"There’s two times of year for me: Football season, and waiting for football season." - Darius Rucker
At long last, the seemingly never-ending college football offseason is nearing a close. I'm done reading about players getting arrested or getting kicked off the team for "violations of team rules." Although I'm excited about how well Miami is doing on the recruiting trail, I'm done reading articles and tweets about 2016 recruits releasing their Top 10 schools via the Notes section on their IPhones. I'm done with hearing about or from Mark Emmert and the NCAA. Practices are finally starting on campuses across the country. The battles for starting jobs are about to begin. In just four weeks, actual football will be played and the stories will be about the dramatic finishes, the surprising upsets, and the tradition/pageantry that make college football so popular.
I want to get everyone excited about opening weekend, so here are some quick previews of the most interesting games. I will list the favorite first in each game and use lines from VegasInsider.com. I won't give my official picks until late August, because I still have time to further overanalyze each contest. I will likely lose several games thanks to young kickers pulling a Wondolowski (my new term for missing an XP or 20 yard FG), but most people enjoy my writing more when I show angst and frustration anyways. I understand that many readers and Twitter acquaintances found enjoyment in my struggles in the second half of 2013. I fully expect to bounce back and win 55% of my games this season, but I realize I have to prove it to everyone. Until the losing resumes, I'm going to think positively. The month of July in college football is a time when optimism reigns supreme. As my childhood idol Michael Jordan once said; "If you accept the expectations of others, especially negative ones, then you never will change the outcome."
Thursday August 28th
South Carolina -10.5 vs Texas A&M 6pm – SECN
The season-opening game is also the much-anticipated debut of the SEC Network. South Carolina has QB Dylan Thompson and RB Mike Davis, but lost some key players on defense. Who will be under center for the Aggies? Both Kyle Allen and Kenny Hill are talented, but good luck to anyone trying to replace the force of nature that was Johnny Manziel, both on and off the field. South Carolina is currently a double digit favorite at home.
Ole Miss -9 vs Boise State (Game in Atlanta) 8pm – ESPN
There are great expectations in Oxford this year. All eyes will be on QB Bo Wallace, the SEC’s most experienced signal caller. Boise State plays their first game without Chris Petersen, who left for UW. Can Bryan Harsin get the Broncos back near the top of college football? QB Grant Hedrick was just 2-3 as a starter in 2013. The crowd in Atlanta will lean heavily towards Ole Miss given proximity, but Boise State fans travel better than people would think. I saw the Broncos live at FedEx Field against Virginia Tech a few years back. There will be plenty of blue in the Georgia Dome.
Saturday August 30th
Penn State -1 vs UCF (Game in Dublin) 8:30am – ESPN2
Your college football Saturday starts at 8:30am. I need a game to be played in Ireland every weekend. PSU QB Christian Hackenberg should have a great 2014, while UCF is still searching for a replacement for Blake Bortles. James Franklin will bring energy to the sideline in his first game leading the Nittany Lions. This has a chance to be one of the most competitive games of the weekend. Have an Irish Coffee and celebrate the return of Saturday football.
UCLA -21.5 at Virginia 12pm – ESPN
UCLA has to travel on the road to the East Coast to open the season, and has the dreaded noon kickoff time to deal with. As long as stud QB Brett Hundley can adjust to the time change, the Bruins should rack up the points against the Cavaliers. Hundley has Heisman potential and RB/LB Myles Jack was a mismatch for opponents on both sides of the ball in 2013. Mike London desperately needs his UVA team to be competitive in the opener to build momentum for his program. QB Greyson Lambert has some experience and I like RB Kevin Parks, but if UCLA takes care of the football, Virginia doesn't have the firepower to stay with the Bruins. UCLA is a trendy pick to contend for a spot in the Playoff this season. Will increased expectations affect Jim Mora's team in a game they are expected to win easily?
Alabama -27 vs West Virginia (Game in Atlanta) 3:30pm – ABC
This game will be a significant mismatch in talent, but everyone is anxious to see Alabama QB Jacob Coker for the first time. The FSU transfer will have to live up to expectations this season for Bama to win the SEC. Coker will have some incredible playmakers around him in RB T.J. Yeldon, RB Derrick Henry, WR DeAndrew White, and WR Amari Cooper. Nick Saban's defense should be able to control West Virginia and their own FSU transfer QB, Clint Trickett. The Mountaineers will try to spread out the Tide, but Dana Holgorson's team is still in rebuilding mode. Expect Alabama to dominate the line of scrimmage on the way to an easy win. The only drama in this game will be whether Saban's backups give up a few late scores to make things interesting.
