The last time we gambled with any seriousness, we bankrupted a certain head football coach in a game of "War" and forced him to take an irresistable and doomed offer to the NFL, forcing a dark chapter of the Gator saga--all 1,980 years of it--into existence. Curse these damned hands...
So we leave gambling to the professionals who don't change the course of history for the worse with their acumen. Cue our resident OCD type Solon, whose Dostoyevksy-scale gambling habit provides us with the most careful tracking and evaluation you'll find on a free, amateur, and poorly edited website. We neglected to post his picks for last night out of sheer incompetence, so they are included here to make him look wayyy smrt. Which he happens to be.
Hello all, back for year #2 of the "pick winners or risk public humiliation" experiment. Last year went well, with a final record of 84-61, or 58%; this is certainly good enough to never have to work again, if only I could make it happen every season. Let's hope I can, because several years of working in law firms is starting to take its toll and I would love to make the switch.
Breaking down last season, I started 25-27, then finished with a 59-34 run (63.4%) that is about as good as anyone is going to do. Last year, my preseason preparation was interrupted by a cross-country move, along with the obligatory job and apartment search. This year, there were none of those distractions, so let's hope for a good run from the start.
For the record, Orson was giddy anticipating the season's start and missed the frantic email I sent to him with my Thursday action. So, it's included below as well. Please note that last year I went 2-0 on the opening Thursday and finished 4-7 the opening weekend.
Sorry we missed the email, Solon. We were busy playing a complex game of strategy.
All lines are from the Las Vegas Hilton.
Northwestern (-4) v. MIAMI (OHIO)
The loss of HC Randy Walker will eventually take its toll on the Wildcats, but not in this, their first game without him. Both teams are light at QB, but while I think NW QB Basanez was a quality player I think he will be easier to replace than Miami QB Betts, who threw for over 3,000 yds with a 27-13 ratio, not the sort of numbers that generally come out of Miami (O) QBs (Big Ben's career performances notwithstanding). Projected NW starting QB redshirt freshman Mike Kafka is highly mobile with a strong arm, and while I think he could do the job throwing the ball this week I think his focus will be on running himself and handing the ball to stud RB Sutton, who will be running behind an OL that returns 4 starters and will be facing a D that loses 6 starters from its front 7, and loses an incredible 10 of 11 top tacklers from last season. NW's D is by no means great, but it should be better than it was last season and it is worth noting that they faced some pretty powerful offenses last season--amazingly, Ohio and Illinois were the only teams on the schedule last season that averaged less than 28 ppg--and it is unlikely that Miami (O) will have the potency to exploit them, given that they are replacing their QB, only return 2 starters to the OL, and their best weapon--RB Brandon Murphy--is questionable for the game with an injured ankle. I predict that Kafka's presence will metamorphosize the NW offense and the end product will send the Miami (O) D scurrying.
Kafka, starter. Can't run due to this persistent cough he can't shake.
Nevada (+13) v. FRESNO STATE
Fresno State got a lot of mileage out of their loss to USC last season but they followed it up with 3 consecutive losses. Among those was a 38-35 loss to a Nevada team that won 8 of its last 9 games. Nevada's O stepped it up late last season--they averaged 34 ppg last season--and they should be even better this season. They lose solid RB Mitchell, but his replacement Hubbard has a lot of experience and is legit. QB Rowe is a solid player and should be able to move the ball against a solid Fresno D. Fresno's problems lie on the offensive side of the ball; QB Pinegar, who threw for 3300 yards last season with a 30-15 ratio, has graduated and his replacement Brandstater will not match those numbers. Fresno has also suffered losses at RB, and while RB Wright was very good 2 years ago, he has missed most of the last two seasons with injuries and will likely not be a major factor from the start, even against an average Nevada D.
Please note that the California State University system has banned alcohol from its stadia as of this season, which should make the normally-substantial Fresno State home edge just a bit less.
