Game of the Week: Alabama at Texas A&M. Numbers 1 and 5 in my power rankings meet in what may be the biggest game of the regular season (that’s hard to say this early, but that’s just how big this game is). The Aggies found a way to win last year in Tuscaloosa, winning 29-24 after Johnny Manziel’s career performance. This time the game is in College Station, where the famous “12th Man” crowd should be a factor. The Tide, particularly coach Nick Saban, insist revenge or payback is not on their minds. QB AJ McCarron joined his coach’s sentiment, claiming “It’s just another week.” Two of McCarron’s three interceptions last year were against the Aggies defense; one of those was in the game’s closing moments and clinched the win for A&M. Expect Manziel to be good, but not as good as last year since the Tide defense now knows what to expect. Don’t expect McCarron to have another bad game this time. Saban-coached SEC teams (LSU/Alabama) are 15-2 against an opponent that beat them in the previous meeting; one of those is, ironically, LSU, beating Alabama 2010 and 2011. Alabama is an 8-point favorite; I think A&M will beat the spread and will keep it close, late, with some help from the crowd, but in the end will fall short. Alabama 35, Texas A&M 31.
Big Game Guarantee: UCLA at Nebraska. This game is a rematch of a big, close game last year, which saw UCLA win 36-30 at home. This year the game is in Lincoln, and the odds-makers have the Huskers favored by 4. It won’t be that close. Bo Pelini has used last year’s loss as motivation, reminding his team in the locker room immediately after beating Southern Miss last week, saying, “They’re coming into our house, and we owe them.” The coach also told the media that his players remember giving up approximately 300 yards after contact last year, a big part of UCLA’s 653 yard performance. As for the Bruins, their preparation for a big game must feel secondary after the death of WR Nick Pasquale after he was hit by a car while walking. Both coaches acknowledge the game may not be at the forefront of the Bruins’ players’ minds. Most teams that endure tragedy go one of two directions; they either play inspired, or they are obviously distracted. I’m not saying UCLA will definitely be part of the latter direction, but their opponent this week is too good for them to beat unless every single player is 100 percent focused on the task at hand. Lastly, the game starts at 12:00 ET. This means the UCLA players, used to Pacific time, will feel like they’re playing a game at 9:00 in the morning. Combine all of the above and the Huskers win handily. Nebraska 34, UCLA 20.
Upset of the Week: Ole Miss at Texas. The odds-makers have given me a gift, as Texas is a 3-point favorite at home against the Rebels. Therefore, when #25 Ole Miss beats unranked Texas Saturday night, it will technically qualify as an upset. Ole Miss is hungry after failing to have a winning record in SEC play since 2008, although the Rebels were 7-6 last year under new coach Hugh Freeze. Texas, on the other hand, seems to be getting progressively worse since their loss to Alabama in the 2009 national title game. The Longhorns fired defensive coordinator Manny Diaz after a 40-21 loss to BYU that included giving up 550 yards of rushing alone. The Cougars totaled 679 yards of offense. In addition to the defensive troubles, QB David Ash is a game-time decision with head and shoulder injuries. Ole Miss beat Vanderbilt in a back-and-forth week one game, before winning an easy match against SE Missouri State. I guess the spread is favoring the home team in a relatively even matchup, but I give the edge to a program rising over one falling here. Ole Miss 35, Texas 21.
Closer Than The Experts Think: Ohio State at Cal. The Buckeyes are favored on the road by 16. Braxton Miller (knee) hasn’t yet been cleared to play in this game. Backup Kenny Guiton did look impressive in 3+ quarters of last week’s game, but that was against San Diego State, at home. This week, if Guiton has to play, he will face a tougher environment. Cal is coming off a loss to Northwestern to open, and a 37-30 win against FCS team Portland State. On the surface, nothing suggests Cal can compete with the 4th ranked Buckeyes. However, Cal ranks 8th in the nation in total yards and 1st in passing yards. The Bears’ offense and the crowd will keep them in the game longer than everyone thinks. Ohio State 35, Cal 28.
BONUS: (Another) Closer Than The Experts Think: Vanderbilt at South Carolina. The Gamecocks, at home, are 14 point favorites. The matchup of rosters favors South Carolina, but the stats of these two teams are pretty even. Both teams are 1-1, and 0-1 in conference play. The Gamecocks have played tougher competition, particularly against Georgia last week, but Vanderbilt had a tough, back-and-forth battle with #25 Ole Miss in week one, eventually losing 39-35. The Commodores led much of the game a year ago, eventually losing to a 4th quarter TD by Marcus Lattimore and a controversial no-call on a potential pass interference against the Gamecocks in the closing seconds. That game was in Nashville; the difference tomorrow may be the fact the game is in Columbia. James Franklin’s team will give the home crowd a scare, but they will fall just short. South Carolina 24, Vanderbilt 20.
ANOTHER BONUS: The Manning Bowl: Denver Broncos at New York Giants. The Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli, will meet on the field for the third time. Peyton won the first two meetings back in his Colts days. Eli, of course, has 2 championships, and Peyton only has the one (although he may get another in the near future). What we saw in week one is enough to know the Broncos are really good and the Giants have some big holes. Peyton should stay unbeaten, both for the 2013 season and for this unique matchup of brothers. Broncos 38, Giants 17.