It is very difficult to find a starting point to describe this match-up. Both teams suffered disappointment last season and both have a lot to prove. Oregon is very unsettled at QB and this problem is compounded by the fact that when they couldn't run they couldn't win. With RB O. Smith starting on Sundays now, one is left to wonder how potent can this Duck attack be? The O-line is a little banged up, and question marks abound on how short a leash Fife will be on. The good money is on seeing both QBs this Saturday. The 2 QB system can pose challenges for both teams as neither can get in a rhythm, due to the substitutions.
MSU's Kevin Fant will get his long awaited shot at the Duck defense. The Quack Attack features some "adventuresome" pass defense. The secondary struggled most of the season, but especially late. The D-line appears to be solid, but depth should be tested due to the change in climate. If the Bulldogs try to line up and run between the tackles it will be playing to the strong suit of UO. Look for several screens, waggles, and rollouts to make the UO D-line work. If MSU gets Turner or Norwood on the edges of the D off tackle this could be a painful trip south for the winter for the migrating Ducks. If the safeties are forced to play run defense it will open up the vulnerable corners to one-on-one coverage. This is a mismatch in favor of MSU.
I don't expect UO to score a lot of points. The offense is in a bit of disorder and will look to find themselves early. This bodes well for both teams in some respect. The young O will give the revamped MSU D a chance to find itself as well. I have to give a slight advantage to UO in this respect, due to the fact that Fife has seen the battlefield before. MSU has a whole host of kids who haven't played together before. It will take awhile for the chemistry to develop.
Much has been made of the MSU offensive line injury situation. I am not as concerned and here's why: #1) Chris McNeil played well for us last season and I hardly see him as 2nd team. #2) The Morris Watts offense is a quick-hitting scheme that features a lot of misdirection and slants. The O line will not be put in a straight-up situation to just pass block for 5 and 7 step drops. #3) Speed options and off tackle plays are a lot easier to block for than HB Isolations between the tackles. While the depth on the line is a concern from an experience standpoint, it isn't so much from a talent standpoint. I do expect some growing pains, but I know McNeil and company will make the most of their chances and try to stand out in order to stay on the field.
From a skill position standpoint, the nod clearly is in favor to the Bulldogs. From a confidence standpoint, who knows who to pick since both could be very anxious come Saturday night. One thing is certain there has been a huge change in attitude in Starkville, MS. The staff at Oregon has done a fine job in the past several years, but Joey Harrington and Akili Smith are long gone. It's still the same system; it's just that a playmaker hasn't emerged. The Bullies will look to show the fans, the nation and each other that the struggling is over. There is a large rallying cry to get this program back to winning the SEC West. There is a capable and confident staff taking to the gridiron for the 1st time as a unit this weekend. Finally, there is an old ball coach and QB from Moss Point, MS with a couple of chips on their shoulders. They have more to prove than anyone else. A new broom always sweeps clean and I look for a few Duck feathers to go out with the dust come Saturday night.
MSU 27 UO 14
Well, that's how I see them. This is the 5-year anniversary of the Robertson Report and my 3rd year writing for www.genespage.com. I have enjoyed every minute of it except for e-mailing back all those Rebel fans after the Egg Bowl last year. I respond to every e-mail, good or bad, and I save the special ones, especially the ones from Oxford. This year I took the summer off to help my son train for a national championship in Tae Kwon Do. He didn't win, but he won his State Championship and finished 4th in the nation. When he received his award I rang my cowbell. I'd like to thank all the well-wishers and all the people who e-mailed me over the summer expressing how much they enjoyed my articles.
I have one final word that I want to share with you all. Around mile marker 5 on I-55 south, just before the Louisiana state line, there stands a silver cross in the median in memory of someone who died in a car accident. I passed there the other day and I saw that someone has erected an MSU Bulldogs flag next to the cross. For some reason, this took on a lot more meaning to me. Now, every time I pass that cross, I say a little prayer and I ring my cowbell like crazy. It's moments like that when I realize how special it is to be missed and to be loved. This week's scripture is for that family who erected a Cross and a Bulldog flag for their lost loved one.
Until next week,
2nd Samuel 12:19-23
Steve Robertson is a free-lance correspondent who writes The Robertson Report for the premium site portion of Gene's Page. Steve's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.