It used to be that opening games in the college football season were no more that cake walks for the teams in the major conferences and tune-ups under game conditions, typically in front of one of the season's best home crowds, so that the home team could work out the offseason rust and get its act together better before the stronger teams start showing up on the schedule.
This is no longer necessarily the case, with television demanding appealing matchups and more competitive games to kickoff the new college season. That is why marquee matchups like Oregon against LSU, both ranked in the top five in the two major national polls, and No. 5 (AP) Boise State vs. No. 19 (AP) Georgia are part of the offering in this opening weekend of college action. In recent years, we've had top-25 showdowns like Virginia Tech against Boise State and Oklahoma, out of the Big 12, vs. BYU to open the season.
On the subject of intriguing games to kick off the college schedule, the Big 12 has several of its own to offer up on this opening weekend. Baylor will start things off for the Big 12 with a Friday Night Lights game at home in Waco against the TCU Horned Frogs, the No. 2-ranked team in last season's final USA Today and AP college polls. The 2011 Rose Bowl Champions are ranked 14th in the preseason AP media poll and 15th by the coaches in the USA Today preseason poll.
The Baylor-TCU season opener is our spotlight game of the week in the Big 12 and could be one of the stronger matchups nationally on opening weekend. ESPN will broadcast the game Friday night. These same two teams met last year in Ft. Worth, with TCU winning 45-10.
Baylor was 7-2 and in first place in the highly competitive Big 12 South through nine games a year ago, including the Bears first win over Texas in Austin in 19 years and first in the Big 12 era. Unfortunately, that was as far as it went as the Bears lost their momentum and dropped their final four games of the year. Nevertheless, the seven victories propelled Baylor's to its first winning season first bowl appearance since 1994.
Offense and scoring was never the issue last season at Baylor, and it should only get stronger this season. Eight offensive starters return, including dual-threat quarterback Robert Griffin III, from a team that ranked third in the conference and 13th nationally in total offense in 2010.
Griffin - or RG3, as he's known to Baylor fans - was fifth in the country last season in total offense, averaging 318 yards a game. Bears lose their top running back from last year and 1,200 rushing yards from Jay Finley, but they are deep and loaded again at the receiver position.
The offensive line is one of the best in the conference, but defensively, it's a different story. The one bright note on the defensive side of the ball is that head coach Art Briles has brought in Phil Bennett as the team's new defensive coordinator. It might take a little while, but Bennett has had defensive success everywhere he has been. Baylor plays five of Bennett's former employers this season: TCU, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Iowa State and Kansas.
We won seven games last year and we want to do even better than that this season, Griffin told the Sporting News last spring. "That's the goal," the junior Baylor quarterback said. "We know we have to be dominant as an offense. Every time we get the ball we need to score. And I don't think the guys look at that as a lot of pressure, but just something we expect with all the talent we have on offense."
Baylor will need all of that offensive output and then some if it hopes to pull off the upset against the 14th-ranked Horned Frogs, who have led the nation in total defense for the last two years. Anchored by senior linebacker Tank Carder, the Mountain West Conference's Defensive Player of the Year in 2010, the TCU defense is expected to be strong again this season. In 2010, TCU yielded only 99 yards per game on the ground and 128 yards through the air.
The biggest missing part from last year's 13-0 squad is the loss of four-year starting quarterback and All-American Andy Dalton, who has gone on to the NFL. Sophomore Casey Pachall, who was in eight games and threw 15 total passes a year ago, steps in a quarterback this season.
Junior tailback Ed Wesley is back for his junior season after rushing for 1,078 yards and averaging 6.5 yards a carry in 2010. The Horned Frogs like to use their productive running game to set up the pass, and they have a solid stable of skilled pass receivers as targets for Pachall.
The oddsmakers have TCU as a 6 ½ -point favorite. I think it might be even closer than that, largely because of where it's being played and because of Griffin's experience and presence at the quarterback position. TCU might not face a more talented QB the rest of the season. My prediction: TCU 24, Baylor 20
Other Big 12 games this Labor Day holiday weekend worth following are No.-1 ranked Oklahoma hosting Tulsa. The Hurricane recorded 10 wins a year ago in finishing in a tie with SMU in the West Division of Conference USA and will bring their hurricane-like offense to Norman in what should be a high-scoring game. SMU, another Conference USA team, will be in College Station, Texas, on Sunday to square off with Texas A&M. The eighth-ranked (AP) Aggies will win this game, but SMU should be able to be able to stay in the game for a half or three quarters.
The interesting story line around the Texas A&M-SMU season-opener is that it features a school that is anxious to get out of the Big 12 and an institution that would give about anything to be invited in. The truth of the matter is, only one of the schools is going to get its wish.
Big 12 Football Week 1 Predictions
Friday, September 2
TCU 24 @ Baylor 20
Saturday, September 3
Texas State 13 @ Texas Tech 38
Eastern Kentucky 10 @ Kansas State 35
Miami (Ohio) 17 @ Missouri 33
Northern Iowa 16 @ Iowa State 27
Louisiana-Lafayette 13 @ Oklahoma State 45
Rice 17 @ Texas 38
McNeese State 14 @ Kansas 27
Tulsa 20 @ Oklahoma 42
Sunday, September 4
Southern Methodist 17 @ Texas A&M 35