The talking stops now. College football season is here!
Hope springs eternal for every team this time of year, but for the first time in a long time the folks in Starkville really believe they have a chance to compete and make some noise with the pigskin.
The Bulldogs' journey back to respectability begins with a visit to StarkVegas from long time nemesis, Steve Spurrier. The Gamecocks came within a couple of plays of playing in the SEC championship game for the first time last season. South Carolina fans packed Williams-Brice stadium even during the lean years and it appears the Gamecock nation is being rewarded with a program that is on the rise.
South Carolina brings in a formidable, but inconsistent offense highlighted by Sidney Rice, one of the nation's top receivers. Rice has been slowed by a shoulder injury the past several days, but is expected to play and contribute. Rice accounted for nearly half of South Carolina's receiving yards, tallying a robust 1,143 yards in 2005.
Gamecock Quarterback Blake Mitchell has really come on and is poised to be one of the better signal callers in the conference. The biggest concern early will be the depth and chemistry of an offensive line looking to replace three starters from a year ago.
Mitchell's task should be made a bit easier with running backs Cory Boyd and Mike Davis lining up behind him. South Carolina ranked 100th in total offense a year ago, but with the ability to be more two dimensional expect that ranking to improve dramatically this season, if the offensive line develops.
The Mississippi State offense was one of the most anemic in the country in 2005 despite benefiting from a dream season from the school's All-Time leading rusher, Jerious Norwood. The loss of Norwood is impossible to compensate for, but the offense will try their best at addition by subtraction.
With Norwood's home run ability now on display in the NFL, someone else must step up and make plays. Omarr Conner seems to have thrived at wide receiver and will be expected to make plays. Throw in JuCo All-Star Tony Burks and Michael Henig has a couple more bullets in the gun.
The Bulldogs will look to replace Norwood by committee. Brandon Thornton was impressive in spot duty a season ago with some spectacular runs against Kentucky and Ole Miss. Thornton should get the bulk of the early work, but a handful of others will look to push him.
The best antidote for an offense looking to find itself is a defense in a similar or worse situation. If you study the two deep for the Gamecock defense you will discover that only one starter from a year ago is slated to be on the field when the opening whistle blows.
The "one" is All-American candidate cornerback Fred Bennett. Bennett's side of the field may not see a lot of action, so someone else on the South Carolina defense must make plays. With the new toys on offense that Michael Henig has the secondary should get it's share of opportunities.
Conversely, Mississippi State returns nine starters off of a 29th ranked defense a season ago. The defense is expected to be very salty and will get a chance early to test their mettle.
The game within the game could be decided with the South Carolina offensive line versus the Mississippi State defensive line, the weakest unit on the Gamecock offensive against the strongest unit on the Bulldog defensive. The battle for the line of scrimmage will be key on both sides of the ball, but if the Bulldog front four can create some chaos and force the Cocks into a one dimensional offense you have to like their chances.
USC defensive coordinator, Tyrone Nix, is expected to load the box, blitz and force Bulldog QB Michael Henig to beat him. This strategy could be successful if Henig struggles with accuracy and blitz pickups. I look for Omarr Conner and Eric Butler to provide some relief as safety valves for Henig. With the ball in those two pair of hands, South Carolina could be in trouble.
With the home field advantage and South Carolina looking to find some playmakers on defense, the Bulldogs could not be catching the Gamecocks at a better time. No one is going to shut out Rice, but if the Bulldogs can get some push from their front four and limit everyone else they will win the game.
Mississippi State 20 South Carolina 17
Elsewhere around the league
Hawaii vs. Alabama
The mantle of rolling the Tide has been passed from Brodie Croyle to John Parker Wilson. Wilson should prove to be an efficient replacement and will get better as the season goes along. Joe Kines defense was as good as they came last season. He has another fresh batch of playmakers to reload with this season. "Big Al" should be smiling after this one as Kenneth Darby should prove once again he is one of the top backs in the conference.
Alabama 31 Hawaii 7
USC vs. Arkansas
If last year's contest between these two would have been a boxing match, the ref would have stopped it. I am sure several times during the 70-17 pasting Arkansas' Boss Hawg, Houston Nutt, felt like throwing in the towel. The rematch has been eagerly anticipated by the Razorback fans, but the game has lost some of it's luster with running back Darren McFadden now on the shelf with an injury. Arkansas is looking to get back on track, but they will have to wait a week. Despite losing several players to the NFL, USC still has the horses.
