After a summer when the adults who run things seemed hell-bent on killing college football, the first weekend of the 2011 season has finally arrived and that, in itself, is cause for celebration.
For the next 15 Saturdays (I'm counting Army-Navy on Dec. 10) we actually get to talk about games and the storylines leading up to them. We get to talk about who is going to beat who and why and what it all means. What a refreshing change.
The beginning of another season renews the spirit. It brings the promise that the temperatures (eventually) will be cooler. We get reacquainted with people and places that we learned to love all because of college football. It never, ever gets old. If I ever get to this time of year and I'm not excited, I will follow the advice of veteran defensive coordinator Joe Kines and become a greeter at Wal-Mart.
So it is with great excitement that I share the first Tony's Top 10 for 2011:
1. Skip Holtz can win at Notre Dame: Obviously, Saturday's trip to South Bend is going to be an emotional day for South Florida coach Skip Holtz. Just think about the stuff tugging on his heart strings. There is a statue of his father outside of Notre Dame Stadium. He went to school there. He coached there. Two of his siblings received degrees from Notre Dame. It is hallowed ground.
"Selfishly, it's going to be an incredible experience for me," Holtz said.
But you know what? Holtz has a chance to really be selfish because, gentle readers, South Florida can win the game. Remember that when Bulls quarterback B.J. Daniels was a true freshman in 2009, he led USF to a 17-7 win at Florida State.
2. A shoutout to the Chick-fil-A Kickoff: Five years ago Gary Stokan, the president of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, had a concept that was easy to describe and hard to pull off.
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"NASCAR starts its season with the biggest race of all," Stokan said. "We wanted to create the Daytona 500 of college football to kick off the season."
And so the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game was born and celebrates its fourth anniversary when No. 19 Georgia plays No. 5 Boise State on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
The three previous games have matched Alabama-Clemson, Alabama-Virginia Tech and North Carolina-LSU. You like that? Well, Stokan says, you ain't seen nothing yet.
Next season there will be two games on this weekend: Tennessee vs. North Carolina State and Auburn vs. Clemson in what likely will be a Thursday-Saturday doubleheader. The ultimate goal is to have two games each year to sandwich an enshrinement dinner for the new class to the College Football Hall of Fame, which is set to move from South Bend, Ind., to Atlanta in 2013.
"We honestly believe that with these games, the SEC Championship Game and the Chick-fil-A Bowl that Atlanta has become the crossroads of the college football universe."
Nick Saban is certainly sold on the idea. In 2013 he will bring Alabama back to Atlanta for the third time, to play Virginia Tech.
3. Don't underestimate The Hat: The hits just keep on coming for LSU. The Tigers were just getting used to the idea that quarterback Jordan Jefferson would not be available for Saturday night's opener vs. Oregon when they learned that offensive guard Josh Dworacyk would not be available because of a knee injury that requires surgery. Dworacyk has started 23 straight games for LSU. Still, Les Miles likes the team he'll put on the field in Arlington, Texas. "We are totally focused on what happens in our locker room and what happens between the white lines," Miles said. "That is what we can control." I'm just telling you, don't underestimate Miles, aka The Hat in these kinds of big games. When his teams are in trouble, they almost always find a way to escape.
4. Mark Richt faces 120 big minutes of football: A lot of people are pulling for Richt. He has won 96 games and two SEC championships in his 10 seasons as Georgia head coach. He has done it the right way and he has never embarrassed the university. Given the summer we've had in college football, that's no small accomplishment. But the reality is the first 120 minutes of football this season are very important to Richt if he wants to return for his 12th season in Athens. No. 19 Georgia plays No. 5 Boise State in the Georgia Dome. The following Saturday the Bulldogs host No. 12 South Carolina. Start 2-0 and the schedule sets up nicely. Start 0-2 and things in Athens may start to get ugly. "Everybody knows this is an important season," said Richt, who is a combined 14-12 the past two years. "We all feel a sense of urgency."
