Thrill of Victory

Previewing the SEC's first week

Southeastern Conference football kicks off on Thursday with a pair of games, and then some nice match-ups over the weekend. Here’s a preview of each game involving SEC teams with a prediction on each. All games are on Saturday, unless noted.

Ole Miss at Vanderbilt (Thursday)
Ole Miss comes to Nashville with big expectations coming off Hugh Freeze’s unexpected 7-6 year that included a bowl win and a victory over rival Mississippi State. Vanderbilt comes off a year in which it surprised many by winning nine games. It’s one of the league’s better match-ups of the year, as the Rebels’ fast-paced offense matches up against a Vanderbilt defense that could be one of America’s best. Vanderbilt fans are nervous about breaking in a new quarterback in Austyn Carta-Samuels, and especially so with star receiver Chris Boyd suspended, but I think Vandy’s edge on the defensive side of the ball and in the kicking game (Carey Spear’s a first-team All-SEC pick, while Ole Miss’s Andrew Ritter is a senior without a career field goal attempt) will prove enough to give VU a slight edge. Vanderbilt 24, Ole Miss 21

North Carolina at South Carolina (Thursday)
There’s talk of a potential national title in Columbia, as South Carolina figures to have an elite defense led by the nation’s best defensive player in Jadeveon Clowney. I’m not sure I’m all the way on board with that — the Gamecocks lost their entire linebacking crew, and lack an explosive offense — but then again, they’ve also got a Hall of Fame coach in Steve Spurrier and so I can’t rule it out. Anyway, the Gamecocks will certainly have more than enough offense to beat a North Carolina defense that got shredded week-in and week-out against good teams (and some that weren’t). The Tar Heels will score a lot of points this year, but not against this bunch — especially when the Tar Heels are breaking in three new offensive linemen tonight. South Carolina 38, North Carolina 17

Toledo at Florida
The Gators are already racked with injuries, plus a suspension to star linebacker Antonio Morrison. The Gators also were weak through the air last year, and I don’t think that’s changing a whole lot for the better. What they do have, though, is a dominating defense that should be able to contain one of the Mid-American Conference’s better offenses, and meanwhile, Toledo will be breaking in nine new starters on defense. The Gators have had a recent history of making these kinds of games interesting, but they should be able to handle this one okay. Florida 34, Toledo 14

Georgia at Clemson
This is probably the best game on the entire collegiate slate this weekend, and if you like offense, you’ll love this one. Quarterbacks Aaron Murray (Georgia) and Tahj Boyd (Clemson) should engage in a shootout, and with Georgia breaking in eight new starters on defense, that’s got to be a bit scary for Bulldog coach Mark Richt. But make no mistake, the Bulldogs have talent there, and they also have a gear that Clemson doesn’t have due to tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Don’t miss this one if you can help it. Georgia 37, Clemson 34

Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky (Nashville)
This is one of the more difficult picks on the schedule, because while Kentucky breaks in its season with a new coach who’s a defensive genius (Mark Stoops), WKU welcomes new coach Bobby Petrino, one of the nation’s foremost offensive coaches. Western got the best of the Wildcats last year in a close game, and this one should be a nail-biter this season, too. Toss a coin on this one — I’m taking WKU based on last year’s history, plus the fact that the Hilltoppers have an offensive weapon in Antonio Andrews that the Wildcats lack. Western Kentucky 27, Kentucky 24

Murray State at Missouri
The Tigers’ Gary Pinkel probably needs to get back to a bowl if he wants to keep his job. He scheduled accordingly, with four winnable out-of-conference games to start the season. The easiest one comes against Murray State, which will have no answer for weapons like James Franklin, Dorial Green-Beckham and Henry Josey. Missouri 59, Murray State 21

Austin Peay at Tennessee
The Vols start a new era with coach Butch Jones that should be better than the ones they started under Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley. Can the Vols get better? We probably won’t know after Week 1, because the Governors, who went 2-9 last year and gave up at least 31 points in all but one game, don’t figure to pose much of a test. Tennessee 58, Austin Peay 7

Alabama vs. Virginia Tech (Atlanta)
I had an interesting conversation with TideSports.com’s Aaron Suttles this week on my radio show on WNSR.com. Aaron, who really knows his stuff, isn’t quite ready to put Alabama’s third-straight national title trophy in the case just yet because, as he points out, you don’t just replace three All-American offensive linemen and two great defensive backs — not to mention sustain a suspension to starting cornerback Geno Smith — and not take a hit. Don’t get me wrong, Alabama will likely win this one and the Crimson Tide may well win the whole thing, but I’ve changed my tune on this game from thinking it would be a likely blowout to something that should be closer, especially given that I think the public may be sleeping on Virginia Tech just a bit.Alabama 27, Virginia Tech 17

Washington State at Auburn

Two of the nation’s foremost offensive gurus — Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, WSU’s Mike Leach — square off in an intriguing match-up. AuburnSports.com’s Jay G. Tate told me this week that AU quarterback Nick Marshall could either be a complete disaster, or a “potential Heisman candidate.” I’m not sure how one can make a prediction based on that, but Malzahn has always improved the offenses of the teams he’s coached, and the Tigers should have more athletes than State. Auburn 34, WSU 27

TCU vs. LSU (Arlington, Texas)
If you prefer defense to offense, then this might be a better game to watch than the Georgia-Clemson tilt. I don’t have a great read on LSU — it lost a bunch of defensive players, but always has talent — but this game should give me a better idea. Since I’m flying blind on the Tigers, I’ll take a TCU team that’s loaded on defense and promised to be improved on offense, because coach Gary Patterson’s hard to beat, period. TCU 21, LSU 20

Oklahoma State at Mississippi State
This game got a little more interesting with OSU coach Mike Gundy’s revelation that he’s not settled on a starting quarterback. But Gundy always figures out a way to put points on the board, and even though some think MSU is more talented this year despite losing a host of players on both sides of the ball, the Bulldogs got destroyed by the good opponents they played last year. I’m not buying what they’re selling in Starkville just yet, but I could re-think that after the weekend if MSU can keep it close. Oklahoma State 38, Mississippi State 27

Rice at Texas A&M
So, Johnny Manziel won’t play the first half? That might make this one interesting — for 30 minutes.  A&M 45, Rice 24