The first game of the 2012 season to feature a pair of nationally-ranked programs, Friday night spotlights the first-ever meeting between the 24th-ranked Boise State Broncos and the 13th- ranked Michigan State Spartans in East Lansing.
For the fourth straight season the Broncos, a member of the Mountain West Conference, are clashing with a nationally-ranked school to kick off the schedule. For head coach Chris Petersen, now entering his seventh season with the program, he has been victorious in each of his previous six openers. Last year, BSU took care of 19th-ranked Georgia in Atlanta, 35-21, beginning a run of eight straight wins for the Broncos.
However Boise State, which had previously been linked to the Western Athletic Conference, had a hard fight against TCU in the second week of November and ended up losing by a score of 36-35 as the kicking game failed the program for the second straight year in a crucial outing.
The Broncos picked up three more wins during the regular season, finishing 11-1 overall and 6-1 in league play, but because of the loss to the Horned Frogs the team had to settle for a meeting with Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl. That clash resulted in a resounding 56-24 victory for BSU and senior quarterback Kellen Moore who left the program as the winningest quarterback in Football Bowl Subdivision history with a staggering 50 wins.
Meanwhile, the Spartans are taking on a ranked opponent in the season opener for the first time since 1998 when they bowed to Colorado State (23-16). Since then the team has rattled off 11 wins in 13 tries in its opener, including a perfect 11-0 mark at Spartan Stadium. However, overall the Spartans are just 2-5-1 when they kick off the season against a ranked opponent.
Head coach Mark Dantonio is entering his seventh year with the Spartans after being the head man at Cincinnati for three seasons. Dantonio led the program to a pair of four-game win streaks in 2011 and had the squad an impressive 10-2 heading into the regular-season finale against Wisconsin at home. Unfortunately, the Badgers got the best of MSU in a narrow 42-39 decision which left the Spartans 7-2 in Big Ten Conference action.
The Spartans were invited to take on Georgia in the Outback Bowl and went toe- to-toe with the Bulldogs before faltering in triple-overtime, 33-30.
Both of these teams have major changes on offense, specifically at quarterback where they are each fielding a new starter after last season. In the case of the Broncos, they are trying to find an adequate replacement for Moore who thrived in the system installed by coach Petersen.
Named a national coach of the year three times, Petersen probably has his toughest test ahead of him as tries to figure out how to survive with a mere six returning starters, one of the shortest lists of any team at the FBS level. Unwilling to tip his hand too early, Petersen's depth chart shows Joe Southwick as being the starter at quarterback, but you can be sure he has a number of schemes and plays that will draw on the talents of Grant Hedrick and Jimmy Laughrea when the time is right.
D.J. Harper steps in as the starting running back and although he has proven himself worthy of the position in past years, he has some huge shoes to fill following the departure of Doug Martin.
Other key skill spots will have Mitch Burroughs, Matt Miller and Kirby Moore stretching the field and trying to find holes in the MSU defense this week.
The Boise State offensive line ranked first in the nation last year with just 0.62 sacks allowed per game, but expect there to be some growing pains in that area moving forward.
As for the defense, that's also an area of concern for the Broncos because they've been able to get so many former players to play above their ability and succeed. The team was first in the MWC and 12th in the nation in points allowed (18.7 ppg), but that might not be the case this time around.
Gone are the top four tacklers from a year ago which leaves J.C. Percy as the top returnee in that category for the Broncos with just 48 stops in 13 games.
"We've got to get turnovers," coach Petersen said of his defense following their final tune-up before the opener. "We know that's such a critical element to play, a really good defense to have a successful season."
Like BSU, the Spartans are also breaking in a new quarterback who will follow in the footsteps of Kirk Cousins. Coach Dantonio has designated Andrew Maxwell as his choice to kick things off this week and the junior couldn't be happier for the opportunity.
"I'm excited. You know, I'm not so much nervous, but anxious and excited to get out on the field and get ready to play," says Maxwell of his first start. "Even when I wasn't playing, even when I was a backup, just the buildup to the first game. You've put in so much work from the off season, it seems forever ago the Outback Bowl was, through winter conditioning and all the running in the summer...and camp, all the preparation with myself and this team, we're ready to put it on display, come out and prove ourselves."
Like Maxwell, the receiving corps is a bit inexperienced as well, with sophomores Keith Mumphrey and Tony Lippett as the key figures streaking down the field. Not to be overlooked in the passing attack is running back Le'Veon Bell who not only led the team with 948 rushing yards and 13 TDs on the ground, he also caught 35 passes in 14 games, of which he started only six.
On the defensive side for the Spartans, the team was sixth in the nation last year with just 277.4 ypg allowed and seventh in sacks with better than three per game so there has been a precedent set for this group.
Junior linebacker Denicos Allen might be a bit undersized at 5-11, but maybe that's what makes him such a ferocious athlete to begin with. Last year he was second on the team in overall tackles and easily led the Spartans in both TFLs (18.5) and sacks (11.0).
One of two players to come up with four interceptions in 2011, strong safety Isaiah Lewis aims to make things difficult for the Broncos to begin this season as well.