PENN STATE (-17) v. Akron
There is some trepidation here because PSU often starts the season slowly, and they have ND on deck next week. I think this season they will come out on fire, for a couple reasons;
QB Morelli will want to show what he can do, and they will want to show that last year was no fluke. QB Morelli is going to be legitimate--probably a better passer than Robinson, although obviously he won't be as much of a running threat--and he's got a lot of talent to work with at the skill positions. PSU lost a lot off their OL, but I cannot imagine that they will not cobble together a legitimate unit that will have trouble handling the Akron DL. Akron played pretty good D last season, but when not playing MAC or Sun Belt teams, they gave up 49 points and 478 yards and 38 points and 516 yards to rather pedestrian Purdue and Memphis offenses, respectively. Akron QB Getsy threw the ball pretty well last season, and he should be under the gun from a solid PSU front 7. Akron has lost all of their best receivers and I do not expect them to be able to challenge a rebuilding PSU secondary. In 2004, a Penn State that finished 4-7 opened the season with a 48-10 win as a 15'-point favorite over an Akron team that finished 6-5; I have no reason to suspect that the result this year will be any different.
WASHINGTON (-19.5) v. San Jose State
This year's Washington edition should be much improved provided their OL comes together and plays well. Fortunately for them, this week they are in a good spot as they go against a team that returns only 1 of its defensive front 7, and 2 starters in total. The UW passing game made great strides last season, and they should run up the yards against a weak pass D that gave up 8 ypp last season and only returns 1 starter in the secondary, and will not get nearly as much pressure on opposing QBs this season. SJSU's offense will be about as good as it was last season, but they were poor last season, averaging only 326 ypg against 1-A opponents. Washington's D should be much improved and they were statistically poor last season they took on some pretty strong offenses. I believe two games from last year are instructive: Washington's 34-6 win over Idaho (186 yds for Idaho), and SJSU's 40-19 loss to Illinois (231 yds for SJSU); this year's result should mirror those two games. I like Dick Tomey but his team will have to have improved considerably more than I expect in order for this game to be competitive.
California (-1) v. TENNESSEE
I really don't understand the hype that Tennessee is getting. They were not good last season, and the one unit of their team that was good--the defensive front 7--has been gutted by graduation losses. And, the truth is, I suspect that their run D was a little inflated last season--they missed, arguably, the 3 best sets of RBs in the SEC (McFadden/Jones, Irons, Norwood), and they played Memphis when RB Williams was out. In any event, UT only returns one starter to that front 7, and lost 4 draft picks. Cal RBs Lynch and Forsett should be able to run the ball, even running behind an OL that only returns 2 starters. With QB Longshore in for Ayoob, they will also throw the ball like a Tedford team usually does; WR Jackson should have an amazing season given the upgrade at QB. As for the other side of the ball, I am not sure how much Cutcliffe will improve the unit. The last time I checked, the Tenn QB was not named Manning; this means that Cutcliffe should mentor him about as well as he mentored Tee Martin, Heath Shuler, Andy Kelly, or Romario Miller, all of whom were good but not good enough to carry their teams. Arian Foster is a decent RB but I do not expect a big upgrade in the Tenn running game, given their rebuilding OL. Cal's D is strong and given what they are used to facing in the Pac 10 they should not have too much trouble with an average Tennessee O.
WWMLD? Probably score.
WAKE FOREST (-15) v. Syracuse
I am not sure that there is ever a time to give 15 points with Wake, but if there is this is it. HC Grobe is one of my favorite coaches--I liked what he did at Ohio, and I like what he has done at Wake. Wake is set up for a big season with 19 returning starters, but unfortunately for them they play in the rough-and-tumble ACC and they will likely not contend for a conference title. QB Mauk is worse than QB Randolph, but Mauk has plenty of experience and should be able to run the offense well enough that it does not miss a beat. RB Andrews might be an upgrade from last year's highly underrated and super-productive RB Barclay. They return 4 starters to the OL, and are in good shape at receiver. 'Cuse's pass D is all right, but they lose 5 of their front 7, meaning that their poor run D will likely be worse. In any event Wake run:pass ratio is close to 2:1 and 'Cuse's pass D will not come into play. 'Cuse's O was horrible last season--less than 14 ppg--and can probably not do worse. While they return QB Patterson--a mixed blessing--they do lose RB Rhodes, along with 3 of 5 OL starters. Wake's D was not great last season but they return 10 starters this season and should not struggle against this unit.
Washington State (+14.5) v. AUBURN
Washington State was snakebit last season, losing 4 games by a FG, 1 game by 4 pts, and suffering an 11-point loss in a game they dominated statistically. This season they should return to form, and they will be led by a strong D; WSU generally averages somewhere around 40-45 sacks a season and this unit should match those numbers. They are a little light at CB, but Auburn QB Cox did not play well last season when under a lot of pressure, and he will have his hands full given that he has lost his top 3 receivers from last season. Auburn's D is only above-average, and while WSU is weak at RB--stud JUCO Deiderichs did not qualify--they always throw the ball well and WR Hill is as good as anyone in the SEC with the possible exception of Sidney Rice. I like WSU to keep it close and give Auburn all they can handle.
