By Steven Lassan and Mitch Light
Mississippi State vs. Memphis – Thursday, Sept. 1
This Thursday night tussle in Memphis is a matchup of teams headed in the opposite direction. Mississippi State is on the rise after a 9-4 record last year, while Memphis is still reeling following a 1-11 season. The Bulldogs thumped the Tigers 49-7 last year and a similar outcome should be expected. Mississippi State’s rushing attack – led by Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins – should push around Memphis’ defense, while quarterback Chris Relf will hit several big plays through the air.
Misssissippi State 45, Memphis 7
Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky – Thursday, Sept. 1
Two teams from the Bluegrass State make the trip down I-65 to meet in Nashville for a neutral site matchup. The Wildcats easily won last year’s game, beating the Hilltoppers 63-28. Kentucky will be looking to get quarterback Morgan Newton off to a good start, but the defense needs to find a way to slow down Western Kentucky running back Bobby Rainey. The senior gashed the Wildcats for 184 yards and two scores last season. The Hilltoppers are getting better under coach Willie Taggart, but it's not enough to pull the upset on Thursday night.
Kentucky 38, Western Kentucky 20
Utah State vs. Auburn – Saturday, Sept. 3
Auburn kicks off its national title defense with several new faces stepping into key roles. Only five starters are back and the depth chart is chock full of youth. New quarterback Barrett Trotter will be working with four first-year starters on the offensive line, but the offense does return a potent one-two punch at running back in Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb. Utah State will likely use two quarterbacks in this game (Chuckie Keeton or Adam Kennedy), but expect to see a lot of running back Robert Turbin in his return from a torn ACL. Although the Aggies could hang around for a half, Auburn has too much depth to suffer an upset at the hands of Utah State.
Auburn 41, Utah State 20
Kent State vs. Alabama – Saturday, Sept. 3
All eyes of 'Bama Nation will be paying close attention to the first snap of this game. The quarterback battle between AJ McCarron and Phillips Sims was not finalized in fall practice and will carry over into this matchup. Both are expected to see significant time on the field. This game also should give Alabama the opportunity to work on finding the right pairing on its offensive line. Barrett Jones has worked at his normal home (guard) during fall camp, but also saw snaps at left tackle. However, the hope is true freshman Cyrus Kouandjio will eventually claim the left tackle job. Another interesting storyline is Alabama coach Nick Saban is a Kent State alum and coached as an assistant there from 1972-1976. This will be the first game for Darrell Hazell on the Kent State sidelines, and he’ll have his hands full trying to figure out ways to upset Alabama.
Alabama 47, Kent State 10
BYU at Ole Miss – Saturday, Sept. 3
BYU’s first game as an Independent will take place in cozy Oxford, Miss. The Cougars improved dramatically on both sides of the ball as the 2010 season progressed, but we’re not quite sure how much of that was due to a much-softer late-season schedule. One thing is for sure: Jake Heaps is a future star at quarterback, and he has plenty of playmakers at his disposal. This is not good news for an Ole Miss defense that struggled mightily last season. The Rebels ranked last in the SEC and 107th in the nation in scoring defense (35.2 ppg). They held one SEC team to under 28 points — Alabama, which beat Ole Miss 23–10. The Rebs, led by senior Brandon Bolden, should be able to run the ball, but BYU simply has too much on the offensive side of the ball.
BYU 34, Ole Miss 24
Montana vs. Tennessee – Saturday, Sept. 3
The Volunteers should be better in Derek Dooley’s second season, but winning more than six games could be difficult. The schedule is challenging, and the Volunteers have concerns about the depth in the front seven on defense. Quarterback Tyler Bray also must continue to develop, while breaking in two new starters at receiver - Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers. Montana has been a FCS powerhouse, but missed the playoffs last year. It would be a major upset if the Grizzlies found a way to win in Knoxville.
