Oklahoma in 2008 is the last non-SEC team to play for a National Title with a loss. In the past five years, unless you played in the SEC, you had to go undefeated to play for it all.
When Clemson and Georgia opened last season with their marquee, Top 10 showdown on ABC, Clemson’s entire season was on the line. Georgia’s was not. We knew that Georgia would have opportunities to rebound from a loss. Indeed, by the end of September they had beaten LSU and South Carolina to vault back.
For Clemson, there was an unfair amount of weight placed on that game because a loss would have eliminated them. It was the biggest deficiency of the BCS system that non-conference games meant way too much or far too little. As we saw with Florida State and Ohio State last year, going undefeated was more important than playing quality opponents.
With the arrival of the college football playoff, that is a thing of the past. These early non-conference games are no longer life and death for title hopes but will play a huge role in determining who makes the Final Four.
A year ago, a Wisconsin loss to LSU would end their dreams. This year, a loss will merely be one piece of the puzzle in determining whether a team was worthy.
The dream is that college football eventually reaches college basketball, where playing and losing to a good team is deemed more beneficial than beating crappy teams. We saw this in action with SMU, who were cut from the NCAA Tournament bubble because their non-conference schedule was comical.
The easiest way to play for a title in college football is still to win all your games. Regardless of what anyone says about strength of schedule, an undefeated Power Five conference will make the playoff. In fact, based on the AAC’s excellent non-conference schedules, I believe UCF, East Carolina or Cincinnati would be in the discussion if they ran the table.
For most, though, the 2014 season ushers in a new era of college football – losing a game is okay.
From year-to-year, this has varied. In 2007, LSU could lose twice and win a title. In 2004, Auburn could lose zero and not even have a chance. With the field opened up to four, any power conference team can feel pretty good with only one loss. When you pick up your second – then you’re going to need some help.
So in a move that only the confused sport of college football could pull off – the non-conference games on opening weekend have diminished in importance, while simultaneously becoming more important than ever.
I love you, college football.
Regular Season Record: 88-76-2
Best Bet: 6-9
Upset Special: 9-6
Best Bet: 6-9
Upset Special: 9-6
I was watching Lisa the Greek during the Simpsons marathon, and the TV handicapper says, “When you’re right 52 percent of the time, you’re wrong 48 percent.” Well I hit on 53% in 2013. I beat the house!
If you’re unfamiliar, I use the lines found here when I write the column. My Best Bet is the pick I feel best about and I am usually wrong. My upset special is the double-digit underdog that I think will win outright. I think I’m better on those.
SOUTH CAROLINA (-10.5) over Texas A&M *Best Bet*
First game of the year is my first Best Bet of the year. What could possibly go wrong?
Let’s start with South Carolina’s dominance in opening week games. They haven’t lost an opener in the 21st Century, with the last 0-1 start coming in 1999 when they went 0-11. They have played on the opening Thursday night seven times since 2005 and have won seven times, with the only close games in that stretch on the road (NC State in 2008 and Vanderbilt in 2012).
On the flip side, I strongly believe Texas A&M is in real trouble this year. They were a four-loss team with one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the history of college football. The defense was atrocious. They lost two other Top 10 picks. They have to start on the road with a new quarterback? No, thank you.
South Carolina gets to trot out an experienced and capable QB in Dylan Thompson, a dark horse Heisman contender in RB Mike Davis and a stout defense. This one could get real ugly.
Ole Miss (-10.5) over Boise State
Congratulations, Boise State – you are now the Texas of the mid-major college football programs.
If they did, they would have seen a Broncos team that got slaughtered by its two Pac-12 opponents – Washington to open the season, Oregon State to close it. Chris Petersen is gone. They have a new starting quarterback. They lost four games last year in a depleted Mountain West. We’re expecting them to compete with a Top 20 SEC team with a three-year starting QB and five-star recruits everywhere?
I’d take Ole Miss if the line was 25.
WASHINGTON STATE (-8.5) over Rutgers
I am already on the record saying that Rutgers will be lucky to win four games based on an insane schedule, which features six road games against bowl teams. This is one of them. Rutgers was a bad team last year and, really, should have axed Kyle Flood. It’s going to be a long year but one that Rutgers fans won’t care about. They just got into the Big Ten! Who cares about silly things like wins or losses right now?
This will be a big year for Mike Leach as the program tries to take a step up in arguably college football’s toughest division – a division that got even harder with the arrival of Chris Petersen. This is a must-win for the Cougars and they’ll deliver.
Ucf (-1.5) over Penn State
This is going to be the tough year for Penn State. The attrition from the Sandusky sanctions is really going to hurt. The depth is going to be tested. Bill O’Brien left and though James Franklin will make an impact, his team is simply behind the eight-ball this year. I don’t think opening in Ireland is going to help things.
