The college football season begins Thursday, but pardon me for not working up a whole lot of enthusiasm yet. Say what you will about the NFL and its preseasaon, but when they play for real there won't be any Saskatchewan Roughriders or San Antonio Talons on the schedule.
Even back in 1998, in the inaugural season of the BCS, the opening weekend schedule wasn't such a desolate landscape as it is today. Florida State opened the season against Texas A&M in the Kickoff Classic on a Thursday night, and there were seven other games featuring top 25 matchups that weekend, including Michigan at Notre Dame, Tennessee at Syracuse, and No. 1 Ohio State at West Virginia.
This year, we have all of two games matching up AP preseason top 25 teams on the opening weekend. And of the 46 games on the schedule, only 15 are between BCS-quality teams -- and we're being generous by counting games involving BYU, SMU, and Boise State.
The deterioration of non-conference scheduling is perhaps the worst aspect of the BCS legacy. Title-contending programs quickly figured out that there was little incentive from playing high-profile OOC opponents because a single loss often was enough to dash any BCS championship dreams. And the NCAA's decision to allow teams to play 12 regular-season games beginning in 2006 has only made things worse, as it only increased the demands for cupcakes.
Don't look for much of this to change right away in the new College Football Playoff era set to begin in 2014. If anything, the SEC's utter dominance in the past decade has only proved that non-conference scheduling doesn't matter as long as there's healthy competition within the conference. Obviously the SEC feels quite comfortable with this formula, so it's sticking with eight conference games, thus allowing member schools to line their pockets without endangering their title hopes.
All that matters now for
SEC teams to stay on track for a shot at the BCS title is to not screw things up in September, which now, save for a handful of early conference games and precious few made-for-TV marquee matchups, is just a long, long preseason. At least pro football has Rex Ryan to make things go sideways. In college football, don't expect Braxton Miller to play in the fourth quarter with a bunch of walk-ons against Buffalo.
Slim-pickin's as they are, a few games each week nevertheless will have a noticeable impact on the BCS picture. Here's what we're looking for in Week 1 (rankings in simulated preseason BCS standings):
No. 4 Georgia at No. 8 Clemson (8 p.m. ET Saturday, ABC) - The only matchup featuring top 10 teams this weekend, this game will mean more to Clemson than Georgia when it comes to the BCS title chase. The Bulldogs, playing on the road and with a full SEC slate to come, can afford to lose (a close game) and then play their way back into the championship picture. If the host Tigers want to play in something better than the Orange Bowl, this is a must-win game.
North Carolina at No. 7 South Carolina (6 p.m. Thursday, ESPN) - More than a few pundits consider the Gamecocks overrated, thanks to their being in the SEC and the presence of Jadeveon Clowney. South Carolina can use this game to establish its legitimacy, while "The Freak" -- with this being the very first game of the season -- will get a chance to launch his unprecedented Heisman campaign.
No. 11 LSU vs. No. 20 TCU at Arlington (9 p.m. Saturday, ESPN) - The Tigers are positioned to reprise the start of the 2011 season, when they defeated Oregon at Jerry World en route to an unbeaten regular season and a spot in the BCS title game. Expectations aren't as high for LSU this year, but a victory over a rebuilt TCU team will ease it onto the right path.
No. 12 Florida State at Pittsburgh (8 p.m. Monday, ESPN) - The Seminoles lost a first-round pick quarterback, but might actually be upgrading at that position with Jameis Winston. Plenty of eyeballs will be on Winston to see if this redshirt freshman will be this season's Johnny Manziel (minus the off-the-field hoopla, maybe).
No. 18 Boise State at Washington (10 p.m. Saturday, Fox Sports 1) - The haters will be out in force to root against the Broncos, as they're once again the highest-ranked non-BCS team and the team most likely to bust the BCS. But Boise State by no means has a cupcake schedule this season, with road games at Utah State and BYU still to come, not to mention possibly the inaugural Mountain West championship game.