USC 31 Arkansas 21
Washington State vs. Auburn
This is the first meeting between these schools and by the time this one is over the Cougars might be willing to opt out of the return trip. Auburn is expected to be one of the premiere teams in the SEC and rightfully so. There won't be many teams in the country that have the defensive talent to slow down Courtney Taylor and Kenny Irons. The Tigers also return one of the best Quarterbacks in the country in Brandon Cox. The Tigers should land a couple of haymakers early and then ride Irons to an impressive season opening win.
Auburn 35 Washington State 7
Southern Miss vs. Florida
The Golden Eagles say they will play anyone, anytime, any place. While that looks good on bumper stickers, at some point they have to start winning some of these games if anyone is going to take them seriously. Moral victories will only get you so far. Picking a fight with Florida Gators could prove to be a tall task for anyone with the amount of talent the Gators return. The Swamp will be rocking and with Chris Leak having another year in the offense this one could be over early.
Florida 38 Southern Miss 10
Western Kentucky vs. Georgia
The Hilltoppers will pay a visit to Athens and play the part of sacrificial lamb for the Bulldogs. Georgia, the reigning SEC champion, lost some playmakers from a year ago, none bigger than Quarterback D.J. Shockely. Joe Terenshinksi will get the nod with heir apparent Matthew Stafford waiting in the wings. "JT" should earn some confidence this week which should stave off any comments about a Quarterback controversy. The game next week against South Carolina is a must win for JT and Georgia if they are to repeat.
Georgia 49 Western Kentucky 3
UL-Lafayette vs. LSU
While a win over the Ragin' Cajuns won't do anything for LSU's strength of schedule, it will provide a nice warm-up game before embarking on a challenging schedule that features road games at Auburn, Florida and Tennessee. With backup Quarterback Matt Flynn dismantling the Miami Hurricanes at season's end, JaMarcus Russell can ill afford to have a slow start. No worries this week, but I would set the over/under on a good ole fashioned Quarterback controversy at six weeks.
LSU 42 UL-Lafayette 7
Cal vs. Tennessee
2005 was certainly a forgettable season for Phil Fulmer and the Volunteers. A shakeup of the staff resulted in the return of long time offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. Cutcliffe helped Tennessee to a national championship in 1998 and Tennessee fans are anxious to see a more polished product on the field than they saw a season ago. Cut may meet his match with offensive guru Jeff Tedford from Cal. Despite it being a road game in a tough place to play, I like Cal in a minor upset. The Golden Bears have always been able to score points and I am not so sure if Tennessee is ready to outscore Cal.
Cal 24 Tennessee 21
Vanderbilt vs. Michigan
I have to have to admit it took a lot of courage for Vanderbilt to schedule this game the year after arguably the top player in the program's history, Jay Cutler, has moved on. The Big House is a tough place to play much less break in a new Quarterback. Michigan has never lost to Vanderbilt and this week the all-time record will roll to 10-0-1.
Michigan 33 Vanderbilt 14
Memphis vs. Ole Miss
The summer has had it's share of ups and downs for Rebel fans. The euphoria of signing a highly rated class faded just a bit with the roller coaster ride of some of the top prospects in the class having trouble getting to campus. The jury is still out on a couple, but the team that will play Memphis is on campus. The Rebs have a lot of question marks, a new offensive scheme, a new QB, a new running back, no experienced receivers and a lack of depth along both sides of the trenches. The team should get better as the season goes along, but there will be some bumps in the road along the way. Opening up with a team that considers you a rival is not going to be easy, but the Rebs should make just enough plays to win. It won't be pretty, but they should get it done.
Ole Miss 17 Memphis 13
Kentucky and Louisville
This is a pretty tough draw for a coach on the hot seat like Rich Brooks. The annual "Battle of the Bluegrass" has not been good for Coach Brooks. Louisville has won three in a row in the series and the Wildcat alumni are hungry to win again. Kentucky should be improved from a year ago, but Louisville should be loaded. An ugly loss here and the Wildcats' head man could be in trouble.
Louisville 38 Kentucky 17
Well, that's the week. There will be enough football on the tube this holiday weekend to nearly overdose, so be careful. Pace yourself.
Steve Robertson is a staff member of Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.