THE MATCHUP: The #3 Oregon Ducks open the season vs. the #4 LSU Tigers at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas in what is the marquee game of college football's opening weekend. The winner has the first marquee win of the national championship race. This is also a statement game for Oregon, who needs to prove that they can win a marquee non-conference game after losing their last three non-conference games versus top ten opponents. This is on top of both teams' offseasons being filled with questions about their involvement with "street agent" Willie Lyles, and the resultant ongoing NCAA investigations, dubbing this game the title of "LylesBowl 2011."
THE INJURIES: While this space will usually be reserved for injuries in the Kickoff, suspensions are the name of the game for this one. LSU loses their starting quarterback, Jordan Jefferson, after being arrested for his involvement in a bar fight, as well as starting wide receiver Russell Shepard after he was declared ineligible by the NCAA. Not to be outdone, Oregon also loses two starters to suspension in MLB Kiko Alonso and first team All-American CB/PR Cliff Harris, Alonso for passing out drunk in the wrong house, and Harris for thinking that I-5 was his own personal Indianapolis 500.
THE VENUE: Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas is a giant retractable roof dome that will seat well over 80,000 fans. The crowd figures to be pro-LSU, due to it being much closer to Baton Rouge than Eugene, but there will still be a number of Oregon fans in attendance. All in all, an LSU advantage, but nowhere near as overwhelming as it would be in Tiger Stadium. The turf is artificial. With current temperatures in the Dallas area hovering around 106 degrees, the dome figures to be closed.
THE COACHES: Oregon fans know Chip Kelly's reputation for aggressive playing, giving him claim to having the biggest "balls" in the country. This is a matchup of the other coach to have a legitimate claim to that throne. Many people deride Les Miles for eating grass or for poor clock management. While you occasionally hear simmering rumblings about the Mad Hatter from the LSU faithful, he has a 90-38 career record in Baton Rouge, with a national championship, while having a habit of pulling victory out of the jaws of defeat. The bottom line: Oregon is playing a national championship winning coach who has a habit of winning games he probably shouldn't. Its a tough task.
More at question than the acumen of Les Miles is the status of the LSU offensive coordinator. Gary Crowton is gone after LSU's incompetence in the passing game last season (and Oregon fans know Crowton's departure can't be a bad thing for LSU,) and the Tigers hired former Lousiville coach Steve Kragthorpe to revive the offense. However, Kragthorpe was diagnosed with Parkinson's earlier in the month and, while he remains on staff as the quarterbacks coach, the role of offensive coordinator is now being filled by offensive line coach Greg Studrawa.
KEY PLAYERS FOR LSU:
QB Jarrett Lee -- LSU went through all of spring, summer, and the bulk of camp thinking that returning starter Jordan Jefferson would be their starter. That said, Jefferson's fellow senior does not come in a green quarterback. Lee has played in 30 games and has nine starts in his LSU career, and is widely considered a better passer than Jefferson. While we hear hyperbole that LSU will be better off with Lee than with Jefferson, keep in mind that Jefferson has been better enough than Lee to start over him three years in a row now. Whereas Jefferson can make plays with his legs, Lee is a statue. And his 17-18 TD to interception ratio isn't exactly the stuff of legend. That said, with LSU's defense, Lee doesn't have to be a star for LSU to win. Simply making solid plays and avoiding big mistakes gives LSU a very good chance to win the game.
RB Spencer Ware -- Ware, a sopomore, didn't receiver a ton of playing time last season, gaining 175 yards on 24 carries. That said, with a QB who wasn't expected to start, and their top WR also out, a big game from the running back position will help LSU tremendously. Ware is a talent, rating as one of the most talented running backs in the '09 recruiting class. A good game from both Lee and Ware gives LSU an excellent chance to win. A good game from one of them gives the Tigers a puncher's chance. If both have poor games, it will be very difficult for LSU to come out on top.
DT Anthony Johnson -- We could really put the whole LSU defensive line here, but we'll go with Johnson, the true freshman. Dubbed "the Freak," Johnson was the #2 defensive linemen in the 2010 class behind Jadeveon Clowney, and at nearly 300 pounds is seen as a guy who should be an instant star. LSU doesn't rebuild defensive lines, they reload, so while they replace both of their defensive tackles, they do so with players of tremendous talent, and also return both of their starting ends. As we've learned from Oregon's last two bowl games, as well as the California game last season, the key to disrupting the Oregon offense is to win the line of scrimmage. This line doesn't have the experience that Ohio State, Cal, or Auburn did in those losses, but they still may have the talent to pull it off.
KEY PLAYERS FOR OREGON:
C Hroniss Grasu -- Much like Johnson for LSU, we'll take Grasu as representative of the entire Oregon offensive line. Grasu won a three way battle for the starting center, is drawing rave reviews, and is strong as an ox. But he's a redshirt freshman who has never played a college game and will be expected to call the plays for the offensive line against a very talented defense. Grasu and the rest of the offensive line needs to be up to the task to avoid a repeat of Ohio State/California/Auburn.
CB Terrance Mitchell -- Another redshirt freshman, Mitchell steps in this game for All-American Cliff Harris. Jarrett Lee's insertion to the starting lineup likely fortells more passing by the LSU offense. While the suspended Sheperd is regarded as their best receiver, guys like returning starter Reuben Randle as well as reserves James Wright, Kadron Boone, and Jarvis Landry were all very highly touted recruits who have the talent to make plays. I expect LSU to test Mitchell early. People around the program say that Mitchell has all the makings of a star. If he can show that early to compliment the experienced Anthony Gildon on the other side, it'll go a long way to ward making the LSU offense one-dimensional.
MLB Dewitt Stuckey -- While Oregon has to replace five guys on their front seven, a lot of those returnees are guys who have played a ton for Oregon. This holds true for almost everybody on the defensive line, as well as new starting linebacker Michael Clay and top reserve Boseko Lokombo. The same cannot be said for new starting MLB Dewitt Stuckey who, despite being a senior, doesn't have a lot of on field experience for the Ducks (and only played in six games last season for Oregon). Stuckey didn't win the job outright (Alonso did that before his suspension), and may again be surpassed by Alonso after his suspension is over. However, coaches tout his experience, having been in the system for four years and are confident in his abilities. While his ability to make plays will be important, equally important will be his leadership and ability to quarterback the defense from the MIKE position. These are the qualities of Casey Matthews that Oregon will miss most.