Stuart McNair

First week of college football includes great games, including Alabama vs. USC

Alabama and SEC will be tested in season opening games

It seems like a long time since we were examining the Southeastern Conference football scene and giving you the benefit of our Almost Perfect Picks. But we get started in Week 1, and it’s an early start since SEC teams have a couple of Thursday games. Most of the action is on Saturday, but the opening “weekend” extends all the way to a Monday night game.

For the 2015 season, the APP finished at 95-28 in picking SEC winners and 61-47 against the over/under, but only 52-57 vs. the spread. As a “for instance,” after correctly getting the winners in 10 SEC bowl games leading up to the national championship game (and also predicting Clemson to defeat Oklahoma soundly in a bonus pick), we had a one-game selection for the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Alabama was a 7-point favorite and the over-under was 50 1/2. We correctly picked the winner, but our 38-17 prediction made it a loser against the spread and on the over-under.

Our team of nerds has had a long layoff to get ready for the season-openers, but as we all know there are more questions the first week than any other. This could be a tough challenge, but we look at it as an opportunity.

Betting lines and the over-under (number of combined points to be scored) are from the newspaper.

Starting with two Thursday games, which emphatically are not part of the hoopla of the great opening weekend:

THURSDAY

Appalachian State at Tennessee, 6:30 p.m. CDT on ESPN Network – Tennessee favored by 20, over-under 60 1/2. Stop me if you’ve heard about Appalachian State defeating Michigan in Ann Arbor in 2007. For Tennessee, all the big talk is over. It’s time for the Vols to actually produce, and this isn’t the easiest of non-Power Five opponents to get the job done against. Still, Tennessee has more talent than it has had in several years, including a solid quarterback in Joshua Dobbs. Vols 45, Mountaineers 17.

South Carolina at Vanderbilt, 7 p.m. CDT, ESPN – Vanderbilt favored by 4 1/2, o-U 42 1/2. This is a real live SEC game in the first week, and it may be the winner can make it to a bowl game. The self-proclaimed Ball Coach who quit on South Carolina in the middle of last season didn’t leave the cupboard stocked for Will Muschamp to return to head coaching after being fired at Florida and learning football as an assistant at Auburn. Both teams will count on defense and it may be the first team to double digits win. Vandy 20, South Carolina 17.

SATURDAY

Missouri at West Virginia, 11 a.m. CDT, FoxSports1 – West Virginia favored by 10, o-u 50 1/2. Talk about a game in which it is hard to know what to expect...or care. Word from Columbia is that the Tigers will have another good defense this year, and Missouri will probably need it against a West Virginia offense that can put up points. It’s difficult to imagine Missouri having much offense and it’s tough to play in Morgantown. Mountaineers 24, Tigers 13.

South Alabama at Mississippi State, 11:30 a.m., SEC Network – Mississippi State favored by 28, o-u 54. Alabama followers will be cheering for a former Tide favorite, Joey Jones as he coaches the Jaguars against Mississippi State, but even without Dak Prescott at quarterback the Bulldogs will be way too much for South Alabama. This isn’t the test to prove anything, but we have a suspicion that new State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is going to be pretty good. Bulldogs 45, Jaguars 7.

LSU vs. Wisconsin at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, 2:30 p.m. CDT, ABC – LSU favored by 10, o-u 44 1/2. Now we’re talking big game season-opener. Everyone talks about LSU quarterback Brandon Harris’s passing deficiencies, but last we looked he still had Leonard Fournette back there to just hand the football to. Even with a mending ankle, Fournette should have a big first game. LSU’s defense really just has to stop the Wisconsin running game and it should make for a comfortable afternoon. Tigers 31, Wisconsin 13.

UCLA at Texas A&M, 2:30 p.m. CDT, CBS – Texas A&M favored by 3, o-u 53 1/2. Alabama knows only one thing about new Aggies quarterback Trevor Knight, and that is that Knight was lights out in Oklahoma’s Sugar Bowl win over the Tide a couple of years ago. Knight’s problem is he didn’t have any more games like that, and transferred to A&M. If he’s close to what he was against Alabama, the Aggies will be an SEC contender. UCLA has an excellent quarterback in Josh Rosen, but most expect UCLA to try to control the game with the run. It’s hot and tough in College Station. Aggies 31, Bruins 24.

