College Football Picks for Week One

Game of the Week: #16 Clemson at #12 Georgia
Georgia is a 7.5-point favorite in their opener, in a rematch of last year’s 38-35 Clemson win in Death Valley.  This year the game is in Athens, which should give the Bulldogs a home-field advantage.  Georgia will be led by RB Todd Gurley, who nearly rushed for 1,000 yards a year ago despite missing multiple games with injury.  He will be going up against a tough defensive front led by DE Vic Beasley, but expect one of the best backs in the country to have a good showing.  Under center, this game features a battle of two QBs taking over for tenured starters.  Hutson Mason got a couple of starts a year ago for Georgia after Aaron Murray’s injury, including the Gator Bowl against Nebraska, which gives him the slight edge over Cole Stoudt, who is making his first career start in a tough environment after garbage time duty last year under Tajh Boyd.  Georgia is the slightly better team, and playing at home should be able to make a statement.
Georgia 31, Clemson 24.

Big Game Guarantee: #21 Texas A&M at #9 South Carolina
As has become custom over the last few years, South Carolina is part of the action on the opening Thursday night.  South Carolina hasn’t lost an opener since 2000, hasn’t lost an opener at home since 1994, and hasn’t lost one under Steve Spurrier, and Spurrier is 23-1 all-time in openers, with his only loss to, ironically, South Carolina in 1989 while he was at Florida.  The game marks the first game for of the Kenny Hill era at QB for the Aggies, who takes over after Johnny Manziel left for the NFL, and he travels into a hostile situation in Columbia to face a good Gamecocks defense.  The A&M defense is not very good, after losing talent from a defense that gave up 28 or more in every conference game last year, and gave up 40+ points four times.  That defense will face QB Dylan Thompson, who inherits the program from the graduated Connor Shaw after starting occasionally for the last two years during Shaw injuries, and RB Mike Davis, who is probably the second best back in the SEC.  The Gamecocks are favored by 10, and I expect them to cover the spread.
South Carolina 35, Texas A&M 21.

Another Big Game Guarantee: #14 Wisconsin vs #13 LSU
The Advocare Texas Kickoff in Houston features two fairly even teams, both coming off good but not great seasons.  Wisconsin lost four games last year, including the Capital One Bowl to South Carolina, while LSU lost three, to Georgia, Ole Miss, and Alabama (all on the road), and won the Outback Bowl.  This is the fourth time in five years the Tigers have opened the year with a “kickoff game” at a neutral site, and the third time in four years it has been in Texas (they’ve lost only one of the previous games).  LSU’s offense completely changed gears last year under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, although the Tigers lost QB Zach Mettenberger to graduation and have not named a starter.  Neither have the Badgers, and there is a potential we will see four quarterbacks play in this game.  The Badgers, though, will lean on RB Melvin Gordon,  while LSU’s Leonard Fournette will make his collegiate debut after a sensational high school career, and is one of three RBs (Terrence McGee, Kenny Hilliard) who should see significant carries for the Tigers.  All-time, the SEC is 80-54-2 against the Big Ten, and LSU is just slightly the better team, so they should win a close game, and they are 5-point favorites.
LSU 24, Wisconsin 17.

Another Big Game Guarantee: Boise State vs #18 Ole Miss
Ole Miss is a 10-point favorite in this game tonight, being held at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta,  at a “neutral site” is anything but, as Ole Miss is expected to bring a large crowd from Oxford while Boise State travels across the country.  The Broncos have lost coach Chris Petersen, who left to coach at Washington, and has been replaced by Bryan Harsin.  Boise State is a well-recognized name due to recent success, but the last couple of years since the Kellen Moore days they haven’t been top 10 material.  Ole Miss, on the other hand, is a program on the rise and could be a sleeper in the loaded SEC West.  QB Bo Wallace has a shot at breaking some of Eli Manning’s school passing records this season, and the Rebel defense has one returning All-American (safety Cody Prewitt), and multiple potential All-American-type players returning for this year.  Boise State is 6-2 against ranked teams since 2009, but here they’re just overmatched.
Ole Miss 27, Boise State 13.

Upset of the Week: Penn State vs UCF
This will be the first game of the day on Saturday, as it is in Dublin, Ireland and will be played at 8:30 ET on Saturday morning.  James Franklin takes over as Penn State coach after Bill O’Brien’s departure for the NFL, and has a good set of players to work with, despite the NCAA sanctions still hovering over the program after the Sandusky scandal.  Among these is QB Christian Hackenburg, who threw for 20 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards a year ago as a freshman.  He is a year older now, although he will be facing a strong UCF defense that ranked 17th nationally last year as a very young group.  The question for the Knights is on offense, where they lost QB Blake Bortles to the NFL.  No one knows how Justin Holman will play, and he certainly has very big shoes to fill, stepping in for one of the best QBs in the nation a year ago.  UCF is favored by 2, but I expect Penn State to come out strong in Franklin’s debut and beat the defending Fiesta Bowl champion Knights.
Penn State 20, UCF 16.

