Who'll Win SEC Openers?

The most exciting thing about college football's opening weekend is all of the questions waiting to be answered: Can Tennessee thrive with freshman quarterbacks? Can 21 returning starters elevate Vanderbilt above its usual cellar-dweller status? Can South Carolina's Lou Holtz remember where he left his formula for success? Can Georgia live up to its hype?

The answers to these questions will become a little clearer with each passing week. That's what makes Week 1 so intriguing. There aren't any answers yet. Heck, there aren't even any clues.

The fearless forecasters at Rocky Top News are undaunted, though. Their vast knowledge of SEC football enables them to predict each week's SEC winners with remarkable precision. (When knowledge isn't enough, they've been known to flip a coin.)

Regardless, RTN's resident geniuses are back for another year of on-the-money picks and on-the-brink analysis. Here are their Week 1 picks:


UTAH STATE AT ALABAMA: Bama was bad enough to lose to Northern Illinois and Hawaii last season, which means almost anything's possible. Star RB Shaud Williams is missing but quality QB Brodie Croyle is back, so the Tide may throw the ball more than usual. Having a full year in Mike Shula's system should help -- assuming Shula can coach ... Alabama 24, Utah State 7

NEW MEXICO STATE AT ARKANSAS: The Razorbacks are ignoring the Republican National Convention because most of them are too young to vote. Houston Nutt is a quality coach but, with Texas next on the schedule, his youthful Hogs could be looking ahead ... Arkansas 20, New Mexico State 10

LOUISIANA-MONROE AT AUBURN: Louisiana-Monroe may be the weakest program of the 21st century. Remember the 70-3 butt-kicking Tennessee administered in 2000? New Auburn offensive coordinator Ron Borges should enjoy a smashing debut ... Auburn 52, Louisiana-Monroe 7

MIDDLE TENNESSEE AT FLORIDA: There will be no touchdowns in Gainesville this weekend due to fears that Hurricane Frances will TOUCH DOWN. The game has been postponed until Oct. 16 ... Mother Nature 49, Florida 0, MTSU 0.

GEORGIA SOUTHERN AT GEORGIA: If the Dawgs let all of the preseason hoopla go to their heads ... nah, they still couldn't lose to their little sisters from across the state. This will be an interesting game for about a quarter ... Georgia 31, Georgia Southern 7

KENTUCKY AT LOUISVILLE: Some UK players got in trouble recently for allegedly exposing themselves to a couple of young boys. Now the Wildcats are about to be exposed again -- as a seriously shorthanded football team... Louisville 24, Kentucky 17

OREGON STATE AT LSU: OSU is no slouch but LSU is the defending national champ playing its home opener. Frankly, I don't give the Beavers a dam chance ... LSU 27, Oregon State 7

MEMPHIS AT OLE MISS: The last time David Cutcliffe replaced a Manning with an African-American quarterback was 1998, when he plugged Tee Martin into the void left by Peyton Manning and guided Tennessee to the national title. Don't look for history to repeat ... Memphis 20, Ole Miss 17

TULANE AT MISSISSIPPI STATE: Sylvester Croom thought getting the head job at Mississippi State was a dream come true -- then he saw the mess Jackie Sherrill left behind. Croom should restore order eventually but it won't happen overnight ... Mississippi State 21, Tulane 14

SOUTH CAROLINA AT VANDERBILT: With 21 starters back from last year, the 'Dores are poised to make a serious run at third place in the SEC East. If this game goes the way I expect, Carolina coach Lou Holtz may be poised for a serious run out of town ... Vandy 20, South Carolina 17

UNLV AT TENNESSEE: UT's talented freshman quarterbacks will produce a lot of memorable moments and a lot of forgettable moments, too. This game should provide several of each ... Tennessee 27, UNLV 14


UTAH STATE AT ALABAMA: Utah State hasn't had a winning season since 1997 when the Aggies went 6-5. Furthermore, USU is 0-16 in road games against non-conference opponents during head coach Mick Dennehy's five years on the job. Alabama is also coming off a losing season in Mike Shula's head coaching debut but the Crimson Tide is also coming off probation and there is talent on hand to take care of business in this intersectional battle. Bama will also take out some of its frustration on the out manned Aggies. Alabama 42, Utah State 10.

