Mike O'Neill: It's finally here! After months of speculation, prognostication, and general aggravation at the hot summer months moving so slowly, Vanderbilt fans find themselves at the start of one of the more promising years in recent memories. With the multitude of returning starters and the experience they bring, the Commodores look to make noise in a loaded SEC East. It all starts in Week One, with most SEC teams playing pansies as they try to figure out their strengths and weaknesses against weaker opponents. We're all ready for some football, which means Mike and Jay are ready to make their always-imitated and quite-possibly-duplicated College Picks!
Jay Williams: For those of you trying to imitate and/or duplicate our picks, stick with Mike's, unless you're going for some weird golf-type scoring system, where the lower score actually wins. Trust me. Anyway, this is my favorite part of the season, at least when it comes to making predictions, because with most of these games, if I'm wrong on my pick, pretty much everyone else is as well, so it's easily overlooked. Later on, when I'm forced to predict the outcomes of, you know, actual college football games, it gets a little dicier. All that said, I'm excited as ever for this season, particularly for the Commodores, and I'm really hoping my workload is light in late December/early January, because no job is going to stop me from seeing my first Vanderbilt bowl game ever! Now, on to this week's picks!
JW: I'm probably going to refer to it a lot throughout this season, so bear with me here: in my video game Vanderbilt season (don't want to say which video game, but you can probably guess), Mississippi State is ranked in the top 25 in late November, having a record of 8-2. I share this with you not to state that "anything can happen" with the Bulldogs' season, but more that the programmers clearly got something wrong. I thought MSU would improve last year, and I guess in a way they did, with some close games and an "upset" here or there, but overall, things are not looking good in Starkville. On the other hand, everyone is pretty much in agreement that LSU will dominate the West and has a solid shot at the SEC crown. You won't hear any argument from me as of now (in true lawyerly fashion, I reserve the right to change that prediction later), because LSU looks ridiculously good. Mississippi State might not be horrible, but the difference in talent between these two teams is huge. While it's a conference game, it might as well be your standard early season cupcake game. Tigers by 21.
MO: We've heard this story before: a team is RIDICULOUSLY over-rated in the preseason despite losing two of their best players in recent past. It was Southern Cal last season, after losing Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, and this season it's LSU, who have lost JaMarcus Russell and Joseph Addai in the past two drafts. Yes, it would be a nice story for LSU to play for the BCS title in New Orleans, which could lift the spirits of Katrina victims, sure, but why are we basing football expectations on what would be a great story four months from now instead of on, oh I don't know, FOOTBALL. Book this – LSU will not contend for the BCS title after losing the top pick in the draft, and they'll be lucky to contend for the SEC title. However, hype rules the day, so they're huge favorites going into Starkville to face a hungry Bulldog team. I'd love to pull the trigger here and say that State pulls off one of the biggest upset in recent memory, but I just can't – as over-rated as they may be, LSU is still too good to lose this game. It will be a lot closer than most think, and hopefully will changes the minds of a few pundits, but the Bayou Bengals will head back to Baton Rouge as the victors, winning by 6.
MO: In one of the many, many "Champs v. Chumps" match-ups this week, the National Champion Florida Gators will take the field against Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky. It will be vaunted quarterback Tim Tebow's first test as the "go-to guy" rather than the "guy Urban Meyer puts in only when he wants to run the QB draw." It will be interesting to see how Meyer uses Tebow, since he mostly ran the ball with great success last season, despite every SEC defensive coordinator understanding that Tebow was only in plays that involved quarterback draws. Tebow will showcase his arm against a weak Hilltopper defense has not been known to impress – heck, it isn't really known for much of anything at all. Florida wins huge, pulling Tebow in the third quarter en route to a 38-point victory.
JW: Man, I really hope Meyer sticks with his original Tebow gameplan. Of course, with the talent disparity between Florida and WKU, the Gators conceivably could still pull off the victory, but it might be close. But since Urban Meyer probably wants to see how Tebow can throw or even hand the ball off in an actual game situation, I guess my dream will have to remain in the realm of X-Box 360 (I'll report back on this little experiment next week). As for the game itself, it might actually be depressing for Vandy fans, because I wouldn't be surprised if Florida puts up Vandy/Florida 2001 type numbers. Ok, it probably won't be that bad (Urban Meyer's not a jerk), but it still won't be pretty. Florida by 30.
