2004 begins the Sylvester Croom era for the maroon and white. The newly appointed coach has done and said all the right things, but will it translate to more tallies in the win column for the Bulldogs? We'll get our first answer before a nationally televised audience Saturday evening.
Tulane brings in a team with several question marks. LSU transfer Lester Ricard was recently named the starter to replace J.P. Losman who was the second consecutive Green Wave QB to be taken in the first round.
Ricard hasn't played ball in two years, so Saturday will be a new experience for him. He may show more than a little rust. He has all the skills and will get better as the season progresses. His job will be made easier by a veteran offensive line and an explosive receiving corps led by Roydell Williams.
The Wave running game has some question marks as well. Jovon Jackson will get the start, but has struggled with injuries throughout his career. He is a talented back, but has never been the feature back in the offense in his collegiate career. Another name to look out for is Matt Forte. Forte has had a strong fall camp and will push for playing time.
The Tulane defense has a lot of areas of concern. The biggest has to be the defensive line. The line was so thin in the spring that the Green Wave had a hard time scrimmaging due to a tremendous lack of depth. When you factor in that, arguably, Tulane's best defensive lineman Bamm Mateen quit the team last week, the Wave has some issues up front.
The linebacking corps lacks a true playmaker outside of Anthony Cannon. And considering how porous the defensive line projects to be, that's really bad news. Cannon is a preseason finalist for the Butkus award and should get plenty of chances to prove his mettle, though.
CB Sean Lucas and FS Tra Boger lead a secondary that should be active and opportunistic. Lucas had 5 picks a year ago and Boger led the team with a whopping 133 tackles. Both were all conference selections a season ago.
MSU will counter with Sylvester Croom's version of Green Bay's version of the west coast offense. Implementing the system has had its moments throughout the spring and fall, but reports are that the players love the system and are excited about playing in it.
The Bulldogs will be led at quarterback by highly touted Omarr Conner. Conner spent last season at receiver and got a full dose of what college football is all about in his eleven games.
Norwood will be put in a situation that will allow him to make plays in this offense. If Norwood can establish himself as a formidable running threat, Conner's job gets that much easier.
McNeil will anchor a line that should have a solid group of first teamers if the injury bug can stay away long enough. McNeil was a highly sought after prospect and the thought of him starting has some Bulldogs salivating. If he and Conner can develop some chemistry then the dreaded snap exchange problems of the spring will be a distant memory.
Receiving has been a sore subject in the off season and it appears that McKinley Scott has stepped up to provide some playmaking abilities. Will Prosser has made a steady climb up the depth chart and is expected to contribute significantly. Some say he has the best work ethic of the bunch.
The Bulldog defense, usually known as a source of pride among Bulldog faithful, was one of the country's worst a year ago. Reports from camp are that the defense is much improved. With an offense that is expected to take some time to gel, they'll have to be if the Bulldogs are to get off to a good start.
The defense will be led by highly motivated drain plug DT Ronald Fields. Fields has been touted by some as the most improved player on the team this off season. If he and his trenchmates can generate the push up front, the entire defensive package will produce better results.
The linebacking corps will feature Clarence McDougal who by all accounts has had a great fall. Kenny Kern has just this week jumped in front of Marvin Byrdsong for the middle linebacker position with Brad Horton anchoring the other spot. This group has a chance to be good, but will need to improve their play from a year ago. Often times last season the group struggled with solo tackling and gave up additional yards at inopportune times.
The secondary has seen a shifting around of sorts with Quinton Culberson moving from corner to safety. Kevin Dockery has moved back to corner and has been impressive. If this defense is to show marked improvement, it will depend on how this group grades out.
The Tulane game will prove to be an interesting contest. The MSU offensive line will have the chance to develop some confidence against a defensive line that will probably get used to being pushed around. This battle will be a key and should be one the Bulldogs win.
The MSU running game should prove to be the difference. MSU had some great success against the Wave last year on the ground. And had it not been for some late turnovers, should have won the game.
How the MSU secondary contains Roydell Williams will also be crucial. Williams will get the chance to make some plays, but the Wave receivers caught the Bulldogs out of position several times last season when the game was on the line. If MSU is to win this game they must limit the touches of the Wave wide outs.
I like MSU in this one, but don't expect a shootout. The defenses are ahead of the offense this time of year. And with all the question marks for both squads on the offensive side of the ball it could be an ugly contest.
MSU 17 Tulane 13 Elsewhere around the league
It's rare to see a team open with a conference game, but one of these will get the jump start on the rest of the east. This contest is a must win - if you can have one in week one - if either of these two expect to go bowling.
Vandy returns 21 of 22 starters and they are at home, but SC is 11-2 versus the Commodores all-time. This one should be interesting, but I'll take history over potential.
