Welcome back to another year of college football! And money winning!
Last season was a rollercoaster. I had a rough September, dug myself into a hole, and then furiously rallied from the red to the black in the second half of the season. I hit over 60% of my ATS bowl picks (29-19) to finish the season 141-123 ATS.
Despite the early-season hiccup, that 53.4% winning percentage was in line with my career winning percentage (53.5% ATS winners over 758 picks between 2014-2017). I’m fortunate to say we’ve finished with a profit all five years this column has run.
You'll see "ATL" in this year's columns. That's the Adjusted Thor Line, my number for each game (forgive the dopey name -- shoutout to the Donald Glover show). Note: I don't always agree with my numbers (as you'll see below). Enough talk. I've been waiting for seven months. Let's do this.
Florida -7.5 vs. Miami (Orlando)
ATL: Florida -9.5
I need to get one thing off my chest from the jump. And I don’t mean to be condescending about this. But Tate Martell’s flameout means little and is indicative of nothing. The Hurricanes risked little in buying low on Martell’s recruiting hype when they went shopping on the transfer portal this winter, and Martell vindicating Ohio State’s breezy disposition towards losing him wasn’t a huge surprise either.
Miami is back to where they started. Mark Richt left the QB room unenviably raw. Hurricanes fans who saw Martell as an Escape from Richt QB Recruit Jail card chose to find more predictive value in Martell’s recruiting ranking than Ohio State’s eagerness to replace Martell with Justin Fields. When that news broke, Martell told reporters he was excited to compete for the starting job. You had to chuckle. The competition was already over.
The Buckeyes’ stance alone told us that Martell didn't have a high ceiling -- if he did, Fields would be playing elsewhere this season. There would have been no reason to go to the trouble. So I’m supposed to be bummed that Miami is opening a total mystery box on Saturday instead of flashy package with a glass ceiling? No sir. This is exciting stuff. Until kickoff (at least), Jarren Williams has a higher ceiling than Tate Martell.
So let’s see what we’ve got in Williams. Because here's the thing: Miami’s schedule is cake after this week. If the Hurricanes can upset the Gators, Miami could be favored in the next 11 games leading up the ACC title game (against Clemson, gulp). A special season is possible for Miami if they have a good quarterback (okay, it would also probably require Clemson's special quarterback to not be active for all four quarters of the hypothetical ACC title game, but you get my drift). We have a pretty good idea by this point that Martell and N’Kosi Perry are not special quarterbacks.
Let's have a looksee at Williams and get a verdict on him. We know very little about Williams except that he was ranked just outside ESPN’s top-100 overall recruits last year. By all accounts, Williams had a great offseason. After deciding not to transfer, he got after it, losing bad weight and adding muscle.
He showed up ready to beat out Martell and Perry and did. His teammates speak highly of him. The fact that Miami’s staff made the hard decision to go with Williams — Martell would have been an easier sell to the fanbase — strongly suggests that optics aren’t the driving force in Diaz’s thought processes. And that’s something. Because at the end there, you started to wonder about Mr. Richt.
And not to keep ragging on Richt, but he left Miami’s offensive line in bad shape. It was a position he failed to develop. That group was as big a boot on the offense as the quarterback room. If it isn’t fixed pronto, Jarren Williams, even if he’s a talent, is going to have a hard time turning this offense around.
Miami lost three offensive linemen over the offseason. But that’s actually fine, since there’s only one way to go. Like the quarterback position, the offensive line has a certain air of mystery right now. If it’s decent this year, that’ll be an upgrade — and anything beyond that would just up the offense’s ceiling further.
Diaz of course has spent the past three years as Miami’s DC. You can’t really blame him for Miami’s previous issues. Diaz’s defenses were awesome. It was arguably top-10 quality last year, and most of it returns. The linebacking corps, led by Shaq Quarterman and featuring three NFL prospects, is elite.
Six starters return in sum. The Hurricanes front-seven is one of the nation’s best. Its secondary is breaking in three new starters. That unit is stocked with former high-end recruits but has a burden of proof on it.
