- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 1, 2010

It’s sort of like starting the season with a bowl game.

For the third straight year, the Georgia Dome in Atlanta is the site for one of the biggest games of college football’s long opening weekend.

No. 21 LSU faces No. 18 North Carolina on Saturday night, making the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game 3 for 3 in matching teams ranked in the Top 25.

It seems like a great idea: Find two good teams, one from the Southeastern Conference and one from the Atlantic Coast Conference _ both schools located a reasonable drive or short plane ride from Atlanta _ and have them start the season against each other while most of the other top programs are playing patsies. Add in events such as a cook-off, tailgates and a fanfest, and _ bingo! _ you’ve got that (minor) bowl game atmosphere.

“Let’s do the Daytona 500 of college football,” said Gary Stokan, CEO and president of the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, recalling what he was shooting for after officials in Atlanta had their efforts to get in on the Bowl Championship Series rebuffed. “We have created that BCS experience at the front side of the season.”

That might be a stretch, but they do make a tempting pitch to the schools playing the game.

Organizers lure teams with the promise of a payout of around $2 million _ Stokan said North Carolina should pocket around $1.75 million, which is more than the Tar Heels would make for a home game _ and some prime time television exposure.

Still, it’s not easy to lock up attractive matchups. Top teams from tough conferences tend to be cautious about loading up their nonconference schedules, even though an early loss to a good team is usually not a season-killer.

Stokan said next year’s matchup has not been made. In 2012, North Carolina State and Tennessee will start the season in the Georgia Dome. Maybe by then both programs will be on the upswing. Stokan said the game is working on a “blockbuster” team for 2013. He also said organizers might step outside the SEC-ACC model in the future and bring in teams from other conferences.

As for Saturday night’s game, the most intriguing story line is who plays and who sits for North Carolina, which is dealing with a two-pronged investigation of possible NCAA violations.

The Tar Heels’ problems have no doubt left some of their fans feeling not quite as pumped for their trip to Atlanta as they thought they would be.

The picks:

Thursday

Marshall (plus 28 1/2) at No. 2 Ohio State

Thursday night opener for the Buckeyes! What’s next, playing Michigan in October? … OHIO STATE 42-10.

Florida A&M (no line) at No. 13 Miami

Easy start to tough schedule for Hurricanes … MIAMI 55-14.

No. 14 Southern California (minus 21 1/2) at Hawaii

It’s sort of like starting season with a bowl game for Trojans … USC 36-17.

No. 15 Pittsburgh (plus 3) at Utah

Tough place or Pitt to break in new QB … UTAH 27-21.

Saturday

San Jose State (plus 37 1/2) at No. 1 Alabama

Mark Ingram will not be missed _ yet … ALABAMA 48-7.

Miami of Ohio (plus 35) at No. 4 Florida

Tim Tebow will not be missed _ yet … FLORIDA 50-14.

No. 5 Texas (minus 30 1/2) at Rice

Longhorns get that running game going … TEXAS 45-10.

No. 6 TCU (minus 13 1/2) vs. Oregon State at Arlington, Texas

Beavers never pass up a tough game, though they might want to now and then … TCU 28-17.

Utah State (plus 34) at No. 7 Oklahoma

Sooners starters get half day … OKLAHOMA 56-17.

Western Kentucky (plus 37) at No. 8 Nebraska

Hilltoppers have lost 20 straight … NEBRASKA 40-7.

Eastern Illinois (no line) at No. 9 Iowa

Hawkeyes needed great escape in last year’s opener against FCS team … IOWA 35-10.

New Mexico (plus 34) at No. 11 Oregon

Jeremiah Masoli will not be missed _ maybe at all … OREGON 52-14.

No. 12 Wisconsin (minus 20 1/2) at UNLV

Another dicey trip to Vegas for Badgers … WISCONSIN 31-17.

South Carolina State (no line) at No. 16 Georgia Tech

Yellow Jackets run it up … GEORGIA TECH 48-10.

Tennessee Tech (no line) at No. 17 Arkansas

Pass-happy hogs … ARKANSAS 55-14.

No. 18 North Carolina (plus 1 1/2) vs. No. 21 LSU at Atlanta

How can Heels possibly be prepared to play … LSU 24-14.

Youngstown State (no line) at No. 19 Penn State

Lions roar … PENN STATE 45-7.

Samford (no line) at No. 20 Florida State

Seminoles bounce Bobby Bowden’s alma mater … FLORIDA STATE 50-14.

Arkansas State (plus 31) at No. 22 Auburn

Cameron Newton era starts for Auburn … AUBURN 42-17.

Louisiana-Lafayette (plus 28) at No. 23 Georgia

Aaron Murray era starts for Bulldogs … GEORGIA 44-14.

Coastal Carolina (no line) at No. 25 West Virginia

Cue John Denver … WEST VIRGINIA 42-13.

Monday

No. 3 Boise State (minus 2 1/2) vs. No. 10 Virginia Tech at Landover, Md.

All that talk about Boise State making national title run, done … VIRGINIA TECH 34-21.

___

Last season’s bowls 17-17 (straight); 18-16 (vs. points)

Last season total: 233-77 (straight); 151-139-4 (vs. points).

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