Kicking it off: South Carolina and Mississippi State meet for the first time since 2002 in the opening week's only conference matchup. The opening week also features three intriguing SEC-Pac 10 showdowns. California travels to Tennessee, Southern California visits Arkansas and Auburn plays host to Washington State.
Best matchup: California-Tennessee arguably is this weekend's best matchup in the nation, let alone the SEC. California has a chance to prove itself as a dark-horse contender for the national title, while Tennessee wants to show that its 5-6 season in 2005 was an aberration. The top one-on-one matchup is at Auburn, where preseason All-America cornerback David Irons probably will line up against Washington State's Jason Hill, who has 25 touchdown catches and 2,104 receiving yards the last two years. An Alabama secondary that features All-SEC candidate Ramzee Robinson at cornerback also will have its hands full against a pass-happy Hawaii offense that features 1,000-yard receivers Davone Bess and Ryan Grice-Mullen.
Worst matchup: Division I-AA program Western Kentucky must face the defending SEC champion. The Hilltoppers enter the game without a single returning starter on their defensive line. Even though Georgia is playing without suspended preseason All-SEC offensive tackle Daniel Inman, the Bulldogs should have no trouble protecting Joe Tereshinski and opening up running room for Thomas Brown and Co. Kentucky also faces serious matchup problems as it breaks in two new starting cornerbacks – senior Karl Booker and redshirt freshman Trevard Lindley – against Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm. The 6-foot Lindley and 6-1 Booker could have a tough time guarding 6-6 Louisville receiver Mario Urrutia.
The pressure is on: Tennessee QB Erik Ainge. After leading the Volunteers to an Eastern Division title as a true freshman, Ainge lost his job and his confidence during a dismal sophomore season. He opens his junior year against a star-studded California defense that features Rivals.com preseason All-America cornerback Daymeion Hughes. A solid performance can show that Ainge's problems were nothing that new offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe couldn't cure. A poor outing could have fans calling for Jonathan Crompton.
Upset alert: It's tough to call this an upset, but we like No. 9 California to beat No. 23 Tennessee on the road. Even though California finished 8-4 and Tennessee went 5-6 last year, the Volunteers are listed as the favorite. Mississippi also is in a precarious spot as a three-point favorite breaking in a new quarterback, but Brent Schaeffer could ease into his new role while facing a Memphis defense that allowed 280 passing yards per game last year.
Most to gain: Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan had more passing yards than anybody in the nation last year, but he still isn't a household name on the mainland. If he throws for 300 yards and helps Hawaii throw a scare into an Alabama team that boasted the nation's top scoring defense last year, Brennan will prove he's more than a product of June Jones' system.
Who's hot: Vanderbilt's Earl Bennett and South Carolina's Sidney Rice were two of the nation's hottest receivers at the end of the 2005 season. Bennett collected 49 receptions for 545 yards and nine touchdowns in his final four contests. In his last seven games, Rice caught 52 passes for 845 yards and nine touchdowns.
Who's not: South Carolina quarterback Blake Mitchell threw three interceptions in each of the Gamecocks' final two games last year.
Must-see TV: The California-Tennessee game clearly is the biggest attraction of the week, but there's at least one other SEC game worth watching. The Southern California-Arkansas contest offers plenty of intriguing storylines - aside from the Razorbacks' obvious revenge motive after losing at USC last year. This game offers the first look at how new Arkansas offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn adjusts to the switch from the high-school game to big-time college football. Arkansas fans also will learn if the Razorbacks can run the ball even without a healthy Darren McFadden. And even non-SEC fans will want to watch this game to see whether John David Booty is the next great USC quarterback and which talented freshman running back will make an immediate impact for the Trojans.
Newcomer who could have an impact: This is a no-brainer. Mississippi quarterback Brent Schaeffer won the starting job before he arrived on campus. It's tough to imagine Schaeffer approaching the ridiculous numbers he put up last year at College of the Sequoias, where he passed for 40 touchdowns and rushed for 10 more. No matter how Schaeffer fares, he should represent an upgrade over predecessors Micheal Spurlock and Ethan Flatt.
Key stat: Florida quarterback Chris Leak has gone 52-of-73 for 675 yards with seven touchdown passes and no interceptions in his three pervious season openers.
Take the line: Southern California looks like a smart pick as an eight-point favorite at Arkansas one year after demolishing the Razorbacks 70-17 at home. Even though the Trojans must replace Heisman Trophy winners Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, they're still more than a touchdown better than an Arkansas team that probably will play without injured tailback Darren McFadden.
They said it: "I know they didn't win a bunch last year, but they won their last game, so they are on a one-game winning streak and we are on a two-game losing streak right now. I think each year every team has their own personality, so we will just have to wait and see how theirs is and how ours is on Thursday night." – South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier about Thursday's season opener at Mississippi State.
Injury update: A toe injury will probably prevent Arkansas star tailback Darren McFadden from playing against Southern California. Felix Jones, who averaged 6.3 yards per carry last year, will start in McFadden's absence. … Vanderbilt tailback Cassen Jackson-Garrison is expected to play against Michigan after undergoing an Aug. 14 appendectomy. … LSU tailback Alley Broussard has said he expects to play this weekend after missing the entire 2005 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. LSU coach Les Miles indicated Broussard's status remains uncertain. … Georgia backup guard Zeb McKinzie will miss Saturday's game with a shoulder injury, which further reduces the depth of an offensive line that already will be missing suspended starting tackle Daniel Inman and reserve center Ian Smith. … Mississippi State linebacker Gabe O'Neal plans to play Thursday despite missing much of the preseason with an injured left shoulder. … South Carolina starting guard Thomas Coleman's ankle injury shouldn't keep him out of Thursday's game, but reserve receivers Mike West (left hamstring) and Moe Brown (left ankle) might not play. … Alabama kicker Jamie Christensen should play Saturday despite battling a groin injury for the last two weeks. Christensen's backup is freshman walk-on Leigh Tiffin – the son of former Iron Bowl hero Van Tiffin.
Worth noting: Arkansas and Tennessee will put long streaks on the line when they face nationally ranked teams this weekend. Tennessee has won its last 10 season openers, while Arkansas has won nine in a row. … Vanderbilt's season opener against Michigan will mark the Commodores' first game against a Big Ten opponent since a 44-13 loss to Indiana in 1979. … Hawaii has played Alabama tough in both its previous meetings with the Tide. Alabama won 21-16 in 2002 and lost 37-29 the following year. Alabama owns a 5-4 all-time record against teams currently in the Western Athletic Conference. … USC coach Pete Carroll was a graduate assistant at Arkansas in 1977. … Although Kentucky owns a 10-8 lead in its all-time series with Louisville, the Cardinals have won six of the last seven meetings.