Eastern Kentucky @ Kentucky
JW: There's a lot of optimism in Kentucky, and for good reason. The Wildcats have one of the most exciting Quarterbacks in the league, and they're coming off a surprising season capped by an impressive bowl win over Clemson. But before they can make their run at being a spoiler in the East, they need to get past I-AA - oh, wait, sorry, NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision - Eastern Kentucky. While I'm not as ready as most are to jump on the Wildcat bandwagon, I have little doubt that this game will pose any problems for Andre Woodson and company. In fact, if he's still on the field halfway through the third quarter, either Rich Brooks is a jerk, or those predicting a solid UK team this year are seriously delusional. Wildcats by 24.
MO: I don't *want* to jump on the Wildcat bandwagon, but it's hard not to. The SEC East has quickly gone from a division of three contenders to one of six contenders, with Kentucky making a case to finish in the top half. The problem that Eastern Kentucky faces, aside from being VASTLY out-matched, is that Kentucky needs a big win here to make a statement to its fans. One disappointing game this season, and UK fans will turn their focus back to basketball, especially with their new head coach and over-reaching hopes for the next season. But I digress. Kentucky wins big here and keeps their starters in for most of the game in order to pad their stats, give their fans a show, and further prove that Rich Brooks is indeed a jerk. ‘Cats by 30.
MO: The Battle of Memphis rages on again this season, with the Ole Miss fan base once again primed for a season of high expectations and low results. The Tigers get first cracks at the Rebels at home, though with most University of Memphis fans already focused on basketball, it's probably going to be another home game for Ole Miss. Since running Cutcliffe out of town, not a whole lot has gone right in Oxford, and the grumblings are that the heat could be turned on Coach Orgeron if he doesn't produce in 2007. I'm expecting that heat to get cranked up early as Memphis welcomes the Rebels back to Memphis by creating turnover after turnover and winning what is essentially their Super Bowl this season. Tigers by 12.
JW: I was born in Mississippi, so it's particularly sad for me to see both SEC teams from my home state hanging out in the cellar for the past few years. Then again, as a Vanderbilt grad, it's nice to see the 'Dores considered a much better team than either the Rebels or the Bulldogs. While there might be some optimism in Oxford, Mike's right - there just isn't much to be pumped about for Ole Miss this year. It doesn't look like Orgeron was the right choice, and the quarterback situation is laughable at best. Sure, BenJarvus Green-Ellis is an impressive back, but if the Rebels can't do anything in the air, defensive coordinators shouldn't have too difficult a time finding ways to stop him. That being said, Memphis is coming off a horrible 2-10 season that Coach Tommy West has spent most of the pre-season insisting was a complete fluke. I'm not so convinced that Memphis will be able to make a complete turnaround, but look for them to be somewhat improved as, like we've seen at Vanderbilt, a simple thing like experience can do wonders from one season to another. I actually think, as weak as Ole Miss is in the SEC and as hyped as Memphis will be to take on the Rebs, Ole Miss is still a better team. It might be a bit of a homer pick (Pearl, MS represent!), but I'm going with the Rebels by 10.
JW: If you plotted Georgia's 2006 season on a graph, it would probably resemble a nice U-shape, thanks to a couple of mid-season losses to Vandy and Kentucky. Of course, the Bulldogs were able to rebound and take out Virginia Tech in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl. And really, losing to Vanderbilt and Kentucky last year isn't that bad a loss, is it? I mean, based on last year's results, Vanderbilt would have beaten Ohio State by 21 (give or take a few points, of course, to be realistic). Since Georgia's season ended on a nice upswing, there's a lot of well-founded optimism around Athens, and the Bulldogs are ranked somewhere in the teens in the national polls. Matthew Stafford is maturing a great deal, but there's a lot of youth on this team, particularly on the defense. But then again, Georgia has always been able to bring in talent, so even if a player is young or inexperienced, it doesn't necessarily mean he won't still be a beast. However, that inexperienced defense has to look mighty appetizing for an OSU offense that loves to score often. The Cowboys would love nothing more than to start the season with a signature non-conference win to build a solid foundation for what they hope is a strong season in the Big 12. I think this game will be much tighter than many expect, but Georgia ultimately prevails thanks to their exceptional home-field advantage. It won't be pretty, but I'm going with the Bulldogs by 5.
MO: It's not just talent that Georgia's always had in its favor – it's coaching. Georgia's always had talent, but I don't think most people could name any Georgia starters over the past few years aside from possibly Quincy Carter. Of course, the super-intelligent readers of the column don't apply! Georgia won a lot of SEC championships without the aid of a Manning or a Leak or an Alexander, but instead by playing solid team football – a key product of Mark Richt. Last year, though, Georgia's talent and experience took a hit; too much for even Richt to recover from. This year, things should bounce back between the hedges and I think that Georgia is one of the two favorites to win the SEC East. Last year, Colorado came in and shocked Georgia early, with the Bulldogs needing a 14-point fourth quarter to eek out a one-point win. I don't expect the Big 12 to fare that well this season, as Georgia jumps out to an early lead and never looks back. Dawgs by 20.
