Every week, I'll throw a spotlight on the six most interesting games of the weekend to tell you why these are the games you should try to catch, who's going to win (and why), and what ramifications they could have on the rest of the college football landscape.
THURSDAY, SEP. 2
Pittsburgh @ Utah (8:30pm EST, Versus)
While ESPN continues to torment us with a third-straight year of featuring South Carolina in the Thursday-night opener, Versus has stepped up to the plate with a game of actual intrigue. Unlike most opening week affairs, it pits two teams with a pulse against one another; in fact, these two teams are legitimate contenders to win their respective conferences. So it's got that going for it. It's also a rematch of the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, which would probably be more meaningful if it hadn't been, you know, one of the worst BCS bowl games in recent memory. You're probably going to watch just about anything on the first night of real college football in eight months, but here's a game that shouldn't just be empty calories.
THE PICK: Utah 27, Pitt 23
SATURDAY, SEP. 4
Purdue @ Notre Dame (3:30pm EST, NBC)
I wouldn't normally focus on a game featuring two unranked teams in this feature, but the pickings are slim on the opening weekend and this game should actually be fairly intriguing. On one side you've got Purdue entering Year 2 of the Danny Hope Era with hopes of new QB Robert Marve and stud DE Ryan Kerrigan spearheading a dark horse Big Ten challenge -- or at least a return to a bowl game for the first time in three years. On the other side you've got Notre Dame getting their first taste of life without Charlie Weis -- and life with Brian Kelly. Love or loathe Notre Dame, their first steps under Brian Kelly should be interesting -- and if you like high-scoring passing offenses, this game should have a couple good ones.
THE PICK: Notre Dame 34, Purdue 31
Connecticut @ Michigan (3:30pm EST, ABC/ESPN)
UConn's a slightly under the radar pick to win the Big East, and a win over Michigan (even Michigan in its current emaciated state) would be a hell of a way to jump-start that campaign. They have plenty of returning talent from a squad that was just a few plays away from being a 10-win team a year ago and they have a hard-nosed, underrated coach in Randy Edsall who's resisted overtures from bigger programs to try and do something special in Storrs; this year's team may be his best bet to do just that. Meanwhile, Michigan enters the season with a defensive secondary in shambles, uncertainty at quarterback, the lingering malaise of the last two bowl-less seasons, and a coach under intense fire to prove that his system can work in Ann Arbor. Oh, and Michigan's lost two of their last three season openers. So, you know, no pressure or anything.
THE PICK: UConn 35, Michigan 28
TCU vs. Oregon State (7:45pm EST, ESPN)
Boise State gets most of the preseason plaudits among the non-BCS crowd since they return twenty starters and are coming off a 14-0 season and a win over this same TCU team in the Fiesta Bowl. On the other hand, TCU returns a ton of talent in their own right (9 on offense, 7 on defense) and should be very, very good in their own right. This game is an early (and rare, given their normal presence on the TV ghetto that is The MTN) chance for them to state their case in front of a national audience, which should have them plenty fired up. Given their relative starting positions in the polls TCU is likely going to need Boise State to slip up somewhere to move ahead of them in the hunt for a guaranteed BCS slot -- or even a spot in the national title game, which is a realistic possibility with both teams starting in the top 10. But in Oregon State, TCU should have a solid test on their hands; the Beavers have to break in a new QB, but they do bring back both of the fabulous Rodgers brothers.
THE PICK: TCU 31, Oregon State 17
LSU vs. North Carolina (8:00pm EST, ABC)
To be fair, this game looked a hell of a lot more interesting before damn near the entire North Carolina starting defense was rumored to be suspended for various rules violations; back before that it looked like it was going to pit a pair of nasty defenses and two teams that are vaguely dark horse picks to win their respective conferences. Now you have a UNC team mired in scandal, likely to be missing multiple players off what was expected to be a very strong defense. LSU has question marks of their own, but nothing like what UNC is facing and they have the added benefit of not having to deal with distracting scandals and having a better offense. This game has turned into a de facto SEC-ACC Challenge; so far the SEC is 2-0, with Alabama picking up wins over Clemson and Virginia Tech. LSU should make it three in a row without too much difficulty.
THE PICK: LSU 27, UNC 14
MONDAY, SEP. 6
Boise State vs. Virginia Tech (8:00pm EST, ESPN)
These are the games where Boise has excelled in their rise to prominence over the past few years, splashy non-conference showdowns in which they have weeks to prepare for their opponent. And, as has been noted in just about every preview written about them, they return 20 of 22 starters from last year's 14-0 team. That's a good thing. On the other hand, they've never quite played a game like this one; the game is ostensibly at a "neutral site," but it's in FedEx Field at Washington, D.C., a few skips and jump away from the Hokies' home base in Blacksburg, VA -- and quite a few hops away from Boise. There should be no lack of motivation from the Hokies, either; they're ranked high enough to largely control their own national title destiny at this stage of the season and a win over a top-5 squad like Boise will only shoot them higher. Past BSU victims in high-profile games (Oklahoma in the '07 Fiesta or TCU in the '10 Fiesta) could point to the fact that the Fiesta Bowl was a consolation prize; Oklahoma had missed out on the national title game because of a pair of regular season losses (to Colorado and Texas Tech), while TCU had missed out on the national title game on account of Texas' last-second field goal in the Big XII Conference Championship Game. There won't be any such issues hampering Virginia Tech this year and there should be little reason for them to overlook Boise State after Boise's near-constant success over the past five years. There are some interesting match-ups to watch in the game, too; can Boise handle Virginia Tech's punishing running game (which should be even better with a healthy Darren Evans to spell Ryan Williams) and the athleticism of Tyrod Taylor? Conversely, can Virginia Tech's rebuilt defense handle the high-powered and experienced Boise offense, especially the pinpoint passing of Kellen Moore? It should be a fascinating battle.
THE PICK: Virginia Tech 28, Boise State 21