It is on. Although schools like Florida State and Texas A&M have had their season openers, the Houston Cougar football team will open up its 1998 season with the Cal Bears Saturday for the second straight season, this time in Berkeley, Calif.
"We've opened at Florida, USC, at Alabama," said head coach Kim Helton. "We're opening in Cal, and the thing that makes it hard is the distance."
"To win this game will give us momentum, and it gives us reassurance. The thing is that you're going to judge good football teams on how they get over getting beat."
In last year's meeting, the Bears gave the Cougars all they could handle in a 35-3 victory before a crowd of 37,652 at the Astrodome.
It's a new year, and the Cougars gained valuable experience throughout their 3-8 record from a year ago. This season they look to return the favor and come away with a victory in Cal's home opener.
"Obviously, this will be both of our first games, and there are going to be some jitters," said Cal head coach Tom Holmoe. "Some of their personnel is new, and we do not know what they are going to do.
"Two years ago they won their conference, and then last year they were kind of starting over. This year they have really tried to infuse their team with a lot of junior college players."
Entering into this season both squads should be vastly improved from a year ago.
Houston's quarterback Jason McKinley has a year of college experience under his belt. The key factor for the offense will be his ability not get in over his head, trying to do everything by himself. Helton looks for him to distribute the ball between Ketric Sanford and Vaughn Inniss, and to throw it to his explosive receivers, Orlando Iglesias and Jerrian James.
All-American candidate Ketric Sanford will be the featured back again for the Cougars. He enters his third season at UH with 1,383 career rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Senior Vaughn Inniss will join Sanford in backfield and is expected to be a productive backup. Inniss stepped up after Sanford was sidelined last season with emergency appendectomy surgery to rush for a pair of 100-yard games.
This tandem will face a Cal defense that features a highly experienced and talented corps of defensive linemen and linebackers. Even though the Bear defense returns 17 players with experience, it is still susceptible to the big play.
"We have to find a way to minimize giving up the big play. Once we do that, we will be a better team," Holmoe said.
Look for Iglesias and James to have a chance to get away from the secondary and have the opportunity to get the ball deep.
"To win games, Ketric Sanford is as good a player as you can hope to have," Helton said. "He will be the featured football player on our team along with Jerrian James, Orlando Iglesias, Halley Spencer and Kendall Williams."
"Those kids can make touchdowns for Houston. They can run fast and can make plays."
Coach Holmoe echoed Helton's sentiments, adding that his talented defense must find a way to prevent the run.
"Their offense is going to be pretty good, because they have a lot of guys on the field that can strike from anywhere," Holmoe said. "Vaughn Inniss and Ketric Sanford will be two of the better guys that we will face this season."
On the other side of the ball, the Cougars' defense will have their hands full.
The Bears' offense didn't lose a step from the 1997 squad. In Cal's first season under the West Coast offense, an average of 502.2 yards per game ranked them second nationally in total offense.
Justin Vedder enjoyed the best debut season at quarterback in school history, throwing for over 2,700 yards.
The Cougars' defense will have to keep its poise, with the likelihood of stopping the Bear offense in doubt, and focus on containing a passing game that torched Houston for 321 yards last year.
Fundamentals will be the key for the Cougar defense. Houston will need to successfully stop the ball carrier on initial contact and limit Cal's receivers from gaining yards after the catch.
One of the biggest question marks coming into this season is the kicking game for both teams. With field position playing an important part in the flow of the game, the Cougar punters will have to try to pin Cal deep in their own territory.
"If we win it will certainly help build confidence for the new guys," Helton said. "It's not going to assure that we're going to beat Minnesota though."
Saturday's game begins at 12:30 p.m. (CDT) and can be heard locally on KMBE 790 AM.