Louisiana Tech at Arkansas, 3 p.m. CDT, SEC Network – Arkansas favored by 26, o-u 51 1/2. A year ago Louisiana Tech had Jeff Driskel at quarterback, but that was last year. Also last year, and it may play into Arkansas resolve Saturday, the Razorbacks lost a game to Toledo (though not the opener, the second game). This game gives Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema the opportunity to do just what he wants, which is pound with the running game. Hogs 31, LaTech 17.

Georgia vs. North Carolina at Georgia Dome in Atlanta, 4:30 p.m. CDT, ESPN – Georgia favored by 2 1/2, o-u 56. The big question is how Kirby Smart does in his first outing as the coach who makes decisions rather than suggestions. The second big question is whether Bulldogs tailback Nick Chubb is full go. If he is, and with Georgia’s strong offensive line, it should make for easy decision-making for Smart. The Bulldogs’ defense will have its work cut out for it against an explosive North Carolina offense. Atlanta is a good place for Georgia to have a neutral site opener. Bulldogs 38, Tarheels 21.

Massachusetts at Florida, 6:30 p.m. CDT, SEC Network – Florida favored by 36 1/2, o-u 50 1/2. There is a reason that Florida has the nation’s longest winning streak in season-opening games: a steady diet of teams like UMass. The Gators justify staying with the cupcakes because FSU waits at the end of the season as a quality non-conference game. The most important thing about this game is how one-time Alabama walk-on Luke Del Rio performs at quarterback, and since we thought he would be a legitimate contender at Bama, we expect him to have a big game, even though the Gators don’t really need it to win this game. Gators 45, Minutemen 7.

Southern Miss at Kentucky, 6:30 p.m.CDT, ESPNU – Kentucky favored by 6, o-u 63 1/2. This may not be the cupcake the Wildcats need to give Kentucky a chance at breaking its back-to-back record of 5-7 seasons and make it to a bowl game. The Golden Eagles are one of the favorites to win Conference USA. Expect a lot of offense and a game in doubt until late. Wildcats 44, Golden Eagles 31.

Clemson at Auburn, 8 p.m. CDT, ESPN – Clemson favored by 7 1/2, o-u 62 1/2. After Clemson finished second in the nation last year, and because Coach Dabo Swinney had the nation’s best quarterback returning, along with Auburn’s very poor 2015 season, this looked like a sure win, possibly a rout for the visitors in early previews. Now, not so much. Even though Auburn may not have strengthened its defense with Kevin Steele replacing Kevin Muschamp as coordinator and Auburn having no proven runners, receivers, or quarterback, look for a close game in part because of the home field. ACC Tigers 40, SEC Tigers 27.

Alabama vs. Southern Cal at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, 7 p.m. CDT, ABC – Alabama favored by 11 1/2, o-u 53 1/2. Alabama has won 14 consecutive season openers and USC 18. Both teams have new quarterbacks, but Alabama has Lane Kiffin. Bama also has Nick Saban. This does not look like an easy game for Alabama because USC has talented players everywhere, but the Tide has talent, too, and probably more depth. Crimson Tide 34, Trojans 20.

MONDAY

Ole Miss vs. Florida State at Citrus Bowl in Orlando, 7 p.m. CDT, ESPN – FSU favored by 4, o-u 57. Ole Miss is not accustomed to losing so many players to the NFL draft as happened last year, but the Rebels have faith that Coach Hugh Freeze and company have “recruited” more of the same. Ole Miss also takes heart in having the best quarterback returning in the SEC in Chad Kelly and in having a two-game winning streak against Alabama, making Mississippi believe it can play with the big boys. The big question for the Seminoles is how redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois can perform. FSU tailback Dalvin Cook will probably be the difference. Seminoles 34, Ole Miss 24.


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