The college football season got underway Thursday night and if the South Carolina-Vanderbilt opener was any indicator, we’ve got an exciting season ahead of us, as the Gamecocks rallied for a fourth-quarter touchdown and won 17-13. That was the start of the appetizers on the holiday weekend card, others of which are still to come and previewed here. Now let’s dive into the main course, focusing on five big games that start with the biggest of them all, Michigan-Alabama on the college football Week 1 schedule…
Michigan-Alabama: This may be the hyped game, featuring two Top 10 teams, two storied programs, one team off a Sugar Bowl win, the other off a national title, and playing on a neutral field in Dallas. But the money boys in Las Vegas aren’t sold, installing the Crimson Tide as a heavy 14-point favorite and few pundits that I’ve heard give Michigan much of a chance at winning this game. And I agree with the pundits. The SEC-Big Ten rivalry of recent years resembles the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry prior to 2004, when it was just a question of when, not if, the smackdown would arrive. So regardless of whether you’re high on Michigan or down on Alabama, or both, there has to be a big benefit of the doubt given to the Tide.
Then we go to the matchups. Alabama’s offensive line returns mostly intact and they have a talented, shifty runner in Eddie Lacy, who played well last year as a change-of-pace to Trent Richardson and should welcome the chance to be the main man in the running game. Quarterback A.J. McCarron now has a year of championship experience under his belt and he’ll have time to throw the ball. Furthermore, while Michigan is experienced in the back seven, they are soft up front and I expect the Tide to pound the ball effectively.
If Michigan is going to answer it can’t be by putting the ball in Denard Robinson’s hands and asking him to make something happen. That might work against a cupcake, maybe even a midlevel Big Ten opponent. It won’t work against a defense that has tremendous speed on the edges, even if they are breaking in new starters. The Wolverines have a veteran offensive front of their own and they need to show they can run Fitz Toussaint between the tackles and establish some tempo. Then, if the Tide comes up to close or packs the defense in closer to the tackles, will it be possible for Robinson to make something happen with his feet or through improvisation. That’s asking a lot.
I have no hesitation with picking Alabama to win. Two touchdowns is a heavy number and I’d probably pass on that in the first game of the season, but anything more than a competitive moral victory for the Wolverines would completely blow me away.
Other key games…
Clemson-Auburn: This prime-time affair from the Georgia Dome has the potential to be more competitive. Auburn’s got an experienced pass defense and with Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins suspended for the first two games, it will be a little tougher for the Tigers to get the ball down the field. But Clemson, with Tajh Boyd running the show and the versatile Andre Ellington in the backfield, still have weapons. Auburn is looking for a new quarterback and they’re also breaking in a new offensive system, as highly regarded coordinator Gus Malzahn is now the man in charge at Arkansas State. I’m deferring to the SEC for the usual reasons, but we should note that Clemson is listed as a three-point favorite.
Northwestern-Syracuse: I might be pushing it by including this game, but Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern program has earned respect, and I really like the Orangemen for a good year in the Big East. The point spread sees this is a pick’em, so if nothing else it should be entertaining. Both of these teams have experience in the trenches and both are breaking in new quarterbacks. But Northwestern’s new signal-caller, Kain Colter, got on-the-job training last year when starter Dan Persa missed several games. Add that edge to the fact NU comes from the superior conference and it adds up to the Wildcats winning a good road game in the Carrier Dome.
Wyoming-Texas: I was shocked to see Texas go up on the board as a 31.5 point favorite. I realize not everyone may like the Cowboys as much as I do, but that’s the kind of number you reserve for blatant mismatches, not games where one program still has 18 non-senior starters (Texas) and another where the school is coming off a bowl run and has a talented sophomore quarterback back in the fold (Wyoming). The latter has an experienced secondary and will create problems for Texas’ passing game, whether it’s David Ash or Case McCoy behind center. Look for Wyoming to make it much closer than the experts say, but for UT to ultimately win at home.
Notre Dame-Navy: Yes, I’m kind of pandering to Notre Dame sentiment in putting this game in with the best on the Saturday schedule, but the whole ambience of the 9 AM ET start time and playing in Dublin is a great storyline. And an interesting storyline will be the effort of the Middies to rebuild after missing a bowl game a year ago and having a number of holes to fill. Notre Dame has problems of their own. Quarterback Tommy Rees is suspended and for that reason, I think the 14.5 point line is excessive. But the Irish’s biggest weakness is pass defense and that’s not something triple-option Navy can exploit enough to win.