Houston (-13.5) v. RICE
Few things would make me happier than to see Rice University, enrollment 4,808, kick some ass in football. The chances I will have cause for celebration this week, at least on that front, is remote. I think Todd Graham is saying all the right things and eventually they will return to glory, but this season Rice is switching from a wishbone to a pass-based offense; usually, when teams make this change, they are light at WR and it takes a while to get it together. Rice, however, is actually in decent shape in this department; it is the defensive side of the ball that will stop them from winning right away. They return 7 starters to a unit that gave up 41 ppg and 455 ypg last season and held no one to less than 27 points. Houston returns 9 starters to their D and should be able to hold their own even against the new-and-improved Rice O. QB Kolb returns with solid talent at receiver and will be rampant against a team that gave up 9.2 ypp last season. RB Battle is not nearly as good as last year's RB Gilbert, but against a team that gave up 5.4 ypc last season and only returns 3 of its front 7 he will be rampant as well.
OTHER GAMES OF NOTE:
GEORGIA TECH (+7) v. Notre Dame
I think ND was pretty overrated last year, and while I was pilloried by their partisans for my Ohio State selection in the Fiesta Bowl the game was anything but competitive and ND was flattered by the final scoreline. I am not as enamored of what HC Weis did last season as some others; the schedule turned out to be a bit light and they were not often challenged by their opponents. As it stands, the GT team they will face Saturday is better than anyone ND defeated last season, and they must play them on the road. ND's offensive numbers were inflated by their schedule; against the 4 good defenses they played last season (Mich, USC, Tenn, Ohio St), ND averaged 92 ypg rushing ( 2.32 ypc) and 246 ypg passing (6.89 ypp). Those are good numbers (considering the opposition) but they are not suggestive of a team that will run up a lot of points. GT's D is no joke; they gave up 20 ppg last season, but those numbers are skewed by a 51-point performance by VT (in which the Hokies only gained 320 yds), and a 38-point performance by Utah in a bowl game for which GT did not show up. Outside of these games, they only gave up 15 ppg. GT's D will not be as good as last season, but they will still be a solid unit. On O, GT is set for a massive upgrade; they return their entire OL, and while they lose RB Daniels, RB Choice will match his productivity. QB Ball is poor but he has shown the ability to win big games, and he has gotten better each season. GT will be able to move the ball against a very average ND defense and should score some points. This should be a low-scoring game and GT should be in it at the end with a chance to win. I cannot endorse it as a play, however, because in the end GT's QB is still Reggie Ball.
Crazy Harry: Muppets as Reggie Ball:Georgia Tech.
Southern California (-7.5) v. ARKANSAS
I've really got no opinion on this one. Arkansas, undoubtedly, has the largest home-field advantage in the SEC; Arkansas is roughly 9 points better at home than they are on the road. Arkansas should be loaded this season; their 4-7 record last year was a little deceptive, as they played both Georgia and LSU --the SEC title game participants--very tough. The only team on their schedule that really rolled them was, of course, USC. USC is rebuilding, but Carroll won a National Title with a rebuilt offense and his D is not as light as it appears at first glance, because some of the projected starters last season suffered injuries and many of those players have now returned. I'll give a slight edge to USC, simply because Arkansas is installing a new offensive system and I have trouble believing that their QB play will improve to the point where they can beat one of the more talented teams in the nation.
MIAMI (FLA) (-3) v. Florida State
My issues with Florida State were documented in my futures column; they are a decent team, but they will be overmatched here against a team that can match their talent level. Or, at least, they would have been, if RB Moss and WR Moore had managed to avoid suspension for this game; as is, it wasn't a particularly good matchup for Miami, given that they gave up about 50 sacks to FSU last season and have pretty much nothing returning to the tackle positions. When you take away QB Wright's best WR and best RB, it will be a tall order. I still like Miami to cover this number, largely because their D should absolutely dominate the FSU O; unfortunately, though, because of the suspensions I just can't make it an "official" play.
Best of luck to all of you this season.