Season openers: A cautionary tale
Ivan Maisel [ARCHIVE]
ESPN.com
August 28, 2013
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You are so starved for college football that you would watch a game of hopscotch if it had a marching band at halftime. You have seen Jadeveon Clowney's hit more often than you've seen your spouse. You have watched Johnny Football get in and out of scrapes in the offseason the same way he did last fall. You have planned the five-day college football weekend that is upon us right down to the nanochip -- those Tostitos crumbs you pluck off your shirt.

You want to watch college football in the worst way possible.

That's good, because on opening weekend, that's what you're likely to see.

"I think we all know openers tend to have some mistakes in them," Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said at his press conference Tuesday. Not for nothing, but Kelly has referred to opening games as "turning the keys over to your teenager." And let the prayer begin.

It has been nearly eight months since the referee gave the Fighting Irish a 10-count in Miami and Alabama retained its heavyweight crown. Across the nation, seniors have graduated and freshmen have signed. Players have run and lifted, pushed up, thrown up, wolfed down training table and repeated as necessary. By opening game, they will have endured 15 spring practices, 29 preseason practices, and countless "voluntary" workouts with teammates.

But what they haven't done, not since November or December (or for the precious few, January), is play football against another team at full speed. There's a reason for the cliché that teams make their greatest improvement between Week 1 and Week 2. The reason is Week 1.

"There's so much unknown in college football," Cincinnati head coach Tommy Tuberville said. "The first game is a roll of the dice. You just don't know what you have. It doesn't matter if you have all 22 starters back. It's a different team."

College football has no exhibition games. The veterans can't scrape off the rust in Arizona or Florida for six weeks before Opening Day. The inexperienced must step on the field as if they are veterans.

"You have to be careful," Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz said at his press conference Monday, "because you do not want to make too many mistakes, be too complicated and put too much in.

Mistakes will be made. Assignments will be missed. Timeouts will be taken to get the 11th man on the field or the 12th man off. Punts will be returned for touchdowns. Kickoffs will be returned for touchdowns. Field goals will be blocked and returned for touchdowns. Detect a pattern?

And the best part of it is the fans are too happy to care. It's been too long. Palates are not as discerning as they will be in October.

My colleagues in programming at ESPN, anxious to sate the American appetite, have scattered important games throughout opening weekend. No. 5 Georgia plays at No. 8 Clemson. North Carolina plays at No. 6 South Carolina. No. 19 Boise State plays at Washington. No. 20 TCU plays No. 12 LSU at a neutral site, as does No. 1 Alabama vs. Virginia Tech.

That's like offering a 12-ounce ribeye and taking it off the grill before it's cooked. Imagine how good it would taste if you seared in the juices. Odds are on Saturday, one bite of the steak will be cooked right and the next one will be underdone.

Take a look at the full schedules for Thursday and Friday. Of the 17 games on Thursday, nine have an FBS team hosting an FCS team. On Friday, it's five games out of nine. Now that's not a ticket Joe Fan is especially interested in, but the appeal to an FBS coach is undeniable.

"People try to get around it by scheduling a 'scrimmage,'" said Tuberville, who has no such luck as the Bearcats open at home against Purdue. "Everybody wants to go out and say we can make all these mistakes and we'll still win the game."

The beauty of such games is that every season, a few FCS teams pull off the upset, most notably Appalachian State defeating Michigan in 2007. Kansas State, which plays two-time defending FCS champ North Dakota State, is on the clock.

Tuberville said he would be willing to give up "two or three" practices in exchange for a scrimmage against another team, either late in the spring or at some point in August. "You can't fly. You've got to bus in. You can't stay in a hotel. You wouldn't keep score. You limit a player to 35 plays. It's not a game. It's a scrimmage."

He feels teams would improve and injuries would lessen, because coaches would know what they have. Instead, we have openers of widely varying quality, often from one play to the next.

Give credit to Kentucky and Louisville. They have opened against each other 16 times in the last 19 seasons. This year, they are playing on Sept. 14. And next year, they agreed to move the game to Thanksgiving weekend. Rivalry games should be played at the end of the season. Players will be at their smartest, and adrenaline will heal their aches and restore their energy.

We are a long way from the end of the season. We're just too excited to notice.

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