The most highly contested matchup of the 2011 college football season might be in Week One, when the LSU Tigers face the Oregon Ducks at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday night.
Oregon is ranked third, and LSU is ranked fourth, but the Tigers have had off-the-field issues that should figure prominently this weekend.
Starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson is suspended for the game, forcing head coach Les Miles to turn to senior Jarrett Lee. After some rocky performances over his career, Lee will have to keep up with perhaps the most explosive offense in the country.
Lee will be without suspended wide receiver Russell Shepard, a big-play threat who was supposed to figure prominently in Miles's offense this season. Freshman Odell Beckham will likely be called upon to step up in Shepard's absence.
Against Texas A&M in last season's Cotton Bowl, Spencer Ware rushed for 102 yards on 10 carries, in what was clearly his best performance of the season. The sophomore should play a major role for LSU on Saturday, as Miles will need to run the ball, and keep his defense rested against the speedy Duck offense.
Top defensive end Lavar Edwards and safety Karnell Hatcher will be key players for the Tigers. Oregon know how to pile on points, so this likely won't be a low-scoring defensive battle like most SEC games.
The Ducks not only have a fast offense, but one of the best running backs in college football in Heisman candidate LaMichael James. Chip Kelly's offense doesn't rely solely on James, as returning starting quarterback Darron Thomas is a major threat to scramble, and will have plenty of receivers to throw to like senior Lavasier Tuinei and newcomer Rahsaan Vaughn. Oregon lost some talent on offense with the departures of receivers Jeff Maehl and D.J. Davis.
Punt returner and cornerback Cliff Harris won't be available on Saturday due to suspension. Harris's absence could be felt more on punt returns than on defense, considering Shepard will be unavailable.
Linebackers Dewitt Stuckey, Josh Kaddu, and Michael Clay will be needed to slow down Ware.
Oregon is currently a four-point favorite.
PREDICTION: LSU has a shorter distance to travel to northeast Texas, but the Tigers' offense may have trouble moving the ball with the loss of Jefferson and Shepard. Oregon has the opportunity to speed past the LSU defense with Thomas and James, and the wealthy collection of receivers. Also, the memory of the 2009 season-opener loss to Boise St., which doomed the Ducks' chances of going to a BCS title game, is probably still firmly entrenched in many players' minds.
It will likely take Lee and the LSU defense to exceed expectations, or for Oregon to commit costly turnovers, for the Tigers to pull off a win.
PREDICTED SCORE: Oregon 31, LSU 20.