College Football Preseason Power Rankings

In two more days, the college football season will begin.  And in the days of preseason polls and rankings, everyone is sharing their opinion on who the best teams will be in the upcoming season.  Here I will do the same.  And you know what all these preseason rankings mean?  Very, very little.  But, for what it’s worth, here is my preseason top 25, along with their projected records, both overall and in conference play.  I’ve added a few thoughts for the top 10.

1. Florida State (13-0, 8-0 ACC)
Most of the team, including 13 starters, is back after a national title a year ago, including Heisman winner, QB Jameis Winston.  Their toughest tests on a pretty easy schedule are against Notre Dame and Clemson, with both at home after the Seminoles beat Clemson by 37 in Death Valley last year.  While I won’t guarantee a national title or even an undefeated ACC slate (nothing’s ever guaranteed, and there can always be unforeseen circumstances in a season), they are certainly the favorites to repeat as national champion.  Of course, they would have to win one more game this year to do it with the new playoff format.

2. Alabama (12-1, 7-1 SEC)
The Crimson Tide return three starters on defense and six on offense, but with the perennial depth Nick Saban has in his arsenal, even a young Alabama team is picked by most among the top two or three this season.  A lot hinges on the play of the starting quarterback, whether it is Jacob Coker or Blake Sims, and this team will be tested with games at LSU and Ole Miss, and the Iron Bowl at home.  This team is the class of the SEC, but going undefeated with this young of a roster would be impressive.

3. Oregon (12-1, 8-1 Pac-12)
An offense that ranked fourth in scoring and second in yards per game a year ago returns eight starters, including the entire offensive line, and a potential Heisman contender in QB Marcus Mariota.  Additionally, the 13th-best scoring defense from a year ago should be improved.  Both “redemption games” after last years losses to Stanford and Arizona are at home, as is an early season showdown with Michigan State.  The matchup of the year in the Pac-12 will be October 11 when Oregon travels to UCLA.

4. Oklahoma (12-1, 8-1 Big 12)
Oklahoma would have won the Big 12 a year ago with a win against Baylor, but instead lost by 29.  After that, however, they were one of the hottest teams in the country to close out the season, culminating with a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.  A good defense in a normally bad defensive league returns nine starters from last year.  If QB Trevor Knight can play an entire year like he played against the Crimson Tide in January, the Big 12 needs to look out.  

5. Michigan State (12-1, 7-1 Big Ten)
After an early season loss to Notre Dame, the Spartans won 10 straight to close out the season, winning the Big Ten Championship Game over Ohio State and the Rose Bowl over Stanford.  Sparty ranked in the top three nationally in points allowed and rushing and passing defense.  While that defense lost six starters, and may not be quite as strong, the offense is led by one of the nation’s underrated quarterbacks, junior Connor Cook.  Their toughest matchup won’t be a conference game, but an early season trip to Oregon, which will be a “litmus test” game for their dreams of a potential berth in the College Football Playoff.

6. Auburn (10-2, 6-2 SEC)
Last year’s darlings of college football return 13 starters, including almost everybody up front.  While the offense loses RB Tre Mason, QB Nick Marshall returns after an entire offseason under the tutelage of coach Gus Malzahn, marking the first time in nine years as a college coach (offensive coordinator or head coach) that Malzahn has had a returning starter at quarterback.  The schedule, however, won’t be as easy as last year, with road games at Kansas State, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia, and Alabama, as well as a home tests with South Carolina and Texas A&M.  Don’t expect a return to the national title game, but it should still be a solid year for the Tigers.

7. UCLA (11-2, 7-1 Pac 12)
The Bruins have improved in both of Jim Mora’s first two seasons, and that trend should continue this year, with seven starters returning on both sides of the ball after a 10-3 season last year with all three losses coming to ranked conference opponents.  Among the returnees that could make this a special season are QB Brett Hundley, who is the leading passer and rusher among returning players, and Myles Jack, who became the first player in history to win the both the Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Rookie Freshman of the Year awards after splitting time at both LB and RB.  The schedule is favorable, with Oregon and UCLA coming to the Rose Bowl.

8. Georgia (11-1, 7-1 SEC)
Last year, the “injury bug” bit the Bulldogs bad, as RB Todd Gurley and QB Aaron Murray were among the players who were lost multiple games due to injury.  As a result, the Bulldogs struggled to an 8-5 record.  This year, 10 starters return on defense, and Gurley is back to potentially contend for the Heisman.  Hutson Mason will be starting at quarterback, after getting some unexpected experience with Murray’s injury late last year.  We’ll know where the Bulldogs stand quickly; their first two games are at home against Clemson and at South Carolina.  A “revenge game” against Auburn will be in Athens on November 15, and could have ramifications in both SEC divisions as well as the national title race.