MO: On paper (or websites, whatever), this looks like a cakewalk for Arkansas, especially with preseason Heisman frontrunner Darren McFadden still in fold. The only problem is that it seems like McFadden and fellow running back Felix Jones are the only key returning members for last year's surprising SEC West Champions. Amongst others, Arkansas lost their future QB in Mustain, as well as their offensive co-ordinator. In recent memory, Troy has been a thorn in the side of many a BCS-conference team, and I don't think this week will be any different.. It'll be closer than most expect, but in the end, McFadden and Jones will be too much for the Trojans to overcome. It won't work all season, but it will work this week, as Arkansas wins by 13.
JW: Mike's right in that Arkansas isn't going to be nearly as good as they were last year, and McFadden and Jones will only take them so far. However, I see that duo at least getting the Hogs easily past Troy. Troy can be pesky at times, but I think those close games in the past have led teams to take them much more seriously than they maybe would have originally. Arkansas has a lot of questions coming into this season, but don't expect many to get answered in this game. Sure, they might cruise, but their real test won't come until two weeks from now in Tuscaloosa. Razorbacks by 27.
Louisiana-LaFayette @ South Carolina
JW: I often wonder what the directional Louisiana schools do when they're not being trounced by anyone and everyone in the SEC. I guess I could look up their teams and find out how they're doing in the Sun Belt Conference. But that would require me to, you know, do research. Remember how I said that if Andre Woodson is still playing halfway through the third quarter, either Rich Brooks is a jerk or there's something seriously wrong in Lexington? Well, let's just say that I expect Cory Boyd to play well past the halfway point of the third quarter, and I don't think there's anything seriously wrong in Columbia. Gamecocks by 30.
MO: With Blake Mitchell out for the game, don't be surprised to see South Carolina struggle offensively here. Remember, last year the Gamecock offense only managed 15 points and 10 first downs in their opener against Mississippi State. Luckily, UL-L is no Mississippi State, which these days is saying something. Expect the Gamecocks to win based almost entirely on their defense, just don't expect South Carolina to cruise until close to the end of the game. ‘Cocks by 15.
Western Carolina @ Alabama
MO: The Saban era begins, and it looks to begin with a bang in front of the Bama faithful against a weak opponent. It's very important for Bama to get off to a good start, not only to build the team's confidence in themselves, but also to build up the fans' confidence in new coach Nick Saban. They've picked right opponent against whom to do just that. Saban gains the confidence of the fans and a newly overly-confident team will find themselves the victors heading into Saban's first true test at Alabama – on the road at Vanderbilt. Tide by 35.
JW: If Alabama doesn't score triple figures in this game, then you've heard it here first - the Saban Era will be a failure. Ok, maybe I'm kidding. A little. But the hype around this man is next to ridiculous. I could go on, but I imagine most people outside the state of Alabama already agree with me, so there's no real need. I think Alabama catches Western Carolina looking past them to their hotly-anticipated NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision matchup with Eastern Kentucky next week, and escapes with a 28-point victory. Whew.
JW: I guess you could say that Kansas State is no cupcake. They're from the Big 12 and they even had the honor of getting drilled by Rutgers in the Texas Bowl last season. But then again, they're a mediocre team in the Big 12. Sure, there are some traditional powerhouses in the Big 12, but it's certainly no SEC. (Side note: You may notice an inconsistency here with my comments about Oklahoma State above. You may even accuse me of contradicting myself. And you'd probably be right.) While many people might not know this, there's this other head coach of a major Div. I football team in the state of Alabama, and get this - he's actually pretty good. Auburn may not be as highly-ranked or overly-hyped this season, but for a team this traditionally good, "lowered expectations" still means a top-15 finish and competition for the SEC West crown. Sure, it'll be tough with the likes of LSU in the division and a very un-appealing trip to Georgia late in the season, but if any coach can put together another solid season, it's Tommy Tuberville. Look for Auburn to showcase its solid talent as it begins its stretch of four straight tune-up games (Kansas State, South Florida, Mississippi State, and New Mexico State) before heading down to Gainesville. I know, South Florida surely won't be a pushover, but that's for next week's column. Auburn won't win spectacularly big, but I imagine Tiger fans will be happy. Auburn by 17.
