The college football season kicks off Thursday night, and Week 1 runs through Labor Day Monday. It should be no surprise that the SEC is in the spotlight for these opening games, with at least half of its teams playing in games of genuine significance.
TheSportsNotebook’s college football coverage is going to focus in on the four biggest battles, starting Thursday night and continuing with a tripleheader on Saturday.
South Carolina hosts North Carolina to get the season kicked off on Thursday, and then Saturday sees Alabama-Virginia Tech in the late afternoon, followed by Georgia-Clemson and LSU-TCU in prime-time. Here’s the rundown on the four games that are the highlight of the season’s opening week…
North Carolina at South Carolina (Thur, 6 PM ET, ESPN): The Gamecocks are TheSportsNotebook’s preseason choice to win the SEC, but they can’t sleep on this game, even at home. North Carolina won eight games last year in their first season under head coach Larry Fedora and would have played for the conference title if not for NCAA sanctions inherited from the previous regime.
The Tar Heels can open up the offense, with quarterback Bryn Renner, but their soft underbelly is lines that have to be rebuilt on both sides of the ball. South Carolina is as physical as they came, and they bring a veteran offensive front, and a stacked defense led by end Jadeveon Clowney. If UNC can’t run the ball, Clowney can get very comfortable teeing off in the pass rush, and that means a very uncomfortable night for Renner in the pocket.
South Carolina has homefield advantage, they play in the superior league, they have more experienced players and that includes quarterback Connor Shaw, now a veteran hand. They should be able to gradually pull away and win this game as a 13 ½ point favorite, but don’t be surprised if Renner can make a few plays early to keep it interesting.
Alabama-Virginia Tech, at Atlanta (Sat, 5:30 PM ET, ESPN): Defense should be the order of the day in the Georgia Dome. The Hokies are stacked with what should be a dominating unit, and Alabama has to rebuild an offensive line that was the country’s best in 2012.
The difference is that the Crimson Tide should be able to throw the ball. A.J. McCarron is back at quarterback, and has his favorite target from last season, Amari Cooper. Virginia Tech is missing cornerback Antone Exum for at least four games as he recovers from a knee injury. The Hokies will cause McCarron some problems with pressure, but on the occasions they don’t get to him, the ‘Bama quarterback should hook up with Cooper for enough big plays to win.
Virginia Tech’s problem, both on Saturday and looking ahead in the ACC, is what they’ll get from the offense. Logan Thomas is a multi-purpose quarterback, but the entire unit around him has to be rebuilt. Having Alabama as the first test for these new kids is trial by fire.
I would be as shocked as anyone if Virginia Tech actually wins this game. The more pertinent questions are whether ‘Bama can cover a 21-point spread, and where the game will fall on the Over/Under number of 46. Both are directly related, as they pertain to the frequency with which McCarron will find Cooper. I think often enough to cover the number, but the Virginia Tech offense is so green, that I see the final score falling in the 27-3 range and still going Under.
Georgia at Clemson (8 PM ET, ABC): If the SEC is going to lose a signature non-conference game on opening week, this is the ripest target. Both teams are ranked in the Top 10 to start the season and this could be the most significant battles that Georgia and Clemson have played since they went head-to-head in the early 1980s, with the Dawgs using a win in 1980 to jumpstart a national title run and the Tigers doing the same in 1981.
A high-scoring game is expected, with an Over/Under of 72, and it’s easy to see why. Georgia’s offense might be the best in the nation. Todd Gurley is an explosive back behind a veteran offensive line and while Clemson returns much of their defensive front seven, this is not a defense that’s going to remind anyone of the 1985 Chicago Bears anytime soon. Bulldog quarterback Aaron Murray is as good as it gets in the passing game.
Clemson has no shortage of weaponry themselves. Even in losing running back Andre Ellington and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the NFL, they still have triggerman Tajh Boyd behind center and an explosive wideout in Sammy Watkins. The Tigers’ offensive line is another experienced group and Georgia’s defense is being rebuilt. Look for highly touted freshman free safety Tray Matthews to be thrown into the fire at Death Valley.
Georgia is a two-point favorite on the road, clearly a sign of respect for the SEC. I’m going to pick Clemson in part because they’re at home and they’re a very good team, but also because I’m thinking the SEC will lose one game in this group, and this is the likeliest bet.
LSU-TCU, at Arlington (9 PM ET, ESPN): Jerry Jones’ Palace in Dallas is the venue for what should be a tough, physical defensive game. TCU’s calling card has been its defense under Gary Patterson, and the Horned Frogs are stacked on this side of the ball. LSU has some rebuilding to do, but they always have athletes, and TCU has question marks on the offensive side.
TCU’s offensive line is young, and they welcome back quarterback Casey Pachall, who left the team a year ago to go into substance abuse treatment. They also get running back Waymon James who missed most of last year with a knee injury. Here’s hoping both of them are better, but LSU is not the ideal team to get back into the flow of things against.
The Tigers have their own share of offensive problems. Zach Mettenberg is a big question mark at quarterback, but at least LSU can run the ball with Alfred Blue and a veteran offensive front. That will be enough to grind out a win in this game. But a low-scoring game makes the 5 ½ point price tag on LSU a little steep and Under 50 is a good bet.