9. South Carolina (11-2, 7-1 SEC)
The Gamecocks have gotten better throughout Steve Spurrier’s tenure, and has become a perennial contender in the SEC East.  QB Connor Shaw is gone, as is DE Jadaveon Clowney, but the team returns some good experience, with 13 returning starters in all, including RB Mike Davis.  QB Dylan Thompson is finally the starter, after sporadic (and mostly successful) stints filling in when Shaw was hurt during the last two seasons, and is capable of leading his team back to the SEC title game.  A big key in finding out if he will will come on September 13, when the Gamecocks and Georgia meet in Columbia, before they travel to Auburn on October 25.

10. Ohio State (10-2, 6-2 Big Ten) 
A week ago, the Buckeyes would have been among the top five on this list.  Then they lost QB Braxton Miller for the season with a shoulder injury.  Freshman J.T. Barrett will start, and is certainly a question mark as he joins a team that lost its final two games a year ago after a 12-0 start.  Working for the Buckeyes is a relatively light schedule, but they will face road tests at Maryland, Penn State, Michigan State, and Minnesota, as well as an early home game with Virginia Tech and a late one with “that team up north”, the Michigan Wolverines.  Urban Meyer doesn’t have the most experienced team, but has some great athletes, which is sometimes all he needs to work wonders.

11. Baylor (11-1, 8-1 Big 12)
12. LSU (10-2, 6-2 SEC)
13. Stanford (9-3, 6-3 Pac 12)
14. Wisconsin (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten)
15. Ole Miss (10-3, 6-3 SEC)
16. Iowa (12-1, 8-0 Big Ten)
17. Clemson (9-3, 7-1 ACC)
18. Notre Dame (9-3, independent)
19. Arizona State (8-4, 5-4 Pac 12)
20. Texas (9-3, 7-2 Big 12)
21. Duke (9-3, 5-3 ACC)
22. USC (8-4, 6-3 Pac 12)
23. Penn State (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten)
24. Miami (8-5, 5-3 ACC)
25. Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4 SEC)

Here is the projected order of finish in each of the “Power Five” conferences:

Atlantic Division: Florida State (13-0, 8-0), Clemson (9-3, 7-1), Louisville (9-3, 6-2), Boston College (6-6, 3-5), Syracuse (6-6, 3-5), NC State (5-7, 1-7), Wake Forest (4-8, 1-7)
Coastal Division: Miami (8-5, 5-3), Duke (9-3, 5-3), Virginia Tech (8-4, 5-3), North Carolina (8-4, 5-3), Pittsburgh (7-5, 4-4), Georgia Tech (6-6, 3-5), Virginia (2-10, 0-8)
Championship Game: Florida State def. Miami

Big 12:
Oklahoma (11-1, 8-1), Baylor (11-1, 8-1), Texas (9-3, 7-2), TCU (8-4, 5-4), Kansas State (7-5, 5-4), Oklahoma State (7-5, 5-4), Texas Tech (6-6, 3-6), Iowa State (4-8, 2-9), West Virginia (2-10, 1-8), Kansas (3-9, 1-8)
(The Big 12 has no championship game)

Big Ten:
West Division: Iowa (12-1, 8-0), Wisconsin (10-2, 7-1), Nebraska (8-4, 4-4), Minnesota (6-6, 3-5), Northwestern (6-6, 3-5), Illinois (4-8, 1-7), Purdue (3-9, 0-8)
East Division: Michigan State (12-1, 8-0), Ohio State (10-2, 6-2), Michigan (8-4, 5-3), Penn State (9-3, 5-3), Maryland (7-5, 4-4), Indiana (4-8, 2-6), Rutgers (2-10, 0-8)
Championship Game: Michigan State def. Iowa

Pac 12:
North Division: Oregon (12-1, 8-1), Stanford (9-3, 6-3), Washington (8-4, 5-4), Washington State (6-6, 3-6), Oregon State (6-6, 3-6), California (1-11, 0-9)
South Division: UCLA (11-2, 8-1), USC (8-4, 6-3), Arizona State (8-4, 5-4), Arizona (7-5, 4-5), Colorado (5-7, 2-7), Utah (5-7, 2-7)
Championship Game: Oregon def. UCLA

West Division: Alabama (11-1, 7-1), Auburn (10-2, 6-2), LSU (10-2, 6-2), Ole Miss (9-3, 5-3), Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4), Texas A&M (7-5, 3-5), Arkansas (3-9, 0-8)
East Division: South Carolina (11-2, 7-1), Georgia (11-1, 7-1), Florida (6-6, 3-5), Missouri (7-5, 3-5), Vanderbilt (6-6, 2-6), Tennessee (5-7, 2-6), Kentucky (4-8, 1-7)
Championship Game: Alabama def. South Carolina

**Note: You may notice that all 25 teams are from the so-called “Power Five” (and independent Notre Dame) and that those are the only conferences I projected outcomes for.  While there are some fine teams among the rest of the conferences, in my opinion none rank among the top 25.  The highest ranking team from the rest of the conferences is guaranteed a spot in one of the “big six” bowls, and I project Marshall to be that team. 

