Game Picks: Week 1Thursday, August 28, 2014
Each week Thor Nystrom will detail college football's top spreads of the week, with he and Josh Norris making picks for each. Both will also choose two "wild card" games.
No. 1 Florida State (-18) vs. Oklahoma State in Arlington, TX
The Pokes are the de facto home team, as this game is being played at Jerry’s World. That’s about all they have going for them. Jameis Winston, Karlos Williams, Rashad Greene and company will storm out to a big early lead, forcing J.W. Walsh to air it out successfully to have any chance of keeping this game within two touchdowns. Good luck with that.
No. 21 Texas A&M at No. 9 South Carolina (-10.5)
Forget the losses of Connor Shaw, Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles, Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree for one second—the Gamecocks are a darkhorse National Title contender. Pretty much everybody else returns, Mike Davis is a horse, the offensive line is downright nasty, and Steve Spurrier’s stellar recruiting ensures a deep bench. As long as USC’s new corners don’t shrink from the moment—and a deep stable of Aggies’ receivers—new TAMU QB Kenny Hill is going to be in for a long night of playing from behind.
No. 16 Clemson at No. 12 Georgia (-7.5)
Georgia was wrecked by injuries last season, one reason I think they come into this season undervalued. Clemson lost Tahj Boyd, Sammie Watkins, Martavis Bryant and running back Roderick McDowell, but returns a ferocious defense. If the Bulldogs jump out to an early lead, however, Vic Beasley and company won’t be able to tee off on long-time Aaron Murray caddy Huston Mason; instead, Beast Mode Bulldog, as we’ll take to calling Marshawn Lynch clone Todd Gurley, will treat the Tigers’ defensive line like your last meal at Sonic treated your intestinal wall. The Dawgs roll.
No. 13 LSU (-5) vs. No. 14 Wisconsin in Houston, TX
Les Miles is up to more chicanery than usual—refusing to announce his starting quarterback (the player himself reportedly knows), and refusing to name No. 1 overall recruit RB Leonard Fournette starter—and I wonder if this opening-season matchup has him a little spooked. LSU lost two stud receivers (Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.), but, more importantly for this matchup, also watched defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson bounce to the NFL. That’s a problem against Melvin Gordon and a mauling Wisconsin offensive line. If LSU jumps out to an early lead, they’ll force Wisconsin’s offense to play left-handed; new starting UW QB Tanner McEvoy is unproven as a thrower, and Wisconsin lost stud WR Jared Abbrederis to graduation. The same is true in reverse, however—if the Badgers run up a lead, they’ll allow Gordon to bleed the clock against an unproven defensive line. I expect this to be a field goal game either way.
No. 5 Ohio State (-14.5) vs. Navy in Baltimore, MD
Ohio State is more susceptible to the pass then the run, but a defense that was surprisingly mediocre last year is done no favors by opening against the jigsaw puzzle that is Navy’s triple-option attack. On the other side of the ball, Urban Meyer will slowly ease in Braxton Miller’s replacement J.T. Barrett (who doesn’t have the luxury of handing the ball off to Carlos Hyde). I project a Buckeyes’ victory, but asking them to cover more than two touchdowns in Maryland against Navy in lieu of these circumstances in the season opener is too much.
Penn State vs UCF (-1)
I worry that I’m a little too high on the Knights—who, of course, lost Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson over the winter—and a little too low on the Nittany Lions, who lost ace coach Bill O’Brien to the Texans. UCF QB Justin Holman doesn’t have Bortles’ talent, but he’s no slouch and will be disseminating the ball to one of college football’s deepest receiver pools (headlined by Breshad Perriman, Rannell Hall, J.J. Worton and UAB transfer Jackie Williams). The Knights’ defense also returns most of its charges and should be improved. Old master George O’Leary starts the James Franklin era off with a loss, unless Christian Hackenberg goes wild and takes matters into his own hands in Ireland.
Utah State vs Tenn (-6.5)
The Vols feature poor quarterback play, a rebuilt offensive line, an offense that has a few playmakers but overriding doubts about how those athletes will receive the ball in space, a rebuilt defensive line, a super shaky run defense that lost tunnel-clogger Daniel McCullers, and a furious fan base. Outside of that, they’re good. Chuckie Keeton would take an early lead over Rakeem Cato in the small-school-Heisman-hopeful-who-will-be-mentioned-glowingly-as-a-candidate-all-season-but-who-actually-has-no-chance-to-win race if he can pull off the upset in Neyland Stadium. Facing a shaky defense, and rolling into town with a run defense that allowed only 2.8 yards per rush last year, the Aggies get it done—they’re the better team.
Miami vs Louisville (-3.5)
Louisville is transitioning to a new coaching staff (welcome back, Bobby!), replacing program-changing QB Teddy Bridgewater and fellow first-rounders S Calvin Pryor and DE Marcus Smith, and playing without injured star WR DeVante Parker (and probably injured RB Michael Dyer, as well). Duke Johnson should ease the burden of new starting QB Brad Kaaya, and I expect the Hurricanes’ defense to improve in 2014. I smell a Monday night upset, revenge for last season’s ugly bowl loss.
*Thor's Wild card: Boise State vs. Mississippi (-10.5)
New coach Bryan Harsin wants to pound the ball, and that’s fine by star Broncos’ running back Jay Ajayi (1,425 yards last year on 5.7 yards per carry). If BSU pulls this one out—and it won’t be easy against a Rebels team with top-notch blue-chip talent thanks to consecutive elite recruiting classes—it has a real chance to run the table and crash the inaugural four-team playoff. After this, the Broncos’ three hardest games—against Fresno State, BYU, and Utah State—will all be played on blue turf. I worry enough about BSU’s defensive front holding up that I can’t call for the upset, but the Broncos will keep it close.
Straight up: Mississippi
Against the spread: Boise State
*Thor's Wild card: UTSA vs. Houston (-10.5)
Too many points to give the ascending Fighting Cokers. Houston was insanely lucky to finish 8-5 last year, doing so mostly on the strength of turnovers (with a 43/18 takeaway/giveaway ratio) and a fluky fumble recovery rate. I like the John O’Korn/Deontay Greenberry connection as much as the next guy (though I wish John’s parents had named him “Can,” or understood his future as a Cougars’ QB and called him “Kolb O’Korn”), but if they underestimate UTSA, the Roadrunners will pull off the shocker.
Straight up: Houston
Against the spread: UTSA
*Josh's Wild card: Rice vs Notre Dame (-21.5)
Straight up: Notre Dame
Against the spread: Rice
*Josh's Wild card: UCLA (-22.5) vs Virginia
Straight up: UCLA
Against the spread: Virginia