Rewind to last Jan. 10, it’s almost midnight and I’m standing outside of University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, waiting for a media bus to take me back to my hotel.
Around me, it’s the typical BCS championship game postgame fallout.
Auburn fans, giddy about the Tigers’ last-second 22-19 victory over Oregon to win AU’s first national title in 53 years, are partying like there’s no tomorrow, because well, my watch says it’s just about tomorrow.
The Oregon faithful trudge slowly and silently through the orange-and-blue revelers, trying to swallow the only blemish on an otherwise perfect season.
I’ve pulled out a notebook and started predicting the 2011 SEC order of finish in the Western and Eastern Division.
That’s how we roll in the South. We can’t wait until next football season. Wherever we are, whenever the season ends for the team we support, we start thinking about next year.
You wonder why preseason college football magazines get published earlier and earlier every year, why you can find them now on the stands by mid-June?
Because we can’t wait for football season, we want it here right now.
And now it’s finally here, and there’s nothing like the mystery of a season opener. You see the preseason predictions from media like me, and wonder if we’re going to be right.
As I start my 33rd year of covering SEC football, the one sure thing I can tell you is this:
Right when you think you have it figured out, you don’t.
That’s the beauty of college football, the unknown factors like new emerging stars or unexpected injuries, or the favorable bounce of the ball.
How many of you thought a junior college quarterback named Cam Newton, who hadn’t started a major college game ,would win lead Auburn and second-year coach Gene Chizik to a 14-0 record and the national championship?
I know I didn’t. I picked Auburn to finish fourth in the division. Even as the Tigers gathered early season momentum last year and Newton began putting together the greatest individual season anyone had ever seen in SEC history, I didn’t feel badly about misjudging Auburn.
Because Chizik said he didn’t know Newton would run and pass SEC defenses dizzy, even after Newton went through a spring practice.
“There were days (during the spring) when he (Newton) had potential "wow" moments,” Chizik says. “We usually blow dead plays when our quarterback runs, so we'd blow him dead in a scrimmage, and he would be like, `Oh, Coach, I had another 25 yards on that. And we are going, `Yeah, right.’ ”
Then came the season opener at home last Sept. 4 against Arkansas State, and in a space of about 10 minutes in the second quarter, Newton made two plays that probably had Chizik whispering on his headset to offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, “Did you see that?”
Newton’s 71-yard TD run on a QB option in which he went untouched was impressive. Before that, he had a 16-yard scramble that started with him dodging a blitzer, then followed by a start and a stop and a spin, and a start and a stop and a cut across the face of the defensive pursuit, before scooting out-of-bounds after making six tacklers miss.
That’s when Chizik knew what he had.
“Each week Gus and I would sit down and say, `What's the next thing and next thing, because he know he can do this?’ ” Chizik recalls.
That’s the beauty of week one. You never know what to expect.
Former Georgia coach Vince Dooley was that way when he won a fierce recruiting battle in 1980 for a Wrightsville (Ga.) High running back Herschel Walker.
“We knew he was big and fast, but he also played for a small Class A high school,” Dooley says.
“So my plan for our season opener against Tennessee was we had three tailbacks and let each one of them have two series. So the first one Donnie McMickins had it, the second one Carnie Norris had it and then Herschel came in.”
Did he ever.
With Georgia trailing 15-2 and badly needing some momentum, Herschel Walker, on the afternoon of Sept. 6, 1980, introduced himself to Tennessee safety Bill Bates, the SEC and all of college football on a 16-yard TD run up the middle in which he flattened Bates.
(Watch the run on this link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Nc2XsimM90)
By the time Walker left Georgia after his junior season, he had led the Bulldogs to a national title and almost to a second one, and won a Heisman Trophy.
He’s still considered by many as the greatest player in SEC history, and it all started in Walker’s first game with that bulldozing run over Bates, who later was an All-Pro safety for the Dallas Cowboys where was a teammate of Walker’s.
“When Herschel came in (against Tennessee), there wasn’t any question he was the best of our three backs,” Dooley says. “He won the job on the spot in front of the team, in front of the stands, in front of me and the coaches. He was in a different league than those other two backs. I knew he’d be good, but not be that good that soon. He did surprise me.”
Some season openers provide auspicious debuts of players who eventually become all-time greats.
Step back to Sept. 3, 1994 on a beautiful, sunny day in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl where No. 13 Tennessee is opening the season against No. 14 UCLA.
Second-year Vols’ coach Phillip Fulmer, having to replace departed starting quarterback Heath Shuler (known these days as Congressmen Heath Shuler, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives), decides to start fifth-year senior Jerry Colquitt.
Colquitt had waited patiently to become the starter. But on the seventh play of the game running an option play, he sustained a career-ending knee injury.
Immediately, Fulmer inserted Todd Helton (now a 15-year major league veteran, all with the Colorado Rockies, who has future Hall of Fame batting numbers like a current .323 career batting average). At the same time, Fulmer tossed his plan out the window to redshirt a couple of blue-chip freshman QBs named Peyton Manning (son of Ole Miss QB legend Archie Manning) and Branndon Stewart.
After Helton faltered for three straight series following Colquitt's injury, Fulmer sent in Manning in the second quarter.
Manning’s first series in a college huddle is one of his favorite stories from a career in which he developed into one of the best QBs in SEC history and the No. 1 overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft of the Indianapolis Colts.
“All the hair shot up on my body,'' Manning recalls. “'I was just loving being in a college stadium on a sideline, and then the next thing I knew I was going in the game. At that point, I just wanted to make sure I didn't trip running on the field in front of a national TV audience.
“My Dad always told me, `When you go in the game, you’re the quarterback and you have to act like it.’ So I get in the huddle, I’m clapping my hands and my voice is squeaking when I speak.
“But I’m the quarterback, I’m the leader. So I say, `Guys, I know I’m just a freshman, but we’re gonna take it right down the field this series and score and then. . .’
“That’s when Jason Layman, our veteran left tackle, said, `Shut the $%&#@ up and call the play.’
“We went three plays and out. The rest of the year, I tried to provide silent leadership by showing my teammates I was prepared.''
Season openers can also be emotional for first-time head coaches who have paid their dues for years as assistants, such as this year’s new first-timers, Florida’s Will Muschamp and Vanderbilt’s James Franklin.
Any debut of a first-time head coach will have to go a long way to tug at the heartstrings the way Mississippi State’s Sylvester Croom’s first game did on Sept. 5, 2004.
That’s when he stood in front of his team, ready to lead his charges on the field against Tulane as the first African-American coach in SEC history.
After 28 years as an NFL and college assistant, Croom, who played for Bear Bryant at Alabama, soaked in the enormity of the moment, listening to the clanging cowbells of 52,000-plus in Starkville.
"I thought a dream that was an impossible dream at one time, today was a reality," he said after State’s 28-7 victory. “I relished the moment."
That’s something none of us do these days when technology speeds everything to a blur, makes us want to do everything faster and faster.
But on this, the season opening weekend of college football, take Sylvester Croom’s advice.
Relish the moment.
Relish the new stars on your team. Relish how your school fight song never gets old. Relish the tailgating with old friends.
Above all, relish the fact that despite some of college football’s off-season problems, there’s still no place you’d rather be on a Saturday in the fall than a college stadium.
Thank the Lord it’s time to tee it off.