This is where Florida QB Feleipe' Franks enters the conversation. Franks’ passing efficiency jumped from 113.3 in 2017 to 143.4 last year and he improved to 58.4% completions with a 24/6 TD/INT ratio under Dan Mullen one year after completing just 55% with a 9/8 ratio.
Mullen was somehow able to turn the enormous pocket-passing Franks into a Nick Fitzgerald-lite presence on the ground. Taking out sack yardage, Franks ran for 452 yards and seven TD on almost five yards per carry. But for all the good news, Franks' underlying accuracy issues persist. Because of that, I don’t see Franks as having much ceiling left to untap. We may have already seen around his best.
If that's true, there’s going to be a ton of pressure on Florida's offense line to perform a miracle -- stay good with a whole new cast of characters in the lineup. Four 2018 starting offensive linemen are gone, including run-mauling RT Jawaan Taylor and four-year starter Martez Ivey.
That line opened the gaping holes for Franks and Lamical Perine that the entire offense was built upon. If Franks’ accuracy doesn’t improve, and the running game regresses along with the offensive line, the offense is going to take a step back. And if the line struggles, it’s going to effect Franks the passer. Florida’s line was so good last year — you have to bake regression on that front into the way you see this team. We just don't know how much.
The defense has no such question marks. It was superb in 2018, allowing 20.0 ppg, and it returns eight starters – including EDGE Jabari Zuniga and CB C.J. Henderson. It could be even better in 2019, but will have to figure out a way to replace sack leader Jachai Polite, leading tackler Vosean Joseph and do-all DB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. Getting CB Marco Wilson back from injury and poaching DT Adam Shuler from West Virginia as a grad transfer is a nice start.
Miami OC Dan Enos will have his work cut out for him on Saturday. Not many people like his unit’s chances of doing much. But he does have one thing going for him. Because Florida doesn’t have much tape on Williams, and because the deck has been shuffled and replaced on last year’s bad offensive line, we have very little idea how Enos’ offense is actually going to look -- how it’s going to perform, and what it’s going to be good and bad at.
The whole thing is a Schrödinger's cat proposition. But this spread, with Miami as a touchdown-plus dog to an imperfect Florida team with a new offensive line, treats Miami as though the answer to its QB and OL questions is: Dead.
Meanwhile, I think Florida is getting a little too much credit for last year’s success. A major drop-off in offensive line play would really hurt. This offense is built around that group moving bodies. If that stops happening, a house of cards could fall. Facing Miami’s incredible front-seven in the opener is a cruel twist of fate.
I think we’re going to see a very low-scoring game. Florida’s defense enters with a huge edge on Miami’s unknown offense. But Miami’s trump card of its elite front-seven against Florida’s reconstructed offensive line may have the effect of offsetting that advantage.
Manny Diaz brings continuity and excitement. Miami should be prepared, and I expect the Canes to come out fighting. If the offense can do anything of consequence, I think Miami has a shot to spring the upset. The safe bet is the UNDER. But I’ll wet my beak on the live dog as well.
The picks: Miami +7.5, UNDER 47
Arizona -11 at Hawaii
ATL: Arizona -8
Fascinating matchup between G5 and P5 programs that appear to be heading in opposite directions. But looks can be deceiving.
Hawaii raced out to a 6-1 start last year after turning back the clock in a return to the Run ’n Shoot offense. A 2-5 end to the season wasn’t ideal, but the campaign as a whole was a smashing success. The defense was an abomination when Jahlani Tavai wasn’t on the field and merely horrible when he was, but the offense was a sight to behold.
Hawaii QB Cole McDonald threw for over 3,800 yards with a 36/10 TD/INT rate. Hawaii’s fortunes seemed to turn after McDonald sprained his MCL in the late September 5OT win over San Jose State (the offense managed only 17 points against Wyoming the next week but Hawaii pulled out the win... the Rainbow Warriors went 2-5 thereafter).
