College Football Season Off to Lopsided Start

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The college football season kicked off last night, with many top teams in action. This is the time of the year when many smaller teams have their hands full with larger schools and their huge athletic budgets. The result is many lopsided blowouts. New rules this season could also lead to big scores. Wall Street Journal sportswriter Stefan Fatsis talks with Robert Siegel.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The ritual sacrifices that mark the start of the college football season kicked off last night. The number two team in the nation, LSU, put up 45 points in their shutout win against Mississippi State. Number 16, Rutgers, blew out the bulls of Buffalo, 38-to-3. And there will be many more scores like that this weekend. Michigan versus Appalachian State, Oklahoma versus North Texas and number one, Southern California, against the Idaho Vandals.

Stefan Fatsis of the Wall Street Journal joins us now as he does most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. And Stefan, not a lot of real competition this weekend, but still plenty of hype.

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (Correspondent, Wall Street Journal): Of course. ESPN gave us 25 straight hours of coverage on television and get this - 25 straight hours of online chat - and I am not making that up. They even had a countdown clock on the Web site to the first kickoff of the season. You know, these early-season slaughterhouse bowls happen because these football powers pay lesser teams hundreds of thousands of dollars to come to campus and play.

The lambs get big money, which helps them boost their programs, the lions get the sure win by these preposterous margins and the fans get all revved up for the season. The combined scores of the four games last night that involved rank teams in the top 25 was 212-to-20. You don't even mention Louisville's 73-to-10 win over Murray State. Poor Murray State.

SIEGEL: But the winners of those games did not include USC or Florida or Ohio States. Only one traditional power, LSU - the others were, as you say, Louisville, Rutgers and Boise State.

Mr. FATSIS: And all of those teams had really exciting seasons last year. They're part of a tier of what I like to think of as overachieving underdogs -at least in name. The reality is that they've all spent millions of dollars in recent years to try to transform themselves into national football powers and cash in on the big money from operating a successful revenue-generating sport. Boise State last January became only the second school from outside one of the big six power conferences to play in one of the season-ending BCS ball games. They beat Oklahoma and they brought home $15 million to their conference.

SIEGEL: There is one significant rule has changed in college football this year. The kickoff has been moved back five yards to a team's own 30-yard line from the 35-yard line. Some of us remember when it used to be from the 40-yard line.

Mr. FATSIS: Right.

SIEGEL: And this, apparently, will have a huge effect on the college game?

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah. Texas' coach, Mack Brown, said, quote, "It could change college football as much as anything we've ever seen." Another coach has agreed. The goal is to reduce the number of touchbacks where the ball is caught in the end zone, the whistle blows and the offence takes over on its own 20-yard line.

This way, you'll get more kicks returned, which is more exciting because it's the natural play, and it will also reduce stoppages in play, which will speed up the game, which is good for TV and for fans. Kickers will be teeing it up at the same place that kickers in the NFL do.

Last year in the National Football League, just 15 percent of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. College kickers, overall, of course are not as good as professional kickers, 30 percent of kickoffs in college went for touchbacks last season from the closer distance. So the extra five yards is going to be huge. I'd expect the percentage of touchbacks is going to fall into the single digits. It's going to be all kick returns.

SIEGEL: And what do you think might be the unintended consequences of that rule change?

Mr. FATSIS: Well, kickers aren't as good as we said, so teams with kickers who can't get the ball up high enough or down the field far enough may elect to kick along the ground or toward the sidelines or even in some situations, just kick it out of bounds and let the other team start at the 35-yard line instead of the 20 yard line.

But there's a bigger concern among coaches. The kickoff is the most dangerous play in football. Players are running at full speed into each other all over the field, more kickoffs and the extra five yards of momentum that the kicking team will have to pick up speed could translate into more injuries. And some coaches are very, very worried about that.

SIEGEL: Okay. Thanks, Stefan. Have a good weekend.

Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Wall Street Journal sportswriter and our resident-kicking expert, Stefan Fatsis, who's writing a book about his summer as a kicker with the Denver Broncos.

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