5. Why is Minnesota opening at Southern California?: All things considered, this is not the way Jerry Kill wanted to make this debut as Minnesota's head coach. Kill, who did splendid work at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois before getting this gig, has to take his first group of Gophers to USC to play a Trojans team that has a bit of an attitude because they can't go to a bowl. Kill said part of rebuilding the program at Minnesota is getting real when it comes to the scheduling. "But it is what it is so we'll go out and we're excited, and we'll go out and do it," Kill said. You read it here: USC will probably win the game but it will not be a blowout. This guy is a very good coach.
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7. Why you have to pull for Case Keenum: This time last season Keenum was poised to break the all-time passing yardage record of Hawaii's Timmy Chang (17,072 yards). Then he tore a knee ligament in the third game against UCLA (while trying to make a tackle after an interception) and was lost for the season. The NCAA granted Keenum a sixth year of eligibility and now he needs "only" 3,487 yards to break the mark to be No. 1 passer in FBS history. On Saturday, Keenum returns to action and the opener at home fittingly will be against UCLA at Robertson Stadium. Keenum says he's a different person than a year ago, when he was obsessed with chasing the Heisman Trophy and NFL dreams. He got married in the offseason and now says his life "is less about football."
8. Let's just call it "The Big 12 Replacement Bowl": This week Texas A&M declared that it was leaving the Big 12. The Aggies are expected to petition for membership in the SEC. It is expected that an invitation will be forthcoming. SMU, out of the big boy football business for 25 years, has made no bones about the fact that it wants to replace Texas A&M in the Big 12 and rejoin its former brothers from the Southwest Conference.
"We think our program under June Jones is ready and we honestly think it would also be good for the state of Texas," SMU athletic director Steve Orsini said.
Let's put it this way: Beating the Aggies on Sunday in College Station would not hurt SMU's case.
9. Maryland makes its fashion statement: The biggest secret at Maryland right now has nothing to do with trick plays for quarterback Danny O'Brien. It is which one of the dozens of uniform combinations the Terps will trot out for Monday night's ACC game with Miami at Byrd Stadium. Back on Aug. 22 the school showed off its new uniforms that included all of the colors of the state flag: red, black, white and gold. "I know I'm going to be wearing khakis and a golf shirt," said Maryland coach Randy Edsall, who coaches his first game as the head Terp after taking UConn to the Fiesta Bowl last season. "I told the players they would have to decide because it was too many combinations for me." What was going to be a fairly high-profile game got even more attention when the NCAA suspended eight Miami players for taking extra benefits from a booster. "I told my guys that they had better be ready because the guys Miami brings up here are all going to be good," Edsall said.
10. The Head Ball Coach playing head games -- again: It is no secret that South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has had his issues with senior quarterback Stephen Garcia. Garcia has been suspended five times during his time in Columbia. But Garcia has also started 28 consecutive games at quarterback for the Gamecocks because he wins. So why, pray tell, is Spurrier starting sophomore Connor Shaw in Saturday's game with East Carolina in Charlotte? Garcia will play in the second quarter and then Spurrier will make a decision after that. Earlier in the week Spurrier tipped his hand in the SEC coaches conference call:
"Connor Shaw, like I said, has performed a little bit better than Stephen in all the scrimmages so don't be surprised," Spurrier said.
Having known the Head Ball Coach for years, please allow me to translate:
"I'm just keeping Stephen on edge because he plays better that way and I'm also giving Georgia [next week's opponent] something else to prepare for."
10a. Brady Hoke taps into his inner Bo: Hoke has parts of Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr woven into his DNA. Hoke may be an Ohio native but when he coaches his first game in the Big House on Saturday against Western Michigan, he will be a Michigan Man through and through. "There are certain places in the world that are bigger than the players and bigger than the coaches who just happen to be there at a certain point in time," Hoke said. "Michigan is one of those places." Hoke, who spent six seasons at Ball State and two at San Diego State, is being given the keys to one of the great franchises in sport with more victories (884) than any other school. He's taking over at a time when Michigan's biggest rival, Ohio State, faces an uncertain future. Don't be surprised if Hoke pulls out Schembechler's immortal "Team" speech either this week or next week.
The Tony Barnhart Show returns on Sept. 7 at 9 p.m. on The CBS Sports Network.