McDonald is back, along with Hawaii’s entire offensive line. The receiving corps lost star WR John Ursua to the NFL Draft, but remains very strong. Cedric Byrd and JoJo Ward will be joined this year by Melquise Stovall, who opened eyes as a freshman in Sonny Dykes’ Air Raid at Cal before going into witness protection when Dykes was replaced by the defense-oriented Justin Wilcox.
Stovall should feel right at home in Nick Rolovich’s system, an homage to the June Jones days. The Rainbow Warriors don’t run well, but boy can they move the ball quickly when McDonald is in synch and his receivers are freelancing separation. People tend to focus on the O instead of the barely-there D. Fans were thrilled to go 8-6 with that brand of football.
The same can’t be said for the state of the Arizona program. Last year’s Wildcats were horribly disappointing, the marriage of Kevin Sumlin’s system with record-breaking QB Khalil Tate’s high-octane skillset and oodles of returning talent devolving into a listless 5-7 season. What was infuriating wasn’t simply that a program considered on the rise missed bowl season altogether.
It’s that the Wildcats went about it with so little fight and flair. Rich Rod’s final teams were mediocre, but they were always fun to catch on Pac-12 After Dark. Those teams were aggressive and creative, if not always talented or disciplined. Sumlin’s first Arizona team was forgettable before the season was over.
Having said all that, there are a few contextual things to keep in mind. Arizona started out last year 2-2 against BYU, Houston, an FCS team, and Oregon State. Because of the lopsided Houston loss, the consternation over that start was probably a bit overstated.
Houston played good ball early last year, and it turned out there wasn’t any shame in losing to BYU. What happened next is Arizona went 3-5 down the stretch to confirm that early returns on Sumlin’s first team were correct — it was a dog. Sumlin isn’t on the hot seat yet, but if he repeats that performance, he may skip right through the hot seat phase and into the Jim McElwain Zone.
But what if Arizona’s 2018 season wasn’t quite as bad as we remembered? Let’s go back to the 2-2 start, right? Arizona lost to a pair of bowl teams and beat two lambs. The season still could have been salvaged. But the next week, QB Khalil Tate injured his left ankle. He played through the injury for the next month, which essentially stole the legs from the most dangerous scrambler we’ve seen this side of Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray the last decade.
From afar, it seemed as though Sumlin and OC Noel Mazzone were suffocating Tate’s skillset by forcing this elite scrambler to stay in the pocket. Certainly Sumlin and Mazzone aren’t free from criticism here, but they couldn’t exactly try to run back one of those classic Khalil Tate 200-yard rushing games when the real Khalil Tate was limping around and gritting his jaw just to stay on the field, could they?
Tate’s passing didn’t progress like we wanted it to, but again, the circumstances of a big system change coupled with the mid-year ankle injury didn’t exactly help. Despite the impediment Tate’s condition was to the offense, Arizona did annihilate Oregon and would have gone bowling if they hadn’t gagged away a 40-21 fourth quarter lead against Arizona State in the finale thanks to a comedy of errors on the field and egregious Sumlin clock management in the waning minutes.
Instead of the possibility of a postseason win and a 7-6 finish — similar to Hawaii’s 8-6 — Arizona’s season was done at 5-7. I don’t mean to be heretical, but the difference in perception is largely owed to Hawaii’s cupcake 2018 schedule. Hawaii went 2-6 against top-100 S&P+ teams, and 5-0 against bottom-30 S&P+ teams.
Arizona is S&P+'s No. 52 preseason team, for whatever it's worth. Hawaii's five losses last year -- to Army, BYU, Nevada, Fresno State, Utah State and Louisiana Tech, six of the seven bowl teams Hawaii played in 2018 -- came by an average margin of 27.4 points per game. When Hawaii lost, it got decked.
