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Thursday & Friday Night Winners - Reasons to Watch

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I pick and preview nine games and help Canes fans focus on opening night.

NCAA Football: Miami at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I won't lie to you. The games on Thursday and Friday night probably won't determine who makes the College Football Playoff. But I've waited too long for this season to get here to be worried about that. Not every game can be a showdown like FSU-Ole Miss, Alabama-USC, or Miami-FAMU. College football is back and ready to completely take over our lives for four glorious months, as long as Miami stops suspending key players for making strange driving arrangements.

Russian operatives from rival college football websites have been threatening to expose my deleted emails, trying to get me to support South Carolina and FIU, but I won't be manipulated. Few things are more frustrating than settling for a tie (20-point win) when the game ends with Cal inside the 1-yard line against Hawaii, but at least I still enter Thursday night undefeated. My 0-0-1 record hasn't gotten to my head, but a few nice wins by Vandy and Indiana could have my confidence at Usain Bolt like levels heading into Saturday. While everyone else watched Beyonce and Rihanna last night, I was researching Rice’s returning starters. It’s showtime.

Reasons for Miami Fans to Watch

- Wake Forest plays Duke and UVA in the Coastal this season. Wake has experience and could win both of those games. The game with Tulane should be an easy win if the Demon Deacons have improved.

- Rooting against Will Muschamp is always fun. A loss to Vandy in his USC debut would trigger some incredible sideline scowls.

- I always hope FIU loses as much as possible. Firing Cristobal plus the fight that reignited Lamar Thomas's fame are two good reasons to hope Indiana blows out the Golden Panthers.

- Tennessee and Butch Jones have massive expectations. Will the Vols dominate App State and back up the top 10 ranking? Will a talented and underrated App State team make the fans in Knoxville anxious?

Miami will learn a lot about its Week 3 opponent from this game.

- Minnesota and Oregon State kicks off at 9pm, so at least there will be live college football on past midnight on Thursday. Admittedly reaching here...

- (Let me dream for now, still in max hope mode) Canes fans can do some scouting for the College Football Playoff on Friday night. Stanford hosts Kansas State. Christian McCaffrey should have a monster game - Hopefully Brad Kaaya hangs out with him in New York in December.

Allstate Sugar Bowl - Louisville v Florida

THURSDAY NIGHT

TULANE +17 at Wake Forest - 7pm - ESPN3

Against FBS teams in 2015, Wake Forest’s high point total in a game was 24. QB John Wolford won the starting job for the Demon Deacons. He showed flashes last year, but lacked consistency. Wake ranked near the bottom in the nation in rushing yards in 2015 and doesn’t have the firepower on offense to win convincingly, despite the struggles Tulane has had on defense in recent years. Wake’s defense will keep this game low-scoring - expecting a 10-14 point WF win. Willie Fritz will be coaching his first game at Tulane after coming over from Georgia Southern. Fritz is a proven winner, but this rebuilding job will take some time. Tulane won’t be impressive Thursday night, but the Green Wave will do just enough to earn me a win.

INDIANA -9.5 at Florida International - 730pm - ESPNU

Replacing the school’s all-time leading passer (Nate Sudfeld) won’t be easy. Indiana will be starting juco transfer QB Richard Lagow after he won a crowded competition this offseason. Fortunately for Kevin Wilson, the Hoosiers do have some talented playmakers back in RB Devine Redding, WR Simmie Cobbs Jr., and WR Ricky Jones. FIU has made improvements under Ron Turner, but doesn’t have the firepower on offense to keep pace with Indiana. Look for a close game early with the Hoosiers pulling away in the second half.

TENNESSEE -21 vs Appalachian State - 730pm - SECN

The Vols are ranked 9th and considered by many to be a lock to win the SEC East. I think the pressure and expectations might cause this team to stumble in conference play, but Tennessee’s overall talent will overwhelm Appalachian State in the opener. The Vols will be playing at home at night and classes are cancelled for students all day - the crowd should be electric. QB Josh Dobbs and his two productive RB’s (Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd) should be able to put up huge numbers against an undersized Mountaineers defense. Tennessee is loaded on defense, led by DE Derek Barnett. App State relies heavily on their running game and will have trouble blocking the size the Vols have up front. App State QB Taylor Lamb will make some plays and give Miami fans something to think about, but the Mountaineers should end up losing by four touchdowns or more.