The Professor Passes

Longtime Braves broadcaster Pete Van Wieren, known as “The Professor”, has died at the age of 69 after a battle with lymphoma.  Van Wieren called Braves games on TBS and the Braves Radio Network for 33 seasons, from 1976-2008.

Pete was, from the perspective of droves of fans across the country during the Braves run on TBS, the face and voice of the team, along with his broadcast partners Ernie Johnson and Skip Caray.  This included the Braves of the 1970’s and 80’s, which included so many miserable seasons, as well as the Braves of the 1990’s and 2000’s, which included a perennial winner and an unprecedented streak of 14 straight division titles.

He was known as “The Professor” for his meticulous preparation before games, his knack for finding research nuggets, and his wealth of knowledge of the game he loved.  The consummate professional, he was the straight man to compliment Ernie’s warmness and Skip’s wittiness.  In addition to his baseball broadcasting, for which he is most known, he spent stints Big Ten football for TBS and NBA games for TBS and TNT.

During Fox Sports South’s broadcast of tonight’s Braves game in San Diego, the network displayed a graphic which shared the following stats about what Pete saw during his career (which is appropriate, because Pete loved the numbers): 15 division titles, 128 playoff games, four MVP’s, six Cy Young Awards, three Rookies of the Year, and six Hall of Famers.  And the number in Cooperstown will increase over the coming years.

He was an 11-time Georgia Sportscaster of the Year, and was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame in 2004 alongside Skip; Ernie was also inducted, but in 2001.

Even since his retirement after the 2008 season, shortly after Skip Caray’s death and the worst Braves season since 1990, he has remained one of the faces of the organization, emceeing events such as jersey retirements and Braves Hall of Fame inductions for several of those aforementioned enshrinees in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as well as the recognition this April of the 40th anniversary of Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th career home run.  At that event in April, Pete said he was in as good of health as he had been since his cancer diagnosis in 2009, but afterward his health declined, and today he succumbed to the illness.

Also after his retirement, he wrote a memoir, Of Mikes and Men, with Jack Wilkinson.  Hearing his firsthand account of his career, and his perspective of the Braves run in the 1990’s and early 2000’s from the broadcast booth, gives me a renewed appreciation for those teams and those people who have made the Braves organization great whenever I read it, or even an excerpt of it.  I would fully recommend the book to any baseball fan, even if they are not a Braves fan.

As a young broadcaster, having experienced a “cup of coffee” recently with the Florence RedWolves of the Coastal Plain League, Pete is certainly an on-air role model for success.  I always do my best to be as well prepared as I can for any broadcast, and a lot of that comes from watching Pete growing up and seeing the end result of that preparedness every time he put on the headset.

You may have noticed I’ve called Pete, Skip, and Ernie by their first names throughout this post, going against the generic journalistic standard.  This was done purposefully, as a tribute to the men they all were, and how much each Braves fan has felt like a friend to each of them.  While the same can be said about today’s broadcasters (including Chip Caray, Don Sutton, and Joe Simpson, all of whom worked with the trio), those three were the link to the Braves past, dating back to 1976 for Pete and Skip, and 1966, the team’s first season in Atlanta, for Ernie.  Actually, Ernie’s link to the franchise’s history goes back to his playing days, both in Boston and Milwaukee, dating back to 1950.

The week has had a juxtaposition of emotions in the broadcasting industry.  Tuesday night, the 86-year old Vin Scully announced he will return for his 66th season as a Dodgers broadcaster, an announcement which received an instantaneous standing ovation at Dodger Stadium.  Then today, although Pete had been battling cancer for five years, the news came as a shock to everyone that he had died.

Unfortunately, a broadcaster wasn’t the only thing the Braves lost on Saturday.  Despite rallying cries from the fan base of “win one for Pete”, the Braves blew an early lead and eventually lost 3-2 in a twelve inning thriller in a late game out west in San Diego, extending their losing streak to five games, and falling two and a half games behind the Washington Nationals in the NL East.  Other than the outcome, it was exactly the type of game Pete would have loved to call.

Skip Caray died on August 3, 2008, and Ernie Johnson died on August 11, 2011.  Today, in August of 2014, Pete Van Wieren joined his old pals and partners to begin calling games in the sky.