NEW MEXICO STATE AT ARKANSAS: The Razorbacks are young and untested but Houston Nutt has brought in a steady stream of quality talent the last four years and that should tell in this contest. Like their Sun Belt Conference namesakes these Aggies are coming off a 3-9 record and haven't been to a bowl game in 44 years. Last season the Aggies lost to Arkansas by a score of 48-20. That sounds about right for this season, too. Arkansas 44, New Mexico

LOUISIANA-MONROE AT AUBURN: Another SBC vs. SEC mismatch that is sure to satisfy Auburn fans more than last season's 23-0 opening loss to USC. The Indians enter this contest with a total of seven wins in the last four years, including 2003's 1-11 mark. Last season the native Americans played three SEC teams (LSU, Mississippi and Auburn) and lost by a collective total of 181 to 28. Don't look for things to get much better this year. Auburn 45, Louisiana-Monroe 0.

MIDDLE TENNESSEE AT FLORIDA: After suffering consecutive losses and surrendering 79 points in two games, the Gators were glad to get the Hurricanes off their schedule. Think again. Hurricane Frances takes over where Miami left off by forcing the postponement of what figures to be a Florida blowout. Category 3, Florida 0. (MTSU dangling in the wind).

GEORGIA SOUTHERN AT GEORGIA: The Bulldogs step out of Division I competition and stay home to take on Division II toughie Georgia Southern. These team have met twice before with the Bulldogs winning 29-7 in 2000 and 34-7 in 1992. This may be Georgia's best team since the 1980 national title season. Georgia 41, Southern Georgia 6.

KENTUCKY AT LOUISVILLE: The Wildcats haven't fared well in this intrastate rivalry, losing four out of the last five games to the Cards. Three of those defeats were by 16 or more points. The hefty lefty is gone and he left a huge hole behind. Louisville 31, Kentucky 16.

OREGON STATE AT LSU: Oregon State ended the 2003 regular season with a game against co-champion USC, absorbing a 52-28 defeat. Now the Beavers open against the other half of that co-champion equation, going into Death Valley to challenge LSU. OSU is no pushover as last year's 8-5 record attests. However this is a step up in intensity and humidity. Plus Oregon State's dependency on plenty of points does not play well against a team built on defense and with plenty of time for coach Nick Saban to study film and prepare an effective game plan. Tigers pelt the Beavers. LSU 38, Oregon State 13.

MEMPHIS AT OLE MISS: At least one alphabet analyst has picked Memphis to go undefeated this season. And there's no question former Vol Tommy West has the Tigers on the road to respectability with a 9-4 record in 2003 and their first bowl game in 32 years. Ole Miss has to find a way to replace No. 1 NFL pick Eli Manning at quarterback. Good luck. Even though the Rebels are favored in this game (3 points) and they are playing at home, I like the Tigers' chances for the upset. Memphis 27, Mississippi 24.

TULANE AT MISSISSIPPI STATE: The Bulldogs won this meeting last year 31-28 and enter this contest as touchdown favorites over the Green Wave. They also enter with a whole new coaching staff that features former Vol assistant Woody McCorvey as offensive coordinator. But the personnel is largely the same as last year's 2-10 team which isn't good news for Sylvester Croom. Conversely, Tulane returns 18 starters from last year's 5-7 squad and is in good position to get a rare win over an SEC opponent. The Green Wave will give fans in Starkville a scare before the Bulldogs finally prevail. Mississippi State 24, Tulane 20.

SOUTH CAROLINA AT VANDERBILT: With 21 starters coming back from a 2-10 team, hopes are the highest in Nashville since 1982 when the Commodores enjoyed their last winning season and bowl appearance. The Gamecocks return 17 starters, including tailback Demetrius Summers, who averaged 5.1 yards per carry in eight starts last season before going down with an injury. Vanderbilt pushed Ole Miss to the limit in Nashville to open the ‘03 campaign and the Dores tend to be tougher in early games before injuries and fatigue begin to tax their depth. Still, the Gamecocks have better athletes overall and Lou Holtz probably has a few tricks left up his sleeve — along with a turbo-powered pacemaker. South Carolina 21, Vanderbilt 17.

UNLV AT TENNESSEE: Tennessee's high standards for success can routinely turn a winning season into a disappointing one. However with a pair of true freshmen set to run the show at quarterback, expectations as well as pressures may be reduced this year. That's a formula Fulmer followed to the 1998 national championship and conditions under which he seems to flourish. Remember the 1992 start, in which the Vols beat both Georgia and Florida, followed the loss of three-year starter Andy Kelly at QB and the loss of such stars as Dale Carter, Chris Mims, Carl Pickens, Chuck Smith, Jeremy Lincoln, Tom Myslinski, Shazzon Bradley, Bernard Dafney and Daryl Hardy — nine players that were taken in the NFL Draft. The challenge this year is no less formidable considering UT's consecutive bowl busts and a four-year absence from the BCS. UNLV just may be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Tennessee 31, UNLV 10.

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