College football season is finally here and every Southeastern Conference team is in action this week. While some have the traditional cupcakes to open the season, others face a real challenge right out of the gate that could set the tone for the entire season. Let’s dive into the top storylines to watch this opening weekend.
Is Texas A&M ready for the next step? Optimism is high in College Station, where A&M fans think that coach Kevin Sumlin has accumulated enough talent for the Aggies to contend in the West if things break right. I’ve talked at length about defensive coordinator John Chavis and his impact, but a lot also rests on starting quarterback Kyle Allen and his ability to return the Aggies to an elite level offensively. A huge test awaits in No. 15 Arizona State and quarterback Mike Bercovicci, who can put points up in a hurry. If A&M wins, it could forecast a better-than-expected season.
Which Carolina is best Carolina? Speaking of offense, if you love it, tune in to ESPN at 5 Central on Thursday night to see the battle between North and South Carolina, two teams that combined to average a shade under 66 points last season. Reason No. 2 you can expect to see lots of offense: the teams combined to give up over 69 per contest in 2014. Las Vegas has the Gamecocks favored by a field goal, so if the offensive firepower isn’t enough to get your attention, maybe the fact that it should be a close game will.
Can Vanderbilt get off to a good start? We all remember the 37-7 disaster that was VU’s opening-night loss to Temple last season. Well, coach Derek Mason wants to make sure we forget it, to the point that he’s deflecting questions about last year. The Commodores are almost certain to be better this year due to coaching changes and another year of experience for a roster that was about as young as anyone’s last season, but it’s about a field-goal underdog on its home field to Western Kentucky on Thursday. Maybe that says more about VU than it does WKU, but still, the Hilltoppers are one of the FBS’s better non-Power Five conference teams. A win here would be the best thing to happen for Commodore football since James Franklin left for Penn State 20 months ago, and maybe give Mason a head start on job security heading into 2016.
- Ole Miss
- Texas A&M
- Mississippi St.
- South Carolina
Player of the Year
- Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
- Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi St.
- Vernon Hargreaves, DB, Florida
- Laremy Tunsil, LT, Ole Miss
- Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
- Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
- A’Shawn Robinson, DT, Alabama
- Jeremy Johnson, QB, Auburn
This week’s picks
South Carolina 34, North Carolina 31 (the line: SC by 2): Maybe it’s a new quarterback, maybe it’s the disappointment of last year, maybe it’s the fact that South Carolina has no big stars outside of Pharoh Cooper, and I have little handle on the Gamecocks this year. Throw in the wrinkle that UNC brings in Gene Chizzik to run its defense, which should help, and what you see here is just a guess very much in line with what Vegas thinks.
Vanderbilt 34, Western Kentucky 31 (WKU by 2): Along those same lines, I have no great feel on this one, just a gut feeling that VU’s got more talent than it showed a year ago and that Mason will improve the defense by leaps and bounds, and that wins out against a Sun Belt opponent.
Georgia 51, Louisiana-Monroe 10 (Georgia by 35): The only drama here should be how coach Mark Richt splits quarterback reps.
Auburn 37, Louisville 17 (Auburn by 10.5): Lousville’s 32-7 record over the last three years is impressive, however, the Cardinals, who have some big shoes to fill across the board, struggled to beat good teams a year ago.
Tennessee 51, Bowling Green 27 (Tennessee by 20.5): Bowling Green should be able to score on a lot of folks, but after yielding 33.5 per game last season, the Falcons may not be able to stop anyone.
Arizona State 37, Texas A&M 31 (A&M by 3): The Aggies are one of many teams I’m having trouble getting a handle on early; I know Chavis should make a difference but I need to see more before I buy in.
LSU 41, McNeese State 13 (no line): I don’t see this being a game, but perhaps it’s worth a mention that McNeese State came within a touchdown of beating Nebraska in last season’s opener.
Alabama 37, Wisconsin 17 (Alabama by 10.5): The Badgers have just 11 returning starters according to Phil Steele, none of whom are Melvin Gordon. A third coach in three years probably doesn’t help the Badgers, either.