VANDERBILT -3.5 vs South Carolina - 8pm - ESPN

Regardless of who starts I’m not optimistic about Vandy’s QB play, but the Dores do have one of the SEC’s best RB’s in Ralph Webb. Vanderbilt’s defense will be very difficult to score against in 2016, led by tackling machine LB Zach Cunningham. New South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp inherited a program that needs some recruiting help immediately after a disastrous 3-9 season in 2015. I expect senior QB Perry Orth to start on Thursday night, but he won’t have much proven help around him. According to Bill Connolly’s returning production data, South Carolina is ranked 117th out of 128 FBS teams. Vandy and Derek Mason will get a close SEC win at home in front of a national audience on opening night, an opportunity this program needs to take advantage of.

RICE +16 at Western Kentucky - 8pm - CBSSN

5th year senior Tyler Stehling will start at QB for Rice and I’m relying on him to keep this game competitive. He’ll be helped by a talented group of running backs. Western Kentucky lost star QB Brandon Doughty to graduation, but are fortunate to have five starting offensive linemen back, as well as explosive WR Taywan Taylor. After transferring from USF, QB Mike White will start for WKU. White has talent, but the dropoff from Doughty will be significant at least early in the season. The Hilltoppers are a bit young on defense and I expect Rice will do just enough to lose by 10-14.

OREGON STATE +13 at Minnesota - 9pm - BTN

Minnesota is quietly getting some hype as a potential contender in the Big Ten West. I’m not quite there yet. QB Mitch Leidner is definitely a leader and has experience running the offense, but I’m not sure the Gophers can make create enough big plays to pull away in games. Minnesota averaged just 22ppg in 2015, scoring more than 30 in a game just twice. I am intrigued by Oregon state QB Darell Garretson, who I know well from his time at Utah State. I expect Gary Andersen’s team to better represent his personality this season. The Beavers don’t have enough talent to compete every week yet, but will show more toughness and keep games a bit closer in 2016. With Seth Collins now at WR playing alongside Jordan Villamin, Oregon State should be able to score a few times and keep this game close. Minnesota wins by a touchdown.

FRIDAY NIGHT

COLORADO -8 vs Colorado State - 8pm - ESPN

The Rocky Mountain Showdown in Denver should be an exciting matchup. The trash talk has been building all summer in Colorado. The Buffs are led by their enigmatic QB Sefo Liufau, who has the talent, but has struggled with consistency. Liufau is a 4-year starter who understands what this game means. I expect him to play well. Colorado has talented depth at both RB and WR and will play with more pace this year on offense. CSU has two QB’s battling for the job, but I expect Nick Stevens to beat out UGA transfer Faton Bauta. The Rams lost a lot of key players to graduation at SS, FS, and all across the defensive line. Colorado might struggle once again in the Pac-12, but should be able to control the line of scrimmage and beat their rival by two scores. The Buffs rush for 200+ yards and Liufau makes a few critical plays down the stretch to lead his team.

STANFORD -15 vs Kansas State - 9pm - FS1

David Shaw announced that senior Ryan Burns will be the starter at QB replacing Kevin Hogan. With RB Christian McCaffrey in the backfield, it might not matter who matter who is under center. Running behind a dominant offensive line, expect another monster year for the versatile McCaffrey. Stanford has a unique schedule this season - hosting KState to start the year, then a bye in Week 2 before hosting USC in the Pac-12 opener. The Cardinal started slow in 2015, losing to Northwestern on the road in a sluggish performance. That won’t happen again. Bill Snyder has worked some magic in his career, but after a 6-7 campaign in 2015, his team doesn’t have the talent or the strength inside to match up with Stanford. With a young offensive line, Kansas State will struggle to protect QB Jesse Ertz. The Cardinal rush for 250+ and win by more than 20 points.

TOLEDO +3 at Arkansas State - 9pm – ESPNU

Expectations are high for both teams this season. Toledo has a new head coach in Jason Candle, replacing Matt Campbell who left for Iowa State. RB Kareem Hunt is one of the best in the nation and four starters returning on the offensive line to help him. After missing last season, 2014 starting QB Logan Woodside takes over the offense once again. Arkansas State must replace QB Fredi Knighten and starting RB Michael Gordon. QB James Tabary will start for the Red Wolves, but he will likely struggle again against Toledo. Tabary threw three interceptions last season in a 37-7 loss to the Rockets. Toledo wins a close one on the road.