As for UCF, they should probably be a touchdown favorite. Yes, Blake Bortles is gone. But 10 starters return on defense. They were three points from being undefeated last year. There is plenty of speed at the skill positions. You have to imagine the team will be extra motivated by the bizarre report that George O’Leary was “considering” retiring after the game. UCF was the AAC’s biggest success in 2013 and they should continue being the league’s standard bearer in 2014.
Ohio State (-14) over NAVY
Navy is going to be really good this year, with a chance to win 10 games. This was setting up to be the ultimate trap game for Ohio State, with Virginia Tech coming to town next week and facing an option offense that always causes fits. In fact, before Braxton Miller got hurt, I was leaning heavily toward Navy.
Not anymore. The focus on this game from Ohio State went from about 70% to 110%. They’re going to rally around new quarterback JT Barrett and put forth a showcase statement. You think Urban Meyer has enjoyed being told that his team can’t win the Big Ten now? Ohio State was my National Title pick and it was because the talent level is becoming SEC-like across the board.
Ohio State, with their A game, should beat Navy by two touchdowns regardless of who is playing quarterback.
VIRGINIA (+21) over Ucla
West Coast team playing a noon start on the East Coast. It’s a great angle in the NFL. It’s why I think UConn beats Boise State on Sept. 13. And it’s why I think this game ends up being a lot closer than people think.
It can’t help UCLA that their tires have been endlessly pumped over the past few weeks. I like UCLA as a potential Pac-12 South champion, but there has been a wave of predictions that has UCLA in the playoff and Brett Hundley winning the Heisman. You get the feeling UCLA thinks they will win this game by merely showing up. They might, but they won’t cover.
California (+11) over NORTHWESTERN *Upset Special*
Pat Fitzgerald deserves a gold star for getting people to believe in Northwestern. To recap, the Wildcats lost their last 7 games, spent the offseason dealing with the unionization fallout and their best player just transferred to West Texas A&M. Northwestern shouldn’t be a double digit favorite over anyone.
To illustrate why home and home series are better than neutral-site games, Cal wants revenge. If you don’t recall, Northwestern beat Cal to open last season in a late-night thriller, after which Cal coach Sonny Dykes was ticked off at Fitzgerald for Northwestern players faking injuries.
Cal went 1-11 last year as they completely transformed the offense under Dykes. You have to believe Year 2 will go a lot smoother.
Arkansas (+20.5) over AUBURN
Here’s my angle: Gus Malzahn’s Auburn teams have been slow starters. In 2010 and 2014, the offense sputtered through August and September before rocketing into high gear by the end of the season. It could make Auburn an annual playoff contender and a team no one wants to see in November.
But in week one? That’s doable. My working theory is that his offense is so predicated on speed, repetition and precision that it simply takes a few games to get everything working in sync. The offseason troubles of Nick Marshall haven’t helped.
Arkansas was not good, at all, last year, but showed signs of improvement down the stretch as they played a lot of freshmen and sophomores. They gained valuable experience and you know Bret Bielema wants to make a big first week statement. He would rather it be a stunning victory, but a close loss will have to suffice.
GEORGIA (-7.5) over Clemson
Making picks in week one in college football, without the benefit of preseason games, is about taking a stand. You may look like a fool but you have to trust your gut. There’s always next week to recoup.
So here goes: Georgia will be a national title contender this year and Clemson will not be even an ACC title contender.
As with the Northwestern/Cal game, this is the return bout and Georgia has some unfinished business.
Florida State (-17.5) over Oklahoma State
What am I supposed to say here? If you were to go through the 22 starters, Florida State would have the better player about, oh, 22 times. Oklahoma State doesn’t even have one player on the Big 12 preseason team. Yikes. The only reason this isn’t my Best Bet is because Florida State could put forth a D-minus effort and still win – I have no idea if the Noles will be motivated.
Lsu (-5) over Wisconsin
In the wake of Braxton Miller’s injury, much was made that Wisconsin would now be favored in every game they played. It has helped make this one of the strangest opening week lines in recent memory. LSU started out -7 over the summer, but action on Wisconsin drove the line way down, to LSU by less than a field goal. Now, the line has reversed back and LSU is getting the action.
Ultimately, I do not get the love for Wisconsin. Against teams that finished in the Top 25 last year, they were 0-3. In 2012, they were 1-4 against teams that finished in the Top 25. That’s 1-7 over the past two years.
There’s no way I’m picking them to beat LSU in Houston. I could see this game playing out very similar to LSU’s opener last year against TCU, where the Tigers eventually ground the Horned Frogs into paste by the third quarter.
Like Alabama, LSU has taken kindly to these opening week showcase games – they are 3-0 since 2010, having beat North Carolina in Atlanta and Oregon and TCU in JerryWorld. They’ll add Wisconsin in Houston to that list.
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