From an entertainment standpoint, the grand opening of the finest American pastime is not likely to live up to its potential. Saturday is the big day, but the season cracks open Thursday night at 6 p.m. ET with the barn-burning, high-flying antics of Murray State at Louisville. (It’s even being televised on ESPNU, and you know as well as I do we’ll both be watching, because we are sick people.) Western Illinois at Sam Houston State kicks off an hour later, raising the bar not-at-all. Like it or not, these games will set the tone for most of what we’ll see the next few days. UNLV at Wisconsin highlights Thursday night; TCU and Baylor take center stage Friday, but come Saturday morning it’s back to the dregs. In a way this makes excellent business sense: Programmers have to know fans are ready to drink the sporting equivalent of vanilla extract just for the sweet trace of alcohol … and voila! Elon at Vanderbilt, for your swilling pleasure!
Any real interest in the bulk of early Saturday games has to come in the form of morbid curiosity. To what extent can wee Akron withstand an Ohio State offense depleted by NCAA sanctions? What horrors await when Minnesota takes the field at USC? And which fan base will panic and call for the firing of its coach first: Auburn when a defender misses a tackle against Utah State, or Alabama when Kent State intercepts one of its quarterbacks?
Two anchor games were set to provide safe harbor for fans seeking the real deal in college football on Labor Day weekend: Boise State and Georgia in Atlanta and LSU and Oregon in Arlington. The particulars were perfectly aligned: Cross-country matchups! Professional stadiums! Old and new football powers! Four shiny sets of Pro Combat unis! The glossy production values of ABC and ESPN! And while the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game between Boise and Georgia is a promising one, No. 4 LSU and No. 3 Oregon are going to command the nation’s attention.
They’ll just be doing so for reasons that have nothing to do with football. LSU starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson was the subject of an arrest warrant a week and a day before the season opener. What exactly transpired to make that so is a matter of much contention. He and teammate Joshua Johns have been released on bail, but are facing felony battery charges and have been indefinitely suspended by LSU.
The game will also be missing one of its most anticipated one-on-one matchups, with LSU receiver Russell Shepard and Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris both serving suspensions that could stretch into the season. Both schools have been questioned as part of the NCAA’s investigation of Will Lyles’ scouting service. Discussion about a nonconference game between two national-title contenders and the first actual football we’ll see after an eight-month layoff has taken a backseat to projecting depth charts after all the looming ineligibility and criminal charges are accounted for.
And when you think about where this game is being held, isn’t it sort of perfect? When you think of Cowboys Stadium as a college football fan, is it “Cowboys Stadium” or the JerryDome? Do you think of Dallas’ triumphs and failures on the field in 2010, or of the punt-interfering video board and the mad, ultimately futile effort to install enough seats to accommodate arriving Super Bowl patrons last winter? It’s the other stuff, right?
The universe provides. Days out from the game, it turns out there was a reason to stage it in Arlington after all. And I propose what I think may be the only practical recourse for two scandal-wearied fan bases and a nation of impartial viewers: That we all embrace the spectacle and expect the inevitable. By which I mean that it’s entirely possible Jerry Jones will just seal the exits at kickoff, annex both teams into the Big 12 through a previously undiscovered geographical loophole in a television contract and unveil with a flourish a stockpile of contraband nuclear missiles strategically positioned about the grounds, daring Larry Scott and Mike Slive to come after him.
Happy nuclear winter, y’all!