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August 12, 2011
Oklahoma is expected to win its conference championship. The same goes for Oregon.
Oklahoma is a leading contender for the national title. Ditto Oregon.
But Oregon doesn't want to be like Oklahoma.
During the BCS championship-game era, which began in 1998, only two teams that appeared in the title game lost their season-opener the following season. It was Oklahoma both times, in 2005 and '09.
Usually, powerful teams open the season against overmatched opponents. But Oklahoma didn't schedule patsies. In '05, the Sooners lost 17-10 to TCU (one of just two losses in Norman OU has incurred under Bob Stoops). In '09, they lost to BYU 14-13 in the opener.
This season, Oregon faces a powerful opening opponent - LSU, which is ranked fourth in the preseason coaches' poll. And as with Oklahoma in '09, the game will be played at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.
The Ducks hope the similarities with OU end there.
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Starting with a bang
How do you feel Oregon will do against LSU on Sept. 3?
LSU-Oregon may be the most anticipated non-conference game of the season. At this point, I'm not comfortable predicting a winner. It's such a good matchup my opinion might change every five minutes. That may even be the case up to kickoff.
The key for Oregon is getting its explosive running game into high gear. The Ducks have lost three games under coach Chip Kelly in which their running game has struggled.
Oregon averaged 231.7 rushing yards per game in '09, but gained just 31 in a season-opening 19-8 loss to Boise State. Later that season, Oregon rushed for 179 yards in a 26-17 Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State. In last season's BCS national championship game, the Ducks rushed for just 75 yards in a 22-19 loss to Auburn after having averaged 286.2 yards during the season.
Oregon returns sensational tailback LaMichael James, as well as dangerous backup Kenjon Barner. Redshirt freshman Lache Seastrunk is a breakaway threat, too. James and Seastrunk are Texans, as is quarterback Darron Thomas. Thomas also is a running threat and you know he'd like to have a big game against LSU. He originally was an LSU lean in the recruiting process, but changed his mind because LSU didn't want him as a quarterback.
While that's a lot of backfield talent, Oregon will have three new starters along the offensive line. The Ducks were in a similar position up front in '09, when they were shut down by Boise State.
LSU's run defense was somewhat vulnerable last season, as the Tigers were 42nd in the nation against the run. Seven opposing runners rushed for at least 93 yards against LSU - and that was when the Tigers had stars at linebacker in Kelvin Sheppard and tackle in Drake Nevis.
Will LSU be able to slow Oregon's running game? Will Oregon experience the same problems along the offensive line that it did in the '09 opener? Both are compelling questions, and the answer will determine the outcome.
Where are the Tigers?
I have been following the Rivals.com top 100 players of college football and no LSU player is listed. I find that hard to believe.
LSU is widely considered a strong national championship contender this season, and the lack of players in the top 100 could mean that this Tigers team is greater than the sum of its parts. It could be a team featuring a lot of good players, but no elite ones.
Or it could be a team with talented players who just haven't become great yet.
Last year, neither Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton nor defensive tackle Nick Fairley were ranked among the top 100 players headed into the season. Newton was a junior college transfer and Fairley was coming off a nondescript season in which he posted 28 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
Obviously, both raised their performance level and achieved greatness, and they would have been in the top 10 of a postseason top 100 list.
Perhaps LSU linebacker Ryan Baker or defensive end Sam Montgomery or cornerback Morris Claiborne will perform similarly this season. It should be noted that while LSU is ranked No. 4 nationally in the preseason coaches' poll, only one LSU player -Claiborne - was a first-team selection on the SEC coaches' preseason team.
Contenders or pretenders?
Archie and Olivia Manning don't have any more sons, so probably not.
I kid, I kid.
Hey, Nutt won or tied for first in the SEC West three times when he was at Arkansas from 1998-2007, so why couldn't he have similar success at Ole Miss?
He has recruited well. Each of Ole Miss' past three recruiting classes has been ranked among the country's top 20. The Rebels posted nine victories in each of Nutt's first two seasons in Oxford ('08 and '09). They finished second in the West in '08, albeit three games behind Alabama. They've often posed problems for LSU, which always is a contender.
One problem for Nutt and Ole Miss right now is that the West never has been stronger. Three of the past four national champions have come out of that division. Nick Saban has Alabama rolling. Gene Chizik just won a national title at Auburn and is recruiting at peak level. LSU remains a national power under Les Miles. Arkansas appears on the brink of becoming one under Bobby Petrino. Dan Mullen even has Mississippi State winning bowl games.
Still, if Nutt continues to recruit well and add depth to the roster, I believe that every now and then, the Rebels can put together a team with a good quarterback, a solid line and a strong defense that can legitimately challenge in the division.
I don't anticipate that happening this season, but as the young quarterbacks on the roster get more experience, Ole Miss could be a solid team in the not-too-distant future.
That might not satisfy some Ole Miss fans, but it's better than waiting for Peyton or Eli to have a son who is a stud high school quarterback.
Pot and the kettle
Why is no one talking about Texas A&M having the state 7-on-7 tournament at their complex and using Kyle Field for the championship game? That seems just as unfair as televising high school games on the Longhorn Network. They can say their coaches aren't around for the event, but flags are flying and A&M signs are everywhere. That seems unfair to the rest of the Big 12.
No one objects to the Texas high school 7-on-7 championships being played at Texas A&M for the same reason that no one objects to the Texas state high school basketball tournaments being held at the University of Texas' Erwin Center.
Many high school championship events need a larger venue to accommodate crowds than typical high school facilities can provide.
Besides, playing host to an event of that nature is a far cry from televising high school games on an individual program's fledgling TV network. A lot of universities across the country host high school events. No other, though, has a TV network that planned to televise high school sports.
Plenty of haters
In regard to the Pac-12 fan in last week's mailbag [Texas-sized tiff over Network, Aug. 5], do the fans of any other conference besides the Pac-12 cry about the SEC's dominance as much as they do? Auburn traveled to Pac-12 country last year and beat Oregon for the title.
Big Ten fans sometimes complain, but their issue typically is based on bowl venues. Their argument is that they would have more bowl success if opponents had to play in their colder climate. Of course, it's likely fewer fans would travel to those colder climates for bowls, so the venues aren't going to change.
As far as the Pac-12 goes, many fans out West are irritated that SEC teams don't travel as much as Pac-12 teams do.
But your point is taken. Auburn did indeed beat Pac-12 champion Oregon in Glendale, Ariz., which is about 45 minutes from Arizona State's campus and is without question in Pac-12 territory.
For those who are counting, SEC teams were 3-1 in Pac-10 (now Pac-12) territory in the past three seasons.