Arizona’s rocky transition to the Sumlin/Mazzone offense early in the year and the Tate injury are extenuating circumstances that cannot be understated when discussing the ill-fated 2018 team. As SB Nation’s Bill Connelly pointed out, in the first two games of the season and during the month Tate was injured, Arizona went 1-5 and Tate posted a 4/4 TD/INT rate on 52% completions with less than four yards per carry. In the other six games, Arizona went 4-2 and Tate posted a 19/4 TD/INT on 60% completions and over eight yards per carry with sack yards omitted.
RB JJ Taylor’s game went as Tate’s did, with 479 rushing yards in the first sample and 955 in the second. And now's the time to mention that Tate is fully healed. Sumlin says the difference between his mobility this year and last year is “night and day.” A return of Tate’s wheels would mean that Arizona’s offense is officially scary again.
Arizona’s receiving corps lost its top three targets, but I wonder if that matters much. If a small theoretical downgrade in receiving talent leads to OC Noel Mazzone moving closer to the Rich Rod side of the run-calling and Tate-running spectrums, it will be addition by subtraction. But nobody is going complain if freshman WR Boobie Curry is as advertised out of the gate. Arizona had veterans last year... not stars. Improving on last year's corps is as easy and as hard as producing one, just one star.
If Tate is 100%, and there's no reason to believe he shouldn't be, Arizona may be able to name the score on Saturday. Hawaii’s defense was terrible last year and is going to remain so. Despite having Jahlani Tavai’s services for eight games, the Rainbow Warriors finished No. 118 in S&P+ defense.
Hawaii was ripped for big plays with impunity, ranking No. 111 in S&P+ marginal explosiveness allowed (No. 111 vs. rushing explosion, No. 102 vs. passing explosion). Tavai was a top-50 pick of the Detroit Lions in April. Anything that was good with that wretched unit was because of Tavai. Hawaii very well might have a bottom-10 defense in the FBS this fall.
The only chance Hawaii has against Arizona is to go for broke through the air and hope for the best. McDonald is going to rack up plenty of yards -- but to win, he's going to have to go supernova. There is no other path. Arizona’s 4-2-5 defense deploys plenty of defensive backs, and CB Jace Whittaker has rejoined its ranks after he was knocked out for the year after one series last year. I expect the Wildcats to be improved against the pass.
Arizona's strong LB corps is comprised of the active duo of Colin Schooler and Tony Fields (and much-used backup Anthony Pandy). That group is extremely stingy against the run, but perhaps wasn't doing its fair share to fix Arizona’s pass-rushing problem and had work to do in coverage. It was encouraging when Schooler and Fields told reporters this offseason that they lost weight this offseason to improve their quickness and stamina. Any gains made in those areas will be tangible improvements to the pass defense.
Arizona’s biggest weakness is in the trenches. You want to know why they got tripped up by BYU, blasted by Houston, and pushed around by Utah and Wazzu? Certain kinds of teams can discombobulate Arizona. Physical, nasty teams that are good along the lines. Hawaii is not built like those teams.
The Rainbow Warriors are a finesse bunch who crush weak opponents and wilt against teams that can match up against their receivers downfield. Arizona’s lackluster pass-rush shouldn't scare McDonald -- he's going to have time to throw. But his receivers aren’t going to separate against this secondary like they do against San Jose State's. And Hawaii isn’t going to be able to run the ball.
This is a game Sumlin simply has to have. Arizona has a preseason S&P+ win expectancy of over 50% in only five other games on the schedule, and three of the five are between 53-61%. Losing this game would make missing a second straight bowl game the favored outcome.
The Wildcats seems to be banding together under the “nobody believes in us” banner. Senior WR Cedric Peterson said: “Everybody’s overlooking us, as always. It’s a motivation thing. Just keeps us pushing it. Little chip on our shoulder.” Hawaii wasn't the same team last year after the decent teams arrived on the schedule having seen Run ’n Shoot video. I think we're going to see Sumlin and Tate fire the hype train back up by lighting up this Hawaii defense in the opener.
The pick: Arizona -11
2018: 141-123 (53.4%) ATS
Lifetime (2014-2018): 538-468-16 (53.5%) ATS