South Carolina 27 Vanderbilt 21
UL-Monroe @ Auburn
Auburn absolutely thrashed ULM a year ago. Steven Jyles returns as QB for ULM, but it will take more than Jyles to extract any revenge. Auburn has never lost to ULM and that won't change this season. Watch for the fake punts and field goals late as the River Boat gambler treats the Indians as glorified tackling dummies.
Auburn 63 ULM 7
Georgia Southern @ Georgia
Believe it or not this is only the third all-time meeting. Georgia holds a 2-0 advantage and they'll emerge from this one unscathed. Georgia is believed to be a national championship contender and if they can find away to beat LSU should be in the hunt.
Georgia 49 Georgia Southern
Oregon State @ LSU
This game should surprise some people. LSU was listed by some as a nearly three touchdown favorite. LSU generally struggles to score points in week one. The defending national champs will get to see the banner raised over Tiger stadium just before kickoff, so who knows how they'll react.
Oregon State returns gunslinger Derek Anderson at QB. Anderson threw for over 4,000 yards last season. While he won't have Steven Jackson lined up behind him at tailback, the Beavers still have a chance to be pretty good.
LSU should put it away in the third quarter, but I'll be surprised if they cover the line, especially since Saban wants to get some reps for the backup QB.
LSU 34 Oregon State 17
Middle Tennessee @ Florida
This game is another glorified scrimmage. The last time these two got together was 2000 when the Gators chomped out 55 points. This game should be similar. Chris Leak got better as the season went along and reports are he is silky smooth as we head into gameday.
Florida 56 MTSU 7
These two teams combined for eight wins a year ago, so this game won't garner much attention outside of their respective fan bases. Bama folks have heard all off season that Coach Fulmer from Tennessee conspired against them. Football season could not get here quick enough for those tired of the hoopla.
This game should be one the Tide wins with some breathing room. They have an important game next week with the Rebels of Mississippi. They'll look to work out the kinks this week to get ready for next.
Alabama 27 Utah State 14
Kentucky is in trouble with most of their playmakers lost to graduation. Head man Rich Brooks took the job knowing the pains of probation would hit immediately with a lingering effect that could last a few years.
Louisville won nine games last season and they return one of Conference USA's best players in QB Stefan Lefors. He has the chance to be a super star and thankfully for the Red faithful, Coach Bobby Petrino didn't hop a plane back to the plains of Auburn. This rivalry has swung the way of the Cardinals and this year will be no exception.
Louisville 31 UK 21
UNLV @ Tennessee
The Vols have taken their time deciding on a QB and Coach Fulmer hasn't tipped his hand just yet. Two newcomers appear to be the front runners, Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge. Both have the chance to be great-Ainge has a rifle of an arm but needs to work on his touch while Schaffer is more mobile and can hurt you with his legs if a play breaks down.
Either QB could win this game if they can remember who to hand off to. Cedric Houston and Jabari Davis seemed primed for big years. Gerald Riggs has been impressive and has shown a spark this off season. The tailback situation in Knoxville is almost an embarrassment of wealth.
Tennessee 28 UNLV 14
Arkansas lost everybody last year with the exception of QB Matt Jones. To say Arkansas is rebuilding is putting it mildly. The situation may not be as bad as the numbers suggest. Arkansas plays a lot of people so it's not like they're starting from scratch.
DeCori Birmingham will be a playmaker for this team. He has played all over and has shown he can get it done. The task is easier this week because NMSU was 3-9 a season ago despite the fact they led the conference in offense.
This one, like a few more may, not be a very pretty game, but just from a talent standpoint the Hogs should prevail. I think Arkansas may have a few tricks up their sleeve before this season is over.
Arkansas 27 NMSU 10
Memphis @ Mississippi
When you win ten games, the Cotton Bowl, and produce a Heisman finalist it's tough to come up with a suitable encore. The job is made even tougher when a lot of the cast has held their final curtain call.
It was a magical season a year ago in Oxford. The pageantry of the season has not long faded, but problems have arisen in Oxford that make football a little less important. The Rebs have had some home sickness, some legal problems and a few other assorted distractions, but all of that pales in comparison to the tragedy that befell the campus last week when three Ole Miss students lost their lives in a fraternity house fire.
The game, which can't get here soon enough for most, will feature two rivals divided basically by a few green acres and the state line. The fan bases live among each other and they've all waited a solid year for this game to come back around after Memphis defeated the Rebs for only the ninth time a season ago.
Mississippi QB Michael Spurlock will look to build on last year's successes, but will be taking center stage for the first time.
Tommy West and his high powered offense will look to put some big numbers up while Joe Lee Dunn looks to confuse the young signal caller. It should be a good one, but just based on the stability of Danny Wimprine and DeAngelo Williams you have to like the Tiger's chances.
Memphis 31 Mississippi 27
Well that's how I see them. This should be a memorable weekend for the Mississippi State faithful. Go out and support this team if you are able. A new era is upon us and if early indications are correct it should be an era of winning on the field and off.
Steve Robertson writes The Robertson Report for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website. Steve's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.