Tennessee 38, Montana 16
East Carolina vs. South Carolina – Saturday, Sept. 3
This should be the best team South Carolina has fielded under Steve Spurrier. Assuming quarterback Stephen Garcia can put together a season with no off-the-field distractions, the Gamecocks will be a contender in the SEC East. The Pirates will try to turn this matchup into a shootout, thanks to the return of senior quarterback Dominique Davis. However, the Pirates have three new starters on the offensive line, so slowing down the South Carolina defensive line will be difficult. If Davis has time, he could find some holes against the Gamecocks’ secondary, which struggled last season. However, expect South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore to have a big day against a porous East Carolina defense, which should limit Davis’ opportunities to get the passing attack off the ground.
South Carolina 40, East Carolina 20
Missouri State vs. Arkansas – Saturday, Sept. 3
Even without Ryan Mallett and Knile Davis, the Razorbacks are still a contender in the SEC West. Quarterback Tyler Wilson has played well in limited action and will be throwing to one of the top receiving corps in college football. Missouri State finished 5-6 last season and lost its only matchup against a FBS foe – 48-24 to Kansas State. With Davis gone for the year, this should be a good opportunity for Ronnie Wingo to state his case for the starting job, while Wilson will be tossing bombs to wide-open Razorbacks all game.
Arkansas 51, Missouri State 9
FAU vs. Florida – Saturday, Sept. 3
There’s a new era in Gainesville. With Urban Meyer retiring, it’s up to Will Muschamp to push Florida back to the top of the SEC food chain. The Gators slipped to a disappointing 8-5 record last year, but there’s more than enough promising young talent to produce a rebound, particularly on defense. Although the defense will be one of the best in the conference, there’s a lot of uncertainty on offense. Quarterback John Brantley needs to play better than he did last year, but also needs help from his offensive line. This is the final year on the sidelines for FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger, but the Owls will be one of the worst teams in the Sun Belt.
Florida 45, FAU 7
Elon vs. Vanderbilt – Saturday, Sept. 3
James Franklin has injected some enthusiasm into Vanderbilt since his hire, now comes the on-field test. The Commodores desperately need to improve their offensive attack, after ranking near the bottom of the SEC in offense last year. Elon also has a first-year coach – Jason Swepson – who was previously an assistant at NC State. The Phoenix had one of the top offenses in the FCS last year, but must replace quarterback Scott Riddle. The Commodores are a ways away from contending for a bowl appearance, but they should have an easy victory on Saturday night.
Vanderbilt 41, Elon 17
Oregon vs. LSU (at Arlington, Texas) – Saturday, Sept. 3
What drama: Two preseason top-10 teams squaring off on a neutral field on the first Saturday of the college season. Oh, have we mentioned that one team (Oregon) will be without its best defensive player and one of the premier special team threats in the nation (cornerback Cliff Harris is suspended) and the other team (LSU) will be without arguably its most dangerous offensive player (receiver Russell Shepard, suspended for at least the first game due to eligibility issues) and its starting quarterback (Jordan Jefferson, suspended indefinitely after being arrested)? So what about the players who will actually be on the field? Oregon is explosive on offense, but the Ducks have only one starter back on the front seven on defense. Expect LSU to lean heavily on tailback Spencer Ware and its talented offensive line.
LSU 28, Oregon 24
Boise State vs. Georgia (at Atlanta) – Saturday, Sept. 3
Boise State has won four straight against BCS conference foes, with wins over Virginia Tech and Oregon State last season, and Oregon in both 2008 and ’09. This Saturday, the Broncos will face a desperate Georgia team that is feeling a ton of pressure coming off of a disappointing 6–7 season. Georgia features one of the top quarterbacks in the league in sophomore Aaron Murray, but the Dawgs have some questions on the offensive line and lack a proven playmaker at the wide receiver position. Boise State is known for its offense, but the Broncos are strong on defense and feature one of the nation’s top defensive lines. If Boise can stop Georgia from running the ball with consistency, win No. 5 in a row vs. BCS foes is a strong possibility.
Boise State 28, Georgia 24