MO: I don't know, Kansas State has a good second-year coach and surprised a lot of folks in the Big 12 last season, and Auburn has been really disappointing in recent years. Oh. Oh, wait – we're talking football? Pfft. War Eagle, Tuberville, blahblah – I think this one's real easy, folks. Tigers by 40.
Florida St. @ Clemson
MO: I guess I just don't understand why Florida St. is ranked in the Top 20. It has to be by name, especially considering they only finished above .500 last season thanks to their match-up against a vastly-overrated UCLA squad in the Emerald Bowl. But it's just a preseason ranking, and one that will correct itself in the next poll. At the moment, Clemson has the better team (going 8-5 with a relatively young team) and the better Bowden at the helm (Tommy has beaten his father in each of the last two seasons). History would favor the Seminoles here, sure, but the game is played in the present. Look for Clemson to get out to an early lead and hold it under the final buzzer as the Tigers beat Florida State by 9.
JW: What's that sound? I think it's another breathless media write-up lauding how incredible the Seminoles are going to be and how the rest of the ACC (or, at least, the Atlantic Division) might as well not bother showing up and how Bobby Bowden is a genius, and the history, and blah blah blah. Must be football season! Yeah, I know. They're talented. Their coach is pretty good. There's the tradition. But, seriously, FSU, what have you done for me lately? Luckily for you, Seminoles, you have a solid defense matching up against an offense that can't do too much other than try to run the ball. Looks like you'll manage to pull off the victory and let the praise keep flowing for at least another week or two. Great. FSU by 6.
JW: Ooooh, probably the best match-up involving an SEC team this week, and the only one where the SEC team isn't even favored to win! And you have to imagine that the news that Erik Ainge jammed the pinky finger on his throwing hand on Monday is raising blood pressures all over Knoxville. If the Vols have to rely on either of their backup QBs for a majority of the game, it could get real ugly real quick. Now, if I recall correctly, I predicted a Cal win last year and watched as UT summarily dismantled the Bears in Knoxville. But now the game's in Berkeley, Tennessee isn't as strong in the receivers category, and Cal's looking pretty solid. How much of Cal's supposed talent is based on their extremely generous Pac-10 schedule remains to be seen, but they have a much more experienced quarterback this time around and some guy named DeSean Jackson. I expect Ainge to play and do relatively well, but I also expect Cal to pull it off. Golden Bears by 7.
MO: Forget SEC, this looks to be one of the better match-ups in the country. Ainge exploded last season with almost 3000 yards and almost 20 touchdowns. The problem for Vol fans this week is that he's going into this game with almost five fingers at full-strength. Not a good omen, especially considering Ainge's biggest weapon left for the NFL last season. That and the fact that apparently Ainge jammed the pinky while taking a snap. Classic. If Fulmer has to revert back to 2005 and shuffle quarterbacks, he can expect the same results – home for the holidays. Even with a healthy Ainge, though, I don't think Tennessee gets the job done this week, especially with the game being on the road. Even after losing Marshawn Lynch to the Draft, Cal has more weapons than UT, and should be able to handle them easily. This year, the Bear gets Crockett. I like California to get up early and hold off Tennessee in the closing minutes, winning by 13.
Richmond @ Vanderbilt
MO: Will this be the season for Commodore fans to finally see their team in a bowl game? The road there starts this week as the Dores play host to the Richmond Spiders for the second consecutive year. The overwhelming edge goes to Vanderbilt here, and the team needs to execute well in all facets of the game not just to get the win, but to build confidence for their first true test of the season – hosting Alabama next week. I expect that we'll see a balanced offense, though with the addition of Jennings at tailback, fewer quarterback draws than we saw last season. I think everyone on offense will play well, including Heisman candidate Earl Bennett, but not put up career numbers, as they should be able to get rest late in the game. I like the Dores here by 28, thanks only to Coach Johnson's wariness at running up the score on any team.
JW: If you see Chris Nickson in the game halfway through the third quarter, then either--oh, nevermind. I think you get my drift by now. Expectations are high in Nashville (or at least for those in Nashville who happen to prefer the colors black and gold to orange) as Vandy returns a solid team that showed last year it can't be taken lightly. We're all hoping to start being on the other side of those really close games, but we can all rest assured that there will be no worries about that for this game at least. The score won't be impressive, but like Mike says, that's only because Coach Johnson is a gentleman (and he also doesn't want to risk his starters any more than he has to). Richmond is outmatched in pretty much every facet of the game, and if Vanderbilt wants to show the nation it can compete in a strong SEC and make a run at a bowl game, it had better be able to take out the Spiders without much trouble. Luckily for us, they will. Commodores by 24.