The showcase matchup of college football’s opening weekend - No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 4 LSU - offers some of the best things college football has to offer.
It’s a high-stakes battle of teams loaded with speedy players from marquee conferences. There are juicy subplots like the grudge Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas holds against LSU coach Les Miles, and Ducks teammate LaMichael James looking to kick off his Heisman Trophy campaign by become the school’s career rushing leader.
There’s even a little history, with tonight’s game from Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, being the first opener between top-five teams since 1984, when Jimmy Johnson won his debut as coach of Miami against an Auburn squad featuring Bo Jackson a year before he won the Heisman Trophy.
Unfortunately, broken laws and NCAA rules violations have led to suspensions of key players on both teams, there are questions of more violations involving a man linked to both schools, and the inevitable talk of the BCS ramifications for whichever potential power goes home 0-1.
“I think for everybody outside the Oregon football team and the LSU football team, it’s gonna be huge,’’ said Oregon running back Kenjon Barner. “But for both teams, our focus is football. They’re focused on us and we’re focused on them.’’
The scandals are impossible to ignore because of the big-time players left in their wake - quarterback Jordan Jefferson and receiver Russell Shepard for LSU, cornerback-punt returner Cliff Harris for Oregon.
Jefferson was suspended indefinitely, as was reserve linebacker Josh Johns, because they are facing felony charges of second-degree battery stemming from a bar fight near campus. Jefferson was connected in part by shoeprints, and when police searched his apartment, they found 49 pairs of shoes, which may prompt an inquiry by NCAA investigators, too.
Shepard was suspended for at least this game because he discussed another NCAA inquiry with a teammate. Losing his production - he was third in receiving, fourth in rushing for LSU last season - could hurt the Tigers more than having to replace Jefferson.
In addition to both teams holding legitimate national title hopes, the other tie that binds is ongoing NCAA investigations into their dealings with Willie Lyles, who ran a Houston-based service that provided scouting reports of high school players.
Oregon paid Lyles and Houston-based Complete Scouting Services $25,000 early in 2010. When Oregon released the information it said Lyles provided, purportedly for potential recruits that year, it was outdated.
LSU’s involvement with Lyles was part of the inquiry that led to Shepard’s suspension, a source familiar with the situation told the Associated Press.
Both top-ranked Oklahoma and visiting Tulsa will take the field tonight with heavy hearts. The Sooners are still grieving the offseason death of starting linebacker Austin Box, who died in May from an accidental overdose of pain-killers. Box will be honored in a variety of ways during the season opener. All Sooners players will have a decal on their helmets. The Golden Hurricane will also pay tribute to a fallen teammate by wearing No. 71 stickers on their helmets in honor of offensive lineman Wilson Holloway, who died in February after fighting Hodgkin’s lymphoma for nearly three years . . . Andrew Luck has often been compared with another great Stanford quarterback, John Elway. This is the one week he might want to avoid the similarities. While Luck looks to begin his Heisman Trophy campaign in his style in the seventh-ranked Cardinal’s opener against San Jose State today, the neighboring Spartans are ready to give him a history lesson first. Elway returned for his senior season in 1982 only to fall, 35-31, to San Jose State in Stanford’s home opener.