There will be a new place for Alabama State and a new face for Jacksonville State when the two teams meet at 5 p.m. Saturday.
The new place is ASU's $62-million, 26,500-seat stadium. The on-campus facility near downtown Montgomery was completed in time for last year's season-ending Turkey Day Classic against Tuskegee, but this will be the first full season for the Hornets in their new home.
"We're just excited about having the opportunity to open our season on our campus in our new stadium," ASU coach Reggie Barlow said. "And it is great to have us playing against (JSU), especially for the state."
The new face is JSU coach Bill Clark, who takes over for the Gamecocks this season after spending the past five years as the defensive coordinator at the University of South Alabama.
"Anytime that you have your first game of the year, it is big for everybody," Clark said. "We have been practicing and getting ready for this thing since January when we all came here. I think everybody is just ready to get started."
The game will be a homecoming of sorts for Clark, who spent nine years just outside Montgomery as the head coach at Prattville High School, where his teams won two Class 6A state championships.
"It is pretty exciting to go back to where we had a great time and a great experience in that area. We still have a lot of friends there," Clark said. "A lot of my staff at Prattville were graduates from Alabama State, and a lot of the coaches at ASU recruited at our school. It is pretty neat going back there. You feel like it is coming home."
Clark inherits a team that went 6-5 last season and returns only five starters on offense. One of those returners is running back DeMarcus James, who rushed for 867 yards and six touchdowns in 2012. The Gamecocks also brought in Minnesota transfer Max Shortell at quarterback, though Clark said Eli Jenkins and Kyle West might see playing time against ASU as well.
"It's hard preparing for someone when you have no clue what they are going to be doing," Barlow said of the Gamecocks. "They have a whole new system and we don't know anything about these guys. We are going to try and figure it out on the run."
ASU, which went 7-4 last season, also has uncertainty at the quarterback position following the departure of 2012 starter Greg Jenkins. Last year's backup, Daniel Duhart, and Southern Miss transfer Arsenio Favor are both expected to receive playing time in the opener.
But the Hornets have enough returning starters, led by linebacker Leland Baker (64 total tackles, nine for a loss in 2012), that they were picked by the Southwestern Athletic Conference coaches to win the SWAC Eastern Division title.
"One of the things that sticks out about them is the athleticism," Clark said of ASU. "They have the No. 1 recruiting class on the FCS level and a ton of transfers coming in to go along with what they had returning. It is a big game for them with the opportunity to play in their new stadium. So we are going to have our hands full."
Samford at Georgia State, 6 p.m., Friday
Not only will Samford be without six defensive starters from last year's 7-4 team, but the Bulldogs also will open the season without their head coach.
Samford coach Pat Sullivan continues to recover from back surgery and announced earlier this week that he will not make the trip to Atlanta with his team.
"I know our staff will do a wonderful job. I look forward to being back soon," Sullivan said.
While question marks abound on the defensive side of the ball, the Bulldogs return eight starters on offense. Tailback Fabian Truss is an All-American candidate, having rushed for 1,063 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Truss also had 291 yards receiving and averaged 27 yards per kickoff return.
Georgia State went 1-10 last year in Bill Curry's final season as the team's head coach. He was replaced by Indiana State head coach Trent Miles, who will lead the Panthers in their first season as a member of the Sun Belt Conference.
Alabama A&M at Grambling State, 6 p.m.
Alabama A&M opens the season looking to replace 20 seniors off last season's 7-4 team, including three-year starter Deaunte Mason at quarterback.
Brandon Wells is scheduled to start at quarterback against Grambling, though A&M coach Anthony Jones said backup Jaymason Lee also is likely to play in the game.
The Bulldogs lost seven defensive starters from last season, as well as their starting tailback, left tackle and left guard on offense.
"We've got a lot of holes to fill," Jones said. "But I don't know if you sit back and try to replace (players). What I think you do is try to concentrate on what you have here and not what you don't have, and that's what we're doing."
Grambling went 1-10 last year, the worst season in the history of the program. Five of the Tigers' losses were by a combined total of 17 points.