Commentary

Week 1 offers proving ground

Updated: September 1, 2010, 3:07 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

There are new coaches at storied programs like Florida State, Notre Dame, USC and Tennessee.

There are new quarterbacks at heavyweight programs such as Florida, Georgia, Oregon and Texas.

There are plenty of coaches on the hot seat, from Colorado to Illinois to Michigan.

If you step outside the cream-puff bakeries of the SEC, there is plenty at stake during college football's opening weekend.

Here's a look at the teams, players and coaches who have the most to gain and the most to lose during the opening weekend of the 2010 college football season:

Most to gain

1. Boise State

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
Brian Losness/US PresswireA win on Monday will keep Chris Petersen and Boise State in the title hunt
Critics are already scoffing at the Broncos' lofty position in the preseason polls (No. 3 in AP poll, No. 5 in coaches' poll).

But Boise State can go a long way in cementing its place among the country's truly elite programs by defeating No. 10 Virginia Tech at FedExField in Landover, Md., on Monday night (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET).

If Boise State can knock off the Hokies in what is essentially a road game, there will be only one remaining major hurdle in its quest for an elusive spot in the BCS National Championship Game. The Broncos host Oregon State on the blue turf at Bronco Stadium on Sept. 25.

2. Pittsburgh
The Panthers came within an eyelash of winning the Big East championship last season but blew a 21-point lead to Cincinnati in a 45-44 defeat in their regular-season finale. Cincinnati won the Big East and played in the Sugar Bowl; Pitt finished second and played in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

Pitt is one of a handful of teams good enough to win the Big East championship this season, but Thursday night's opener at Utah (8:30 p.m. ET) is potentially very dangerous. New Panthers quarterback Tino Sunseri makes his first start on the road, and a victory in Salt Lake City would kick off Pitt's season in the right direction.

3. Washington
The Huskies made major strides in coach Steve Sarkisian's first season, improving from 0-12 in 2008 to 5-7 in '09. Along the way, Washington stunned USC 16-13 and hammered California 42-10.

With USC facing a two-year bowl ban because of NCAA violations, Washington is one of the Pac-10 teams that stand to gain the most. With quarterback Jake Locker returning, there isn't a better time for the Huskies to make their move. But Saturday's opener at BYU is a major road test; the Cougars have enjoyed recent success against Pac-10 teams.

4. TCU
The No. 6 Horned Frogs were one victory from finishing undefeated in 2009 before falling to Boise State 17-10 in the Fiesta Bowl. TCU starts the 2010 season ranked in the top 10 but will have to rebuild its defense after losing stars like end Jerry Hughes and linebacker Daryl Washington.

TCU can't afford to start slow out of the gates in Saturday night's opener (ESPN, 7:45 p.m. ET) against No. 24 Oregon State at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. A victory over the Beavers would show everyone that Boise State isn't the only team from a non-AQ conference that's a BCS threat this season.

5. New quarterbacks

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
Dale Zanine/US PresswireAaron Murray is just one of the young guns taking over a new offense.
There will be plenty of first-time starting quarterbacks filling big shoes across the country. From Florida's John Brantley to Georgia's Aaron Murray to Texas' Garrett Gilbert to Oregon's Darron Thomas to Oregon State's Ryan Katz, new quarterbacks can make quite an impression this weekend.

Brantley, Murray, Gilbert and Thomas will open their starting careers against relative cupcakes, but Katz gets thrown into the fire against TCU's ferocious defense at Jerry World. Thomas had significant playing time in 2008 before redshirting behind Jeremiah Masoli last season.

Most to lose

1. The Carolinas
This season was supposed to be the coming-out parties for North Carolina and South Carolina under two coaches who won big at their former schools.

But offseason problems have plagued both programs for much of the past two months. First, star defensive lineman Marvin Austin was among a handful of UNC players who were questioned by the NCAA about their involvement with agents. Then last week, UNC announced it was investigating allegations of academic fraud involving several of its players.

There's so much uncertainty around the UNC program that the Tar Heels haven't even released a depth chart for Saturday's opener (ABC, 8 p.m. ET) against No. 21 LSU in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Atlanta's Georgia Dome. A loss to the Tigers would only make matters worse in Chapel Hill.

The NCAA also is taking a close look at Gamecocks tight end Weslye Saunders' relationship with agents, as well as whether a handful of USC players received improper benefits while living in a hotel near campus.

Steve Spurrier seems to be running out of patience in trying to build the Gamecocks into a legitimate SEC threat. He doesn't figure to have much patience with returning quarterback Stephen Garcia in Thursday night's opener (ESPN, 7:45 p.m. ET) against Southern Mississippi at Williams-Brice Stadium, either. Garcia figures to have a tight leash, and freshman Connor Shaw is on call to play early and often if Garcia struggles.

2. Rich Rodriguez
Rodriguez seems to have the support of new Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon entering his third season, but the Wolverines had better show marked improvement for Rodriguez to keep his job, after going 8-16 in Rich Rod's first two seasons there.

Facing an underrated team like Connecticut in Saturday's opener (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET) at Michigan Stadium isn't the easiest start to what might be a make-it-or-break-it season for Rodriguez. The Wolverines still haven't settled on a starting quarterback, and sophomores Denard Robinson and Tate Forcier and freshman Devin Gardner still don't know who's going to take the first snap Saturday.

3. Brian Kelly
Kelly, who led Cincinnati to back-to-back Big East championships the past two seasons, seems to be the perfect fit for Notre Dame. He has an Irish name, is Catholic and won at every previous stop in his coaching career.

But Kelly's honeymoon will end quickly if the Fighting Irish don't beat rival Purdue in Saturday's opener at Notre Dame Stadium. With next week's game against Michigan looming large, neither Rodriguez nor Kelly can afford a loss in his team's opener.

[+] EnlargeRalph Friedgen
Kyle Terada/US PresswireRalph Friedgen needs a solid season at his alma mater.

4. Ralph Friedgen
Friegen won 31 games in his first three seasons as coach of Maryland, his alma mater, but the past three seasons were largely forgettable. The Terrapins went 2-10 in 2009, the worst finish in school history, putting "The Fridge" firmly on the hot seat.

Maryland opens the season against Navy at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium on Monday (ESPN, ESPN360.com; 4 p.m. ET). At least the Terps had all summer to prepare for quarterback Ricky Dobbs and the Midshipmen's triple-option spread offense.

5. Ron Zook
Since leading Illinois to the 2008 Rose Bowl Game Presented by Citi, where the Illini were trounced by USC 49-17, Zook's teams have lost twice as many games (16) as they've won (eight).

If Zook doesn't stop the slide this season, he probably won't be back as Illinois' coach in 2011. The Illini open the season against underrated Missouri on Saturday at Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. Zook can't afford another loss to the Tigers, who won each of the past three matchups in St. Louis.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. He co-authored Bobby Bowden's memoir, "Called To Coach," which was published by Simon & Schuster. The book is available in stores and can be ordered here. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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