Coach Ruhle has focused on establishing the passing game – and he has a good young QB in P.J. Walker. Kenneth Harper and Zaire Williams put up solid numbers rushing the ball last year and they will be joined by several heralded newcomers (including one-time UT commit “Jabo” Lee.) On defense, Temple has two linebackers to watch: Tyler Matakevich and Nate Smith. Matakevich had 137 tackles last year – 56 more than the Owls’ next best tackler. The defense returns eight starters – but they held only one team (Army) below 20 points in 2013.
The window of opportunity here is some major turnover on Temple’s O-line. Our new 3-4 defense and anticipated blitz packages could give an inexperienced line heartburn. Our secondary will be all-new starters – but we will see many familiar faces. Hopefully, we can get the turnover machine working early this year as our line pressures Temple’s young QB. Another potential trouble spot for Temple could come in the kicking game – where we have major uncertainty ourselves. Last year Temple’s kicking woes were epic – in five games they missed a PAT; they only converted three field goals all year (with the longest being 25 yards.) They will have a hard time failing to improve on those marks this season.
Vandy’s list of unknowns is pretty long, too: new coaches, new schemes, new secondary, new receivers, new placekicker and, likely, new rbs in the mix. With all this change in the air, it is perhaps not surprising the staff tabbed Patton Robinette to start this game and put his experience to work. We will get our first looks at Ralph Webb in the backfield and C.J. Duncan in the slot. Brian Kimbrow – with Jerron Seymour banged up – should run angry as he tries to state his case for playing time. Duncan could play a particularly big role if we stick with the short, safe stuff in the passing game. We should expect to see a major increase in throws to the tight end as well. I suspect we will rely heavily on our O-line in this one, pounding the ball, and trying to avoid mistakes in a relatively vanilla passing attack.
Several prognosticators see us over-looking Temple with Ole Miss looming. The line on the game has shrunk. Somehow I do not see us taking anything for granted in the initial game of the Derek Mason era. Still, this could be a grinder of a game that makes us uncomfortable for a while. I do look for our defensive front 7 to set the tone. The d-line and special teams have favorable match-ups in this one. Our defense was haunted in our bowl finale in Birmingham last year by the big play. With a new defensive scheme and a rash of new faces, we will need to prevent such break-downs. New names to watch on defense include Nigel Bowden, Oren Burks, Zach Cunningham, Jonathan Wynn, Jay Woods, Tre Bell, and Nifae Leolao (to name a few). The 3-4 should play into the strengths of Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann as they take on an inexperienced o-line. I expect both to have big games. The over/under for sacks is 5.
One meaningful legacy of the Franklin era is that our players have grown accustomed to winning games we are supposed to win. Coach Mason’s era opens with a team that always beat the spread as a road dog last year – and if the Owls hang around, our rookie players will need to stay cool, poised and collected under fire. It is not an easy opener – but the past two years we have played well on opening day and still lost to an SEC opponent. It is a break to get a tune-up before Ole Miss comes to town – especially with so many newcomers starting for the first time.
The two all-SEC match-ups on the schedule this week are A&M at SC and Arkansas at Auburn. SC is probably lucky to face A&M this early – while the Aggies are still figuring out how to replace three NFL first-rounders on offense. A road trip to SC is a tough way to break the ice. The Gamecocks are 10½ point favorites and should win. If Arkansas were home against Auburn this would be a very interesting opener as Auburn could get caught napping. Arkansas should be much improved this year in the difficult West, but the Razorbacks may have little to show for it in the win/loss column. On the road, Arkansas is a 21 point underdog and Nick Marshall should be able to bring home the win. Still, even last year, Auburn did not crush the Razorbacks and 21 is a lot of points.
On the cupcake front around the conference, Florida hosts Idaho, Missouri welcomes South Dakota State, MSU tackles Southern Miss, and Kentucky takes on Tennessee-Martin. All four SEC teams should open with comfortable wins.
A number of SEC teams have signed on to face genuinely tough competition in Week One. Georgia faces Clemson; but in addition to facing life without Tajh Boyd, Clemson also finds itself confronted with new Dawg defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt, who owned them last year. I like Georgia’s chances at home. Bama takes on a dangerous West Virginia squad led by Dana Holgorsen, a coach who opens the season with a very hot seat. West Virginia – much like Temple – lost several games they probably should have won last year. Bama’s 27 point spread seems large – but they should win the game.
Ole Miss picked a good year to schedule Boise State. Last year Boise “slumped” to 8-5 and long-time Coach Chris Peterson bolted while the getting was good. The Bronco’s hired up and coming Arkansas State coach Bryan Harsin and have a history of rising to the occasion in national games. Not an easy game for Ole Miss by any stretch – but, again, they are favored by 10 and should win. Perhaps the biggest SEC game for national purposes is LSU versus Wisconsin in Houston. Wisconsin has an incredibly easy schedule beyond this opener and LSU – while favored by 4½– has a lot of unknowns, particularly on offense where they replace their NFL-bound QB, their 1,000 yard rusher and two 1,000 yard receivers. We have come to expect LSU to win these games – but LSU is replacing a lot.
UT did itself no favors scheduling Utah State this year. The Aggies’ star QB Chuckie Keeton is really talented. Tennessee has no starters returning on either line. But just when you start thinking Keeton will carve up the Vol defense like a holiday turkey – keep in mind that Utah State has lost 16 straight road openers and they do not routinely play in front of 100,000 screaming fans. UT is favored by 6½ in this one and the over/under is 51½. I like the over. It should be a tight game.
Finally, as an aside, when we awaken early Saturday morning we will find our former coach on TV from Ireland in his new gig. I mention this mainly because it should be a really interesting game: Penn State opened as a one point favorite. The line has shifted even though UCF is Bortles-less – and UCF is now favored by one. Give me truth serum and I will confess: I will watch some of this one.