Georgia -9 vs Clemson 5:30pm – ESPN
No Head Coach has ever been more excited to start Fall practices than UGA’s Mark Richt. The Athens PD has been busy this offseason, arresting Georgia’s defensive players almost on a weekly basis. We’ll see whether UGA is deep enough to adjust to the numerous dismissals. QB Hutson Mason replaces Aaron Murray in 2014. Mason is a senior and this will be his 5th year in the program. RB Todd Gurley is a legitimate Heisman candidate if he can stay healthy. For Clemson, QB Cole Stoudt replaces Tajh Boyd and doesn’t have Watkins and Bryant to help him at WR. OC Chad Morris is one of the best in the nation, but he has a tough task leading his offense into a hostile atmosphere. Clemson DE Vic Beasley is a player to watch. The Tigers helped increase the profile of the ACC last season by beating Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. An upset road win over a solid SEC opponent would reverberate across the nation.
Florida -35 vs Idaho 7pm – ESPNU
Most people reading this article are praying for Idaho to pull a Georgia Southern and bring more shame to Gainesville. Unfortunately, UF should bounce back and show significant improvement in 2014. The most interesting part of this matchup will be watching how QB Jeff Driskel looks in new OC Kurt Roper’s new offense. Idaho was horrendous last season, finishing 1-11 and losing 80-14 to Florida State. The Vandals won’t score often in Gainesville, but can the Gators score more than 35 points? Their highest point total in 2013 was 31.
Florida State -17.5 vs Oklahoma State (Game in Dallas) 8pm – ABC
The defending champs open the season on a big stage in Dallas. At the moment, FSU is favored by more than two touchdowns in every game in 2014. OKST lost 13 starters from last year’s team and will be forced to play young players early, especially on defense. QB J.W. Walsh was decent at times last year, but FSU’s defense has NFL talent across the depth chart. Expect to hear the phrase "Dallas to Dallas" from FSU players in the lead up to this game. The Noles want to be back in Cowboys Stadium in January for the chance to win another championship. Jameis and Karlos Williams should put up huge numbers in 2014. If Jimbo’s team can deal with the issues of complacency and overconfidence, the sky is the limit. Can OKST shock the world and upset FSU? Very doubtful. The real question is can the Cowboys score a late touchdown to lose by 14? We’ll soon find out.
LSU -5 vs Wisconsin (Game in Houston) 9pm – ESPN
This game is the perfect way to end a College Football Saturday. LSU lost a lot of talent on offense to the NFL, but the hype around three freshmen continues to build. QB Brandon Harris, RB Leonard Fournette, and WR Malachi Dupre could be the present and the future for LSU. Harris will be in a battle with sophomore Anthony Jennings for the starting job. I expect Joel Stave to win the QB job for Wisconsin and he'll have the benefit of a strong offensive line and one of the nation's best running backs in Melvin Gordon. These two teams have similar styles, built to win with a strong running game and a playmaking defense. The battles in the trenches will be some of the best you'll see all weekend. The Big Ten would love the bragging rights that come with beating a top caliber SEC team, but the young Tigers are a small favorite for now.
Monday September 1st
Louisville -3 vs Miami 8pm – ESPN
The Hurricanes will have a national audience and the chance to make a statement. Miami arguably has the toughest conference schedule in the ACC, since their crossover games are against FSU and Louisville. The Coastal division is wide open and given how good Florida State should be in 2014, a win against Louisville is crucial to Miami’s hopes of making their first ACC Championship game. I’ll be watching the QB battle all August like the rest of you and I’m rooting for Kevin Olsen to emerge as the starter. There is a lot of positive energy coming out of Coral Gables this offseason. We’ve heard how the defense will be better, the players are faster and stronger, and how much the incoming freshman and JC transfers will help the program. In just over four weeks, none of that talk will matter. Miami has the opportunity to avenge an embarrassing blowout loss to Louisville this past December. Duke Johnson is poised for an award-winning year. It’s time to win.
Follow me @Jpickens15 all season for picks, previews, Miami thoughts, and Hillary Clinton references, because you haven't heard enough about her already.
Next week, I’ll analyze the odds for each team to win the Coastal and Atlantic Divisions, as well as the ACC Championship. Here are the latest, courtesy of Bovada.