Commentary

Teams look to put best foot forward

Originally Published: September 3, 2010
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Coaches are, by nature, control freaks. In no game in any season at any time of their careers do they have less control than in the opener.

Coaches are starting starters who have never started.

[+] EnlargeAppalachian State and Michigan
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonAppalachian State's upset over Michigan in 2007 is an example of how a season-opener can go wrong for a team.

They are playing players who have never played.

Neither of these situations brings to mind the concept of control.

"We always operate under, 'Expect the unexpected,'" Boston College coach Frank Spaziani said, "and in openers, that's to be expected."

Spaziani paused.

"I guess I sound like Yogi Berra here, right?"

A season might never be over until it's over, but most coaches agree the opener can't be over soon enough. There's a reason that one of the hoariest of coaching clichés is that a team makes its greatest improvement between the first game and the second. It's the same reason that Florida State is opening against Samford, and Boston College against Weber State and three dozen other FCS teams are playing FBS teams. The first game is often a mess.

Anything can happen. Appalachian State can go into the Big House and beat Michigan 34-32. Three years later, the mind still boggles.

"There are so many unknowns," Cincinnati coach Butch Jones said. "Unlike pro football, we have no exhibition games."

Nine months of anticipation spill into the opener. Nine months of preparation -- weight room, spring ball, summer seven-on-seven and a month of practice in August -- and still, the coaches don't know.

They don't know their own teams. They don't know the other teams.

"You look at what they did the year prior," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "That doesn't mean they [the opponent] stay the same."

The most famous example of that occurred in 1971. No. 16 Alabama had finished two consecutive five-loss seasons, and coach Bear Bryant feared a third. Alabama would open the season at No. 5 USC.

Bryant junked his pro-set offense for the wishbone Texas had used to win the two previous national championships. He didn't make his plan public. He had tarps draped on the fence surrounding the practice field. When he allowed writers to watch practice, his players reverted to the old offense.

When the Crimson Tide took the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, they caught John McKay's Trojans flat-footed. Alabama raced to a 17-0 lead before USC could adjust. The Tide hung on to win 17-10 and finished the regular season 11-0.

Four decades later, every coach fears being McKay on that sideline. It's the sort of fear that gnaws at a coach before an opener. During the season, teams prepare for an opponent in seven days -- sometimes five. You don't have time to think. That's not the case before the first game of the season.

"You have so much time to prepare. Don't overdo it," Fitzgerald said "The kids aren't ready. It's a game of execution. Give yourself a chance to win. If you try to do crazy stuff, you get what you deserve. You try to play as sound as you can. You don't try to do anything out of the ordinary. With the extra time, you come up with a lot more crazy ideas. The major thing is to keep it simple. You don't need to overanalyze. Your guys can't play fast."

Playing fast is the objective. There's no speed like game speed. There's no hitting like game hitting.

"Practices are physical, but it never simulates the game," Jones said.

Coaches must coach at game speed, too.

"You're having to make adjustments in split-second time frames from the sideline to the game," Jones said.

[+] EnlargeButch Jones
AP Photo/Tony TribbleButch Jones is preparing for his first game at Cincinnati, to be played three time zones away at Fresno State.

He is at an extreme. He is preparing for his first game not just of the season, but at the school, and it's being played three time zones away, at Fresno State.

"This is the first time in battle with each other," Jones said. "How does this player react on game day? How does the coach react on game day? The communications among coaches, between coaches and players -- everything is new. We don't take anything for granted."

Cincinnati, like most schools, held a mock game last week. The Bearcats practiced pregame warm-ups. They practiced leaving the field at halftime. It didn't go well.

"You would be amazed at how many kids didn't know our pregame routine, which we did before the spring game," Jones said.

You have teenagers going to their first road game, staying with the team in the hotel for the first time.

"You prepare for that stuff," Jones said, "because you never know."

It's not just the teenagers making their first road trips. In the first game of the 1978 season, Missouri upset No. 5 Notre Dame 3-0. In the first half, the Irish quarterback, a senior, completed 4 of 17 passes with two interceptions. He lost a fumble, too. It became clear that Joe Montana couldn't handle the big stage. He receded into obscurity.

Wait, let me double-check that. Montana rallied the Irish to a 9-3 record, commanded one of the greatest comebacks ever in the 1979 Cotton Bowl, won four Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers and is considered one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play.

The best thing about openers is that the damage usually isn't permanent.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com