CORAL GABLES, Fla. — A year ago, Georgia Tech started its season by dropping 63 points on Western Carolina, and Virginia Tech opened its slate with a 66-point outburst against Appalachian State.
They were tune-up games, by design.
This year, a handful of teams — the Yellow Jackets and Hokies included — won’t have that luxury. While plenty of teams will spend the first weekend of college football as huge favorites against overmatched opponents, six teams from the traditional power conferences will be starting up against one another, playing games that count in the league standings.
South Carolina and Vanderbilt play the first Southeastern Conference game of the year on Thursday night, Miami visits Boston College in an Atlantic Coast Conference opener on Saturday and Georgia Tech meets Virginia Tech in another ACC game on Monday night.
Potential advantage: An early rise to first place.
Potential disadvantage: An early fall into last place.
“There’s some good and there’s some bad, and you just worry about all the unexpected things that could come up in an opening ballgame,” Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. “And you work like heck to cover everything. But the first time they play, and you’ve got some new guys in there playing, there’s concerns.”
No. 1 Southern California is a 40-point favorite to beat Hawaii this weekend, No. 3 LSU is a 43-point favorite over North Texas, and No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 5 Oregon, No. 6 Georgia are all thirty-something-point favorites to roll in their openers. No. 7 Florida State opens against lower-division Murray State, which lost by 63 points the last time it played a team ranked among the AP Top 25.
That’s not to say everything outside of major-conference play is Cupcake City this weekend.
No. 2 Alabama, the defending national champion, opens with a neutral-site game in Arlington, Texas against No. 8 Michigan. And No. 13 Michigan State has an intriguing Week 1 matchup against No. 24 Boise State.
“I think it’s a philosophy here maybe that we’re going to step out and play whoever,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “When somebody comes and says, ‘Do you want to play such and such this particular year,’ I’m not going to shrug my shoulders and say no. I’m going to say, ‘If it’s good for the program, we’ll play ‘em.'”
By the time some teams play their first game, the ACC’s Coastal Division will have a decided favorite.
Since the league went to divisional play in 2005, either Virginia Tech or Georgia Tech has represented the Coastal in the ACC title game. So after Monday, one team will essentially have a two-game lead over the other — one in the standings, another in the potential head-to-head tiebreaker.
It means the stakes in Week 1 are significantly higher than they were for those clubs a year ago at this time.
“It’s a long season,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “Certainly, it’s an important game. We want to win the game. I don’t know if whoever wins the game (means) the other team’s out. There’s still seven other conference games to play and there’s some pretty good teams in our league. Certainly, it gives you a leg up because it’s a division game, but our guys understand the important thing. They know how important the game is.”
For Miami, it’s the sixth time in nine seasons that the schedule starts with an ACC game. It also is a bit of a scheduling oddity — the Hurricanes ended last season against Boston College, and now they’ll open this season by seeing the Eagles again.
“The playing field is the same for both of us,” Boston College coach Frank Spaziani said. “No one had an opener. Practice times are the same. So we’re opening. And you’ve got to play them sometime, so might as well play them now. Doesn’t matter to me.”
Steve Spurrier expressed similar sentiments.
The South Carolina coach said he won’t be holding any part of the playbook back at Vanderbilt, for South Carolina’s first SEC game in August since 2006. In fact, the Gamecocks’ coach laughed off the notion.
“No, no, we don’t get into that,” Spurrier said. “We show everything we can every week to try to win the game. Fortunately, you’re ahead enough in some games that you don’t have to use a trick play or a special play. We bring everything we’ve got to try to win the game and this is going to be a difficult game.”