The 2014 college football season officially begins Saturday, and not surprisingly, it begins on TV.
The first game of the season matches Eastern Washington and Sam Houston State, two of the top-15 FCS teams this season. Eastern Washington is ranked No. 2 and Sam Houston State No. 14 in the FCS coaches' preseason poll. The game kicks off at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN, and will be contested on EWU's red-turf field. The turf was paid for by Tennessee Titans offensive tackle Michael Roos, an EWU alum.
Eastern Washington was 12-3 last season and has advanced to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs in each of the past two seasons; in addition, the Eagles won the 2011 national title. EWU is led by junior Vernon Adams, the best quarterback (but not the best quarterback prospect) in the FCS ranks. Adams, who is listed at 6-foot-0 and 190 pounds, threw for 4,494 yards and 55 TD passes last season; he has thrown 75 TD passes in the past two seasons, and was the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award -- given to the top player in the FCS ranks -- last season. His favorite target is sophomore WR Cooper Kupp (6-2, 195), who had 93 receptions for 1,691 yards and 21 TDs last season en route to winning the Jerry Rice Award, given to the top FCS freshman.
EWU has three seniors to watch on defense: tackle Dylan Zylstra (6-4, 285), linebacker Ronnie Hamlin (6-2, 235) and free safety Tevin McDonald (5-11, 200), who started as a freshman and sophomore at UCLA before he was dismissed from school. McDonald's younger brother, T.J., is a rookie safety with the St. Louis Rams; he was selected in the third round by the Rams out of USC. Their dad is Tim McDonald, a former longtime NFL safety. Hamlin, a sixth-year senior, had 140 tackles last season; he missed his first two college seasons with injuries.
Sam Houston State finished 9-5 last season, when it lost in the second round of the FCS playoffs. But coach Willie Fritz left for Georgia Southern, and star running back Tim Flanders -- the sixth-leading rusher in FCS history -- is in camp with the New Orleans Saints trying to make the roster as an undrafted free agent. New coach K.C. Keeler, who had spent the previous 11 seasons at Delaware and won the FCS title in 2003, needs a big game from senior free safety Michael Wade, the Bearkats' best defender. Wade (5-11, 187) had 105 tackles, two interceptions, three pass breakups and a forced fumble last season. Sam Houston State runs a 4-2-5 set, and its defensive backs are going to be tested by Adams.
Senior tailback Keshawn Hill (5-10, 201) and massive senior tight end Shane Young (6-3, 296) are SHSU's key offensive players.
This will be the third season in a row these teams have met. Adams first burst onto the national scene with his performance against Sam Houston State in a 2012 FCS semifinal playoff game. Sam Houston State built a 35-0 halftime lead, but Adams came on in the second half and threw for 364 yards and six TDs; still, the Eagles' rally fell short and SHSU prevailed 45-42.
Adams threw for 355 yards and three TDs in a regular-season game last season, but fourth-ranked Sam Houston State ran for 450 yards to pull a 49-34 upset of the second-ranked Eagles.